Who Are Really the Igbo in Nigeria and in Diaspora?

With Jude Atupulazi

For long, the Igbo speaking people of Southeast Nigeria have been denied their due recognition as the truest Nigerians. Besides that, political interests have been used to whittle down their numbers and, consequently, their power. But the Igbo people have nevertheless continued to thrive despite their very hostile environment. The other day I came across a piece that was most elucidating on the way Igbos have been treated in Nigeria and I want to share with you what I read.

****Now, read Cheta Nwanze’s historical masterpiece on the issues regarding the Delta Igbos here and why the denials from them.

Anioma vs Igbo by Cheta Nwanze
Last year I took my friend and partner, Tunde Leye to my homestead. In going to that area, we did not cross the Niger River (Oshimmiri in my native dialect) the way most people cross it these days. Rather, we went the old way. We took a boat from Cable Point (Ikpele Nmili) in Asaba, and 12 minutes later, we were sharing a beer with some of my acquaintances at Onicha Marine.

You see, for those who know the history, Asaba and Onitsha, prior to the building of the bridge, were quite close knit, something we’ll discuss later on.
The third point in the dictionary definition of a mongrel is “any cross between different things, especially if inharmonious or indiscriminate.”

This is the classic definition of the Igbo people, something I wrote about six years ago. The Igbo people came from different parts of what is today’s Nigeria, and settled in the area that they now call home.
This, centuries worth of migration, mixing and consolidation, was anything but harmonious or planned. However, further research has shown me that some of what I wrote then was incomplete, but I will refrain from saying “wrong”, because I am unfit to untie Elizabeth Isichei’s shoelaces, and it was from her 1976 work, A History of the Igbo People, that I drew heavily for that piece.

As an aside, I think it’s time for me to do my first social media appeal. Is anyone willing to finance me to go and sit with her in New Zealand once this pandemic is over? She lives there now, and she is such a repository of Igbo history. She was born in 1939 which means that at 81, the window for a comprehensive debrief of the stuff which didn’t make any of her three books that focused on the Igbo people is closing…

Let me go back to topic.

In the last few days there has been a lot of argument on Twitter about whether the Igbo speaking people of Delta State in Nigeria are Igbo, or something called Anioma. Some people from this area have pointed out that they have been victims of taunts by some Igbos from the East of the Niger, who have themselves said that Delta Igbos are not Igbo.

Both sides of this argument are right, but one tweet I saw was an outright lie. There is no one from the East who will call a native Anioma person “Onye ofe mmanụ. That particular slur is reserved for Yoruba people as the thinking behind that stereotype is that the Yoruba people cannot cook, but rather drown their soups in oil and pepper to cover the lack of culinary skills. My pot belly can tell you that that stereotype is way off, but that is another topic for another day…

The words used for the various peoples of the former Bendel are as follows – Ndị Ika, to describe the Igbo speaking peoples of the Midwest; Ndị Idu, to describe the Bini people; Ndị ohu (a slur) to describe the Esan people (and the history of this is actually linked to Benin); Ndị Usobo, to describe those in the “proper Delta”, that is the Ijaw, Itsekiri, Isoko and Urhobo.

Now, the problem with most of Nigeria is that we do not know where we are coming from. Generally, if you do not know where you’re coming from, it’s kind of hard to know where you’re going to.

Too many Igbo people, both East and West of the Niger, do not know where they are coming from. Referring back to the piece I highlighted earlier, I pointed out that, “The Anioma sub-group is divided into two, Enuani and Ukwuani. Enuani and Onitsha people migrated from Igala along with Ishan.” This is incomplete.

In the intervening years, I’ve had discussions with older men in Onitsha, Idumuje-Ogboko, Onicha Ugbo, Atani, Obosi, Issele Azagba and Ibusa, and built a more complete profile. Yes, some Onitsha people indeed came from the Igala area, but most claim their ancestry from around Benin (possibly from what is now called Igbanke), who fled East sometime in the 16th Century to escape the wrath of Oba Esigie.

These people, under their leader, Eze Chima, founded a number of towns along the way – Ọnicha Ugbo, Ọnicha Ọlọna, Issele Uku, Issele Azagba, and then one of their number crossed the great river, and settled at Ọnicha Mmiri, which is today known simply as Ọnicha, or as the British colonists three centuries later transcribed it, Onitsha.

