Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

A Dividing Colonial City

Milne, 1930s, Onitsha Lands and Neighbors

Above:  Milne Report, 1930s:  Onitsha Lands and Neighbors1

[Note:  Click on any image you may want to enlarge.]

Introductory notes:

Since 2010, all students of Onitsha history have been blessed with the publication of a magisterial account,  A Political and Administrative History of Onitsha, by Okechukwu Edward Okeke, Head of the Department of History and International Relations at Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria.2  Based primarily on an in-depth survey of primary archival sources, this volume will be the standard source on this subject for many years to come.

In light of this treasure, our efforts in this section will take the form of illustrative sketches that hopefully will highlight some significant aspects of this well-configured history (and will enter some domains where Professor Okeke did not directly tread).  Most of this material will be drawn, as opportunity permits,  from the Henderson Archives3.

Recapitulating Early Colonial times:
Milne 1930s Osha Town&Enu
Map from the Milne Report on 1930s Onitsha Town and Enu Villages

When Europeanized African missionaries and traders first settled at Onitsha in 1857, the merchants established their warehouses along or near the waterside and soon invited their local commercial agents  also to settle there.  At the same time, the first (CMS) missionaries, seeking to separate their domains sharply from business contamination, first sought to locate near the native villages located further inland and uphill, but this worked poorly and they soon were forced to retreat (at one point, most moved clear across the Niger), while the Catholic latecomers in 1885 gained combined advantages of a location upland yet by the river.  In 1900 the British Colonial Government took hold of the large remaining expanse of high ground (ozala, “high grass”) on the north side, and also impinged upon the waterside commercial  spaces, developing an area which became known as the “European Quarters” (see map image left, and also see these brief images from the early 1900s:  ) .

This northerly part of town became both church (CMS and RCM) and Government offices and residences during the colonial era, when directorial positions in these institutions were reserved for Europeans. Other settlements nearer the river became established by, and named after, particular groups: one occupied mainly by early Onitsha Christian converts, became Ogbe-Umu-Onicha, “Village of Children of Onitsha”, north of the Main Market location, while Muslim traders from far up-river occupied locations casually labeled Ogbe-Awusa (“Hausa Village”), Ogbe-Nupe (Nupe Village), and those from the Aboh and other riverine communities located downriver lived in the vicinity of what later was called Ogbe-Ukwu or Ogbe-Ijaw. The symbolic division between the Inland Town (Enu-Onicha) and these (and other) local spaces that expanded as the pouplation grew (lumped together as Otu, “Waterside”) remained the primary geographical distinction in Onitsha in the early 1960s.


1948 Onitsha Division Reorganization Report ((Henderson Archives (Onitsha), Administrative Documents 1946-49,  part “See also 37172….”))

“In this Division, there are definite belts of cultural and economic life:

  1. The Northern or backward belt;
  2.  The Middle or suburban belt;
  3.  The Southern or rural belt.”

[To elaborate:]

1) The Northern or backward belt

400 Square miles of “fertile riverain peoples, mostly descendants of Idda people, now partly Iboized and called Mbama milis.”   Water is life and home; “yams pride of the east, and rice flourishes.” Backward: “little intrusion of modern ideas, little incentive to progress”.  But this now puts them in danger:  “already a large percentage of the Anam yam harvest is in the hands of Onitsha big businessmen and fishing rights overt many of the richest pools left by the receding Niger are vested by allegedly legal agreements in the grip of the great men of the city”.

There are no roads in this area, [since] “for four months of   a launch can reache to top of the Anambra and Umerum lake.   People friendly, hospitable, but “we will not follow whitemen about because we have chop.”  (An Udi man “tried to exert his sway” in one area but failed.  (Some charming but dismissive comments follow.)

The Middle or suburban belt:

This is “the hinterlands of Onitsha town from Umerum River to Idemili River, bisected by Onitsha-Enugu road”, growing sophistication here (“suburbs”).

           Upper Section (north of the road):

high population but land fertile and sufficient — Awka men go to farm, [and] they have large tracts of land, leased annually to strangers; the indigenes “work little and live comfortably off rents and sale of seed yams to Onitsha Town.  But the men are greedy, and they “want more money, and they get it through their women, [who] trek daily to Onitsha with petty petty chop, return to the rural markets with consumers goods.”

Communications are “good everywhere here”:  “lorries [go] regularly from Onitsha to  Otuocha [on the Anambra, twin town to Aguleri].  “Most towns have a school — mainly RCM — it has won the battle with the CMS.”

“Due to Government support, title-taking has become Kingship:  Idigo [of Aguleri], Amobi [of Ogidi].  [The] Unions are interested, NCNC [has] formed at Aguleri and the masses want, not cattle or wives, but money.”

          Southern Section: [contains the Idemili drainage, and includes the locus of Nnewi]

This is very different [from the Upper] though also  “suburban”; they have no soil hence the men work harder than anywhere else in the Division, because they must work to provide food.  (Their women trade.) “[Erosion processes of the].Idemili River has  ruined the land, [and] the soil cannot be reclaimed here” [and consequently (?)] there are no kings here, and few great landlords.” 4

Native Administration in the Southern Section:  this has been effective, but the times are changing; “in the north, kings and titles remain prerequisite for authority,” [while]  In Idemili, title is not that important, “[The] system [is] more concilliar due to [the] struggle to live — social convetions [are] stronger and more democratic; communal laws [have] exerted greater influence over one’s life.”

