By Anote Ajeluorou
Chronicling the past is not an engagement in which Africa has recorded much credit. In most cases, the past is lost in the fog of oral tradition and general amnesia. With the increasing minimal status accorded oral tradition, it becomes harder to distil some aspects of our past and make any sense of it. But there are some who would not let the past go easily without unearthing some of its milestones that continue to shape our future. This is the serious, historical task Offonmbuk C. Akpabio set for herself in He Dared: The Story of Okuku Udo Akpabio, the Great Colonial African Ruler (Xlibris Corporation, London; 2011).
In He Dared, Akpabio undertakes a daunting task through oral accounts and documents left behind by colonialists and missionaries to piece together the life and times of one of the illustrious sons of present day Akwa Ibom State, who started his journey before the turn of the last century.
Udo Akpabio, who later became famous by being among the first to come into the sphere of colonial influence and consequently being an administrator as a warrant chief, a position he effectively wielded with his royal one as paramount ruler of Ukana, was to play a great political and cultural role amongst his people.
Indeed, Akpabio’s posthumous biography is great tribute to an illustrous African, who wielded much influence among his people and gained respect even from the overbearing colonial officers. It’s an honour to a man who held two offices seamlessly and discharged his duties admirably such that he dispelled notions of imbecility often associated with much of Africa by the colonising West.
SIRED by Umo Ntuen Ebie Emem, founder of Ikot Ide in Ukana in present day Essien Udim Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, Udo Akpabio followed the footsteps of his father in ascending the throne his father literally created. Although he was not the first son, it eventually fell to his lot to be crowned Okuku Ukana or Ukana clan head.
But Udo Akpabio had a harrowing childhood. He was still young when his mother had twins, a forbidden occurrence at the time. His mother was only saved from being killed because her husband and clan head loved her so much. She was later ostracised and a hut built for her at the outskirts of town. But her children could not live or interact with her.
She was eventually sold off to the Aro Chukwu slave merchants to underline the gravity of her offence. This was the period before the white people stepped on African soil to stop some of the evil practices among the Calabar people, especially the killing of twins.
Udo Akpabio had to be taken to his maternal place to be raised. When he came of age, he returned to his father’s homeplace, where he however had an incident that nearly claimed his life. But he had started to distinguish himself as a great farmer and trader in various commodities. Back to Ikot Ide, he became established in his farming and trade and rose to be one of the wealthiest men around.
As the author narrates, “Udo Akpabio had all the trappings of a great man. He excelled in his trade and was widely respected. His friends and associates spanned through Ukana and beyond. It was, therefore, not surprising that the Afe Nkuku (council of elders) decided to make him the Obong Isong, otherwise referred to as the Okuku in Ukana clan”.
While trying to consolidate his hold on power, neighbouring Otoro people started a war against Ukana Ikot Ituen over a land matter. This war was to test his skill as leader and his people. It ended in his favour, but after he got wounded.
Coincidentally also, this was the period when the TransAtlantic Slave Trade had been abolished in England and America, but a few elements still carried out the trade on both sides – African and European – particularly the Aro Chukwu people.
The British people had also begun to make incursions into the coastal planes and had made war with both the great Benin Empire and destroyed it in 1897 and the Aro Chukwu people, who were prominent in slave dealings at the time.
Eventually Udo Akpabio and his people, largely out of fear and uncertainty of the intentions of the advancing British and in order to protect their territory, came face to face with the British military might. They lost the war and soon came under the British influence that was stationed at Ikot Ekpene.
When peace returned and a leader was being sought by the British in the form of a warrant chief to help administer the local people, Udo Akpabio was thrust forward for the exalted position from which he exercised great authority both to the admiration of his people and that of the British.
THE author, a third generation Akpabio, has, with this remarkable biography, given a strong and sweeping voice to the history of a period that would otherwise have been beclouded with distance of time far removed from her own time. She tells the story of her great, great forebear with remarkable faculity, relying on oral narratives and accounts kept by white missionaries, especially of Rev. Grooves, who had written about her grand forebear and had recorded Udo Akpabio’s thoughts on a vast array of objects.
While dwelling on the great life and times of Udo Akpabio, the author also uses the canvas of He Dared to paint what was the real first encounter between the African population and their visiting colonisers. Through this narrative, we see first-hand the various administrative transitions and reforms that took place and how the locals responded to the ever-changing times they lived, not least the tensions between imported values – like the abolition of slave trade, the stoppage of the killing of twins and the practice of human sacrifice in the event of the death of a king or titled men in the community.
As leader mediating between the alien, white man and his people, Udo Akpabio went to great length to make his people respond to the changing landscape from the political, cultural and social dimensions, from their otherwise secure ways of doings things.
His ability, even as an uneducated man, to see far ahead of his peers and decide on the right causes of action to take endeared him to many.
Married to 29 wives and fathering many children, Udo Akpabio was first to send his children to the white man’s school to learn the new tricks being foisted on them. Even at that remote period, he had the foresight to allow one of his daughters to go to school; she was baptized Elizabeth and became a great teacher in the mission schools of the period.
His sons read wide and some travelled abroad for further studies while others promoted Western education to the point of setting up scholarships to enable aspiring young people to gain education. This was in the 1920s in the Calabar region.
Udo Akpabio sired many illustrious sons, who later became prominent in Nigeria’s socio-political and cultural life.
The author meticulously chronicled these sons and grandsons and great grandsons in He Dared. Some of these grandsons include a judge of the Federal High Court, Lagos, the late Akpan Eukinam-Bassey, the late Justice (Senator) Nsima Akpabio, Isong Ibanga Udo Akpabio, Paul Usoro among others.
HE Dared provides a grand sweep of historical, cultural and social materials of the time Udo Akpabio lived. The customs, traditions, festivals and the general ways of life of the people are presented in a memorable manner. The author’s painstaking attention to details is remarkable and commendable.
With this book, the lineage of the Akpabio clan, of which the current governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio, is a member, is preserved for generations.
For generations to come, the Akpabio clan and many others in Ukana clan will remain grateful to the author who has brought her storytelling talent to recreate an otherwise forgotten but remarkable episode in the history of the region and the role their forefathers played in shaping the colonial experience of southern states of Nigeria. It’s a book researchers will find treasurable.