Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Umu-EzeChima Selects

Onitsha Native Court 08-26-1961

Above:  Onitsha Native Court, August 26, 1961: Announcement of Umu-EzeChima Candidate


1. Enwezor’s Group Declares: the contest is completed!

On Monday, August 21, the Eastern Observer prints as its banner headline

Struggle for the throne of Onitsha ends


The accompanying article states that “The selection was made yesterday in the presence of a large crowd of Umuezearoli people, traditional members and Red Cap Chiefs,” listing 16 of the chiefs by name and citing the 1935 Eight Age grades document and O’Connor Memorandum as bases for the selection of the present King from Umu-Eze-Aroli. The second page of the issue contains a paralleling article by Obiekwe Aniweta, adopting a more combative stance. Obiekwe opens with a salute to the Onowu for his “immense capacity for work, diplomatic gifts of a high order, and unwearied patience”, then observes that the issue of succession has however provided “an opportunity for some people in Onitsha to embark upon anarchical attacks on our sacred institutions…”, people who “resort to confusion at the expense of the Onitsha Native Laws and Customs as handed down to us by our predecessors….”

Continuing, he alluds to “mushroom organisations some of which aim is to deceive and hood wink the indigenes of Onitsha”, and to a “foolish and worthless document” sent to the Prime Minister which was rejected by the chiefs on the 28th of July in favor of the two 1935 declarations.  Listing by name the chiefs present at the meeting of 4 August (including the Ajie and the Ogene), he reports that on this occasion “the entire Ndichies gave Umu-EzeAroli full mandate to present the successor”, and that therefore “the final judgement lies with Umu-EzeAroli electorate.”  Warning “all the people of Onitsha who are not from Umu-EzeAroli families to stop intruding”, he concludes by reminding the people that since in 1931- 35 chief Gbasiuzo Onowu (of Oke-BuNabo)

“used the powers at his command to install a candidate of his own choice…, this convention has never been broken and it is most likely that the powers and responsibilities attached to the office of Onowu… will continue to increase….” Once the selection was completed, the Umu-EzeAroli should “discipline all the disloyal members as a first step towards the restoration of the ancient kingdom.”

Aniweta’s article clearly states the points of dispute now coming into sharp focus: the question of the relative powers of the chiefs (particularly the primacy of the Onowu) versus the “commoners”, and that of the Umu-EzeAroli versus the Umu-EzeChima as a whole. As a communication to the members of the Conference itself, the article combines insult, a demand for surrender, and a threat of future punishment should the members of the Umu-EzeChima Conference lose. This Zero-sum game emphasis serves however to remind the Roycal Clan Conference of the imperative for immediate and decisive action.

2. The Special Committee of Umu-EzeChima Conference Votes

The Special Committee meets on August 25 in the Savoy Hotel under the chairmanship of T.B. Akpom, the Ajie waiting in a lounge nearby. They decide to vote immediately instead of conducting long discussions, and when the votes are counted Joseph Onyejekwe has 10 votes, Odita 5, Emembolu 2, and Ukpabi 1. The Ajie for all his efforts receives none1.

The members then notify the Ajie, who expresses surprise and chagrin at the results. When the Committeemen show him, however, that Onyejekwe is a very strong winner, he becomes receptive to Chairman Akpom’s suggestion that he publicly announce he has previously withdrawn in the interests of peace.

(The Ajie appears throughout strongly committed to the contest. He later tells me that “all the intelligentsia and all the people in the street want only one man, Ajie,” but that he decided to step down when the Committeemen conveyed to him their understanding that the Onowu and Odu were hoping he would win the Conference’s contest, under the assumption that a Commission of Inquiry would find his Umu-Olosi genealogy and his prior status as a Senior Chief telling weaknesses in his case for claiming the Throne.2

 3. Announcement to “All Onitsha”

The leaders of the Committee now move quickly. A flyer is printed and distributed on the morning of the 26th throughout the Inland Town and to important people in the Waterside, calling “All Men and Women” to “Umuezechima Announcement of Obi of Onitsha”, at the Native Court Hall at 2 pm the same day.

The Native Court Hall contains a very spacious, high-ceiling main room. Its three front sides are open half bays framed by archways which rise at wide intervals above the walls (set about four feet high so men standing outside can lean forward on folded arms and watch the proceedings within). The courtroom fills rapidly with elders, while the young men (including myself) cluster around outside the walls looking in. At the far end of the room, on the raised judge’s platform, the Ajie and (to his left) the Ogene sit facing the crowd over a long writing table. Below and in front of them along the table sit the members of the Special Committee, the officers directly facing the seated crowd and the regular members ranged in two rows to their right. Soon a large crowd fills the hall, the candidates being seated in the front row facing the Conference officials, and a large throng also gathers outside.