3) Southern or Rural belt:

“The growing desert of the Idemilli has made a profitless no-man’s land between suburbia and the rural masses of N[n]ewi and the South.  The South is the oil palm area” where women do most of the work while men argue and ride bicycles”; where “Progressive Unions are more vociferous and parochial and where Orizus5, police sergeants and retired CMS pastors form the cultured and leisure classes.”

“‘Rural” here does not mean ‘farmer’ or ‘yokel’ — “there are few farmers in N[n]ewi and no Yokels. Instead, they are lorry owners and middlemen.  But they are not urbanized:  they dislike Onitsha and Onitshas and they would be isolationists if they could.”  But they must be rural, for it is the land and trees that finances their livelihood, [their] missions, and sends their sons to America, and there is no dependence on Onitsha town.”

“East of Nnewi” is the  Olu Ozizo solitude: a flashback to the Anambra:  fish-minded people living on islands.  But they are progressive; [they have] rich, fertile land; [their] young men have returned educated and [now] want to turn fertility in[to] cash.”

“[The] Southern Belt too has acquired Obi’s, in unwilling flattery to Onitsha Town.  Obis [are now] created in Nnewi.”

“Nnewi has long [been] regarded as a separate administrative system; under a[n] ADO [Assistant District Officer], hence they leaned on him; elders, Obis etc. became [a] privileged clique who saw their main duty [as] to criticize Government — and so [it’s] not surprising they are known as ‘hard to handle'”.  [The] Courts here are more corrupt than elsewhere, [their] authority [is] used with insolence.”

[Discussion of recommendations for change follow this brief “ethnographic” outline .]



Onitsha Indigenes "Statement" 1950s

Immediately below this first set of statements comes this additional diatribe:

Onitsha Indigenes 1950s-2



indigenes 57-10-30-01 indigenes 57-10-30-02 indigenes 57-10-30-03





What follows is old sketches at bestL


Old Introduction: two-hearted city, Sylvia L-R, early European settlement picture outlined; our initial experience of Otu vs Enu; (this old section goes back and forth without much detail)

Basic to an adequate imagery of the subject-matter of this work is a figure of a two-hearted community, one centered in the hills around the Onitsha Obi’s Palace and the other in the modern Onitsha Main Market, its western edge marked by the flow of the River Niger. I have indicated that, in 1961, everyone drew a sharp geographical distinction between these two locations: the “Inland Town” (enu Onicha, lit. “high Onitsha”) and the “Waterside” (Otu, “beach”), and a sharp visual contrast could still be made between the two by that time though they were beginning to interpenetrate substantially. {When Helen and I returned in 1992 the division was much less evident to the landscape-oriented eye, though still intensely active to other senses.)

In 1937, the spatial contrast was much sharper: Sylvia Leith Ross wrote that “[going] to Inland Town… [is] like passing from modern times to the middle ages, from reality to a dream. You are in noisy, bustling Waterside, amid hurrying footsteps, wide streets, semi European houses, a clang and clatter of lorries, shouts, colour, sun; you cross a road, and you are in a silent gloom. Huge trees overshadow high mud walls, narrow lanes twist between, there is not a sound, not a passer by; the sky cannot be seen through the roof of foliage….” [See Enu-Onicha 1960-62 for details from a later time.]

Historically, the division was a residue of the fact that the ancient community named Onitsha centered its villages (surrounded by its farmlands) in the higher hills of the East bank of the River Niger, while their international marketplace (the peripheries of which later became the base for European and then native immigrant expansion), Otu Nkwor, was located down at the river’s edge. [

When Europeanized African missionaries and traders first settled at Onitsha in the latter half of the 19th century, they established their warehouses and mission compounds along or near the waterside and invited their local commercial agents and religious converts also to settle there. Later, European missionaries and the British Colonial Government were ceded some of the high ground (ozala, “high grass”) on the north side of the Inland Town, adjacent to the Great Market spaces, subsequently developing an area which eventually became known as the “European Quarters”. This northerly part of town became both church (CMS and RCM) and Government offices and residences during the colonial era, when high positions in these institutions were reserved for Europeans. Other settlements nearer the river became established by, and named after, particular groups: one occupied mainly by early Onitsha Christian converts, became Ogbe-Umu-Onicha, “Village of Children of Onitsha”, north of the Main Market location, while traders from far up-river occupied locations casually labeledOgbe-Awusa (“Hausa Village”), Ogbe-Nupe (Nupe Village), and those from the Aboh and other riverine communities located downriver lived in the vicinity of what later was called Ogbe-Ukwu or Ogbe-Ijaw. The symbolic division between the Inland Town (Enu-Onicha) and these (and other) local spaces that expanded as the pouplation grew (lumped together as Otu, “Waterside”) remained the primary geographical distinction in Onitsha in the early 1960s.


