Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Harding Commission & Report, et al

(Editor’s note:  the latter portion of this text currently lacks the appropriate footnotes.  when this has been corrected, this comment will disappear.  RNH)

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

Later Research; the Harding Commission & Report et al, 1962

Helen brandishing airline tickets to Rome, June 1962
Helen brandishing airline tickets to Rome, June 1962

More than 30 years later, I still vividly recall Helen’s and my shared delight in leaving Onitsha before the Interregnum Inquiry began. We had stayed there too long, and our physical withdrawal in July 1962 was preceded by several psychological ones.  Making only a few hasty goodbyes, we fled from fixed domains of anthropologically-responsible engagement, first to Enugu and our good friends Josef and Janine Gugler (sources of several needed retreats and delightful stimulation during our two years in Nigeria), then by train to Jos for a brief Nigerian highlands vacation with our friend and colleague Leonard Plotnicov, thence to Kano for a flight which would carry us to Rome, London, and New York (with brief vacationing ventures at each step of the way). After nearly two years in the often claustrophobic kinship-embracive and title-obsessed social nexus of Onitsha, broken only by very brief excursions elsewhere, we experienced a radical liberation. With this relief, my deep sense of angry fatigue gradually began to fade, and as the distance (measured in both time and space) increased, I began to view my Onitsha materials differently and to find new ones.

1. More Avenues into documentary research

In the initial phase of our escape, I went to the Enugu Eastern Regional archives to inquire about seeing some historical documents on Onitsha, giving my name and general purpose to a receptionist, to which she responded, “We have been expecting you.” Instead of the delays we had previously encountered in Nigerian bureaucracies, she led me swiftly into a private room containing a file placed neatly on a desk, and I sat somewhat bemused to look at it, not having specified to her what I wanted. I found it covered the Onitsha 1931 5 Interregum, and opening the folder I eagerly entered this treasure without a moment’s hesitation.1

The Enugu File

This 1931-5 file contained a sequence of correspondence which shed quite considerable additional light on Onitsha Kingship. It included an array of claims made to Government by various Interregnum participants during that earlier conflict, most remarkable among whom were groups who called themselves “the leading representatives of Umu-EzeChima“, one of which styled themselves as “a council of peace officers”. This faction included agents of a number of the same groups prominently involved with the comparable versions of social movement in 1961-2;   Isiokwe, Umu-Olosi, Umu-Oreze, and Obio clan, and described a series of procedures paralleling those emphasized by the Umu-EzeChima Conference in 1961-2 . The “council of peace officers” posed themselves in opposition to a large faction of the chiefs, and sought to expose to the administrative officers how the various candidates were obtaining various validating ritual objects and credentials through inappropriate means in their pursuit of the Kingship. These “Umu-EzeChima peace officers” claimed, moreover, that their support of a candidate was essential for his succession to the throne.

The file also contained correspondence with the then-Prime Minister, Obi Okosi I’s brother Gbasiuzo the Onowu (who claimed as his precedent the “fact” that the two Prime Ministers before him had crowned the two previous kings, “without any congregation meeting of Onitsha people”).2 There were letters from John Ezeocha of Obio clan, claiming his exclusive rights to perform a series of “Udo” rituals in the installation,3 and from elders of the Umu-EzeChima “peace officers” complaining of the actions of the Eight Age sets as a “kindergarten show”4
Many statements in this material resonated with what I had witnessed in 1960 62 the kinds of symbolic objects, ritual requirements, and social alignments described served to extend my own ethnographic perspective on these processes: these were not newly-created entities, but were drawn from pre-existing themes.5

The Nri Ph.D. Manuscript of M.D.W. Jeffreys

In London at the International African Institute Library, I gained access to the manuscript of M.D.W. Jeffreys on “The Divine Umundri Kings of Igbo land”. While I had read enough from his articles on Nri and had heard enough allusion to Nri people by Onitsha people to be intrigued about their definite relevance for Onitsha culture history, British social anthropologists largely dismissed his work, largely on the grounds that, as an ardent advocate of the radical Egyptian diffusionist school of Smith and Perry, Jeffreys’ analyses of his own ethnographic materials were strongly distorted by this bias.6 But reading into this manuscript, I found doors opening into dimensions of Igbo Kingship for which my own efforts in Onitsha had fortunately now prepared me, and the fragmentary syntheses of Onitsha culture forming in my mind, made vague both by my own pre-fieldwork weakness in knowledge of extant literature and by the big gaps and distortions of knowledge among my informants (bred by a century of European colonization), began to shift, and linkages became clarified, placing Onitsha culture in relation not only to such other centers of precolonial Kingship as Igala and Benin but and in some senses more fundamentally connected to Nri as well.  (See also   .)

A Research focus into Culture History

The revelations I obtained from reading Jeffreys’ manuscript turned my immediately subsequent research efforts away from my previous primary conscious focus on contemporary matters and into the (anyway for me in some ways personally more comfortable) domain of culture history. During my subsequent near decade of teaching at Yale, Sterling Library enabled me to make a more thorough comparative study of available ethnographies on Igbo speakers, and in the summer of 1969 Helen and I consulted the Church Missionary Society Archives in London, where an unexpectedly rich body of historical documents provided another dimension of comparative perspectives for building models of “precolonial” social and cultural systems leading eventually toward The King in Every Man (and later toward even more strongly synthetic interpretations of Igbo culture in a collaborative study of “Igbo crowns”)7 .

2. The Harding Commission of Inquiry: inception

Part of the comparative material for my 1972 synthesis of culture history also came from the Harding Commission of Inquiry, whose proceedings I first followed in the Nigerian Spokesman (which continued to arrive sporadically at my doorstep in New Haven, Connecticut through the mid 1960s), later integrating these partial accounts with the Commissioner’s own masterful Report.8  The Spokesman material records considerably more detailed testimony than does Harding’s account, and the two renderings differ slightly (but not in their overall import).)) While my research bias towards culture history at the time led me to tap these sources mainly for their culture-historical implications, I also recognized that their primary importance stood as evidence for contemporary culture and social processes.

I do not know how Richard W. Harding was selected to act as the Sole Commissioner of the “Inquiry into the dispute over the Obiship of Onitsha,” but the choice was highly consequential. Some interaction between Zik (as President of the Nigerian Federation) and Eastern Nigerian Premier Michael Okpara was probably involved, and the Premier probably made the choice in order to avoid accusations of Eastern Nigerian Government bias, by naming an expatriate civil servant of outstanding credentials. Onitsha consultants later told me that Onitsha people holding high positions in the Nigerian judiciary lobbied strongly to prevent what they claimed was Okpara’s initial preference to appoint an Igbo man a Sole Commissioner, presuming he would prefer Enwezor. .9

Harding, who held a Master of Arts degree from Oxford University, had built an impressive professional career, first in the British and Indian Army and then in the British Diplomatic Service. Coming to Nigeria in 1950, he first served in Ogoja and Rivers Provinces, then was moved between the Premier’s Office in Enugu and several Eastern Nigerian Provinces, where he worked as Provincial Secretary helping to organize the transition toward Nigerian Independence. By 1961 he held the post of Provincial Secretary for Onitsha, and had recently been awarded the O.B.E. Once his selection was announced in the Onitsha newspapers on July 7, the Sole Commissioner immediately notified all contesting parties to desist from actions proclaiming Kingship, and requested all contestants to present themselves before him at the Onitsha Native Court house on August 1, armed with brief Memoranda summarizing their arguments (and using “terms of reference” explicitly defined).

Four candidates now responded to the call: Enwezor and Onyejekwe, of course, but also Moses Odita and more surprisingly Jacob Onyechi. Enwezor’s case was to be presented by 6 lawyers, led by Onoli Ibeziako (and including one of his sons), Onyejekwe’s by Emma Araka (the Odoje man victorious in the recent November General Election for — ) and F. O. Anyaegbunam (a locally prominent barrister from Umu-EzeAroli).10  Odita was to be represented by N.N. Annah, a non-Onitsha Onye-Igbo man celebrated for his prominent advocacy of the Roman Catholic cause in Onitsha11, while Onyechi’s two-man counsel was to be led by his barrister son.

