Peter Palmer Ekeh pays tribute to Onigu Otite, teacher, researcher and professor of Sociology
Reflecting on the life and times of Professor Onigu Otite is very much like taking a flight of nostalgiaalong historic memory lanes laid out through the growth and development of Okpara, Onigu’s belovedhometown; a flight that proudly surveys the substantive achievements in studies of Urhobo history andculture which Onigu pioneered; and a flight that hovers over more pleasant tidings about the mission ofthe scholarship of Anthropology in postcolonial Nigeria under the leadership of Professor Onigu Otite.Yes, we are gathered here to honour the life and works of a man whose patriotic zeal helped to develophis hometown. We in academia are here to salute what Kingsley John Onigu Otite has done to give asolid foundation for studies of Urhobo history and culture. And those of us in the Social Sciences in thisgathering should pay tribute to Professor Onigu Otite for his leadership in restoring the olden mission ofthe discipline of Anthropology for the good of human progress.
Little Onigu Otite began his early life in very tough times. His eight years in elementary schoolspanned the six destructive years of World War II which broke out in the same year as he began hiscareer as a pupil at Catholic School, Okpara Inland. The want and scarcity of those dreary yearsspread to British colonies, clearly touching Urhobo communities — including chiefly families such asthe Otite’s — by the early 1940s. Its impact on Okpara youth was considerable. Only determined youthsuccessfully completed the elementary school programme. By 1946, when Onigu completed his, therewere few Okpara youth who had earned the precious Elementary School Leaving certificate which wasoffered by the Department of Education of the Western Region of Nigeria. For many of these Okparayouth, that was the end of their academic prospects.
Ambitious Onigu had his sights much higher up. His role model was clearly Scott Evwaraye, acelebrated Okpara youth who had successfully completed his elementary school education at CatholicSchool, Okpara Inland, in 1942; taught for a few years; and then in 1946 became the first Okparastudent at St. Thomas’s College, Ibusa – the only Teacher Training College for Higher ElementarySchool Teachers in the Catholic Diocese of Benin, which then included all of the two modern states ofEdo and Delta. Scott returned triumphantly to Catholic School, Okpara Inland, upon successfullycompleting his studies at Ibusa in 1949.
Onigu followed Scott’s footsteps but went higher, much higher – to the attention and applause of hisadoring hometown. In 1950, Onigu Otite became the second Okpara man to enter St. Thomas’s College,Ibusa. His brilliance during his four years in that institution ensured that St. Thomas’s College was onlya beginning stepping stone for this bright man from Okpara. In six years, following St. Thomas’sCollege and while teaching in various Catholic schools and institutions, Onigu Otite prepared himselffor higher education – passing the requisite subjects of London University’s General Certificate ofEducation (GCE Ordinary & Advanced). So, when the University of Nigeria opened its doors in1960, Onigu Otite was among the first batch of Nigerians who became Nsukka’s pioneer undergraduatestudents.
Context is important for understanding the scale of Onigu Otite’s achievement in 1960 and why hishometown rejoiced. Before the year of its Independence in 1960 from colonial rule by Great Britain,Nigeria had only one university institution: University College, Ibadan. In it there were very fewUrhobo students. Among them there was only one Okpara undergraduate, namely, Mr. G. E.Umukoro. When Onigu secured admission to the University of Nigeria in 1960, as a pioneer, he becameOkpara’s favourite son. Many hoped and prayed that he would follow the academic paths flared by M.G. Ejaife and G. E. Umukoro – all enhancing Okpara’s fame.
Actually, Onigu Otite had his sights higher up, much more. His records at Nsukka were remarkable,graduating in 1963 among the top students of that university in academic performance. 1963 was anexcellent and auspicious time for Onigu Otite to graduate from the university. That was the year theMidwest Region was separated from the Western Region of Nigeria. Onigu Otite arrived in Benin City,capital of the new Region, as a Senior Civil Servant charged with important responsibility in setting upadministrative services in a vital part of the new Government of Midwestern Region of Nigeria.
The itching on Onigu Otite to engage in still further studies was obviously intense. After spending onlytwo years in his high profile job in the new Midwest Government, Onigu secured admission forpostgraduate studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).With a matching scholarship grant from the Federal Government of Nigeria, Onigu Otite arrived in theEnglish capital in the summer of 1965 to enroll in a postgraduate programme in Social Anthropology.
Onigu Otite left Nigeria for further studies in England in late 1965 in the midst of a festering politicalcrisis which rapidly escalated into a bloody Civil War a few months afterwards. It was a war thataffected the fortunes of many Nigerian students overseas, especially those who, like Onigu, weredependent on subventions from scholarship funds from Nigerian governments. The war also createdemotional problems for those Nigerians studying overseas who had relatives who were directly affectedby that war. All these factors did apply to Onigu. In the early phase of the Civil War, Urhoboland –including his hometown of Okpara – was occupied by hostile military forces. More intimately, whilehe and his wife were away in England during the beginning of the war, their two little children wereliving with their grandparents in a war-affected area. In addition, Onigu lost a beloved brother, amilitary officer Maj. Nicholas Smart Otite, in the War.
Despite such war-time adversities back home in Nigeria, Onigu Otite completed his postgraduatestudies at SOAS, rapidly. In 1969, Onigu successfully defended his PhD thesis titled “The PoliticalOrganization of the Urhobo of the Midwestern State of Nigeria,” which was based on an extensivefieldwork that Onigu conducted during hazardous circumstances while the Nigerian Civil War lasted.Thus for the record, in 1969, Onigu Otite became the first Urhobo man to hold a PhD in Anthropology.
So: beginning with small steps taken in his home town of Okpara in 1939 and building up to his studiesin the English imperial capital of London in 1965-1969, Kingsley John Onigu Otite acquired everyvaluable academic certificate and laurel that the British Empire offered. With that supreme certificationfrom the University of London, Dr. Onigu Otite readily secured employment at Nigeria’s academiccitadel, at the University of Ibadan, as a Lecturer in Social Anthropology and Sociology. For therecord again, let it be noted that Onigu Otite was the first Okpara man to teach in the University ofIbadan. Other accolades quickly followed Onigu in his university profession, becoming Professor ofSociology in 1978. These are matters that belong to a second long chapter in Onigu Otite’s illustriouslife history: his service to his nation and his Urhobo people.
Before we turn to that second chapter, and thus give an account of his stewardship to his nation and hisUrhobo people, there is a subject we must address. I am confident that Onigu – my townsman, my senior,my friend – I am sure that he would want me to say a word or two about his wife and children withwhom he lived such an accomplished life. I will do so in the local idiom of Okpara’s folkways.Okpara people appreciated the wisdom of the marriage between Mr. Onigu Otite and Miss ReginaEvwaraye in 1960 for two good reasons that were dear to the townsfolk. First, Regina was from one ofthe strongest Christian families that emerged in Okpara during Colonial Times. That mattered quitemuch in a community where the Catholic faith took early roots during Colonial Times. There is asecond, much deeper, reason why Okpara people appreciated the marriage. It had to do with theirhistory. By marrying Miss Regina Evwaraye, Onigu Otite strategically blended together the strength ofthe old bloodline of Uwadjeri (whose ancestors founded Okpara) with the dynamism of the new-eraOtite dynasty that dates back to British Colonial Times.
Professor Ekeh is President, Urhobo Historical Society