• Ofo stands for truthfulness, justice and sincerity — Igwe Ugwuoke
• It is a symbol of spirituality that connects people with the spirit of their ancestors — Enachioken Abiriba
• It is the most unique tree in Igboland, an antidote for poison — Prof. Opata
• Ofo is symbol of authority, truth — Abia monarch
• It is the most celebrated tree in Igboland because of its uniqueness
• Ofo is a defender of the innocent, oppressed — Chief Onyeke
• Ofo is like the Bible; you do not carry it carelessly — Anekwe
By Anayo Okoli, Ugochukwu Alaribe, Chimaobi Nwaiwu, Chinedu Adonu, Chinonso Alozie, Ikechukwu Odu, Nwabueze Okonkwo & Steve Oko
OFO, an Igbo insignia for justice and peace is respected and revered. Though the advent of Christianity may slightly have affected the respect for this ‘holy stick’, nonetheless, it is still very active, a symbol of authority, effectively respected in Igbo tradition and culture. It is an age-long traditional stick which Igbo people use for justice, peace, fairness and equity. They always use it to call on the Almighty God to intervene on issues before them. Monarchs and Igbo leaders throw more light on the importance of Ofo to Igbo.
The paramount ruler of Abriba Ancient kingdom, Enachioken Abriba, Eze Kalu Kalu Ogbu, said that ofo in Igboland means a symbol of spirituality.
According to the revered monarch: “The Ofo in Igboland is a symbol of the spirituality of the Igbo nation. From time immemorial, Igbo people had a close relationship with the God head, the Supreme God, Chukwu Abiama.
“Each Igbo group had a symbol that connects them with the spirit of their ancestors and with the God head. That is the ofo,” Eze Ogbu explained.
The traditional ruler of Obimo Autonomous Community in Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu State, Igwe Spencer Ugwuoke, described Ofo as an insignia for truthfulness, justice and sincerity. The monarch explained that the stick is always in the custody of the eldest person in a clan during adjudication of serious cases in communities to demonstrate that the bearer would not thwart justice.
He, however, said that the significance has been watered down, pointing out that the stick which was once held with reverence has been bastardized by those seeking undue relevance across Igbo societies and the coming of Christianity.
“It was introduced by our forefathers as a mark of sincerity and truthfulness. Not everybody held ofo in the olden days. It was the exclusive right of the oldest person in a clan or community to hold it. People across Igbo communities accepted the judgment from an Ofo bearer as the truth and nothing but the truth.
“If there is a serious conflict between two parties in my family, as the eldest man, I use the Ofo, which was left for me by my predecessor to administer justice. With that, you can’t tell lies.
“But you know, Christianity came and did its best to wipe out our tradition and we accepted it. Anybody who brings Ofo now would be termed an unbeliever but we don’t know that the item, in traditional setting, is equivalent to the pastoral staff or crozier being carried by Roman Catholic bishops during holy mass. Only the bishop holds the staff, the same as Ofo, which is being borne by the oldest man in a family, clan or village. It is also a symbol of authority.
“If the bearer of Ofo dies in Igboland, you don’t pronounce him dead until the ofo is taken to the next oldest man in the family or clan,” the monarch explained.
The chairman of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Nsukka Local Government Area chapter, Prof. Damian Opata, described Ofo as the most unique and celebrated tree in Igboland.
Prof. Opata, who gave the botanical name as detarium senegalense, further described the stick as the most potent object protecting the upright and an antidote for poison.
While saying that the stick can be ritualised as an item of prayer, he added that it represents moral uprightness for the bearers. Opata also said that there are male and female Ofo, pointing out that the female is usually bigger than the male in size.
“Ofo is the most celebrated tree in Igboland because of its uniqueness. Just as other trees shed leaves, Ofo branches fall off the trees, nobody cuts the branch or plucks it; it has to fall by itself.
“For the Igbo, it represents moral uprightness. It can be ritualised when you want to use it as an item of prayer by speaking to it to activate the efficacy inherent in it. I bring the one-handed to me by my father whenever I do my morning invocations as a witness that whatever I am going to say is the truth.
“In the olden days, the oldest man in a clan spoke to the Ofo to show that he is not misleading the people, but a lot of things have changed now. Most of the oldest people in our communities no longer bear it because of the influence of Christianity.
Some of them use the crucifix as Ofo but they are not the same thing. Many of them intentionally dodge it, especially when they want to thwart justice.
“This is because the bearer of Ofo must say the truth, be it in land, marital or any other matters which he presides over. Anybody who bears the item and thwarts justice suffers the repercussion, directly or through his younger generation.
