Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Colonial Era Ethnicities

When we discuss this topic — “etnnicity” — in the context of Onitsha, we should remember that the original bearers of this community name were and are themselves a swarm of differing ethnicities. There were many contexts of this: a social division between “royals” and “non-royals”; a social category of “slaves” (ndi-oru, a category much whispered about by some members of the community), and the fact was openly known that, in the “beginning”, every village had come from elsewhere, and within each of these, members had entered at different times and from different places. The ethnic diversities of Ndi-Onicha were widely known within the group, and were indeed often celebrated.

It is by virtue of the historically-pivotal event of European intrusion that a new and socvially transformative period of ethnic diversification occurred, and this is the context where we will focus here. The new phylsical (and social) category of “European Quarters” (though this division did not become formalized until the Twentieth Century) marks the symbolic change we emphasize here.

1. The “Two-hearted city”

Basic to an adequate imagery of the subject-matter of this book is a figure of a two hearted community, one centered in the hills around the Onitsha Obi‘s Palace and the other in and around 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, though still substantially clrear to the eye.)

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….”

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, Otu Nkwor (the peripheries of which later became the base for European and then native immigrant expansion), Nkwor, was located down at the river’s edge.1

In the years just before the Europeans inserted themselves, Onitsha Indigenes were in nominal control of 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 openly hoped these strangers would help them to better secure this control.2 But at the very beginning of European intrusion, the Missionary quarters inserted themselves in the hills directly adjacent to u the Inland Town, while the Sierra Leonean traders at the Waterside quickly began forming their own “village” beside the river.

The multiple invasions that followed (of economic and technical change, political interference, religious proselytizing, Western education, multi ethnic immigration etc.) so pervasively transformed the lives of all participants that by 1960, many Ndi-onicha felt more at home in England than they did in Onitsha, while at home their Waterside heart was in utter jeopardy and their Inland Town heart was penetration-threatened as well.

When Europeanized African (“Sierra Leonean”, mainly) missionaries and traders first settled at Onitsha in 1857, the traders established their warehouses along the waterside while the missionary contingent found a place in the hills right near the edge of the indigenous town. Some serious problems arose from this proximity, but by 1900 , European missionaries and the British Colonial Government had been ceded both extensive lands near the river and some of the high ground (ozala, “high grass”) on the north side of what became known as “the Inland Town”. 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, hence the term “European Quarters”.

Other settlements nearer the river became established by, and named after, particular groups: one occupied mainly by early Onitsha Christian converts escaping the “pagan demands” of Inland Town life, became Ogbo-Umu-Onicha, “Village of Children of Onitsha”, north of the Main Market location, while traders from far up-river occupied Ogbe-Awusa (“Hausa Village”, Ogbe-Nupe (Nupe Village), and other locations. south of the Market. Those from the Abah communities located further downriver lived at Ogbe-ukewu “Great Village”), not far from the fullly-Aboh-controlled town of Atani near the floodplain just south of Onitsha. The symbolic division between the Inland Town (Enu-Onicha ) and these (and other) local spaces (lumped together as Otu, “Waterside”) remained the primary geographical distinction in Onitsha in the early 1960s, and there were numerous other residential locations in the Waterside that contained important ethnic concentrations.3 In sum, diverse ethnicities tended to form distinctive spaces in both sides of the “heart”.

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 (mmanwu) Masquerade organization to intimidate interlopers, and although the boundaries had become permeable (we ourselves lived within a peripheral zone of the Inland Town and had immigrant ndi-Igbo neighbors residing 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 casual village markets beneath great trees, occasional orchestras accompanied brightly-costumed social 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 stinking faintlly 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 sem- 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 excessive distractions and, often, play 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 that was unusual. Mostly, people seemed pleased to have us there, and we were occasionally visited by roaming indigenous social groups.)