When we arrived in 1960, the Inland Town boundary was still marked to the west by the Oguta Road running southward from the Roundabout, and to the north (though more roughly) by the Awka Road running east from the roundabout (dividing the Inland Town from the European Quarters still housing mostly Government establishments and officials). Behind this perimeter, the indigenes actively defended their “High-Onitsha” (enu-onicha) space, using such mechanisms as forbidding land transfers to outsiders and mobilizing the Incarnate Ghosts Masquerade organization to intimidate interlopers, and although the boundaries had become permeable (we ourselves lived within a peripheral zone of the Inland Town where both immigrant ndi-Igbo and Ndi-Onichaneighbors resided next door), those living inside this space were either “Ndi-Onicha” or they were transients.

While by 1960 there were many more European style houses and corrugated tin roofs dotting the Inland Town than Leith Ross described for the 1930s, the contrasts still obtained between noise vs. silence, between the Waterside’s omnipresent building construction materials/activities, throngs of traders (mostly men), and horn honking, madcap driving motor traffic, and the Inland Town’s silent gardens, houses of traditional design, patches of high forest, small groups of women sitting in small and casual village markets beneath great trees, occasional orchestras accompanied brightly-costumed groups moving in aurally enriched dancing formations. Helen and I very much preferred the aesthetic ambience of the Inland Town, but our Westernized elite Nigerian friends (whether Onitsha or non Onitsha) sniffed at this in response, describing the Inland Town as “dirty” (a reference to its mostly unpaved roads and the prevalence of vegetation, including stretches of “bush”), and they preferred the Waterside (which we found too noisy, over crowded, florally and faunally barren, and persistently somewhat stinking with its very numerous open sewers and ever smouldering, almost centrally-located garbage dump).

The Inland Town resounded with frequent but sufficiently distant drum music by day and (often) into the night, and (as ethnographically entranced semi insiders) we enjoyed the periodic visual, aural, and social emergence of unfathomable mystical forces from nearby patches of forested bush. The traffic in people and vehicles was light enough in that peripheral location that we could work in our home without much distraction and, often played badminton out in our yard without being continuously yelled at for our foreignness. (On one occasion, we were called Okeke-ocha, “Bush-Whites”, by a passer-by, but it was unusual for us to hear such comments.)

1. Early Colonial Reports of Social and Cultural Change

Before the Europeans came, Onitsha Indigenes controlled both hearts of the town, but were “under seige” from all sides: the safety of both hearts was uncertain and when in 1857 they invited the agents of the CMS and of European trading firms to settle near their market, they hoped these strangers would help them secure this control. [Crowther & Taylor 1959:32 33, 428 29. See also Henderson 1972:499 502] But the multiple invasion that followed (of economic and technical change, political interference, religious proselytizing, Western education, multi ethnic immigration) so pervasively transformed their lives that by 1960, more than a few Onitsha people felt more at home in Port Harcourt, Lagos, or England than they did in Onitsha, while at home their Waterside heartlands were in jeopardy and their Inland Town heart threatened as well.


Section directly below is pre-Colonial……

From the perspective of the Europeans who first decided to establish a center of occupation at Onitsha, their goal was to gain control of the best location along the lower Niger which both surmounted the annually inundated Niger flood plain and gave direct access to the heavily populated uplands to the east and southeast (which comprised the main oil palm belt of the region). To the missionaries, the very large numbers of potentially salvageable human souls living in the hinterlands were crucial; to the traders, the bounty of “vegetable wealth” those Ndi-Igbo produced (measured largely in anticipated barrels of palm produce, though cotton was also an initial goal for profits) was focal. The fact that the site of Onitsha faced the mid Niger sandbank where important up- and down-river slave trading still took place was probably another decisive factor in the political aim to “free the rivers of piratical tribes” then said to be preventing the kinds of communication which the British sought to foster. [Allen 1848:I:268 271; Crowther 1855:180 81; FO2 23: MacGregor Laird’s Memorandum 4 December 1856, Baikie Report 28 Sep. 1857; Crowther & Taylor 1859: vii viii, 37,40, 259; CMS Report 1859 60:57.]

While historical documentation of the lower Niger region is (except for some excellent missionary accounts) very scanty for much of the period between 1857 and the beginning of direct British Government rule after 1900 [Baker 1960 attributes a substantial part of the gap to willful prevention of record keeping by George Goldie Taubman, founder of the amalgamated Niger firms that eventually became the Royal Niger Company], enough evidence exists to provide a sense of general trends, and it is clear that in the long run both the European agencies and the Onitsha indigenes greatly profited from their 1857 choice. A sense of the initial impacts of the European establishment at Onitsha emerges vividly from the Journal kept by the first resident C.M.S. minister, John Christopher Taylor (a Sierra Leonean whose parents had been themselves transported overseas as Ndi-Igbo slaves).

Taylor was left in charge of the new Onitsha mission station on August 1, 1857 [See Crowther’s parting directives in Crowther and Taylor 1859:37], and remained there until October 27, 1858. Immediately various groups became active in ways suggesting their awareness that regional sociopolitical balances were changing: riverine traders sought to deal with the new trading factory directly, while people from other Igbo towns (and elsewhere) arranged audiences with Taylor at Onitsha, including Nri men saying the news of whitemen had reached them “like a raging fire” and men from Obosi and Nsugbe saying they wanted whitemen (Beke or Oyibo) to settle in their towns too [Crowther and Taylor 1859:251 2, 258 59, 268, 274 5, 276 9, 283]. The Onitsha people responded with what Taylor called a “spirit of jealousy” and sought to exercise strong control over the new interactions now erupting in their domain, and they also began petitioning him to assist them in dealing with “their enemies”, either providing arms to destroy them (which he declined, though some of the traders were probably less circumspect in this regard) or acting as a mediator to reconcile them (he tried to settle their war with Ogidi, and later passed “judgment” in a dispute between Obosi and Onitsha) [Ibid., 247, 265, 267 70, 276 80, 284, 288 9, 373].