Peter Achukwu begins the proceedings, first greeting the crowd, asking them if they want an Obi (to which the crowd responds, “Yes!”), and then he introduces the Ajie. The Ajie begins to speak, and shortly thereafter someone at the Committee table remembers to turn on my tape recorder. Since in many ways this event is the first of a series of climactic events of the Interregnum, I present, in what follows, a verbatim and more or less literal translation of the speeches made (all in Igbo, with speakers’ English words denoted by quotation marks). Igbo words deemed especially noteworthy are italicized in parenthesess, and clarification or interpretive analysis is given in bracketed words, phrases and paragraphs following the relevant body of text, in order to lay the basis for comparison with other discourse to be examined later, both from this and from Enwezor’s side). rcc-selects-14-ajie………………..Ajie: … so that we can select a youngman (okolobia) who is breathing well (active), wanting, if the Umu-EzeChima can agree, from among them to select one man to be looking after the town (ruling). They all came here and spoke, told us words. I myself joined in speaking, and spoke well, indeed, there was not a person who did not try his best. Every one’s stomach was filled (was satisfied) that there are people in this town! After we finished, we dispersed, the people of Committee went into house (went into conference). Then they started going through the thing, started the work on it. After working, they called us together today telling us to come, so that they may tell us how they took to work (how they have progressed). That is the gathering we are here for. So one of them if it is the Chairman (i.e., T.B. Akpom), or the man following the Chairman, or one of them will stand to tell us how they took to do the work. After they have told, then the person will be pointed out (the winning candidate) I shall say he has a good head (isi oma)! (is fortunate, blessed).

Audience: (laughter)

(The Ajie steers the meeting through an initial legitimating narrative which contextualizes the purposes, procedures, and processes of the Royal Clan Conference, leading its work through the Manifesto presentations directly into the Special Committee’s procedural process now, and concludes with a surprising allusion to the “chosen person” momentarily to be revealed.)

Ajie: Why I say he has a good head is that of all the people who were here on that day (of Manifesto speeches), there was nobody that one could say, leave!

Audience: (applause)

Ajie: that is, calling him up like that, it may be the heart (choice) of everyone, that we may support (him). The one to whom it does not fall should not have anger; the one to whom it falls should not boast.

Audience: (applause)

Ajie: Let him know that the thing (reason) we did it like this is so our town may be at peace. That we proceed according to boundary (n’oke, within limits) so trouble may not be for us. So we do not fight, so we do not break our heads.

Audience: Ye…e..e…s.

(Here the Ajie, by merely alluding to the brilliance of the Manifesto speeches, buttresses the moral judgement that a meritocratic selection process, with its implied normative constraints on tactical maneuvering, should lead to acceptance of the outcome by all reasonable persons, and therefore to a peaceful outcome. The connection being drawn between “peace” and following procedural rules (“within limits, boundaries”. is very important.)

Peter Achukwu: Chairman!

(At this point, Achukwu interrupts, drawing attention to the presence of T.B. Akpom, steering the process to the next step now that the Ajie has concisely set the stage.)

Ajie: (To Akpom) Come here, so you may stay to speak. (The Chairman of the Special Committee, Okunwa T.B. Akpom, comes and stands by the desk to the Ajie’s right.)

okunwa-akpomAkpom: Ajie! (Ajie: Okunwa!); Ogene! (Ogene: Okunwa!); Nnanyelugo! (the Ozo-title name of Melifonwu, senior priest of Isiokwe) (Melifonwu: okunwa!) Umu-Eze-Chima, welcome!

Voice from Audience: Raise your voice! (Akpom is elderly and has a soft, hoarse voice.)

Akpom: Very well. I am saying that we are the people, Committee of Umu-EzeChima, we are the people the Umu-EzeChima sent that we may do the work, to toss ideas (tua alo) about the issue of King (okwu obi). We have come to show you what we did. But before I go forward, I shall greet the people of Eze Chima, those who started this idea. Greet the ndichie of Eze Chima. Greet someone like Nnanyelugo Melifonwu you know that it was at his house this thing began. (Here Akpom alludes to the initial meetings called by Isiokwe family.)

We started going into it, until we saw that the thing has gotten a name, so we carried it to reside in another place. There we counted out (selected) the Committee. I greet the Committee themselves, for their sleeplessness and the ants they ate (willing suffering) in the thing. Greet the Umu-EzeChima, for the patience they had in giving us time to look for the fundamentals (lit., earth) of the thing, up to this. I then say, Umu-EzeChima who are here, is it you who say we should proceed?

Audience: Yes!

Akpom: Do you agree together that the thing we shall decide will be good for you?

Audience: Yes!

Akpom: We went on until this time. Eh… I shall greet Ajie on his own, separately, for he himself took his own wisdom to himself, so there may be peace and no trouble, and said that he has withdrawn. That is Ajie… that he was no more (competing), so that there may be peace.

Audience: (applause)

Akpom: I greet for that. (Audience applause.) So saying as it is like that, before we can say this is the man who is the one, he himself, Ajie, will tell you who it is, as said, the man who had the most (votes). After he has told you that, one of us will stand and speak, will greet, before saying who it is.

Audience: (cheers)

(Akpom here intermingles an elaboration of the narrative with a eulogy which singles out those members of the Royal Clan who started the Conference, records the suffering of the selected Special Committee, then draws the entire Umu-EzeChima (including of course members present) into the frame (celebrating their participatory patience) and calls on them for further participation by inquiring if they want the Committee’s decision to be implemented. Gaining their assent, he anticipates the coming climax of the episode. Akpom then returns to his seat, and Peter Achukwu goes to the place vacated.)

Achukwu: Ajie! (Ajie: Ochanja! (“Inferior!” Achukwu’s popular “title”name as an untitled person) Ogene! (Ogene: Ochanja!) I greet you all. Onitsha, I greet you! Good Children of God (Umu-Olisa), good life to you!

