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The Igbo giant strides against all odds

By Patrick Dele Cole

Nearly fifty years ago, it is said that people in Enugu, Nsukka,  Ngwo, and Abakaliki 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 Igbo 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.

Igbo-areaAll 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 Okrika, 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 later 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 Igbo 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 Yorubaland and Hausaland. However, it did not work.

The Igbo 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 displaced them, and the Native Authority Police took over that task from the”Youths”.  Some anthropologists and linguist 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 Arabian in the Middle East. The Igbo 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 Igbo have a great deal of empathy for the Jews, who have been persecuted 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 Igbo believe that they would triumph over all comers who persecute them. The Igbo identify with Jewish success as 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.


Trusted employees

The slave trade affected most of West Africa.  The chiefs along the coast soon became procurers or middle men 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 Igbo and the Ijaws of Bonny and elsewhere 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 chief found among the Igbo slaves who became his trusted employees.  The “Civil Servant Employees” became trustees.  The Igbani chiefs, however, were not over trusting. They did not want the Igbo to learn their language for fear of being overthrown or appealing directly to their gods.  The Igbani,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 Igbo 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  Igbo 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 Etche, 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 behavior patterns which differentiate these various groups from mainstream Igbo.

Among the Ikwerre, Ahoada, etc, the chieftaincy practices have tended to veer more towards Kalabari, Ijaw than the mainland Igbo. In Delta and Edo, the Igbo cousins have a chieftaincy profile more like Benin (Edo) than the acephalous Age Grade System of the Igbo.  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 Edo, 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 Urhobo 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 Aro – from a place known as Arochukwu.


Central feature

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

The kola nut is a central feature in Igbo land.  I have never understood why this is so except to guess that if people speak the same language there must be a single symbol that unites them; and, for the Igbo, it is the kola nut.  It appeals to the individual soul, to the collective soul, to the unseen spirits that capriciously rule or ruin our lives; it is a symbol of welcome, a drama stage to concentrate all thoughts.  It is non-threatening – a simple nut to be divided according to divination, speech, manners and conduct.  It is never rejected, except to declare war. [But the above can also be said of the Kola among the Urhobo, the Isoko, etc.].  The closest and best answer to why the kola is that central is that the eating and breaking of kola is a near eschatological experience.

I think that we tend to underestimate the extensive influence of contact for many years.  Some symbols are easier to assimilate than others. The Ijaws, for example, have no kola culture, yet they have been close to the Igbo for over 500 years.

Among the Igbo there are other spiritual places in Ogbunike, etc. But, as I have said, many do not push these new tourist resorts beyond Nri which itself is problematic for an acephalous people.

The Igbo live in a family homestead surrounded by the family farm which may be large or small depending on the number of people in that family.  Thereafter, another family has its plot of land and farm and so on.  There are few Igbo urban centers.  This small cluster will live near a stream for water and there are market days where goods and services are exchanged. There are four important market days and these market days are used as calendars for when one thing or the other is to be done. But, again, Onitsha  is a large native Igbo town.

There is a village square for meetings, announcements, etc.  But the nearer the Igbo are to people of other or even similar culture, the villagers become bigger (i.e. they are more urbanized than the Igbo).  The Yoruba live more together in villages and go sometimes far distances to their farms.

The social structures of the Igbo are based on Age Grades, especially in the bigger conurbation or cities, such as Onitsha,Awka, etc.  The Igbo have always been clever people, and took very quickly to missionary education and other aspects of Westernization.

The Onitsha Igbo

The Onitsha Igbo are made up of three ethnic groups- the Igala who followed the River Niger downstream from Lokoja to Onitsha, the Edo who came from Benin and the Igbo who lived in villages surrounding Onitsha. The amalgam of these three ethnic groups made up Onitsha which itself had off shoots in Obosi and environs. Because of early European contact the Onitsha Igbo went to school early and embraced Christianity- protestant and Catholics. Onitsha is still a major education hub in the east of Nigeria with many prominent schools- the most famous Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Christ the King College, Holy Rosary Girls School, Christian seminaries and teachers training colleges.

This early introduction to education and commerce stood the Onitsha Igbo head above other Igbo, producing the first Igbo doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. The colonial service employed Onitsha Igbo – leading to their dominance in the professions, the judiciary, politics, etc.

