FEATURE ARTICLE

Chigachi EkeMonday, February 2, 2009
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KINGSHIP IN IGBO LAND: OUR PAST AS PRELUDE

n the tail end of 2008 about 200 000 South African Igbos invited Dr. Dozie Ikedife, President-General of Ohanaeze Nd’Igbo World-Wide and Ndieze from Igbo land. They requested the leaders to crown one of them Eze Nd’Igbo in South Africa, a request that did not go down well with the President-General.


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Dr. Ikedife objected that “… it can’t happen. If you want to be Eze Nd’Igbo, come to Igbo land and become one and then you tell us your autonomous community, because that is what the law says. Those people parading themselves as Eze Nd’Igbo in other parts of the world are provoking the people they are living with and breaking the law of the South East. We can have a leader, but not Eze Nd’Igbo.”

The action of South African Igbos and the President-General’s calculated inaction centers kingship as the keystone of Igbo nationalism.

Every nationalism is shaped by an ideology. The Church of England gave impetus to British hegemony. Capitalism is the backbone of American democracy. The Japanese language pushed that society to the acme of modern age. Igbo nationalism, in the absence of an indigenous theology or linguistic pride, tends to find fertile ground in the phenomenology of “Eze Nd’Igbo.”

You could argue that Biafra drives Igbo nationalism. Yes, but not always so. It is secondary. A close examination of modern Igbo politics shows a consistent consistency when it comes to who is to be crowned the Eze or Igwe of his community; then personal and communal allegiances are tested to the limit.

The quest to become Eze is often inordinate, a problem the white missionary GT Basden decried eighty-nine years ago in his book, “Among the Ibos of Nigeria,” “In modern times the dignity of the Chieftainship has been degraded and the tendency is to bring the whole system into disrepute, owing to the wholesale and indiscriminate sale of titles to any youth who can produce the stipulated fees.”

What Basden deplored was equally roundly condemned by the intellectual, Ebere Nwaubani (The International Journal of African Historical Studies. Vol. 27, No.2. 1994), “Those who feel that they have “arrived” in society are rushing, at huge expense, to have the “kings” confer chiefly titles on them.” Nwaubani fears that the ambition to be His Highness is not unconnected with the desire for material and political domination, a situation that creates “an entirely new, neofeudal political culture.”

New neofeudalism carries the implication that Nd’Igbo are moving backward, not forward.

I honestly believe that there’s an ideological struggle in the heart of the Igbo nationalist. The more he craves progress the harder he clings to certain beliefs and practices that utterly defeat his end. In his ambivalence he stigmatises his fellow as Osu only to shed bitter tears when marginalised by his Other at Abuja. He stoutly defends his liberty as republican but tends to succumb to the temptation of bringing others under his kingly yoke, a prospect that readily galls him were the reversal ever suggested.

The Igbo’s tortured relationship with kingship calls for some catharsis and we hope to do just that by urging you to drink deeply from the timeless river of our political collectivism. Take a long pause, regurgitate what you’ve just learnt and ask, among the Igbo is kingship anathema or not?

Here is the thesis of this nationalist debate: “Oha Na Eze” (meaning “The People and the King”). This school of thought makes it abundantly clear that at some point in Igbo history they were ruled by kings. Words like Eze (King), Lolo (queen), Oparaeze (first son of the king, prince), Adaeze (first daughter of the king, princess), Obieze (palace), Okwaeze (throne) and Okpueze (crown), constitute a unique royal register so complete and indigenous that to neglect or deny them would be a calculated travesty.

Besides, Igbo orality notes Eze Nri Ifikuanim as the founding king of the Nri Kingdom that thrived from 900 A.D. to 1911.

Here is the antithesis of the debate: “Igbo Enweghi Eze” (meaning “The Igbo have no king.”) For the Igbo, there was never a time in their history when they were ruled by one-man king. Traditional Igbo society, another instance could be found among the Ewe of Ghana, did not conform to pattern as it was ruled by priests rather than kings.

In places like Aro and Nri ruled by Ezes, these kings were more priestly than kingly as the title, “Eze,” within the contexts of Igbo language and culture connotes two things: “Chief Priest” and “King.”

This debate can go no further without decoding the diachronic use of the Eze title.

In pre-colonial Igbo, “Eze” is used in the political sense to refer to Chukwu (God), the only King of Nd’Igbo. Religiously, however, it applies to the chief-priest of any particular deity. For example, the chief-priest of Amadioha is called Ezeamadioha.

