Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Onyejekwe Ije-Udo & “Crowning”

1. Interim between installations

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

The evening after Obi Enwezor’s installation, our house was visited by some people from the other side. Jerry Orakwue appeared, saying he wanted to learn what had happened at Enwezor’s rituals since “it wasn’t proper for me to go and see it myself.” As I described the sequence to him, he began expressing both shock and amusement at the details. Enwezor’s Udo rituals were, he said, untraditional and even bizarre. The initial purification of the space with white clay, the “premature” gestures of obeisance by various elders, and above all the ritual questioning of the Obi-elect by representative elders concerning his plans for the kingship,  all these acts Orakwue characterized as laughable interpretations of tradition.

Commenting on the role of the Senior Priest of Oreze, he thoughtfully observed that the “true position of Oreze has always been one of great debate,” but that certainly no King had ever accorded its priest this much prominence in the ritual procedures. Moreover, it was even questionable whether Ibeziako’s house was located on Oreze land (much less Udo), the property in question being currently in litigation in Onitsha High Court between Oreze and Ogbe-Odogwu of Oke-BuNabo.

Regarding the rituals at the Prime Minister’s house, Orakwue showed astonishment that the Obi-elect had actually entered the Onowu‘s own private quarters (however briefly), once having gone to Udo and become a personage beyond the human, and he ridiculed active participation in the ritual by the Onowu‘s wife. He claimed that the Onowu’s physical capping of the Obi-elect had no precedent in tradition, and that presenting Enwezor his Ceremonial Sword prior to his having received the Royal Ofo amounted to a gross violation of appropriate ritual sequence.

After Orakwue departed, we received a surprise visit from a young Onitsha man, a salesman for a large commercial firm in Enugu whom we had met while visiting there but who said he rarely came to Onitsha. A close relative of Onyejekwe, he claimed it had just occurred to him to “touch at your house,” and he spoke of many things (being a person who possessed seemingly total recall), but through his talk there ran a thread:  Enwezor is an inappropriate king.

He restated some of the criticisms Orakwue had made of Enwezor’s installation rituals, and then talked at length of his experiences with Native Doctors (ndi-dibia) in Onitsha. He pointed out that Onitsha people do not like them very much (though they retain them in their midst), because of the way they “fake false and true.” He said he spent much time with one when he was young, and proceeded to pantomime the elaborate hand-and-arm movements of throwing the Afa seeds (for predicting the future).

“We have a standard joke in Onitsha. The dibia throws the afa, then he says, ‘Ah, yes. Very interesting. You will meet a short, tall black man. He will bring you trouble. You will have to bring a cock (or a goat) to the shrine for sacrifice. I am sorry, but what can I do? They (the spirits) are asking for blood.’

He went on to say that Onitsha people do not respect native doctors, “because their ways of making a living are questionable (the implication apparently being that Enwezor had some unsavory connection with native doctors), and added that “We have a very similar attitude, you know, toward criminals, especially exconvicts.” Enwezor, he claimed, had recruited some very unscrupulous leaders, including one of the senior chiefs supporting him, who was a criminal,-  a man in charge of a gang of highwaymen.

“We have a special ritual that must be performed before any ex convict can be allowed to reenter his house:  iyek, “quenching fire”. The Head Daughter must beat a fowl about his body. And you know, (persons involved with Enwezor) are ex-prisoners. This is why we object to Enwezor so strongly.”

Having made these accusations, our acquaintance reminded us that while Onitsha men were very proud, they tended (as an Onitsha proverb and considerable oral history attest) to become unscrupulous when seeking the money to take title, and he commented that another proverb was particularly appropriate during times of interregnum: “Onitsha is like a woman who is pregnant and nursing at the same time.” (This, of course, would be an Abomination (Alu) by Onitsha standards). He concluded with the observation that, while Onyejekwe and his followers were trying to determine the true customary procedures from the elders, they were worried now about the large amount of money that Enwezor was spending, and about the possible effects of his publicity campaigns, which might induce outsiders to make decisions in ignorance.

Based on our own reading of the local newspapers there seemed little cause for our visitor’s alarm on this account. The Eastern Observer was strongly partisan for Enwezor, but the Nigerian Spokesman seemed to lean toward Onyejekwe though it had been sufficiently pressured by Aniweta and others that it was overtly attempting to present balanced news. On November 25, 1961, for example, it printed both a press release about Enwezor’s planned coronation and one describing Onyejekwe’s planned trip to Udo. In addition, it ran on the back page a letter from Mr. Ofo Asika (a local contractor who was a member of Umu-EzeAroli) attacking Obiekwe Aniweta’s writings against the Royal Clan Conference:

“During the week, a certain Aniweta, writing as the Secretary of Onitsha Aborigines Association, issued an impertinent release on the Obiship dispute. I do not grudge Aniweta his right to comment on a matter that has become public property. But, the people must be told the truth.
And the truth is that the Onitsha Aborigines Association exists only on paper. Apart from Aniweta and Chairman Charles Modebe, who are the other members?”
“Mr. Aniweta is treating us to a new version of our constitution. Like the British Constitution our constitution is unwritten but everybody in Onitsha knows it by heart. It is a fallacy to call the Ndichie-Ume (Senior Chiefs) the king makers of Onitsha. Never, in Onitsha history, have the Ndichie-Ume crowned a king.

