Not much has been recorded about the parentage of Okolo Samuel Okosi except that he was born in Onitsha–the beachhead for all Christian Missions in Igboland, in eastern Nigeria.
On November 22, 1863 Okosi was baptized at the age of seven. In 1885, the very year the Catholic missionaries of the Order of the Holy Ghost arrived in Onitsha–the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had arrived earlier, in 1857–Okosi began working with the two pioneer missionaries, Fr. Joseph Lutz and Fr. Horne and was made a catechist. Okosi, whose Christian name was Samuel, served as catechist at Aguleri and Nsugbe, both in the present Anambra State.
In November 1900, the totally unexpected happened at Onitsha: his fellow townsmen chose Okosi, a Catholic catechist serving at Nsugbe, to be the new Obi (king) of Onitsha, the highest office in the city’s political institution. Of the other two candidates vying for the same royal post, one was the son of the deceased pagan Obi and the other an unnamed Protestant candidate. Despite his Christian background, and his resolve to do away with all idols, Sami–as Okosi was popularly known–was made the Obi of Onitsha and confirmed in the office of the colonial administration.
Once elected and confirmed as the Obi of Onitsha, Okosi soon demonstrated that he was a traditional ruler of a new order. As his first interest was education, he collaborated with Bishop Joseph Shanahan, the renowned great apostle of eastern Nigeria to establish many schools in Onitsha. For example, St. Mary’s school, Onitsha, was started in Okosi’s palace before being moved to its present location along Awka road, Onitsha.
It is remarkable too that at Okosi’s initiative, the colonial administration promulgated a law making the killing of twins punishable by death despite strong opposition from some chiefs and native priests. This followed the incident in 1901 during Okosi’s reign when his wife gave birth to twins. The people wanted the twins killed but the king maintained his Christian culture and refused to let them be killed. Ever since then, when twins are born in the town, if anyone makes a fuss about it, the parents refer to the Obi’s twins, saying they should be the first ones to be killed. Like the legendary Mary Slessor, Okosi left this legacy to the Onitsha mission. Both helped the church to stop the killing of twins.
Okosi reigned from 1901 to 1931.
Kemdirim O. Protus
Chief Sam Okey Chukwudebe, unpublished paper presented at conference of the Catholic Theological Association of Nigeria (CATHAN), Onitsha, March 2005.
Nicholas Omenka, “The Church and Traditional Leadership in the Igbo Country: The Missionary Experience,” unpublished paper, n.d.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. Kemdirim O. Protus, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious and Cultural Studies at the University of Port Harcourt, a DACB Participating Institution. Dr. Kemdirim Protus is also the DACB Regional Coordinator for Nigeria.