By Kelechukwu Iruoma
THE age grade system has long been in existence in Africa and Nigeria, and has been recognized and used by African leaders to champion causes for the social, cultural, political, infrastructural and economic development of communities.
This was a case made by Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, former Managing Director of Neimeth Pharmaceuticals Plc, at a lecture tagged “Impact of Age Grade System on Community Development” delivered at the colloquium of the Ajalli Njikoka Age Grade.
According to him, age grades are commonplace in Nigerian society, especially in the South East and South-South. “But it seems to be the strongest among communities in Igbo land where they go by several names such as OtuOgbo, NdeUke or NdeEbiri,” he said.
Objective of the celebration
Discussants at the colloquium included Royal Highness Eze (Prof) Vincent Ike of Ndikelionwu; Igwe Alfred Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha; Professor Laz Ekwueme, the Igwe of Oko and Prof Eugene Nwana. Njikoka Age Grade Ajalli which was formed 50 years ago when all its members were in their 20s, marked the recent attainment of the biblical age of 70 years by the youngest of its members.
The main objective of the celebration was to get the youths, to become accustomed to Igbo culture and tradition as well as the role, which they play in community development. The colloquium was organized to motivate the younger generation to actively participate in community development.
Age grades are groups of persons who, according to societal norms and values, are regarded as people of the same age. Age grades do vary from one community to the other. In some communities, persons within a specific period of three, four or even five years age bracket form an age grade. In some communities, they are gender segregated while in others, according to Ohuabunwa: “Like in Obinwanne Age Grade in Atani-Arochukwu, they are mixed (men and women). But each age grade is clearly distinguished from one another.”
According to Ugiagbe and Uguagbe (2015), “The Igbo of Eastern Nigeria, for example, have a culture of segmenting into different age grades which can be likened to teams in management and platoons in war games”
Mazi Ohuabunwa said that among the members of these different age grades can be found those with different roles which enable them to act as teams. “As years pass by, the younger groups ascend the ladder and takeover the older age grades. Generally, age grades serve as avenues for social interaction among members and, more importantly, as agents of community development. They are social organizations based on age through which individuals pass, over the course of their lives,” he said.
According to him, in some communities, entry into an age grade, often gender separated, is usually marked by an initiation rite which may be the crowning of a long and complex preparation. In the pre-colonial period, the newly formed age grades had to prove themselves for maturity by defending the community against hostile neighbours or enemies.
Issues of mutual or communal interes
According to Ohuabunwa, “Each age grade is given a special name that helps define its position in the community, relative to other age grades. Members of each age grade are meant to know one another fairly well, to choose leaders among their members, to meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual or communal interest, and should be willing to help one another and defend the community when the need arises.”
Despite the onslaught of modernization, industrialization and urbanization, the roles of age grades in the community, especially in Igbo land remain significant and impactful.
As a symbol of unity
He said the most important roles of age grades include: “Unity among members, maintaining security of lives and property, enforcement of law and order, developers/executors of community initiatives and projects, crime control which is a growing area of need in many communities today, conflict resolution within the age grade and within the entire community, community warriors in both physical and spiritual warfare.”
Other roles of age-grades include serving as agents of change and modernization and sophistication; role models and community conscience; educators and socializing agents; managers of projects; advocates of best practices; power balance in community initiatives; providing voice and support to the poor and the disadvantaged; enforcers of ancestral wishes and protectors of cultural values and norms; power balance in community initiatives; and pulling the community ahead and ensuring good value orientation.
He said: “Though we have Eze Ogo, there is actually UkeneAchi Ezi, ‘The age grade that governs the village.’ In my village Atani-Mmawuru, I have personal experiences and testimony of the roles and impact of the age grades in line with the functions identified above.
“Where there is unrest, high level of criminalities and social dislocations in communities, the age grades are trusted and called upon to bring about sanity in the communities.”
Criminalities and social dislocations
Ohuabunwa said when he found Igbo communities where there is unrest, high level of criminality and social dislocations, he began to ask: “Where are the age grades?”
Ohuabunwa added: “When I survey community developments in Igbo land, I often wonder what would be the situation of many communities if our ancestors did not come up with this social engineering mechanism called age grades. In the 19 villages of Arochukwu from where Ajalli takes its ancestry, the governance of the villages is hinged on age grades system.”
Eulogizing the Ajalli Age Grade, he said: “At 70, it is clear that the Ajalli Njikoka Age Grade has paid its dues and as happened in some communities, may be preparing to retire. Nevertheless, it is never late to end well.
“I recommend that the age grades take a holistic view of themselves and confirm that it has lived up to full expectations in all the areas, especially in relation to Njikoka, which means “unity is the most important”.
He said with the discipline and organization that many age grades exhibit in Igbo land, he believed they would do better in projects execution than what has been seen in recent times and should therefore be better funded to impact on community socio-economic development.
“I wish to see a sustenance and elevation of the age grade system and to include it in our country’s constitution and be made the executor of projects captured in states and local government budgets,” Ohuabunwa said.