I, Ofo Asika, am one of the king makers of Onitsha, being a member of the Umu Ezechima families of Onitsha. And we are thousands of us who are prepared to assert our right notwithstanding whether Aniweta and others abdicate theirs….”
“I should take this opportunity openly to challenge the right of Aniweta’s Aborigines Association and certain Ndichie-Ume to install J.J. Enwezor as Obi on Sunday, November 26 as advertised by posters. On behalf of myself and certain others, I want to say that Mr. Enwezor’s claim had long been dismissed and his dream of becoming an Obi of Onitsha is a mere illusion. Personally, I have the greatest respect for him but we part on this issue.

Let Mr. Enwezor or his private Secretary tell the Onitsha people why he failed to attend the mass rally at Court Hall where the other eight aspirants addressed the entire Onitsha people.
Let Mr Enwezor summon a mass rally at Obikporo Square and address the people and test the popularity of his imposed claim.”

Moreover, on Monday November 27, the Spokesman printed both a report headlined “ENWEZOR IS NOW CROWNED” and one headlined ONYEJEKWE BEGINS TODAY, together with the public announcement by the “Umuezechima Families of Onitsha”:

On all citizens of Onitsha
to assemble at Ogbeozala Square on Monday 27th November 1961 at 6 p.m. to escort
(Asst. Commissioner of Police)
to Udo Shrine to perform ceremonial rites
in connection with his installation as the Obi of Onitsha.

A mass meeting of Onitsha Community will first take place at Ogbe-ozala Square where important resolutions will be taken.
Installation Ceremony takes place on Tuesday 28th November 1961 at 8 a.m. Good Citizens of Onitsha, rally round the Umuezechima Families of Onitsha to preserve your cherished Custom and Tradition!!! Come one!! Come all patriots of Onitsha and support the popularly and Constitutionally Elected Obi of Onitsha.
The Die is Cast. Onitsha Citizens, rise and accept the challenge.
‘The Voice of the People is the Voice of GOD’
‘Away with Tyranny and Dictatorship'”

Onyejekwe’s supporters feared, however, that outside the realm of the Inland Town, they might be ignored by local councillors, regional ministers, and other Government figures who were uninformed about Onitsha indigenous activities (or already had set opinions about them). Already Enwezor’s supporters claimed to have received telegrams of congratulation from some of these external forces, and a rumor was even being spread that Zik himself had wired Enwezor a message of support. Moreover, the Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC) was reporting Enwezor’s installation as if he were the only candidate contesting, while Onyejekwe’s rituals had been announced only in the Spokesman and were about to proceed on a Monday, without any distribution of formal invitations.

The distinctive pattern of procedure followed by the Royal Clan Conference was, however, consistent with their view that their primary task was to mobilize unity within the Inland Town, and that in a fundamental sense the relation between the Onitsha King and outsiders should be one of opposition rather than dependency. Despite their worries about media influence, their eschewing of external publicity was largely deliberate.

2. A vote of “No Confidence” in Onowu

05-01-okwu-eze1957-map-ilo-ogbeozalaAs the sky turned grey in the evening of November 27, one could stand on the Sacred Grove of the Kings and look northwest (above) to see the two new temporary Palaces, Enwezor’s a firmer structure at right and Onyejekwe’s the nearer one at left.  By merely turning around and looking southeastward, you would see the Village Square of Ogbe-Ozala, the Village home of Onyejekwe, with a crowd of Ndi-Onicha gathering around its edges.

05-02That the Royal Clan Conference had chosen this place for the meeting of “all Onitsha people” was a bold move, since it was located in the very heart of Umu-EzeAroli, the constituency whom Enwezor’s group claimed were “unanimous” for their own man.
Youths rode in on bicycles, and taxis discharged occupants arriving from the Waterside, until as twilight fell several hundred people were gathered, including numerous titled men and other elders (mostly in native dress) and many young men (mostly in European clothes). While waiting for the Royal Conference leaders to organize the procedure, I spoke with a prominent Onye-Onicha woman trader who was both the widow of a famous Onitsha magistrate and a Daughter of Umu-Aroli. For the first time we discussed the subject of kingship.

She began by chiding Onyejekwe for his miserliness, showing irritation as she said, “They say he is refusing to spend any money at all!” At this her elderly companion (a member of the Special Committee) laughed, and commented that “He says he will show us big spending when he wins, but I’ll bet you when he does, he will not spend money then, either!” There was laughter. Then the woman spoke in the serious and concise manner she more typically employed when discussing council politics or trade:

“But he is a real Onitsha man, not imports like the other one and his followers. You know, Enwezor is a contractor, and his money has enabled him to attract undesirables who will influence him. The throne would decline with Enwezor  he is not real Onitsha, and he (is associated with exconvicts). But Onyejekwe is a man with an independent mind. It is necessary, for the sake of preserving our tradition, to have Onyejekwe.”

These comments were representative of many I was to hear that evening, suggesting that the earlier circumspection shown by members of the Conference was now being dropped: more serious allegations were being openly raised. There was also a sense of confidence in the course being undertaken. When I spoke briefly with Peter Achukwu, he stated with a broad smile that the Umu-Aseele would soon confer the royal Ofo upon Onyejekwe, and added that the Onowu “has committed an Abomination; we will see to him later.”

