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 The 1981 Ahiajoku Lecture



The Age of Innocence:
the Igbo and their Neighbours
in pre-Colonial Times



A. E. Afigbo

Professor of History, University of Nigeria, Nsukka


Ọha n’eze nara nụ ekele

Onye na nke ya, onye na nke ya

Ihe ọma mee, nke ọjọọ emela

Egbe bere, ugo bere

Nke sị ibe ya ebela

Nku kwaa ya

Ntigbu ntigbu nzọgbu nzọgbu

Ya n'agụ zutekwa


It is, perhaps necessary, to remind ourselves that we have gathered here today to listen to the third in the Ahiajoku Lecture Series which was inaugurated with appropriate ceremony and great success on 30th November, 1979. The series was conceived and has so far been executed in festive terms. It is designed to offer us, each year, an opportunity to gather in, (that is harvest) for the education, entertainment and edification of our people, some of the political, economic, social, cultural, technological, philosophical and other fruits which are believed to have matured for us as a result of the labours of our ancestors in the immense and measureless garden of history. Implicit in the concept harvest, is a preceding period of sowing or planting. To the materialistic age in which we live and which is often characterized by superficial thinking, harvest is by definition a time of blissful celebration, marked, for us Africans especially, by group dances and colourful masquerades, by goodwill visits and gift exchanges. But is it necessarily so? Is it not also a time of pain and agony for the sluggard and lie-a-bed (what my people call adaka soro egu ogu gbaba ọhia) who out of a disinclination to summon up the energy required to clear and farm the mature forest land planted his crops in the overworked and exhausted brush land which he also failed to weed?


But what is more important, the concepts planting and harvesting have a wider application, whether for the individual or the group, than materialists think. In the cosmic context in which the human drama unfolds, they provide part of the light which enables us to understand the human condition at any time in history. This is so in the sense that the nature and quality of the harvest is logically deter-mined by the kind of seed we sowed, on what kind of soil we sowed it and how painstakingly we manured and tended it. Thus Ahiajoku is a time when we harvest not only plump and sweet fruits, but 'also shriveled up and bitter fruits depending on how we sowed and tended our seeds the previous season. With respect to ordinary crops, there is a planting season and there is a harvesting season. But in the cosmic context in which men live their lives and sow their seeds in thought, word and deed, as in the social institutions and inter-group and inter-personal relations which they establish, every moment of history is a time of reaping as well as a time of sowing. Though not disposed to preach, I thus feel constrained to remind ourselves that as we of this generation reap the fruits of the labours of our revered ancestors, whatever they happen to be, we should remember to plant what our successors will reap. As my people would say it:


Nwa na-eri akụ nna ya kpara

Ya kpatakwa nke ụmụ ya ga-eri


And in doing so we should be very mindful of what kinds of seeds we sow, on what kinds of soil we sow them and how we manure and tend them.


Thus, any limited and narrow conception of Ahiajoku, of harvest as a time of festivities, is likely to expose us to the danger of every year at this time losing ourselves in rounds of winning and dinning and mutual congratulations. On the other hand a broader conception of it, will help to remind us that even at the materialistic level a time of harvest is also a time of reappraisal, of stock-taking. For serious farmers the New Yam Harvest Festival is also a time of serious reappraisal – reappraisal of the performance during the previous agricultural year of Njọku (the yam force), of Ala (the earth force) of Igwe (the sky force which sends rain and sunshine), of man as di ji or eze ji (farmer). It is also a time when, in the comfort provided by relative plenty, plans are made, at least mentally, for the next season. In keeping with this tried and tested tradition the present lecturer is going to seize this opportunity of a lifetime to try and examine critically and soberly (which also means appreciatively and, if necessary, deprecatingly) the achievements of the Igbo in that sensitive area of group endeavour which required and still requires them to work out a modus vivendi with their neighbours.


My topic rises in ones mind two preliminary questions which must be touched upon here rather than answered in full. The first is “who are the Igbo?’ and the second “who are their neighbours?” On the surface these are straightforward questions that should evoke simple answers. But in fact they are not easy to answer as will become clear presently. The term Igbo has shown itself to be rather chameleonic, changing its meaning according to time and political climate. And unless we can be certain who the Igbo are, we cannot say who their neighbours are. During the century that came after 1850 or so, some 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 the Edo 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 three. To Dr. W. B. Baikie writing 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”. Major A. G. Leonard, writing in 1906, recorded that it was the view of missionaries and travelers in these parts 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 dialectal affinity between the Ijọ dialects of Brass, Ibani and New Calabar and the Isuama dialects of Ibo”.


These conclusions were based on contemporary analysis of linguistic relationships and on 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.


However, 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


Northern and Western Igboland was 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 tradition of origin tracing them 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 with a finality. 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 is 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, but 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 (of Tanzania) and near to the Swahili”. Neither the Igbo, therefore, 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 all this 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 Igboness. 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”. But as we have already shown, in the nineteenth century, and in the early part of this century many Efik-Ibibio and Ijọ communities were classified as Igbo on the basis of language. Because the Igbanị, that is 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 for reasons already stated. According to the anthropologist, North-cote Thomas, many Igala communities living up to a full day’s journey beyond the accepted northern frontiers of Igboland 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 and so on in the hope, rather than the belief, that this would make other Nigerians forget they are or ever were Igbo. It is not unlikely that the fate of this intrusive “R” will be in the balance if the current movement for a Port Harcourt State should succeed.


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 54iss M. M. Green, nor Dr P. A. Talbot nor Professor D. Forde and 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 a recent publication 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 question which can be raised here but will not be answered is: what is “outside of the settlements of Agbor, Kwalle, etc”? 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, traced the boundary of Igboland 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.


Using the common sense approach therefore who are the Igbo? Is it those who call themselves Igbo, that is those who are prepared to take upon themselves the odium which this two-syllable 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 along with those of their colleagues who were “Igbo proper”. It would also include, from time to time, the Ijebu of Yorubaland whose business practices are often considered sharp and un - Yoruba. It would also include, the christianized peoples of Southern Zaria and Plateau State whose avidity for western education was considered strange within the context of social values accepted in the old Northern Nigeria.


The common sense approach to the problem of defining who are 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 are the neighbours of the Igbo.