Onitsha people also acted more assertively to resolve some of their external disputes in order to facilitate the new establishments’ operations, and soon both traders and missionaries began (separately, and with Onitsha people as their translators and guides) venturing out to the interior towns to negotiate establishing relationships [Ibid. 296 7, 331]. Taylor however learned from these activities that “the neighboring towns hate Onitsha”, anticipated these neighbors might combine to wage war against it, and by January and February of 1858 he was reporting sporadic conflicts between Onitsha and Ogidi (and other towns) together with the King’s request for ammunition “as he is surrounded by war” [Ibid. 329 30, 334 5, 337 8, 340 41, 353, 362, 364. Deadly war with Ogidi, clearly a chronic condition at this time, was first reported within two weeks of Taylor’s arrival (252 3).].

Internally, the Onitsha King and chiefs began competing among themselves over advantages to be gained from the European establishments: which Onitsha villages would allocate lands for foreign settlement, in what villages the missionaries should directly preach, how trade would be conducted with the Sierra Leonean agents, and what presents would be required of them. In October, four major Onitsha chiefs begged Taylor to reconcile their long standing enmities, but on November 23, 1857 the most senior chief of Odoje Village was leading armed combat against Umu-Dei Village in a dispute over land [Ibid. 273, 281 4, 288 9, 291 2, 312 15, 331]. During all this time, the seasonal cycle of Onitsha rituals continued to operate in full force , but Taylor began to intervene when he heard of or claimed to observe slave selling or human sacrifice (the people resisted his efforts) and he requested the insertion into their calendar of the Sabbath as a major ritual day (the King appeared to agree) [Ibid. 262 3, 315, 344 46, 354 56, 372]. By February 1858 Taylor reported the people saying that given the King’s permission “they would gladly throw off their multifarious deities”, and at the beginning of April an Onitsha man named “Okosi” presented himself from an expanding group of attendants at Sabbath services as the first prospective Onitsha convert to Christianity. The Onitsha chiefs opposed the idea of “abolishing their idols” (though Taylor exulted that “their idols… are now tottering, and I hope will be ere long for ever paralyzed”) [Ibid. 336, 355 56, 367, 271-72] .

These apparent trends: expanding exchanges and increasing competition with neighboring towns, heightened competition among Onitsha villages themselves (and among the King and major chiefs as leaders of these villages), extending outreach for influence by various European agencies, and growing concern among Onitsha people about possibly alternative lifeways, continued through the subsequent four decades of the 19th century, punctuated by explosive acts of resistance by traditional leaders, analyzed for example by the Royal Niger Company entrepreneur Goldie Taubman, who praised the 1879 bombardment and burning of Onitsha Inland Town by Captain Burr and his troops from the H.M.S. Pioneer (and their subsequent destruction of the now abandoned “lower town”) [Britain, Foreign Office:1888:8]: 

”Such alarming symptoms of violence showed themselves as far back as last year, that the four independent firms then trading in the river found it absolutely essential to unite into an Amalgamated Company, in order to present a firm front to aggression.
”…the mass of the natives in the towns where we trade are very favourable to the establishment of British factories in their midst, but we find everywhere a knot of turbulent Chiefs, who hope to enrich themselves by plunder, and who are ready to take advantage of any apparent weakness and want of protection on our part to stir up the idle part of the population against us. In close alliance with these Chiefs are a small number of coloured British subjects, for the most part sub agents discharged in former years by the trading firms now amalgamated, and who live in a most immoral manner by an organised system of slave dealing. These persons are almost invariably the cause of any disputes that occur, and to them indeed may be legitimately attributed the necessity for the presence of a gunboat, and for the strong measures requisite for the protection of life.”

Setting aside the obvious self-serving biases of Goldie’s text, it outlines what other sources also suggest: an increasingly complex and diverse Onitsha social arena, which also however included new opportunities for Onitsha women. Originally they controlled the everyday affairs of all Onitsha markets, and when male foreign traders began to contest their monopoly, enterprising Onitsha women formed relationships with Sierra Leonean and then European traders, eventually becoming affluent commissioned agents for the large European firms.

From the 1860s on, records report increasing numbers of young Onitsha indigene Christian-educated men and women, some of whose names would later find prominence in Nigerian colonial politics. At the time they were reported (for example) eating “the fetish fowls” offered in Inland Town sacrifices (that is “living sacrifices” left at Sacred Groves), and the sacred fish of Nkisi Stream, and building “English style houses” in the Waterside acts Onitsha traditional lineage priests and chiefs were quick to condemn. At first these traditional leaders repeatedly threatened, sometimes assaulted, and in 1879 effectively expelled both the mission agents (and their converts) and the trading community as well [Great Britain, Foreign Office:1888:8 contains accounts of this event], but Christianity slowly gained in charisma for example, when mission inoculations saved nearly all of the converts during a smallpox epidemic which ravaged the rest of Onitsha in 1873 [Crowther, S.A. letter 1874:154 5 CMINtelligencer vol X] and after the arrival of French Roman Catholic missionaries in 1885, Onitsha indigenes moved into the Christian world in accelerating numbers [See Ekechi (1971) for an excellent account of the missionization of Igboland up to 1914].