When a distant roar of cannon fire sounded from the north side of the Sacred Grove of the Kings (set off by Enwezor’s men to celebrate his recent accomplishments), no overt responses were made in the crowd, whose size and composition appeared to lend people assurance. I saw Obiekwe Aniweta and several others walk from the north side of the Sacred Grove to a point near Enwezor’s temporary palace where they could scrutinize the size of the gathering, after which they retreated unnoticed.

05-04-no-confidence-vVoteA table and several chairs had been provided to give the meeting an official focus. As the sky darkened, flashlights were used to give the minimal necessary illumination. When all of the members of the Special Committee had finally arrived, Achukwu first introduced the President of the osita-di-nma, the ageset currently “Ruling the Land”. The Ruling Ageset’s President stated that his group had given him the mandate to say that Enwezor was not the real king, but that the Royal Clan had the right to select the candidate, and Onyejekwe was their man. Okunwe Akpom, Chairman of the Special Committee, spoke next and briefly recounted what had transpired at the Obikporo Square the previous week.

“At that time you told us to do imanzu and we have done it. Now, do you want us to take Onyejekwe to Udo?”
(Audience: Ye-eeees!” (in Igbo, “Eh…hhhhh!)

Achukwu then spoke, saying we have tried by letters to bring the Onowu around to doing his duty, but we have failed, and he has done the wrong thing. We now therefore want to pass this Resolution.

Byron Maduegbuna stood on a chair to read the Resolution in English, and was applauded. Robert Okagbue (Obi Okosi II’s former lineage secretary) then read it in Igbo, and at the end the crowd cheered. The Resolution first stated that the Royal Clan (“the traditional kingmakers of Onitsha”) had traditionally selected Joseph Oyejekwe as Obi (26 August 1961), had formally presented him to the chiefs “on the invitation of Onowu, reference to his letter dated 30th August 1961″ (1 September 1961), had made many appeals to the Prime Minister for him to present the Obi-elect, but without success, and had themselves presented him to and been blessed with his acceptance by the Onitsha people. The Onowu, however, had

“unconstitutionally and untraditionally installed one Mr. J.J. Enwezo as Obi of Onitsha without consulting Umu-EzeChima… or presenting the said J.J. Enwezo to Onitsha people for acceptance according to the tradition. It is hereby resolved that
(a) This mass meeting of Onitsha indigenes view with great concern the uncompromising and dictatorial attitude of Chief Philip Anatogu, the Onowu of Onitsha and here by strongly express their lack of confidence in the said Philip anatogu as the Onowu of Onitsha.
(b) This mass meeting of Onitsha indigenes hereby express their implicit confidence in the Conference of Umu-EzeChima towards its traditional, constitutional, and democratic methods of selecting Joseph Okwudili Onyejekwe as the Obi-elect of Onitsha.
(c) This mass meeting hereby empowers Chief John Mbamali, the Ajie of Onitsha, who is next in rank to Onowu, to act in all traditional matters relating to the installation of Joseph Okwudili Onyejekwe as the Obi of Onitsha.
(d) That copies of this resolution be forwarded to Chief Philip Anatogu, the Onowu of Onitsha and other ndichies, the Chief Secretary to the Premier Eastern Nigeria, the Minister in charge of Chieftaincy Matters, the Provincial Commissioner Onitsha, the Agbalanze (Ozo) Society and the Osita Dinma (Age Grade) (Ogbo nachi Ani).
Signed this 27th day of November 1961 by:”

A noteworthy feature of the statement is its combining of the terms “traditional, constitutional, and democratic” in paragraph (b), an embodiment of Achukwu’s vision of the “Onitsha Constitution” as the genuine “tradition” of the town, and secondly of course its careful procedure of designating to the Ajie the necessary authority to proceed with the imminent ritual steps to follow.
The first people to sign the Resolution were members of the Special Committee, followed by other titled men and elders. As the evening darkened, scores of people signed their names by flashlight1, and the crowd then dispersed in the darkness as the leaders of the Royal Clan Conference shifted their meeting to Onyejekwe’s house located further down Ogbe-Ozala Lane.

3. Onyejekwe goes to Udo

I learned that Onyejekwe’s representatives ritually began the Udo journey on the previous night by visiting the waterside house of the John Ezeocha, the Udo priest, in the company of a number of Isiokwe men. Attending Enwezor’s installation at the time, I missed this November 26 ritual, but was told that it entailed the formal separating of the Obi-elect from the preceding king as well as the accepting of him by the “Hidden King” of ObioVillage, ancient controllers of Udo.2

By 9 p.m. scores of youths of both sexes lined the roadway in front of Onyejekwe’s house while Daughtersof Orowa family of diverse ages sat along a concrete retaining wall waiting to salute him on his departure. Refreshments were being served in the back courtyard kitchen area, where young men were drinking beer, and inside the house several titled men were helping the Obi-elect prepare for the ritual, including Akunne Ediboss (who was now acting as his constant cultural advisor), Akunnia Mbanefo (a prestigeful elder who was the son of a late chief from Ofbe-Ozala and who had initially supported Moses Odita’s candidacy), and Akunne Oranye, the Umu-Asele father of Onyejekwe’s wife Grace.

