FEATURE ARTICLE

Dr. Kunirum OsiaMonday, May 11, 2009
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USA

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IGBOCENTRISM AND ANIOMA ETHNIC IDENTITY

or decades we, Anioma people, have been buffeted back and forth by people attempting to impose a persona on us. Some described us as being neither here nor there. Others do not give us chance to define and describe who we are as a people. We know exactly who we are. We have no confusions about our geography and genealogy. We know that identity is like gold. Just as the gold bar stands behind a currency as a guarantee of its legal tender, so is identity to an individual or a group. The analogy is only partial, of course, the price of gold may rise or fall, but we tend to pride ourselves on the stability of our identity. Anioma ethnic identity is a value we must guard. In recent times we have contended with the intrusion into Anioma world what we might call the concept of, albeit, reality of Igbocentricism.


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By Igbocentrism or Igbocentricity we mean an existential point of view that puts Igbo at the centre of Igbo people's cosmology. Central to Igbocentrism is the idea that people believed or assumed to be Igbo must acknowledge, understand and love their "Igboness" so as to understand and deal with non-Igbo. It is a conceptual approach to human relations from the Igbo point of view. It is an Igbo-centeredness of interpretation of such relations and quotidian realities. Because the vast majority of Anioma people speak dialects derived from the Igbo language, it is assumed that they are "Igbo." Anioma history records individuals from diverse origins. There are in Anioma the "Olukunmi" who speak a variant of Yoruba spoken around Owo. Ebu people in Anioma speak Igala as their mother tongue.

While language delimits cultural fields, it is not permanent because people have mastered more than one language. Language is one of many indices of a culture. Language is not enough to define who a people are. Because Americans or Australians speak English does not make them English. Because Mexicans, Cubans, or Argentineans speak Spanish does not make them Spaniards. The nationals of these countries will not introduce themselves as "English" simply because they speak English nor as Spaniards because they speak Spanish. Those of them who can trace their origin to England or Spain know that over time they have formed a new identity called "American," "Australian," "Mexican," "Cuban," or "Argentinean."

Anioma people recognize a geographical contiguity, a clearly defined historicity and cultural commonality, that in their consciousness they define as their collective identity. Our Anioma ethnic identity derives from our common set of symbols and cognition shared by our people: Aniocha, Ndokwa, Ika and Oshimili share the same cultural space and delimited physical geography. They dress and dance alike, and use the same musical instruments. The systemic prolonged subordination and marginalization has lead to the gradual radicalization of our youth and elders, as exemplified by the formation of many Anioma associations in Nigeria and abroad.

The Anioma are a Nigerian people in terms of their geographical location and ancestral pedigree; in terms of the criteria and categories that are applicable in defining other Nigerian groups, and in terms of their cultural forms and institutions which they have evolved for themselves and which are comparable to those of other ethnic groups, with a specificity that is syncretic in its manifestations.

Located at the crossroads of diverse influences, Anioma has developed a syncretic culture rich in varied contributions, and we rightly can talk of an identity that is uniquely Anioma not replicable anywhere in Nigeria. Through culture contact or cultural cross-pollination, borrowing from contiguous neighbours, Anioma displays cultural syncretism in the real sense of the word. History notes that Anioma people trace their origins to Edo, Igala, Yoruba and Igbo. Ibusa (Igbo Uzo) and one part of Ogwashiuku trace their ancestry to Igbo. All other Anioma people trace their origins in entirety to Edo, Igala and Yoruba. From none other than Chief Dennis Osadebay, comes an uncontested account of the origin of 'Ahaba'. Eri, son of Achado, a king of Igala founded the towns of Aguleri, Umuleri, Igbariam and Nteje. If logic is any guide here, Eri we might reason would found a community with the people he knew, namely, Igala. Nnebisi the founder of 'Ahaba' was from Nteje founded by Eri the prince from Igala. Nnebisi married an Igala woman he had won as a prize from the Igala fishermen and traders who frequented 'Ahaba'. This is the verifiable story of the origin of 'Ahaba' (now Asaba).

Osadebay said that another migrant came from Benin and settled in 'Ahaba,' "and so the present natives of Asaba are descendants of Igala in the north, Benin in the west, and Ibo in the east" (Osadebay, Building a Nation, Macmillan, Nigeria Ltd, 1978 p.2). With this from Chief Osadebay, which to our best research has never been denied nor contradicted, we argue that Asaba people are the least Igbo among the very few segments of Anioma that claim Igbo ancestry.

With such a background, one would have thought that the identity of Anioma people would never be a matter of debate nor an issue that might unsettle the tranquility of informed mind. Yet, writings about Anioma people are replete with misconceptions, distortions, selectivity, inaccuracies and just blatant falsehood. Even some Anioma writers peddle stories diffracted into multiple and apocryphal histories that present every Anioma person originating from Nri in Igboland. May we remind the few of Igbo ancestry how much distance the passage of time and the vicissitudes of history have placed between them and their origin? Similarly, we would remind one or two traditional leaders who argue for extension of Igbo hegemony to Anioma, that they are bartering their honour and royalty for vacuous glory in Igboland, and that they do not represent Anioma people.

This muddle as to the definition of an Anioma is not intrinsic to the Anioma identity, but rather a problem fused into the tinted lenses of Igbocentrism through which the Anioma people have erroneously been viewed over the ages. The kinds of questions posed, presuppositions made, set of axioms posited, and the very methodological approaches adopted in many publications betray Igbo bias and oftentimes arrogance of Igbocentricity. The cumulative result of this imposed paradigm has been a people dispossessed of their identity, their history, and, to a great extent, their political and economic rights.

