The burial last week of Samuel Chukwudumebi Okonta, an NYSC member felled by the hot bullets of unknown gunmen while carrying out duties for the Independent National Electoral Commission during the Rivers State rerun elections last month, elicited a lot of emotions and threw up a lot of unanswered questions, writes Omon-Julius Onabu who attended Okonta’s burial at Illah, Delta State
The outpouring of unrestrained emotions generally characterised his final journey and rites of passage to the beyond. Like the news of his sudden death, his ride to his final resting place attracted people from all works of life across the country. Understandably, the unusual circumstance of his death several weeks ago in the de-facto performance of his mandatory national duty has become a matter for national concern hence his funereal could not pass quietly but had to draw people together.
Samuel Cukwudumebi Okonta, a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member, was killed during the March 19, 2016 rerun election in Rivers State. He was one of the ad hoc staff recruited by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for conducting election into vacant national and state legislative positions in the state. Mrs. Bose Aderibigbe, NYSC Director of Press, told THISDAY that the deceased was felled by bullets from unknown gunmen in Ahoada West Local Government area of the state on the fateful day. She noted that Okonta had successfully concluded his day’s assignment at the polling centre and was returning to his residence with others when some unidentified hoodlums opened fire on them. Dumebi, as he was better known, was subsequently rushed for medical attention; but all efforts to revive and save him failed. He and two other persons died as victims from the mindless attack.
Okonta, who was fondly called “Pastor” by his friends because of his constant effort to express his Christian faith as a Catholic, was committed to Mother Earth on Friday, 8 April, 2016 at Illah in Oshimili North Local Government Area of Delta State. Colleagues and officials of the NYSC from Rivers State featured prominently during the funeral activities, which also opened a discussion forum of sorts on political and national life in Nigeria.
A fortnight prior to his interment, the Director-General of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Scheme, Brigadier-General Johnson Olawumi, had paid a condolence visit to the family of late Samuel Okonta at Illah. During the visit, the NYSC Director General had some words of encouragement for corps members serving in the community and elsewhere in the country, advising them not to be demoralised by the unfortunate incident. The delegation also briefly called on the traditional ruler of Illah, HRM, Obi Akazue Gbemudu II, the Ogbelani of Illah, where the NYSC Director-General commended the traditional ruler and residents for prevailing peace in the community. He noted that the reception was friendly in spite of the circumstances that prompted the visit.
Perhaps, Olawumi’s personal feeling of great loss was summed up in the few but weighty lines he scribbled in the condolence resister at Dumebi’s home on March 25, 2016. Wrote the NYSC boss: “It is so sad that you were cut down in the process of serving your nation. Myself, the entire management and staff as well as all members of the corps nation-wide are deeply grieved by your death. I promise that I will not relent until we ensure that those who keep you permanently silent forever are brought to book. Adieu, Samuel, and RIP!”
Media reports on the condolence visit to the Okonta’s by the NYSC boss rightly showed that the atmosphere at Illah on that day was mournful and pensive. However, the mood on that occasion was nothing compared with Friday, April 8, 2016 when the slain corps member was finally laid to rest in his father’s compound at Ogbe-Orji Quarters, Illah town. Tears practically rained in torrents and heart-rending lamentation soaked the dreary atmosphere.
Torrents of tears flowed uncontrollably and loud wailing rent the air as a team of Rivers State NYSC members and officials arrived the family home of the Okonta’s with the Toyota hiace bearing the slain corps member with close relatives and residents of all ages pouring out to catch a final glimpse of their son and brother. The crowd went into a sorrowful frenzy when, at about 11.23 a.m. corps members brought out the white casket draped in the national green-white-green colours and the NYSC cream and gold colours and logo from the Toyota hiace with registration number, ‘Abuja RSH 414 AS’.
A detachment of NYSC members from Rivers State mounted a guard-of-honour during the brief lying in state at the family compound amid mournful cry of “Dumebi…..Dumebi, have you come back to us in a coffin” as well as invocation of curses against his murderers went on unrestrained. The remains of the NYSC member were interred at his family compound at Ogbe-Orji Quarters, Illah after the requiem mass at about 3.40 p.m. witnessed by the clergy and most of the guests from the NYSC and INEC.
Delivering a homily during funeral Mass at the Holy Family Catholic Church Parish, Illah, Rev Father Henry Ogonwa, decried the do-or-die attitude of politicians and others seeking power in Nigeria, admonishing those who would get power at the expense of other people’s lives to spare a thought for the sanctity of the human life.
Father Ogonwa, who concelebrated the Mass with reverend fathers Jonathan Allanah (Parish Priest), Peter Mobuogwu and Cornelius Okeibunor, stressed that persons seeking elective positions should brace up to be servants of the people rather than masters who would force the people to give them their mandate to rule over them against their will. He roundly condemned selfish political manipulations in Nigeria, stressing that political violence and killing could never be right or justified.