The Inquiry proceeded on the basis of the competing claims submitted to the Commission in formal Memoranda.  Enwezor based his claim on the arguments, first, that “a ‘rotation’ of the Obiship takes place between “Okebunabo and Umu-EzeAroli“, second, that the family whose turn it is proceeds to make a majority selection (while “The rest of the plebs and families in Onitsha do not participate in the selection”), and third, on the claim that, during the month of August 1961, “the Onitsha indigenes” having decided that it was Umu-EzeAroli‘s turn, and an “overwhelming majority” of Umu-EzeAroli having selected him, “all Umu-EzeAroli” presented him to the chiefs as their candidate. The chiefs examined his candidature (his “antecedents”, “high moral integrity”, “sound education”, Ozo title, “affluence”, and “meritorious services to the entire people of Umu-EzeAroli family”), and accepted him. Finally, he had performed the necessary rituals to complete his installation .

By the evidence of this submission, Enwezor’s group now consolidated a claim excluding “the rest of the plebs and families in Onitsha” from the selection process,12 while focusing on decision making within Umu-EzeAroli and acceptance by most of the chiefs, a stance which seemed to confirm my own earlier assessment that their cause had culminated in a distinctive  minority of popular support.13

Onyejekwe based his claims first on his “qualification” (his status as “a direct descendant of Obi Chimedie”, his possession of a “sound education and unblemished character”, and his Ozo title), second on the procedures of selection, presentation, and ritual transformation he had undergone, and third on the “confirmation of acceptance” displayed in the “acceptance of cows and drinks” by Onitsha community.” Onyejekwe’s group thus sought to focus attention on his broad range of support from such specified social categories as “Umu-EzeChima, the Kingmakers”, “Onicha-EzeChima”  (the wider Onitsha community), and the “Ruling Age set” (Ogbo-nachi-Ani)14. These categories indicated a definite inclusion of those whom Enwezor’s Memorandum overtly excluded as “the rest of the plebs and families” of Onitsha.

In contrast, Odita based his claim entirely on claims to superior qualifications (“I have more royal blood flowing in my veins than any of the other contestants”, “educational qualifications” and “administrative experience”, “interest in” and “knowledge of” Onitsha affairs and traditions) and on the putative “disqualification” of the other candidates for various reasons. Onyechi focussed even more strongly on the latter point, emphasizing how the “selections and installations [of the two leading candidates] violated Onitsha customs and traditions”, and how his own “calm attitude… together with my birthright, training, experience and achievements” gave him “the best claim” to the kingship . While the counsel of this latter pair later contributed significantly to the Inquiry process, neither would gain serious contention (their deficiencies in social support soon became obvious), and the following discussion will focus on the two leading figures, whom the Commissioner himself was initially inclined to designate as the “principal contestants”.15.

3. Initial testimony of Enwezor’s group

Commissioner Harding decided to hear the contestants and their witnesses in alphabetical order, which meant that Enwezor’s case, with twenty three witnesses scheduled to appear on his behalf, came first. Contradicting a preliminary statement that Mr. C.A. Oputa (an Onye-Igbo Port Harcourt barrister of very strong national reputation,)16 would hold special brief for Enwezor,  Onoli Ibeziako instead seized charge of the Igwe’s entire case at the outset and proceeded to lead Enwezor in testimony. Ibeziako’s somewhat idiosyncratic views of “tradition” and of legal tactics thus strongly colored the subsequent Inquiry, with significant consequences (as we shall see).17

From the beginning, audience participation appears to have lent a somewhat festive flavor to the proceedings. In his initial presentation of Enwezor’s case, for example, counselor Ibeziako defined the meaning of the installation ritual  Ije-Udo(“Going to Udo“) as merely “moving out from one’s house”, an interpretation suited to Enwezor’s case (since this candidate had performed his own “Udo” ritual not at that shrine location but in the more comfortable confines of Ibeziako’s own private mansion well north from the shrine), but this statement brought “big laughter in the hall”18 Repeatedly he introduced interpretations which appeared to reflect an assumption that the other participants in the Inquiry altogether lacked knowledge of Onitsha traditions, and that all constructions of ritual process therefore possessed equivalent value, thus drawing himself (and his brief) into increasingly frequent ridicule from the observing public and into probing, critical questions from the Sole Commissioner and opposing counsel as well.

Igwe Enwezor began his own testimony with descriptions of several ritual processes (followed by cross examination), but these were soon subordinated to two other lines of inquiry. First, Enwezor claimed that an “overwhelming majority” of the “selecting family” Umu-EzeAroli, or more specifically, “all Diokpala (senior priests) and elders had selected him. This claim was subjected to close scrutiny, focusing on the February 1961 actions of this sub clan’s “Peace Committee”. The Committee’s minute books were requested and presented, opening a line of investigation which established that Enwezor’s selection had occurred less than a week after Obi Okosi II’s death (of which Umu-EzeAroli had not yet even been officially notified by representatives of the King’s lineage) and without advising Umu-EzeAroli‘s “sons abroad” that a selection process was under way.

Examination of the Peace Committee’s representation by the various lineage segments of Umu-EzeAroli revealed that members of Umu-Anyo (Enwezor’s own lineage segment of Umu-Aroli sublineage within the wider sub clan) had been liberally co opted for the selection moment, and that representation from other major segments of Umu-EzeAroli subclan (including some of those hoping to proffer prestigious candidates) had been omitted entirely. Some members listed in the minutes as “present” during the selection process arose at the Inquiry to deny they had been included in the gathering. As the Commissioner later put it, the minutes’ “accuracy indeed their veracity” was increasingly opened to doubt, but even as revealed in their own contents the procedure of selection looked quite dubious, and Enwezor himself at one point admitted in cross examination that the selection procedure was “not fair”.19

Second, Enwezor presented his qualifying patrilineal genealogy as one of direct descent from the founding ancestor Anyo, but as he was cross examined on this subject he presented several mutually contradictory depictions of lineality and collaterality.  In his final Report, the Commissioner eventually listed four distinctive versions of Enwezor’s lineage, beginning with that given in the Memorandum submitted at the outset, followed by that of Enwezor’s own “Examination in chief”, another one stated during his cross examination, and culminating in a “re examination” in which, as his counsel reportedly put it, they sought to “correct the mistake made in their family diagram submitted to the Commissioner, causing ambiguity”.20

Compounding this problem of patrilineal and matrilateral ambiguity, various cross-examining counsel exposed certain aspects of Enwezor’s genealogical biography of which the Commissioner would otherwise probably have remained unaware for example, issues of to which senior lineage priest he had paid his Ozo title money , and which descent group comprising his Mother’s Parents (nne-ochie) he had ritually notified for both his Ozo and his Obiship candidacies. His accounts of both of these ritual processes were eventually contradicted by other witnesses (including some of those who had putatively been involved in the rituals).21

The priest’s acceptance of this homage means affirming the candidate as a full member of the descent group, or in the case of Mother’s Parents, a genuine Daughter’s Child. Since Enwezor’s own mother was admittedly from Nsugbe, this social category (and group) would necessarily come from his father’s (or father’s father’s, etc.) mother’s descent group, and a matrilateral connection at some point in the genealogy is deemed quite essential for these indispensable procedures.  But Enwezor’s testimony about this connection was both ambiguous and countered by opposing witnesses.22

Enwezor’s evidentiary problems multiplied when his first witness, Egbunike the Onya, took the stand. As the political leader of all Umu-EzeAroli and the head of its Peace Committee, the Onya‘s testimony about the selection process was pivotal, and he sought to legitimize his own decisions within the sub-clan (and its Peace Committee) by claiming that “the Umu-EzeAroli delegated the power of selection to the Peace Committee” . This to some extent contradicted Enwezor’s prior statements by raising the Peace Committee to a position of ultimate authority, but the Onya seemed little concerned with problems of consistency, contradicting himself (and the Peace Committee’s own minute books) about its descent group representation during the selection decisions, its processes of decision making, and its maneuverings to accomplish the ritual procedures deemed requisite to installing their candidate.

