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Cheta Nwanze: History Of The Igbo People

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Today we will talk about ndi Igbo, and how the Igbo man came to be. BUT putting this together in one article is impossible. Because of this difficulty, today’s focus will be on the events of the colonial period, when modern Igboman came into being.

Many modern day Igbo groups/clans began their journey to their present “homes” from parts of what is now Northern Nigeria. Unlike the Yoruba who migrated as a group, those who were to become Igbo migrated in clans. This explains cultural differences. Those who settled around Nsukka, Enugu and today’s Ebonyi, came via the Idoma region hence their similarities to Benue people. Many of today’s Anambra Igbos first settled in Igala (in today’s Kogi), before continuing southward to their current location. The Anioma sub-group is divided into two, Enuani and Ukwuani. Enuani and Onitsha people migrated from Igala along with Ishan. Ukwuani people trace their ancestry along similar lines to the riverine peoples, i.e they were slaves to the Binis who escaped. The Aro settled their area around the 16th century, led by Eze Agwu from the north, and suppressing the Ibibio indigenes. Owerri Igbos came from different places, some from across the creeks, and some from Nri, others escaping Ibibios from the Aro. The group that’s been in today’s Igboland longest (at least 1000 years) are Nri, who were there as far back as the 9th century.

Before the Brits arrived, these groups and others I haven’t mentioned, traded and intermarried, sharing identity and bonds. They also fought one another, and so maintained their uniqueness as well. British arrival brought interaction with outsiders. It took the British a decade to conquer Igboland. In many places they just walked in, in many others, they were resisted. The final vestiges of Igbo resistance was the Ekwumekwu movement which was extinguished in Igbo-Uzo (Ibusa) around 1918.

Mention here of Ikwo who lost 15,000 men to the Brits in 1905. Some think their battle cry is the origin of the word “Igbo”.

Because of population pressures on their native lands, a lot of Igbo people began to migrate outward within the new country. Most of those who moved initially, were people who were not highly placed within their own clans, and also outcasts, the Osu. That the least affluent, and outcasts were the first to come in contact with the better educated Yoruba led to negative perceptions.

As at the end of the 1920s, the more affluent Yoruba and Europeans perceived Igbos in Lagos as mostly labourers and stewards. One effect of this was a fracturing of Igbo people, with Onitsha, Aro and Asaba people refusing to identify themselves as Igbo. Another effect: many Igbos were ashamed to be identified as Igbo. So Kelechi became KC, Chukwuma became Chuks, Kalu became Kay.

The return of the first set of Igbo graduates to Nigeria, S.E. Onwu, Akanu Ibiam, Nnamdi Azikiwe, provoked a call for change. These man felt that for the perception to change, a long game of education, would bring social and cultural emancipation. As a result, the Igbo Union was established in 1934, in Lagos, and inaugurated with principal officers two years later in 1936.

In 1943, the IU started the Igbo Federal Union (IFU), to build thirty schools across Igboland and start an Igbo National Bank. The IFU connected Igbo migrants in the urban centres with various voluntary Igbo community development associations. Between 1947 & 1951, the General Secretary of the IFU, BON Eluwa began an understated trek, the most important in Igbo history. Eluwa’s mission took him to every hamlet in Igboland to convince all Igbo people that they were Igbo. He largely succeeded.

By 1948, the growing influence of the Igbo was causing Yoruba leaders discomfort, and they started stoking anti-Igbo sentiment. As a result, a pan-Igbo congress was held in Port Harcourt in 1948, and Igbo State Union, with Azikiwe as President, was born. The ISU immediately aligned itself with the NCNC, and began to push for a united Igbo front by settling community disputes. It’s first big success was settling the dispute between Onitsha Improvement Union and the Non-Onitsha Igbo Association in 1955. The ISU even fought for the rights of Igbo settlers in Fernando Po, modern Equatorial Guinea, when migrants were mistreated.

Following Nigeria’s political independence in 1960, ISU was always on hand to defend Igbo people in other regions of Nigeria. ISU successfully defended Eni Njoku when he was removed as UNILAG VC in 1963 because he wasn’t Yoruba, He served out his term. The actions of IU, IFU then ISU in giving scholarships to Igbo youth, closed the education gap with the Yoruba in a generation. The knowledge that the ISU existed, gave many Igbos a sense of identity and cultural pride, and helped forge the Igbo identity. ISU was in a quirk of fate, proscribed by the Aguiyi-Ironsi regime in 1966 because of rumours that they were behind the coup.

But more than the ISU’s efforts, the cataclysm of 1966-1970, deepened Igbo identity, though not in a structured way as ISU did. Unlike ISU, which gave cultural pride, 1966-70 shamed Igbos, and some Igbos, like 50 years earlier began to deny themselves. For example, post 1970, the town of Igbo-Akiri rebranded itself as Igbanke, in order to identify more with its Edo neighbours. Also Ikwerre, which until then was an Igbo sub-group, became an ethnic identity in its own right, and Umu-Igbo became Rumuigbo. These were not the only two. Lots of clans on the outer fringes of Igboland chose other identities to avoid post-war stigma.

After the war, some prominent Igbos tried to form a successor to the ISU, but the Igbo National Assembly was swiftly banned. In 1976, Dennis Osadebe, from Asaba, a former premier of the Midwest unified the Enuani and Ukwuani people and created Anioma. His idea was to give Igbo speaking peoples a greater voice in the now renamed Bendel state, and “cover their shame”. To the East of the Niger, Ben Nwabueze thought this was a good idea, and convened a “successor” to ISU. So Ohanaeze was born.

Ohanaeze however, has never been able to reach the heights that the ISU reached and Igbos have been poorer for it.

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Cheta Nwanze writes from Lagos Nigeria and can be reached via @Chxta on twitter

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