Who are we?

It is certainly very uncommon to see people having the same cultural tie and history would not group them as belonging to the same ancestry. In the same way, it is very difficult to imagine where Onitsha Ugbo in Delter State and Igbotako, Ososro in Ondo State got their Aju festival if not as a mark of ancestral observances. One may equally ask where the Ikwerre of Rivers State borrowed their version of Igbo language from, since Dr. Pegel remarked that language does not change entirely very fast. As difficult as the inhabitants of all these places cannot state their cases clearly is even the more difficult as the inhabitants of Umuodumu in far Bayelsa State cannot argue their legs out of Igbo ancestry, seeing that at a certain time around 16 century and later, people of the same name, larger in population than the number that could make a village, left the North-Eastern Igbo land known as Nkalaha. These among others gave rise to the question, who are the Igbo?

Looking at it from one side, it looks like a straightforward question that should evoke a simple answer. But it is not truly simple as it looks. The term “Igbo” has been changing its meaning according to time and political climate, different from what it originally implies. It cuts across boundaries reaching out to the precision about who the Igbo neighbours are. And not until the first is settled, there would be little or no information about the neighbours. Now, taking it from its etymological root, the Igbo refer to themselves as a people whose beginning did not emanate from the birth of a progenitor. By this, they insist that they had come from nowhere than the sky.

The concept Igbo therefore is sustainable evidence to that evince. Igbo therefore is the amalgam of the phrase, Ndi Gbo, translated to mean “people of the ancient time”. By this view, the existence of the Igbo by the word’s inference evokes the sense of a beginning that is beyond this earthly existence. Maybe this was the reason why the Yoruba brothers insist that Igbo is the name of the Igbo God-father(s). Refreshing this view, Osita Osadebe had always said, Chukwu kere anyi gbo gbo, God created us of ancient without time. And because the entire geographical locale marked out as east was Igbo dominated language users, there was an encouraged brotherhood lifestyle which made it relatively difficult to distinguish between the Igbo and their neighbours.

In the early days when east began to experience spittle of the foreign colour, for instance, some of the European publicists, especially some missionaries and anthropologists, had no difficulty in delimiting who the Igbo were. To these men most of the people east of theEdo and south of Igala, Idọma and Tivi were Igbo either in ethnic stock or in language or in their social structure and institutions or in all the above. To Dr. W. B. Baikie who wrote in 1854, “all the coast dialects from Oru to Old Calabar are either directly or indirectly connected with Igbo”. He further asserted that the Igbo are “separated from the sea by petty tribes all of which trace their origin to this great race”, the Igbo. Major A. G. Leonard, writing in 1906, recorded that it was the view of missionaries and travelers in these parts that people around the coastal regions are all Igbo.

Comparing the language as it is spoken in all of these different localities, the dialectical variations are not very marked, the purest dialect being spoken, as already pointed out, in Isuania and neighbourhood, while the most pronounced  difference is to be found between the Niger dialect, especially  that which is spoken right on the river or on its western bank, and that of the more eastern sections, which lie nearer to the  Cross river and in proximity to the Ibibio. It has been suggested by missionaries and travellers that the languages spoken by the Ibibio, Efik, Andoni, and others have all been derived from Ibo at some ancient period; also that there is a distinct dialectical affinity between the Ijo dialects of Oru, Brass, Ibani, and New Calabar, and the Isuama dialect of Ibo. Indeed, Dr. Baikie, in his Narrative of a Voyage on the Niger, expresses the opinion that all the coast dialects from ' Oru ' to ' Old Calabar ' are either directly or indirectly connected with ' Igbo ' " {i.e. Ibo), which latter, he states. (p. 43).
These conclusions were based on contemporary analysis of linguistic relationships and oral traditions collected from certain Ijọ and Efik-Ibibio communities. If we dismiss the linguistic studies of the period as unreliable, we must concede that these men did not fabricate the claims to Igbo origin which they encountered among the Ijọ and the Efik-Ibibio. In other words at that time, and indeed until three or four decades ago, there were many Ijọ and Efik-Ibibio communities which proudly laid claim to Igbo origin but today would treat such a suggestion as an affront. Here we find a classic example of the trick which time and political consciousness play on historical writing.