With the advent of Christianity there was perceptible confusion in the use of this title for Igbo speakers as the gospel must be interpreted from English before consumption. It would have diminished the Christian God (Chukwu) to the level of an ordinary deity to call his priest “Ezechukwu.” To solve this confusion the new title of “UkoChukwu” was invented in reference to a Christian priest or reverend.

Equally so, we must note how Nd’Igbo apply Chief, Eze and King; and in what language.

In Igbo land a holder of ordinary chieftaincy is addressed with the English title of “Chief.” He is never addressed with the Igbo title of “Eze.” A traditional ruler who received his staff of office from the government is addressed with the Igbo title of “Eze.” He is never addressed with the English title of “Chief.” But the Igbo do not address a chieftaincy holder or traditional ruler with the English title of “King.” Igbos don’t do that.

The above contradictions are not without their political implications.

“Chief” (English title) is honorary devoid of duty or power. “Eze” (Igbo title) carries a limited political undertone. It confers on the holder cultural duties without the trappings of power. But “King” (English title) sounds too autocratic in the ears of Nd’Igbo that they won’t even substitute it with “Eze” when addressing their traditional ruler. In all honesty Nd’Igbo are allergic to any form of dictatorship and won’t use any title that remotely promotes it.

I think that is what Dr. Ikedife tried very hard to avoid. If South African Igbos had requested for a “Chief” the esteemed elder would have been amenable (indeed you’ll see later in this piece that he actually facilitated the bestowment of chieftaincies on worthy Igbos in South Africa). But what a segment of South African Igbos wanted was “Eze” which, of course, he rejected.

It becomes necessary to make this elaborate explanation, perhaps, to establish that being a Chief in Igbo land is not synonymous with being an Eze. And being an Eze is also not synonymous with being a King as the latter does not exist. It could be so elsewhere but certainly not in Igbo land.

This debate is not about being a Chief in Igbo land, none queries that. It is also not about being an Eze as we know that this institution is part of the government of the day. What this piece attempts to prove or disprove is the case for kingship in the political or secular sense.

This article is an intellectual inquest into the Igbo political history with a view to vigorously debating the opposing views. The aim here is to find out for ourselves if Nd’Igbo were once ruled by one-man king, or not. Coming to terms with these facts will help us understand our place in the political timetable of the twenty-first century and, by so doing, stand a better chance of understanding the demand by South African Igbos for an Eze.

We can conclusively prove that kings once walked the sandy paths of Igbo land by shinning light on our history and migratory patterns.

The first consideration in appreciating kingship as site for political power is to honestly concede that Igbo land was not a centralized and homogenous state, according to the Igbo historian Elizabeth Isichei in her book, “The Ibo People And The Europeans: The Genesis Of A Relationship-To 1906.” It was made up of independent, distinct and separate polities. A small part of Igbo land was ruled by kings while the overwhelming majority remained democratic republic.

Surrounded by hostile and bellicose monarchs it is hardly surprising that certain clans had monarchy forced on them as vassals.

One such group is the Igbo kingdom of Osomari ruled by the Atamanya. Its emergence is linked to the commercial activities of the non-Igbo Igala kingdom ruled by the Atta’ Gala. The Osomari kingdom has its list of kings, granted that their influence was less than those of Nri kings (Nri also had an Igala origin) directly connected with the coronation of monarchs in other kingdoms, according to Basden and Isichei.

The Arochuku people were also ruled by a monarch called Eze Aro. A mix of Igbo, Ibibio and Akpa, this kingdom owed its emergence to the slave trade as it is strategically located as half-way station between the Igbo interior and the slave port of Calabar.

The Aro kingdom was brought to an abrupt end early in the 20th century when the British overran it in 1902 and destroyed its terrible Long Juju (Ibini Ukpabi) as a necessary step to halting the trade in human being.

But the highest number of Igbo principalities ruled by kings occurred along the Niger River, giving rise to the Onitsha, Aboh, Oguta, Ikwerre and Ekpeye kingdoms. This took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.

By this period the great Benin Kingdom, western neighbour to the Igbo, experienced internal upheavals. Oral tradition has it that Chima and Esumai, sons of Oba Ozolua, c. 1481 to c. 1504, led a breakaway faction of the royal house eastward to the present day Onitsha where Chima died.

