Gabriel Imomotimi Okara (1921-2019)

Gabriel Imomotimi Okara was renowned and foremost literary icon from the Niger delta and recipient of the Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON that contributed to the development of African literature.

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Novelist, Poet, Lecturer, Administrator

Gabriel Imomotimi Okara was renowned and foremost literary icon from the Niger delta and recipient of the Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON that contributed to the development of African literature.

Synopsis

Gabriel Imomotimi Okara (1921-2019) hails from Bumoundi Village of Ekpetiama Kingdom in Yenagoa Local Government Area of Bayelsa state. He was the first Niger delta born poet to be world famous and was celebrated for his literary prowess. Gabriel Imomotimi Okara served the Nigerian State with vigor and truth as he pioneered and saddled the media businesses of the Old Rivers State from the Radio Rivers to the Nigerian Tide Newspapers which are his legacies.

Above all, he was a man of letters with varied publications, fiction and non-fiction to his credit like the “The Voice”, “The Fisherman’s Invocations” “As I See It” amongst others. He lived a fulfilled life and died on the 2019 at the Federal Medical Center, Yenagoa, Bayelsa state and was buried on the 22nd of June, 2019 at his community Bumoundi.

When and where was Gabriel Imomotimi Okara born?

He was born into a family of affluence on the 24 April, 1921 at Bumoundi Village of Ekpetiama Kingdom in the then Southern-Nigeria but now in Yenagoa Local Government Area of Bayelsa state.

Gabriel Imomotimi Okara’s Parents

His father was the famous Chief Samson Gbaingbain Pappah Okara (now late) the paramount ruler of Bumoundi community. Also, he was a successful businessman and industrialist who worked for the British-owned Royal Niger Company and United Africa Company (UAC). Notably, he was a dealer of a wide range of commodities at the time with UAC such as Oil Palm produces, other Local Wares, local gins, trading same with the colonial masters and other merchants. His business took beyond the shores of the delta to other towns in the west and east of Nigeria such as Lagos, the hinterland of Onitsha and Oguta. It is worthy to state Chief Samson Gbaingbain Pappah Okara was a Christian as he embraced the Anglican faith and facilitated the establishment of the first Anglican church (St. Stephen) his clan Ekpetiama. Gabriel Imomotimi Okara’s predeceased mother was Mrs. Martha Ereoweidigha Okara from Tombia community of the same Ekpetiama Kingdom; she was also a devout Christian with the Anglican communion which all children kept the faith with.

His Education

Gabriel Imomotimi Okara had his primary education firstly at a local mission school of St. Peter’s day school, Bumoundi from 1926 to 1929, thereafter he left for Port Harcourt to continue his basic elementary at the Christ Army Church School Creek road, Port Harcourt from 1929 to 1930. Then finally he got admitted to the wave-making, Reverend Proctor’s Memorial School, Kaiama in 1930 and completed his primary education in 1934 which he also wrote and passed the First School Leaving Certificate Examination. In 1935 thereabout, young Gabriel Okara wrote the entrance examination into the prestigious Government College, Umuahia and passed elegantly. Government College, Umuahia in the Eastern Nigeria (now Abia State) was deemed to be the best secondary school in the Colonial-Nigeria due to the its quality tutors who were mostly foreigners, equipped laboratories and a serene environment with the best of sporting facilities.

It worthy to state, great minds from the Niger Delta and beyond whose deeds were towering in Nigeria attended the College some were Gabriel Okara’s contemporaries such late Barrister Young-Harry, late Prof. Diete Koki, late J.A Briggs, late Apostle G.D Numbere, late Dr. E.D.O Mangete, late Kensaro wiwa, late Elechi Amadi, Prof Kelsey Harrison, late Chinua Achebe, late Christopher Okigbo, late Jaja Wachukwu, Prof. Laz Ekwueme among others. Gabriel Imomotimi Okara had an eventful stay at the Government College Umuhia; he was a sensational captain of the school’s cricket team who was loved by his peers for his amity and most especially in his academic work he was outstanding for he was a notable artist and creative writer.

At aged 19, he wrote the Senior Cambridge School Certificate Examination and passed which was in 1940 at the Yaba High College during the World War II of 1940 to 1945.

Afterwards he furthered his studies in Journalism at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA from August of 1959 to January of 1960 and also, he attended the British Government Central Office of information course in London in 1964.

Career Life

He had a stint with the British Airways (formerly British Overseas Airways Corporation) immediately he finished his secondary education at the Government Secondary School Umuahia which was from 1940 to 1944; he resigned from the job.

Subsequently, he was employed as a staff of the Government Press Lagos as a book binder from 1945 to 1950 and started his colorful writing (poetry and prose) career. In 1952, he transferred his services from the western to Eastern Nigeria information service as an Information Officer.

He rose through the ranks and Headed of the Agency in Enugu from 1964 to 1967.

The Nigeria Civil War

During the Nigeria civil war, he was in the Eastern Nigeria as Head of Information service from 1967 to 1970 as he merged with the Nigeria-Biafra war. He played a crucial role as among the diplomatic convoy that canvassed international support for the Biafra government at the time; on this job he worked with the likes of late Cyprian Ekwensi and late Chinua Achebe.

