The sleepy community of Onicha-Olona in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State was agog recently following the presentation of staff of office to the new king, Obi Christopher Uzu Diji by the state government.
The celebration was expected as a result of years of battle, which the community fought to ensure that the right person occupies the throne of the kingdom, which has been in existence since the 15th century.
For about 30 years, the throne of the Obi was vacant, and the years of interregnum left a toll on the infrastructural and spiritual development of the agrarian community. The crux of the matter, Leakblast gathered, was an alleged attempt to smuggle an alien method of ascension to the throne and impose it on the people. But there was stiff and collective resistance, culminating in years of legal battle.
Unlike most communities in Delta North (Anioma nation) that practice hereditary system based on the principle of primogeniture, Onicha-Olona practices a different and unique system of ascension, called Okpalabisi. It is based on the principle of gerontocracy where the eldest titled chief among members of the Obi-in-Council succeeds a demised Obi. In this system, rooted in the age-long tradition of the people, there is no established royal family or ruling house.
It is a system that the entire community enjoyed peacefully until the death of the last Obi, Okereke Nkeweshe, in the early 1980s when the crisis of succession hit the sleepy town.
At the height of the impasse in 1995, the military government set up of Administrative Commission of Inquiry, later known as Odebala Commission, with a task to determine the kingship system bequeathed to the people of Onicha-Olona by the founders of the town; and to determine the customary law regulating appointment/succession to the title of the Obi.
It was also to determine the relative merits of rotational system of ascension among the three quarters of Ishiekpe, Umuolu and Ogbe-Obi; and the hereditary system of succession through primogeniture.
To the chagrin of most stakeholders of the community, Odebala Commission recommended the hereditary system of ascension to the throne of the Obi, and the recommendation gave birth to Government White Paper number 4 of 1995, which further led to Chieftaincy Declaration Gazette number 6 of 1996, despite the pendency of several court actions challenging the recommendation.
Although, the recommendation gave birth to multiple suits, all of which were dismissed by the state High Court, Asaba, there was an overwhelming protest by majority of the indigenes of the town. They alleged that the commission was manipulated and influenced to come up with the hereditary system, which they insisted, would ultimately impose a family or a group of persons within a family perpetually on the kingdom as king.
A source told Leakblast: “Despite several memoranda that were submitted to the said commission which shows that Okpalabisi system is the only recognised system of ascension to the throne of Obi in Onicha-Olona, the commission having been influenced, recommended a hereditary system of ascension to the throne of Obi of Onicha-Olona, a system alien to the tradition and custom of Onicha-Olona people.
“The government white paper and Chieftaincy Declaration was totally condemned, and protested against by indigenes of Onicha-Olona who have since stuck to their position that an alien system of Obiship ascension, which ultimately will impose a family or group of persons within a family perpetually on them as their Obi from time to time will not stand.
“Okpalabisi system was reiterated by Aniocha North Traditional Council in a recommendation as the system that will solve the Obiship tussle in Onicha-Olona.”
The source hinted that Uzu Diji who was the Obunze of Ogbe-Obi was the next in line to be king having performed the necessary customary rites long ago. However, in 2015, Dumbili Nwadiajueboe got a letter of appointment as the Obi of Onicha-Olona from the state government.
The letter dated May 20, 2015, emanated from the Directorate of Chieftaincy Affairs, office of the Deputy Governor, and signed by one E. Bratte on behalf of the permanent secretary.
But his arrangements for the presentation of staff of office were cut short. The government issued another letter on May 22, 2015, saying that the ceremony had been put on hold as a result of palpable insecurity in the town.
Investigation revealed that the Aniocha North Traditional Rulers’ Council intervened and stopped the ceremony, leading to another round of legal battle over who was the rightful occupant of the throne.
