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Onigu Otite, the presence of the past and the undelivered seminar

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Professor Onigu Otite died at a ripe old age and lived a life that should elicit celebration at death

Words reached me on the 15th of March this year that the famed University of Ibadan social anthropologist, Professor Onigu Otite had gone the way of all mortals. My first feeling was that of disbelief.

However, my doubt was dispelled after calling his protégé and nephew, Professor Atare Otite, Dean of the Social Sciences at the Delta State University, Abraka, who confirmed the news of the passage of the acclaimed intellectual giant.

Professor Onigu Otite died at a ripe old age and lived a life that should elicit celebration at death. But I felt depressed on the confirmation of his passing on. He left with so much knowledge and wisdom. His phenomenal and prodigious contributions to scholarship had immortalized him in my consciousness and the thought of his physical death never crossed my mind. As I fell into a sombre mood ruminating over my encounters with him I felt misty in the eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks.

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A minute later in a moment of lucid inspiration I found myself typing the following message which I forwarded to Atare, “This is unbelievable! There are some people you think would not die. Professor John Kingsley Onigu Otite was one of such people.

How so painful for me to now think and talk about him in past tense? Professor Otite’s name as a highly regarded social scientist preceded him. His name loomed in my consciousness before I met him at the University of Ibadan in 1998. By then some scholars had left UI where the likes of Professors Ukoli, Scott-Emuakpor, Ekeh, Okpako, Onoge, Okpewho, Ivwidjaro, Biakolo, Nabofa and other redoubtable scholars of Urhobo extraction held sway.

Meeting Professor Otite in 1998 gave me the needed elixir to pursue my postgraduate studies with verve. He was held in high esteem by colleagues and students and I observed that the Faculty of the Social Sciences revolved around him. When he retired and returned to live in Urhoboland he found good company in the late Professor Omafume Onoge and their former student Professor G. G. Darah. I was to be part of their commune working in the project implementation committee of the Western Delta University, Oghara. I must confess that what I learnt from them surpassed what the classroom gave to me from Primary One to PhD. Professor Otite’s many publications including The Urhobo People are road-opening endeavours which others followed.

At more than eighty years of age, he was scheduled to deliver a seminar on “Urhobo Taboos and Totems” at the Urhobo Historical Society headquarters at Okpara before his passage. He has taken the thoughts in that paper to Erivwin where before him had gone Onoge, Okpewho and Philip Kuale. His passage has diminished us all. May his amiable and sparkling brilliant soul find sweet repose. Baba…..akpo kedefaoooo”

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The title of this tribute derives in part from his 1983 inaugural lecture “The Presence of the Past”.

Professor Otite in his analytically brilliant manner elucidated the problematic and paradoxical implication of that title by establishing an interface between social anthropology and history.

The nexus binding both disciplines was to be the motif of much of Otite’s research endeavours. He told the Trenchard Hall audience, “The relationship between history and social anthropology is not a recent one. Social anthropologists have always emphasized diachronic presentations of social situations as a means of a deeper understanding of the present”. This is what the enchanting poet, Niyi Osundare antithetically offered as “looking forward is looking backward”.

Otite’s research and publications oscillate between the past and the present excavating a quarry of information from which generations of scholars continuously mine to garnish books and journals, and support contentions in seminar rooms and conferences.

On Tuesday 25th June the Faculties of Arts and the Social Sciences of the Delta State University, Abraka, in collaboration with the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) and the Urhobo Studies Association (USA) organized a symposium and session of tributes to mark the exit of the redoubtable scholar.

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The well attended event hosted by the Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Victor Peretomode was chaired by Professor Andrew Onokerhoraye a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin with Professor Sam Oyovbaire, a former Federal Minister of Information as Special Guest of Honour. Five Vice chancellors (serving and past) and many students of Professor Otite who are now renowned professors in their own right attended the symposium. Members of his immediate and extended families were also in attendance.

Professor Peter Ekeh sent in a revealing and moving tribute from the United States of America. The lecture “Ethnicity and the Challenge of Nation-Building” which reflected Professor Otite’s research focus was delivered by Professor A. S. Akpotor.

Professor Otite’s contribution to Social Anthropology puts him in the vanguard of social sciences scholarship. His excavation of Urhobo lore gave Urhobo a place on the map of global scholarship. When the Urhobo nation floundered from around the 1980s to the1990s it was his clearheaded intervention via a lecture “The Urhobo: Fifty Years after Mukoro Mowoe” that birthed a navigational guide. He repeated that feat two years ago when things went awry.

Professor Otite was an exemplary family man and he and his wife Dr. Regina Otite built a home where true laughter resonated.

As Professor Otite’s body returns to mother earth today in his native Okpara, that undelivered seminar “Urhobo Taboos and Totems” written at over eighty years of age will be a testament to his eternal commitment to scholarship. Okakuro, Olorogun, Professor, Baba…akpo kedefaooo.


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