What we did make clear by this residential choice, however, was that we did no t intend ti participate much in the “local elite” activities of social life centering around “European-style” activities in the Waterside. This definitely made us peripheral to that world, which was in any case necessary for our plans of work: our Ford Foundation Grant did not encompass efforts to engage seriously in the local High Society, which was high enough and intensive enough that our residence in Onitsha would have become drastically foreshortened due to funds dispersion, and of course we would have been pulled away from the historical base that quickly became our primary focus).

We did visit the Waterside regularly, conducted research inside the Main Market and several local schools, and I conducted a photgraphic survay of mch of the Waterside along the two main streets. Bt it is fair to say that our work was strongly skewed into the Inland Town and its occupants relative to those outside it.

2. Ethnicities of the late 19th-century

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 palm oil 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 seen to be preventing the kinds of communication which the British sought to foster .4

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 19005, 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 choices. 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, 18576, 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 too7. 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 newly-resident 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)8.

Onitsha people also acted more cooperatively 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 relationships9. 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”10.

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 (and establish local centers) , 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 land11. Meanwhile, 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)12.

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 attendees 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”)13 .

These apparent trends: expanding exchanges and increasing competition with (and among) 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” as well.14:

“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 included new opportunities for Onitsha women. Originally they had directly controlled the everyday affairs of all Onitsha markets (under the guidance of their respective chiefs), 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 of the early 20th Century.

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 records. At the time some of them (unnamed) were reported (for example) eating “the fetish fowls” offered by Inland Town elders as “living sacrifices” left at Sacred Groves, and the sacred fish of Nkisi Stream, and some began building “English style houses” in the Waterside, acts Onitsha traditional lineage priests and chiefs were quick to condemn.

In brief, an array of “new ethnicities” appeared within (and complicating) the old: “slaves” (ndi-oru) were a dispensible ethnic caste (and were regularly being “dispensed” in rather large numbers during native rituals), a new category of “Christians” quickly presented themselves as a privileged “new elite”, while a sequence of Sierra Leonean immigrants evinced differing versions of this partly distinctive new caste, some becoming substantial slave-holders themselves..

Over the first two decades of this situation, traditional Onitsha leaders repeatedly threatened, sometimes assaulted, and finally in 1879 effectively “expelled” both the mission agents (and their converts) and the trading community as well15. This last statement is a euphemism: British forces actually drove the natives from their homes, set the plades afire, and then withdrew the the entire Mission and trading establishment away from Onitsha. See more of that event elsewhere16 . The point is that the missionaries, traders, and their new social contacts had created social forces that generated such intense antagonism among local indigenes that the newcomers eventually found it imperative to withdraw.

But all the while during that interval (1857-1879) Christianity had 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 187317, a new language (English) brought new forms of knowledge, and the obvious boons of learning new skills while obtaining new goods at both mission and trading stations carried long-term social and cultural weight:

After the arrival of French Roman Catholic missionaries in 1885, and the fulll return of British presence in 1900, Onitsha indigenes moved into the Christian Colonial world in accelerating numbers18. Ndi-Onicha became active participants in the British-colonial “pacificiation” and Western education of the populations of their eastern interior. In the early years of the twentieth century they acted as pioneering entrepreneurs in local economics as well.

2. Ndi-Onicha negotiate Colonial worlds

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 around 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 men19, 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.

So significant were their contributions that the great scholar of Igbo culture , G.I. Jones, having been assigned the task of assessing the status of chiefs and natural rulers in Eastern Nigeria shortly before Nigerian independence, made this observation in 1957:

By the end of the first World War Onitsha Town had become the most important educational centre in the [Eastern] Region,, a position it has retained and expanded — there are no less than six secondary schools there today. The peole of Onitsha were quick to profit from these advantages and the list of famous sons of Onitsha (this refers to the original community now distinquished as Onitsha Inland town…) is staggering when one considers its small size. [p. 27]

“Modernizing Traditionalists”

But many of 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) lifestyles20, 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.”

