Overview of Traditional Igbo Society
A major distinguishing factor in the pre-colonial political organization between the Igbo people of Nigeria and their other ethnic neighbours was the republican nature of their administration. Whereas the Hausa/Fulani and the Yoruba, for example, operated a centralized system of political administration with the Emir and the Oba respectively, wielding executive, judicial and legislative powers, the Igbo traditional political organization prior to the arrival of the European colonial government, was a system that operated through the collective participation of all the elders in society.
The political administration of the Igbo village before the coming of the Europeans was a collective responsibility of all heads of individual family units who pass on their decisions to the youths for implementation. This made the traditional Igbo political society republican, with no institutionalized kingship system. The only exception, however, were the trading cities along the River Niger, such as Onitsha, Oguta, Arochukwu, Ossamari, (Uzoigwe, 2004); as well as the ‘holy city’ of Nri, (Onwuejeogwu, 1980), which operated a kingship system long before the coming of the European colonial administration.
The Nri people who traced their history to the biblical times, through Zilpah, maid-servant of Jacob’s wife, Leah, who begat Gad and who in turn begat Eri, the founder of Nri clan, claimed to have established their kingdom in 948 Common Era (c.e.), and thus became “the oldest kingdom in Nigeria”. The first Eze Nri, (Nri king), Ìfikuánim, a priestly king, who wielded no military power over his subjects, was famous for upholding a humanistic system that was uncommon at the time (Ikime, 1980).
The Nri Kingdom provided a safe haven for all those who had been rejected in their communities and thus became a place where “slaves were set free from their bondage”. It was for this reason that the Nri devised the Ozo title, which other communities in Igboland later embraced, to shield initiates from being taken to slavery, which was very rampart at the time.
Next, is the Onitsha kingship system, which stemmed from an earlier contact Onitsha people had with the Bini Kingdom following their migration to some interior parts of western Nigeria. As attested by (Umeh, 1999), Onitsha people were original Igbo who migrated from the Igbo hinterland, crossed to the western bank of the River Niger, and moved into the deeper interior of the west. However, following “a quarrel with the Binis and their leaders”, Onitsha people, which then had Eze Chima as their leader, migrated back from Benin where they had previously led migratory lives as warriors, traders, philosophers, priests, professional artisans, carvers, blacksmiths, bronze-makers or famers.
Elizabeth Isichie (1976), reports that the social, cultural and religious practices of the Onitsha-Ado (as the Onitsha people were known), are consistent with those of the Aros, Afikpo, Bende, Okigwe (the indigenous Igbo), with other elements borrowed from the Benin. In other words, the Onitsha kingship was a borrowed system from the Bini Kingdom.
It was this village assembly, also known as the Council of Elders, which determined what happened in every Igbo community. The Council performed all legislative and judicial functions that kept the society moving. There were, however, some notable individuals, who on account of their personal worth, status or merit, like celebrated warlords, holders of the prestigious Ozo title, powerful medicine men, members of secret societies, etc, who equally belonged to this Council.
It was this “village republicanism”, the democratic nature of Igbo society, or the fact that in Igboland, power did not reside in one single person, but in a collectivity of elders, that led to the common aphorism ofIgbo Enwe Eze, (that the Igbo have no king).
However, the Igbo “king” does not hold his position by mere accident of birth. He grows up to earn it. The Igbo king equally knows that he does not possess absolute knowledge. He rules by consultation through the village assembly.
Cyril Onwumechili (2000) equates “Igbo kingship” to “scientific culture” which, according to him, recognizes “no kings and chiefs with divine knowledge.” In Igbo, as in science, he says, “promotion is by achievement.” And since everybody has the right to attend and express his views in a scientific seminar, in Igbo village assembly, everybody has the freedom to express his views and decisions arrived at by consensus.
Traditional Igbo society equally hardly allowed women to have the same say with their male counterparts. Women were never allowed membership of the villag.e assembly and they were equally not admitted to the masquerade system. Thus in traditional Igbo society generally, women usually took a back seat, which was a serious setback.
In their quest to exert political influence and control over the colonized people, the British colonial administration in Nigeria, instituted Native Courts over large parts of the country and appointed local agents to superintend over their affairs. Since the British did not have enough resources, human and material, to run the territory, or did not want to spend in a colonial territory, they decided to select some local individuals whom they installed as Warrant Chiefs, and gave them power to run the government at the local level, while European colonial administrators sitting at the remote centres of the administration kept a watchful eye.