“The oldest person in a family, clan or village normally bears Ofo. However, a diviner may be required to name a person to bear it, whether he is the oldest or not, to demonstrate that you are being accompanied by the spirit of uprightness. In that case, it becomes a symbolic object protecting the bearer from evil forces. However, for the Ofo to be effective, the bearer must be upright in moral standing. It is the greatest antidote to poison and it is better than carrying charms around.
“If you must pick the fallen branch, you must go with kola nut with which to pray to the land that you are picking the Ofo to do good not the opposite. There is an orientation in picking the Ofo because it has directions or positions. In Nsukka cultural zone, it must face North-South position while you are picking it. You then take it home and ritualise it in a shrine through prayers. You can even kill a fowl or goat during the prayers depending on your capability,” he explained.
The don, a professor of English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria Nsukka, UNN, argued that the object is being faked in Igbo societies today by people with questionable moral standing who are afraid of bearing the real object.
According to High Chief Uche Onyeke, a custodian of culture in Opi community, Nsukka Council Area of Enugu State, Ofo is a defender of the innocent and oppressed. Ofo, he further said, is a mystical symbol of truth, purity, justice and authority with a spiritual dimension attached to it.
Chief Onyeke, who teaches at the Institute of Management and Technology, IMT, Enugu, said that the fundamental principle inherent in the institution of Ofo is that right is might, adding that Ofo is the defender of the innocent and oppressed.
He noted that the origin of Ofo is difficult to trace as it is shrouded in mystery with both political and spiritual functions. He explained that it is a special plant which is believed to have been consecrated by God as a symbol and guarantee of truth and justice.
“Ofo, a revered ancient institution in traditional Igbo land, is the highest principle of justice, law and morality, binding both the living and the supernatural powers of the gods and the ancestors,” he explained.
He, however, regretted that the age-old Ofo institution which has been the bedrock in the sustenance of traditional Igbo society is unfortunately fast losing its relevance among some so-called modern Igbo.
“The Ofo is made from a tree known as detarium elastica. It is the material and mystical symbol of truth, purity, justice and authority. Through the institution or cult of Ofo, the traditional Igbo defend and apply this principle in their personal and social relations as defender of the innocent.
“The weak can also be protected by this principle, but only if they are innocent, that is, if they have ogu (innocent) on their side. This gave rise, in Igbo cosmology, to the twin principle of ofo-na-ogu, justice and innocence, which is the foundation of all the basic moral principles in Igbo traditional ethics, such as truth, justice, innocence, uprightness and moral purity. The keywords of Ofo are ofo-na-ogu, truth, justice, purity, authority, spiritual and mundane dimensions.
“Among the Nsukka Igbo for instance, Ofo was and still is of two types, which includes the ancestral Ofo held by the head and leader of each family and the Odu-atu or Otishu. The Odu-atu‚ which symbolises truth, justice, righteousness, power, authority, wholeness and moral innocence, was associated with titled men in the Nsukka area.
“It is the head of the family, the Okpara or Onyishi in some areas or the oldest man in the lineage, who is the recognised holder of Ofo in the family. With this position of ritual authority, the gods and the ancestral spirits endow the Ofo holder with special functions, rights and privileges, and it is the duty of the living to obey him.
“Whatever the Ofo holder decrees, condemns or approves is believed to be what the gods and the ancestors ordained, disapproved or approved. The presence of Ofo in any gathering fosters a sense of unity and conformity among all members of the group.
“The presence of Ofo in the settlement of disputes or in any judicial proceeding, sends a warning signal to everyone to be honest, lest the Ofo kills the defaulter. Oath taking is sometimes administered by the Ofo holder to attest to the evidence of persons when a case proves difficult to settle. It is in this sense that Ofo could be regarded almost as a detective.
The former President-General, Onitsha Markets Amalgamated Traders Association, OMATA, Chief Ozoh Anaekwe, likened Ofo to the cross and described it as the truth, the life and the way. He said it is an Igbo insignia for justice and peace that is respected. He said though Christianity has slightly affected it but it has continued to remain active and respected and revered. Ofo as a ‘holy stick’, nonetheless, is still very active, effectively respected in the Igbo tradition and culture, because of what it has been able to do in the Igbo culture and tradition.
For instance, like in Catholic Church, we see the Pope with cross and the cross signifies Christ, and Christ is the truth, the life and the way. So, Ofo in Igboland is like the cross, it is the truth, life and the way; it is held by a special person; not just every Tom, Dick and Harry.
“When you relate it with Christianity, generally, Ofo can be seen as a part of the Bible; Bible is a book, but you do not carry it carelessly, so also is Ofo, you do not carry Ofo carelessly because it is treated as a sacred and respected object, you do not use or hold it carelessly, it is a “holy stick” to Igbo people.