For the greater part of their history, that is from the earliest times to the period of British conquest, the Igbo had as their neighbours the ethnic nationalities who lived along their borders. 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. With British conquest the Igbo acquired more neighbours. First in the new group of neighbours were the British themselves who began dictating to a greater extent than any of the traditional neighbours had done so far, what happened in and to Igbo society. Above all it was the will of this new and very powerful neighbour that dictated that Igboland should be part of the new nation, Nigeria, which they created. It was also their stand during the unhappy events of 1966 – 1970 that determined that the Igbo will, willy-nilly, 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. In this lecture we are concerned with the Igbo and their most immediate neighbours – the Edo, Igala, Idọma, Ogoja, Efik-Ibibio, and Ijọ peoples – in the period before 1900.


Until the colonial period the Igbo had sustained and meaningful, that is direct, contact only with these ethnic nationalities living immediately around them. There is probably no doubt that some Igbo trade items, especially slaves, found their way through the hands of middlemen, to the central Sudan and beyond, for instance. But there is no evidence that this established the normal kind of contact making for unbroken cultural interchange between Igboland and the central Sudan. Nor was there such direct interchange between Igboland and the present Cameroons area. Even though it has been speculated that the much famed Jukun empire of the Benue valley extended its political and economic tentacles to south-eastern Nigeria, there is no solid evidence for the Jukun having been active in Igboland. It is more likely that these people obtained any Igbo slaves they traded in by means of the relay commerce in which items of trade passed from hand to hand, and from one neighbouring village to another, reaching in this way consumers and markets lying far beyond their points of origin. The Igala, the Idọma and the Upper Cross River peoples were thus the most likely suppliers for the Jukun of slaves and other trade items from Igboland.


The Igbo on their own did not range much further than the territories of their immediate neighbours. Chief K. O. K. Onyioha in his researches uncovered some oral tradition suggestive of the fact that the famed “Abam” warriors of the Cross River Igbo were at times hired during this period to fight for and against certain Benue valley peoples in the wars of that region. On the strength of this tradition he made the interesting suggestion that it was probably the Jukun who hired these Abam warriors, and that the military power and ascendancy of the Jukun must have been dependent on the immense man power resources of Igboland. But here it may be observed that the term “Benue valley” covers a wide area which at times is seen to include the Idọma area. Thus it is most likely that it was the Idọma rather than the Jukun who needed the “Abam” to fight their local wars. Also important is the fact that the military might of the Jukuns rested on the fierceness of their cavalry rather than on the numerical superiority of their infantry. The Igbo are not known to have made any mark in cavalry warfare.


The relatively narrow range of Igbo external contact was deter-mined above all by one factor, the fact that the Igbo were first and foremost an agricultural people bound to their land by traditions and taboos nearly as strong as hoops of steel. Nowhere in, the world, are farming communities noted for long range travel. Only a tiny fraction of the total Igbo population felt the urge to travel. And that fraction was made up of those who had detached themselves partially or completely from the land in order to supply either a more generally-felt need or the more exotic needs of a narrow elite class who had developed appetites that could no longer be fully or satisfactorily met from the productive resources of their local communities.


There is also another important consequence of the fact that the Igbo are an agricultural people. As peasant farmers their needs were limited, for the most part, to the basic requirements for existence. Very rarely did demands for luxuries develop to any great extent. In terms of these basic needs the Igbo and their neighbours were fairly richly blessed. A survey of the natural resources of south-eastern Nigeria reveals how richly endowed the region is. Whereas, for instance, the central Sudanese had to go as far as the Sahara and beyond for such a basic necessity as salt, the Igbo and their neighbours got all the salt they needed and more from the brine lakes and springs of the Upper Cross River basin and from the abundant sea water of the Bights of Benin and Biafra. Other basic needs like iron, fish, game, clay for ceramics, fibers for weaving, etc. were also easily obtained. It was usually shortages of such basic needs of man as these that compelled many human communities to cross oceanic and sandy wastes in their search and thus to emerge into the limelight of history as great travelers and civilized men. Neither the Igbo nor their immediate neighbours found it necessary to range far and wide to meet the level of being, considered adequate, within their cultural contexts, for the civilized. independent and satisfied man. Knowing no other way of life, they found the way of life they knew adequate and satisfying. And even later, after they had had a peep into the new way of life imported and peddled by the British, the Igbo had no doubt that the way of life evolved and perfected by their ancestors was the best suited to them. Hence during the women’s war of 1929, the British were invited to pack bag and baggage so that society could be returned to the state in which it was before the imposition of alien rule. In a word the satisfaction by the Igbo and their immediate neighbours with the life styles and patterns which their environment made possible is perhaps the ultimate explanation for the range and character of inter-group relations which existed in this region during this phase of their history.


Indeed inter-group relationship during this period derived, to a greater extent than has so far been realized, from the dominance of the economy by agriculture. The factors of contact which included migration, war, trade and marriage can, to a great extent, be explained in agricultural terms. Four types of migration in the period brought the Igbo into, and kept them in contact with their neighbours. The first was the primary migration which produced the basic demographic spread of the Igbo over the territory they have occupied since historic times and the pattern of which is deducible from the legends of migration of the clans and sub-cultural groups. The second is the secondary migration which filled in the spaces more or less existing between the sub-cultural groups after the emergence of the basic demographic frame of Igboland referred to above. These secondary migrants were made up, for the most part, of minorities, lineages or other groups whose fortunes within the primary settlements had collapsed as a result of which they were compelled to seek safer and may be richer, havens in the “no-man’s land” then still existing between major population centres. The third type of migration was that of slaves (victims of aggression, or criminals or plain no-gooders) sold to provide domestic hands or farm labour or victims of sacrifice in communities generally outside their clans. The fourth type was that of men and women of free status who moved out of their home communities temporarily or permanently in search of gainful employment as farm hands, carriers, oracle agents, diviners or craftsmen. Whereas the major role of primary and secondary migrations was to bring the Igbo into contact with their neighbours all along the border, the third and fourth types of migrations helped to link Igboland intimately with the heartlands of their neighbours.


The role of war as a factor of contact in this region and during this period has usually been misunderstood. It is common to assume that wars were more or less endemic not only amongst the Igbo, but also between them and their neighbours, and that these ways usually created serious discontinuities in inter-group relations. But not only were the wars not as endemic as is popularly believed, but they did not necessarily create the degree of discontinuity in inter-group relations usually credited to them. As in other societies, so also here, war was the continuation of' relations by other than diplomatic means. In other words wars here were usually waged by communities whose lives and livelihoods were interlocked to an almost inextricable degree. And they went to war simply because these interlocked interests could not be sorted out to the satisfaction of all concerned by other means. Nor did war usually succeed in sorting them out. The result was that the relationship which preceded the wars, and which continued in one form or another during wars, survived each war.


