WRITTEN BY DAVID UGBABE
Onitsha is a renowned town in Nigeria for being one of the largest hubs for commerce, industry, and education, hosting the Onitsha Main Market which in geographical size and volume of goods remains the largest market in Africa. However, not only is this town the home to the indigenous people of Onitsha who are mainly Igbos and speak the Igbo language, it is also the home of the Obi of Onitsha which is the highest office in the city’s political institution.
Under the new political system, the first Obi of Onitsha John Samuel Okolo Okosi was very influential and well-to-do. With his position, as a chief he furthered the cause of the Christian religion, and in particular the Catholic Church. Born in Onitsha, his contact with Christian missionaries started as early as the mid-18th century. By 1862 he was baptized and became an enthusiastic member of the Christian Missionary Society (CMS). Following discrepancies in faith and cultural disorientation by former converts, John left the CMS and reverted to a polygamous life, despite efforts of the missionaries to persuade him not to apostatize. Not long after, he reconverted to the Catholic faith and became zealous than ever before. He accompanied Father Lutz during his first visit to Aguleri on 27 May 1890.
The death of Obi Anazonwu, the king of Onitsha in 1899 created a lacuna and among those seeking to fill the position was John who had undoubtedly won goodwill and popularity from the missionaries. Although this was not the major cause of his election onto the seat as argued by Osu who opined that “In spite of this help, Samuel Okosi could still have won the dispute. The influence of the missionaries and the government had little effect on the people’s decision. The basic point was that Okosi was in a more advantageous position than his rivals. The people did not need to be convinced by strangers to accept this fact. Moreover, the adherents of the missionaries we’re still a small minority of the population.” John beat the rival family (UMUEZEAROLI) which had two contestants to win the contest. In 1900 he was chosen as the new king of Onitsha. His official recognition was done by the British government making him the first Obi of Onitsha under the new political system.
John commenced immediately after his coronation to promote the cause of the Catholic Church, in addition to his duties as king. It was stated that John made it known that his actions were an honour to God alone, therefore, he hung a crucifix over his throne for people to venerate, he renounced idolatry by rejecting traditional homages considered idolatrous that were paid to him and refused to offer customary sacrifice which required him to kill a goat to appease the river (niger) goddess.
John played a significant role in promoting literary education by providing the church with a large piece of land to build a school and a little chapel. he encouraged pupils to attend school and helped in the teaching of cathechism in the evenings. This act earned him the title of “Eze akwukwo nya ka onitsha jili fu uzo (which literally means “the king who through book knowledge brought enlightenment to onitsha people”). His dogged evangelism for education led to the establishment of a Roman Catholic High School in Onitsha. This school, established that year (1901), pulled many people, including Protestants, to the Catholic Church.
An excerpt of his letter of gratitude written to POPE LEO XIII when he (the Pope) honoured him with a gift of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on February 15, 1901, reads, “The present situation now is that my people now receive Christian religious instruction, our schools are teeming with school children and a large number of people join in praying the Divine Office every Sunday. It is indeed a great consolation for a Christian king to see his subjects following his religion and turning their backs completely on the worship of idols….. The law against the killing of twins is now faithfully upheld … All towns and communities in the lower Niger are now disposed to receive the gospel. Therefore, SEND MISSIONARIES IN GREAT NUMBERS…”
Reigning from (1900- 1931), his 30 years reign over Igbo land was well utilized to promote the causes of the Catholic church while he waged a strong war against the local customs and traditions which he considered were against the Christian faith.