Audience: Yes!

Achukwu: Do you know the language (asusu) I have just used?

Audience: We have heard it!

Achukwu: The language I spoke now is so I may show you Umu-EzeChima who are here that the name you were called at an early time is Children of God (Umu-chukwu). Is it right?

Audience: Yes!

Achukwu: Those who hear (understand) the language of Onitsha will know that our name is not Onitsha; it is that we live in another town, that we are driven around (from place to place), that we are called Onitsha. (This alludes to the Onitsha legend of their exodus from a region west of the River Niger because of war with Benin, and their difficult travels to various places before establishing their current town). But we are Children of God (Umu Olisa), Children of God (Umu-Chukwu), Children of God you are. That is how your wisdom (uche-unu) is greater than that of people living in other lands near you. Isn’t that true?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: But when speaking Igbo or speaking all other (languages), those who are strangers, like white men and others, when Onitsha language is spoken, they will doff their caps, knowing that these are the only people that they cannot use for play, or to figure out, or to use in doing anything, without fear. Is it not like that?

Audience: It is!

(The orator thus lavishly eulogizes Onitsha as a people whose language has a unique relationship to truth so that they cannot be effectively manipulated by others. The implications of notoriously “sharp tongues” are perhaps also implied, as well as the inferiority of Ndi-Igbo (and other foreigners). Here Achukwu makes explicit a significant dimension of the Onitsha legend of origin: the root of Onitsha uniqueness, purity, and superiority lies in their past of migratory suffering, culminating in their invasion of a land occupied by less strife-hardened (and therefore less “pure” and “wise”) people.)

Achukwu: That is how all of you do in your behavior today.

So it is that our father who has departed (nara ana arapu; the allusion is to Obi Okosi II, and is another standard phrase denoting Interregnum) and put us into great trouble. In this trouble he put us, many people, who do not understand that Onitsha is true word (ezi okwu), us Children of God, think that they will use their “influence” and their power and their tricks to deceive Onitsha into another controversy. Will it happen?

Audience: No!

(The implication seems to be that certain people whose relationship to the community may be “false” are trying to confuse the true people. Note the use of the English word, “influence”.)

Achukwu: But in the name of Umu-EzeChima, our chiefs (ndichie, the term which however may rather imply here the broader signification of this term as “elders”), those in the bush (ofia, i.e. metaphorically “abroad”, on duty outside Onitsha town), those on the road (n’uzo, travelling), if Umu-EzeChima say that something like that will not happen again, will it happen again?

Audience: It will not happen!

Achukwu: That they will hold mouth together (ejiko onu, “unite”), that they are running as one person, that it has taken long, they are running one, one (as individuals), and have been taken as single broom sticks. (This last apparently refers to a process of drawing together diverse efforts to contribute toward a common cause.) That their word is one word.

(Here he draws the audience into participation in the Royal Clan narrative of commitment to whole group unity.)

Any Umu-EzeChima who looks back at the people who appear to say that they want to spoil (mebie) Onitsha, many of them are people with sense. I praise somebody like Onowu (the Prime Minister), who is the man who holds the issue with his tactics so that…. until today. Do you thank him?

Audience: We thank him!

Achukwu: The Umu-Eze-Chima have respect for where Onowu is, he is indeed… somebody with sense, he is a man with what is called the kernel of thought (nkpulu -uche, intelligence). He is a man who has patience (ndidii), he is a man who has what is called “tactics” which someone will use to follow a man who has a hot mind (obi oku, lit. “hot heart”). All the pushing he has gotten now, if he were a man without intelligence, he should have fallen. He should have made a pronouncement that will scatter (esesa) himself, and scatter Onitsha. Is that a lie?

Audience: No!

Achukwu: But he himself took his thoughtfulness, his intelligence, and his knowledge (amam ife, “knowing things”) to hold Onitsha in the way of our father who is gone, he took to think with his good sense to select somebody like the man who is at the head for us now, who is standing at the head of Umu-EzeChima, speaking. (an allusion to Ajie; apparently Achukwu is reminding the group that the Onowu recently participated and consented in Mbamali’s selection as Ajie). Let us stand in one place, truly unity is strength (igwe bu ike) truly is the strength of human beings (mmadu). Truly all Onitsha will stand in the strength of Umu-EzeChima. It stands so until today (to the present).

(Referring back to the “apparently false” people, he links this notion to the Prime Minister, overtly praising him for his caution so far but linking him, again with English words, to the potential of some kind of action that may lead to chaos, “scattering”. Then he uses a final praise of the Onowu to connect the Ajie with the potential unification of all Onitsha.  There is a distinct tone of sarcasm towards the Prime Minister in these passages.)

Achukwu:  We came out again to greet as the Chairman said somebody like Melifonwu, who is the man who foresaw this thing. He stands like (represents) the senior son of Umu-Eze-Chima, he follows (is second to) the senior son (di-okpala) who is Oreze, Otimili. When he saw that the man at the head lacks the strength enwere ike, is unable) to gather people, according to how his life is, he (Melifonwu) came out and called (people) together. So Umu-EzeChima started to hold themselves together (jikoba onwe fa onu, unite), together until today. We are giving him a separate greeting, we applaud that he is a son of Eze Chima, that he is truly. The man who is son of Eze Chima, will he spread confusion?

Audience: No!

