– The Sun News

UNBELIEVABLE

Ijesa indigenes in Canada shun ethnic bigotry, elect Igbo man president

•‘IPAC members have taught Nigerians great lessons in unity, tolerance’

By Tope Adeboboye

WITHIN the Nigerian community in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, there is one name that strikes an instant chord in every ear. It is a name that has become a constant refrain on many lips.

The name is Okey Paulicap Okeke, a Nigerian-born writer, theatre artist, clinical social worker and entrepreneur who has been domiciled in the North American country for close to two decades.

But his stay in Canada isn’t what makes the name and its owner the major theme in many conversations across that country. It’s not even about his book, Biribamba The Lonely Elephant, a children’s storybook published in the United States and over which he is in court with Macmillan Nigeria, a firm that allegedly published the book here without the writer’s authorisation.

Okeke, an Igbo man whose parents hail from Enugu State, is the president of Ijesa Progressive Association of Canada (IPAC), the umbrella association for sons and daughters of Ijesaland in Osun State living and working in that country.

An Igbo man as leader of an association comprising only Yoruba men and women? That is not only impracticable in Nigeria, it is absolutely inconceivable. Indeed, anyone harbouring such an implausible, far-fetched notion would be seen as suffering from the after-effects of excessive alcoholism, or having been untimely roused from a nightmare-riddled slumber!

But what many would have considered impossible in these shores became a reality in Canada. The Ijesa men and women in that North American country taught millions of their countrymen and women at home some great lessons when, in January 2017, Okeke was sworn in as president of Ijesa Progressive Association of Canada. And since then, he has been steering the ship of that association, alongside his executives.

On Saturday, September 16 last year, IPAC, under Okeke, held its annual “Ijesa Night” celebrations at the Manhyia Palace Convention Centre on Eddystone Avenue, Toronto. The event, which was chaired by Chief Isaac Ige, Odofin of Atorinland, was attended by many Nigerians, a number of who were there simply to confirm the rumour that the leader of Ijesa people in Canada wasn’t a Yoruba man.

At the event, the chairman expressed gratitude to Okeke for his leadership and for taking the group to lofty heights since his inauguration as president.

“This occasion would not have been possible without the efforts of Mr. Paulicap Okeke and his team, and for that I express my very sincere appreciation for the efforts you all have put in since you took over the mantle of leadership of IPAC this past January. You have done marvelously well,” the chairman noted.

He asserted that it was Okeke that made the night a hugely successful one: “In Jesus name, the glory that God has given you will not be destroyed. For remembering your roots, your foundation will never crumble,” he prayed.

But what would warrant an Igbo man to enrol in an association comprising only Ijesa men and women, and eventually become president of the group?

Okeke was in Nigeria recently for the Christmas and New Year holidays. And during the trip, he undertook a tour of Abeokuta alongside two of his friends and classmates at the University of Ibadan, this reporter and Ademola Ojolowo. And, over drinks and pepper-soup, shortly after a pulsating tour of the popular Olumo Rock in the Ogun State capital, Okeke explained how he joined IPAC and later got elected as the group’s president.

Born and raised in Ilesa, Osun State, Paulicap’s parents, Chief Okeke Chumba and Mrs. Janet Okeke-Chumba, are both from Ndeaboh, a community in Aninri Local Government Area of Enugu State. Okeke and his siblings attended elementary and secondary schools in Ilesa.

But right from his childhood, Okeke discovered that his dad, a very liberal and totally detribalised Nigerian businessman, ensured that his children had a robust, sophisticated and liberal worldview.

“My father was a Christian and an Igbo man, yet he enrolled me in a Muslim school. He believed that the school was good in academics and in sports, and it was also close to our house along the General Hospital Road in Ilesa.

“My dad was living in Bukuru, near Jos, before the civil war. He had his businesses there. During the war, he left for the East and joined the Biafran Army. After the war, he went back to Bukuru and discovered that all he had there before he left was gone. So, my parents relocated to Ilesa and started again from the scratch. But God favoured them and they prospered.”

Okeke said, right from his childhood, he had been well tutored by his parents that all men were the same, and that there was no difference between a Yoruba boy and an Igbo boy, between a Christian and a Muslim.