It’s important to insert some relevent facts here. First, over the course of half a century, Ndi-Onicha had encountered Christian “modernity” in a complex of forms. They had experienced “native” missionaries and traders whose performances had become uneven in terms of their values, and who had been “sacked”, replaced by British Whitemen in a time of what can only be called “racist reform”, folloowing a polcy of emphasizing slow culture change (learning the vernacular, etc) Then they had encountered another brand of the Christian faith, Whitemen who did not particularly respect British ways but who encouraged learning English and discouraged any “native” ways. Ndi-Onicha experienced sustained contact with each of these contradictory religions, were variably attracted to each, and from the early days of their

While partly their disaffection reflected disillusionments 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).

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”

Kola land tenure and Onitsha descent groups

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) encompassed parts of 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.

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.

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. s 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 various 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 elite21.

A considerabler number of Onitsha men during this period became in effect cultural anthropologists, for example working as teachers etrc in (for example) western Nigeria, while compilling their own accounts of customs there that had various bearings on activities in Onitsha.

Onitsha “sons” as disoriented youth

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 (an Onye-Onicha 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….”22

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.

The early 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). However, British colonial authorities in Onitsha insisted on encouraging free trade, and after 1910 Ndi-Igbo immigrants began entering the Waterside market, began occupying homes in the Waterside in increasingly large numbers

Whereas the neighboring Ibos fill all odd vacancies …..

[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 3,300.23, 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, non-manual 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 –especially the RCM — 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 (especially the distinctively Roman Catholic version thereof) 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 overly-assertive Christian authorities was becoming part of a simmering nationalist movement, and personal charisma attached less to figures like Jesus than to such international race-questioning figures like 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 own “native traditions” as things better consigned to 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, “hypocritical” indulgence in “traditional activities”,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 contrast 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.”


An interesting 1948 Administrative Report

In 1948, Government hatched a plan to reorganize Onitsha Division.  An Administrative officer presented the following  “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.”  [RNH:  the assumption of these groups being “mostly Idah people” is a dubious one.]  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  the year  a launch can reach to top of the Anambra and Umerum lake.   People are 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.].

[Editorial remarks (RNH):  This describes the vast area of floodplain between the Niger and Anambra river drainages.  I present an example of the latter in this volume, entitled “Visit to Umerum” (see Chapter 2).  The allusions here to “Onitsha big businessmen” and “great men of the city” are clearly very significant:  sophisticated, substantial entrepreneurs exploiting an uneducated, monetarily poor populace who occupy very fertile lands.]

2. 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.”

[RNH: these curious comments say nothing about Awka technical and economic specializations in metallurgy, etc. It’s a very dismissive account of a people known for their itinerant history and technological skills. ]

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.”

[RNH: This presumably alludes in part to an increasing tendency for NdiOnicha lawyers to export kingship titles to the rural areas. Monetizaiton of these rural places, and a rise in national politics as well — the NCNC refercne.]

          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.”  [RNH:  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.]

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) t he 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 Orizus [RNH:  This is a reference to  Prince Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu (1915–1999) of Nnewi, who became very prominent as a Senator in the  early Independence of Nigeria], 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.”

[RNH: Another odd paragraph summary, but it does point attention to “lorry owners and middlemen” The discussion points snarkily toward the entrepreneurs of Nnewi and vicinity.]

“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 .]

[RNH:  This curious document highlights (while dancing around it) the rising importance of “big businessmen”, “Nnewi government critics”, “lorry owners and middlemen”, without openly recognizing the increasing importance of Nnewi (and nearby other) businessmen and the clustering of their activities inside Onitsha (except on weekends, when all of them depart to their hometowns, a pattern of long standing).

This was the ferment Ndi-Onicha were confronting in these parts of the Eastern Region: increasing numbers of “big Businessmen”, “lorry owners” and “great men of the city” who take over control of fertile rural lands, men who “dislike Onitsha” but go to work there in order to make more profits. It’s a dispiriting picture but it points suggestively to the economic (and political) turmoil of the late colonial period.

Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Great Transformer

Now we must step back a bit in time and take account of a major change in the Colonial Era situation (the contents of which we have barely sketched so far, and whose fine details we will largely omit). I will focus around The Nigerian Spokesman , the primary local newspaper we encountered in Onitsha in 1961-62, and which occupied a strong historical position in Onitsha social life, dating from its inception in 1943 as one arm of the nationalist politics pursued by the man who soon became the Onitsha people’s internationally most famous native son,
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, “Zik” ‑‑ as he became known throughout Nigeria and beyond.

Zik’s career in West African began after 1934, when he returned from his higher education in the United States (with an advanced degree in Anthropology) to begin a spectacular career in West African journalism. His singular efforts (largely through the effectiveness of his American‑trained “yellow‑newspaper” sensationalist journalism transformed an almost dormant West African political scene into a hotbed of Nigerian nationalism.

Possessing exceptional qualities of personal charisma, Zik became “undoubtedly the most important and celebrated nationalist leader on the West Coast of Africa, if not in all tropical Africa”, during the crucially
formative period of “African Renascence” between 1934 and 1949.24.

In 1937 Zik presented his main newspaper creation, the Lagos‑based West African Pilot, to an expanding reading public in that politically-simmering coastal city, and during the 1940’s (especially following the end of World War II), Zik’s writings in the Pilot identified him as the greatest political spokesman of “the Ibo man”, i.e. speakers of the Igbo language. (This is where the real roots of “an Igbo Nation” lie, not in the later imaginings of Adiele Afigbo, who identified the base in an ancient “territorially-bonded group who spoke [an ancestral form of] Igbo”.)

NCNC (The “National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons”, renamed the “National Council of Nigerian Citizens” in post-Independence 1961), served as the prime political vehicle for Igbo‑speaking people in the struggle for Nigerian Independence, and the West African Pilot came to be regarded as their clarion voice.

This identification of Zik, the Pilot, and the NCNC with “the Ibo man” occurred despite Zik’s own repeated efforts to present himself much more universalistically, primarily as an “African” (and despite the Pilot’s constant proclamations that it was not in any sense a “tribalistic” agency but rather one opposing “man’s inhumanity to man”). The apparent contradiction between universalism and particularism may be
discerned in Zik’s early West African Pilot writing, for example this sample from 1942:25

Inside Stuff By Zik

The Neglected Ibo

I am sure that the non‑Ibo element among my readers will be
broadminded enough to allow me to use this column, today, to defend
the escutcheon of the much neglected Ibo, particularly in the realm of
Nigerian politics

Whatever I may write is not to be deemed either offensive against any
other tribe or at the expense of any other person.

necessary, if the governance of this country must attain to its ideal
and make life worthwhile for the greatest good of the greatest

It is most unfortunate that… in most official publications, State
Papers, gubernatorial addresses, and statements of public officers, the
Ibo tribe was virtually misrepresented, due to an amazing ignorance
of the origins, nature, and functions of Ibo ethnography.

Pseudo‑scientific statements were published to the effect that the
Ibo people were “primitive” in their societal organization, that they
had no political capacity, and that they were “backward” compared
with other “enlightened” and “advanced” Nigerian tribes.

With the passing of the years, the spirit of the Ibo began to assert
itself, the soul of the Ibo began to rebel against this species of man’s
inhumanity to man, and it became clear that the Ibo is a dynamic
tribe that has its share to play in the future destiny of Africa….

