Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Approaching “Independence”

During the early 1940s, spokesmen for the “Non-Onitsdha Ibos” raised increasingly intense demands for repreesentation in Onitsha local government, which was now largely in the hands of Ndi-Onicha representatives. I will not cover the details of the evollution of Onitsha local government during these phases — that has been done elsewhere , but will point tos some salient features of the oppositional pollitics that made this era socially poisonjous.

Fopr example, take a brief account published in the Nigerian Spokesman on January 11, 1946. Here, Messrs P.H. Okolo and Reverend Umunna (both, as we have seen, prominent authorities on the subject of “Onitsha history” in the OIU) assert that” Onitsha people are not Ibos”, that “none of their customs are Ibo”, and that a story currently being told — that they once lived in Iboland “before they left for Benin” is false.

These statements point to a public airing of controversies regarding the cultural traditions of “Onitsha Ibos” and “Non-Onitsha Ibos” that center around the presence vs.r absenced of a tradiiton of kingship whose symbolic roots are intertrwined with rituals of human sacrifice. I have dealt with these matters previously in this chapter, first in the page on “A precis of Onitsha history”, where I discussed the “folk histories’ so current among Onitsha people. The particular version just displayed above (“we are not Ibos”) of course aims to draw the sharpest possible line between the two now-opposing political groups. i also discussed this, in more depth in this same chapter, under the heading of “Slave Trade and its Stereotypes”, and I need not recount them here, but a persistent confrontation of these stereotypes (and their descendants) runs through the political history of Onitsha during these times.

Add to these deep-historical hostilities a contemporary economic oppposition between historically-inndigenous land-owners seeking to maintain their traditional rights within and around tahe town, and immigrant land-buyers and business-builders whose primary loyalties lie with their hometowns located elsewhere but whose economic incomes are Onitsha-town-dependent, and the intractability of these oppositiojns becomes firmly understandable.

In 1951 ,under a National constitution alllocating strong powers to the regional houses of assembly (Northern, Wester, and Eastern), Zik won a seat in the Western House, but the Yoruba-dominated House denied him a seat in the Fedral House, so in 1952 he moved his operation to the Eastern Region. There he encountered already-seated Ministers,, most of whom refused to resign, leading to an impasse, dissolution of the Easternl House of Assembly,, and a new election which culminated in Zik’s becoming Premier of the Eastern Region in 1954. This internal conflict produced divisions both within the region as a whole and within Zik’s partry, the NCNC, and gave rise to a rash of new political parties within the region.

As an “Onitsha man” now operating fully in the East, Zik now had to contend directly with the opposiiton between “Onitsha Ibos” and “Non-Onitsha Ibos”, not an easy task. On the one hand, he had now to liveup to his West-African-Pilot statements ofering Non-Onitsha Ibos repreentation in Onitsha local Government, and meanwhile he began bringing Ndi-Onicha into goverfnment offices in very considerable numbers, a procedure closely observed by members of the Non-Onitgsha Ibos Association.

While the Onitsha Town Native Authority (OTNA) had incorporated Waterside populations within that organization under the Onitsha Obi and his Ndichie (Chiefs), with OIU “enlightened members” included in 1935, no “non-Onaitha”seelers had been represented until 1942. The Non-Onitsha Ibos Association”, formed in 1945, first aimed at economic factors: allocateing market stalls etc; then proceeded to demand : democratic representation in local government.

The evolution of Onitsha local governemtnt proceed through the 1950s with a rapid series of changes, buoyed by repeated contests of representation between “Onitsha Ibos” and “Non-Onitsha Ibos”. At one point, the local government with substantial “Onitsha Ibo” representation was exposed as rampantly corrupt (ˆNdi-Onicha representatives illegally selling and re-selling market stalls, etc.), leading to a dissolution producing much larger Non-Onitsha Ibo repreesentation; a Commissions of Inauir which led to shocking exposures of Nnadi Azikiwe’s control over a private bank receiving large aounts of government funding (followed by his rousing re-election), intense Catholic-Protestant controversy over issues of fair representation, and so on., All of this has been covered in great detail in two fine books (among any others):

Richard Sklar, 1963, Nigerian Political Parties. (See particularly his section on “The struggle for the Onitsha Instrument”)

Okeke, Okechukwu Edward, 2010, A Political History of Onitsha 1917-1970.Trenton, NJ: African World Press, Inc.

I will not undertake to summarize the relevant contents of these two volumes here; the maierial is too complex for me to do justice to at this time.

Let it suffice for me to say that the condition of “occult instabilities” discussed for Onitsha by Chinua Achebe in the Chapter One Introductiton played out here in yet another emergence of “creativity”, in the form of a new local government for onitsha which — while still full of the internal contraditions posed by the intersecting oppsiitons between Caatholics and Protestants on the one hand, and “Onitsha Ibos” and Non-Onitsha Ibos” on the other — operated in a new context with some degree of effectiveness and stability.

One aspect of this process deserves mentioning here: the emergence of a “House of Chiefs” in the Eastern Region’s political development. Ndi-Onicha were instrumental in this process, and the Obi of Onitsha played an important role therein. In the towns all around the region, new “Kings” began to emerge in order to participate in this development, and Onitsha lawyers traveled widely outside Onitsha in order to assist this expansion of royal pretentions. We witnessed this process during our stay in Onitsha 1960-62.

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