Howbeit, just as there were, during the colonial period, people who were prepared to give such a wide ethnological meaning to the term “Igbo”, there were others who gave it a more restricted reading. To this latter group the Arọ were not Igbo because their oracle organization and their extensive trading “empire” showed them up as too “intelligent” and “intellectual” to be Igbo. They were believed to be either a colony of ancient Egyptians, or Phonecians, or Jukuns or Portuguese, or Jews or some other “Semito-Hamitic” group. By the same token the highly evolved priestly monarchy of the Ụmụnri around which the people built up a ritual hegemony covering. People of such opinion may be required to go back memory lean to unearth the population composition of the ancient Nsude/Nsukka civilization which flourished earliest before the nations mentioned above ever were thought to be in existence. The Aro were the first merchants to export iron raw material from the ancient empire to the rest of the Igbo settlement. Their early contact with the Awka revealed the technocracy of the people in the area as belonging to the earliest iron workers. As a people from the part of the Igbo community where the gods show evidences of their existence, the institution of the deity that survived the merchant empire should not be a question. 

Some Northern and Western Igboland were believed to prove that they were not originally Igbo, but a colony of Jukuns or of some other Hamitic culture carriers. To the same group of Europeans, the people of Onitsha were not Igbo because they had a centralized political system considered uncharacteristic of the Igbo. They also had a traditional kingship style traced to Benin. At one point it was thought that physical anthropology which is concerned with the study of bone structure and blood groups would settle all questions such as this. But this does not now appear to be the case especially as physical type is a function of environment and nutritional habits, while blood group may be affected by inter-breeding. Anthropometric studies of Southern Nigeria peoples by Dr P. A. Talbot and Mr. Mulhall produced a number of startling results. According to them, their findings showed that the Igbo, previously thought to be a homogeneous ethnic stock, are far from homogeneous.

Not only do some Igbo sub-cultural groups differ from one another as regards physical type, they also manifest significant physical structural similarities with neighbouring non-Igbo peoples and indeed with other African people living far away from Nigeria. On the strength of some of their data, for instance, it was found out that the Onitsha of the Northern Igbo cluster “are nearly identical with the Nyanwezi (ofTanzania) and near to the Swahili”. But invariably, the relationship was that of the Northern Onitsha who migrated to the present day Tanzania as revealed in the Reality as Myth. Neither the Igbo, nor any other Nigerian group can be defined using only anthropometric or serological data, thanks to the blurring effects of past large population movements, intermarriages as well as of identical environmental factors and nutritional habits.

A common sense approach would ignore this entire dispute amongst the egg-heads, placing greater reliance on language and a number of cultural traits. We do not need, it can be argued, an academic head-measurer going about with calipers or an oracle to tell us when we meet an Igbo or enter an Igbo compound. The language, the mode of dress, social institutions like Ọzọ titles, Ọfọ, Njọku, Nmanwụ masquerade, marriage practices, burial rites, settlement patterns, etc., speak louder and clearer than the abstruse research findings and analyses of bespectacled professors. But to adopt this common sense approach is to close ones eyes to the fact that it is not possible to pick out any of these traits and assert that it exists in all Igbo communities and that it is not found in any other community lying beyond whatever may be the accepted Igbo frontier, or that it is accepted by all those who manifest it as the indisputable mark of the Igbo nature

Of all the traits which it is possible to single out as marking out the Igbo as a distinct group, the Igbo language is probably the most important, the one that can lay claim to the epithet “pan-Igbo”, as Late Professor Afigbo puts it. But as we have already shown, in the nineteenth century, and in the early part of the twentieth century many, Efik-Ibibio and Ijọ communities were classified as Igbo on the basis of language. Because the Igbanị (Bonny), Opobo and their satellite communities were considered to be Igbo, they were represented in the group of five local linguists who, with Archdeacon Dennis sat at Egbu Owerri and translated the Holy Bible into Union Igbo. Though the Onitsha, Aboh, Nri and Arọchukwu were and are Igbo-speaking they were regarded as non-Igbo by these expatriates for reasons already stated.

Turning towards the northern part of the east, the anthropologist, North-cote Thomas, found that Igala communities living up to a full day’s journey beyond the accepted northern frontiers of Igbo land were Igbo-speaking by the first decade of this century. There is also the fact that if the principle of mutual intelligibility is applied, many of the frontier dialects of the Igbo language would be classified as distinct languages. Cases in point are the Abakaliki cluster of dialects – Izzi, Ikwo, Ezza and Ngbọ. And indeed a few years ago, some linguistic pundits in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages at the University of Ibadan issued a paper which, among other things, sought to show that “Igbo” is not a language but a cluster of languages. On the whole they identified for the time being six languages within their "Igbo group". Further research was expected to increase this number. The Ikwerre of the present Rivers State were made to underline this point after the collapse of Biafra by the simple process of prefixing a capital "R” to the names of their towns. In this way,

Ụmụkurushi became Rumukurushi,
Ụmụigbo became Rumuigbo, 
Umudara became Rumudara,
Umuokoro became Rumuokoro etc.
The primary reason for doing this, after the war, was to make other Nigerians forget that they are or ever were Igbo.