Thanks to many sources, the mist of ignorance is fastly disappearing
before the rays of the sun of knowledge…. To have an unbiased and
objective view of the people, it is wise that the seeker after the truth
should consult the following publications, among others:

Late Ndi-Onicha responses to the ethnic situation (1955-6)

“Statement on the political dispute in Onitsha, by Onitsha indigenes”:
“The community of Onitsha is made up of six major ethnic or geographical groups as follows:

  • Northern Peoples including the Hausas, Nupes, Igalas, Kakandas, etc.
  • Western Peoples including the Yorubas, Edos, Western Ibos etc.
  • Non-Ibo Peoples of the East e.g. the Ibibios, Ijaws, Efiks etc.
  • The NonOnitsha Ibos Association which comprises the Ibos from a few of the inland villages of Onitsha Division.
  • The Anambra and Niger Ibos. These include the waterside Ibos  of Onitsha, Owerri and Aboh Divisions e.g. the peoples of Awkuzu, Nteje, Aguleri, Umunya, Anam, and the Ogbarus comprising the peoples of Aboh, Osomari, Oguta, Ndoni, Atani, Odekpe etc. The people of Onitsha belong to this group geographically, historically, and culturallly.
  • Other Ibos of the Eastern Region. These include the Ibos of Owerri, Calabar, Rivers and Ogoja Provinces as well as those of Awka, Awgu, Udi and Nsukka Divisions of Onitsha Province.

  • “One only of these groups, the selfstyled Non-Onitsha Ibos Association, has vilified and insulted the indigenous people of Onitsha in the press over the past six months. This is very typical of this section of Onitsha Division Ibos whose primitive instincts and unmannerly behavior have made them a terrible plague to the peaceloving peoples of Nigeria and unwelcome strangers wherever they go.”
    [The statement goes on to say “we have had no differences on any major issue with any of the other sections of the community”, while peoples of other regions, and of the Eastern Region as well, have been “victims of an insensate passion to dominate, to oppress and to expropriate by the same people who form the NonOnitsha Ibos Association.”]
    Our dispute is over the Govt of ER [Eastern Region] and its application of the ER Local Government Law of 1955. We demand application of this law be governed by the following principles:
     1) Natural Rulers and Elders should be “well represented in their own rights” in Local Govt Councils;
    [Since a House of Chiefs for the East will follow on this, which the EG has now conceded to Onitsha, it will have to apply it to other chiefs and towns in the Region; Onitsha setup is a precedent and pattern for other places]
     2) Indigenous people should have majority representation in the LGC of their area;
     3) Simultaneous membership of two LGCs of different areas of jurisdiction by one person is wrong.
    We are fighting not for ourselves alone but for the chiefs and elders and all indigenous or native towns and villages in the Region. Preservation of distinctive cultures and traditions, and guarantee of all ethnic and cultural groups freedom from fear of domination, disruption, and distinction by larger groups is the duty of any political party hoping to “control the legislatures of the three regions”. Loss of identity is the alternative.”


This text (one from an opinion column regularly run by Zik for years on the second page of the Pilot alongside its regular “Editorial” column) was
accompanied in the same issue by an editorial calling for more democratic (i.e., larger, including elective) representation of the Ibo people in the Legislative Council of Nigeria ‑‑ the main elective body of that Colonial period.
In the essay Zik underlines his editorial call for “progress” first by identifying democracy as a “traditional” feature of “Ibo” life, calling attention to its significance for an “Ibo community”, and second, he repeatedly applies the standards of “objective social science” to politically‑relevant domains. Recipient of a Master’s Degree in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, Zik consistently used these credentials to justify the authority of his newspapers on the grounds of their grasping universal “Truths”. This stance gave his newspapers a highly effective, militantly Modernist cast from
their earliest days.26

This militant modernism contains its own cultural dualism: that is, its strong form of scientific Realism tends to lead its proponents to regard opposing views as ignorance, error, or (if these be ruled out) deception — while clothing one’s own interests in a clean gown of impersonal, “objective” Science.

From the beginning of his Nigerian journalism, Zik’s opponents accused him of being “power mad”, refusing to work collegially, possessing a “megalomaniac” ambition to dominate any political movement in which he became involved (some even claimed he was himself the source of “tribalism” in Nigeria, in that he stereotypically elevated some essence of the “Ibo man” and thus generated a “press war” which became a perennial feature of Nigerian politics). Ssome of his followers on the other hand tended to deify him as the Holder of Truth (and thus of Righteousness), which alarmed all who did not share this particular deification.

