Okotie- Eboh: In time and history
The presentation of the book, Okorie-Eboh: In Time and Space (1912-1966) Edited by Prof. Akinjide Osuntokun, at this auspicious time of our national life cannot but be commended. The book is a testament to the memory of a man with huge achievements in the development of our country. With a forward written by Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, former Minister of Finance, this 409 pages book is divided into 4 chapters with an acknowledgement and introduction.
The chapter 1 aptly titled A Short Panoramic View of Nigeria’s Political Evolution is a deep historical development of Nigeria from when cities were conquered by the rampaging British forces, the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Nigeria, the administration of Nigeria during the colonial era, rallying for independent, eventual independent with the high hope of a bright future (which unfortunately was dashed or mis-managed), the crisis of political consolidation and the legendary military intervention in our politics culminating in our present democratic practice.
The author, an eminent historian and professor emeritus in this chapter dwelt extensively on the historical development of Nigeria that should give everyone a re-think if really our dear country would achieve the aims and aspiration of its founding fathers. Lack of political tolerance, improper management of opposing views, deployment of state’s facilities for political purposes, greed, avarice and corruption are some of the issues bedevilling the development of Nigeria. Hopefully, we will get it right in the present dispensation with a new government.
The life and times of Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh is the thrust of chapter 3. Born on July 18th, 1912 in Bateren, present day Warri North Local Government, Delta State. He grew up with his mother, an Urhobo woman from Orogun. This made him bilingual in both Urhobo and Itsekiri languages. Popularly referred to as Omimi Ejo, Okotie-Eboh, voluble and ebullient was a self-taught man who after his primary school education, taught in his Alma Mater (Sapele Baptist Primary School) thereafter he joined Bata Shoe Company as an accounting clerk where he built a career culminating in becoming the first Nigerian manager of this company.
After being sent for further training in Prague in Czechoslovakia in 1947 and obtaining a Diploma in Business Administration and Chiropody. As expected, he left Bata Shoe Company to set-up chains of companies; Afro-Nigerian Export and Import Company involved in timber and rubber business, Omimi Shoe Factory (arguably the most popular among his companies), Omimi Plastics Factory and other strings of schools set-up in Sapele, e.g. Sapele Boy’s Academy, Zik College of Commerce and Sapele Academy Secondary School. These schools were founded together with his wife, Victoria, whom he married in 1942.
Clearly, he had become wealthy and extremely popular in Warri division, it was at this time that he joined the National Council of Nigerians and Cameroons (NCNC) under the leadership of Herbert Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe. He won election into the Western House in 1951, but by 1954 he had become a member of the Federal Parliament in Lagos and one of the prominent leaders of NCNC. He was thereafter elected party treasurer largely because he was a man of means. He was subsequently nominated as the Minster of Labour and Social Welfare in January 1955. He formalised labour relations with Spanish authorities in Equatorial Guinea where a large number of Nigerians were working as labourers. And because of his rising national profile he became the Minister of Finance in 1957.
As Nigeria’s longest serving Minister of Finance till date (he was Minister of Finance from 1957-1966, a period of 10 years), his achievements and financial acumen are well documented for the first time in our national history in this book. Chiefly among these are the establishment of Central Bank of Nigeria and the mint company, the inauguration of the first national currency, the establishment of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, creation of the first Nigerian investment and development bank in the 1950’s and 1960’s, putting in place financial institutions such as the customs department to be part of the finance ministry, the securities commission and an efficient tax regime (He introduced pay as you earn tax system in Nigeria).
After establishing these institutions, he won many friends for Nigeria using his long standing business contacts in Europe and America, many international institutions including World Bank, Common Wealth, International Labour Organization and others which became critical partners of Nigeria in national planning for economic and social development offered their services to Nigeria. With a tremendous capacity for hard work, he was a practical man and a firm believer in Nigeria playing an important role in the international community.
Yours truly is an Ijebu man, Professor Itsejuwa Sagay, in an edited version of his lecture on The Itshekiri People in chapter 2 of this book, confirmed my age-long held believe that there is an element of Ijebu affinity with Itshekiri. In the edited version of the lecture by Sagay, an eminent Itshekiri son traced the history of modern Itshekiri from the late fifteen century when the people adopted Prince Ginuwa from Benin Kingdom as their monarch, though they have lived independently in different communities before they coalesced into a kingdom.
There however were several waves of migrations before the 15th century and a little later, groups from Igala land came through the creeks; Yoruba from Ijebu-Ode, Akure, Owo and a group from Aboh found their ways into the parts of the kingdom. Though a monarchical system of over 500 years old is being practised in Itshekiri, however their contact with Roman Catholic Christianity is a testament to the fact that the first-ever church monastery built in what today is Nigeria was erected in Ode-Itshekiri (Big Warri) before 1700 and was christened Saint Anthony (today, the site is known as Satone).
The last chapter of this book contains an anthology, i.e. thoughts, correspondences and budget presentations to the parliament by Okotie-Eboh. We could see the illuminating and veritable thoughts of Okotie-Eboh in his correspondences with the leading lights of his political era. From Prime Minster Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya to Chief Dennis Osadebey. And to international figures and institutions like David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol (Prime Minister of Israel), Commonwealth Relations Office, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), International Monetary Fund (IMF). His letters, as always, are witty, loaded, down-to-heart and at times combative.
The most touching and tragic of his letter (page 81) was penned on January 14th 1966 (a day before his assassination) to Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa on the thorny issue of Western region.
In the letter, he confirmed what was already known, i.e. that the election returning Chief Ladoke Akintola was rigged, that Chief Akintola did not enjoy the support of his people and the continued killings and arsons in the region is people’s revolt against the federal government’s imposition of Chief Akintola on them.
One of the most important part of this anthology is the eight budget presentations/speeches (1958-1965) delivered by Okotie-Eboh to parliament. Unlike now, it was the responsibility of Okotie-Eboh as Minister of Finance to present the annual budget estimates to the parliament as a motion. This he does diligently, accurately and with cultural flavour. It was during budget presentation you will see Okotie-Eboh dressed in full Itshekiri regalia with two maidens carrying his flowing gown! It was during these budget exercises that his financial acumen, management and economic understanding of our country’s needs came to fore
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