Worse, both opposing counsel and the Commissioner questioned his stance that only Umu-EzeAroli could select, in light of his prior participation in the 1931-35 Interregnum, when in supporting his brother James Egbunike’s candidacy23 he himself had publicly proclaimed a locus of authority in Kingship selection that directly contradicted his current claims. Witness his responses to questions from Onyejekwe’s counsel :24

 “Q: Are the contents of this letter true? (The reference is to a letter addressed to the Lt. Governor, dated 12 July 1935, bearing the current Onya’s signature under his brother’s name and stating inter alia that any candidate for Obiship ‘who does not pass through Umu-EzeChima is considered null and void.’)

A: I could not say that because he was like a wounded lion. He might say anything to justify his case… I would say anything to justify my brother’s case. Anything at all.

Q: Truth meant little or nothing to you?

A: Yes.

Q: Would you now do anything to justify the stand?

A: No. Then my brother was losing the battle.

Q: If you felt that Mr. Enwezor was losing would you do anything to help him?

A: I cannot do it now. I am old enough. My position is different.”

And in cross examination by counsel (and the Commissioner) on the subject of ritual procedures:

“Q: So you invented your own system of ceremonies in 1931 35?

A: Yes, since we cannot get our own way…

Q: You knew you were telling an untruth?

A: No. I invented.

Q: You said your inventions were tradition?

A: I was fighting my way.

Q: In a struggle for the Obiship any means is bad enough to achieve the desired end?

A: Yes….

Q: In 1931-34 your brother gave cows to section of Onitsha?

A: Yes. To many sections. May be six…. It appears a bribery…. My brother offered bribes.

Q: You put cow offering forward as custom?

A: Yes, to put people into my fold. Q: In 1931 35: all inventions: Umu-EzeChima, going to Umu-Asele, the ofor, the cow giving?25

A: Yes.

To historians and anthropologists familiar (at least since the early 1980s) with the “invention of tradition”,26 these words from 1962 Onitsha may seem historically “out of place”, but this is only one more example of a repeated sense I have experienced, examining these Onitsha materials long set aside, that in its politics this community in many of its social patterns anticipated a wider postmodern future. The Commissioner observed many Onitsha people affirming in effect that, in dynamic social contexts where knowledge of past procedures was limited but adherence to traditions was desirable in principle, a measure of inventiveness was indispensable.

However, this did not mean that acceptable “traditions” could be simply fabricated to suit some party’s momentary needs while excluding others from their rightful due. The Onya‘s extreme position here (and in a number of other testimonial contexts as well) crossed a cognitive-and-moral boundary which largely undermined his credibility as an “Authority” for the case at hand, and opposing counsel (and even his own) dismissed his words from further serious consideration .27

4. The Commission: Onyejekwe and the Royal Clan Conference vs. the Chiefs

Following the extended testimony of Enwezor and the Onya (which, with very extensive cross examinations, had by now consumed more than two weeks of Inquiry time), Commissioner Harding after making some unsuccessful maneuvers to shorten the schedule by removing marginal candidates Odita and Onyechi from consideration decided to hear from other sides before taking further witnesses from Enwezor’s group . On August 20, Onyejekwe‘s brief began, and Inquiry focus turned more sharply to comparing procedures of the main opposing groups.  Onyejekwe’s leading counsel F.O. Anyaegbunam began his account of the selection process by suggesting that, while it was indeed the turn of Umu-EzeAroli to select an Obi, it was “not for a group of youngsters after taking a few bottles of cold beer from the house of an aspirer to impose him on the people”. Rather, a candidate selected should be presented to the Royal Clan for its acceptance or rejection, and ultimately “to the whole Onitsha for their approval”. Only Onyejekwe’s candidature, he claimed, had followed this process.

In his own testimony, Igwe Onyejekwe supported this picture with a narrative which (after a statement of his genealogical and other qualifications) began with his rebuffed efforts in February and March 1961 to present his candidacy before the Umu-EzeAroli Peace Committee, followed by his submissions to the UmuEzeChima Conference in August and his subsequent participation in Conference-led activities, in later meetings of Umu-EzeAroli, and in those chaired by the Prime Minister and his chiefs which occurred at that time.  Discussion of these events not only re-opened questions about the Peace Committee’s minute books, but about those of the Umu-EzeChima  Conference and of the Onitsha Chiefs as well. With these three sets of minute books now available to the Inquiry, new dimensions of the Interregnum process emerged.

Various candidates’ accounts concerning their failed efforts to submit a candidacy to Umu-EzeAroli authorities, combined with close examination of the Peace Committee Minute books, led the Commissioner to infer that, while such efforts to address the Peace Committee supported its (otherwise ill founded) claims to subclan authority, this organization was “improperly constituted”, unrepresentational, and its selection process was rigged, rushed, and its premature outcome rigidly enforced. The fact that the first Peace Committee Minute Book closed on April 29, while the second one opened only on August 10 (recording an assembly attended by several Obiship candidates proclaiming the importance of the Umu-EzeChima Conference against the Onya’s implacable opposition), and evidence from testimonies presenting contradictory versions of the outcomes of the two August meetings, led several counsel to propose that this second book was a forgery, a suggestion the Commissioner was eventually inclined to support. On the other hand, he observed, while such procedures violated contemporary requirements of “square dealing”, they could not be comprehensively condemned from a perspective of historical politics, since they appeared to follow what could best be described as a “traditional pattern” of coups d’etat and faits accomplis.28

When the Inquiry participants turned to the processes developed by the Umu-EzeChima Conference, rather different patterns of procedure emerged. When the Conference submitted its documentation, a very large body of material evidence was offered, including not only substantial Minute Books but audio tapes as well. The Commissioner later complained vigorously about the quality of the former (“Many of the pages are covered in almost illegible scribble and hardly comprehensible language” ), and he chose to dispense with the latter, but the minute books eventually provided documentary evidence of a social process that developed very differently from that of Enwezor’s side.

Careful examination of the evidence revealed a gradual emergence of the Royal Clan organization out of early gatherings which (in the Commissioner’s eyes) were “not particularly distinguished and representative” , and he later thought he detected excessive influence in the Conference by members of Oke-buNabo, but he also found in these Minute Books a record of early participation by Enwezor’s own head counsel, Onoli Ibeziako himself, enthusiastically endorsing its prospective formation of a Royal Clan Special Committee whose ultimate candidate selection, he said, “the other applicants should accept … as final” (an account corroborated in testimony later delivered by Mbamali the Ajie). Orefo the Owelle (who more recently had acted as the scribe recording the decisions of the Prime Minister’s faction of chiefs who supported Enwezor) also appeared in these Minute Books, as an early presiding actor of the Umu-EzeChima Conference and strongly expressing his support for its aims . While Ibeziako at first labeled the relevant Minute Books “a forgery” and threatened to go to the police, he later withdrew these remarks, and the contents of these documents were never subjected to serious challenge.

The Commissioner sought a variety of views on the issue of the Royal Clan Conference’s performance, and maintained a strongly critical stance toward its endeavors, repeatedly chastising its Secretariat (Byron Maduegbuna, the Assistant Secretary,  for “inadequacies” of record-keeping and Jacob Onyechi, the Secretary, for his self-interestedness in influencing its outcomes).29 He later quoted The Final Report of its Special Committee (which had impressed me considerably ) at length but somewhat dismissively, assessing it overall as “a curious production”.  Still, while he inferred that the Royal Clan in its contemporary “Conference” form had “no status under Onitsha Native Law and Custom” so far as selection of an Obi was concerned, and while it suffered from “uninspiring leadership and an incompetent Secretariat”, it had nonetheless been initiated and supported by some of the most respected and influential men in the Royal Clan, and in light of its perseverence and achievements, it could not simply be dismissed.