Better organised, this detachment easily upset and dislocated the indigenous Oze and became the new owners of Onitsha with the help of Ozeze, Chima’s successor. This explains why Umuezechima remains prominent in Onitsha today.

Esumai, however, continued downstream establishing the following kingdoms: Ossisa, Ashaka and Aboh (Aboh later became prominent trading guns for slaves. This is the kingdom Olaudah Equiano called Oye-Eboe in his narrative).

The Oguta kingdom founded in 1600 by the same Benin exiles led by Ogwuara is ruled by the Obi, just like Onitsha. Ekpeye and Ikwerre kingdoms (ruled by Ezes) came into existence as a result of this epochal journey instituted by Chima and company.

Igbo kingdoms west of the Niger were Asaba and Agbor. As tributaries they fell with the mother Benin Empire in the 19th century to the British pacification campaign.

Certain misconceptions must be corrected here.

Igbos of Ikwerre, Ekpeye and Ndoni clans often disclaim their Igboness; claiming Benin origin. This is wrong as migratory pattern is not enough evidence in the establishment or disestablishment of a people’s identity; genealogy is.

Patriarchal Igbo society is named after a common male ancestor, for which reason family, kindred, village, town and clan bear the prefix, Umu (Children of). Land ownership uncompromisingly follows this genealogical model. Whatever place name Igbo land throws up has a replica in Ikwerre, Ekpeye and Ndoni: Umueze (Rumueze), Umuigbo (Rumuigbo), Umuokoro (Rumuokoro); meaning that a shared identity runs here.

Another point is that the upstarts who migrated from Benin had Igbo roots. I have researched extensively and my findings are that the Edo (Benin) gods of Osanobua, Olokun or Ovia were never worshipped among the Ikwerre, Ekpeye or Ndoni. These people worshiped Chukwu, Ala, Amadioha, Ojukwu and Orosi as the rest of Nd’Igbo. A people never forget the gods of their ancestors no matter where, remember.

Thirdly, the Ikwerre, Ekpeye and Ndoni traditional calendar is the same as Igbo calendar where the week is made up of four market days, namely, Eke, Orio, Afoh and Nkwo. All the pre-Igbo Holocaust literary works written by the famous Elechi Amadi, a great son of Ikwerre, bear references to traditional Igbo calendar. These include the “The Great Ponds” and “The Concubine.” His anti-Igbo sentiments are traceable to post-Igbo Holocaust literatures like “Sunset In Biafra,” where he distances the Ikwerre from Nd’Igbo.

Just as their names and actions attest, the great Chima and his fellow travelers must have had strong Igbo roots to look eastward when life in Benin proved uncomfortable. An Igbo man will naturally flee to his mother’s people if threatened, the aristocratic Chima was typical.

The very fact that he and Esumai were sons of Oba Ozolua suggests two things. Either Oba Ozolua was himself an Igbo or that he married an Igbo woman from western Igbo land. This is highly probable (1) in view of the fact that Oba Ewuare, his predecessor, conquered parts of western Igbo in mid 15th century and, (2) the Nri priestly-cult’s long association with the Benin Oba could create a situation where an Igbo ascends the throne, a prospect that probably triggered the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries resulting in Chima’s flight. A similar scenario played out in the Bonny kingdom where the Igbo-born King Jaja fled on failing to seize the throne.

Also note that this breakaway group did not settle on virgin territories but among established indigenous Igbo populations who easily absorbed them and their monarchical tendencies.

We now appreciate the opposing view, the fact that Nd’Igbo were core republicans who never had kings. We shift attention from our history and migratory patterns to Igbo religion and political system.

The Igbo believe that all peoples are created by a single creator whom they call Chineke (God the creator. Chineke is also called Chukwu). This belief predates Biblical monogenesis that also looks at creation from a single source. Chineke is first in their pantheon as Supreme King. Aside this sole King, the Igbo recognise no other.

The Chineke worshipped for thousands of years before Christianity was very much the Hebrew God of retribution, as Basden seems to suggest, “Among the Ibo people there is a distinct recognition of a Supreme Being-beneficient in character-who is above every other spirit, good or evil….Anything that occurs, for which no visible explanation is forthcoming, is attributed either to Him or His eternal enemy Ekwensu, i.e. the Devil….Certain actions such as murder, theft and adultery are esteemed offences against God, as well as against man…should the actual sinner escape, his descendants must bear the burden.”