With these problems it is not surprising that delimiting Igbo-land on the ground or on the map has not been easy at all. In the days before politics bedeviled the issue of ethnic identity in Nigeria, neither M. M. Green, Dr. P. A. Talbot, Professor D. Forde nor Mr. G. I. Jones had apparently any difficulty in tracing on the map the imaginary line which divides the Igbo from their neighbours. Following this earlier example Professor M. A. Onwuejeogwu in one of his publications defined the Igbo Culture area as an area enclosed by an imaginary line running outside of the settlements of Agbor, Kwalle (west Niger Igbo), Ahoada, Diobu, Ụmụabayi (Port Harcourt), Arọchukwu, Afikpo, Isiagụ (Abakaliki area), Enugu-Ezike (Nsukka area) and Ebu (west Niger Igbo). One presumable difficult area in the definition by Onwuejiogwu is the phrase, “outside of the settlements of Agbor, Kwalle, etc”. It evokes further re-inclusion of the imaginary boundary where possibly, outside the marked area, the Igbo are still traced beyond. one example of people in these areas is the Igbotako in Ondo State. Professor Elizabeth Isichei, coming fresh to this area and its problems and either caring nothing for, or knowing nothing about the significance of these imaginary lines, as intoned by Professor Onwuejiogwu, traced the boundary of Igbo land with the usual easy lines in such a way that Port Harcourt and some other parts of Ikwerre fell outside the hitherto accepted Igbo culture area.

From these outstretched explanations, one may still ask, who are the Igbo? Is it those who call themselves Igbo; those who are prepared to take upon themselves the odium which this two-syllabic word evokes in Nigerian politics today? Or is it those who are called Igbo by their neighbours who want to brand them in order to put them at a disadvantage either as political or economic rivals? If the latter, and depending on the political climate, the “Igbo” would include all the people of south-eastern Nigeria, as it did during the pogroms of 1966 thus making possible the killing of Ogoja, Ijọ and Efik-Ibibio high-ranking army officers alongside their colleagues who were Igbo proper. It would also include, from time to time, the Ijebu of Yoruba land whose business practices are often considered sharp and un-Yoruba. It would include the Igbotako, Osoro in the Yoruba Ondo State who did not only have Igbo as their head name, but takes active part in the Ajunkwu ancestral festival celebrated in Obinagu, Udi of Enugu State and many other Igbo language communities. It would also include the christianized peoples of Southern Zaria and Plateau State whose avidity for western education was considered strange as against the context of social values accepted in the old Northern Nigeria.

For sure, there is no valid argument that extricates the inhabitants of Ida communities for repudiating their Igbo origin, looking at the unquantifiable roles of Achadu in Ida Kingship which explicated the simple nature and lifestyle of the Nsukka of ancient time. This apart, Ida has heavy presence of Igbo in her language until this day. Common sense approach to the problem of defining of the Igbo is thus riddled with problems. Yet for lack of a more functional definition, we shall adopt it here and regard as Igbo all those who live within Professor Onwuejeogwu’s imaginary line traced above which, as we said, coincides with the delimitation worked out by other anthropologists of a less political age. With this we are able to attempt a definition of who the Igbo neighbours are.

The role of the Niger River and other rivers within the Igbo settlement from the earliest times to the period of British conquest of the Igbo communities is remarkable in determining the boundary between the Igbo (as an earmarked entity) and their neighbours. Their neighbours in this light are the ethnic nationalities who live along their borders; in the south by rivers and in the north by land. These were the Igala, the Idọma, the Ogoja, the Efik-Ibibio the Ijọ and the Edo. These were the people with whom they interacted on a regular and continuing basis in the different areas of human endeavour – in war, peace, trade, inter-marriage, cultural exchange and so on. Above all it was the will of this new and very powerful neighbours that dictated that Igbo  land should be part of the new nation, Nigeria, which they created. It would be thought that their stand during the unhappy events of 1966 – 1970 helped to determine that the Igbo would continue as an organic part of that nation. The other neighbours whom the Igbo acquired as a result of the British conquest were the rest of Nigerian peoples other than the Edo, Igala, Idọma, Ogoja, Efik-Ibibio, and Ijọ already mentioned. Thus British conquest widened the Igbo world, the range of Igbo contact, and has continued to determine what happens to the Igbo and their society.

If you have a different view, share and let us know about it!


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