King Okoye Odili: First Umueri Paramount Ruler & Warrant Chief

Igwe Okoye Odili of Umueri was a paramount ruler & warrant Chief of Umueri, a contemporary of Nana of Itshekiri & Jaja of Opobo of great fame. A fearless warrior & reputable Dibia – one of the most powerful medicine men to grace Igbo land. According to Umueri Oral tradition, he was the paramount ruler of Umueri prior to the advent of the Colonialism. A source close to his surviving family, insists that he became the leader, precisely in 1878 (though not ascertained) his reign was to last for a long time till his eventual departure from the earth, in 1948

An itinerant medicine man, during his active age, crossed “several seas and mighty waters” and by so doing was acquainted with emerging cultures and power of great kingdoms and empires. He was reputed to be a fearless warrior that brooked no-nonsense. His words were not only law as he has the power to curse and the power to bless on his tongue.

Prior to the advent of British into the soil of Umueri, he had led a series of wars against external incursion into Umueri land, more especially against the Igala slaves raiders. At the height of European incursion, having seen great empires fallen to the imperialists, he made a charm called “Oyibo Vee Anyi Enu” – a talisman to prevent sudden conquest of the community by the Europeans. However, the charm, to a great extent, worked, as the first British – the Catholic missionary that crept into Omambala, who ordinarily ought to stop at Umueri via the existing major routes (Nsugbe & Otuocha) bypassed Umueri and settled at a place, called “Ugwu ndi Uka” in Aguleri.

Another version of the story as it was told, is that he bluntly refused the request of the white men when approached by the Missionaries for land to build church and school. The white man was to get the same treatment from Igbariam and Nsugbe and all neighboring towns until they settled in “Ugwu ndi uka” Aguleri a place used as an evil forest then.

Whatever may be the situation, Umueri lost the dividends of early Western civilization, through his obvious protective leadership. The British however cunningly got his support, after his initial scepticism that western civilization was taboo. As one of the protagonists of “Oyibo ve anyi enu”, an eyewitness account of him has it that he saw whatever that did not happen during the days of his ancestors as alien and taboo.

He was therefore recognized by the Royal Niger Company as they paid him Royalties to protect and allow their oil produce to pass through the Omambala River undisturbed and without puncture. This payment was to grant them” Safe Passage” as it was then known. This payment of royalties would later be used by Lawyers representing Umueri to establish ownership of the entire Umueri Land since there was no title or land registry at that time. The only way you could show ownership was by “Positive and numerous acts of Possession”

The Royal Niger Company in the early 1900s now used most of the existing rulers of Communities to create Warrant Chiefs for the ease of bringing the Communities under their control and authority. Hence Igwe Okoye Odili was converted to a Warrant Chief, known as “Okoye Chief” of Umueri. He was given a staff of office and all other paraphernalia of the office which are still preserved till today. He had a Hammock with six (6) men carrying him whenever he traveled to Onitsha for his court case and also within the environs and the seventh man holding up Umbrella to shade him.

It’s vital to note, that as a paramount ruler, he was the man that allowed the Idigos of present day Aguleri to live at the present Amaeze Otuocha, by virtue of the fact that he married a prominent daughter of Umueri, just as the Umuoba Anam people were allowed to dwell on the land. He led the first litigation case between Umueri and Aguleri at the customary court in 1920. In the words of Capt DPJ Occonor, nicknamed “Nwa DC Oconor Nwa Eze Oyibo” in local
parlance, the then District Officer as contained in archive of Nigeria Monthly Law Report (NMLR) “ Chief Okoye was illiterate and could neither speak nor understand English. Chief Idigo speaks a semblance of English but his evidence must be approached with caution”.

His Son, Chief Fidelis Nzegwu Okoye was allowed to follow the way of the Whiteman. A politician of great note, who was one of the first Igbo Chartered Accountants. While in his active political journey, he was reputed to have coined the name “Omambala” (Anambra) as a political diction, when, he moved a motion for the creation of Omambala county council from the old Onitsha division. A family source claimed that the Umueri community summoned him to take over his father’s throne but he declined, stating that he was a young civil servant working in Eastern Nigeria Development Commission (ENDC) as an Accountant and could not possibly accept such responsibility at that time, But he however had the privilege of nominating another Okoye , Igwe Nelson Okoye, the Oke Ebo 1 of Umueri to take over the throne. The rest as the saying goes is now history

Back to great King Okoye, popularly called ‘Okoye Chief’, who passed to the great beyond on 3rd March 1948, he was survived by many children that include Iyom Princess Izua Diboh (Author’s Grandmother), Ogbuevi Nneve Okoye (Onoli Umueri) ; Chief Mowtelu Okoye, Priest Udekwe Okoye (Ezeani Umueri) & Chief Fidelis Okoye etc. He has numerous grandchildren that have impacted positively to the growth and development of Umueri. Amongst them include, Barrister Victor Jideofor Okoye. Who worked as a junior Counsel to Barrister GC Onyiuke SAN during the Otuocha land litigation that ended at Supreme Court in 1984, Barrister Mike Okoye(Kalakuta) of Aguakor legal interpretation fame, Princess Ngozi Okoye, an Umueri Royal Cabinet member & many others.

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