Igbo People of Nigeria

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History and Origin of Igbo people of Nigeria


Igbo people, also referred to as the Ibo(e), Ebo(e),Eboans or Heebo (Igbo: Ndị Igbọ) are an ethnic group living chiefly in southeastern Nigeria.

They speak Igbo, which includes various Igboid languages and dialects;today, a majority of them speak English alongside Igbo as a result of British colonialism. Igbo people are among the three largest and most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria; the other two are the Hausa and the Yoruba people.

Due to the effects of migration and the Atlantic slave trade, there are Igbo populations in countries such as Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, as well as outside Africa. Their exact population outside Africa is unknown, but today many African Americans and Afro Caribbeans are of Igbo descent. In rural areas in Africa, the Igbo are mostly farmers. Their most important crop is the yam; celebrations are held annually to celebrate its harvesting. Other staple crops include cassava, and taro

Before British colonialism, the Igbo were a politically fragmented group. There were variations in culture such as in art styles, attire and religious practices. Various subgroups were set according to clan, lineage, village affiliation and dialect. There weren't many centralized chieftaincy, hereditary aristocracy, or kingship customs except in kingdoms like that of the Nri, Arochukwu and Onitsha. This political system changed significantly under British colonialism in the 19th century; Eze (kings) were introduced into most local communities by Frederick Lugard as "Warrant Chiefs".The Igbo became overwhelmingly Christian under colonization. Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is one of the most popular novels to depict Igbo culture.

By the mid-20th century, a strong sense of an Igbo identity developed. Certain conflicts with other Nigerian ethnicities led to the Igbo dominant Eastern Nigeria seceding from Nigeria to create the independent state of Biafra. The Nigerian-Biafran war (6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970) broke out shortly after. The end of the war led to the defeated Republic of Biafra being reabsorbed into Nigeria.

Igboland is the home of the Igbo people and it covers most of Southeast Nigeria. This area is divided by the Niger River into two unequal sections – the eastern region (which is the largest) and the midwestern region. The river, however, has not acted as a barrier to cultural unity; rather it has provided an easy means of communication in an area where many settlements claim different origins. The Igbos are also surrounded on all sides by other tribes (the Bini, Warri, Ijaw, Ogoni, Igala, Tiv, Yako and Ibibio).

The origins of the Igbo people has been the subject of much speculation, and it is only in the last fifty years that any real work has been carried out in this subject:

...like any group of people, they are anxious to discover their origin and reconstruct how they came to be how they are. ...their experiences under colonialsim and since Nigeria’s Independence have emphasized for them the reality of their group identity which they want to anchor into authenticated history. (Afigbo, A.E.. ‘Prolegomena to the study of the culture history of the Igbo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria’, Igbo Language and Culture, Oxford University Press, 1975. 28.)

Analysis of the sources that are available (fragmentary oral traditions and correlation of cultural traits) have led to the belief that there exists a core area of Igboland, and that waves of immigrant communities from the north and west planted themselves on the border of this core area as early as the ninth century. This core area – Owerri, Orlu and Okigwi – forms a belt, and the people in this area have no tradition of coming from anywhere else. Migration from this area in the recent past tended to be in all directions, and in this way the Igbo culture gradually became homogenized. In addition to this pattern of migration from this core area, other people also entered the Igbo territory in about the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. Many of these people still exhibit different characteristics from that of the traditional Igbos – for example geographical marginality, the institution of kingship, a hierarchical title system and the amosu tradition (witchcraft). For some time some Igbo-speaking peoples claimed that they were not Igbo – the word was used as a term of abuse for “less cultured” neighbours. The word is now used in three senses, to describe Igbo territory, domestic speakers of the language and the language spoken by them.(see (A.E. Afigbo,1981: Ropes of Sand, Caxton Press,Ibadan. and T. Shaw:1970; "Igbo Ukwu: An Account of Archaeological Discoveries in Eastern Nigeria", Faber and Faber, pp. 268-285).

The first contact between Igboland and Europe came in the mid-fifteenth century with the arrival of the Portuguese. From 1434-1807 the Niger coast acted as a contact point between African and European traders, beginning with the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the English. At this stage there was an emphasis on trade rather than empire building, in this case the trade consisting primarily of Igbo slaves. With the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 came a new trading era, concentrating on industry (palm products, timber, elephant tusks and spices). At this point the British began to combine aggressive trading with aggressive imperialism. They saw the hinterland as productive, and refused to be confined to the coast. In 1900 the area that had been administered by the British Niger Company became the Protectorate on Southern Nigeria, also incorporating what had been called the Niger Coast Protectorate. Control of this area then passed from the British Foreign Office to the Colonial Office. Long before it had officially been conquered, Igboland was being treated as a British colony. Between 1900 and 1914 (when Northern and Southern Nigeria were amalgamated) there had been twenty-one British military expeditions into Igboland. In 1928 for the first time in their history, Igbo men were made to pay tax – they were a subject people.