2. Ndi-Onicha negotiate Colonial worlds

Oranye:  in 1898 I went to CMS school.  In1900 I shifted to RCM to get training in English. (CMS had only one white pastor; rest were black.  Also they were passive; RCM “want to dominate everything.”

Oranye:  I got my New American quarters land from Okposi-eke in 1920, paid £10 for it.  I was the first person to build in this area; that’s why it’s Oranye Street.

Oranye: I was a teacher from 1904-10 in St. Mary’s School, then in compound of Okosi I in Ogbeabu; St. mary’s land across from IT was acquired when I taught there; 1904-5, from Ogbeozala

Oranye: Onwuli early living in Otu, just E of Christ Church location in 1898. (Police RNC) — see Obeziako.  Some men like Modebe (GF of Victor, Nzekwu, Ekwelekwu’s father, lived there.  Women suspected of Witchcraft. These people owned slaves; some farmed the bush.  Modebe a rich man, owned many slaves, died in 1897, one of his slaves ran off to Illah, and his son became inspector of police there; took charge of the Modebe land because sons too young; when Joseph Modebe came of age, gave Ikenga land there, died 8 years ago.

Oranye describes Otu Okwuodu turn of century; Igala traded native cloth there, beads etc.


As persistent commitment to the Mission way of life began to pay off in secular success (mission education led to employment in the mission, in foreign firms, and in various agencies of the ever encroaching British Government), increasing numbers of Onitsha indigenous youths living at the central roots of the new culture embraced Christianity, and entered the new colonial occupational stream in large numbers. While some parts of Eastern Igboland were not even satisfactorily “pacifed” by the British until 1910, by that time Onitsha men were accompanying the final British invasion of that terrain as clerks, catechists, and schoolmasters for government and missions. By the 1920s, over half of the non European administrative staff of Onitsha Province was composed of Onitsha men [Nigerian National Archives, Enugu (1926)], although the Onitsha indigenous community comprised only a tiny fraction of the population of this Province. Thus they became the first Igbo speaking agents of “modernization” throughout Nigeria. [Add GI Jones comment from the 1950s]

Modernizing Traditionalists

But these same Onitsha people who became early fashion models for Igboland, with their preference for Edwardian dress and other indicators of facility in European (via Sierra Leonean) lifestyles [The great influence of local Sierra Leonean Creole converts to the culture of the early Onitsha educated elite is a subject worthy of further pursuit], found themselves continuously pulled away from Christian church and European ways, as many were drawn back toward the stubbornly traditional ways of the “Inland Town.” While partly their disaffection reflected disillusionment accompanying secular life, the persistent attraction of what came to be called “Onitsha Native Law and Custom” is a central fact of Onitsha modern history, which in turn relates to the distinctive colonial system evolved for (1) maintaining social order throughout the community and (2) managing Onitsha lands.

After Onitsha became the political headquarters of this part of “the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria” in 1905, the resident colonial officials evolved a dual system of governance. By 1917, the Obi of Onitsha was designated as the “native authority” for the Inland Town, and sat in an Onitsha Native Court (which also included chiefs representing the Hausa, Yoruba, Nupe, and Igala communities in the Waterside, and a “Chief of the Waterside” represented by various important local men beginning with Isaac Mba, an Onye-Onicha) hearing disputes not requiring the direct application of the superordinate colonial law. [Mba, son of one of the earliest CMS converts, attended Fourah Bay College (Sierra Leone) in the 1880s, became a colonial government clerk in 1902, and later became the first Igbo speaking representative on the Nigerian Legislative Council in 1923. (For further biography, see Mba 1986.)] The chiefs also met together in a “Native Council” to discuss “native affairs” under the guidance of British local authorities. The whole “Township” (including both Inland Town and Waterside) was directly ruled by the British Local Authority, who supervised a substantial administrative staff and managed the considerable revenues amassed from the market. He sat with a “Township Advisory Board” (including the Obi, the Waterside “Chief”, and a few other European officials and local merchants) to discuss issues concerning urban development before making his decisions.

All over the region, Native Courts became the main arena for indigenous politics, overseen by European officials who however had to leave everyday management in the hands of Court Clerks and their staffs and most Court Clerks in the early days were Onitsha men. This policy of placing dispute resolution in the hands of putatively “traditional” (or quasi traditional) authorities both sustained the importance of the Onitsha Obiship and inspired ambitious Onitsha indigenes to value a knowledge of “traditionalist cultural politics”

Akpom: Jan 23 61:

Kola land tenure and Onitsha descent groups

(Note: for good treatment of this, see Okeke 53-8)

A second source of persistent traditionalism arose from colonial land policy. From its beginning, the emergence of Onitsha “Waterside” settlements depended on grants of land both from the Onitsha Obi (who controlled a major wedge of riverbank lands, including that containing the traditional Onitsha Market [otu nkwo, “Nkwor day Waterside”]) and from several Onitsha villages whose reserved farmlands (and fishing places) stretched to the River. Although various treaties were signed with European agents supposedly ceding indigenous interests in these lands, Onitsha people never really relinquished their claims to much of this increasingly valuable real estate, and eventually (though sales also occurred from early in this century) many lands became held in a tenure system known as “Kola Tenancy” .