(He uses a brief eulogy of the Isiokwe Senior Priest in contrast to the “weakness” of the formally more senior priesthood of Oreze, whose young, untitled agent has sided with Enwezor, to legitimate the current unity of the Royal Clan.)

Achukwu: Didn’t you hear the illustration a man told us here, saying that when Solomon took to be king, that is as King Solomon, two women were (claiming) a child, one said ‘let the child be cut apart for sharing’ (egbuwa); the other said that the child should be given to the other woman that if it lives, it will live for everybody. Do you think that the person who said the child should be cut up is human?

Audience: No!

Achukwu: Is it not to destroy the Ancestral House (Iba) that she went?

Audience: Yes!

(The orator uses this parable to make a stark moral contrast between selfish and altruistic actions in Onitsha patrilineage and wider community action.)

Achukwu: All right, listen: so it is today that… I mean, sometime in the past, he, our father Onowu called us, called all Onitsha, all the things, saying that this will happen and that will happen, and said to us that Kingship discussion has started on the 4th of this month of August. Is it not so?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu:  Onitsha then said (that is, the Prime Minister, standing for all Onitsha) that the Kingship talk has started, then started. Then (he) warns the Umu-EzeChima to work hard to select somebody, that he may know where he is standing. Is that not what he told you?

Audience: It is!

(This return to the Interregnum narrative implicates the Prime Minister himself in the Royal Clan Conference’s procedures, now to be further elaborated.)

Achukwu: Then it was, (we) met, met, met, until a small time ago, as some people have said, then selected somebody from Umu-Chima-Ogbuefi as the Committee people have said. They did not say Umu-EzeAroli, they said Umu-ChimaOgbuefi, who begot Eze Aroli, begot Isiokwe, begot Ogbe-Oli-Olosi, saying Umu-EzeChima that those people should hold mouth together (unite), they should select one man. But it was that they lacked strength to select one man. By itself, Umu-EzeAroli brought seven men, Isiokwe brought one man, Ogbe-Oli-Olosi brought one man. But what the Committee said is, those who are Umu-Chima-Ogbuefi, you select one man, that it is you that it has reached (olulu; it is your turn), as was written in the (Eight Age-Grade) book but Umu-Chima-Ogbuefi, are they children of one mother?

Audience: Yes!

Achukwu: One mother, one father?

Audience: Yes!

Achukwu: That is, that there is no person greater than the other in it, is it not so?

Audience: It is so!

( Here the narrative draws the Umu-EzeAroli into their common Royal-Clan bondage with the other members of Umu-Chima-Ogbuefi, as siblings.)

Achukwu: Then it was said that it reached them (their rightful turn), when they selected, they brought nine persons for us. Is that possible?

Audience: No!

Achukwu: so they went to a meeting, the Umu-EzeAroli, when they finished discussion saying in that meeting that they are unable to organize. Telling their headman, who is Onya, that what is best is to take everybody, all competing for kingship, to the Umu-Eze-Chima, that whomever they select and support, they themselves will come down (alidasi, yield). Is it not what they said?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: Which was recorded (ede na akwukwo). So it was that we went, all these things, the Committee was doing their work, continued to do their work, saying that now they will turn back to call a call (summon a meeting), so that we may know those who are competing to be King. So they may speak words to us that we may know them, who they are. That was why (people) were called here some time ago, meeting day last (Sunday); these people who are seeking to be made King, they did was is called ili demonstrate that they are Umu-EzeChima, that there is no fear in their eyes. That they were born complete (amuzu), that they are not competing just to compete, that they hold ofo (power of ancestral truth). Is it not true?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: And that whomever was given among them, that Umu-EzeChima did not err.

Audience: No!

Achukwu: That there is no person who will not yield, but who is called King; that it is not by right (elumelu). Is it not so?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: That the King is made by the people (eze bu ira nyelu).

Audience: Yes!

(Here he alludes to a hallowed Onitsha proverb:  Okpala bu elumelu; Eze bu ira-nyelu.  Lineage priesthood is by “right” (it “reaches him”); Kingship is given by the people.)

Achukwu: That whomever Umu-EzeChima with one mouth gave the post, that is it. Is it not what you said?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: This is what the people who are here said. That is, those who are competing for King. So they finished speaking and explained to you… as it has been done according to the Land Custom (odinani) of we who were ‘Jews’ (Ndi-Juw) of old. (The allusion is to the generally presumed ancient connections of Onitsha people with Egypt and Old Testament figures, long affirmed by the people themselves from their readings of the Bible.)

Audience: (amused chuckling at the “ndi-juw” terminology)

Achukwu: So the explanation continued, we were told to go and think. So we went home, as it has been told to you. The Committee worked, and worked, worked, worked, and finished yesterday, then they said that they will relieve everybody of the load that is heavy on their hearts, that they will relieve every party that is wasting their money (ego fa niyi). That they may stop wasting money; to use this money in training our children; to use this money to eat the food that God (chukwu) gave us; to use this money to love ourselves (one another); let us stay together. So they said they will come out today to help bring out for you [weputalu unu, select for you) the man they think is suitable (kwesili ekwesi) to rule (ochibagodi) us; so that, that at the next time, the next man it reaches, he continues like that. Is it not what you said?

Audience: It is!

(The narrative focuses on the wastefulness of candidates’ expenditure of money, and the Committee’s effort to replace this with a selection based on merit, and calls on the audience to validate their prior decision, which by their response they do.)

