The Igbos and their unifying factors (1) By Patrick Dele Cole

Enugu, NsukkaNEARLY 50 years ago, it is said, that people in Enugu, Nsukka, Ngwo, and Abakalike had little clothes to cover themselves. In 1947, the District Officer prohibited nude people coming to the Ogbete Market in Enugu. Yet, in 20 short years, the Igbos were the number one traders in textile.

The Onitsha Market was brimming with it. People came to buy from all over Nigeria. In Broad Street, the only competitors in textile trade were those we called Syrians – who were probably Lebanese. All ethnic groups in Nigeria had some clans who were suspected of cannibalism. I have no first hand knowledge of this. But Enugu, Ngwo, Abakaliki, some parts of Abia near Umuahia, and near Obowu in Imo State were similarly suspected.

If it was so, it did not last long because the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and the District Officers (DOS) and native administration soon put a stop to it, as they did among some Ijaws, like the Okrikas, who were similarly suspected. The British Government had found that the “Indirect Rule” system did not work in the East, as it had done in the North and the West, mainly because the latter had Kingship institutions.

Where these institutions existed, it was easy for the British to rule through the District Officer (DO) who passed on directives to the Obas, Chiefs, Bales, Emirs, etc. The DOS were the unseen hand that controlled the local administration. But because the Igbos did not have Kingship or Chieftaincy that ruled over a larger area, the British, in 1931 through the Warrant Chiefs Ordnance of that year, tried to establish territorial kingships or chieftaincies.

Hence, the need to create “warrant chiefs” who were supposed to work like their counterparts in the Yorubaland and in Hausaland. However, it did not work. The Igbos now claim that the acephalous nature of their people meant that they were genetically democratic. Therefore, their Age Grade System continued, even under the kingship dispensations. Thus, they continued to have the “Elders”, who worked with their “kings”; whilst the “Youths” continued to operate as the law enforcement personnel, until the modern policing system eventually displaced them, and the Native Authority Police eventually took over that task from the “Youths”.

Some anthropologists and linguists have described the Igbo as autochthonous – so unique have their culture been that it must be indigenous. The Founder of the Yoruba Dynasty was Oduduwa, who migrated from Egypt. The Hausa/Fulani claim they came from Arabia in the Middle East. The Igbos have a vague idea of being Jewish – one of the lost tribes of Israel.

All stories of origins of different peoples round the world are folkloric and mythical. So, we cannot dismiss the Igbo claim of Jewishness out of hand. One thing is certain, the Igbos have a great deal of empathy for the Jews, whose persecution over the centuries by Europe and Asia, the Igbo sublimate and claim that they too have been persecuted for centuries. Just as the Jews have vanquished their oppressors, so the Igbos believe that they would triumph over all comers who persecute them.

The Igbos identity with Jewish success is an inevitability regardless of what obstacles may be thrown in their way. They are God’s chosen people. This is an extremely powerful tonic for the survival and great foundation for success. No other ethnic group in Nigeria is so armed for struggle of efficient development. The slave trade affected most of West Africa. The chiefs along the coast soon became procurers or middlemen in this odious trade. Many of those sold off were their own people captured from many slave raids in the interior of Nigeria.

This is where the story of the Igbos and the Ijaws of Bonny and else where began. Bonny was a major slave trading port; its deep-water shores made it unnecessary for European slavers’ ships to venture into the interior.

The Bonny (Igbani Ijaws) sold slaves and even had a most lucrative empire. One Bonny Chief went to England and bought a steamship fully outfitted with an English captain, officers, and sailors to bring him back to Nigeria. Such business needed trust worthy lieutenants. These the Bonny Chiefs found among the Igbo slaves who became their trusted employees. The “Civil Servant Employees” became trustees.

The Igbani Chiefs, however, were not over trusting. They did not want the Igbos to learn their language for fear of being overthrown or appealing directly to their gods. The Igbanis, therefore, decided to learn Igbo to better communicate with their trustees; while keeping Igbani as the royal language to be used only by the Chiefs among themselves.

In a little while, the Chiefs became proficient in some kind of Igbo better described as pidgin or patois Igbo. After the slave trade, the Igbos remained in Bonny, inter-married and continued to speak this bastardized Igbo; so pervasive had the Igbo influence been that the patois Igbo became the lingua franca. Unfortunately the Chiefs and people of Bonny started losing touch with their own language. Today, Igbani is losing ground to Igbo; whilst the study of Igbani has been reintroduced in schools and it is beginning to pick up.

The Bonny, the Okrika, and the Kalabari are to a large extent, bilingual – speaking an Ijaw dialect and Igbo; just as the Abua, the Egeni, the Ikwerre of Isiokpo, and the Igbos in Oguta, Imo State, can speak Kalabari and their own language. There is even a Kalabari beach in Oguta, Imo State. There are Igbo speaking peoples in Rivers State – the Ikwerre, the Etchie, the Andoni etc, and in Delta – the people from Asaba right through to the outskirts of Benin – through Isele Uku, Ogwashi Uku, Agbor, Boju Boju Owa, Obiaruku, Abraka, etc.

We would have to place these people within the Igbo linguistic family. But there are distinct behaviour patterns which differentiates these various groups from mainstream Igbos. Among the Ikwerre, Ahoada, etc the Chieftaincy practices have tended to veer more towards Kalabari, IJaws than the mainline Igbos. In Delta and Edo, the Igbo cousins have a Chieftaincy profile more like Benin (Edo) than the acephalous Age Grade System of the Igbos.

This superficial observation is strengthened by the Yoruba claim that the Asagba of Asaba, the Obi of Onitsha, and the Olu of Warri were grandsons of Oduduwa. (The Edos, on the other hand, counter claim that Oduduwa was a son of the Oba of Benin and therefore the Yoruba are Edo). There is a definite relationship between the Benin Kingship and the Yoruba Kingships: The Benin, the Itsekiri Kingship, the Lagos Kingship, the Badagry Kingship, the Uhrobo and Isoko Kingdoms and even the Benin Republic Kingship are all inter-related.

The relationship is not necessarily one of subjugation. In fact, in many cases, there was no such subjugation. Rather, the relationship has been familial. But the Oba of Benin has a special position in Asaba, Lagos, Warri and nearly all the large Kingships in Edo. Any student of history will soon discover the close and confusing relationship between the Kings of France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Holland, Austria etc.

Many of the Kings of Britain could not speak English even as late as less than 200 years ago! These close ties did not stop the wars for over 300 years among the Kings of Europe.

Do the Igbo then have a central core of worship – which therefore mentioned Kings and Chiefs and Obas have? One belief is that, though autochthonous, they have a core of religious beliefs which were maintained through the itinerant mystics or spiritualists – the Aros – from a place known as Aro Chukwu.

Closely allied to this is that the source of all Igbos and their spirituality is from a village called Nri. I have no idea how much of this is a general belief among the Igbos. But if people claim that they are genetically democratic, then you may not be surprised if quite a few do not accept this interpretation.