Kola tenancy is a Europeanized variant of the Onitsha version of precolonial Igbo land tenure rules, which enable tenants to gain variable term use rights in a piece of land while the grantors retain their spiritual relationship with the Mother Earth Spirit of that space. This means that the grantors retain the right and duty to make annual sacrifices to the Mother Earth (ikpuba-ani) , while the lessees must reciprocally present an annual “Kola” [or ife nru ani, “Earth homage”, the prototypical form being the offering of kola nut as a symbol of moral oath], including a portion of the harvest or some other goods . As Onitsha Waterside developed toward an urban township, this relationship became commercialized, and Onitsha land holding descent groups increasingly employed standard English documentary forms to record such leasing as the urban milieu expanded toward the Inland Town.
As Onitsha became an increasingly important commercial center, and as immigrants came to settle there in pursuing its economic possibilities, Onitsha descent groups successfully defended what they called treaty based “native owner’s rights” against not only European encroachments but also those of the invading “native foreigners” (including at first mainly Nupe traders, then Yoruba, Hausa, and in rising flood, Ndi-Igbo from the Eastern hinterlands). Thus Onitsha patrilineages became valuable real estate holding corporations, obtaining money rent as part of their communal trust. As the urban economy monetized, Onitsha indigenes felt increasing pressure to retain their commitments to these traditional ancestor oriented lineages, and since taking the hallowed Ozo title was a pre requisite for a man’s gaining authoritative voice in these corporate groups, much of the money earned by many Onitsha men working in the new modern sectors was ploughed back into this institution (and they found themselves required publicly to venerate their “pagan” Mother Earth and ancestral shrines). The consequence was a very strongly dual pattern: many Onitsha indigenes lived as missionary teachers, company clerks, and government administrators in burgeoning cities all over Nigeria, while when returning home they confronted (and many became in varying degrees co opted into) an increasingly sophisticated, wealth managing traditional elite [See Henderson 1966:375 8 for additional materials on Onitsha “modernization” during the colonial era.].

Onitsha “sons” as disoriented youth

Briefly put, the cultural, social, and personal dilemma of being a Western educated Christian or a tradition-oriented Onitsha lineage priest or priestess became an existential condition of incremental numbers of Ndi-Onichas a dilemma whose valences varied from person to person (depending largely on strength of social involvement with relatives living in the Inland Town), but were not overwhelmingly biased systematically toward one side or the other. Many tried to experience the best of both worlds, so that by 1941, educated Onitsha men — most conspicuously the youths — were engendering what would become a perennial antagonism emerging between Ndi-Onicha and the missionary establishment. In the Annual Federal Meeting of the Onitsha Improvement Union (OIU, an organization of educated Onitsha indigenes, see OIU) of that year, members expressed concern that the Roman Catholic Church Fathers were becoming increasingly antagonistic to “our youths” [this and subsequent references are drawn from the OIU Minute Books.]. Under the heading “Onitsha sons prohibited from attending St. Charles College” [a Roman Catholic teachers-training school in Onitsha], the President of OIU (home branch), P.H. Okolo (prominent in the RCM) , observed that “the attitude of the Mission towards our Onitsha youths seems to point in that direction”, giving what he called the “obvious” reason that

”St. Charles College is an institution for the training of teachers only and any student… is required, on completion of the training, to teach a number of years. A bond to this effect is signed. It was very unfortunate that most of our youths who were trained in the College had resigned from teaching without fulfilling their bonds….”

To these comments the Reverend V.N. Umunna (prominent in the CMS) added that “some youths… are unable to exercise patience in the Mission field because of the inadequacy of salary attaching to it, but only aspire to more lucrative posts in the Government service….” [Both P.H. Okolo (then Headmaster of the Holy Trinity [RCM] School in Onitsha, eventually an M.B.E.) and Reverend Umunna (eventually a CMS Archdeacon) are accorded chapters in Chike Akosa’s (1986) Heroes and Heroines of Onitsha (pp. 90-101). Both were pioneer advocates for Christianity in Igboland (and both became devoted custodians and preservers of Onitsha tradition as well).]

From a somewhat different point of view, The OIU recorded the following statement by its President in 1935, discussing what one member called our “lamentable and ‘I don’t care spirited’ boys” [OIU Minutes Sep. 18, 1935] :

”As could be observed our boys today are the victims of wholesale drunkenness thus they are enslaved in one vice or the other that saps their vitality. They become chronic parasites to their wage earning friends and relatives. Whereas the neighboring Ibos fill all odd vacancies in the fields of carpentry, masonry, agriculture, all skilled and unskilled labour. This tendency in the long run will spell disastrous woe to any promising community. It will impoverish the state in all phases of life. So as a remedial measures [sic] it is urged that with the support of the Union and the people of Onitsha at large that our boys be preached to in order to free them from their present catholic state of debauchery.”

