By Osa Amadi FOR three solid days, the world converged in Yenagoa, Bayelsa to pay final respect to a great fisherman, a man of letters, Pa Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara before the mortal body he left behind was committed to mother earth in his village, Bumoundi.
It was a fascinating experience for all who went to Bumoundi to have had to cross in rustic fishermen’s boats the great and historic River Nun which had inspired Okara the poet to hewn out of rocks, the words that make up his poem, “The call of the River Nun”.
Eminent personalities, including former President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Seriake Dickson made moving speeches:
Former President, Goodluck Jonathan
“His excellency the governor of Bayelsa State. Let me appreciate the presence of very senior government officials here with us.
“Let me thank the government of Bayelsa State, the Okara family, and the friends who put this wonderful programme together to recognise our icon who has left us. Let me also commend the Bayelsa State Government for appreciating and recognising our leaders who have contributed in one way or the other to the development of the nation by immortalizing them through naming some infrastructure after them. And of course, this theatre is named after Pa Okara. The State Library is also named after him when he was still alive. I also agree that that is the best way to honour people – when they are still alive.
“Yes, we have been told by his son that Pa lived over 100 years. It is not easy to get there because even the scripture talks about three scores plus ten – that is seventy years. So to go significantly above seventy, we have to thank God, because all of us know that no matter the age of the person and circumstances of death, death is painful to those who love that person. And Pa Okara, we all know, is a treasure. And nobody would want to lose such a person.
“So his death, even though he has stayed on earth within a reasonable time, his death is painful to all of us. Of course we have read his biography and we have seen the role in his life. People know him and describe him in different ways – he is a good administrator who had worked in several places. As a journalist, as a poet, a novelist, and all. You hardly go to a gathering where people speak ill of Pa Okara.
“I can remember in my literature class when I was in secondary school that we read some of his poems in West African Verse. And of course in my university days I also witnessed when the university honoured Pa Okara with honorary doctor of letters degree in the first convocation of University of Port-Harcourt. I was a witness to that award.
“So Pa Okara was a voice – a voice of reason, voice of truth, voice of justice and equality. And we all should emulate him and carry on with his philosophy. We know how he served the old River State as a pioneer secretary to the military governor of the old Rivers State before he moved on as the CEO of print and television broadcast in the state.
“Even in Bayelsa State, he played some key roles. I remember that in the formative days of the state, Gabriel Okara headed the committee that did the reclassification and recognition of traditional rulers. So most of our first class kings today were the people which the committee recommended.
“When I was the Deputy Governor to DSP Alamieyeseigha later became the governor, Okara was quite good to us; of course you know how humble he is. So he had kept on like that, contributing to the growth of the state and growth of the Ijaw race and the nation.
“Today we are all here as part of his last journey. We thank God for that. If you look at the caliber of people that dotted this theatre, see his Old Boys, we have to join the governor to thank you for making out time to come and participate in this program. Thank you.”
Governor Seriake Dickson
“We are gathered here today to pay our last respect, and also to celebrate a life well-lived – very simple life, and also very profound life. We are here to honour this great fisherman who gave to us and the world, “The Fisherman Invocation”. We are here to celebrate this great Ijaw man – quintessential Ijaw man from Bumoundi the River Nun. He gave to us and the world, “ The call of the River Nun”. We can go on-and-on: “Piano and Drums”, “The Voice”, etc.
But all in all, we are here to celebrate the life of a good and a great man.
So let me, in the course of this brief remark, firstly on behalf of the good people of this state, receive and welcome you all to this greatest state, no doubt, in the entire Federal Republic of Nigeria – the state that is incomparable to any other; the state of great and good people. Welcome to you all to Bayelsa, the glory of all lands and the “Jerusalem of Ijaw nation”
I want to specially thank, our former President, President Goodluck Jonathan who is here with us. I would like to thank and appreciate leaders of our state. I also thank J.P Clark who is also here. I appreciate all the writers here and scholars from outside the country. I appreciate the Alumni of Government College Umuahia. I can see why Government College Umuahia continues to be great. You have a lot of great Bayelsans who are your alumni.