These accusations were not without merit. I recall a passage, I think in My Oddysey, where Zik noted that a comet had been observed to streak through the sky exactly at the time of his birth. More gernerally, he went far in his appropriation of traditionally Christian religious symbols, for example, from his book Renascent Africa comes this homily:


“Blessed are the youth, for theirs is the earth and all therein.”
“Blessed are the mentally alert, for theirs is the heritage of a society which calls a spade a spade.”
“Blessed are the evangelists of the New Africa, who go from place to place, debating with the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees of the Old Africa….”
“Blessed are the youth of Renascent Africa, who refuse to be intimidated, browbeaten, cowed, mocked, mobbed by the Old Africa, for they shall grow stronger and sounder in spirit and in body.”
“Woe unto you, evangelists of the Old Africa! You do the bidding of the Old Order…. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
“Woe unto you, hypocrites who halfheartedly believe in the New Africa, whilst your deeds reveal you as part and parcel of the Old Africa…. You are doomed to a bathyspherical grave.” (etc.)


Throughout his writings, Zik maintained a consisten undercurrent of criticism of Roman Catholics (he tells of how his father pulled him away from that faith into firm support of the CMS), and at one point he chides the leaders of one convent in the Lagos area for their reported equating of reading the West Africcan Pilot with “mortal sin”. He defends teachers at RCM schools against unilateral actions of their supervisors; accuses Catholics of contradicting their own preachings in their behavior (“forgive us our trespasses”); headlines reported Vatican conflict with workers; and blithely parallels the course of his own life with that attributed to Jesus.

Zik Opens an Onitsha Branch

In 1943, Zik expanded his journalistic reach from the political center of Lagos to the peripheries, including into his own hometown of Onitsha, by establishing the Nigerian Spokesman which was published in Onitsha Waterside. From its beginnings as one of Zik’s Provincial Daily newspapers, the Spokesman served to bring Zik’s (and from 1945, his political party’s, the NCNC’s) anti‑colonial, “democratic” perspective immediately into this largest urban base of the Igbo‑speaking people, simultaneously stimulating heightened awareness of their shared ethnicity (while also opening sources of ethnic opposition).

During the late 1940s and early ’50s, such Spokesman features as the voice of “Spitfire”27 regularly lambasted the evils of British Colonialism, while conveying the views and actions of Lagos nationalists into The Onitsha scene.

In the October 1, 1951 issue,, below a photograph of Zik, there appear two smaaller images, with the question: “Hitler, Mussolini Did they live and die as Catholics? The accompanying Editorial. under the heading “Hitler and Catholic Empire”: states that Hitler, “who attempted to rule the world by destroying humanity”, was a ‘profound catholic’ until his death. His ally: Benito Mussolini, a Catholic; in one of our recent editorials we said that “Hitler attempted to expand Roman Catholicism through the Nazi conquest with Mussolini backed by the Vatican.” When in 1941 Hitler “stabbed Russia” with whom he had a nonaggressive pact, this was immediately after his historic visit to Rome. Did the Pope ever criticize Hitler’s brutalities?

From its early issues, however, the newspaper also displayed a tendency less apparent (though also operative) in the West African Pilot: highlighting the activities of Zik’s own Ndi-Onicha (the indigenous inhabitants of the Inland Town), and along with this bias, a persistent tempering of its modernism with the aim of preserving “valuable traditions” (notably chieftaincy and Kingship, two institutions especially treasured by Ndi-Onicha).

During the years when Independence was (at first gradually) approaching,

By 1961, the Spokesman’s circulation was something over 3,000 newspapers (which were, however, passed hand‑to‑hand to a much larger body of readers).