Known as the “Indirect Rule” system, this was imported to Nigeria by Lord Frederick Lugard, who as Governor General, had experimented with it in East Africa where he once served as administrator. In both the Northern and Western parts of Nigeria, which already had a centralized kingship system, the Indirect Rule System worked perfectly well.
Not surprisingly, for many of these chiefs who were not used to exercise of governmental authority, but who now had been called upon to exercise it without precedent or training, the situation was simply confusing. No wonder therefore that many of these chiefs actually abused the system, which accounted for the many lapses and criticisms leveled against theWarrant Chiefs, and by extension, the Indirect Rule System.
Even though many of the Warrant Chiefswere said to be corrupt, dictatorial and ruled atrociously, nevertheless, some others had provided courageous and progressive leadership, judging by the climate of the time. As was generally known, majority of the Warrant Chiefs did not receive formal education nor were they taken through the rudiments of political administration before being appointed to the exalted office.
Based on intelligence reports from its field officers, which revealed the existence of a considerable variety of pre-colonial local political institutions and jurisdiction, the Colonial Government in the 1930s created new local Native Authority Councils and Courts composed mainly of elders and other members of the local elite (Ishi-ani). These councils were believed to resemble the traditional structures of local administration, but hardly became so, since they were based on large-scale ‘clans’ or ‘federations’ and other units which were much larger than the communal units in pre-colonial Igbo society.
By the 1940s, the British colonial administration introduced the “Best Man Policy” Okacha Nma, (Axel Harneit-Sievers, 1999), by not insisting on having only the elders as representatives in the councils, but encouraging communities to choose younger and educated elite representatives.
Establishment of ‘Houses of Chiefs’
For the Igbo dominated Eastern Region in particular, this was an opportunity not to be allowed to slip off so it could stand on equal footing with the other two regions, that is, the West and the North, which already had established kingship systems. Thus, due to its peculiar political nature, the government of Eastern Region commissioned a former district officer and Cambridge anthropologist, Mr. G.I. Jones, to advise it on the necessity or otherwise of establishing a “House of Chiefs” in the region.
In a report which he submitted to government, Mr. Jones saw the proposal for the establishment of a “House of Chiefs” in the East as a political decision that should be taken by the regional government, at least, to gain the sympathy of some minority ethnic groups in the region who already had established chieftaincy traditions. He however recommended a limited inclusion of chiefs as ex officio-members in the local councils, a procedure for their official recognition by government and payment of salaries for those of them serving at county and district levels.
At the end of the civil war in 1970, Mr. Ukpabi Asika, who was appointed Administrator of the East Central State, where majority of the Igbo belonged, was more concerned with rebuilding the war-ravaged areas of the state than sparing any thought for the institution of traditional chieftaincy. Even when the East Central State was split into about fity-four divisional administrative units and a Divisional Administration Department (DAD) put in place to superintend over their affairs, Mr. Asika did not still think that chiefs could play much role in his administration. Instead, he encouraged the formation of strong town unions to drive development down the grassroots, while relegating the chiefs to the background.
Ukpabi Asika’s non-challant attitude towards the chieftaincy institution was not surprising, and stemmed from his perception of the role played by the chiefs in the creation of the Biafran Republic, since most of these chiefs constituted the bulk of membership of the “Eastern Nigeria Consultative Council” that advised Odumegwu Ojukwu to pull the Eastern Region out of the Nigerian federation and declare it the Sovereign State of Biafra.
In 1976, the federal government of Nigeria set up a local government reform committee headed by Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki, charged with the responsibility to establish a uniform standard for local government administration nationwide.
The committee, in its report, laid down criteria for creating local government council, which it defined as the “third tier of government”, and whose aim was to “bring government closer to the people”. Accepting the committee’s report as well as its recommendation, the Nigerian Federal Government charged state governments to apply the same system to their constituents in creating local government councils. In the Igbo-speaking areas of the East Central State (later split into Anambra and Imo States), the government set up a committee headed by Professor Adiele Afigbo, to advise it on the best way of implementing the committee’s recommendation.
Again, in order to obtain government recognition, the Traditional Ruler, according to the edict, is required to prove “popular support”, and then be publicly presented to the governor for recognition. This has made the traditional institution political since aspirants to the chieftaincy stool would, of necessity, move round the villages to canvass for support, thus putting them in the same shoe with the politicians. And yet, traditional rulers are supposed to be insulated from politics!
