HISTORY and treasure have their inexpicable way of hiding away even from those who own them until discovered. Hiden in the middle of Anambra State is a monument of high historic quality with resourceful clues of the yet-to-be-exhausted links between the traditional Igbo society, colonialism, Christianity and modern Nigeria.
An over one-and-half century double-floor brick structure stands in Ifitedunu community of Dunukofia Local Council of Anambra State as a good example of some historical and cultural information being lost because of possible disregard of artistic heritage and tourism potentials or underreporting of newsbeats in the area.
In the middle of the serene and sandy community on a table land, located about 12km from Awka the capital of Anambra State and 15km from the commerce city on the bank of the River Niger, Onitsha, two heritage brick structures, one built in 1865 (which almost makes it the oldest storey building in Nigeria) and a burnt brick one built half a decade before the Second Wold War tell tales of the Obinabo royal family of Igbuala, Iftedunu.
The Obinabo royalty of Ifitedunu (until recently known as Ifiteukpo) in Dunukofia boast of a proud heritage of heroism, war conquests, western education, merchandising, leadership and intergrity. Somehow, they have either serrendipituously or somewhat, circumspectly guarded their royalty’s legacies and their kingdom’s myths in aging but preserved artistic statues, architectural structures, paintings and landmarks that would make anyone with eye for history green in envy of them.
From Awka to Onitsha on the old Enugu Road, a veer to the right at Oye Abagana market meets three similar roads, all busy with small businesses. The middle route which heads into Ifitedunu terminates at Nteje Junction on the new Enugu-Onitsha Expressway. At the middle of the busy Ifitedunu road, on the right, less than a kilometre after the town’s major Catholic Church and the primary school, you encounter Obinabo family house.
Any mind steeped in facilities of cultural treasure would upon entry into the unassuming home, note an unusual ambiance about the serene environ. Even without vacuous guides or vade mecum notes, the passer-by with an eye would sense a treasure trove.
Stepping into the home that had produced four kings, several princes, queens and princesses, the expansive, earthy compound with a network of encircling buildings presents a testimonial of a typical homestead of a real Igbo royalty’s court. Conspicuous, in the architectural design is a square courtyard. Surrounded by buildings with doors opening into it, the open field is lined by clearly-categorised structures from which even a first-time visitor could decipher the main building from the sub-lead blocks; servicemen’s yards; the wives’ quarters and the family’s palace that is located conspicuously at the extreme corner.
Within the palace, hand-crafted vesitiges of royal apparatuses at advanced stages of aging, from intricately carved wooden thrones, chairs, stools, tables and kola nut trays to murals and framed paintings that tell tales of heroism as well as the feats of the kingdom displayed alongside hides of rare wild species, lay bare the mythical status of the household like a well-curated museum exhibition. There are equally carved wooden doors everywhere, reminding one of the “carved doors of Awka area” which colonial anthropologists documented in the late 19th century through mid-20th century as well as a colourfully feathered crown won by one of the ancestors of the dynasty who was a king.
Outside, about 100m farther down on the right end of the compound is a repainted aging brick house in brown and white colours. The nine-decade-old storey building stands resplendently like a creamy chocolate touch-up to a very earthy compound. Though there are some modern and near modern 20-century post-colonial architectural buildings, mostly bungalows and one-floor structures, colour and imposing size makes the painted brick work difficult to miss upon first call in the homestead.
The structure actually has a name that is well known beyond Ifitedunu. From Agulu to Awka, Otuocha and Onitsha, the building was knows as ‘Uno Hedimasa’ (Headmaster’s House). Its name and clout were drawn from the fame and influence of its owner. Built in 1934 by HRH Igwe Michael Udealo Obinabo Okoli (Amadu II), a renouned teacher, headmaster, customary court judge and one-time President of the Customary Court of Appeal who took over the reins of Ifitedunu from the death of his father, HRH Igwe Obinabo Okoli (Amadu I) in 1932 until his death in 1967.
According to his son, Prince Nezianya Chris Obinabo, Igwe Michael was the third king of Ifitedunu to hail from the Obinabo dynasty. He informed that his late father was also a UAC merchant and healer. Apart from being a king and leader, he was a man of high intergrity, to the extent that the home “which actually built by willing volunteers” also served as safety net for people of the region.