Any Anioma person who feels inadequate unless called "Anioma-Igbo," has serious identity problem. Osadebay and his group coined and christened us with the name "Anioma." They were satisfied with what it meant and what it represented for our people. The Igbocentric conception of Anioma people as "our kith and kin across the Niger" is a fallacy of baseless proportion. Thus, Igbocentrism has not only set the terms of the debate on Anioma identity, it has consumed our intellectual autonomy to counterpoise it with Aniomacentric methodology. This capitulation to Igbocentric paradigm of identity is part of a wider syndrome of intellectual dependency precipitated by homegrown colonialism.

We may ask, where was this "kith and kin across the Niger" platitude

  • when our forbears fought the Ekumeku wars of 1883 to 1914, which pitted them against the British through the instrumentality of the Royal Niger Company to dominate trade, culture, social and political lives of our people;

  • when the Second Division of the Nigerian Army commanded by Murtala Mohammed marched into Anioma areas in pursuit of the fleeing 'Biafran Expeditionary Force' and massacred our people at Asaba and Isheagu with such macabre ruthlessness and vapidity;

  • when in 1970 several high ranking Anioma military officers were detained for months (one of them for years) in Port Harcourt prison after Biafra surrendered on January 12, 1970, even though as these officers put it to the writer in their letter to him dated June 7, 1970, to seek help from Governor Ogbemudia, wrote, "...that all other officers of former Eastern Region origin (Ibos, Efiks, Ijaws etc) have been released..." and

  • when in 1996 our people were assured of support from Ndi Igbo during our quest for Anioma state?

Anioma state was not created instead Ebonyi was, thanks to the last minute turn around and support from Ndi Igbo. This experience was articulated by Professor Ijomah during the Congress of Izu-Anioma held at the POCO Plaza, Ogwashiuku, March 3rd, 1998, when he said, "... it was agreed during the last state creation exercise that Anioma State should be created. When the stakes were down, the Ibos across the Niger abandoned the Anioma quest at the last hour and supported the creation of Ebonyi State which was not seriously being canvassed before then, causing Anioma to lose." (The ANIOMA, Vol. 10, No 1, May, 1999, p. 11). Anioma people should not be hoodwinked by Ndi Igbo. Recently, Igbos have renewed their gimmickry of support for the creation of Anioma state. All they want is their grandiose illusion of 'Greater Igbo' comprising Anioma and some parts of Rivers State. Only Anioma can provide us an essential part of our historical consciousness, and an index to the universal psychic character of our identity. Only Anioma can communicate a sense of history to us.

Anioma culture sustains the vocabulary of moral prescriptions and a repertoire of covenant with visible and invisible entities. There are areas designated as secular and sacred; some creatures are deemed sacred and should not be killed nor be eaten; some vegetation considered sacred should not be eaten as vegetables. Anioma culture sees unity and sanctity in nature. Philosophically, it fuses cosmology and cosmogony. It shapes our experiencing and perceiving. It teaches us the canons of relevance and evidence. We come to ourselves through our choice of our archetypes. We have maintained cool-headedness in the face of provocation from Igbos who call us 'Hausa Igbo', Ika-Igbo and now Anioma-Igbo. Such appellations are as insulting and denigrating as they are meaningless and nonsensical.

We reject attempts to Igbonize Anioma. We do not inhabit the same historical and cultural space with Igbos. When ethnicity becomes subject to the elaborations of cultural identity politics, it often develops into a focus of symbolic contestation. Those wanting Anioma to become "Anioma-Igbo" undermine the efforts of our founding fathers who christened us "ANIOMA." Osadebay puts everything in perspective when he stated, "Strictly speaking, Ibo is a linguistic group or a language, not a tribe, as all Ibo-speaking people do not claim origin from any common ancestor" (Osadebay op. cit. 1978, p.14).

Reckless utterances and writings coming from some Igbo people, through Ohaneze Ndigbo and their internet forum intellectuals, that the creation of Anioma state would increase Igbo states, damage Anioma cause. The quest for the creation of Anioma state preceded the creation of the 36 Nigerian states.

Identity is built on choices and commitments. By committing ourselves to Anioma causes our real selves develop. An obstacle to achieving identity is the temptation to avoid choices and postpone decisions. Let us proclaim Anioma by the Enu Ani language that we speak; by the Ika language that we speak; by the Ndokwa language that we speak; by the Olukunmi language that we speak and by the Igala language that we speak.

We should intensify our efforts on the creation of Anioma state where our people will be central characters rather than simple bit players, where the importance of our history lies in its significance for us rather than for others. We do not want to be a pawn simply to checkmate the contending and competing interests of other nationalities in the larger Nigerian collectivity. Our journey involves more than navigating the geography of political boundaries. It is a continuous mapping and remapping of the geography of our culture and identity. We no longer wish to be objects in the history of others rather we wish to be subjects of our own history. Our Anioma ethnic identity is cultural self-definition and philosophical affirmation of our self-determination as a people who see themselves at the crossroads of contemporary Nigeria. It is a refusal to accept the transposition of other people's interpretive categories on Anioma. We bear the name of Anioma with exalted pride, dignity and fidelity. We cherish our distinct identity and unique culture. So, efforts to fit Anioma into the constructs and schemata of Igbo provenance are futile.

Kunirum Osia is the former Founding National President of Anioma Association, USA, Inc.

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