It is, therefore, no accident that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Justice Anyeagbunam, Chuba Ikpeazu, Ofodile, Prof. Chike Obi, Aje Asika, Sir Louis Mbanefo and a host of others were from Onitsha. So dominant were they that at one time, the upper echelons of the civil service, permanent secretaries, and leaders in the profession in eastern Nigeria, etc were all Onitsha people. There was a back lash when other Igbo people thought the dominance too pervasive and started asking for Onitsha Igbo to move out of positions.

It took a long time to get some in Eastern Nigeria balances. The Onitsha Igbo discriminated against other Igbo as uncouth and unpolished people and would not associate with them preferring their daughters to marry any one else except their non- Onitsha Igbo. As a child I often heard Onitsha Igbo drive away other Igbo children who came to play with their own children  (sa, nwa onye igbo pu a eba  – get away you child of an Igbo man), the Yoruba of Lagos have the same feeling for the so-called Ara oke -Yoruba from the hill, the Saros of Freetown for people from the hinterland- (up – country people) the Parisians for all those outsiders not from Paris etc.

Apprentice system.

Today, they have perfected the apprenticeship system.  A successful car dealer, motor spare parts dealer, or mechanic, or trader in electronics, drugs – medicines and other pharmaceutical goods, or transport owner, etc., would have young boys,sometimes as young as 10 years,who have been to school for a few years.  The young boys are apprenticed to such car spare parts dealer, or a patent medicine shop owner, or a transporter.

The apprentice is supposed in the 10 -12 years he works for his boss to know every spare part in an automobile (3000), the name and use of every drug sold in the patent medicine store, etc.  After a long time, the owner of the store or transporter would give a substantial amount of money to the apprentice to start his own business in electronic, spare parts, medicines, etc else where.  This is the classic way the Igbo do business; and it has benefited them well.  They are able to easily beat competitors because of superior knowledge of the product, accessibility and a burning desire to succeed quickly.

Today, there is a virtual Igbo monopoly of spare parts trade (usually Nnewi people), local “pharmacies”, and transportation.

The young man who used to be an apprentice bus attendant would soon grow to own a fleet of buses which will need spare parts, etc.  The intercity luxury bus business is 70% in Igbo hands.  They are also transporters for goods and small vehicle transporters.  The car hire business is perhaps 60% in the hands of Igbos.

The Igbos ventured into the sale of electronic appliances many years ago, paying exorbitant rents for cramped up spaces in Broad Street, Lagos, which then was busy and noisy as one loudspeaker sought to out do the other.  The then Lagos State Governor moved them to Alaba Market which today is the largest electronic market in Africa.  Other ancillary and supporting businesses soon followed – apart from radios, TVs, etc, the market now sells washing machines, refrigerators, freezers, microwaves, etc.  It is the centre of pirated music and video films. Given the opportunity, the Igbo has incredible drive to make a success of any venture.

The biggest property developers in Lagos and Abuja are Igbo.  They seem to have a sixth sense for these things.  They were first to really believe that Abuja will succeed as the capital city of Nigeria.  They moved into Abuja with a vengeance.  Most of the malls in Abuja are Igbo owned. They were willing to pay the price needed for land and permits; and went at it as only the Igbo can do.  Other ethnic groups have estates but nothing compared to what the Igbo have.  Yet other Igbo branched out into estate development for sale and establishing myriads of hotels.

Marriage among Igbo

All these frantic activities must take a toll on social life.  Many Igbo billionaires are self educated, having come up through the apprenticeship system.  It means that the girls in Igbo land stayed back to go to school, even though, at the beginning, like most Nigerians, they regarded education of women as a waste of time and money since the young girl will soon marry and leave the family.  Thus, today, there is a preponderance of Igbo girls at school, who currently far out number the boys in both secondary and tertiary institutions.

Bride price in parts of Igbo land used to be expensive.  Non-Igbo suspected that the girl’s family was calculating how much they spent on her education and expected the husband for recompense.   In the early 40s and 50s, bride price was so high that the Eastern House of Assembly legislated on it!!  The girls today fear high bride price for it scares away suitors and now have started to revolt against it.  How do these girls pay for tuition?  Sometimes parents help, relatives help and there is a good dose of self help.

