John Oneni Atugburuze was born into a humble family in the Igbogene community on March 2, 1902. He survived only thanks to the kindness of a niece because his mother died due to post-natal complications.
Atugburuze attended St. Paul’s Primary School in Igbogene only up to standard three because his father did not have the money for him to do standard four to six. Also the primary school in Igbogene had not yet been upgraded to a standard six status.
In 1913, during a trading trip to Akassa, in Brass, by canoe with his father and kinsmen, Atugburuze ran away, throwing everyone into a panic. He was found seven days later, quite at ease with the missionaries in Akassa and assisting them. He refused to return to home again. He was trained by an Anglican missionary and given a religious education which enabled him to read the Bible. He was baptized and given the name John in 1930.
In 1932, being fully prepared for evangelism, Atugburuze was sent to work as the first Epie clan catechist to serve under the Yenegoa deaconry in the Anglican West Diocese. He was in charge of all the communities north of the Epie clan in the Yenegoa Local Government Area. Aware of the difficult task ahead of him, especially in penetrating the intransigent customs of the people in relationship to Christianity, he co-opted the services of lay reader Job Epem from Igbogene and Mershack Ofigwe of Okutukutu in 1933 to head the church council of elders.
Paramount in his early agenda was the setting up of a church building. Before him this had not being possible because the church was offered forbidden bush land for the building site. Atugburuze was able to break this taboo and laid the foundation stone of the Anglican Church in Igbogene community in 1940, in Biogbolo in 1947, and in Okitukutu community in 1950. By overcoming these beliefs in the evil powers of ghosts, spirits, and dark forces, he endeared the church to his people, and the church grew daily.
In 1958, John Oneni Atugburuze was coronated as the paramount ruler of the Igbogene community. Through subtle diplomacy he was able to combine secular and religious leadership. Then came the time when women demanded the right to officiate in the church,–an issue which generated a lot of controversy. Nevertheless he decided that women could form their own association and organize conferences to advance their spiritual growth for God’s service. This issue was later referred to the headquarters at Yenegoa and the same verdict was given in 1961.
In 1963, John Oneni Atugburuze recommended Henry Ovieya Uzor to the authorities to study abroad in London under the sponsorship of the Anglican Church.
John Oneni Atugburuze played a key role in establishing the Anglican church in the Igbogene community. He was straightforward and upright in his daily activities, and this attracted people to the church. He never lost sight of his religious obligations even at the height of his political power and was revered and admired by all.
Chief Cosmos Nene, interview by the author.
This story, received in 2004, was researched and written by Amachere Selasue, Department of Political Administration, University of Port Harcourt, under the supervision of Dr. Protus O. Kemdirim, DACB liaison coordinator at the University of Port Harcourt and DACB regional coordinator for Nigeria.