“So, Ofo in Igboland means a lot. It is an age-long traditional stick which Igbo people use for justice, peace, fairness and equity. It means honesty, truthfulness, justice and fairness, and if you hold Ofo and tell lies, you are committing an abomination spiritually because whatever you say or do, if it is a lie, it will come back to you,” Anaekwe explained.
According to the traditional ruler of Isuochi Ancient kingdom, Eze Godson Ezekwesiri, Ofo is both the symbol of authority and the symbol of truth.
The royal father said Ofo is also used to identify the eldest in the family as the eldest son is the custodian of the family’s Ofo. He said the holder of Ofo must be a person of honest character who will always tell the truth no matter whose ox is gored.
According to the respected monarch, whenever a matter or a dispute becomes too difficult to decide, Ofo is usually brought out to help in unraveling the truth. He said at such a time the parties involved usually tell the truth as they know the grave implications of telling lies in the presence of the Ofo.
“In Igboland, Ofo is the symbol of authority. It also signifies truth. Anyone dealing with Ofo knows he must tell the truth because if he lies or betrays the Ofo, death awaits him.
“Any time a matter becomes too tough, we consult the Ofo and truth come out by force.
“In Igboland Ofo is like the Bible. We use it to pray and anyone who keeps the family Ofo must be an honest person,” Ezekwesiri explained.
The National President of the Nigeria Association of Presidents- General, High Chief Uche Akwukuegbu, said Ofo is a symbol of authority.”
Akwukuegbu, the Traditional Prime Minister of Ibeku Ancient kingdom explained that the custodian of Ofo must be a man of his words who does not compromise the truth.
“Ofo is a special tree which does not grow everywhere. It has three branches signifying truth and honesty. Ofo is like a tree called anunuebe which selects where it grows. Any custodian of Ofo speaks the truth.
“Whatever anyone does without having Ofo and ogu, that person will never escape justice.
“Any time Ofo comes out, it means that the truth must also come out. Ofo is like the Bible in Igboland and you cannot hold it and still tell lies else you go in for it.
“The ancient people lived long because they had respect for Ofo and ogu. Anyone who respects Ofo and ogu must live long,” Akwukwegbu said.
For the chairman, Non-Indigenes Association, at Egbu Estate in Owerri, Chief Kingsely Ndibe, Ofo kills very fast if the holder has committed abominations against the land especially killing innocent people in the family.
According to him, many people in a family run away whenever it is their turn to be the custodian of the Ofo, when they knew they had committed evil and they would endanger their lives should they hold it as custom demands.
“It is the eldest in the family that holds the Ofo; it is a symbol of leadership transferred from one generation to another. It is not by election. There are rules guiding the person holding the Ofo.
“If you have the Ofo, you will speak nothing but the truth, you don’t support any plot to kill, intimidate or forcefully take things that do not belong to you. You don’t maltreat a window in the family and many other things. Ofo hates an evil person and it kills very fast. You have to be very careful while holding it. It is not a joke.
“In some cases, you see premature deaths, poverty and there will be no peace in that family. I know of a family that abandoned their Ofo, the Catholic priest, who destroyed it replaced it with a cross. This is also good. So whenever you want to destroy the Ofo, you do it completely and at the same time find a replacement.”
A community leader in Aba, Abia State, Chief Ifeanyi Emmanuel described Ofo as a symbol of authority in Igboland; a direct link between the gods, the people and a leader.
“The Ofo is not just a symbolic object. It is the sacred symbol of truth, authority, justice, law and administrative power. Ofo primarily bestows upon the holder or bearer the right to do things like: offer sacrifices, perform rituals, offer prayers, administer people an oath, pronounce judgment in cases, deliberate disputes, etc.”
For the regent of Oba, Prince Noel Ezenwa, Ofo is like arming someone with spiritual blessings. It is used as best wishes by well wishers, just like in the Igbo traditional breaking of kola nuts which signifies the welcoming of a visitor.
Ezenwa believes that the particular Ofo which was given to his father, the late Igwe Peter Ezenwa by the Oba king makers during his coronation as the Eze Okpoko I of Oba, has gone with him to the great beyond. He said that when a new Igwe will be installed in the future as the Okpoko II of Oba, he will be given a new Ofo to ascend the royal throne.
For Chief Ezeonwuka, Ofo is a kind of deity that does not harbour, tolerate or condone evil and it is expected that all living human beings must respect the Ofo by not harming one another.
In his own contribution, Nze Nweke described Ofo as a symbol of authority which every head of an institution like a traditional ruler, an Nze or Ozo title holder, a priest of an oracle or a head of the church must have to lead his or her followers effectively.
“If a traditional ruler is travelling outside his domain, he must go with his Ofo. Anything one is doing must be done with an Ofo. Both church and traditional leaders have Ofo in their own way which makes their call divine.”