Marriage custom of Igbos is similar to that of many other ethnic groups. For example, that marriage is not just a union between individuals, but one between families, who, in fact are, sometimes,the initiators, and actually arrange the match-making between the spouses.  Today this is not so common.  But the other processes remain largely unchanged. When a suitable spouse has been found, people are sent to ask questions about the spouse’s pedigree – is there disease in the family, any witches or wizards or unkind and wicked people, how fecundious have the women been, etc (Aju-ese?)

On receiving satisfactory responses to these questions, a delegation from the family of the husband-to-be is then sent to the girl’s family to ask for her hand in marriage; and her family,at some stage, would have to ask her for her consent. The bride price is then haggled over. On reaching a consensus, the proposed groom is supposed to supply drinks, etc., for four market days (Eke market days).

You may shorten the period by bringing everything in one day.  After consultation, including reports on the groom’s family, his standing in society and wealth, a date is fixed for the marriage.  To show the bride’s consent publicly –she would take a glass of wine (often palm wine) to the groom to drink in public during the traditional marriage ceremony.

Thereafter, the parents bless the couple and festivities begin.  If the marriage is unsuccessful, the dowry is returned; but not if the couples have a male child.

The Igbo  take marriage seriously, probably more so than any other ethnic group in Nigeria.  Many non-Igbo girls want to marry Igbo men because of this myth that an Igbo man knows how to look after his wife and family.  Many of the semi illiterate billionaires marry graduates and they insist that their children get the best education which they had missed.

Trial marriage

Every December, thousands of Igbo travel home, especially in areas where Christmas is robustly celebrated. During these holidays, marriages are arranged, couples introduced, etc.  One variant of Igbo courtship that is rapidly gaining ground is that of trial marriage. It is really an extension of the custom of knowing the family one is marrying into. Many Igbo bachelors from the U.S flock home every Christmas to see who they can marry while resuming the family bonds which living overseas may have somewhat loosened. Where a successful introduction has been made, the young lady and prospective husband agree to go back to the U.S and live together for some months to see whether they like each other enough to stay married (usually for three to six months), at the end of the period,a decision is made to continue with the ‘’marriage” or to terminate it.


Sometimes, the girl would go to the city where the ‘’husband” is working in Nigeria – usually Abuja or Lagos again on trial basis to make sure the marriage is successful.

In the old days, the girl would have gone to stay with the parents of the prospective husband for a while for the groom’s parents to assess her. These are simply variations of the theme of arranged marriages. Where the experiment does not work, there is no shame or bitterness, whatever was paid in dowry is returned and the ‘’marriage” is dissolved.

The Igbo economy

Nnewi, in Anambra State, is now the manufacturing capital of Nigeria.  It has several manufacturing factories, several breweries, soft drinks, bottled water, etc, food processing plants, vehicles assembly plants, etc., including the making of generators, and a host of other items. Nnewi has overtaken Ikeja as the industrial hub of Nigeria.

The Onitsha market remains the largest market in Africa, selling practically everything: There are Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese traders in the market. The banks in Onitsha carry the largest amount of cash than any other city. There is an airport in Asaba, capital of Delta State. The Niger Bridge is the main transport artery between East and West, and perhaps even large parts of Middle Belt and some parts of northern Nigeria. Just south of Onitsha is Awka, the Anambra State capital. There are plans to dredge the River Niger, build a second Niger Bridge, and a cargo airport in Anambra State. Thus, within an area of a few kilometers to Onitsha, the major market, there is the industrial hub, Nnewi. Also, the administrative capital of Anambra State is 20 kilometres from Onitsha. Nnewi is 10 kilometers from Onitsha.  Our planners have to be (compare the axis between

New York and New Jersey) blind not to see the potential of a conurbation axis between Asaba/Onitsha; Onitsha-Nnewi, and Nnewi–Awka.  A small investment of building 10-lane highways between these three towns will give the biggest industrial and financial fillip for Nigeria; not just for Igbo land.

The Igbos, who live in these areas, have, amongst themselves, the richest individuals in Nigeria.  Oraifite has over 10 billionaires; the best known of which is Sir Emeka Ofor.