The Chieftaincy Edict further required an autonomous community to provide a written “constitution” and a “code of conduct” for the Traditional Ruler. This is necessary since this would make for orderly selection of occupants to chieftaincy stools since in most communities there were no laid down criteria for such selection. Except in some few communities, which claimed that the institution was hereditary, many other communities after a long tussle, produced their constitutions, which provided for the rotation of the Chieftaincy Stool among the constituent units of the area.
Interestingly, most of the people who later emerged as “traditional rulers” and accorded government recognition, turned out to be mainly businessmen and contractors. This was not surprising since these were people who had the required cash, necessary to “purchase” the position. Even at that, as businessmen and contractors, most of these Traditional Rulers spend most of their time in the big cities where they have their businesses interests, while sparing some few weekends in their palaces to interact with their subjects. Not only that, some of the Traditional Rulers who were “urban brought up” were not even grounded with the custom and tradition of their people, and so remain alien to the people.
Traditional rulers are the custodians of the people’s culture and tradition. They are however to be “consulted” in all land matters. This means that the Igbo Traditional Ruler, unlike his counterpart in the northern and western parts of the country, have no power to alienate any community land without the consent of his subjects.
The Anambra State Traditional Rulers’ Law of 1981 further encouraged Traditional Rulers to “cooperate with the local government council” and assist them “in the collection of taxes”. All these functions are no easy task, which means that any genuine Traditional Ruler must be fully committed to his role and responsibility. Unfortunately, many of these Traditional Rulers, as businessmen and contractors, are hardly in their palaces, thereby leaving many of their functions largely unattended to.
However, many Traditional Rulers complain that they are not usually supported by government. According to them, government does not give Traditional Ruler any “security votes” with which to deal with security issues that daily confront them. This means that many of these Traditional Rulers have been carrying on these responsibilities with their meagre resources. It is only recently that the Enugu State government, for example, has started paying stipends to its Traditional Rulers, otherwise those of them with no visible means of livelihood, have been living from hand to mount, which is very demeaning and embarrassing.
Many of today’s Traditional Rulers, not just in Igboland, but in Nigeria as a whole, are no longer the “antiquated, archaic and uneducated yesterday men”, who were only good in breaking the kola nuts and pouring libations to the ancestors. Among these Traditional Rulers are retired technocrats and administrators, educationists, diplomats and international businessmen. In that wise, government could tap on their wealth of experience by giving them positions of responsibility such as membership of boards and parastatals, setting up a National Council of Traditional Rulers where some Traditional Rulers could meaningfully contribute to national development.
Since in times of problems government would always rush to the Traditional Rulers to help stabilize the system, during peace time, government should as well set up a standing committee made up of experienced Traditional Rulers that would constantly advise it on sensitive national issues. That is where a constitutional role for Traditional Rulers in the country comes in.
After years of experimentation, the kingship system has come to stay in Igboland. Most Igbo communities now have their own kings (Traditional Rulers), who preside over their traditional and cultural affairs. But the Igbo king is the products of mere mortals, ordinary human beings. He was not made by the gods or by spirits, and hence, does not wield absolute powers.
The Igbo king may be respected, revered and paid obeisance as father of the community, but he does not possess extraordinary wisdom or intelligence. He is just like every other person, and therefore, cannot swing the pendulum one way or the other. The Igbo king reigns but does not rule. It is the President General of the Town Union and members of his Executive Committee that actually rules the Community. They drive all the developmental projects in the community. But they must seek the blessing and approval of the Traditional Ruler for the success of the enterprise.
Adegbulu, Femi (2011) ‘From Warrant Chiefs to Ezeship: A Distortion of Traditional Institution in Igboland?’ Afro Asian Journal of Sciences, Volume 2, No. 2.2 Quarter II.
Isichie, E. (1976) A History of the Igbo people, London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Onwuejeogwu, M.A. (1980) “Nri Kingdom and Hegemony: An Outline of Igbo Civilization, AD 994 to Present”, Nri, Tabansi Press.
Umeh, J.A. (1999) Igbo People-Their Origin and Culture Area. Enugu, Nigeria; Gostak Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd,
Uzoigwe, G.N. (2004) “Evolution and Relevance of Autonomous Communities in Pre-colonial
I st dic Anambra State Government dict No
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