Lamenting that many Africans and Nigerians in particular have become “victims of the political class and of the bourgeoisie”, Ogonwa queried, “Why do you employ thugs to force us to surrender our trust and mandate to you? If you’re plotting to be a leader at the expense of another’s life, then know that your life is worthless because you do not respect human right, you do not respect human life.”
With several biblical references, the clergyman urged the people to be conscious of the transience of life always as “whether we like it or not, death will come calling anywhere and at anytime. Life spent in loving others and God who is the ultimate owner of our lives is the only truly worthy life”, he said. He said that he decided to concelebrate the Mass with the parish priest because of his personal closeness to the deceased, who he described as a devout Christian.
Before the requiem Mass for the deceased youth corps member, a novelty football match was organised in his honour by the Illah Footballers Association led by the association’s legal adviser, Mr. Nelson Okonma. He noted that the 20-minute duration match, which was played at the Omonka Model Primary School field, Illah, was to honour the deceased “who loved football so much” as well as to pray against untimely death of Illah people.
Director-General of the NYSC, Brig-Gen. David Olawumi, reiterated that the NYSC management empathised with the Okonta family and the entire Illah community in their moment of grief. Olawumi, who was represented at the burial by Mrs. Rhoda Kaka Kwaki, the Director, Corps Welfare and Inspectorate of NYSC, assured that the organisation would remain close to the family of the late Okonta even after the burial.
The Rivers State NYSC Coordinator was represented at the funeral by the Assistant Director, Corps Welfare and Health Services, Mrs. Julie Obineka, while Delta State NYSC Coordinator, Mrs. Olive Essien-Etukudor led a team that included the state’s spokeswoman, Mrs. Stella-Maris Mbanefo-Ofodile.
The country’s electoral agency also partook in Dumebi’s burial. National Chairman of INEC, Prof. Yakubu Mohammed, said that it was a matter for deep regret that a young and promising Nigerian was being buried because what was meant to be a simple electoral exercise in Rivers State was turned into “a theatre of war” because extreme violence orchestrated by desperate politicians.
Represented by Chief Baritor Kpagih, the Delta State Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), the INEC chairman promised to collaborate in any efforts aimed at immortalising late Samuel Dumebi Okonta even as he promised that the commission would continue to strive to conduct free and fair elections in the country with the rights and choices of the citizens duly respected.
With emotion-laden voices, relatives and childhood friends of the deceased did not fail to acknowledge the contributions of all and sundry towards the successful burial of the departed loved one. The immediate elder brother of the deceased, Mr. Henry Ike Okonta, and an uncle, Mr. Alex Ngozi Edebeatu, who spoke glowingly and quite courageously about the deceased, thanked the NYSC, Rivers State government, INEC as well as the Delta State government for their concern since the tragic incident, saying they hoped that Samuel Dumebi Okonta’s killers would be apprehended eventually. Speaking at the church, Henry Okonta even prayed that God would touch the hearts of those who killed his younger brother and others involved in violence and crime, to repent and embrace peaceful lifestyle.
Elder sister of the deceased, Mrs. Victoria Akpa, who earlier narrated tearfully how Samuel suffered much during his studies till graduation from Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, revealed that she had almost singlehandedly cared for him when he lost his father in 1993 and mother last year.
Ironically, THISDAY learnt, that the deceased had applied for redeployment to Rivers State from Yobe State, where he was originally deplored for the mandatory NYSC service, in the light of prevailing security concerns over the Boko Haram insurgency particularly in some northeastern states. However, like settled fate, the icy stranglehold of insecurity would materialise in Rivers State and snuff life out of Samuel Dumebi.
It is noteworthy that the Director-General of the NYSC assured that appropriate steps would be taken to ensure that justice was done by bringing the perpetrators of the killing to book. Not only were the appropriate security agencies working to uncover the murderers, the NYSC management would also do all within its power to, at least, bring consolation to the family and community whose palpable sense of loss was self-evident. Olawumi said that the deceased would be immortalised. The chairman of INEC spoke in the same vein, promising his full cooperation towards immortalisation of Dumebi.
Although, the state government was not represented at the burial itself, the Rivers State Governor, Mr. Nyesom Wike, was reported in the media as saying his government would erect an edifice for the NYSC to the memory of the slain corps member. The expectation is that the concerned individuals and organisations would not renege on their promises, irrespective of possible internal organisational changes; and, that Samuel Dumebi Okonta would not have cause to turn in his grave for serving his fatherland with patriotism and paying the supreme sacrifice in the process in vain. Such sentiments are accentuated in the light of growing public resentment about the involvement of NYSC members in polling duties across the country.