They had obtained two covered calabashes filled with the white clay powder (Nzu), and were preparing for the Obi-elect a small traveling bag containing kola nuts, pieces of white clay, eagle feathers, strips of white cloth, and other essentials for the ritual. Onyejekwe’s wife had collected the Igwe‘s clothing, which included a perforated white sleeveless singlet, white Asaba cloth, white jumper, white cap, and white canvas shoes. As the Obi-elect dressed, he was chainsmoking cigarettes. Akunne Ediboss took some cases of drink out to his car, while others loaded the remaining gear which was to accompany the procession.

05-07-ijeSoon they were prepared, and Onyejekwe, carrying his leather peace fan, led Ediboss through lines of applauding Daughters and cheering supporters and out to Ediboss’s small blue convertible English Ford. Onyejekwe offered to walk with his accompanying procession of warriors, but Ediboss insisted that he ride, so the two large men crowded into the back seat of the small car, and Ediboss as the driver moved the vehicle down the road amidst a long procession of titled and untitled elders, and young men, dressed in their warriors’ gear and many of them carrying shotguns.

05-10-ridingThe procession moved through Ogbe-Ozala past cheering crowds, and into Umu-Asele Village, where some elders stepped out on their balconies and fired shotgun blasts into the sky to signal their support of the ritual. The warriors in the procession fired off their own shotguns in reply. Most of the elders walked behind the car with their walkingsticks and canes, while the youths ran beside or ahead of the vehicle, while Ediboss raced the engine wildly while riding the clutch, trying to go slow enough so the elders could keep pace. Some members of the procession began chanting, while some of the young men boasted about the genuine quality of this Udo ritual in contrast to that of the previous one of Enwezor.3

Numerous cars joined the procession as it continued southward, and the numbers of people swelled to several hundreds. Eventually we turned southeastward on the New Cemetery Road, a dirt-way leads directly toward Obosi town, and entered the deep darkness of the bush, though some participants carried gasoline lanterns which pierced the darkness. We met several cars coming down the road from the direction of Obosi, which the crowd loudly forced off the roadway into the ditch to give the procession room to pass, and as shotguns were fired in the darkness I heard voices say, “Get off, you bloody fool! Make way for real Onitsha men!” As we continued walking toward Obosi, I wondered how the Obosi drivers may have felt being suddenly accosted by a crowd of their bitterest enemies waving machetes and shotguns threateningly in the middle of the night.

Eventually moving slightly uphill along the road, Ediboss kept revving the engine of his  small car to its peak while riding the clutch to keep the pace at about 5 miles an hour, and gradually a burning smell indicated that the engine was laboring. Soon it failed completely, but vigorous youths began pushing it forward at about 10 miles per hour, until someone pointed out that we had gone about a mile past the turnoff leading toward the Udo land. So the entire procession retraced its steps and entered a branch path which ran for some distance through the Awada land of Isiokwe Family, eventually ending in a clearing where two members of the Special Committee sat waiting in folding chairs beside large pots of palm wine. They directed us toward a swath newly cut through high grass and leading off into darkness. Soon the grass ended in an open field with many plant mounds, across which everyone began stumbling.

Gasoline lanterns revealed that we were walking through the closepacked low mounds of a cassava field, at the far end of which stood Udo, marked by a small Sacred Grove of Icheku and other trees with tangled, twisted branches.4 An arena about 30 yards in diameter had been cleared of cassava plants in front of the trees, and this space was soon completely filled by the crowd.

05-12-udo05-14The gas lamps were set at the edges of the trees, and Obio priest John Ezeocha (who carried a black bag containing his Ofo, an iron bell, and some other ritual objects) placed his folding chair facing one of the central trees and began directing activities from that spot.

He first seated Onyejekwe in another folding chair on top of a new bamboo mat of the type placed on the King’s throne (called ute agini), to the left of Ezeocha, and directed placement near Onyejekwe’s right arm of the two new wooden royal ufie drums, which were propped into position for playing.

05-16-ediboss-advisesEzeocha’s several ritual assistants, who were all men from Isiokwe Family5, began cutting and trimming branches, digging holes in the ground, and inserting poles to construct a simple vertical framework along which burial mats were tied to form a sacred screen separating the ritual foreground near the trees (including the priest and his Isiokwe assistants and the Obi-elect with his constant attendant Akunne Ediboss, crouching before the new Igwe in the images above) from the congregation on the other side, who were to be in this fashion excluded from viewing some details of the ritual. After I took the photograph above I was required to move away from that screen-side position, so I had to inquire about what subsequently occurred. But since the crowd overflowed the cleared arena and extended even into the trees on each side of the screened-off stage, it was possible for some observers to watch much of what transpired behind the screen.6

The Obi-elect first presented the priest with a strip of white cloth, which he knotted in the center then tied to the Icheku tree as a clothing for Udo. Then Onyejekwe presented kola nuts to Ezeocha, who held them toward the tree and invoked the ghosts of his forefathers to assist him as he performed the rituals the same way they had done in former times. He called by name all the previous Kings who had Gone toUdo, imploring them to assist the new Obi, while the audience outside the barrier responded in unison to his prayers.