The Minute Books of the Onitsha Chiefs, combined with statements by the Prime Minister (who testified as a supporting witness for Enwezor) showed that, contrary to the initial Inquiry Memorandum submitted by the “Eleven Ndichie the Kingmakers”, the Prime Minister did not have the right to “exercise all the powers vested in the Obi” during Interregnum, the chiefs as a body claiming rights not to select a successor but only to install one. Early minutes from February to April of 1961 showed their interest in the Kingship focusing mainly (as the Commissioner later somewhat indelicately put it) on what “lucre” they would receive for implementing the funeral, followed by concern for “fixing the fees payable by a prospective Obi before he is installed.”  Only later, stimulated by the rumors and circulating publications of the Umu-EzeChima Conference, did they begin registering their own resolutions about succession procedure, and their Minutes (while omitting a number of significant events like their reception of Onyejekwe’s candidature on August 4) showed that the chiefs had remained indecisive toward Enwezor until the Conference’s momentum forced their hand. Their repeated display of anxiety in their stance toward the Conference indicated (so the Commissioner later inferred) that in their own eyes this organization of the Royal Clan could not be casually dismissed as “illegitimate” .30

Following Onyejekwe’s testimony on his own behalf and that of the Prime Minister for Enwezor, but prior to that of such major participants as Mbamali the Ajie, John Ezeocha (the Udo priest), or Nzekwu the Omodi of Umu-Ase-na-Iyawu, on August 28 Chief Ibeziako suddenly and quite unexpectedly announced that he was closing the case for Enwezor, “having touched all the aspects … in accordance with the terms of reference” . Many participants were astonished:  as the Commissioner later put it, this unilateral closure occurred just as “the issues were becoming clear.” To pursue them further, Mr. Harding took it upon himself to call some of those who had been originally listed as witnesses for Enwezor, mainly to see “what type of men they were”, but the result of this tactic was that many of the charges leveled at Enwezor and/or his candidature by various witnesses (both before and after the closure) would never be refuted (or even challenged) .

5. Some Aspects of Ritual Performance Compared

The Inquiry moved on (despite the Enwezor counsels’ efforts at closure), driven by the Commissioner’s determination to resolve some of the major issues.  Much time was devoted to examining the ritual processes undertaken by various contestants (including visits to shrines and inspection of ritual objects), despite the Commissioner’s own estimation that the details of these activities and artifacts should be accorded only “relatively secondary importance”.  Partly he argued this because “it is clear that there has never been any closely prescribed system through which the aspirant must proceed” (and hence no precise criteria for judging each pathway), and partly because “Many (of the rituals) were conducted in an atomosphere of publicity, of political urgency and so the photographs reveal often unbecoming and self conscious amusement rather than reverence” . However, he granted, “some of them… still reveal the conscience of many of the people… and offer glimpses of a supernatural and ancient world which is full of mystery and wonder”.  Patterns of participation in them do reflect patterns of social support (he said), and this too gives them meaning . In light of the fact that the Obi remained “situated at the heart of a cult”, efforts should be made to preserve the integrity of this cult, and charges of “Abomination” (alu) may be examined in this light .

Numerous witnesses gave evidence concerning various aspects of Enwezor’s ritual performances, first concerning his activities whithin Umu-Anyo and dsecond in relation to his putative maternal linkages with other Onitsha descent groups, which produced ambiguous testimonies which (Commissioner Harding observed) “give rise to speculation” concerning the allegations of his “non-Onitsha paternity”.

Second, the details of his “Going to Udo” were discussed, revealing the Enwezor group’s initial efforts to work with the recognized Udo priest and their subsequent transfer of ritual activities to the grounds in and around Ibeziako’s mansion . Third, the rituals performed by the Prime Minister in his own compound, including his directing of Igwe  Enwezor’s “symbolic domestic services” after Ije-Udo and his subsequent “crowning” of a kneeling Enwezor (displayed in photographs submitted to the Inquiry), raised an issue the Commissioner deemed quite important: When was “the moment of Kingship”, the step in the ritual process when the candidate became the Obi? When does the person undertaking this ritual pathway become sufficiently transformed that he acquires “some of the attributes… of a god”?

The fact that this issue intrigued Mr. Harding reveals a facet of his anthropological interests concerning the case at hand. The Report he eventually authored revealed considerable skills in ethnographic research, and clearly in pursuing his task he gained some depth in understanding the meaning of the Obiship. This question of “the moment” was also a prime issue presented between the two principal contestants for the throne, Enwezor and the Prime Minister claiming that the latter’s “capping” of the former constituted the decisive moment (which only Enwezor had done, following his emergence from Udo and subsequent “domestic services” in the Prime Minister’s compound), Onyejekwe and his supporters stating that Obiship occurs at Udo (followed later by domestic services at the Ajie’s and a self-capping ritual).((My own grasp of this was that “crowning” a king was an historically European focus, not a primary moment in the pre-colonial Ndi-Onicha world.  The primary moment (if any can be reconstructed thus) is when the senior priest forcibly slaps the candidate’s face and pushes him down onto his throne-seat.))

“Going to Udo” Revisited

Faced with the task of negotiating a pathway between these two opposing views, the Commissioner used both extensive examination of witnesses and of available ethnographies to assess the competing claims: Enwezor’s, that he had slept beside a termite hill (Nkpu) in the “Udo bush”, at which several rituals were performed; Onyejekwe’s, that he had performed a complex series of rituals in several loci at the real ancient shrine, witnessed by a definite number of participant-observers. The Commissioner established, first, that the Udo ritual, clearly a decisive aspect of traditional Kingship, was most rigorously performed by Onyejekwe, by virtue of both its location and its performers (though he found its sanctity “reduced by the garish intrusion of crowds of curiosity seekers and ‘supporters'”). Enwezor’s Udo performance he deemed an “uncomplicated” affair which had, however, the definite virtue of keeping an overnight “vigil at the Onoli‘s anthill” a point of difference which Enwezor’s counsel emphasized strongly, following C.K. Meek’s doctrine to infer that “owing to the fact that (Onyejekwe) worshipped where there was no anthill, he cannot reign by virtue of not obtaining this spiritual power”.((Harding 1963:127‑34. It is of passing interest that counsel Ibeziako had himself had assisted C.K. Meek during his 1930s ethnographic research on Onitsha. One of Onyejekwe’s witnesses did claim that some kind of termitary ritual occurred at the “Small Udo” shrine, view of which was however proscribed for all but the two participants themselves.  See Supra, Chapter 25, p. 12 13, sic, and Harding 1963:130.)) In comparison to this weakness, Enwezor’s counsel argued, the “functions of Ezeocha and Ada Obio (the Udo priest and priestess who participated in Onyejekwe’s Installation) were purely of minor significance.” The Commissioner eventually inferred that Onyejekwe’s Udo rituals had an advantage over those of Enwezor.

Having been present at both rituals (as Mr. Harding was not), I thought his characterizing Onyejekwe’s Ije-Udo as “garish” applied much more aptly to Enwezor’s own, and I suspected his more distant assessment derived on the one hand from his receiving a very narrow account of Enwezor’s event, while he inferred on the basis of Onyejekwe’s own description of his ritual as attended by a “mammoth crowd” and a scene “lit by gas lights hired by me” that it comprised a “more public” event . Readers of Chapters 28 and 30 may judge the contrast for themselves. While I did not witness Enwezor’s termite hill ritual (though I did see the brief, pausing moment when its equivalent was enacted on Onyejekwe’s side), nobody present for Enwezor’s night at Ibeziako’s place mentioned his “sleeping beside a termite hill” as any part of it . My own suspicion is that Igwe  Enwezor slept in one of the mansion’s several beds.)

“symbolic domestic services” (Ife-nru-Onowu): “mission inspired”?