Our state, country and the world has lost a great man. People of my age started reading the works of Okara some 40 years ago. And I was very surprised when eventually as a member of house of reps, I invited him to be part of a literary event that I sponsored. I am here sited with him, simple-looking, world-celebrated poet. He spent 2 days.
“If Okara had not harkened to the final call of the River Nun he would have surely been here today with us celebrating another great Bayelsan. The time Pa Okara stopped attending functions was when he attained the age of 100 years. So you can imagine the commitment and that speaks to our profound sense of loss as a state and as a people. Our government believes in recognising and appreciating our leaders who have excelled, whose lives and works and contributions have brought credit, acclaim and glory to this state and Niger Delta, to this country and Africa as a whole. And since 2012 we have always honoured and appreciated the contributions of our leaders, bring back the remains of those who were buried in shallow graves in Lagos to have state funeral services each time we lost a great leader.
“And you don’t have to be a political leader to have that kind of attention and that’s the lesson we are teaching today. Most time people tend to celebrate political leaders forgetting that there are also leaders in all spheres of human endeavor.
For us in Bayelsa, once you live a life of service, once your life has brought glory and acclaim to our people, we showcase you and honour you as a beacon of hope for what is possible in the creeks of Niger Delta. And that was why in 2012, 2013 we remodeled this entire edifice and deservedly named it after Pa Gabriel Okara. And he told me he was surprised when he got the invitation; when he stood side by side with all the leaders of this state, when he, by his own hands, cut the tape and unveiled the plaque that has permanently made his name to be on this building.
“And looking back now, I think we are happy that we had that opportunity to honour him while he was alive. And at several state activities, he himself attended some activities right here in this Cultural Centre named after him. And today, as our own contribution, this aspect of honouring our deserved leaders, those who are alive as well as those who are dead, the government of Bayelsa State is now saying that Pa Gabriel Okara will have a mausoleum built in his honour at Ijaw National Heroes Memorial Park.
“The state suggested to the family, just as we’ve gathered here and just as the state has deemed it fit to organize this state funeral, that his remains and his works are no longer the property of the Okara family. And I am sure they know that. And we told them that we wanted his remains buried and in the place reserved for our leaders. But they appreciated it and reached out and explained the other dimensions which we all understand.
“So tomorrow, after this event, his corpse will be escorted to his ancestral home of Bumoundi. But there will be a final place of honour for Gabriel Okara at the Ijaw Nation Heroes Memorial Park. The family and all well-wishers and friends will be invited on the day we will set aside to honour him and several others. That Memorial Park is a place set up for great leaders. The great Isaac Adaka Boro’s remains are interred there. Late General Owoye Azazi, the first 4-star General, first National Security Adviser…and that’s where the late Okara belongs.
“I have listened to the request made by the Old Boys of Government College Umuahia. In acknowledgement of the contributions of that great institution, as in producing great leaders in Bayelsa who have continued to be sources of inspiration to us, the Government of Bayelsa will work with Government College Umuahia to undertake a project that will be named after Pa Gabriel Okara…I want to thank him for telling me the Ijaw story, for exposing the Ijaw culture and language and history to the world with his works. When you read “The Fisherman Invocation”, “Piano and Drum” as it compares with the rustic mystical drums in Bumoundi to the concerto, ending on crescendo; when you read “The call of the River Nun” and all his works, including this one we’ve just re-launched, “The Voice”, it’s an entire life of service, of simplicity; a life of honour – a quintessential Ijaw man.
“He lived and showed the right values of our people. He was a great Ijaw man, great Niger Delta man, a great Nigerian, a great African and a great citizen of the world.
“Today on behalf of the government and good people of the state, we bid him farewell. He has answered the inevitable call of the great River Nun. And I am sure he must be listening by now, the rustic and mystical sound of the drums on the other side”.