A homily preached by Rev. Fr. Emeka Ngwoke* at the funeral Mass of Chief the Hon. Cletus Ugwutikiri Opata, KSM, JP (1926–2021), at FGGC, Lejja, on Saturday, November 27, 2021
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s — Romans 14: 7f
We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give – Winston Churchill, British statesman, prime minister, 1940-45; 1951-55; (1874-1965)
What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains immortal – Albert Pike, American author, poet (1809-1891)
Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principles, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence; it is holiness embodied in personal form, which they cannot steadily confront and bear down: so that the silent conduct of a conscientious man secures for him from beholders a feeling different in kind from any which is created by the mere versatile and garrulous reason. –St John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
Let me start with a few important acknowledgments. Thank you, Fr. Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, for lending episcopal heft and approval to this ceremony by being here to lead this funeral liturgy in honour of one of the finest public servants this land has ever known. Your endorsement bears a message and lesson which I pray that all might hear and heed.
Thank you, the governor of Enugu State, Your Excellency Rt. Hon. Dr. Ifeanyi Lawrence Ugwuanyi. Your empathy and sense of respect is second to none. In so respectfully recognizing the service of this uncommonly humble man, you do honour and service to all our people.
Thank you to all the former governors and ministers here in attendance today. Your presence here ennobles us all as you join the rank and file of our people in paying respect to a man who truly gave meaning and depth to the prefix ‘honourable’.
Thank you, Distinguished Senator Chukwuka Utazi and your eminent colleagues at the national and state assemblies giving effective representation to our people. Your presence here in your numbers is an eloquent testimony to the worth of this iconic public servant whose remains lies here before us in the eternal silence of death.
Thank you to all the priests and religious gathered here today for this funeral ceremony. Easily, we are all drawn to goodness and talent; and there is an abundance of talent and goodness in the Opata family.
Thank you to all gathered here today: men and women of all walks and stations in life – civil servants, politicians, academics, students, market men and women, professionals and artisans alike. We are all united in our common consent that the deceased is worthy of our respect and gratitude.
I say a heartfelt ‘Thank You’ to Mrs Regina Opata, her children and grandchildren, who willingly shared their husband, father and grandfather with our people for many decades. Your sacrifices and forbearance are etched in our collective memory, leaving us heavily in your debt. As you grieve, know that your pain and loss is shared by all our people.
Finally and most important of all: Thank you, dear Lord, for gifting us with this inspirational figure and for letting him sojourn in our shores and ennoble our people with his shining example of decades of selfless services. Please, permit me to make this parody of a popular chorus:
Aanya, Chineke Nna, Aanya o
Obu hanya b’Ine elete umu Gi anya
Aanya o! (2wice)
My dear friends, we are gathered here today to bid farewell to the inimitable Cletus Ugwutikiri Opata, with appropriate pomp and circumstance, as becomes a man of his character, worth and sterling accomplishments. Saying goodbye to a loved one is always a wrenching experience, more so when the one is embarking on a journey of no return as entailed by death. In consequence, various cultures have evolved different rituals for assuaging the feelings of the bereaved family and for coping with the departure of significant other. Among the ancient Greeks the funeral eulogy was invented as a special art form which celebrated not simply the power of oratory to move people through stirring speech but to highlight the virtues of the departed for the edification and instruction of the living. Among the Church Fathers, St Gregory of Nazienzus delivered one of the most memorable eulogies to his friend, St Basil the Great, on the first anniversary of the death of Basil. Not intending the execution of such a daunting task on a man of Opata’s stature, all I wish is to point out some of his many outstanding virtues the imitation of which would be highly beneficial to our society and country going forward. Before getting to that, let me back up a little.
A life and a career of service
Born on 5th December, 1926, Ugwutikiri Cletus Opata was the last child of Ezugwu Opata and Ogidi Ozor of Umuoda, Akaibite Lejja, in Nsukka LGA of Enugu State. He was raised under the tutelage of the late James Ogota. He was educated at St Joseph Primary School, Nsukka, St. Charles Teacher Training College, Onitsha, the University of Ibadan (1963-66), switching to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) on account of the developing crisis in the country and graduating therefrom in 1967. He earned the Teacher’s Grade II Certificate in 1956, GCE Advanced Level in 1961 and B.A. History in 1967.