My argument is that traditional Igbo religion is, in all contents and contradictions, the Old Testament Hebrew Judaism. Basden seems to agree, “There are certain customs which rather point to Levitic influence at a more or less remote period. This is suggested in the underlying ideas concerning sacrifice and in the practice of circumcising. The language also bears several interesting parallel with the Hebrew idiom.”

Of the twelve tribes of Israel the Levites were chosen for priestly duties to Yahweh, the political King of the Hebrew whose laws govern war and peace. For Basden to assert that pre-Christian era traditional Igbo society has a strong “Levitic influence” is to say that Nd’Igbo are a “priestly” than “kingly” nation. This means that Igbo Judaism created the only democratic-theocracy in Black Africa over four thousand years ago.

This is a society ruled by mutual consent after wide consultation with every free born male. Like the Judges who ruled in the Old Testament, chief-priests, elders and titled men officiated in traditional Igbo government as no provision was made for secular king. The Igbo abhor the rule of one man, just as their core values seriously reject unilateralism.

Democratic-theocracy remained the order of the day till the beginning of the 20th century when in response to administrative challenges the British appointed Warrant Chiefs, an unfortunate mistake that led to bitter disputes, endless petitions and revolts.

But there’s this sterner side to our indigenous democracy.

This is its in-built checks and balances reinforced with the philosophy of “live and let live.” The Igbo society of this epoch was highly patriarchal but one underpinned by a commensurate matriarchal values. This was a society, according to Chinua Achebe, that believed in balancing power with responsibilities without which destruction becomes the sad epitaph.

Conscious of the corrupting influence of absolute power the Igbo in their political thoughts and practices resisted the concentration of power on one man even when neighbouring societies experimented with kingship. By so doing, Nd’Igbo greatly saved themselves the upheavals that come with succession wars, granted that this arrangement made them military prey to hostile neighbours.

From our past we now make sense of the present.

Nd’Igbo transformed from an unwritten civilization to literacy but the same insoluble challenges that made our forebears to repulse or embrace kingship remain. In particular, our general insecurity in the 21st century has prioritised survival above other considerations. But the extent to which we can effectively respond to our insecurity is greatly limited by our membership of the Nigerian federation.

This limitation forces an inward looking process for ways and means. In our search we seem to rediscover kingship as “alternative medicine” beyond what Nigeria and Nigerian embassies abroad are prepared to strain out. I believe it is this same search for some meaning in a hostile and often xenophobic South Africa that compelled Igbos there to demand for Eze Nd’Igbo.

To get to the truth we must meet Didi Oguguo, a young man with a quick mind from Umuonyeali-Ugo of Mbieri who doubled as the deputy leader of the non-violent Biafran National Congress in South Africa.

It was from him that I first heard of Economic Biafra. At an international conference in 2007, Orion Hotel Johannesburg, this intrepid drew a thunderous applause when he said his organization was working hard to develop a Biafran Shopping Mall (as the Chinese are doing all over Africa). This Biafran mall will be leased to Igbos and other Nigerians in need of economic emancipation. By so doing, none who took the six-hour flight to the Southern Hemisphere will have an excuse for standing in the street.

Abridged, below, is his account of events during the historic visit of our leaders including, but not limited to, Dr. Dozie Ikedife (President-General, Ohaneze Ndigbo World-Wide), Eze CI Ilomuanya (Chairman, Council of Ndieze), Igwe Kenneth Orizu, Sir Onyeso Nwachukwu and Chief Ani Odunze:

Ohaneze Ndigbo South Africa was formed in 2002 in response to the socio-economic challenges confronting our people in South Africa. By the time this body was finally registered with the Department of Trade and Industries, DTI, it was already factionalised as a splinter group wanted an Eze Nd’Igbo in South Africa, a move not favoured by the legal Ohaneze.

In 2008, following the reconciliation of the parent body in Nigeria, Nd’Igbo in South Africa felt it was time for our leaders to come to Johannesburg and inaugurate the South African chapter. Inauguration precludes the crowning of an Eze or Igwe, a decision arrived at after elaborate and wide consultation.

As the invitation letters were issued the breakaway faction sent an emissary to Nigeria to lobby the visiting leaders to crown their leader Eze Nd’Igbo. Dr. Ikedife and Ndieze refused but decided to honour the invitation of the legal Ohaneze.