With the transition to Nigerian Independence, The Nigerian Spokesman (and “Spitfire”) diverted their witty, often sarcastically irreverent attacks toward the new targets of internal political opposition within the emerging nation‑state. Since by 1961 Zik’s NCNC now dominated the Eastern Nigeria regional government and Onitsha local government as well, and since the Federal elections of 1959 had resulted in a coalition at the national level between the NCNC and the NPC ‑‑ the party of the Muslim‑dominated,Northern‑Region peoples of Nigeria ‑‑ internal political opposition now became identified with the Action Group, the Yoruba‑dominated party led by Zik’s old counter‑nationalist nemesis from the ’40s and ’50s, Obafemi Awolowo.

The Eastern Observer appeared in Onitsha as part of the Action Group’s
response to its defeat in the 1959 Federal Elections, openly voicing opposition to the NCNC and the Spokesman. The Observer was striving to increase its readership by catering not to Ndi-Onicha, but much more strongly to the local Ndi-Igbo immigrants. It printed a daily page written bluntly in the “Union Ibo” dialect ‑‑ a version of the Igbo language quite distinct from the Onitsha Igbo dialect of the indigenes, the stronger dialect in Onitsha vicinity, and by systematically and ideologically opposing the now‑dominant NCNC‑officialdom voice of
Government (whose current governmental accomplishments were
increasingly being subjected to critical scrutiny by the voting public, including many Ndi-Igbo). It also followed Awolowo’s new, bold shift to a systematic (and intellectually sophisticated) policy of “democratic socialism”, attacking the increasingly glaring, robber-capitalist grounded, social‑class stratification emerging throughout Nigeria. The Observer now displayed a considerably more consistent and intellectually sophisticated modernism than did its venerable opponent, whose voice now defensively parroted most government views.

However, this bold effort largely fell on deaf ears. Everyone knew that the source of the information lay in Yoruba hands, and almost nobody read anything written in Union Igbo. I was probably tone of a very few in Onitsha who bothered to read it.

  1. In Henderson 1972: 86, 98, 100, 294, 312-313, 502, I described some aspects of the religious symbolismthat Ndi-Onicha associated with this regionally pivotal marketplace. []
  2. Crowther & Taylor 1959:32 33, 428 29. See also Henderson 1972:499 502 []
  3. We were unable to clearly delineate these boundaries during our research in Onitsha. []
  4. 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 60:57.1 []
  5. 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. He apparently oversaw the massive destruction of RNC records. []
  6. See Crowther’s parting directives in Crowther and Taylor 1859:37 []
  7. Crowther and Taylor 1859:251 2, 258 59, 268, 274 5, 276 9, 283 []
  8. Ibid., 247, 265, 267 70, 276 80, 284, 288 9, 373 []
  9. Ibid. 296 7, 331 []
  10. 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). []
  11. Ibid. 273, 281 4, 288 9, 291 2, 312 15, 331 []
  12. Ibid. 262 3, 315, 344 46, 354 56, 372 []
  13. Ibid. 336, 355 56, 367, 271-72 []
  14. Britain, Foreign Office:1888:8 []
  15. Great Britain, Foreign Office:1888:8 contains accounts of this event []
  16. Ekechi 1971 []
  17. Crowther, S.A. letter 1874:154 5 CMINtelligencer vol X []
  18. See Ekechi 1971 for an excellent account of the missionization of Igboland up to 1914 []
  19. Nigerian National Archives, Enugu [1926] []
  20. The influence of local Sierra Leonean Creole converts to the culture of the early Onitsha educated elite is a subject worthy of further pursuit. []
  21. See Henderson 1966:375 8 for additional materials on Onitsha “modernization” during the colonial era. []
  22. 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). []
  23. 11679, vol. 9: OPAR 193] []
  24. See, for example, James Coleman’s assessment of Azikiwe in his magisterial 1958 study of Nigerian Nationalism, pages 220-224 []
  25. From The West African Pilot (Nnamdi Azikiwe, owner and editor), March 3, 1942. []
  26. Zik’s father had worked for a time for the remarkably progressive early ethnographer, Major A.G. Leonard. This paternal connection likely inflenced his decision to study anthropology in the United States. []
  27. a name sugesting the potency of a famous World War II Bitisih fighter aicraft []
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