“In fact, this our home was a bank of sort. People who did business in, say Onitsha or Otuocha, kept their money here because they had the trust. Some kept their gold… all of which remained intact,” Nezianya disclosed.
But moving farther down in the compound, towards the right, one discovers the main treasure trove in court. Over there, stands the pride of the home, the town and environ – an over 150-year-old storey built in clay and mud. The still standing earthen house with wooden decks, staircase and metal-sheet roof cited as the first storey building in Eastern Nigeria, presents as much case studies for architecture, artisists and historians.
Built in 1865 by Igwe Obinabo Okoli I, the father of Amadu I, by volunteers too, the structure was as much an African leader’s frontal statement to match the effrontry of colonial traders and missionaries as it is a show to people of his kingdom and neighbours what the owner got from a then rare surjourn in several continents abroad. Obinabo Okoli, and grandson of HRH Eze Ajana I of Ifitedunu, was a dreaded brave man and worrior. According to his children and great grandchildren, when European missionaries and merchants arrived the town and its environ, they could not penetrate into the hinterland due to formidable resistance of Okoli I and his men. The man used to lead the town in wars. Europeans negotiated and took him abroad where he lived with them for several years, got western education and returned.
According to his grandson, Prince Ifeanichukwu Obinabo, Okoli I was so brave, indomitable and skilled in executing battles that his body was impervious to gunshots. The Europeans first took him to Sierra Leone and later to Saudi Arabia. After years there, he returned and the colonialists made him King.
Nezianya explained that during those years abroad, one of the things he did was to study in Forah Bay College in Sierra Leone.
He returned with the acquired knowledge to get the colonialists’ endorsement and crown with which he made pace-setting impacts on the kingdom and gave the land a close link to western ways until “he died in the Good Friday of 1932, and his son succeeded him,” said Nezianya.
Mounted in front of the architectural monument is a water reserviour, a double-figure sculptural composition. Within the building, there is a central wooden staircase that can still carry a careful adult, there are several sculptural figures, some in the round, some in emborsed relief, with carved doors and gradually dismembering decking.
The two-figure life sculptural composition outdoor, though crudely hewn, communicates a salient story of the lagacies of the Obinabo family, effectively. In it, a white missionary, painted white priest hands over a heavy book (The Holy Bible) to a huge figure, the king who is clad in royal garb.
Ozo Ekeocha Ekwegbalu, a member of the royal family, explained that the sculpture is an artist’s impression of a landmark event that happened in March 11, 1911. On that day, western Catholic misionaries arrived Ifitedunu and presented a Holy Bible to the king and members of his community. That day, they were all baptised and Okoli I also took a baptismal name, Cephas – the rock.
That was also how Christianity and western education got into the town which Okoli I ruled with a supportive colonial regime until his death, which Prince Nezianya, a one-time president-general of Ifitedunu town union was emphasised the iconic date it happened, a Good Friday, a vital day in Christian lithurgy, to push home the family’s steep in Christianity too. It was gathered that just as the king built a showpiece home and offered it as shelter for many people it facilitated the building of the Catholic church in the town.
Indeed, there is enough of the Obinabo family’s footprint in Ifitedunu to cite them in any rennaisance story of the town or at least its transition from pre-colonial throgh colonial and post-colonial era. Prince Ekwegbalu explained this in a recount of the memorable activities of the four kings of the Obinabo dynasty thusly: “The first eze (king) here was Eze Ikpo Ajani. After that, it was Eze Okoli; after him Eze Obinabo; after him Eze Michael Udealo Obinabo, the first son of Obinabo. What we are proud of is that all of them have very enviable records that everybody here (Ifitedunu) can testify to.”
One of the younger princes of the household, Chukwudi Obinabo, a grandson of Okoli also added to the matter. “My grand father brought a lot of development to Ifitedunu. The Catholic church; Ozala Primary School and many more,” he said. The engineer disclosed that their family’s main interest is preserving the structures, projecting the hidden knowledge therein for posterity and documenting the feats of the dynasty.
“We want this monument (he points at the 150-year-old historic storey building) to be recognised or tagged by appropriate agencies of state and federal governments as the heritage site ,” Prince Chukwudi said.
Sadly, inquiries made from National Museums and the tourism development commissions show no knowledge of the Ifitedunu treasures despite their having been around for centuries.