Achukwu: So what we came for here today, anybody thinking that there is someone whom we talk ill against, or about whom we are thinking, or that there is someone whom we kept aside, there is none. This committee took an Oath (iyi) and made a rule (iwu), and kept a rule, that this rule (precedent) is what they will follow to select a person. Another rule if you don’t understand it, we will print all of them it will be a pamphlet. Every person will hold one, because we know that it will remain, and sometimes it will be brought out the book of Eight age grades of today. You will have known those who are the Eight age grades, and those who are not the Eight age grades, and the people who supported the book, it is the record that is the Instrument Onitsha has today. On the day it was being prepared for those who will say, why are these people fooling around? the day it was being prepared, the first people who were opposed to it are those called Umu-EzeAroli who are holding it to work today. Is it not so, you people here?

(The allusion is primarily to the Onya, who participated in the 1931 35 Interregnum, and who is now taking an accepting stance toward salient provisions of the Eight age Grades document that contradicts his previous one.)

Audience: It is!

(Here the quasi-legal proceedings of both the present Special Committee and its 1935 predecessor are valorized, the English terms lending a sense of modernity to the political implications of this action.)

Achukwu: So any person who says that you Umu-EzeChima who are doing this, whether they are men or they are animals (anu), that it is just to fool around, the person is putting himself in a cage from which he cannot come out. Is it not so?

Audience: Yes! (applause)

(This is again an allusion to the self-contradicting “trap” the Onya is putatively constructing for himself by his current behaviors. Note the metaphorical connection of “animal” and “cage”.)

Achukwu: I then greet all the persons here who understand that they are Umu-EzeChima, those who understand what is their ukpa, who understand what is… their right, that what is their wealth (aku) according to tradition (odi-na-ani) is that they are Onitsha, they will keep Onitsha where it will be. It is for them to bring forth the King of Onitsha. Is it not so?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: That it is not another person or another group. If they bring out the King (Eze), Onitsha agrees (kwelita), they will send him to Onowu. Onowu will place him in the face of all Onitsha. After showing to all Onitsha, if Onitsha agree that what Umu-EzeChima did filled their stomach, he will carry (okugo be) the person to the Throne (ukpo). We shall bow for him, Onitsha will bow heads to earth for him. Is it not so?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: Is there any other talk we have surpassing that?

Audience: No!

Achukwu: We therefore beg you, we beg those who are “contestants” (ndi-contest-li) in this issue, that is all who seek the kingship. Pity will hold on every person here, but if it is examined, this is in the custom of Onitsha. Because when the King is sought for but not seen (na achoro nna anyi, ma afu, ie., the time of “Interregnum”), then it is time for the Daughter’s (funerary) feasting is it not so?

Audience: It is! (applause)

Achukwu: So if it happens that it is our custom of old, if our father is sought for but not seen, then any person ties a big cloth round his waist, starts telling lies (asi) everywhere, and starts feasting.

Audience: (laughter)

(The interregnum proverbs here allude to the entrenched rights of patrilineage Daughters to be fed very liberally during funerals, and draw an analogy between this prerogative and the tendency for people occupying strategic official positions to expect to gain much wealth by toying with various candidates during an interregnum, or for themselves presuming to contend.)

Achukwu:  But today, we have entered into a life of knowledge (ama-ife, knowing things). I then greet the people whom the needle has pierced (ntutu dugolu na aru), who have removed something from their body (allusions to the pain of contesting), and (who) have given (things) to people (i.e., gifts). You are not foolish (asokwu kwo nu nsokwu o), for the foolishness of a person is his wisdom, and you are not crazy (akafie kwue nu akafie), but are doing what is in our blood, that they are doing. They cannot run away from it if you say we don’t need it, afterwards you go through the bottom. (meaning unclear to me here.)

(He praises the efforts of the candidates, assuring them that their expenditures of wealth and effort have not in themselves been wasteful, but are an essential part of the interregnum process, that the will to achieve greatness is inherent in Onitsha people.)

So it is great greetings that I greet you in the name of Umu-EzeChima… that the feast we gave them filled their stomach, and that if they are given… tomorrow that they will eat. Will you eat it? (“Food” is a metaphor here for the work of the Committee.)

Audience: Yes! (laughter)

Achukwu: We greet all those who perhaps, when the name will be called here, it may not reach (omelu) them (it will not be their turn, they have not been chosen). (We) also beg that they may give us necessary cooperation. (We) also beg (nayo) the person who when he will be called up (akpolite, selected), and he climbs up (olikwasi kwo i.e. to the throne), let him, from what the others have said in their speeches kwulu), select those who will be useful to us and take them, to put in positions (tinye n’okwa) where they will help Onitsha to do the work which they promised. Is it not so?

Audience: It is!

(Those who fail in the contest should support the winning candidate, who in turn should raise some of the more deserving losers into roles of civic responsibility, e.g. a chieftaincy title, or perhaps positions in the Uloko-Obi (?).)

Achukwu:  Again, whomever is being placed on the throne of Onitsha, should remember that the paper he wrote, which he read here (the Manifesto), that it is an Oath (iyi), that he is taking himself before Onitsha, and that all the things he wrote… that you expect that he will do it. Is it not true?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: That if it is not so, the Manifesto that he wrote is to deceive us. Is it not true?