Then palm wine and schnapps were presented and served, some Isiokwe men being called from outside to enter the screened enclosure and receive a share prior to the distribution made outside. Realizing that Isiokwe had obtained a very special status in this ritual, I asked Byron Maduegbuna what this meant. He responded, “We are doing things together now. You saw that our own land is located nearby.” (And indeed, by daybreak when I discussed the ritual with elders from other villages, some were saying, “Well, you know that Isiokwe and Obio are one.” This was the first time I had heard such a statement, which appeared to be in part an outcome of observing their nightlong integrated activities.7

However, the one assistant who was not of IsiokweAkunne Ediboss, far overshadowed the others in the dramatics of his behavior. An imposing man of towering stature and powerful build, he alternated between leaving the scene in order to obtain required ritual offerings, leaning down beside Onyejekwe to whisper instructions, and standing imposingly behind the screen, abruptly calling certain standard slogans to the crowd to elicit their antiphonal response. At one point, while Ezeocha was speaking his prayers, Ediboss interrupted to joke with the crowd, and before the kola had been distributed to the wider congregation he flipped a piece he had been chewing on out into the crowd seated outside the screen, saying with an exaggerated disdain, “Here is your kola.” Later when drinks were being served, he stalked through the assembly holding a bottle of Schnapps and glasses, demanding, “Give me room!” Like Barrister Emejulu at Enwezor’s Installation, he played the role of the flamboyant supporter, but without the display of money made during Emejulu’s scenes. Comic exaggeration of the patron’s role was his forte.

A second drama occurred during this time in the actions of a non-Onitsha police sergeant in charge of the contingent of policemen guarding the procession. He alternated between going out in the bush where some bottles of whisky had been secreted and returning to stalk through the crowd, brandishing his nightstick and commanding everybody to sit down. As the night drew on he became increasingly belligerent, and at one point when some youths defied him and argued he drew his revolver and waved it at them to emphasize his power. Soon afterward he similarly confronted the highly respected Onye-Onicha man, Akunne Oranye, and was then led away, not to return.

Ezeocha sacrificed a goat behind the screen, and the Isiokwe assistants butchered it. The meat was not shared with the congregation, but was withdrawn from view, though one leg was wrapped with cloth and placed beside Onyejekwe’s seat. Akunne Ediboss was later observed furtively carrying another wrapped leg out to his car.

Onyejekwe then presented a white rooster to the priest who, seated in his chair, bent over the animal and cut the string tying its legs. With two hands he pushed it forward and it flew freely into the Sacred Grove, a living sacrifice to the spirit (as the Obi  would himself become, in turn.8 The candidate also offered his own attire:   white canvas shoes, white native cloth, a white lace jumpa, white perforated singlet, a white cap  to the shrine, later to “redeem” them with money.
After serving drinks to the Udo spirit, the priest directed an assistant to cut off a small portion of the Obi-elect’s hair, which the Isiokwe assistants then sifted into the sands of the Shrine. This act, according to one knowledgeable titled man who had seen the act from his position parallel to the screen,

“makes the Obi an osu-udo (cult-slave to Udo), it makes him to have no brothers or sisters. Just as an osu is a man who runs to a shrine because he has done something for which his relatives cannot protect him, he is dedicated to the cult. In fact, Awkuzu town has this same Udo.  it has no idols, only bush and a white cloth  and a man ran there recently and became osu. Just so, the Obi is like a dead man – he gets no second burial, his funeral will be a oneday Ofala (Festival).”

Emphasizing the unique ritual qualities and powers of the Obi which derive from this identification with the Udo spirit, my consultant stated emphatically that

“Up till tomorrow, the Obi must be buried with somebody, and without his head. When Okosi I was alive, there was one woman named aziamogu, who lived with her children in the Obi‘s compound. I knew this because we saw her there when we went into the bush to pick kola. But after Okosi I died they all disappeared. Even the last Obi was buried with somebody  they put him in the bottom of the grave before the police came to inspect.”

05-19-onyejekwe-at-udo06-09-adjFor a time, Ezeocha and the Obi-elect sat dozing and some of the elders tried to sleep lying on cassava mounds, while the youths pressed in beside the screen to gain access to the available drink. Two drunken lads who walked through the arena shouting were, however, silenced by strong criticism from the mouths of their elders.

A while later, one of the pivotal parts of the ritual took place. The representative of the Obi-elect handed over the Ufie drum sticks to the agents of the Udo priest, and then directed an offering of kola, palm wine, and schnapps to the gongs themselves, followed by cutting the throat of a cock so its blood flowed over both gongs.

06-02-ufieThe priest’s assistants then returned the drum sticks to the Obi, who gave them to his drummer to be beaten later. (Ezeocha later said that the Obi-elect should by tradition beat them himself initially, and that the assembled warriors should dance to the Ufie music. But Onyejekwe delegated this task to a man who well knew the techniques, and no dancing was done so far as I observed.)

06-06-cowShortly after midnight a white Brahma steer was led into the arena, and the youths congregated around it. As the animal, blinded by its exposure to the light and alarmed by the yelling of the young men, stumbled around on the cassava mounds, youths rushed in, throwing flying kicks at it, and struck it vicious fistblows on its sides. Finally they sprang at it en masse and wrestled it to the ground, stomped on it for a while, then sat on it.
06-07Ezeocha then approached the swarming group, holding a small butcher knife over his head. He harangued the crowd now assembled, telling of his misfortune during the previous interregnum but boasting that he had now attained his unique legitimate rights. He knelt beside the beast and began hacking at its throat with what must have been an exceedingly dull knife, while the cow groaned under the weight of the youths sitting upon it. Several times it kicked them away and struggled to its feet, only to be wrestled down until finally its jugular vein was severed and the animal died.