The point being made here is that no village group in the Okigwe or Orlu area, for instance, could go to war or ever went to war with an Ibibio or Ijọ or Igala or Edo village-group. They were simply not in contact and thus had no interlocked relationship that needed sorting out by diplomatic or other means. But the Ndọki, for instance, who had a most dynamic and many-faceted relationship with Annang villages, could, and did go to war with them. So also did they go to war with some Ijọ villages. Where, therefore, there was war as there were from time to time between the west Niger Igbo and the Edo to the west of them, we can be sure there were vital interests at stake and that these interests were the outcome of inter-group contact by other means than by war. Thus whereas the inter-group and border wars of this period between different frontier Igbo village-groups and their counterparts across the border might disrupt for a time trade and intermarriage, they often intensified other kinds of contact. For instance the demands of espionage and camouflage so necessary in war would encourage the mutual borrowing of the enemy’s dressing habits and the learning of his language for the purpose of deceiving him and putting him off-guard in order to get the better of him. Furthermore conflicts between village-groups on either side of the border would encourage more wide-ranging travel as each group looked around for powerful new allies, for weapons and for fearsome medicines and medicine-men with which to bewilder and rout its opponent in the battlefield.


Important as wars and rumours of wars were in the relationship which built up between the Igbo village-groups on the periphery of the Igbo culture area and their neighbours across the frontier, we must not fall for the easy hut incorrect assumption that warfare was the normal state of relationship here. Frictions, wars and war alarums there were in plenty along the frontiers. But this was no less the case in the inter-group relations of those village-states located in the heartlands of the ethnic nationalities concerned where there was no question of contact with "strange” ethnic groups.


While no attempt is being made here to paint an idyllic picture of Arcadian peace and tranquility, it must be pressed that the dominant tone of inter-group relationship along the frontiers where Igbo met and interacted with these other ethnic groups was peace. None of these ethnic nationalities was internally self-conscious as a group during this period. Nor was any one ever mobilized in totality against its neighbours. Such cleavages or dichotomies as Igbo/Ibibio, Ijọ /Ibibio, Ibibio/Ogoja, Igbo/Igala or Igbo/Edo which mean so much to certain persons today would have meant nothing to the peoples of south-eastern Nigeria in the period before 1900. It was local rather than global issues that conditioned peoples perception of the world and their reactions to those they met either in the farm-lands or in the markets or along the trade routes. The dominant mood was one of robust parochialism which most times made states-men and leaders criminally blind to the implications of new and wider developments. Thus long after the British had smashed all resistances to their advance between the coast and Abakaliki, the Ezza remained unaware of the gravity of the danger that contact with the colonial administration posed to any south-eastern Nigerian group. As late as 1905 they felt able to tell an emissary of the colonial government that the Ezza recognized no superior authority except the Heavens above and the Earth beneath. Between these two awe-inspiring super human potentates the Ezza said they alone existed as a third force. In. the same manner and in a similar circumstance my people of Ihube, continued to boast, rather anachronistically, that they are Ihuwe hukidere mba that is Ihuwe the unrestrained tyrant and bully of all village-groups. These two boasts, and many others like them, knew no distinction between Igbo and non-Igbo States.


If divisions and confrontations in south-eastern Nigeria during this period did not run along ethnic lines necessarily or inevitably, it must not be assumed, therefore that the region was more united ideologically than it has been in recent times. Such conglomerate awareness was simply beyond the ken of the people and their leaders. What we are saying, however, is that the people were innocent of the kind of “global” stereotypes and prejudices which today make it “rational”, “just” and even “politically advisable” to visit the sins of one man on any so-called ethnic kinsman of his simply because they share the innocuous password kedu?


And now we come to the importance of trade – whether in the form of the sale of material wares or of cure by medicine men or of occult advice by oracle agents and native doctors – in inter-group relations in this zone and during this period. This has been more accurately and extensively investigated. Indeed for this zone and era the term inter-group relations is usually understood to mean the exchange of goods and services subsumed under the term trade and commerce. Trade as a factor of contact arose from the fact that different communities within this area were differently endowed with resources. Communities were thus compelled to engage in local and long range exchange by the need to transcend their limitations and maximize their advantages. Contact between the Igbo and their neighbours generated by trade during this period can best be under-stood in terms of response to four main regional pulls.


First there was the northward pull which was two-pronged, with one prong going in the north-west direction towards Igala and the other in the north-east direction towards Idọma. The Igbo response to this pull was provided by the Awka, Nri, the Arọ and the border-land Nsukka people. From this direction the Igbo obtained the horses which played such an important part in their ritual life especially in title-taking and the burial of their ogaranya. From this region also came certain highly valued glass beads known to some Northern Igbo as olomgbo. The Igbo Ukwu hoard excavated by Professor T. Shaw suggests that these two items were already important in Igbo social and cultural life by about the ninth century A.D. With the rise of the Igala monarchy from about the 13th century this region also became important for the supply of a number of other insignia, such as caps and certain bodily apparel so much valued by the titled elite of Northern Igboland, especially by those of them inhabiting the Nsukka, Otuọcha and Awka areas. In exchange for these luxury items the Igbo supplied metal implements made by Awka smiths, medicine and ritual advice from the Nri and Agụleri areas, and slaves collected in an assortment of ways by the Arọ and the Awka who, unlike the Nri, had no moral or ritual compunction about selling human beings or shedding blood in the process.


Second, there was a Niger-ward pull which spilled across the Niger flood plain towards the Edo. In fact the north-westward pull towards Idah mentioned above was an aspect of this pull towards the Niger to which the Igbo and their neighbours responded. The Igala Kingdom rose partly through organizing and exploiting the ancient trade which went up and down the great Niger and on which the wealth of the great empires of the Western Sudan like Ghana and Mali had rested. The quest for this trade is part of t4e explanation for the way in which the lower Niger flood plain from Idah to the Nun estuary was peopled. Here we have a number of communities which have in their population elements from Igbo land, Igala land, Edo land, as well as the Isoko-Urhobo area. It explains to some extent the attempt of the Edo empire oft Benin to expand militarily east-ward. This met with only limited success, though penetration by more peaceful and informal cultural methods would appear to have yielded richer and more enduring dividends. The Niger provided a route for the movement of slaves and agricultural produce down to the coast and of imported European wares as well as locally manufactured salt up from the Ijọ zone.