A different slant appears in the following exchange during the OIU annual Federal Meeting Minutes for 1941 under the heading “Industry of our youths” [OIU Minutes December 25, 1941.:

”Mr. R.N. Ibeziako spoke that it was the duty of the parents to insist on their children learning trades. Besides Government and Native Administration employments, youths should be encouraged to learn other trades such as fishing, wood selling, repairing, and marketing. He mentioned that sometime ago Government has authorised the training, at its own expense, of boys in mechanic, in tailoring, cycle etc. repairing, and carpentry but he was surprised that not more than 6 Onitsha boys availed themselves of this opportunity for training. The President stated that it is evident that our youths did not want to do any manual work.”

These passages suggest shifts in orientation in light both of increasing local incomes reflected in increments of cash being remitted homeward (an affluence facilitating prolongued idleness on the part of many of those inclined to pursue it) and white collar aspirations rising above earlier achievements, ruling out less prestigious occupations now defined as “demeaning”. Home residing Onitsha youths judged themselves (and were judged by their elders) by comparison with relatives occupying white collar offices “abroad”, and by these standards manual labor (except for a kind of “gentleman farming” practiced by a few) was (as Onitsha people themselves put it) “infra dig”.

These stereotypes of Onitsha youths were in essence repeated to me by various Onitsha people in 1960-62, and evidence supporting their currency was widespread. More remarkably, similar patterns have been reported for the year 2000. These patterns have been long-standing ones.

3. “Whereas the neighboring Ibos fill all odd vacancies…”: Ndi-Igbo immigrants to Onitsha

From some perspectives, Onitsha hinterlands Ndi-Igbo living in Onitsha confronted paradoxes of orientation similar to those of Ndi-Onicha regarding dilemmas of commitment to home (and therefore to negotiating everyday relationships with persisting traditional worlds) versus devotion to Westernizing styles of life — these are in a sense near universal problems in contemporary life — but from some points of view, the striking Ndi-Igbo difference from Ndi-Onicha gives the stronger impression. First, the Igbo speaking populations of the Eastern hinterlands initially participated in the city’s expansion (and the country’s wider “integration”) primarily in its marketplaces (including the markets for labor). Although during the first years of the twentieth Century Ndi-nicha market women (explicitly excluding Onitsha men) controlled interlocal trade by themselves traveling to the neighboring towns to the east, and then, as the European-penetrating market system expanded, intercepted Ndi-Igbo “foreigners” at the “Wire Market” (afia waya) near the eastern edge of Onitsha [a market so-named for the new landmark telecommunications line leading into the eastern interior].

British colonial authorities in Onitsha insisted on encouraging free trade, and after 1910 Ndi-Igbo immigrants began entering the Waterside market, began occupying the Waterside in increasingly large numbers [By 1931 (though there had never been an official census), the population of the entire Township was estimated at 18,000, of whom roughly 8,600 were “Waterside Ibos”, 6,100 “Waterside Strangers” (Nupe, Hausa, Yoruba, et al), the occupants of the Inland Town [Ndi-Onicha] reportedly numbering only 3,300. 11679, vol. 9: OPAR 193], and they eventually dominated its commerce, swamping and peripheralizing Onitsha women traders (and Onitsha male entrepreneurs as well). Similar things happened with regard to male labor, a brief period of forced labor by Onitsha male indigenes being soon replaced by immigrating swarms of Ndi-Igbo eager for labor opportunities at very low wages.

Second, immigrant Ndi-Igbo typically left already overpopulated, relatively infertile, recently subjugated and now-denigrated homelands in favor of an Onitsha which looked by comparison like a cornucopia of socioeconomic possibilities. They also sought the educational opportunities that Ndi-Onicha had long enjoyed in the expanding local schools. Thus, while Ndi-Onicha insisted on more prestigious, nonmanual occupations (or failing that, devoted themselves to remittance- and rent-financed “traditional affairs”), the immigrant Ndi-Igbo were willing to try almost anything to make a living, and to scramble for educational openings as well. This pragmatism, a continuation of patterns described elsehwere, became a strong point of symbolic social contrast

Third, Christian missions also appear to have developed somewhat different relationships with the bulk of the Eastern hinterlands Ndi-Igbo than they were able to sustain with Ndi-Onicha. As mission schools entered the rural areas, they were able to impose upon their congregations more sharply dualistic worldviews of the Goodness of Western civilization and the Evil of “pagan” Igbo life than many Onitsha Indigenes had ever accepted (having witnessed missionary life from its rudest beginnings in the late 1850s, when they dealt initially with ex-slaves repatriated from overseas, who were not so very different from themselves). By the 1920s many Ndi-Onicha emigrant leaders lived in strongly secularizing environments like Lagos, where antagonism toward Christian authorities was becoming part of a simmering nationalist movement, and personal charisma attached less to figures like Jesus than to Marcus Garvey and Herbert Macaulay (a grandson of Bishop Crowther who led radical nationalist politics before the arrival of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Onye-Onicha who became the most prominent Igbo speaking nationalist). By the 1960s, most of the Ndi-Onicha with whom we discussed questions of values would say something like “We are Christians, but…”, while most educated Ndi-Igbo would make more general affirmations about the positive qualities of “civilization”, and seemed to view their “traditions” as things of the receding past, while often observing that “Ndi-Onicha have taken the wrong side of civilization”, meaning adherence to Western-elitist styles of conspicuous consumption, atheistic tenencies, and the like. Among Ndi-Igbo we encountered naive enthusiasms for the idealism of the Christian West that were seldom expressed so one-sidedly in Ndi-Onicha circles (though this was by no means universal).