This attempt to take over political control of Igboland met with resistance and cultural protest in the early decades of the twentieth century. A nativistic religious movement sprang up (the ekumeku) which inspired short-lived but feverish messianic enthusiasm. The rumours that the Igbo women were being assessed for taxation, sparked off the 1929 Aba Riots, a massive revolt of women never encountered before in Igbo history. However, the engine of imperialism could not be stopped, and once it had begun, Igbo culture would never be the same again.

1.  Origin of Igbo people

Pottery dated at around 4500 BCE showing similarities with later Igbo work was found at Nsukka, along with pottery and tools at nearby Ibagwa; the traditions of the Umueri clan have as their source the Anambra valley, and in the 1970s the Owerri, Okigwi, Orlu and Awka divisions were generally supposed to have been from linguistic and cultural evidence "an Igbo heartland".[33]

There is evidence that the ancestors of the Igbo people and most of their neighbors were the proto-Kwa group, which came from the African Great Lakes and Mountains of the Moon of East and Central Africa and settled at the old Sahara grasslands.[34] It was the desertification of the Sahara that forced some of the Kwa people to migrate farther south to the north of the Niger Benue confluence and founded Nok.[35]

Elements of the Kwa people migrated south of this confluence and later became the Igala, Idoma, Yoruba, Igbo, and possibly the Tiv peoples. The Kwa people's first areas of settlement in Igboland was the North Central uplands (Nsukka-Afikpo-Awka-Orlu) around 5000 BCE Elements from the Orlu area migrated south, east, and northeast while elements from the Awka area migrated westwards across the Niger river and became the Igbo subgroup now known as the Anioma.[36] The Igbo share linguistic ties with the Bini, Igala, Yoruba, and Idoma peoples.[37]

2.  Nri Kingdom

The city of Nri is considered to be the foundation of Igbo culture.[39] Nri and Aguleri, where the Igbo creation myth originates, are in the territory of the Umueri clan, who trace their lineages back to the patriarchal king-figure, Eri.[40] Eri's origins are unclear, though he has been described as a "sky being" sent by Chukwu (God).[40][41] He has been characterized as having first given societal order to the people of Anambra.[41] Elizabeth Allo Isichei says "Nri and Aguleri and part of the Umueri clan, a cluster of Igbo village groups which traces its origins to a sky being called Eri."[42]


Archaeological evidence suggests that Nri hegemony in Igboland may go back as far as the ninth century,[43] and royal burials have been unearthed dating to at least the 10th century. Eri, the god-like founder of Nri, is believed to have settled the region around 948 with other related Igbo cultures following after in the 13th century.[44] The first Eze Nri (King of Nri), Ìfikuánim, followed directly after him. According to Igbo oral tradition, his reign started in 1043.[45] At least one historian puts Ìfikuánim's reign much later, around 1225 AD.[46]

Each king traces his origin back to the founding ancestor, Eri. Each king is a ritual reproduction of Eri. The initiation rite of a new king shows that the ritual process of becoming Ezenri (Nri priest-king) follows closely the path traced by the hero in establishing the Nri kingdom.
E. Elochukwu Uzukwu[47]

The Kingdom of Nri was a religio-polity, a sort of theocratic state, that developed in the central heartland of the Igbo region.[44] The Nri had seven types of taboo's which included human (such as the birth of twins), animal (such as killing or eating of pythons),[48] object, temporal, behavioral, speech and place taboos.[49] The rules regarding these taboos were used to educate and govern Nri's subjects. This meant that, while certain Igbo may have lived under different formal administration, all followers of the Igbo religion had to abide by the rules of the faith and obey its representative on earth, the Eze Nri.[49][50]

Traditional Igbo political organization was based on a quasi-democratic republican system of government. In tight knit communities, this system guaranteed its citizens equality, as opposed to a feudalist system with a king ruling over subjects.[52] This government system was witnessed by the Portuguese who first arrived and met with the Igbo people in the 15th century.[53] With the exception of a few notable Igbo towns such as Onitsha, which had kings called Obi, and places like the Nri Kingdom and Arochukwu, which had priest kings; Igbo communities and area governments were overwhelmingly ruled solely by a republican consultative assembly of the common people.[52] Communities were usually governed and administered by a council of elders.[54]

Although title holders were respected because of their accomplishments and capabilities, they were never revered as kings, but often performed special functions given to them by such assemblies. This way of governing was immensely different from most other communities of Western Africa, and only shared by the Ewe of Ghana.