Third, there was an eastward pull towards the Cross River. This river was also, within limits, a highway of commerce especially with the rise of the European trade from the 15th century. Along it slaves, agricultural produce, dried meat and the like moved down to the coast while European wares moved up into the interior. In addition the upper Cross River was richly provided with salt ponds and springs which helped to supply the salt needs of the Igbo. The Igbo response to this pull was provided by the Abiriba who, as smiths, dominated the markets of the zone for agricultural and other implements and by the Arọ who picked up all the slaves the region wanted to sell as well as provided a quick, if also costly and at times bloody, means of settling complex disputes and meeting other ritual and occult needs through their widely famed oracle of Ibini Ụkpabi.


Finally there was the southward pull towards the coast. This pull was probably as ancient as the settlement of the Igbo, the Efik and the Ijọ in south-eastern Nigeria. It arose not from the exchange of luxury goods like in the case of the northward pull, but from the exchange of such basic necessities as agricultural produce and manpower from the interior, fish and salt from the coast. It was a consequence, in other words, of the ecological difference between the delta and coast on the one hand and the interior on the other. Whereas the interior had plenty of rich arable land, the delta and coast were lacking in this commodity. Thus while the hinterland peoples produced more than they needed in tubers and vegetables, the coast lacked these, producing mainly salt from sea-water, and fish from the creeks, Naturally a brisk trade developed between the two zones. Indeed the pull towards the Niger and that towards the Cross River were generated by this more basic north-south pull. As we saw, the main line business on the Niger and the Cross River was north-south. What happened was that it generated such powerful attractions that peoples to the east and west of the two rivers rushed in to share in the business. Those who provided the main Igbo response to this north-south pull were the Arọ, and the Nkwerre who were primarily smiths. The Awka were also active here especially in the Niger flood plain, around Abọ, Kwale and Isoko-Urhobo areas.


All these factors can, as already mentioned, be explained in terms of the success or failure of agriculture. Major migrations, especially primary and secondary migrations, can be described as a search for agricultural land or a flight from regions whose productivity had declined either from natural causes or from man-made causes like incessant wars and invasions denying the peasants the reward of their labour. Many wars can be explained in terms of contest between neighbouring agricultural communities for farm land. Many conflicts in this period originated as land disputes though as time went on the real causes were forgotten as plain pride, arrogance or even misapprehe4ion and psychological instability became more important. Trade, as we saw, arose either in order to supply the luxury needs of a small aristocracy who had made their wealth and status from agriculture and thus taken titles, or in order to supplement the resources of a predominantly agricultural region with the products of a manufacturing or trading area. It can be shown that most of the commercial or manufacturing communities of Igboland – the Awka, Nkwerre, Arọ, Abiriba and Nri – are situated on the northern Igbo plateau and its south-eastward extension to Arọchukwu through Bende. From all accounts this ridge saw the earliest settlements of the Igbo. Not surprisingly owing to intensive exploitation over an extended period the fertility of the ridge had started to decline by the onset of historic times thus compelling the Igbo sub-groups "trapped” there to turn their attention from agriculture to the crafts, commerce and the exploitation of oracles and occult cosmology.


The dynamics of this intricate mechanism of contact and inter-action between the Igbo and their neighbours calls for a brief comment if our exposition is to achieve its objective of informing, educating and entertaining. First we should note that the range of contact which obtained amongst the peoples of south-eastern Nigeria was made possible by the geography of the region. Or to put it more modestly and more diffidently the geography of the area did not constitute a severe impediment to inter-group relations. There is none of these ethnic nationalities whose frontiers can be delimited in terms of natural barriers – be they impassable mountains or hills. The result was that the movement of peoples, goods, services and ideas out of, and into Igboland, could take place easily and virtually imperceptibly. As we saw earlier the Cross River and the Niger were important commercial highways up and down which moved peoples, material goods and cultural ideas thanks to the fact that the communities living along their banks and around their deltas were fully acclimatized to their reverine environment. The Igbo plateau running north-south from Nsukka through Awka, Orlu and Okigwe to Bende carried some of the major inland commercial routes of this region both along side and across it. The peoples of south-eastern Nigeria were thus linked by a maze of routes. Some of these were major in the sense of being all-season and/or carrying substantial volumes of traffic. Some were minor, being seasonal and/or carrying only a trickle of the commerce. The researches of scholars have so far uncovered and traced only the major routes.


Geography, it may be conceded, was not a barrier to inter-group relations but what of man-made obstacles like language and political frontiers. There were in south-eastern Nigeria in this period, and indeed after also, as many languages as there were ethnic groups, and then within each ethnic group almost as many dialects as there were autonomous village-groups or states. Did this fact impede inter-group relations between the Igbo and their neighbour? The answer is no or at least not necessarily. We are encouraged to answer in this wise on grounds already stated above. The life styles and patterns of an agricultural society, like that of the Igbo was, called for only a modest degree of contact with neighbours and not more, and there is abundant evidence that the necessary degree of contact was established and maintained. It would be unrealistic to expect an agricultural community to build up with its neighbours the high level of external relations more appropriate to a manufacturing or a commercial society.


Furthermore those Igbo persons or communities which took upon themselves or were compelled to take upon themselves the business of establishing and maintaining vital links between Igbo land and its neighbours found no difficulty in scaling the language problem. Thus we find that those Awka, Nkwerre, Nri, Arọ and Abiriba who conducted their business outside of Igboland were bilingual or at times even multi-lingual – speaking Igbo, and the language(s) of the place(s) in which they did business. This linguistic issue is perhaps the one explanation for the rise of what is known amongst our people as ala mbịa or ala ije, that is “sphere of influence”. Different wards of each of these communities specialized in making their occupational wonderings in specific zones and directions. In 1927 the anthropologist, H. F. Mathews mapped out in detail the spheres of influence of different Arọ families. Recently Dr. Nancy Neaher has done the same for the Awka. The fact was that having mastered the language and the cultural usages of one or two zones, say the Igala area, an Awka smithing ward, for instance, would find it easier and more profitable to concentrate on the exploitation of the resources of that zone rather than engaging in hazardous adventures in new regions each time its members undertook business travels. In this way it would build up on exclusive sphere of influence respected by its business rivals and in which it enjoyed special privileges.