Regarding types of socially-acceptable occupations, I can do no better than to present the contrast between Ndi-Onicha and Ndi-Igbo as presented to me in 1962 by a young lawyer from Nnewi (a town regarded as exemplary “Igbo”, and politically very strong in both Onitsha and Aba) in response to my question of Why Nnewi people had been so successful in Onitsha:

”Hard work. The Nnewi man is very daring, determined if he wants something, he’ll fight for it till he gets it and he doesn’t like to be distracted by one pleasure or another. For example, when I came back from U.K., you could hardly find a lawyer who would start straight away on his own, most people would like to get some experience with their seniors. [But] I decided to start on my own. You should have seen the house where I now live: nobody but a Nnewi man would have agreed to go there…. I had to carry sand to raise the yard which was usually flooded in the rainy season. Two months out of U.K. [The United Kingdom], I was going in shorts and shirt working like a laborer nobody knew I was a lawyer…. No Onitsha boy would like to undergo these things. First, he wouldn’t like to live in that slum, he’d prefer to hire a storey building, but I didn’t want to pay rent….. We Nnewi men are more tenacious and not ashamed of any honest job. We are not ashamed to be poor, for we will work hard to get out of our poverty. But the trouble with chaps today is that they haven’t got the money though they pretend they do. A Nnewi man will not do that. If he doesn’t have money for drinks, he won’t give you any.”

This kind of contrastive imagery was crystalizing as a cultural symbol of ethnic difference in this part of Nigeria by World War II. In 1948 one Administrative Officer’s report distinguished several “distinct belts of cultural and economic life” for Onitsha Division, drawing the sharpest contrast between a “Northern (backward) belt” of people living in fertile riverain lands to the north and northeast of Onitsha (the Anam or Anambra lowlands) where food was easily obtained and where there had been “little penetration of modern ideas”, and a “Southern (rural) belt”:

”The South is the Palm oil area where women do most of the work while men argue and ride bicycles, where Progressive Unions are more vociferous and parochial than elsewhere and where Orizus [Nnewi people], police sergeants and retired CMS pastors form the cultured and leisure classes. Food must be bought here, and there is little land for farming. Rural here does not mean ‘farmer’ or ‘yokel’ there are few farmers in Newi [sic “Nnewi”] and no yokels. Instead, they are lorry owners and middlemen. But they are not urbanized: they dislike Onitsha and Onitshas and they would be isolationists if they could. But they must be rural, for it is the land and trees that finances their livelihood, missions, and sends their sons to America….”

This curious passage may reflect the contemporary Administrators’ attitudes toward Nnewi people, alluding to their political assertiveness, their aggressive business practices, and the economic conditions thought to drive these patterns. The statement that they are “not urbanized” presumably refers not to their locations of everyday residence but to their primary loyalty commitments to their rural roots (see elsewhere in this work). Indeed, another statement in the same report, characterizing the circumstances of the people occupying the “Northern (backward) belt” as endangered (because of their isolation) by the predation of “Onitsha businessmen”, no doubt applies as much or more to entrepreneurs from Nnewi as to Onitsha indigenes (though the latter dominated in the legal system at the time, and Ndi-Onicha lawyers were well-known for sending their “touts” into the interior):

”Already a large percentage of the Anam yam harvest is in the hands of Onitsha big businessmen and fishing rights over many of the richest pools left by the receding Niger are vested by allegedly legal agreements in the grip of the great men of the city.”

While Ndi-Onicha had pioneered entrepreneurial investment in such lands prior to World War II, Ndi-Igbo (and especially, Nnewi) “motor magnates” soon greatly surpassed them. After World War II, the economic development of Onitsha urban lands was largely in Ndi-Igbo hands. With the spread of Nigerian nationalism, the stereotype of the “Nnewi man” as epitomizing Igbo identity accustomed to hardship, independence, frugality, aggressiveness, enterprise, self discipline, and community responsibility took strong hold, and one striking feature was the fact that Nnewi people themselves embraced it.

So the life styles of Ndi-Onicha residing at home and of Ndi-Igbo immigrants to Onitsha tended to diverge rather strongly, both in terms of standards of work and of personal appearance. This divergence (clearly rooted to some degree in long term differences of ecological adaptation) had become politically symbolic sometime in the distant past, but was now reinforced by sharpening differences in current lifeways.




  1. Henderson Archive, Administrative Dopcuments 1930-35, “Milne [Maps]”. []
  2. See our Bibliography for full citation of the work. []
  3. See the Bibliography for detailed citations. []
  4. Obviously, the implication regarding the former absence is that, since Kingship in the model of either Ndi-Nri or of Ndi-Onicha may soon be sought (or this is already underway in some areas here, but in this immediate locale nobody has enough wealth to actively pursue these newly-activated potentialities.  Regarding the latter, of course this implies nobody with money to invest is interested in these lands. []
  5. A reference to  Prince Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu (1915–1999), who became very prominent as a Senator in the  early Independence of Nigeria. []
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