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It is rather fortuitous that Igwe Osita Agwuna 111, who for five decades reigned as Eze of the town of Enugwu Ukwu and Igwe of Umunri, was born in December (exactly December 22), 1921. I suspect that most would remember Igwe Osita Agwuna 111 merely as a long-reigning monarch of Enugwu Ukwu, a veritable citadel of Igbo civilization and history. This fact is a significant accomplishment in its own right. Even so, the man was much more than this, his gravitas far grander than his extraordinary impact as a traditional authority with a modernizing impulse.
On this, the 94th anniversary of his birth, it is fitting to celebrate one of the most fascinating, if sadly under-appreciated, architects of Nigerian Independence, a rare library of cultural knowledge, a prodigious and insightful explicator of Igbo tradition whose writings represent a treasure trove of Igbo customs, and a visionary founder of a museum that husbanded his people’s customs and artifacts.
If the name of Igwe Osita Agwuna 111 is not a household one among the Igbo and indeed within Nigeria, it is an indictment of our collective amnesia, a reflection of our habit of venerating mediocrity whilst consigning the memory of our real men and women of substance and consequence into oblivion or worse.
There is a personal dimension to my reminiscences of this remarkable, world-famous monarch, cultural ambassador, and Nigerian patriot. Until 1977, my parents lived in Enugwu Ukwu, where my father, Christopher Chidebe Ndibe, and mother, Elizabeth Ofuchinyelu Ndibe, served as postmaster and headmistress respectively. My four siblings and I were fortunate, then, to spend some of the most important formative years of our youth in Enugwu Ukwu.
It was in that ancient town that my awareness of the depth, beauty and pageantry of Igbo language, customs and culture was awakened. Every traditional ceremony in the town was marked by an enchanting festive air featuring a parade of hundreds of masquerades of different sorts, sometimes including the majestic Ijele. Part of what struck me in those impressionable days was the ecumenical spirit that shot through the social atmosphere. For example, masquerades would feature at traditional feasts, but also at such Christian or secular celebrations as Christmas, Easter and the New Year. Besides, Christians as well as animists took part in the variety of festivals, a time when music rent the air and food as well as drinks seemed to flow in inexhaustible quantities.
Those were days of sheer enchantment. Even today, I am filled with a sense of nostalgia as I recall those celebrations marked by spectacular color, great dances, and much feasting.
By far the most memorable event in the town’s cultural calendar was Igwe Osita Agwuna’s Igu Aro, the formal proclamation by the monarch of the end of one year and the beginning of a new one based on Umunri lunar calendar. The cultural and social import of this event was far reaching. It was attended by thousands of people from Enugwu Ukwu, other parts of Igboland, Nigeria, and indeed from abroad. I was always moved as a child as I observed this amazing event from a distance—spellbound by the sense of grandeur it exuded.
The Igwe’s proclamation was a signpost of communal renewal. It was an opportunity for the community to take stock of its fortunes and misfortunes during the past year, and to consecrate an altogether wholesome departure and positive experience in the New Year. In addition, the event gave the community a certain bearing in all aspects of its life, including the determination of farming and harvesting seasons.
Prior to presiding over this potent ceremony, Igwe Osita Agwuna would observe a mandatory period of seclusion. For a period of three traditional weeks—or thirteen days—he retreated to uno-nso, a mud-hut located in the center of a thicket near his palace teeming with medicinal and ritual trees. Here, Igwe Agwuna concentrated his mind on his approaching sacred duty, subjected his body to self-denial, and devoted himself to a cycle of prayers—in the morning, afternoon and at dusk.
On the thirteenth day, the compelling spiritual exercise completed, he would emerge, finally, from his place of isolation, fully prepared for the task of leading his people into a new vista.
At a time when traditional rulers are often associated with a backward mindset, if not regarded as anachronistic and a throw back, Igwe Agwuna exemplified an admirable modern and modernizing outlook. He was an early champion of women’s rights, demonstrating in words and deeds his opposition to practices that authorized the subjection of women. He incorporated a guild of women into his regimen of authority, ensuring that he was always open to the central concerns of womenfolk in his domain. He was particularly sensitive to the plight of widows in his immediate society, and in the broader Nigerian collectivity.
As I noted earlier, Igwe Agwuna 111 achieved fame as the traditional ruler of Enugwu Ukwu, but his stature extended far beyond his town and outside the confines of traditional rulership. A fervent cultural archivist, he founded Obu Ofo Nri Museum, a mecca for scholars of ancestral Igbo metaphysics, culture and history. But in the absence of significant investment of time and resources by public and private institutions, I fear that museum, with its collection of rare artifacts, would be endangered. The same fate might befall some of Igwe Agwuna’s profoundly insightful texts on numerous aspects of Igbo cultural practices.
At a time when some Christian fundamentalists have declared a misconceived wholesale war on anything that smacks of “tradition,” even when these traditional customs are neither unenlightened nor at odds with Christianity, we would do well to pay attention to Igwe Agwuna’s extensive writings. Sadly, when I made enquiries recently, I found out that most of this writing is not easily available.
A dynamic publisher should undertake the labor of collecting Igwe Agwuna’s texts in a series of volumes that would instruct scholars of Igbo history and culture as well as dilettantes who simply crave a deeper knowledge of the Igbo world and cosmos.
In a country where history was taken seriously, Igwe Agwuna 111 would take his worthy place as a national hero. For, he played a major role—as a veritable member of the Zikist Movement—in the struggle by Nigerians to rid themselves of the formal yoke of British colonial domination. The fact of his participation in the anti-colonial struggle is noted in a smattering of journalistic pieces and journal articles, but has never drawn the kind of full-length historical treatment that it deserves.
This tragic lacuna explains why great men and women like Igwe Agwuna 111, Margaret Ekpo, Michael Imoudu, Aminu Kano and Mokwugo Okoye are in danger of erasure from national consciousness—at a time when all manner of knaves, mediocrities and clowns are elevated to the sanctum sanctorum of national attention.
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