Now, to cross to what became Onitsha, that band of Ụmụ Eze Chima (children of Eze Chima) must have crossed the river at the closest point where the water is calmest. From the area that was called Ikpele Nmili by the natives, but was rechristened Cable Point by the British when they set up their communication channel there soon after decimating the population of Asaba.

These Ụmụ Eze Chima were helped to cross by the locals who had themselves settled there two generations earlier under the leadership of Nnebisi, who had himself left his hometown, Nteje in today’s Anambra State. Nteje itself has Igala origins, and I have an appointment with the Eje of Ankpa in today’s Kogi state, to discuss this relationship (note the title of their traditional ruler — Eje, and then relate it to Nteje)…

According to Dennis Osadebey in the book, ”Building a Nation”, Nnebisi was the son of an Nteje woman, Diaba, who had gotten pregnant for an Igala man, Ojobo. Nnebisi grew up in Nteje thinking he was of the kindred, but one day, after a quarrel, he was told that his father was not from there, so he could not take part in land sharing. He thus left Nteje with his followers, and followed a route which brought him to the great river.

If you look at a map of those areas, it is quite easy to trace the route taken by Nnebisi, which must have taken him through Nsugbe, and then along the Anambra River (Ọma Mbala), and then to the point where the Anambra River joins the Niger River. That precise point where the Anambra River joins the Niger River, is coincidentally, the precise point where you can take an eight minute boat ride and land at Cable Point in Asaba.

Nnebisi and his people crossed, landed at Ikpele Nmili and decided to plant their crops there for the year, given that planting season was just starting. A year later, they were pleasantly surprised to find how good their harvest was (of course the area is rich in alluvial soils brought from upstream by the river), so they decided not to move from there. Nnebisi called the place Ani Ahaba (We have settled in this land), and four hundred years later, some white chap hearing the name that the natives called their land, wrote “Asaba” in his map, and not Ahaba.

That man was Carlo Zappa, an Italian priest who was appointed Prefect of the Upper Niger by the Catholic Church to build the faithful in the region. He spent a lot of time converting the natives in both Asaba and Onitsha, and all the way to Ojoto, East of the Niger, and Agbor, West of the Niger. A look through Catholic records during the era of the Ekumeku resistance will show that at the turn of the century, most of the Catholic priests in what is now the Diocese of Issele Uku in Delta State, came from the Onitsha area, as they were all under the same ecclesiastical province. These records are still available.

A look at the roll call of the dead from the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929, shows that the wife of the Sanitary headman in the Opobo area, was from Asaba, which kind of tells you the direction in which people went in the decades leading up to the split of Southern Nigeria into East and West in 1954. Up until that point in 1954, many from the Igbo speaking areas just west of the Niger River, found it easier to cross the river to do their business. And why not?

The distance between Asaba and Owerri is just 102km. Asaba to Enugu is 125km, while Asaba to Umuahia is 142km. All of these places are closer to Asaba than Warri, which in modern Nigerian geopolitics, is in the same state as Asaba. Warri is 176km from Asaba. The Asaba man, when he arrives in either of Enugu, Owerri or Umuahia, speaks the same language as the people in those places, barring the normal dialectal differences that occur in languages that are spread over large geographical areas. This same Asaba man, would arrive in Warri, and would be at a complete loss as to what the native in Warri is saying.

Referring back to Dennis Osadebe, I’ll recommend that any young Anioma person who wants to learn his history should find Osadebe’s book, ”Building A Nation”, and read it. Osadebe understood where he was coming from, and was unequivocal about it. Thus it was that he joined first the Asaba Union, then by sheer force of will helped to coalesce it into the Western Ibo Union, and then by 1939, he was the General Secretary of the Ibo Union. He joined OBN Eluwa on his trip around both Eastern and Western Igboland between 1947 and 1953, a trip which created the Igbo identity that we know today (until 1966) at least.

Osadebe was at the forefront of agitation to remove the Asaba Division from the Benin Province to which it had been joined in 1931 and either rejoin it to the Onitsha Province where it had been prior, or create a province of its own. Of course that agitation fell flat in 1954 once the Southern Region was split into East and West, but being a pragmatic fellow, Osadebe teamed up with his Benin and Delta Division neighbours to campaign for the creation of the Midwest Region, a campaign which succeeded in 1963 with Osadebe becoming Premier of the region.
Even at that, Osadebe maintained his close relations with his kin from across the river, and thus it was that when war broke out four years later, more than any other, Osadebe’s people, from Asaba, bore the biggest blow that any town in Nigeria faced, the Asaba Massacre of 1967.
To be continued in next edition