The next obstacle came as a court notice from the Johannesburg High Court notifying the legal Ohaneze of an impending order interdicting Dr. Ikedife and his auspicious delegates from interfering with Ohaneze Ndigbo South Africa’s business. This notice was instituted by the breakaway faction and served on the 24th of October 2008, two days to inauguration.

The legal Ohaneze responded with an urgent counter-interdiction which the same court granted it in addition to costs in the region of R50, 000 (fifty thousand rands) against the breakaway faction, on Saturday, 25th of October, 2008. This paves the way for the delegates to enter South Africa unhindered for the inauguration.

The inauguration took place on the 26th of October 2008 and Chief Baldwin Obasi emerged President of Ohaneze Ndigbo South Africa. Igbo leaders and Ndieze also appointed Frank Ifeanyichukwu the Onye Ndu (leader) Nd’Igbo South Africa.

On the demand for Eze Nd’Igbo, our Royal Fathers politely refused explaining that you cannot be made Eze or Igwe without an autonomous community or an Ofo staff. In Igbo culture, the Ofo staff is never bestowed or received in foreign lands. You must come home to Igbo land for such investiture. This was an answer that did not go down well with the leadership of the small breakaway faction who spurned two attempts by Dr. Ikedife to institute reconciliation.

Not deterred, Dr. Ikedife and Ndieze went ahead and recognized those Igbo personalities nominated by the legal Ohaneze for chieftaincies based on their great service to Nd’Igbo in South Africa: Willie Opara (former Orlando Pirates goalkeeper), Dr. Nkem Obonta (the only Nigerian in the South African national parliament), Dr. Ben Okoli (first black neuro-surgeon in South Africa), Chief Smart Okeuguri (a philanthropist) and, Mr. Austin Obele (a reference point for Igbos in South Africa to emulate). The above must come home to Igbo land to receive their titles as Igbo chiefs are never crowned outside.

The South African incident is way behind us but not the resultant heart-wrenching question that torments most Igbos: what do we do with the issue of Eze Nd’Igbo outside Igbo land? If we can negotiate ourselves out of this conundrum chances are that things won’t remain so stagnant as we’ve been at crossroads in the past four decades.

So we must do something.

Ohaneze and Ndieze should graciously reconsider their stand on the abolition of Eze Nd’Igbo. We must raise from our rank an Eze who can command our respect and offer us protection when we’re attacked; be it at Kafanchan, Bengal, Alaska or Johannesburg. Rather than putting us asunder I honestly believe any one of us picked by the rest of us as our Eze will go extra mile to justify the great “Arusi” Nd’Igbo asked him to carry.

Is it wise for Nd’Igbo to dismantle our only bulwark in a Nigeria where we neither control the ordnance nor troops, like others who can mobilize divisions and stamp out aggressions? A white man draws caricature of Mohammed in faraway Denmark, three hundred Igbos got unjustly killed by Nigerian Islamists for it. Only Igbos are singled out for such a gory fate because the Nigerian state rewards hatred against them.

Ohaneze and Ndieze lack the capacity to counter such onslaught for which reason the perpetrators returned from a state-sponsored pilgrimage and murdered another hundred and thirty Igbos on the 28th of November, 2008. A legally constituted and recognized Eze could have taken minute decisions to save lives before Ohaneze arrives.

I plead that our leaders formalise the institution of Eze Nd’Igbo wherever Nd’Igbo and people of Igbo descent live on the earth surface. They should as a matter of urgency amend the relevant sections of the South-Eastern Traditional Rulers’ Law of 1976, as amended in 1982, to make this possible.

We must tear from our hearts the false fear that Eze Nd’Igbo outside Igbo land could provoke host communities. Let the onus be on any one to prove that by practicing our culture, being what the institution of Eze Nd’Igbo is, we’re in any way causing civil unrest. I ask, do Hausas at Owerri not have their Sarkin Hausawa (Chief of the Hausa) and are Nd’Igbo provoked? So how could Hausas be provoked seeing our Eze Nd’Igbo in Kano? Is provocation in Nigeria decreed one-sided?

We now come to the synthesis of our debate: Oha Na Eze and Igbo Enweghi Eze thrived side by side in pre-colonial Igbo world. As it was in the past, so shall it be in the future. When Thy Will is done on earth the two dominant political parties in the Igbo state shall be: Ochichi Oha Na Eze and Ochichi Igbo Enweghi Eze.

Chigachi Eke is an Igbo Rights activist.

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