There ensued a nightlong struggle over the butchering of the carcass and the distribution of the meat. I tried to determine the principles behind the division, but the youths were in charge and anyone who had a knife to use joined in. Several elders laid claims for particular parts in the name of one or another social segment, and at one point Akunne Ediboss threatened an adversary with his knife, but eventually the youths took over and wrangled out the division among themselves. (Ezeocha as priest took by right the head and the skin, while according to my information the remainder  except for the two legs otherwise distributed  was divided equally between the Royal Clan and the non-royal clans. Beyond this I managed to learn no further details.)

In the faint, grey and somewhat misty light of daybreak, the new Obi‘s drummer beat the Ufie gongs for the first time, in that ancient ritual act of drawing in the day. Many of the titled elders who had gone home during the night returned and preparations were made for the concluding phase of the ceremonies, which were to be held in the Ajie‘s compound in Ogboli-Olosi, far across town.

06-11As Onyejekwe sat in his seat, he passed a calabash of white clay to the Udo priest, who took up his Ofo and again invoked both his own ancestors and the ancient kings. Then he led the Obi-elect out from the Great (ukwu] Udo Shrine and together they walked up a low hill to another  area of bush where the Small Udo Shrine (Obele-Udo) lay. In the presence of the powerful Ogwugwu medicine bundle kept there, and largely obscured by vegetation, the two men gave secret offerings and prayers and then returned to the Great Udo shrine.

06-1306-14Onyejekwe resumed his seat and was stripped of clothing to his waist. He handed the priest another strip of white cloth, which Ezeocha 06-15again tied round a branch of the Icheku tree. Then, bringing the calabash of white clay before the Obielect, the bi priest rubbed first Onyejekwe’s legs and then his arms with the chalky powder.

Then they waited. Word went around that the Head Daughter (Isi-ada)of Obio was coming, and that Ezeocha wanted her to enter the enclosure with the new king. Learning this, two of his Isiokwe assistants angrily objected, claiming no woman should stain the sacredness of this space. Ezeocha responded with dramatic rage, stamping his feet and shouting loudly, insisting that this was the proper custom.

06-16-adj 06-17-nne-obioFinally, the two Isiokwe men walked away, as Mrs. Matefi Ezeocha Obanye, the Head Daughter of Umu-Obio, approached, her head bare and her body clothed in white, her face powdered with white clay.

06-18-haircutShe entered the screened enclosure, held forth a razor blade, and with it leaned close and shaved some hairs from Onyejekwe’s head9. She handed these to John Ezeocha, who cast them into the Udo bush, to the cheers of the crowd.

The Udo priest then returned to his seat in front of Onyejekwe, took a strip of white cloth and wrapped it around the head of the Obielect, and stuck a white feather in it with the barbs 06-20-obio-imanzupointing up. He placed his hands in the calabash and rubbed white clay over Onyejekwe’s shoulders, then on his face and, after pausing for some moments, quickly rubbed it into his chest as the crowd now roared its approval. They called out “Sky!”(igwe!) as the Obi rose and walked in their midst.
They argued then over whether he should now walk or be carried out to the road, but Onyejekwe insisted on walking and did walk with the crowd through the cassava field and pathway until they approached the road. The Udo priest searched there for a termitehill to serve as the shrine the Obi must salute10

07-02-walkSo they stopped by a very small rise in the ground discovered near the roadway, and Onyejekwe cast some white clay onto it. I could not guess whether this small raised surface was actually a termite hill or not.  It looked like nothing much to me, but the main point was to make the gesture.11.

4. Procession to Ajie‘s House

When they reached the place where people had left their cars parked, Akunne  Ediboss offered his machine to carry the new Obi, but the elders and youths insisted the Obi should now ride on their shoulders. He was hoisted up, and the procession began its homeward march, as Akunne Anikammadu led a chant which nobody I asked could remember having heard before:

(“carry the King to a fine house”).

07-04-carried-carsThe procession moved energetically up the Obosi Road and then onto the tarmac of the Oguta Road leading toward town, forming a massive phalanx of perhaps two hundred men. At its head was Akunne Ediboss carrying his shotgun, flanked by four of the escorting policemen. Titled and untitled elders followed, some carrying shotguns or machets, others holding their walkingsticks high poised for battle, and youthful warriors followed, many waving sprigs of plants taken from the Udo Shrine and dancing forward and backward along the line. Ediboss refused to allow anyone to precede him, however, pushing people back with his shotgun.
Approaching cars were forced off onto the grassy shoulder, their drivers threatened with upraised canes, guns, and old cavalry swords. Vehicles coming from Nnewi and other points south were refused permission to pass, and so a substantial line of traffic formed behind the procession as it moved triumphantly toward the Inland Town.  (Cars of the Udo participants also followed.)

07-05When they moved up the southside streets of the Inland Town, they began firing their shotguns, and as the group passed near the Onowu‘s house some suggested they should go and march around it to announce their accomplishment. But the elders decided against such a confrontation, and people satisfied their lusts with loud cheering and firing their shotguns. John Ezeocha now took the lead, carrying his black bag and waving to people who were standing alongside the Ugwu-NaObamkpa Road.