Audience: It is!

Achukwu: So we are holding that paper which he wrote very strongly, holding it fast… that is what will be used for taking him to court (kpe ya ikpe). A very strong case that is that this is like this, that is like that, but he did nothing. So we are begging him that as he stays, he should keep this paper… before his face always. (When) he is sleeping, he should be looking at it to know that it is the work confronting him (dili ya n’iru).

(The orator’s strong “constitutionalism” reappears here, emphasizing the significance of structured, written, signed commitments to given patterns of governance, and suggesting their potential value as legal documents in the future. The future accountability of the King is strongly featured here.)

Again in the name of the Committee who did this work, we are greeting everybody who gave us cooperation. Those who led us through a great storm into which we entered and from which we are now emerging; it is the coming out that we are now making… greeting the headman (onye-isi) who is President of Umu-EzeChima, who is Ajie, who is here for the big work he did for Onitsha and Umu-EzeChima, to see that there is peace (ndokwa di, keeping in order) until today, that there has been no person fighting, telling lies (?) (onye nyana ibie sili asi). For you know that if there is a foolish person (onye nsokwu) at this side, and another foolish person at the other side, the remedy (ife aga ebego ya) should have been combat (o kwanu ogu)? Is it not true?

Audience: Is true!

(Note here the proverbial association of violent escalation of conflicts with bilateral stupidity. The implication of violence as folly is in interesting and significant contrast with the imagery of warfare at the core of traditional Onitsha leadership.)

Achukwu: But they held us in peace until today, and (we) are begging them… that they should hold us in peace in the future (n’iru, “at the face”). Now that I am ending this speech, I greet you in my name, that is Aniweta Achukwu. I am saying, Umu-EzeChima, welcome!

Audience: Yes, indeed! Ha a a!)

Achukwu: Welcome!

Audience: Yes, indeed!

Achukwu: Welcome!

Audience: Yes, indeed!

Achukwu: It is now that we have come forth (aputa).

Voice from audience: Greet Ogene.

(The speaker reminds the Orator that, while he has praised one of the Senior Chiefs leading the Royal Clan Conference, he has not yet mentioned the other one.)

Achukwu: I greet Ogene who stood by Ajie to do all this work, his (contribution) surpasses (kasi). That you Onitsha put your ears to the earth very much, and you hear like the hare (ulili, a creature with very keen hearing). You all hear what things pass. But everyone who is a person (onye abuna onye), here or not here, should understand that there is no use for any human being if he does not benefit another human being. If you only benefit yourself, you are useless, you have no history. That is what it is to be useful (elele), and that is what it means to be useful. Is it not so?

Audience: It is!

(This comment makes, in passing, a basic connection between altruism and historical significance in contrast to basically egocentric actions which tend to degrade toward gene-driven gratifications. Achukwu is emphasizing the potential for self transcendence.)

Achukwu: If a Nwa-EzeChima is not useful to (obarolu) the Umu-EzeChima, is he a Nwa-EzeChima?

Audience: No!

Achukwu: So we are hoping, now. What we are begging (from) our father, who is Ajie, is for him to look at the paper used for making ballots, to tell us that he should stand before us the man who will be our King all tomorrows (echie nine). Is that not correct?

Audience: Yes!

Achukwu: I greet you all!

Audience: (loud cheering)

(The two senior chiefs and the officers of the Special Committee discuss briefly how to proceed with making the announcement.)

Ajie: Onya, Ogene, our people (ndi be anyi), Ogbu-Efi (Cow killer, a general salutation to Ozo titleholders), Ogbu-Efi, all!

Audience: Ajie!

Ajie: Ehhhhh, before I continue, I want to call names for you, those contestants who are in the election. As I told you before, I myself, afterwards, said that may there be peace, so I took it by my hand (welu no akam, decided) to come down (wee zida), so it may be going easy for others, to allow them to work. That is, the thing I am begging, which I want to say now, is that Umu-Eze-Aroli have seen that we gave them respect in this one and told them to go ahead, but in the time ahead, when next it comes, that it may not be to them. What will worry them that someone was raised up what we want is that there may be peace.

(Here the Ajie, who despite his “withdrawal” was until the final outcome a very keen contestant indeed, emphasizes the importance of the newly won right of Olosi and Isiokwe to contest the throne, and emphasizes that his “withdrawal” was motivated by a desire for community welfare.  While he here implies that the winning candidate is a member of Umu-EzeAroli, he also warns the Umu-EzeAroli, should they in future fail to produce a suitable candidate, someone from one of these two other villages within Umu-ChimaOgbuefi might well be selected instead.)

Ehhhhh, those who contested the position (okwa) are, Ediboss Okolonji he didn’t come on meeting day (Sunday] (Audience applauds); you know that Ediboss, who is Akunne, he is not Akunne of Agbanikaka but of Onitsha.

Audience: (laughter.)

(Ediboss, a well known comedian, has sometimes taken the role of an Onye-Onicha  lawyer’s tout, going into the Ndi-Igbo hinterlands to look for disputes which might be transformed into court cases. This joke alludes to his Igbo hinterland involvements (often said to border on confidence games), making reference to some imagined, contemptible Igbo community — the suffix “ kaka” is surely significant — of which he is not, the Ajie assures us, a member. It is appropriate to make such a joke about Ediboss because he is himself an inveterate and often shocking public jokester.)

