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, both communities were quite closeknit, something we’ll discuss later on today.
Tunde preparing to cross the Niger River at Cable Point, Asaba.
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 mmanå. 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 — NdË Ika to describe the Igbo speaking peoples of the Midwest; NdË Idu to describe the Bini people; NdË ohu (a slur) to describe the Esan people (and the history of this is actually linked to Benin); NdË Usobo to describe those in the “proper Delta”, that is the Ijaw, Ijekiri, 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 kinda 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 — Ìnicha Ugbo, Ìnicha ÌlÍna, Issele Uku, Issele Azagba, and then one of their number crossed the great river, and settled at Ìnicha Mmiri, which is today known simply as Ìnicha, or as the British colonists three centuries later transcribed it, Onitsha.
Now, to cross to what became Onitsha, that band of ämå 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 ämå Eze Chima were helped too 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 (Ìma 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 affair 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 coalese 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.
This was where things began to take a negative turn for the Midwestern Igbo identity. In 1964, a brilliant and ambitious 30-year old from Asaba joined the public service. Phillip Asiodu, an Oxford graduate who spoke Yoruba as a first languge, rose very fast and by mid-1966 as Nigeria was melting down around everyone, was already a Permanent Secretary in the federal civil service.
Unfortunately, he faced the same mistrust that every Midwest Igbo faced in Nigeria of the time: where did his loyalties lie? With Nigeria, or with the rebels? He chose Nigeria, and as tends to be the case with people who have to prove themselves, showed his loyalty to Nigeria only too well.
Asiodu was the one who adviced Gowon to renege from the Aburi Accord when he pointed out that Ojukwu had outmanouvered Gowon in that meeting in Ghana. The moment Gowon reneged on that deal, war became inevitable. The war had a personal effect on Asiodu as his brother Sidney, a well known prize winning athlete, was killed during the Asaba Massacre in 1967. But Asiodu kept his head down, and remained firmly Nigerian, and non-Igbo. That was the birth of the split in identity.
A people defeated in war have a tendency to bow their heads. Those who can, reject being members of that defeated group. So it is no surprise that those Igbos who could (borderlands) decided that they no longer wanted to be Igbo. Midwest Igbos created a new identity to the extent that the town of Igbo Akiri changed its name to Igbanke, and its most prominent son, Samuel Chiedu Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, who along with Alexander Madiebo narrowly escaped death in the July 1966 coup, dropped “Chiedu” from his name entirely, and emphasised Osaigbovo. To be honest, I cannot hold people responsible for such behaviours. The city of Gdansk in Poland was once called Danzig, and it was in Germany…
Going back to Dennis Osadebe, after the war, some prominent Igbos including Osadebe banded together to try and resurrect the Igbo Progressive Union which had been proscribed by Aguiyi-Ironsi in 1966. So they formed the Igbo National Assembly who’s stated goal was to unify Igbos under a common umbrella body. In no time, the INA was banned by the FG, but by 1976, shortly after the murder of Murtala Mohammed, they tried again, and this time, went the route of a socio-cultural organisation. Thus Ohaneze NdË Igbo was born, and one of the original signatories to the Ohaneze charter was Dennis Osadebe. Along with Ben Nwabueze, and a few others whose names I don’t recall.
Osadebe knew that the place of the Midwestern Igbo in Nigeria’s geopolitics would always be with his kin from across the river, and he always acted accordingly. Osadebe was the one who coined the term Anioma, as the entry region of the Midwestern Igbos into Ohaneze. Some of these things are simple to check out, for example, the expression “Anioma” does not appear in any document predating 1975.
The funny thing is that by 1992, even Asiodu who was perhaps most directly responsible for the identity crisis facing his people, had come around, and along with some notable people from Anioma, wrote a letter to the military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida asking him to take Anioma out of Delta state, excise Onitsha and Atani from Anambra state, and create an Anioma state which would have been a part of what is now the South-East geopolitical zone. The signatories to that letter, dated 15 June 1992 where as follows: Nnamdi Azikiwe, Owelle Onicha; Dennis Osadebe, Ojiba Ahaba; Phllip Asiodu, Izoma Ahaba; Anthony Modebe, Ogene Onicha; Ben Nwabueze (from Atani in Anambra state); Chukwuma Ijomah (from Aboh in Delta state); and Ukpabi Asika. BIC Ijomah died just over a month ago, so of all the sages who signed that letter, Ben Nwabueze and Phillip Asiodu are still with us, and for whatever reason, IBB did not act on the letter.
What is the lesson from Chief Asiodu’s apparent turnaround?
Once your name is Emeka (figurative of course), Nigeria will always happen to you.
That is what people like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala understand.
That is what people like Austin Okocha understand.
That is what great men like Osadebe, Ijomah, Achuzia, and eventually Asiodu, understood.
The truth is that based on our history, the Anioma man never saw the Niger River as a barrier. As a matter of fact, just read Chinua Achebe’s Chike And The River, and you’ll get a sense of how people used to cris-cross the river at that salient point before the bridge was built. The remnants are still there today. Cable Point projects into the river, it is clearly an old market, and Onitsha Marine also projects into the river. That is the original location of the famous Onitsha Market. Has any one from Onitsha ever stopped to ask himself why the Basilica of Holy Trinity was built basically a few metres away from the river at Onitsha Marine? Cross the river to Asaba and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is in an almost identical position. Both churches were built about the same time, commissioned by the same man, Carlo Zappa.
How else do you explain that the dialect of Igbo spoken in Asaba, and that spoken in Onitsha, are the same language?
In the end, the Anioma man, because Biafra lost a war 50 years ago, may deny his identity all he wants, but it will not change the fact — in the Byzantine politics of Nigeria, the day will come when Nigeria will tell you who you are.
I think that is the one thing Nigeria never fails at.
Once your name is Emeka, or Chike, or Nnamdi, or Uju, or Chukwuma, or Obi, or Ogechukwu, or Ekwi, or Azuka, or Ike, or Nonso, or Ifeanyi, or indeed Cheta, the day will come, when Nigeria will tell you who you are. Don’t be caught flat footed.
For the Igbos from the East, never forget some facts — the most effective Biafran diplomat during the war was Raphael Uwechue, Oguluzeme Ogwashi-Uku. The majority of the weapons that were supplied to Biafra came from France, and it was his efforts. Almost all of the CARITAS flights that saved starving Biafran children, had his fingerprints on them. Plus the fact that Emeka Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi got out of Biafra in the end and spent 12 years in exile in a French speaking country, was due to his diplomatic efforts. Raphael Chukwu Uwechue was also President-General of Ohaneze NdË Igbo for four years. NdË Anioma, that was your son.
Also, Igbos from the East, never forget that the successful commander of Biafran forces during the war was Joseph Achuzia, Ikemba Ahaba. From 4 October 1967 to 12 October 1967, he prevented Nigerian forces from successfully crossing the Niger River.
The Nigerians could only establish a bridgehead at Onitsha Marine before they were beaten back by Achuzia. This defeat was one of the things that led to the massacre of his kinsmen in Asaba on 7 October 1967. On 31 March 1968, Achuzia directed Jona Uchendu’s company of about 700 men in what became Biafra’s most spectacular success of the war, the Abagana Ambush. In that event, 700 Biafran men defeated a Nigerian force of 6000 men. Only 100 Nigerian soldiers, including Murtala Mohammed survived. It was after that action that Murtala did not take part in the war again. Achuzia who died two years ago, was also an Anioma son.
*Cheta Nwanze, a researcher, lives in Lagos