On the political plane we find there were even many more independent units than there were languages or even dialects in the broad sense of the latter term. Each of these political units was jealous of its independence and thus usually suspicious of strangers especially with the rise of the slave trade which tended to take a heavy toll on defenseless women and children. The result was that using its young men who were usually organized into age grades or secret societies (such as ọkọnkọ, ekpe, akang and nmanwụ) or both, each state constantly patrolled its borders, the major roads within its area of jurisdiction and also the markets. But the purpose of these patrols was not to disrupt traffic or trade but to ensure that people were not interfered with in the legitimate pursuit of their business and that the village-group or state was not taken unawares by its enemies or plain marauders. This fact was never appreciated by the British when they entered these parts from the later part of the nineteenth century. This is part of the explanation for the distorted picture of these secret societies and the age grades which dominate the records of the colonial period.


There were rules which guided and protected long distance travelers and business men, and these were as well known as today are the rules which any international traveler has to abide by if he wishes to travel in peace. Knowledge of these rules and ability to abide by them distinguished bona fide business men and professionals from trouble makers and plain pirates. These included, traveling in groups or in caravans and being armed in case of attack by pirates, the purchase of the protection of local patrons known for their wide ranging influence and contacts, familiarity with the pass-words of the secret societies which operated along ones routes, payment of tolls which went into the maintenance of the young men who cleared the routes and patrolled them.


That this system was justified within the socio-cultural context of the people and their times appears to be beyond the understanding of our white colleagues. Dr. David Northrup entitled his recent study of the pre-colonial trade of this zone as Trade Without Rulers. This startling title is neither elegant nor without ambiguity. It also seems fully loaded with the prejudices of the colonial period which assumed that where there is no potentate ruling over a large area there are no rulers. As already shown, this region did not lack rulers. On the contrary it had too many of them. It is, indeed, a strange historical and sociological logic which assumes that because there is too much of anything, therefore there is nothing of it. It is not only that the region was not without “rulers” that is people who dominated it and its trade dictated terms. The researches of scholars before Northrup and his own researches also, show clearly that the trade of the region during the period was “ruled” by the Arọ, the Igala, the Awka, the Nkwerre, the Abiriba, the Abọ, the Bonny, Opobo (after 1873) the Nembe-Brass and the Efik. And they did so as effectively as the British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese “ruled” the trans-Atlantic trade during the same period.


Maybe, before laying on, we should attempt an assessment of the above system of inter-group relations which the Igbo were able to build up with their immediate neighbours during our period. The very earliest attempts at such an assessment were made during the early years of British colonial rule by men whose job it was to sustain and revamp what they found useful in this system and to supplant what they found or thought less so. The result was totally misleading partly because of the ignorance of the assessors and partly because of their prejudice both of which distorted what little information they uncovered by research.


These men were, for the most part, fanatical worshippers at the altar of that heroic genre of history which sees the past mainly in terms of what empires and potentates said or did. Societies like those then found in south-eastern Nigeria which could not boast of such figures were considered not to have entered the realm of history at all. And yet ability to make this kind of history, to write it and to appreciate it were considered as the passport to civilized status. Following from this, these men naturally had a rather low view of our peoples and their societies. Consequently a proper appreciation of the subtlety and complexity of inter-group relations between the Igbo and their neighbours could not be attained as long as these errors prevailed in the attitude of scholars investigating this past.


In the first place attention was focused on contact between the Igbo and such of their neighbours who were known to have evolved fairly large-scale empires or even kingdoms or at least centralized city-states that kept some form of court. Thus we find that while the surviving records and the published works are replete with information and hypotheses seeking to explain contacts between the Igbo on the one hand and the Igala kingdom, the Edo empire and the Ijọ city-states on the other, there is a virtual dearth of information on Igbo relations with the Ogoja and Ibibio peoples. Since inter-group relationship was discussed largely in terms of military expansion mounted by these kingdoms and empires and leading “inevitably” to the imposition of their institutions and cultural norms on the conquered, it was assumed there was little or nothing to interest the investigator in relations between one “barbarous” acephalous community and another. No history could have been enacted as a result of such contacts.


The only exception to this tendency to neglect the study of inter-group relations on the eastern Igbo frontier was provided by the great attention paid to the Arọ and their activities in this zone. This was possible because at the time most people talked in terms of an Arọ political and economic empire that ruled south-eastern Nigeria until the British advent. Also there was the fact already mentioned that the Arọ were believed to be an alien racial and cultural intrusion into these parts. Their history was therefore not seen as part and parcel of Igbo or Ibibio history.


One other result of this prejudiced approach to the history of inter-group relations in this region during the early colonial period was that it was assumed the Igbo were inert in their relationship with the Edo, Igala and Ijọ. Relationship here was not seen as a two-way affair in which the Igbo gave certain goods and services in return for what they received. On the contrary it was assumed that it was always the Ijọ, the Edo and the Igala who brought their impact to bear on the Igbo and thus through military conquest and then alien political rule imposed their political institutions, social forms and usages on the Igbo. ln keeping with this tradition G. T. Basden wrote the history of the southern Igbo in terms of Ijọ conquest, while for Dr P. A. Talbot the evolution of West Niger Igbo society was explained solely in terms of Benin conquest and political tutelage. For Dr. M. D. W. Jeffreys Igala impact explained the rise of the Nri, while for Dr. C. K. Meek lgala conquest and rule explained the evolution of Nsukka society. This view of the relationship between the Igbo and their neighbours to the south, west and northwest of them continues to influence the study of Igbo history and sociology as shown by the works of Henderson on Onitsha and Shelton on Nsukka issued as late as the 1970s.


Elsewhere I have subjected the above view to critical examination and found it to have been based on rather very slender evidence. Those who are interested in this review are invited to pursue it in my other writings. Here we shall merely attempt such an assessment of our subject a.¿ we consider fair and objective in the light of the available evidence and of prevailing attitudes in Africanistics today.