His working career started in the teaching profession where he rose through the ranks from classroom teacher, headmaster, senior tutor and dean of studies to principal – -all between the years 1957 and 1976. In the course of his teaching career, he served his colleagues in the following leadership positions: accounts examiner, Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), East Central State (1972-74); vice-chairman, NUT Committee of the Williams & Williams on Udoji Review Panel for Teachers’ Conditions of Service in 1976, and member of the three-man committee that reviewed the Constitution of the Nigeria Union of Teachers.
Beyond the classroom, Opata served in several public service positions, as follows:
- Secretary, Nsukka Leaders of Thought, with the late Igwe Dr. J.U. Nwodo as chairman (1979–1980)
- Chairman, Lejja Welfare Association (1970–1995)
- Elected chairman, Nsukka Urban Divisional Council (1974–76)
- Pioneer chairman, Nsukka Local Government Area (1976–79), following the Obasanjo military regime’s Local Government Reforms of 1976
- Elected member, Anambra State House of Assembly on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), and the minority chief whip (1979-83)
- Member, National Executive Committee of the National Party of Nigeria (1977–83)
- Vice-chairman, National Party of Nigeria, Anambra State Wing (1981-83)
- Appointed commissioner of education, Anambra State, by Governor C.C. Onoh (Oct–Dec, 1983)
- Member of the five-man think-thank led by the late Justice A.N. Aniagolu, JSC (rtd.) that saw to the creation Enugu State in 1991 for the Wawa people
- Appointed commissioner of education, Enugu State, by Governor Okwesilieze Nwodo (1992-93), the first elected governor of the newly created state
- Appointed member, National Committee on Funding of Primary Education (1983)
- Appointed member, University of Nigeria Governing Council (1999)
- Appointed vice-chairman, Elders Forum of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Enugu State (1998-2002)
- Appointed member, Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) Governing Council (2000–2004)
- Appointed member, Presidential Visitation Panel, University of Port Harcourt (2004)
- Chairman, Tactical Committee for the Creation of Adada State, as well as member of the Actualization Committee for the Creation of Adada State, until a few years ago owing to his age-related health challenges.
Impressive as Chief Opata’s record of public service positions are, they pale in comparison to his mind-blowing accomplishments. In his various positions of service over the decades, he made the following tangible contributions to the common good of our people:
- Conception, approval and construction of Government Technical College (GTC), Nsukka
- Attraction of the Public Health Centre (now School of Public Health and Technology), Nsukka; the erection of Opi Health Centre as well as the expansion of Eha-Ndiagu and Ibagwa-Ani Health centres
- Expansion and modernization of Ogige Market, Nsukka
- Acquisition of Nsukka Timber Shed Market and Industrial Site
- Establishment of rural-urban network of roads across the communities in Nsukka LGA
- Attracted and effected the upgrade of former Umakashi/Echara Primary School to Urban Girls’ Secondary School, Nsukka
- Attracted Federal Government Girls’ College (FGGC), Lejja
- Awarded matching grants to 10 communities in Nsukka LGA for the construction of secondary schools and 61 scholarships to students as local government chairman
- Effected the rehabilitation of 37 primary schools in Nsukka zone while serving as commissioner for education, while also approving the establishment of 62 secondary schools including three special science schools across Enugu State
- Facilitated admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT), Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO), and the University of Calabar for over 200 candidates, while helping to find employment for many young graduates.