Anambra State governor, the other day ,called a meeting of 50 people and 25 of them were billionaires. The rest were no slouches.

The Igbo, sometimes, are too polite for their own good.  Each time a politician goes to Anambra State, he makes the promise to build a second Niger Bridge or to dredge the Niger.  The Igbo feel that people say these things because they think they are fools.  They ask whether the Federal Government built the ports of Lagos for Lagosians? Was the 23 kilometers Third Mainland Bridge built for Lagosians?

A bridge across the Niger is a development of infrastructure that would yield benefit for all Nigeria.  Why does the Federal Government need a special loan or bond to build the bridge?  That they do not openly say this in public is perhaps an element of the sublimation of their persecution complex.


The Igbos are proud of their culture. But are also willing to participate in other peoples cultures, and, more importantly, to adapt foreign culture to their own.  For many years, the black people in the United States had been insulted by being regarded as having no culture.  Many changed their names in the belief that this would identify them with Africa; they preferred to be called African-Americans, and took names like Kobe, Jamal, Hussein, etc, little realizing that these were Islamic names, not African names. No matter, the point had been made that Mr. X was African-American and his name was Jamal Juba.  About 15 years ago, two cultural tends burst out on the African scene – a distinct music genre, distinct dancing genre and distinct theatre genre.  The U.S. has always been open about its debt to Africa in term of music – jazz, pop culture, ghetto dancing and music, etc. The Yoruba and other Africans contributed to this, not only Igbo. But in the past few years, the young African musicians had taken on world pop culture and Africanized it, dominated it and now own it.  There is no Igbo mega star like Fela- so massive was this genius.

However, young men and women are hitting the world stage with beats that cannot have grown from any where else than in Nigeria, and a lot of it, due to Igbo. Hand in hand with this musical explosion. African drama was re-born but, this time,using new techniques to attune old theme – the advent of Nollywood – which in 10 – 15 short years -is now the third largest movie industry in the world. Igbo influence, both in new music and in Nollywood, is substantial.

It was generic, and should remain so. But it may die if it imbibes government contagion.

Nearly everything shown in Nollywood about Igbo kingship, princesses and princes, etc., is an exercise in the producers’ imagination.  The cultural basis is there; but the manifestation is poetic license of the producers, and rightly so.  Nollywood is not a cultural course: it is entertainment within the imagined context of Igbo culture.


The Biafra war

It is impossible to write about the Igbos without writing about the Biafra war. It is futile to go into the pros and cons of the war. The war affected Igbos, as it did other Nigerians. The Igbos felt that they had something precious to contribute to Nigeria; but the civil war deprived them from contributing, and Nigeria from accepting Igbo contribution. They lost a war they felt was unjust. They lost property every where, especially in Port Harcourt. But they learnt how better to handle other Nigerians. They channeled their sense of loss into more productive avenues. They now believe in Nigeria; but also believe anything can happen and hedge their bets and build large houses in their villages should any other war break out. They have a mixed feeling for – yet believe that it is now their turn to rule Nigeria.

Some Nigerians, including some Igbos, believe that the eventual break up of Nigeria is a matter of time, unless some fundamental changes are made soon in the political arrangement. The Igbo believe in meritocracy because they are supremely confident that they would prevail.

An apocryphal story goes something like this: If you do an examination with an Igbo man and he has better result and beats you, he will nod as if to say that is natural, that is as it should be. But if you beat him, he would ask you whether the examiner is your brother or who leaked questions to you.

The Igbo lost a lot of houses in Port Harcourt. Lately an old wise Rivers man seeing the Igbo contribution to Abuja and Lagos wondered whether the Rivers State Government should not invite Igbo back to Port Harcourt to do their magic on housing and the economy in Rivers State.

The practice of young men and women living together before marriage is unknown in all African cultures including Igbo. Hollywood’s portrayal of this practice is non-Igbo and due more to Western acculturation than any thing traditional as a girl may go to her husband’s house after the payment of dowry and the consent of her parents, herself.

Inheritance, even “kingship” and property legally does not go to the children but to the eldest brother of the deceased who, by custom, is now supposed to look after his brother’s wife and her siblings.





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