The first point that should be made here is that the most viable model for understanding the inter-group relationship that built up between the Igbo and their neighbours is one that postulates mutual dependence in harmony and equality rather than one that postulates the subordination of one group to the other. In this model the motive force of inter-group relations is free exchange – of ideas, institutions and usages, of goods and services, of populations through migration and marriages. Here exchange implies that one gives what one has in plenty and receives what one lacks. In short people involved in inter-group relationship along the lines of this model do for, or give to, one another what each cannot either do for, or give to himself. This is the case at least for as long as those concerned want cordiality to be the dominant tone of such inter-group or inter-personal contact. If, however, they want to change the tone to one of envy, hatred, bitterness or even open conflict, then they must try to do for, or to give one another what each can do for or give to himself. Through-out the period covered in this lecture supply and demand in south-eastern Nigeria followed those natural channels chiseled out on the economic landscape in the course of ages by the juxtaposition of groups whose homelands were differently endowed by nature.


In fact all considered the Igbo could be said to have been more favoured by nature when compared with their immediate neighbours. First, they had the advantage of population. This meant for the most part that migrations were from Igbo land outwards. The Ijọ felt in a special way the full force of this population pressure as free and un-free Igbo poured into the delta in consequence of the rise of the Atlantic trade. A misreading of the meaning and impact of this trend led some historians to account for Ijọ origin in terms of Igbo migrations. To prevent their language and culture being completely swamped by the Igbo, the Ijọ went out consciously to emphasize the adoption by immigrants of Ijọ language and culture as a condition for admission into full Ijọ status. Similar pressure was felt by the other neighbours especially to the north and north-east. The Ezza, Ikwo and Izzi in particular were engaged in a headless policy of territorial expansion exploiting to the fullest the numerical disadvantages of their neighbours in the Ogoja and Idọma areas. Rosemary Harris has documented for us the development of this pressure in the region of the Cross River where the Ikwo appeared to have carried all before them. We are still to have similar studies for the other portion¿ of the Igbo frontier.


Second, and bearing in mind the technological level of these peoples at the time, Igbo land was more richly endowed with minerals than the areas around her. The central Igbo plateau running north-south from Nsukka is rich in iron ore which was exploited all the way and thus formed the basis for the technological ascendancy of the Awka, Nkwerre and Abiriba during the period. It is now known that the Awka ranged as far afield as the eastern frontiers of Yoruba-land. The only other alternative source of iron for south-eastern Nigeria during this period lay beyond the frontiers of modern Nigeria, in what is today the Cameroons. The iron which trickled in from here into the Cross River basin through the agency of the wandering Ekoi helped to augment the supply of Abiriba smiths. Igboland also had salt and lead in the Uburu and Abakaliki areas. Again these were exploited to supply some of the demands of the above network of inter-group relations.


Third, Igboland had rich arable land along the Niger flood plain, to the north-east in the region occupied by the Ogu-Ukwu (Abakaliki and Ọhaọzara), to the north-west in the Anambra valley as well as in the valley of the Asụ River south of Enugu occupied by the Nkanụ. These places, especially the Anambra valley and the Niger flood plains, produced yams and vegetables which helped to swell the southward bound traffic in food crops on which the Ijọ depended. Southern and central Igboland which were not that fertile fell within the palm belt. Even in the days of the slave trade palm produce was important in the economy of this whole region. With the suppression of that inhuman traffic in the 1840s, it became the mainstay of the external trade of south-eastern Nigeria. This meant an enhancement of the economic advantage of the Igbo vis-a-vis many of her neighbours.


Finally there was the area of oracles where Igboland enjoyed an unchallenged ascendancy. There was the Ibini Ụkpabị of the Arọ whose influence stretched to the western delta among the Isoko-Urhobo, to Idah and Idọma and to the Upper reaches of the Cross River as well as to the delta. There were Igwe-ka-Ala of Ụmụnneọha, Agbala of Awka, Onojo Oboni of Ogrugu and Ojukwu of Diobu whose influence stretched as far as the trading and other contacts of their agents went. Of these oracles the least known to scholars and the general public is probably the Onojo Oboni of Ogrugu. The hold of this over the Igala, in any case over their royal house at Idah, was far-reaching. By tradition each newly installed Ata of Igala had to consult it in order to attain the much valued ability for impartiality in judgment. Looked at in this light, therefore, this period of south-eastern Nigeria history could be cautiously designated as one marked by Igbo dominance.


But being realists the Igbo did not see the situation in that light. Those of them who were in the forefront of these contacts were satisfied to emphasize their oneness with their neighbours across the frontier. To this end they built up mythical charters making them the kinsmen of some of those non-Igbo peoples with whom they had long-standing contact. Thus the official charter of Arọchukwu links that community in an organic manner with a non-Igbo Cross River people known as Akpa, with Ibibioland and with the delta Ijọ. The Igbo principalities of the lower Niger flood plain have charters making them the kinsmen of the royal families of Benin and Idah. The Ndọki of the southern Igbo consider themselves the kinsmen of Bonny, while many Nsukka communities believe they are the descendants of either the first Igala Asadu or of the legendary Igala warrior-giant Onojo Oboni and so on.


In the same manner many of the communities on the other side of the Igbo border conceptualized the above relationship in kinship terms. The Bonny say they are blood relations of the Ndọki, the Efik that they are the descendants of a marriage between an Ibibio woman and an Igbo man, the Benin that Arọchukwu arose from a Benin military outpost, the Igala that they are linked by blood with both Nri and Onitsha, the Idọma that the Arọ arose from a group of Idọma adventurers who left their homeland in search of business and adventure some time in the 18th century or so.


These legends establish beyond doubt that, as observed above, the dominant character of this relationship was peaceful. It was only in an atmosphere of peace that dealings between these various groups could have matured to the point where they came to be transmuted in popular belief into blood relationship. The point is that those south-eastern Nigerians, especially the Igbo who, in this period, adventured beyond the frontiers of their ethnic groups for business were much smarter and much more cautious than those who succeeded them with the dawn of the colonial era. They gave their clients goods and services which were solely needed and could not easily obtain otherwise. They thus remained welcome guests for millennia. But their twentieth century successors would appear to be thrusting upon their clients goods and services which these clients think they can provide for themselves. The pre-colonial business adventurers were also less demonstrative and pompous in the way they enjoyed the wealth they made from the lands of their neighbours. They went home with it to buy titles, membership of secret societies and to perform expensive funeral rites for their prominent dead. Their twentieth century successors invest their own wealth where they make it in imposing motels and residential buildings, thus arousing the envy and hostility of their hosts who remember only too clearly when the first of them arrived with nothing more than a raffia bag under his armpit. It is this difference which helps to explain why the pre-colonial adventurers were not considered imperialists while their modern counterparts are widely regarded as imperialist exploiters and suckers and thus used periodically to test the cutting edge of newly acquired daggers. On this point this should be enough for now and for here. As our elders say:


Ụka Dimkpa Bụ

Nrụtụ Aka, Nrụtụ Aka

Nihi Na Ma Okenye Asụgh Nsụ

Ya Agbaa Ama.