While the Commissioner inferred from many sources that Going to Udo was actually designed to produce a major transformation in a candidate’s social identity, he was much less impressed with the ritual of “serving homage to the Prime Minister” (Ife-nu Onowu), though authorities from both sides testified to its importance, and Enwezor stated under oath that he was not yet the Obi until he had done it and then received the Prime Minister’s act of “capping” (though his initial Memorandum had claimed he received the public acclamation song while he was “carried shoulder high from Udo“) . Onyejekwe in contrast claimed he was Obi when he left the Udo shrine, but “not complete Obi” until he had performed these ritual “domestic services”, preferably at the house of the Prime Minister but for some other chief “if he has palaver with the Onowu“. The Commissioner, apparently presuming a Western (British) vision of Kingship which prescribe solemn “reverence” at major ritual moments, found such acts as breaking firewood, fetching water, peeling yams, pounding fufu, repairing roofs, and repeatedly submitting to joking (and dominating) behavior by others to be quite inappropriate for one in the process of attaining such exalted rank. Assessing Onyejekwe’s ritual overall, he emphasized the impropriety of

“his performance of domestic services. The Obi, of whatever degree of ’emergence’, should not demean himself to perform such duties….”

Regarding this ritual with obvious distaste, Mr. Harding hypothesized that it may “possibly have been introduced by Okosi I under the inspiration of the Mission” (presumably alluding to its apparently “Christian” turn-the-cheek ethic, defining rulership as humble “service”) .

I found this interpretation surprising because I had marked analogues to it at pivotal stages of numerous other Onitsha rituals of self transformation. A variety of quite standardized actions were performed often by a person who would henceforth be inferior to the candidate for self transformation such as pushing a new priest down onto his throne, uttering ritual words of insult to him, even slapping his face. I saw Chude the Adazie do these things to Enwezor at his Ima-Nzu and John Ezeocha similarly to Onyejekwe at Udo, and I interpreted them by following what some Onitsha informants said: “they show the title taker that he does not gain his position by his sole efforts, but becomes a leader when power is bestowed upon him by his community.”

Neither the Commissioner nor myself then had access to a much more eloquent interpretation of another analogous ritual installation, that of a new Kanongesha, the King (or “paramount chief”) of the Central African Ndembu people as described by Victor Turner. In the Ndembu traditional process, The Kanongesha elect (with his wife) are ritually placed into a liminal, transitional state, neither alive nor dead, where they are dressed in rags, subjected to indignations, pushed down, etc. The King elect is verbally reviled by the commoner headman (and by any other person who considers he has been wronged by the new Kanongesha in the past), and in many ways treated like a slave (acts by others, which the new King must not in future display resentment). Turner’s great insight into the meaning of this pattern of behavior was that, if kingship is to have moral coherence, the neophyte who hopes to lead must first learn what it is like to suffer (as every person does) under one’s superiors, must learn what it feels like to be inferior, weak, punished arbitrarily, treated like a slave. Otherwise he will likely lack compassion for the weak, and abuse his power.((Turner 1969:97-106.))

It seems to me an obvious probability that the old meaning of the Onitsha Obi elect’s “domestic services” served similarly tutorial aims, and whatever their own grasp of its meaning both Enwezor and Onyejekwe made considerable efforts to conform with what people construed as cherished tradition.

The “Crowning” or “Capping” of Kings

Still, the Commissioner’s evident unease concerning various implicational aspects of “the moment” of Onitsha Kingship as enacted in the recent rituals seemed compelling. He expressed particular discomfort at the Prime Minister’s conduct in the climactic ritual of Enwezor’s Kingship, expressing this concisely in the following words :

“I do not consider… that it is comely for the aspirant to kneel before the Onowu either to receive kola or to be capped. Nor do I consider it comely that the Obi should be capped at the Onowu’s. If the capping finally creates the Obi it should take place at the [Obi’s palace] (or at an accepted shrine which has a peculiar and customary sanctity) from which the Obi could emerge for the receipt of homage.”

Clearly, the Commissioner found disturbing the photographic image of Enwezor kneeling in the dirt, hands behind his back, while the Prime Minister stood looming above him to thrust the red cap down upon his head. I too so found it, experiencing the view in its living moment, sensing that the entire ritual strongly conveyed a message of the Onowu’s own power, drawing attention away from the transformation in qualities being ritually generated in the Obi-elect himself. This was underlined by the Prime Minister’s accompanying speech (which the Commissioner apparently never heard), specifically where he dismissed as irrelevant any considerations of the candidate’s own identity, instead emphasizing putative acts of selection by appropriate official agents, focally, himself .

The comparable rituals performed by Onyejekwe occurred, first, when at Ije-Udo the priest wrapped the Obi elect’s head with white cloth and placed a white feather in it at the conclusion of the shrine ritual (after which the crowd saluted him as Igwe,”Sky”), and second when having entered his “palace” and seated himself on the throne he was directed to take his choice of two red caps placed on a chair beside him and place it on his head. The implications of these acts included, first, an act of sanctification at Udo, and second, a respect for the new Obi’s exalted status at the moment of his capping and enthronement. When I witnessed this ritual, then knowing almost nothing of contiguous West African traditions concerning the specifics of the matter, I felt exhilarated in the meanings it seemed to imply. The Commissioner, on the other hand, found these contrasts to Enwezor’s procedure baffling, and after examining the Inquiry evidence, concluded that the precedents adduced from all sides amounted to “a shameless series of contradictions”. While he tried in a balanced way to assess the two competing theories/practices (regretting “that no thorough research has been conducted into the origins of ‘coronation’ among Nigerian chiefs” ), he adhered (I believe) to a generalized Western vision of royal proprieties.

While my own brief survey of literature describing these “coronations” has not revealed close analogues to such rituals as Onyejekwe’s “self capping” (but closer approximations to his moments at Udo and to some aspects of Enwezor’s crowning by the Prime Minister), my own experiencing of this contrasting pair of events (described in Chapters 28 through 30, sic!) began to crystallize for me the sense not only that both sides were conducting improvisational dramas, but also that judgment of the respective merits of these dramas must be based partly on aesthetic grounds (which in turn requires application of broader evaluative standards including those of symbolic “coherence”) as well as those of historic “accuracy”. Reading the Commissioner’s account of the Inquiry, I found the “plot” structures of the “texts” of these dramas became clearer by way of contrasting his evaluations with mine. (But more on this point below.)

Bestowal of the King’s Ofo

Concerning this issue the Commissioner (though faced again with contradictory testimony) found himself on firmer traditional grounds. The existing ethnographic documents, the visible condition of the objects themselves, and the testimony of various witnesses indicated that several archeologically “ancient” Royal Ofo objects (those fabricated in times prior to British Colonial domination of the Interregnum process) had been placed into Enwezor’s hands by his Umu-EzeAroli supporters, but that (as Mr. Harding put it in his Report) “the method employed to obtain this ofor was dubious”. Onyejekwe’s own Royal Ofo appeared to be “about a year old”, and the testimony of a variety of witnesses opposed to Enwezor (as well as that of Enwezor’s strongest supporter, the Prime Minister) indicated that this object had been dedicated and bestowed upon Onyejekwe by the appropriate traditional Eze Idi (Hidden King) and other representatives of Umu-Ase-Iyawu following their Agreement of March 1961.31

Under cross examination, Enwezor himself admitted that the right to confer the symbolic object in question belonged to this latter group. However, the Onowu (himself a member of Umu-Ase-Iyawu and a signer of the agreement) testified that they should have “collected the original objects”, since “The ancient one is the pure and spiritual one”. The Commissioner concluded that “Mr. Onyejekwe received the ofor from the correct participator” but that it “had acquired none of the virtue of antiquity” (though he also observed the two Okosi Kings had likewise done an equivalent substitution, and no evidence was adduced that they had lost anything as a result). Mr. Enwezor received the ancient object complex, but from the wrong man (and had himself testified this would make it ineffective) hence his Ofo “may well have been an object devoid of ‘spiritual’ life.”