07-07The procession continued to swell as it moved up the hill, through Umu-Asele and Iyawo villages, Ogbe-Ozala, and Odoje,  and along the way women carrying their loads to early markets were required to stop and remove their head coverings in the presence of the Obi. Women danced out of their doorways, called to the Igwe, and made beckoning motions with both hands as a sign of requesting he give them white clay. Holding his calabash, Onyejekwe threw clay to them and they smeared it over their faces and arms, smiling and laughing as the procession passed by. Through all these villages, and at the several major shrines at which the group stopped to throw white clay, people displayed enthusiastic responses.

Finally the procession turned downhill into Ogbe-Oli, toward Mbamali the Ajie‘s Iba (Ancestral House) in Ogbe-Oli-Olosi, where contingents of Daughters of Umu-Olosi, , Isiokwe, and Obio waited to greet Onyejekwe.

5. “Domestic Services” at Ajie’s House

The women of the Age-Grade for which he acted as patron were also present, wearing their uniforms. Onyejekwe’s wife Grace supervised distribution of drinks to the various groups of women, who remained mostly in the rear quarters of the compound.

In the front, folding chairs were set out near the entryway to the main house for the chiefs and for senior priest Melifonwu of Isiokwe, and a separate seat was provided for the new Obi facing them at some distance. A massive crowd pressed in around them while a pot, broom, mortar, and other necessary regalia for the domestic services were brought forth.  Below, the Obi-elect sits slightly right of center, fanned by an acolyte, while Akunne Ediboss interacts with the crowd, still holding his shotgun in his left hand.

07-11-fanningNobody seemed quite certain what to do, and as the crowd pressed in more tightly the Ajie began insisting that the chiefs should go inside to his throne and receive Onyejekwe there.  Assistants started carrying the pot, broom, and other domestic equipment into the building, but some of the spectators began complaining, and Jerry Orakwue, an actual expert on the subject of traditional title-taking, resolutely  blocked the way of the man carrying the mortar, insisting that once the Obi has “been to Udo” he never again enters anybody’s house but his own. Finally this rule was accepted and the ritual objects were brought back outside.

Chief Araka, the Ojiudo, was directed to instruct the Obi in his ritual duties (thus substituting for the role traditionally assigned to the Akpe), but appeared undecided about what to do.

07-1407-15After some consulting, he led Onyejekwe to several open spaces before setting down the wood, handing him the adze, and ordering him to chop wood. The Igwe delivered two light taps, accompanied by loud cheering and the ivory horn-blowing of Ediboss. Then he pounded the mortar, took a broom and gave it several strokes on the wall of the Ajie‘s house, swept at the dirt a few swipes, and, finally, carried the pot out of the compound through the cheering crowd.  (Below, you can see the very large pot he has hoisted atop his head, but not the Obi himself.)


6. The Act of Enthronement

map-okwueze-palace-circuitAfter some brief consultation among the elders in the midst of the crowd, they resumed the procession, shouldering Onyejekwe and carrying him out toward St. Stevens Road, where they split into two dancing groups:  the women (together with many of the new-elite who were attending) continuing toward the left up the extension of Emmanuel Church Road directly 07-1807-19towards Ogbe-Ozala Lane and the temporary “palace” (P-2), the men carrying the new Obi westward (upward on the map here), past the Onya‘s house (in view at far right), and continuing on to make an almost complete anti-clockwise circle of the Sacred Grove of the Kings before arriving at the “palace” ground near Ogbe-Ozala Square. (Obi-elect Enwezor’s “palace” is designated “P-1” on this map.)

A brahma steer stood tethered near the temporary palace, a structure somewhat smaller than Enwezor’s but placed on a slight promontory. Like Enwezor’s, it was framed in two-by-fours and roofed with strips of corrugated alloy, but unlike his it lacked screening and was walled to a height of about four feet with many small horizontal poles painted white. Inside, its whitewashed leopardskin-covered throne was located opposite the entryway, which was elevated several steps above the exterior ground. From its roof hung crepe streamers and colored pennants advertising Heineken’s Beer, but rising vertically above the roof at the entryway was a powerful traditional symbol: a pole topped by a white cloth flag, the sign of an individual’s transcendance to the Sun (associated with the Great God)12. Peter Achukwu was standing there by his construction, having just completed supervising the final preparations.

Akunne Ediboss arrived in the vanguard of the approaching procession, entered the Obi‘s temporary enclosure, leaned on the top of the north wall of poles, aimed his shotgun high in the general direction of the nya’s house, and fired off two rounds. Though the distance to the house may have been too great (at least 400 feet horizontally), I envisioned falling buckshot rattling loudly on the Onya‘s corrugated iron roof.  (Or it might have hit on Obi-elect Enwezor’s temporary palace roof.)

08-01The Ajie, Ogene, and two other redcap supporters arrived and entered the room, and shortly afterward came the procession carrying the new Obi, preceded by two young men carrying his calabashes of white clay on their heads. Onyejekwe stood down and he waited, bare-chested and sweating, outside in the morning sun, while the chiefs consulted with Achukwu about the necessary steps to be taken.