In other words history is not on the side of the ethnic chauvinists of today who appear to think that friction and mutual suspicion should be the normal tone of relationship between the Igbo and their neighbours in the south-eastern Nigeria region. The dawn of this new "Age of Vehemence” we cannot go into here for lack of time though I have investigated it in some detail. One thing is certain, however, it is an adventitious outgrowth of the structure and practice of that ghoulish monster known as modern Nigerian politics which eats its children.


Ọha N’Eze, maybe l should stop here even though I am tempted to continue by exploring the rise of this monster. But before I stop, I should like to mention that for a proper understanding of this lecture, it should be taken along with the first one in the series. It is again “A Matter of Identity”. The question “Who Are The Igbo?” is a very large one as I showed earlier on today. Approaching it from the standpoint of a particular discipline one can only hope to lift a very small portion of the large dark veil that covers the answer. One angle from which it is possible to see the Igbo as they are is that of a people in dynamic interaction with their environment and their neighbours. After all the problem of who you are arises when identities are in confrontation. In other words the Igbo are what they are because their environment and their neighbours are what they are. If this conclusion is flayed for lacking m profundity, I would take solace in the fact that it is true.


It remains for me to thank His Excellency the Governor, Chief S, O. Mbakwe, his Government and the Ahiajoku Lecture Committee for the honour they did me in inviting me to give this lecture. T can only hope that I have not fallen far short of their expectations and of the very high standards set by my distinguished predecessors in the series. In matters of this nature, it is always gracious to bear in mind that:


Otu ụkwụ nwanyị ha

Ka ọna-atụkwasi ya di ya.

Egwu bụ onye n’ukwu ya

Onye n’ukwu ya.


Ọha n'eze ekele m ụnụ

Lakwuru nụ ji, lakwuru nụ ede

Lakwuru nụ Akụ na ụba.










One of the ways the Imo' State Government has articulated and projected Igbo language and culture is through the Annual Ahiajoku Lecture Series. The Ahiajoku Lecture was inaugurated on November 30, 1979 with Professor M. J. C. Echeruo’s lecture:


A matter of identity – Ahamefule


The following year, Professor Bede Okigbo’s contribution Plants and food in Igbo Culture and Civilization was no less impressive. This year, 1981, another renowned Igbo scholar, Professor Adiele Afigbo, takes the floor. The title of his lecture alone makes your mouth water: “THE AGE OF INNOCENCE”. When was it among the Igbo?


Professor Afigbo most ingeniously maps it out is that epoch when the Igbo lived “innocently” with their neighbours – the Edo, the Igala, the Idọma, the Ogoja, the Efik-Ibibio and the Ijọ. Trade, inter-marriage, and cultural exchanges provided the vital links which were only occasionally punctuated by sporadic wars that were quickly followed by peace.


Professor Afigbo’s unrivalled analysis in “The Age of Innocence” bears very good import in today’s relationship between the Igbo and her neighbours, fires the imagination on some aspects of current political trends – formation of groupings and talk of regroupings – in our quest for national unity and lasting peace in Nigeria. One only needs to read a work so well done.


Dr. C. A. Duruji

Honourable Commissioner for Information,

Culture, Youth and Sports

Imo State







Being a citation on


Professor Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo


B.A. Hons (Lond.), Ph.D. (London)

Professor of History, University of Nigeria, Nsukka


Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, my task should be a brief one because it should not require a long speech to introduce a man who has been honoured with prizes, burdened with State and National duties, listed in various biographical dictionaries and honoured with the vice-presidency of the academic association to which he belongs.


Please accept my apologies because I do not intend to be very brief. Surely, it will not be fair to expect a man to travel all the way from Nsukka to Owerri only to refer you to the relevant page numbers of Professor Afigbo’s listings in various 0%o's 8%ol. Besides, one’s training forbids brief speeches. An engineer – friend of mine seems to know better: when I introduced him to a fellow historian, he blurted out, to my utter embarrassment, “Oh, you belong to the Oji-onu discipline”. Indeed, one of those Faculty Deans who makes it a point to ensure that junior colleagues know their lowly estate, once flipped through a paper which I submitted for assessment and assured me that it could not pass muster, His reason?; that the paper was not long enough as befits those in my discipline.


So, Mr. Chairman, I swore that day never to be brief again. But perhaps more important, when warriors return and the big drum sounds the celebration of achievements, the occasion is never brief. The only promise I could make is that I will not take the analogy too literally and continue to the next market day.


In fact, I feel rather humbled by this opportunity to sound the drum to a man of such academic stature. I will tell you why: a couple of years ago, I had a very interesting dialogue with some colleagues and as I took leave of them, I overheard an incautious remark that I was beginning to sound like my academic adviser, Professor Afigbo! He has truly served as a mentor who would deftly tease out the best in one rather than impose his views or beliefs.


Mr. Chairman, Professor Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo is essentially a very quiet, self-effacing, industrious person who showed promise quite early in academics. I am sure that few people took much notice of a secondary school student who won the first prize in an Igbo Essay Competition set by the Society for Promoting Igbo Language and Culture in 1955. But he was in this feat signaling a deep interest in the culture of his race.


Critiques often seek to understand a man by studying the environment of his childhood. It would appear a plausible method in this case. Adiele was born in the central zone of Igbo heartland, at Ihube in Okigwe. In spite of the fact that Ihube received much attention from Europeans, especially Methodist missionaries, when the colonial government established an administrative seat in Okigwe, Ihube did not bloom into a town but remained a typical Igbo group of villages endowed with physical beauty, farmlands and tall grasses! Obviously, the railroad project enticed the attention of the Methodist missionaries to villages on the proposed route. But one could imagine the impact of the two elements in the mind of a young man: the predominant Igbo culture in Ihube and the colonial officers across the hills in Okigwe. If these did not influence Professor Afigbo’s choice of history as a field of study, they formed the themes of his research in later years. He knows his homeland very well and has benefited from the Okigwe Native Administration Scholarship and the Eastern Nigeria Government Scholarship.