The “Donation of Cows” to the Six Sections of Onitsha

The Inquiry’s evidence concerning this ritual (which was performed only by Onyejekwe) was brief, and the Commissioner’s inferences in relation to it concise. Onyejekwe’s counsel presented “mandates” from each of the six “Administrative Divisions”, affirming that “we whole heartedly accepted one cow given to us by Obi Onyejekwe” and signed by varying numbers of representatives from each group. Despite the claim from Enwezor’s side that such a donation represented “bribery” , and the Commissioner’s wry comment that Onyejekwe had been “wise enough to wait for Christmas time (when cows would provide useful food for the home comers)”, Mr. Harding inferred that an observation made by Onyechi’s counsel that “rejection of such cows and drinks when presented is evidence of lack of support of the donee by Onitsha people” “has some weight.”

The Commissioner’s Assessment of “Ritual Processes”

In his Report, Commissioner Harding pondered many threads of evidence, apparently searching for some guiding principles which might both suggest a symbolically coherent Interregnum procedure for the future as well as grounds for deciding which current candidate had the best claim to succeed. While some of his specific findings have already been outlined (and others passed over for brevity’s sake), it seems appropriate here to discuss some of the more general principles implicitly identified. The first of these might be called respect for the “spiritual” components of the Obiship. In dealing with the issue of whether an Obi elect should pay “fees” (with the chiefs assuming that he should and these should be fixed in advance, but the Royal Clan Conference committee rejecting both views ), the Commissioner argued that since the Obiship is “the supreme dignity of the clan”, a man with an “aura” of “exceptional” character and ability is desirable, and

“…the self interest of the clan as a body could not… allow a man, rich but otherwise deficient in the necessary qualities, to assume the Obiship… ‘You take his money but you do not want him to be Obi…. We will not go against custom. His supporters would take all his money and desert him.’ (Evidence of the Ozi of Onitsha)…. It is, I maintain, detrimental to this [distinction/mystery/aura] and humiliating to the people over whom the Obi exercises his special powers if this office can be purchased” .

Notice here the reference to Umera the Ozi, who I refer to elsewhere in this book.

Second, I had anticipated in light of Onitsha people’s own arguments for competing versions of “traditional propriety” in ritual performances that such issues would become key problems of the Inquiry. Commissioner Harding did devote considerable attention to the concept (and accusations) of “Abomination” (alu), in conformity with his respect for the “cult” component of ritual traditions and his observation that each candidate had accused the others of this grievous offense against the Mother Earth during their pursuits of the throne. But while he did eventually make some assessments concerning the validity of this powerful social sanction in some specific situations,  he inferred (having examined the broad spectrum of available evidence) that a pervasive “lack of knowledge” about historical precedents made decisions about many such issues inescapably uncertain, and therefore the overall authenticity of either candidate’s performances could not be verified .

However, “though neither of their processes can be considered authentic it is not necessarily to be accepted that they must be dismissed as invalid. ‘Onitsha custom is always changing.'” This newfound perspective, an awareness that to some extent the preservation of an Onitsha “tradition” possessing any kind of coherence inescapably requires a measure of invention, led him in turn to cut through the tangled web of proferred “precedents” in order to ask a core question:  What did each ritual step and each comprehensive sequence of them signify in terms of social support? “In their wisdom the people of Onitsha have allowed such an elaborate series of checks and balances to grow up that no one man not even half a dozen men can by himself (or themselves) create the Obi.”

This “functionalist” point of view carries one beyond exclusively historical considerations and into evaluations which may be grounded in the direction of modernistic “democratic” values (while respecting, where this is feasible, historical requirements of form).

6. The Commissioner’s general evaluations

The broad evaluative stance which the Commissioner had established laid the grounds for assessing the Installation process as a whole (and thence for recommending the candidate having “the best claims to recognition” by Government). This grounding included (1) the standard of requiring increasingly “democratic” processes, and (2) that honoring a relativised tradition opening its doors to what might be called “appropriate innovation” (in relation to the first and prior standard).

“Rules of rotation” “selection”, “presentation”, and “acceptance”:

Recall that Enwezor’s initial Memorandum based his claim on the arguments, first, that a “rotation” of the kingship occurs between Oke-BuNabo and Umu-EzeAroli, and second that the family whose “turn” it is has the right to select the successor without participation from “the rest of the plebs and families in Onitsha” . Based on the information the Commissioner had now gathered concerning previous known Interregna, he was able to state flatly that “there has never been any traditional and calculated transfer of the Obiship, in rotation, from one king producing kindred to another.” Given this fact,

“It is a matter of straightforward deduction that if there is no system of rotation there can be no originating kindred unless and until it is accepted, on a wider basis than the kindred, that one particular kindred shall, on such an occasion, be the originating kindred.”

In this deceptively simple sentence, Mr. Harding in effect placed Emile Durkheim’s vision of the “moral community” in a contemporary framing. The underlying theory of power presented here defines an effective community “rule” as the product of a consensus wider than within the group whom it most directly benefits. He then proceeded to demolish the second part of the Enwezor Memorandum, citing the proverb that “The Obi is for all Onitsha”, and listing a series of testimonies where Enwezor and his supporters despite their protestations also manifested “their respect for the status (in such matters) of “Umu-EzeChima and Onitsha” , that is, of those wider groups comprising the community (what Peter Ahukwu had emphasized during the conflict as “Onicha-Eze-Chima”)..

In light of such considerations, the elaborate, even somewhat baffling processes of “presentation” to and “acceptance” of (or rejection by) various actors and social groups proffered by various groups as “essential” during the competition come into clearer focus: they comprise in a sense an array of tests of “popularity.” While in the precolonial past the support of a limited “cabal” of “influential men” might indeed have sufficed to organize a successful campaign, this clique would have needed enough supporters to win a civil war, and in Onitsha history this meant leaders had to consult “Those Who Support and Dignify” (Agbala-na-iregwu), in Western terms “the commoners”. Today when the Obi has become “more of a popular and public figure… than… a secluded demi god” such consultation has become more broadly requisite:

“both the Umu-EzeAroli and the  Umu-EzeChima organisations… based their ultimate authority on General Meetings; they dare not risk the accusation and, indeed, the inevitable failure of being autocratic.”

 The roles of “authoritative personages”

Both sides sought the support of the senior chiefs, and the Commissioner recognized that from a strict traditional perspective, the roles of these officials would be characteristically oriented to intrigue, assertive and even domineering, as befits “cabals” aiming at “coups d’etat”. From that perspective, “the attempted coup of Mr. Enwezor was the nearest approach, in 1961, both in spirit and form, to the traditional process of emergence”, and the Prime Minister’s behavior also followed that norm, but

“…in these days of greater rectitude and propriety it has not been acceptable to many of the people in Onitsha, and he has forfeited the support and sympathy, by his undiscerning use of prerogatives, of several sections of those who would normally be loyal adherents. Many of his own kindred appear to be against him in his partisanship for Mr. Enwezor.”

In the contemporary context, the Commissioner implies, more modernistic definitions of leadership take priority, and the Prime Minister himself tried to cloak his behavior in these terms when it suited his purposes, enacting at times his awareness of the value of broad public consultation. (I would add that the Onowu’s hesitation in the face of this contradiction between autocratic behavior and more democratic procedures was the factor that caused Enwezor’s coup d’etat to lose momentum, allowing his adversaries time to organize before he eventually acquiesced to his most potent pursuers.) But consultation implies willingness to listen to others, and to alter one’s own views when the voices of others are more cogent. When, during the formal Inquiry, the Commissioner asked each of the main “authoritative personages” backing the two candidates a similar question “If the Government recognised any candidate would you support him?” the responses from the testifying Senior Chiefs from the two sides are revealing:

For Enwezor:

the Onowu: “I could not recognize anybody other than Enwezor.”

the Odu: “No.”