“They taught me that relationship is very important to life. And you would admit that it has been my guiding principle, even at the University of Ibadan, where the three of us here were classmates and friends. So, right from my childhood days, it comes to me naturally. I see you and relate with you first as a human being, before any ethnic or religious considerations. I don’t look down on people. I respect everyone.”

After his primary and secondary education, Okeke proceeded to the University of Ibadan where he studied English and Theatre Arts. He later relocated to Canada.

For him, becoming a member of the umbrella group for Ijesa indigenes in Canada was just natural. Since he was born and raised in Ilesa, most of the friends and playmates that he grew up with were Ijesa indigenes. Many of those friends were already living in Canada before he relocated and, naturally, he stayed with one or two for some time before he found his feet.

He said, “I lived with Yemi Fashakin and Ayo Ojuwusi. These were my childhood friends and they were already living in Canada. There were other friends too. And I see myself also as an Ijesaman. My mum is a prominent community leader in Ilesha. Naturally, immediately I got to Canada, they took me to the IPAC meeting, and I registered as a member. I started attending IPAC meetings. My name wasn’t an issue, because these were the people I grew up with. And anywhere I am, I will be involved. I can’t be a passive member in an organisation.

“Again, I was born in Ilesa. I can speak the Ijesa dialect very fluently, better than many native Ijesa people, because many of them were even born outside Ijesaland. I can write the language very well. So, I’m never going to be a stranger in Ilesa or among Ijesa people. And even if anyone is talking about me being Okeke or whatever, it doesn’t get into my skin because I know who I am. So, whether you like it or not, I am Igbo and I am Yoruba. I am Igbo by blood and I am Yoruba by birth. I am Ijesa, in spite of my name. That is the way I see myself and that is the way the Ijesa people in Ilesa and in Canada see me. If anyone makes fun of me, I would be stupid to allow it to get at me.”

Within IPAC, Okeke was a very active member for many years. He was involved in a number of committees and did each task creditably. When it was time for election into the association’s leadership positions, some members told Okeke to run for president.

“I resisted it initially,” he recalled, slipping a chunk of barbecued cat fish in his mouth. “But everyone was saying, ‘we want you as president. You will do a lot for the association.’ So I contested and Ijesa people in Canada made me their president.”

Okeke admitted that some people couldn’t conceal their incredulity at his emergence as IPAC president: “I was getting calls all over. Some didn’t even believe it was real until they attended our Ijesa Night in September last year. I had a lot of journalists interviewing me, asking how I did it, and I was wondering why they were that surprised. To me, it’s nothing serious. Many of these people have been my friends since I was born.”

According to Okeke, the honour on his emergence as president of a Yoruba association in Canada should actually go to members of IPAC who decided to have an Okeke as their president.

“They should be getting all the accolades, because what it means is that they have attained an uncommon level of maturity and sophistication that enabled them to shun all forms of bigotry and unproductive ethnocentricism, sentimentalism. Ijesa people, especially those in Canada, should be applauded,” he said.

Okeke asserted that Nigerians are usually more united whenever they leave the shores of the country. He urged Nigerians living at home to do away with tribal and religious bigotry and join hands to build the nation.

Besides acting as the rallying point for Ijesa people in Canada, IPAC, Okeke averred, would bring succour to the lives of many Ijesa people back home during his tenure. Aside from providing some amenities for some rural communities in Ijesaland, IPAC was already working to grant scholarships to young people across Ijesaland, he said.

One of Okeke’s wishes is that, someday soon, an Adegoke would be elected a National Assembly member representing a constituency in Imo or Enugu State, while an Okoro would be governor in a South-West or northern state.     

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1 Comment

  1. Vitalis Chikwe 9th January 2018 at 8:56 am

    What worked abroad cannot work in Nigeria. Too strange to believe with our attitude here at home. Try it here, an “Elder” will rise to quench the light, no matter how resplendent. It pays to be away from Nigerian soil to covet true relationship with people outside our geo- political zone. This development reminds me of an Igbo man I saw in Ibadan in 2016 being a member of a Yoruba Association known as Itesiwaju Club. Good development, indeed.

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