With the latter he completed a B.A. Honours in History at the University College, Ibadan, winning the prize as the best final year student in History. Soon, he competed for and won the Irving Bonnar prize for the best original essay in African History. Within three years of his graduation, he completed a Ph.D. (London) in the same institution. The ordeals of that research have been analyzed in an article on Oral History which won excited compliments from Dame M. M. Green best known for her book, Igbo Village Affairs.


Anyone who accomplished so much in such a prestigious institution and at that time, deserves a celebration in which goat meat and palm wine should be very plentiful. But this part of his career was only a prelude.


The measure of the man is in what he did with the training. He taught History in various Universities (Zaria, Ibadan and Nsukka), he wrote articles and books; in fact, he has written so many articles and books in History that there is no African Historian among his colleagues who could pretend to have written as much. He has served this State of his origin in various capacities. For instance, he served as Chairmen, East-Central State Committee on Chieftaincy Matters, Chairman, Imo State Sub-Committee on FESTAC 1977 and Member, Imo State University Planning Council. He has served the nation of his birth, Nigeria. He has just completed a stint as Director for Research, National Institute for Strategic Studies and as a member of the Panel of the Open University.


This last bit was a major undertaking but I believe that the most crucial job which he is performing for the nation is his member-ship of the Nigerian National Archives Committee. Earlier on, he served in the National Antiquities Commission.


I regard these two jobs as the most essential because they relate to the roots of our identity and there are few historians and scholars generally who know the inside of the archives as well as Professor Afigbo does. Those who are familiar with his work are usually astounded at the freshness of the evidence, or as scientists would say, data, in every new article. He has devoted some studies on the history and role of institutions like the museum. The task of preserving and nurturing our cultural heritage requires the assiduous collection of the fragments of oral, archaeological and documentary evidence. Professor Afigbo has distinguished himself in this task.


It would appear that the extensive research, field work and archival, has made it possible for Professor Afigbo to give immense academic leadership, not only in teaching but in mapping out programmes for graduate students and assisting colleagues. He obliges anyone who needs his critique of a manuscript. Almost invariably, he will devote time to write out his views (as an aside, there is an anecdote that Professor Afigbo once wrote a sixty-nine page reaction to a manuscript). The exercise is often an informed blunt-talk, hardly rude but graded; the adult-dose is reserved for the review of senior colleagues’ works. See, for instance, "History for Amateurs by Amateurs”, a combative (purgative) dose is often served to social scientists while the milder dose is for students often garnished with a wealth of bibliographical information.


The man has been unstinting in his keen desire that people should pursue the academic enterprise with rigour and should study history with imagination and intensive research. He has therefore prodded young people to do research. In. the university, he has served in the most important committees related to research and publishing. He has also served as Head of Department of History and Dean of Arts and has devoted a number of articles and a book to the problem of teaching of History in Nigeria. The Africanist ideology which suffuses the new syllabus on history at Nsukka is owed to his leadership.


Professor Afigbo’s major contribution in academics is however, in the field of Igbo history. Perhaps when his Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture, appears in December this year by the grace of the publishers who have unduly delayed it, this claim will be further substantiated. Almost one half of his eighty works are devoted to his niece. He has studied Igboland through time perspective; her basic cultures, textiles, trade routes, population structure, migration, myths and patterns, indigenous political structures, prominent men (as Chief Igwebe Odum, Omenuko of History) and women, and her oral traditions. He has, moved on to examine the colonial fact from the pacification expeditions to consolidation through the warrant chiefs. He has delineated the history of instruments of government as the taxation system, education codes as well as the agents of change, namely, missionaries, traders and administrators. Quite revealing of the ideological underpinnings of his studies are the articles on the reaction of our people to the colonial fact and the impact of foreign rule. With a nationalist urge, Professor Afigbo has argued the ingenuous reactions of our people to the varied and harried attempts by the British to implant their rule. Yet he eschews a romantic attitude towards our past.


Of course, he is a scholar whose bounds are beyond Igboland. He has studied the Ibibios to the point of provoking a debate in Calabar Historical Journal. At the University of Benin, he put the vaunted history of Benin in a broader perspective (see, “The Bini Mirage and the History of South Central Nigeria”). He is an authority on the colonial administration throughout Nigeria: the men who ruled, their policies, their historians/anthropologists, pitfalls and demise.


Unlike many colleagues, he has delved into the field of historiography and has become the historian’s historian. The vigour of African History can only be renewed by this constant reflection and reappraisal of methodology and conceptual schemes.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I beat the big drum for a man whose curious mind has grappled with the many problems facing our race as Igbos and facing our nation. In fact, in recent times, Professor Afigbo who leaves the impression of being apolitical, looked into ; horoscope of Nigerian politics in the 1980s and got his audience spellbound.


I beat the drum for the quiet, industrious scholar. A man whose inner peace, transparent honesty, self-effacing demeanour yet joyous sense of humour has fascinated colleagues.


May I add that this industrious academic bee is married and t must call Ezihe Afigbo to share in the salutation. I realize that some men believe that behind every successful man is a woman pulling him back; if she failed, she would run in front of him and block him. This is rabid male chauvinism and, perhaps, men could only say such things without realizing that after the year of the child and the year of the disabled, next year will be for women and such talks would be banned for a year!


Professor Afigbo has been rightly blessed with a woman of identical character. They are like siblings. Ezihe is a highly respected University Administrator of a Deputy Registrar rank. No wonder the house is managed so efficiently that Professor Afigbo could do research and write so profusely and with such flair.


Finally, I beat the big drum for a man whose achievements in Igbo history is pre-eminent and the prospects even more. In doing so, I recognize his perfectionist assumption that the Igbo people deserve the best. He has shied away from a general history of the Igbo until more research has been done. But the wisdom of the fathers draw our attention to the caprices of time. I call on you to give us a general history of the Igbo people and our culture. Let future scholars use this as the foundation to build upon.


You may pardon this departure if you recall that often as a warrior drops a gift to the man in the drum-house, the drummer would beat his thanks for what he has received as well as for what he expects as the celebrations move towards the next market day.


Professor Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo, the big drum welcomes you to the centre of the attention of your own people both for your past achievements and for the prospects of the future. Do a dance for us to the tune of your professional training.


And now the drummer takes a break for a gulp of palm wine.


Ogbu Uke Kalu

Professor of Church History Dean,

Faculty of the Social Sciences

University of Nigeria, Nsukka



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