Umunna are a form of patrilineage maintained by the Igbo. Law starts with the Umunna which is a male line of descent from a founding ancestor (who the line is sometimes named after) with groups of compounds containing closely related families headed by the eldest male member. The Umunna can be seen as the most important pillar of Igbo society.[55][56][57]

Mathematics in traditional Igbo society is evident in their calendar, banking system and strategic betting game called Okwe.[58] In their indigenous calendar, a week had four days, a month consisted of seven weeks and 13 months made a year. In the last month, an extra day was added.[59][60] This calendar is still used in indigenous Igbo villages and towns to determine market days.[61] They settled law matters via mediators, and their banking system for loans and savings, called Isusu, is also still used.[62]

Used as a ceremonial script by secret societies, the Igbo had a traditional ideographic set of symbols called Nsibidi, originating from the neighboring Ejagham people.[64] Igbo people produced bronzes from as early as the ninth century, some of which have been found at the town of Igbo Ukwu, Anambra state.[38]

A system of slavery existed among the Igbo after and before the arrival and knowledge of Europeans.[65][66] Slavery in Igbo areas was described by Olaudah Equiano in his narrative. He describes the conditions of the slaves in his community of Essaka, and points out the difference between the treatment of slaves under the Igbo in Essaka, and those in the custody of Europeans in West Indies:

…but how different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us, they do no more work than other members of the community,… even their master;… (except that they were not permitted to eat with those… free-born;) and there was scarce any other difference between them,… Some of these slaves have… slaves under them as their own property… for their own use.[66]

The Niger coast acted as a contact point between African and European traders from the years 1434–1807. This contact between the Africans and Europeans began with the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British.[67] Even prior to European contact, Igbo trade routes stretched as far as Mecca, Medina and Jeddah.[68]

3.  Transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade which took place between the 16th and late 19th century affected the Igbo heavily. Most Igbo slaves were taken from the Bight of Biafra (also known as the Bight of Bonny).[70] This area included modern day southeastern Nigeria, Western Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and parts of Northern Gabon.[71] Major trade ports for goods and slaves in the area included Bonny and Calabar Town. A large number of slaves from the Bight of Biafra would have been Igbo.[72][73] Slaves were usually sold to Europeans by the Aro Confederacy who kidnapped or bought slaves from Igbo villages in the hinterland.[74] About 15 percent of slaves were taken from the Bight of Biafra between 1650 and 1900, the third greatest percentage in the era of the transatlantic slave trade.[75] Igbo slaves were known for being rebellious and having a high count of suicide in defiance of slavery.[76][77][78] For still unknown reasons, Igbo women were highly sought after.[79]

Contrary to common belief, European slave traders were fairly informed about various African ethnicities, leading to slavers targeting certain ethnic groups which plantation owners preferred. Ethnic groups consequently became fairly saturated in certain parts of the Americas.[80] The Igbo where dispersed to colonies such as Jamaica,[10] Cuba,[10] Haiti,[10] Barbados,[81] the United States,[3] Belize[82] and Trinidad and Tobago,[83] among others. Elements of Igbo culture can still be found in these places. For example, in Jamaican Patois the Igbo word unu, meaning you plural, is still used[84] as well as the term red Ibo (or red eboe) which describes a black person with fair or "yellowish" skin. This term had originated from the reported prevalence of these skin tones among the Igbo.[12][85] The word Bim, a colloquial term for Barbados, was commonly used among enslaved Barbadians (Bajans). This word is said to have derived from bi mu in the Igbo language (or either bem, Ndi bem, Nwanyi ibem or Nwoke ibem which means My people), but may have other origins (see: Barbados etymology).[86][87] In the United Sates the Igbo were found most common in the states of Maryland and Virginia, where they remained the largest single group of Africans.[88][89] Recent Igbo-speaking immigrants are still common in the state of Maryland.[90]

4.  Colonial period

The arrival of the British in the 1870s and increased encounters between the Igbo and other ethnicities near the Niger River led to a deepening sense of a distinct Igbo ethnic identity. The Igbo proved remarkably decisive and enthusiastic in their embrace of Christianity and Western education.[91][92] Due to the incompatibility of the Igbo decentralized style of government and the centralized system required for British indirect rule, British colonial rule was marked with open conflicts and much tension.[65] Under British colonial rule, the diversity within each of Nigeria's major ethnic groups slowly decreased and distinctions between the Igbo and other large ethnic groups, such as the Hausa and the Yoruba, became sharper.[93]

Colonial rule drastically transformed Igbo society as seen in the book Things Fall Apart. British rule brought about changes in culture such as the introduction of Warrant Chiefs as Eze (traditional rulers) where there had been no such monarchies.[94] Christianity had played a great part in the infiltration of foreign ideology into Igbo society and culture, sometimes shunning parts of the culture.[95] The rumours that the Igbo women were being assessed for taxation sparked off the 1929 Igbo Women's War in Aba (also known as the 1929 Aba Riots), a massive revolt of women never encountered before in Igbo history.[96]

Living conditions changed under colonial rule. The tradition of building houses out of mud walls and thatched roofs died while houses started being built with cement blocks and zinc roofs. Roads for vehicles were built. Buildings such as hospitals and schools were erected in many parts of Igboland. Along with this change came electricity and running water in the early 20th century. Electricity brought new devices such as radios and televisions which are now common place in most Igbo households.[97]

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