Old Rivers State

Just as the Nigeria Civil War was over and Rivers State was fully liberated, Gabriel Okara was made Principal Secretary to the First Military Governor of Rivers State, Commodore Alfred Diete Spiff in 1970. Thereafter, he was promoted a substantive Director of the Publishing House of Rivers State and was later appointed pioneer General Manager of the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, Publisher of The Tide Newspapers; he set up the corporation from scratch and also saddled in that capacity as General Manager of the agency from 1971 to 1973.

In 1974, he became the pioneer General Manager, Rivers State Broadcasting Corporation the operators of the state’s radio station tagged Radio Rivers and the Rivers State Television, (RSTV) which were the best broadcasting agencies of southern Nigeria at the time; it also worthy to state, it Gabriel Okara that set up the two Broadcasting Houses from scratch as none existed, the Rivers State Television, (RSTV) later metamorphosed into the Nigeria Television Harcourt-NTA Channel 10 which located at Umorgba and the RSTV still waxing strong at Elelenwo town in Rivers state.

His Retirement

His relevance even after retirement from the Public Service was demonstrated in 1975 when he was made the Commissioner for Information and Broadcasting in the old Rivers state, a position he administered to 1976.

It is also worthy to state, Gabriel Okara is among few that went into public office and came out clean, after several years of service to the Nation, a quality that is so scarce in the lives of Public Officers in this age.

Between 1997 and 1978, he was made Chairman Committee on Recognition and Classification of Chieftaincy stool in Bayelsa state which a well-articulated report produced for the then the Military Administrator Lt. col. Paul Edor Obi as a white paper for classification of stools in the state.

Subsequently, between 1977 and 1984 he was a writer in residence at the Rivers State Council for Arts and Culture which later became a Board Member from 1984 to 1985. He had some part-time appointments as a lecturer at the following institutions:

  • English Lecturer, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (1965)
  • Ijaw Culture Lecturer, University of Port Harcourt, Choba (1983)
  • Poetry Lecturer at College of Education, Rivers State (now the Rivers State University of Education) and others.

Also, he was a man of letters with varied publications, fiction and non-fiction to his credit. His first novel, a fiction, was the Voice published in 1964 by Andre Deutch, London first edition; Heinemann African writers’ series (No 68). Then the Fisherman’s Invocation a poetry published in 1978 by Heinemann, London; other popular works are Juju Island (Fiction for children) in 1992 and Little Snake and The Little Frog (also a folk tale for children) in 1981 and it was commissioned by the rivers state government and published by Macmillan in 1982. Furthermore, on his publications, there are two short stories. The crooks in Black Orpheus 8, 1960, 6-8 and Tubi in Flamingo 4,1, 1964, 27-31. His four notable Non-fiction works are Ogboinba, the Ijaw Creation Myth (Black Orpheus 2 January 1958, 9-17), African speech … English Words (Transition III, 10, 1963, 15-16 also in African writers on African writing Ed, G.D Killam , North Western University Press, Evanston, Illinois 1973), Poetry and Oral English (Journal of the Nigeria English Studies Association, 8, 1 May, 1965) and towards the evolution of an African language for African Literature (Kunapipi, Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark)

Additional Appointments

Awards and honors

  • Best all round entry in poetry at the Nigeria festival of arts, for “The call of the River Nun” in 1953
  • Commonwealth Poetry Prize, for the fisherman’s invocation in 1979
  • Honorary Doctorate Degree – Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.), Honoris Causa due to his literary excellence in 1982
  • He was also conferred with Justices of the Peace (JP) and also received a Merit Awards from the Rivers State Government in 1992
  • Conferred with the Nigeria National Honor of Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON by the former President of Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd) in 2001
  • The then Governor of Bayelsa State Late Chief D.S.P Alamieyeseigha in 2001 during his 80th birthday organized by the rivers state branch of the association of Nigerian authors (ANA) donated a brand new 406 Peugeot car to Gabriel Okara
  • NLNG Prize, for the Dreamer, His Vision in 2005
  • He received the ICALEL Award of Excellence in Creativity in African Literature from the University of Calabar in 2006
  • Pan African Writer’s Association Honorary Membership Award in 2009
  • During the 20th anniversary celebration of the creation of Bayelsa state, he was the recipient of the distinguished icon award and also recognized as poet Laureate of the Niger Delta, by his Excellency, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson Governor of Bayelsa state in 2016
  • Gabriel Okara Literary Festival in 2017
  • The then Governor of Bayelsa State Late Chief D.S.P Alamieyeseigha in 2001 during his 80th birthday organized by the rivers state branch of the association of Nigerian authors (ANA) donated a brand new 406 Peugeot car to Gabriel Okara

Memberships

  • He was the grand patron of the Bayelsa state chapter of the association of Nigerian authors (ANA)
  • Member of the Pan African Writers’ Association
  • Fellow of the prestigious Nigeria Academy of Letters (FNAL) honoris causa in 2010

Family and faith

He was married and had four children. Gabriel Okara was initially an Anglican which inherited from his parents but later on, he followed the path of Christian Science as he was faithful member of the first church of Christ scientist branch in Port Harcourt with its Headquarter in Boston Massachusetts, USA.

His death

Dr Gabriel Okara OON, (JP) passed on the wee hours of Sunday, March 24th, 2019 at the Federal Medical Center, Yenagoa, Bayelsa state.

“he laughed and laughed and laughed” in the face of adversity and death.

Dr Gabriel Okara OON, (JP)

He died a noble death at the age 98. His deeds and legacy will always be remembered as they will be undeniable on the sands of time.

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