The community instituted another suit with the objective to revoke the gazette, which had earlier institutionalised hereditary system of ascension during the military era. In January last year, the state High Court, Issele-Uku gave judgment in favour of Diji. The new king, Uzu Diji, told Leakblast, that he was very excited when Governor Ifeanyi Okowa presented the staff of office to him through his deputy, Kingsley Otuaro:
“I was extremely happy when the government presented me with the staff of office. It took so long to have the staff of office because we had a very long struggle. There was one man who said he wanted to be king.
“We have a different system but he brought in another system all together. We spent about 30 years in court before I won the case, and the governor came and gave me staff of office.
“The system we practice is Okpalabisi, that is the eldest titled chief will succeed the throne not the first son of a late King. The last Obi was Okereke, and I was the most senior chief. I am very grateful to the people of Onicha-Olona. They have done well they backed me all through the struggle. I also thank the government.”
A former President-General of Onicha-Olona Development Union (OODU), Chief Peter Ikebukwu, the Ike-Obi designate of the kingdom played a key role to ensure that the matter did not escalate into wanton destruction of property and killings in the town. Before Ikebukwu’s election as the PG, he served as the secretary of the Restoration Committee set up by the then leadership of OODU with the mandate of resolving the lingering Obiship impasse.
He said: “In that committee, I found out what the issues were. Before I became the PG, I prepared a programme of manifesto taking into cognizance the transitional challenges of the town particularly the issue of Obiship impasse. I offered to assist in resolving the problem.
“Luckily, I was elected and this was an uplifting to the Obi-in-Council because somebody who knew what they were talking about had come. They submitted an appeal based on the programme, which I had prepared.
“From there we took off, I briefed my executive committee and we all agreed. We circulated the whole information to all the branches of OODU, and they all agreed that we had to revoke the gazette, which distorted our tradition.
“We had a court judgment that destroyed that distortion to our tradition, and today we have the staff of office. It was the union and the council that worked together to ensure that we had the victory and restore the system.”
Ikebukwu said Nwadiajueboe allegedly rebuffed all advances made by the leadership of OODU to have the issues resolved peacefully: “My first attempt was to bring everybody together. I approached him, he is my father too, and I laid out my intention that I wanted reconciliation that whatever he had passed through and spent let us see how we are going to repay him because it was obvious he had failed.
“Before doing that I consulted very well. I don’t do what I don’t know. I have consulted authorities of the Supreme Court, and I know that the person cannot go anywhere unless we return to our tradition, the tradition is the fundamental.
“I invited him to see if he can amend. But he felt determined because he was holding an instrument, the gazette the government had given him, he felt the gazette could never be revoked or nullified, so he refused to cooperate.
“That was how we were challenged so many times. The government directed us, based on that gazette to go to court if we were going to restore the tradition, we must nullify the gazette. And that is what we did.
“I was a party and I was present in court to present the report that we got from Aniocha traditional council that we must return to our tradition. In any court of the land, they must ask what is the tradition of the people.”
Ikebukwu, however, lamented about the crisis: “Not only that it affected physical development, spiritually, things that we never saw happening here started happening, we all grew up here. Young men’s death was not an issue that happened in Olona before.
“There were a lot of spiritual things that were happening which showed that God was not happy with the land. But the staff of office was given, we are moving in the right direction that you don’t need to be told that this is the rightful occupant of the throne.
“Since the day he was designated that is the day Obi Ikewehe was buried, the whole town was in jubilation. The day he was crowned, Olona was in jubilation, the day he was given staff of office, Olona was in jubilation.”
Chief Francis Ikpade, the Okwulegwe of the kingdom said the community would continue to support the new king: “We have started already. The Obi has extended his hands of fellowship to everybody even his opponents. It is now left for them to come or reject. He has called everybody and they are coming one by one, the community is behind him.
“Like what we are doing today has never happened in the history of Onicha-Olona, one of his chiefs, a newly installed chief is presenting a brand new car to the Obi, no Obi in Olona has ever driven a car, and no Obi in Olona has ever be given staff of office.
“This is the first time, so many things are happening first during his reign. So it is the will of God and we say congratulations to him.
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