Chief the Hon. C. U. Opata was a whole lot more than a good community leader and frontline politician; above all, he was a conscientious Christian, a devout Catholic and a fourth-degree Knight of St. Mulumba who rose to become a Grand Knight. Apart from serving as a Catholic teacher in various communities during his years of youth and vigor, at various times he held the following ecclesial positions:
- Secretary and later vice-chairman of St. Theresa’s Parish Council, Nsukka
- Member, Building Committee of St. Theresa’s Parish, Nsukka
- Chairman of Nsukka Deanery Council when it was elevated to the status of a diocese
- Pioneer chairman of Nsukka Diocesan Laity Council and pioneer vice-chairman of Nsukka Diocesan Pastoral Council
- Member, Nsukka Diocesan Land Commission
- Secretary to the Committee that conceptualized and initiated the Construction of the “Bishop’s Residence” which is today the Diocesan Secretariat Complex
- Facilitated the acquisition of the following landed properties for the Diocese: St. Victor’s Parish, Onuiyi; Madonna Chaplaincy, Zik’s Flats, Nsukka; Corpers’ Lodge, Ugwu-Echara Nsukka, the property which served Good Shepherd Seminary as take-off site, Army Barracks; Bishop’s interim residence at Isiuja; additional land for St. Joseph Parish, Army Barracks; and the property for Diocesan Pastoral Centre at Isiakpu, Nsukka
- Played a leading role in the conceptualization and construction of both the Presbytery and the Church building at St. Raphael’s Catholic Parish, Lejja.
Interestingly, despite an extremely active social life, or rather on account of it, Cletus Opata was deeply spiritual and especially earnest with his religion. Apart from attendance to the daily Eucharist whenever possible, he was a fervent devotee of the Blessed Mother and made a habit of daily recitation of the full rosary. These and his natural austerity produced in him an astonishing disdain for material wealth, an unshakeable resolve in the causes which engage his attention and an unwavering moral compass. Whenever he was convinced of the rectitude of a cause, no difficulties however daunting, nor enticement however alluring, could sway his course. He had little care for the refinement of raiment and finery associated with rank and station. He wore a scraggy beard of white and pepper hue (which received an occasional rough trimming) and simple clothes that gave him the appearance of a revolutionary. He was brave but not brazen, persuasive but not imposing, courageous but not confrontational, deferential without cowering.
What lessons can we learn from him?
Without a shadow of doubt, Chief the Hon. C.U. Opata led an impactful life; his life of public service was incredibly consequential. As a result, we can learn a number of lessons from him. The first lesson one might wish to focus on is that Christian fidelity and piety need not conflict with political activism. Or, to put in shorthand, political activism is no excuse for sloppy religion. Yet, he had no place in his heart for fanaticism and bigotry. Indeed, his life could be seen as a lesson in political spirituality. Many otherwise conscientious Christians are unable to connect their apparent religious devotion to an active commitment to the good of society expressed through political participation and agency. Opata rightly understood political participation to be a whole lot more than social responsibility; it is at once a moral and religious duty. He was thus able, in his days, to make Lejja his community arguably the most politically enlightened community in this state by his sheer ability to get out the votes even in an atmosphere of increasing political apathy. If we would not have our fingers badly burnt in the forthcoming election cycle both in this state and nationally, we must betake ourselves to Opata’s political doctrine by mounting a vigorous “get out the votes” operation during elections. Apathy is not only morally sinful but a clear invitation to political irrelevance and marginalization. For those who would offer the self-exculpating reason that their votes might not count as an excuse for their apathy, I have news for you. It does not exonerate you at all. To refuse to vote out of fear that your vote might not count is to ensure, by your own action, that it does not; which is doubly self-defeating. For, if there were two candidates in an election where one is a far better choice than the other, by failing to cast a vote for the better candidate, you are indirectly aiding the emergence of the worse candidate.
A complementary lesson which we can learn from this human embodiment of community service is that the purpose of politics is the common good – that is, the sum total of all the conditions necessary for human flourishing — of all constituents of the polity. Private, group, sectional and parochial goods must be subordinated to the good of all. This is the principle which ennobles politics, constituting public office into public service, a means of human promotion and a veritable path to eternal salvation. The politician, more so than other citizens, would be judged by the criterion of contributions made to the securing, preservation and growth of the common good.
