While many Africans see their native culture as a needless throwback that advances nothing but the past, it is refreshing to see things through the lens of an undisguised culture stalwart, the revered repository of the traditions and expectations of his highly evolved people. Obi Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha is that man. In the 20 years he has so far spent on the throne of his fathers, he has been, while future focused, also culture fixated.

On the 15th of November, 2022, it was His Majesty’s privilege to hold aloft the Federal Government’s Award of Excellence in Culture, given in recognition of the outstanding and excellent contributions of the Ofala festival to the development and preservation of Nigeria’s cultural heritage. The occasion was the first United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Global Conference on Linking Tourism, Culture, and the Creative Industries as Pathways to Recovery and Inclusive Development. Special guests present at the august event included Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, and Zurab Pololikashvili, the Secretary General of the UNWTO.

His Majesty, the Obi, is as urbane as they come – he had his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from two American Ivy League universities: Stanford and Columbia. The first one in Chemistry, the second, an MBA. Whereafter, he had a long and fulfilling professional career with Royal Dutch Shell. Obi Achebe, clearly, is a man who has seen the world. Taking up traditional duties therefore, it is not surprising that he has become the apostle in chief for blending culture and tradition while skillfully navigating modernity.

The 2022 Ofala festival was an excellent stage for the expression of the vibrant culture of the Onitsha people. It also provided ample room for celebrating the monarch’s 20th year on the throne, and on a much grander scale than the two years previous when Covid-19 restricted movements and mingling. The 2022 edition was, just as in the old days, a grand spectacle of multicoloured feathers and tusks of different dimensions; the Agbalanze – titled men – did their strut like in the old days; and the titled women were there as well, bedecked in their finery, alongside the general womenfolk, dainty and glamorous and breaking into dance at every opportunity; and then there was the often menacing prancing of the young men simulating the urgency of warriors who can’t wait to get on the battlefield. Witnessed as well was the bonhomie of friends taking time out for hearty catchups.

But ultimately, it was the Obi’s day, and everybody paid obeisance to Agbogidi for his dexterous handling of the affairs of Onitsha for the past 20 years.

The Ofala, being the high point of the Onitsha ceremonial cycle, featured displays of royal dances, tributes, parades and music running over two days, with the Obi of Onitsha as the celebrant of the spectacle. It is heartening to see that the Ofala festival is finally getting due recognition. His Majesty said as much while receiving the award in Lagos: ‘’This recognition, added to the endorsement of the Ofala by the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation as a major Nigerian festival, has further enhanced our goals of attracting considerable national, West African, and international attention to the Ofala and getting the festival to attain the status of a major event in the Nigerian, and by extension the West African cultural/tourism calendar”.

And without losing its spiritual essence, the Ofala has however been broadened with new fixtures that reflect the inclusive and forward thinking mindset of the Obi and Onitsha people. An international art exhibition (Oreze), a youths’ carnival (Ofala Carnival), and a marathon (Onitsha City Marathon) which has been approved by the relevant national and international athletic bodies, are now part of the Ofala.

Drawing from his personal philosophy of “Peace and Reconciliation based on Truth and Transparency as Foundation for Sustainable Development”, His Majesty recounted how “The basics of the re-invention and re-positioning have involved the rebuilding of trust amongst the populace, resolution of long-standing disputes within and between kindred families and villages, engendering general reconciliation and reformation and re-focusing of our youths’ aspirations and energy. Others were the palace redevelopment as a symbol of change, re-definition of our community as physical and virtual, and promotion of self-pride and the spirit of ‘Onicha-ness’”.

But while some of the objectives had been achieved and some clearly ongoing, now was the time, he believed, to launch boldly into the next phase of advancing the cause of Onitsha. His Majesty reminded his audience how in the pursuit of this goal, a meeting had been convened on April 15, 2017 with the theme: Taking Onitsha to the Next Level. “On that occasion, I stated that global and national challenges ‘provided a backdrop against which every community or entity must examine its place within the Nigerian space and take necessary actions to secure its future…. That is the imperative for us as Ndi Onicha to put our heads together to secure the future of our homeland by ensuring that our community is fit for purpose at any time. Nobody, but ourselves, can and must do it, and the time is now!”

This marching order has engendered positive outcomes reflected in areas like modernised traditional governance arrangement, proactive management of socio-political matters, a youth development scheme that is focused on equipping the youths for the future, community consolidation in the management of Covid-19 Pandemic, and the establishment of an economic empowerment programme which is driven by the Onitsha Advancement Foundation (OnAF).

Beyond the grand visioning, however, is the elaborate and meticulous structure being put in place to ensure that the talks and plans translate to success and that Onitsha becomes the cynosure of all eyes as tourists visit, traders come, youths make progress and women become more surefooted with regards to their place in Onicha Ado N’Idu, where peace and security are taken for granted, and where modernity coexists alongside the rich culture that is Onitsha’s. Those are the legacies His Majesty Nnae

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