For Onyejekwe:

the Ajie: “If Government recognises him I will support him.”

the Ogene: “I will support the man recognised if Onitsha people support such a man.”

This sharp contrast between fixed authoritarian values vs. flexible and more democratic ones would appear to underpin the differing assessments the Commissioner made between the main “authoritative” parties supporting the two sides (including, apart from the chiefs, such groups as the Ozo Association and the Ruling Age-set). In assessing the chiefs Mr. Harding described the Ajie as possessing “considerable prestige throughout Onitsha”, and as assuming “a dominant, even an historical role, in the affairs of Onitsha”. He characterized the Ogene as “astute and responsive to public opinion”, and as “possibly the pivotal figure of greatest consequence” for the outcome (by virtue of his leading the largest sub group in the Royal Clan, despite their forthcoming loss of the Obiship to another side). For the senior chiefs on Enwezor’s side, he balanced various words of qualified praise with repeated use of some approximation to the phrase, “no longer commands the universal support of his people” . Regarding the alignment of influential non-chiefs, he said,

“No person of high consequence in the local traditional politics of Umu-EzeChima and Ugwu-na-Obamkpa (the largest non-royal division), and outside the ranks of the Ndichie and Umu-EzeAroli, gave any indication that he supported Mr. Enwezor.”

Evaluation of the two major candidates

Focussing on issues of what “Qualifications” candidates must meet, the Commissioner not only dismissed the model of the RUmu-EzeChima Conference Committee outlined in Chapter ( sic), but more generally found all efforts to draw up specific lists of such criteria as a waste of time and energy. While this reading of the evidence seems extreme to me, his point was that, even if a near-consensus could be reached at a particular time, standards will change: what might have been a near-consensual list in 1931 will not suffice for 1962, and so on. This stance accords with his emphasis (repeatedly stated as a quotation from Onitsha opinion) that “Onitsha custom is always changing.”

Having made that point, Mr Harding went on to say that as of 1962 there are two conditions that all accept: “the aspirant must be a blood descendant of Eze Chima“, and “should be a member of the Ozo cult”. However, even these “apparently indispensable” criteria might be discarded “if the essentially appropriate candidate presented himself at the essentially appropriate time”. To support this somewhat revolutionary suggestion, he cited the response of the Ogene to his question of Whether Enwezor, Onyechi, and Onyejekwe were “suitable to be an Obi from their personal qualifications” :

Ogene: “All three are qualified if the Onitsha people support him.”

Immediately following this quotation in the report, the Commissioner added,

“It seems therefore unnecessary to make a ruling concerning the ‘qualifications’ of Mr. Enwezor. To many men in Umu-EzeAroli he may be the ‘essentially appropriate’ Obi. These men are adult, intelligent and must know their own minds. They must also appreciate the implications of putting forward a candidate who might not be ‘acceptable’ on the grounds of qualifications.”

This of course refers primarily to questions raised during the Inquiry concerning Enwezor’s genealogical qualifications. Otherwise, the Commissioner largely discounted issues of specific qualifications, though in the section of the report dealing with witnesses he made the following remarks concerning counsel’s decision not to call more witnesses in support of Enwezor’s case :

“This contestant’s reticence in advancing information about himself is a great weakness in his case. He produced no detailed ‘curriculum vitae’ which I could have checked. I do not know where he was born, and… I do not know where he spent his early years. I know nothing of the formative years of his life and his career or of a matter of a change of name imputed by his adversaries. Simple matters which could have been adduced in several ways were kept away from me, concealed in what I can only believe to be a deliberate mystery.”

Moving toward his major recommendation, and having characterized Enwezor as an “unexceptional” aspirant, the Commissioner contrasted him in this sense with Onyejekwe. Mr. Harding observed,

“I shall not say that Mr. Onyejekwe could be regarded as ‘exceptional’ but the fact that he, without the wealth and influence of Mr. Enwezor, could achieve so much is a demonstration of a genuine regard by many of the people of Onitsha.” In light of Enwezor’s “general deficiency of support”, and Onyejekwe’s “less limited affiliations”, Commissioner Harding concluded that “Mr. J.O. Onyejekwe ‘has… the best claims to recognition.'”

7. Commissioner Harding’s recommendations as Western modernist value expression

The Commissioner suggested that, in order to avoid the “disaster” which descends upon Onitsha “every twenty or thirty years,” Government should, rather than imposing some decision upon the community as it has done to date, develop a “Constitution” through which Government would instead “assist the people in the problem of selection”. In Appendix A of the Report he presented his own vision of such a Constitution, intended to regularize procedures which the Inquiry led him to believe most Onitsha people desired.

After defining his terms and providing for appropriate officials to regulate the process, the Commissioner formulated a system prescribing a succession rotation between two “Originating Groups”. One of these would be Oke-BuNabo, the other a group whose name he left blank, thus leaving open the prospect of further inquiry among the Umu-Chima-Ogbuefi(that is, the larger group including Umu-EzeAroli, Isiokwe, andUmu-Olosi) to establish how inclusive the composition of this second Originating Group would be. Through this provision Harding made room for the Inquiry claims of these last two sub clans, without prejudging their case.

Three “Consistories”, councils of descent group elders would be established: that of the “Appropriate Originating Group”, that of the Umu-EzeChima), and that of the Non royal Clans (Ugwu-na-Obamkpa). Candidates would be nominated by at least 15 registered members of the Consistory of the Originating Group, and the Consistory would eventually vote by appropriately regulated secret balloting (involving a “point” system requiring each voter to name both first and second preferences of candidates), the contestant receiving 60% or more of the “points” of preference becoming the Group’s official candidate. This candidate in turn would be subjected to single vote balloting (acceptance/ rejection) by the Royal Clan Consistory (51% of the votes being required for the candidate to pass), and then by the Non royal Clans Consistory (33% of the votes being required to pass). Having passed these three Consistories, the candidate would be recognized as Obi.

The Commissioner made systematic provisions for complicating situations, for example where the Originating Group could not identify a 60% majority candidate (the names of all contestants receiving at least 20% of the votes would then be forwarded to the Royal Clan Consistory for balloting), and so on. The overall effect of this “Constitution” was to convert the selection process into a graded series of elections, the candidate garnering the highest number of votes ultimately becoming the Obi. This Constitutional Monarch would indeed find it imperative to become a modern-style politician.

When I first read the Commissioner’s Report in 1963, I felt great respect, indeed a touch of awe, for his accomplishments. Clearly he had worked through a complex tangle of social strands, a morass of claims and counter claims, actions and counteractions and done remarkably well in sorting them out in a reasonable, carefully thoughtful fashion. While there were some points of interpretive disagreement in which I felt I had a stronger grasp of Onitsha culture than he, I had to admit that in many ways his understandings of the social situation were superior to mine. Certainly I could not have devised his ingenious “Constitution”.

One reason for this was that I had come to the field with very limited experiential knowledge of complex political processes (and hence of the relationship between political theory and social practice), to guide research in any kind of complex contemporary society. My Berkeley anthropology instructors, trying to work us through the system without excessive delays, had to presume some background strengths that most of us probably possessed, but while I had some unusual academic strengths at the time (considerable exposure to the British social anthropology of that time, and to Max Weber and Talcott Parsons as well — definite advantages in relation to others of my cohort), my own practical grasp of living politics could perhaps be summarized as a combination of idealistic images of “social solidary” and “fair play” with an everyday (practical) idea of social interaction as a process of win-lose games. I had intuitive feelings about what constituted “democratic” behavior in others, but less than effective grasp of its necessary groundings in deep social values.

More precisely, my grasp was formalistic “one- man- one-vote”, majority win/minority lose democracy at the national level without anything approaching an adequate grasp of the wider (and also more intimate) “ecological” contexts that sustain or undermine more or less formal applications of the ideal. I think I shared this “tunnel vision” with a vast proportion of other people at the time, including a great many Americans who presumed (and many still presume) their own moral superiority over others due to adherence to “democratic values” while contradicting these in many facets of their own everyday behavior. And an inherent aspect of such contradiction is the pervasive assumption of a cultural dualism: that the social and cultural world can be divided into categories of binary opposition which are real, and hence can provide us with universally reliable tools for “true” judgments.