Ajie: The next man following him is Joseph Onyejekwe, Nnanyelugo (audience applauds) the next person following him is J.M. Onyechi Kpajie, you know him; the next person following him is J.J. Enwezor (audience applauds); the next person following him is Ukpabi Akunne; another person following him is Moses Odita; (audience applauds) and the next person is M.O. Emembolu, akunnia (audience applauds).

(Note the absence of applause for Onyechi, and that Enwezor’s and Odita’s Ozo title names are omitted.)

Ajie:  Among all these people I have counted for you now, the Committee observed very thoroughly. After examining, you know they have a rule written what every person will be, and how he should be, for him to be the King of Onitsha. That is our law, and that will lead us on to posterity (okpu sobe okpu).

Then papers were put (voting) so that the man whose (votes) were greater, it will be he who will be selected. After observing the paper, as it pleased all that I like this person, I like that person the papers were gathered and counted. After counting, (we) had one person who won (melili nu) all of them. this man who won, it did not surprise me that he will win. Because, even from the way he performed on Sunday (he laughs) showed, because the people of our town say that it is known which corn is ripe by eye.

After observing it, it came to be one very important man (ofu akakpuka madu no). So (we) saw that he is the only suitable person that will hold Onitsha, and hold it the way we want and way it will be good for us. So (we) selected him. So it is something of great pleasure (ife uso) one of my friend from Abariba, trader is he, he asked me to come to his place, come to his place. I don’t visit people. After pestering me for long, I told my wife to come, that you may go with me to this man’s house for I don’t know what he wants. I and she went there. Coming, he was drinking palm wine with his people. As soon as he saw me, he exclaimed, and they all stood and said, Welcome that he is very happy (uto nke ukwu), very happy. I said to him, What is that? He repeated, that he is very happy (uto nke ukwu). What I am saying to you today is that I am very happy (uto)…

Audience: (laughter and applause)

(The joke here hinges on the use of uto = “happy” in the Central Igbo Dialect, while Onitsha Igbo dialect uses uso. The main focus of the humor is on this ethnic “error” made by an Igbo man, while the joking prolongs the tension of the moment.)

Ajie: … to present to you the person we have chosen we know he can carry the ghost (mmuo) who owns the Ancestral House (iba) …

Audience: (becomes rowdily restless)

Ajie: … somebody like…

Audience: (premature applause breaks out)

Ajie: The person is: Joseph Nnanyelugo Onyejekwe…

Audience: (Thunderous, prolongued applause; people stand up.)

Ajie: What I want to tell is, you have seen him, how (he) stands now… that he is a fine youngman (okolobia dinma). There is nothing that he lacks. I am saying that he should greet you and speak to you. For after he has spoken, we shall speak no more, but shall disperse. There will be nothing again we shall say. So I want to greet you all… who supported us Umu-Eze-Chima until today, that we are here… and we found what we are looking for. For when the war (agha) started, it appeared as if I was putting confusion (mkpasa), I am saying that what I wanted… I have seen it, that I didn’t want confusion but that there may be peace (udo).

Audience: (applause)

Ajie: I am saying that in that battle which was fought, anyone who insulted his neighbor … let him throw it away, it is political that we are doing. One of my friends, Inspector Osueli who was in Lagos with us, said he was out visiting one day and on his way home he saw his daughter standing with a man, speaking grammatic, and when they saw him they (started) speaking political. So now, we have spoken political, we are now speaking grammatic, that is romantic.

Audience: (some laughter)

(This joke is made at the expense of a well known, poorly educated Superintendant of Police, whose speech was so remarkable that any Malapropisms made in English in the Onitsha Enugu area were routinely attributed to him. In this case he allegedly misspoke “grammatic” for “romantic,” and thus the Ajie humorously advocates a shift of orientation at the current moment from the topic of conflict to that of congeniality.)

Below, a labeled image of the Committee Members at the time Onyejekwe is being presented.

rcc selects 14-labeled

Ajie: That is, I am asking Nnanyelugo Onyejekwe to greet Umu-Eze-Chima, and thank you.

Audience: Very well. (oo o!)

Nnanyelugo Onyejekwe: Isagba Ajie, Ogene Onira, Nnanyelugo (Melifonwu), Onicha-Eze-Chima, each one to his own, every one to his own, Ogbuefi, Ndi-Ogbuefi (Cow-killers)…

Audience: (interrupts with enthusiastic cheer)

Onyejekwe: I take my whole heart to greet you for the honor (ugwu) you have conveyed to me … to select me to be King (Eze) of Onitsha. It is today that I know that the eye of the fish is important (anya azu no balu n’ife). I didn’t know that I am important in Onitsha, but this made me understand… that I am important. I use all my heart to tell you today, that when the music starts, the Incarnate Dead will dance; you will not scratch your eyebrows (in shame). (Na egwu raba, na mmanwu ga ete. Unu ama ko oko na iku anya.)

Audience: (applause)

Onyejekwe: I shall serve (efe) you as it will please you well. For I know that as the King has the public, so the public has the King. (Na eze nwe ira, ka ira nwe eze.) One thing is, in this issue in this matter of making King we have gone far and beyond. It remains a little, for the music has not sounded. One thing I ask of you is, in the small distance left, he who carries a baby, do not let its legs drag on the ground. (Okwo nwata na azu, nya ekwekwana ka ukwu lue nya na ani.)