Opata’s life teaches us, in accordance with the second reading of today’s liturgy, that the purpose of privilege is responsibility. None of us lives or dies for himself: if we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord. Alive or dead, we belong to the Lord, the Holy Writ reminds us. If we truly belong to the Lord, and live for him, we belong to and live for our brothers and sisters. For none of us is an adequate object for the love of which our hearts are capable. Thus, when Opata, early in life, found himself with the distinction of a sound education, he did not gloat nor ask for special recognition and deference. Rather, he deployed every privilege and opportunity which his education and associations afforded him to the task of human promotion and service of God and neighbor.
Another important lesson which he teaches us is that contentment is not a function of the size of one’s pocket. Thus, the secret of a fulfilled life is gratitude which enables us to value what we have (however little) rather than whining over what we have not. And when we value what we have, we are less fearful of losing them and we can joyfully share them with others, and, in so sharing them, we become happy and fulfilled. On the contrary, the ungrateful heart is fearful and insecure and remains unfulfilled. The void gnawing at the heart of the ungrateful drains them of energy by an endless and insatiable quest for more and more of the goods of the earth. If therefore you find yourself clinging to what you have, unwilling to share and fearful of giving, you haven’t yet become sufficiently grateful for that which God has given you.
Let me end this long, winding homily with a focus of the pattern of departure from this life which God, in his providence, afforded this honorable man. Put simply, he died the way he lived: quietly, simply, at peace with God and neighbor, in the company of family members who had immediate care of him. But before I come to his glorious last days, let me back up a little.
From his study of the lives of the saints, Opata formed the theologically sound opinion that those who truly love God, those who strive to fulfill the divine purpose in their lives with a measure of consistency, must have their trials. God would always send them a cross which would draw closer to the divine Son who died on the Cross at Calvary. Opata’s special cross came to him in 2006 in the form of an injury to the spine which occurred in the course of routine gardening which was one of his pleasurable pastimes. This injury reinforced an earlier childhood hurt which he sustained as a primary school pupil. From then on, he lived in pain, which forced on him withdrawal from travels and most social activities. Then, as he quickly adjusted to the new normal in his life, he was struck with yet another blow in the form of the suicide death of his first son, Dr. Bede Chukwudiebube Opata, in 2014. He was bowed but not broken; rather he held firm. His faith was tested but did not fail. For, as the Book of Wisdom reminds us in the First Reading of today, “The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God. No torments will ever touch them” (Wis. 3:1). Buffeted though he was by the winds of adversity, it did nothing to sour his soul. Which reinforces the wisdom of an American author and humorist, Barbara Johnson, who wrote that “pain is inevitable, but misery is optional”. The saints have their pains but not miseries.
The last days of Cletus Ugwutikiri Opata was a beautiful drama of saintly exit. He was taken to Enugu for routine appointment with his doctor. After examining his vitals, the doctor decided to keep him back for a few days of observation, which did not sit well with the old man who wanted to be returned to his Nsukka residence. Somehow, his son, Chika, managed to persuade him to accede to a few days of hospital stay for observation. On the first day, he was very communicative and chatty. The following day, however, he became withdrawn and contemplative. At nightfall on that fateful day, he neither desired nor accepted to sleep: he stayed awake all night long, reciting the rosary. At his usual rising time of 5am he demanded to be given a bath. He came out of the bathroom beaming with smiles, which gave his caregivers the false impression that he was feeling better and responding to medication. But, strangely, he refused to be dressed up for the day. Rather, he went back to reciting the rosary, with his eyes closed. They roused him once, he opened his eyes and smiled, and shut it again for the last time. By the time they tried checking on him again he was gone.
May this generous soul who lived so completely for others, who kept giving to our people until there was nothing left to give, find eternal peace with the Lord in whose company he can continue his life of service with a strength that never fails and in the glow of a light that never fades. Amen.
*Fr. Ngwoke [pictured], PhD, is of the Department of Religion & Cultural Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka