Thursday, May 10, 2012

Echoes of Abia Day in Cotonou

Nigerians set Cotonou venue on fire
In their attempt to raise 300 million CFA (roughly N100 million) to build a Civic Centre in Cotonou, Benin Republic; Nigerians virtually set the venue of their fund-raising appeal on fire.

Welcome to Palais des Congres, the Cotonou scene, where the premiere Abia Day in Benin Republic took place on March 31. It is doubtful that Cotonou’s assembly building ever saw as much fireworks as was witnessed, when Abians in Diaspora Organisation (ASIDO) threw up the debut Abia Day in the Beninese economic capital.

However, the fireworks were entirely cultural, featuring thrillings dances as well as singing by many of the clans that make up Abia State. From the pulsating percussions of Abiriba troupes, to the energy-sapping displays by Ohafia War Dance ensemble through the exciting performances of Odumodu, the solemn hymns of Oha Ngwa choristers and all the way to the scintilating wrigling of bodies by maidens of Nkporo; Abia Day 2012 celebrations would be remembered for some time to come.
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Alayi Men and Alayi Women troupes, Aba Enyimba Women, Egwu Abba Uzuakoli and Abam dancers were among other cultural performances that contributed to making Abia Day an event many will not forget in a hurry. But, if you thought their choreography and songs were all that those who did not attend missed, how about the sartorial disposition of Abians? The variety of their attire was a marvel in itself.
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Bordered by Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Imo, Rivers and Ebonyi States; you could see a coming together of various customs in the costumes of Abia people. Abia Day 2012 invoked thoughts of cultural diffusion as well as made every Nigeria proud. If so much came from Abia, which is just one of 36 states that, with the FCT, make up the Nigerian Federation; then, the combined wealth of our nation is best left to a conjecture.

Truly, the atmosphere was electrifying and the excitement really infectious. For example, Moslem and Northerner Alhaji A. A. Lawwal, Minister II; who represented the then Charge d’Affaires, Nigerian Embassy Cotonou, Mr. Ayo Roberts; at Abia Day 2012; was no less thrilled by the outstanding displays put up by Abia groups and the level of organisation of the event. In the end, Alhaji Lawwal donated 100,000CFA on behalf of the local Nigerian mission to the organisers.
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In his speech, Chairman of Omena-Abia Day Celebration, Hon. Martin Emenike Kalu, said, the observance; which was the first of its kind, is: “By the grace of God, a demonstration of oneness in the lives of Abians resident in Cotonou and beyond”.

Kalu, who went on to remind that; “Abia State is one of the five South Eastern States of Nigeria and is fondly and officially referred to as ‘God’s own State’”; added: “It (Abia) is the only State whose name is in the Bible”. To cross-check, Hon. Martin Kalu referred his audience to Luke 1:5 KJV.
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Speaking further, Kalu described Abians as “God-fearing, peace-loving and above all, very hard working”.  He went on to declare, enthusiastically: “Due to our prowess in commerce that knows no bounds, we came to Cotonou. We saw and have conquered as our businesses in Cotonou have been flourishing”. As regards the main business of the day, this launcher went on to remind: “We are here also to raise fund, 300million francs CFA, to build an Abia in Diaspora Civic Centre in Cotonou”.
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In his address, Mr. Vincent Itah Okoh Kalu, Chairman of ASIDO (Abia State in Diaspora Organisation), who described the event as an “extraordinary epoch-making celebration”; reminded that: “Abia is an acronym from the initials of four groups of people, Aba, Bende, Isuikwuato and Afikpo”. This quartet, Kalu added, constituted the major groups, when Abia was carved out of the old Imo State on August 27, 1991; by the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida-led military regime.

According to Kalu, Abia; which has 17 Local Government Areas with capital at Umuahia; shares boundaries with Anambra, Cross River, Ebonyi, Imo and Rivers States. Going down memory lane, Kalu said the evolution of Abia in Diaspora, Cotonou featured many twists and turns. Hear him: “It started as Abia Solidarity Forum (ASF) in 2003”. But, in 2004 the body was renamed Abia State Community Union (ASCU) until 2011, when it metamorphosed into the present-day ASIDO.

Continuing, Kalu further recalled that: “Hon. Emmanuel Agu, who was the first Chairman of the Union, held office from August 25, 2003 until May 25, 2009; when an interim administration was installed”. The ASIDO chief revealed that the “interim government was marred by bickering, accusations and counter-accusations”.
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On a more cheery note, Kalu added; “But, thanks to God for the timely intervention of Chief Emmanuel Uko Elendu, who calmed the storm; through the introduction of a peaceful and acceptable election formula”. On June 12, 2009, Chief Elendu’s intervention culminated in the setting up of a 16-man electoral board headed by Hon. Chris C.C. Onyeukwu. On July 8, 2009; this board, Kalu continued, “conducted a free and fair election that brought this present administration into power”.

At the inauguration; on July 11, 2011; of the current ASIDO, which he chairs: “We met a State that had been brought to its knees by mistrust, divisions, accusations and counter accusations and lack of fund, all caused by the selfish interests of some insidious enemies of progress”, said Kalu.

But, “Undeterred by these impediments, we started working tirelessly day and night to restore peace and sanity in our dear State, to create a ‘level playing field’ for every community, irrespective of size or wealth; thus engendering a sense of hopeful belonging”; added Kalu, who also revealed that ASIDO now has Abia State Prayer Forum and a Peace and Reconciliation body.

“Our dear State in Diaspora has a need: In the words of the Mighty Diamonds, ‘we need a roof over our heads’. In history, the three essential things the early man needed first were shelter, clothing and food. We need a shelter in Diaspora. Hence we have resolved to acquire land and build Abia in Diaspora Civic Centre here in Cotonou as a symbol of shelter for all Abians.

“Today is the day of revelation of the truth that Abians are indeed in Benin Republic. We are celebrating together today to foster greater love, unity, progress and sense of belonging. Today, you will behold the ‘Revealer’.  We are aware that there are still other basic needs of our people: such as subsidizing the exorbitant cost of education through scholarships award and participating in human welfare”, the ASIDO chairman further remarked.

Unofficial statistics put the population of Nigerians in Benin Republic at between one million and two million and the majority of these immigrants are Igbo people. Interestingly, despite being a celebration of Abia State, virtually every Nigerian in Benin Republic was sucked into the observance, which consequently made the premiere Abia Day in Cotonou an unforgettable event.

It could be recalled that, to assess the state of preparedness, a delegation of Abia State officials were in the Benin economic capital for two days, from February 23 to the 25th on what could be termed a surveillance mission. And, at the end of their visit, it was obvious these forerunners, which included Mr. Kingsley Megwara, Special Adviser to Governor T.A. Orji on Diaspora and Foreign Matters; and, Mr. Felix Azu, Director of Abia State Liaison Office, Lagos; left convinced Abia Day in Cotonou would be a huge success.
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mauricearchibongtravels can authoritatively reveal that, though Abia State Governor, Chief Orji and numerous other Nigeria-based political heavy-weights did not attend, celebrations of the premiere Abia Day in Cotonou, Benin Republic; was a huge success nonetheless.

As usual, the ceremony started with Christian prayers. The opening ceremony also featured the traditional breaking of kola-nut, which as one of the MCs was wont to remind us, “does not understand any language except Igbo”.

Although many Cotonou-based Igbo are engaged in various occupations, most of them hail from Abia State and make a living from trading in used clothing items. It was hoped that Abia Day would serve to consolidate unity among not only Abians but all Igbo and other Nigerians in general living in the neighbouring country; and, there is no doubt that this goal was achieved.

For Abians in particular, it was hoped that the governor and his state’s indigenes would use the opportunity to explore possible areas, where they could synergise with a view to improving the social and economic conditions of Abia people at home and abroad. Although the governor did not attend and sent no representative, Abia people in Cotonou are still optimistic that even this aspect was still realisable.

General Ike Nwachukwu (rtd), a former Foreign Affairs Minister; Prof Raph Uwechue, President General of Ohaneze ndi Igbo; Rear Admiral Ebitu Ukiwe, a former Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters; Navy Commodore Ndubuisi Kanu, a former Governor of Lagos State; and, Senators Uche Chukwumerije, Enyinnaya Abaribe and Nkechi Nworgu as well as all National Assembly members of Abia State origin; were among the invitees that missed the observances.

But, in a chat with Mr. Itah Okoh Kalu, Chairman of Abia Community in Cotonou, he observed that those that failed to turn up were preoccupied with pressing issues at home. Mr. Kalu went on to add that, “The event was to help us raise 300 million CFA and the fund-raising is still on, so we are still hopeful that those, who could not attend the March 31 event would still send in their contributions”.

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It is worth noting that over 6millionCFA was raised during the fund-raising appeal. Although the amount relaised is only a small fraction of the 300million CFA targetted; the Igbo Leader in Benin Republic, Chief Ebuka Onunkwo; had put up an encouraging presence.

Though an indigene of Anambra State, as Eze ndi Igbo in Benin Republic, Chief Onunkwo automatically became principal stakeholder of Abia Day 2012.  In his address, the Igbo Leader had observed that the 300 million CFA fund being sought by Abia for the erection of a Civic Centre in Cotonou; was no big deal. In his view, Abia community in Cotonou boasts many millionaires; and, if each of these wealthy Abians were to come out and contribute 1million CFA; then 300 Abians would have helped to raise the 300million CFA needed.

In any case, when it came to the fund-raising aspect of the occasion, Chief Onunkwo aka Odozi Obodo I did not disappoint. In his characteristic generous manner, Chief Onunkwo doled out 1million CFA (over N320,000) to the organisers. In the same vein, the immediate-past President of the Cotonou Chapter of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), Chief Emmanuel Uko Elendu aka Aka eji eje mba I; also contributed 1million CFA.

Hon Ukachuckwu Igwe, CEO of Success Group of Companies, on behalf of Arochukwu in Abia donated 400,000CFA cash; Mr. Okom Emenike Kalu gave 400,000CFA cash; Dike Ubanichukwu (300,000CFA); Mr. Ben Ihekire, Managing Director of  Diamond Bank in Benin Republic, gave 1millionCFA on behalf of the bank as well as 500,000CFA on behalf of himself and family. Another financial institution, UBA, offered 200,000CFA; while the Obiwanne 1 of Abia, Chief Okechukwe Agu, contributed 100,000CFA cash.

The funds were further swelled by donations from Deacon Okey Sunday Okoroafor, Coordinator, West Coast Movement of the pro-Goodluck Jonathan group Rebuild Nigeria Initiative (RNI), who chipped in 50,000CFA; and, Mr. Emeka Ezikpe, who gave 100,000 CFA; while Mr. Lawrence Okoroafor donated 50,000 CFA.

It is worth noting that despite the infectious nature of the surrounding excitement, there were sobering moments, too. For example, as the donations poured in; Mr. Ogubuike Udeala, Chief Launcher of the Day, elicited resounding applause; when apparently directing his comment to those in charge of managing the funds; he declared: “This means that all eyes are on you people. Every penny we invest here will be accounted for”. With regard to unveiling The Revealer magazine, which was part of the day’s events, he went on to add, “I unveil this magazine with 500,000CFA  cheque”.

Another moment of introspection was thrown up by the Reverend Sunny Oriakwu, who declared; “Abia cannot remain like this. We must do something about our state. Thank God that we came here today to rejoice. But, there is no joy in our hearts. Let your prayers be that our state must come back again. I believe God that after today, Abia will rise again”.

On the whole, such was the success of the event that many, including this writer, wished Abia Day could morph into an annual fiesta in Cotonou.

Pic 1. Immediate-past NIDO President, Chief Emmanuel Uko Elendu.
Pic 2. Eze ndi Igbo, Chief Ebuka Onunkwo on Abia Day.
Pic 3. Nkporo maidens showing their steps on Abia Day.
Pic 4. Ohafia War Dancers.
Pic 5. More Abians at Palais de Congres.
Pic 6. Oha Ngwa choristers.
Pic 7. Some Abia women at Palais de Congres.
Pic 8. A heart-warming free for all: Abians showing their stuff on the floor.

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