Audience: No! (applause)

Onyejekwe: What is in my mind is, in my regime (ochichim), that I shall endeavor that our town may be good, that peace (udo) prevail, that we may prosper (naga n’iru, go forward), that we are agreeable (ka omasili anyi). Spoken in oyibo (white man, foreigner i.e, English), “it will be regime of unity, of peace, progress, and prosperity.”

Audience: (applause and cheers)

(The candidate’s presentation is both eloquent and brief, beginning with salient Onitsha proverbs and ending with a glittering generality in English currently popular among national politicians and versions of which have been uttered since the first Christian missionaries settled in Onitsha, indeed wherever “nationalist” sentiments emerge.)

4. Reflections: Aftermath of the Presentation

This example nicely illustrates how the members of the Conference would enact a meeting context serving to intensify commitment among their followers. While the process begins with exhortations from the Orator spokesman in the form of rhetorical questions addressed to the audience (do you want an Obi?), narrative is prominent throughout, serving the aim of grounding moral judgments by lending them vividness and interconnections. The most senior chief of the group starts this by recounting the recent Manifesto competition, emphasizing the quality of the performances, expressing great respect for the prospective winner, and reminding this chosen person that the aim of all these activities is attaining peace in the community. The Chairman of the Special Committee then narrates the Committee’s contribution, eulogizes the statesmanship of the Ajie’s withdrawal from competition, and again rhetorically questions the crowd: do you want us to proceed?

The positive response then sets the stage for the speech of the Orator spokesman, who elaborates on many facets of the Interregnum. Beginning with a focus on the Royal Clan (and more broadly Ndi-Onicha) as a Godly People possessing a special wisdom worthy of the highest respect, then emphasizing the dangers from those seeking to deceive and play power games, he credits the Prime Minister himself with encouraging the Royal Clan in its proceedings. He then traces the development of the Conference, emphasizing the importance of unity and outlining major steps of the dispute in the context of the guiding normative rules, placing the competition in a traditional light while emphasizing the secondary relevance of money and the primacy of effective powers of speech.

This oration illustrates how an effective speaker can, with judicious choice of proverbs and use of the call and response technique, construct a moral vision of how things are (and/or should be) and convince the audience that they themselves are participating authors of this vision. Early in the speech Achukwu draws them into the process by asking if they intend to allow those who want to deceive in order to have their way to succeed in such action, and he emphasizes the value of unity by rhetorically questioning their interpretation of major legends and proverbs (including a vivid Biblical example). In this fashion his defining of the sequence of Conference issues and resolutions is validated at every step of the way, thus involving the audience in the moral context of all of the major decisions made, and through their participation they do in fact become part authors of the process.

The Ajie‘s final address becomes somewhat more of a monologue, now presuming the prior construction of the audience’s will. After emphasizing his own role in the proceedings and that particular decision growing out of them to which he is especially attached, he reveals the results of the balloting, and then as the climactic moment approaches and tension rises high seeks to shift the moral tone by telling jokes (at the expense of less urbane Ndi-Igbo outsiders), which point to pleasure and friendship replacing competition among the assembled group, setting the stage for the candidate’s brief but very elegant acceptance speech.

The methods displayed here are worth emphasizing because of the intense vocal commitment afterwards displayed by many supporters of the Conference who had not themselves been active everyday participants in it, where they now publicly verbalized for example certain social categories presented by the Conference leaders, and did so with apparently strong conviction. It seems to me that participation in this kind of gathering where the potential contingency of responses was quite real tends to generate a kind of commitment similar to that arising from more continuous active participation in decision making.3

Below, Obi-selected Onyejekwe stands in front of the Native Court, flanked by some of his supporters.


Indeed, on this occasion, such strong convictions have apparently been aroused by the final moments of the event that many participants suggest at its end that the Conference proceed directly from there to make a formal acclamation of Onyejekwe as Obi, ignoring the prerogatives of the Prime Minister. T. B. Akpom, however, forestalls this by citing the proverb about a man who, angry at his son’s misguided behavior but unwilling to inflict the appropriate punishment himself, arranges for another man to do this, only later to find himself reduced to saying, “I asked you to whip my son, not to kill him.” The Committee should, he argues, first try to work with the Onowu, make further applications to him, attempting to persuade him to do the final presentation of Onyejekwe himself. Otherwise the Royal Clan Conference may be justly accused of failing in their own responsibilities and usurping the Onowu’s rightful role. Moreover, Akpom reminds them, the Prime Minister is a member of Ugwu-na-Obamkpa,  the non-royal clans, and if the Conference Committee acts too hastily against him, these non royal descent groups might justifiably balk at such action and reject all of the Royal Clan’s work.


  1. Four of the Special Committeemen were absent and did not vote. I neglected to ascertain why, but suspect that at least the two members of the Ajie‘s village opted to abstain (though perhaps their abstentions were registered following his “prior decision to withdraw”).  The two Isiokwe members vote for their own man.  See Harding (1963):108‑9. Return ↩
  2. Note the anticipation of a Government Inquiry here. This is August, 1961, very nearly a full year before the Harding Inquiry will begin. Return ↩
  3. This illustrates the self-transforming processes of ritual, so strongly emphasized by Turner et al. Return ↩
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