Holding an implicit American culture model of this kind, when I witnessed impressive interactive moves being made by tradition-oriented Africans, I was ill equipped to understand them in any other than a stereotypic way. For example, I knew enough to be excited when I watched Peter Achukwu and Mbamali Ajie work their magic on Onitsha crowds, but not enough to articulate with any precision why their orchestrations were so remarkable. I sensed they were “democratic” (albeit imperfectly so by my model), and that they therefore were expressing processes of “modernization”, but did not fuller perceive the array of wider ecological contexts in which they worked.

The Commissioner and I shared a democratic world view that forged very similar perspectives in evaluating this social field, which led us both (I assume this for him) to forecast increasingly democratic structures in the Onitsha polity, and to foresee a history in which certain central figures would be cast in heroic molds while others would be viewed as agents of the past. But the ecological contexts impinging upon Onitsha were changing even as the Interregnum progressed (and while Mr. Harding was preparing his report). Even a year and more later, while teaching undergraduates at Yale, I voiced optimistic forecasts about Nigerian “democracy” which had  by then had become an extreme stance of modernistic optimism, largely ignoring the driven political processes which by then were moving Nigeria inexorably in other directions. 32

  1. This was  Onitsha Province File (OP) 184   1932.  At the time such files were closed to the public by Government regulations, but in my Nigeria-alienated state of mind at the time I assumed that my superior state of “objectivity” and distance justified my access.  As I read, it occurred to me that the files were no doubt intended for the just named Commissioner of Inquiry, and that the receptionist had assumed I was he. []
  2. Compare the Onowu’s almost identical claim in 1961, Chapter 24 sic. []
  3. Compare Chapter 25 sic, which provides an account of Ezeocha’s role in Onyejekwe’s 1961 Udo rituals, and note alsoHenderson (1972), Appendix D (pp. 546 8), which records a list of the rituals Ezeocha claimed were requisite prior to 1900. []
  4. Recall that the Ogbo Isato, then led by Peter Achukwu, had played a decisive role in the resolution of the Interregnum in 1935.  See Chapter 3, p. 8 and Chapter 5, p. 13 — both of these sic. []
  5. I drew on some of this material for my summary of the 1931-5 interregnum presented in Chapter  ,  page on. []
  6. In the introduction to his thesis, he acknowledges the guidance of Perry’s widely discredited book,  Children of the Sun. []
  7. Henderson and Umunna 1988; see also Nzegwu ed., 2013a Chapter 5. []
  8. Harding 1963, and Nigerian Spokesman 1962-3. []
  9. Enwezor had known strong connections with Ndi-Igbo, partly through his business connections and partly through his genealogy. []
  10. Nwabufo Uwechia also played a prominent role there, and was a strong supporter of the Royal Clan Conference. []
  11. See Chapter 4, “Religion Matters and Alu”. []
  12. Ibid.: 7-8.  Encountering this somewhat recondite term “plebs” was unique in my experience of 1960s Onitsha, but was a favored term used by Ibeziako during his 1930s tenure as OIU secretary, for example in his recording the meaning of certain features of chief’s regalia “as their insignia of office in order to distinguish them from the commoners or the plebs.”  OIU Minute Books July 3, 1935. []
  13. This inference is strengthened by newspaper accounts of the Inquiry coming from Onitsha, for example an Eastern Observer report of July 28, 1962, discussing Onoli Ibeziako’s hostile reference to a Nigerian Spokesman editorial which argued that the Obi should be “a popular choice of the majority of people”.  The account reports that the Onoli suggested to the Commissioner that the Spokesman was trying to usurp the Commissioner’s work, and that “such publication borders contempt of the enquiry”.  Spokesman accounts of the Inquiry do appear to have been strongly biased against Enwezor’s case, including his claim that broad numerical support is irrelevant, and of course the Observer‘s reports were no doubt similarly biased in the opposite direction. I never saw these latter after that July issue, having failed to arrange their shipment to us in the United States when we left Onitsha. []
  14. These references include not only the doctrine of Royal Clan succession authority, but also such non-royal involvement as the right of Umu-Ase to confer the King’s ofo, and the cow-giving to the six major political sections of Onitsha (assumptions and procedures followed in 1961-2 by Onyejekwe’s group but not by Enwezor’s). []
  15. Harding 1963:59 64; Nigerian Spokesman Aug. 2,3,9, 1962.  Commissioner Harding proposed a reduction to the prime pair on the grounds of their much stronger social efforts and of the expense entailed in hearing the arguments of “claimants who may be contesting for interest’s sake, or on a remote and ill founded hope”, but the counsel for both Enwezor and Onyejekwe argued for admitting the other two into the proceeding in order to “clear the air”, and the Commissioner then allowed it.  Both of these latter contestants and their counsels contributed to the Inquiry mainly by clarifying the relative standings of the two main candidates. []
  16. For information on the later career of this remarkable man, see this link: Akunne C.A. Oputa. []
  17. Obiekwe Aniweta later claimed that this apparent usurpation had the effect of significantly weakening Enwezor’s case (Nigerian Spokesman February 17, 1964), and the evidence does suggest that the Onoli‘s lines of direction were often much less than optimal. []
  18. Nigerian Spokesman August 2 & 27, 1962.  See Chapter 6 accounts of the two versions of this ritual.   There is however a tiny grain of truth in the Onoli‘s definition:  in the early years of the 20th century (the time when he grew up), Onitsha people described their fellow Ndi-Onicha who had left their homeland for parts far away  as having “gone to Udo“, meaning, to a mysterious place beyond the civilized, known community “world” (and from whence they might well never return). In part he may have carried this older perspective into a (now completely inappropriate) current context. []
  19. Harding 1963:84. []
  20. Harding 1963:156-8. []
  21. Ibid.:172 3.  For testimony regarding his role as “deputizing” senior lineage priest in Children of Anyo, see Harding 1963:165-6. For an account of the basic ritual process of “serving homage” to one’s senior patrilineage priest, an act required for validating the start of any major transformation of a person’s social identity, see Henderson 1972:141 7. []
  22. For details on ritual obligations to and support from Mother’s Parents (Ndi-ochie) as a social category and group, see Henderson 1972:571. []
  23. See Chapter 4, page 1 []
  24. See Harding 1963:82  (but note also his final qualifying remark). []
  25. The references here are to the doctrine of Royal Clan succession authority, the right of Umu-Asele or Umu-Ase) to confer the King’s ofo, and the cow giving to the six major political sections of Onitsha (assumptions and procedures followed in 1961-2 by Onyejekwe’s group but not by Enwezor’s). []
  26. Hobsbawm & Ranger 1983. []
  27. While Enwezor and the Onya were presenting their testimony, a number of their prospective supporting witnesses (including Obiekwe Aniweta and barrister Luke Emejulu as well as two senior elders) were excluded from the witness list after sharp eyed opposing counsel observed them violating the Commissioner’s ruling that prospective witnesses must not attend the hearings.  (Nigerian Spokesman           ) []
  28. Harding 1963:84. []
  29. I was startled upon first reading this, in light of the numerous typed copies we had provided to Byron, worrying afterwards about the moral implications of our having provided his side with a technological advantage (though we had offered the Umu-EzeAroli Peace Committeea an equivalent service, which they had declined), but apparently Onyejekwe’s counsel decided the original manuscripts would raise fewer issues of authenticity (and thus any questions about a “missing anthropologist’s” possible role in the process). []
  30. Harding 1963:74-5. []
  31. See Chapter , “Bestowal of Ofo”. []
  32. See Clifford Geertz  1963 for a more insightful view regarding Nigeria’s political prospects during the time in question. []
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