08-04The chiefs then turned toward Onyejekwe, who stood below them on the threshhold of the palace. The Ajie extended his right hand, which Onyejekwe 08-05took in a handshake, saying in English “Thank you”. The Ajie deftly corrected his behavior, joining his right hand with that of the new Obi, led him to the throne, and let the new Obi sit on the leopard skin. The crowd cheered. The Ajie, still wearing his red 08-06-onyejekwe-enthronedcap, stood before him and saluted him with upraisedthumb fist, saying, “Igwe!“. Onyejekwe lifted his right 08-08hand, fist tightclosed, responding (again in English) “Thank you!” He was corrected to answer, “Ajie!“, and to perform the proper salute. The other chiefs, followed by several titled men, then came to salute him in their varied appropriate fashions.

08-11Beside Onyejekwe on a cushioned chair to his left was a red, “indoor” cap, and to his right a red, peaked, “outdoor” cap with many feathers. He was directed to pick up the appropriate “indoor” cap, which he did, placing it on his head to the sound of many cheers. At that moment the chiefs removed their own caps and stood before him bareheaded.

Moving away from my difficult perch hanging onto the outer wall of the temporary palace, I observed standing around it the largest crowd I was to witness during the entire succession contest, hundreds of Onitsha men and women, nearly all in the 08-1008-14-ufiefinery of “native attire”. An orchestra of Ozo men stood playing their ivory horns while waiting the Obi to emerge, and behind the main room of the structure in a lean-to extension sat the new Obi’s drummer, beside the pair of Ufie drums he would now regularly play to usher in the dawn.

Soon the Obi appeared at the threshhold, wearing his peaked red cap with multiple feathers and carrying the ngagliga brass staff of kingship. Followed by an escort of drummers, he walked escorted by his chiefs and Ozo men up the HighGrassVillage Road toward his permanent residence. The Ufie drums began sounding as he departed. (I did not observe the killing or division of the cow.)

5. Competing assessments, problems of publicity

Late in the afternoon, Emma Enwezor and Obiekwe Aniweta visited our house, and expressed their eagerness to hear about Onyejekwe’s Installation rituals. After I spoke a while, Emma interrupted saying that the critical question was, how did Onyejekwe get his cap? I responded that he had picked up the red cap from a cushion. Both men doubled over laughing. Emma cried, “He crowned himself!”, and then stated seriously that this was most uncustomary. Both agreed that the Onowu must do the crowning, cited three Prime Ministers who had putatively done so, and affirmed that this justified the current Onowu‘s prior actions in crowning Emma’s father13.

Then Emma asked me what I would do, if I were placed in a position to decide, if it meant replacing 12 chiefs or replacing Onyejekwe with the already-crowned King. I responded that however it was now ultimately settled it would make a profound split in the community. Emma denied this, asserting that “the people who are opposing us are not the real Umu-EzeChima as we are.  Achukwu and (one of the Royal Clan chiefs) are not even Umu-EzeChima.”

Late in the evening, Byron Maduegbuna stopped by, carrying the Resolution of No Confidence, and showed me the 78 signatures he said had been collected on the evening of the meeting. He reported that Zik had indeed sent a telegram of congratulations to Enwezor, a fact which baffled him, but the Committee was assuming that Zik was merely being courteous and they responded by writing a public letter “forbidding the use of Zik’s name in this struggle.”

Byron went on to express his concern that the Royal Clan Conference had given insufficient attention to what now appeared to be their accumulating disadvantage in the domain of media broadcasting. Conderning the local level, he presumed that the Observer had “some kind of contract with Enwezor,” but he also complained that Aniweta’s harassment tactics had forced the Spokesman to change its course. Indeed for a time the Conference leaders feared its Editor was sliding into Enwezor’s camp, but (he said) the Ogene (a fellow member of the Editor’s subvillage in Divisionistwo) warned him of potential consequences and he was now behaving in a more neutral manner.

However, the national papers had quite surprised the Conference leadership by showing a strong proEnwezor bias. When they inquired about this, they learned that Enwezor had given parties and money to local correspondents of these journals, Byron said, and so Onyejekwe had now found it necessary to stage a party for them as well, and hopefully some of the damage might be undone. Worst of all, the NBC radio news broadcasts had reported Enwezor’s installations as if were a definitive accomplishment, while treating Onyejekwe’s efforts with little or no respect.

Byron’s fears about the Spokesman seemed to me somewhat excessive  on November 28 its banner headline stated

Onyejekwe to be Crowned Obi of Onitsha Today”,

and the issue of the 29th presented three articles (on Udo, on the procession and installation, and a verbatim copy of the Resolution of No Confidence), the banner headline reading

The Spokesman did headline the fact that the Governor-General of Nigeria, who was at the time making a tour of the North, had indeed sent a telegram to Enwezor which read as follows:
“Chief Enwezor Obi of Onitsha.
Congratulations on your appointment as Obi.
With Kind wishes,

It also reported that Enwezor had received telegrams of congratulation from a member of the Federal Parliament, the Eastern Minister of Agriculture, and the Commissioner for Onitsha Province (and later from other Government officials as well).

The Observer gave Onyejekwe’s installation only one small column on the 29th, stating that “A handful of people mainly women relatives and personal friends of Mr. J. Onyejekwe, a Police official, were present to witness his installation as Obi of Onitsha by Chief J.O. Mbamali the Ajie of Onitsha, yesterday….” And on the 30th, it presented a banner headline stating that

Onowu Earns Confidence Vote”

with an accompanying report stating that on November 28

“The Onitsha Aborigines Association has passed a vote of no confidence on the Ajie of Onitsha, chief Mbamali, Chief J. Obiozo (sic) and two others.
At a meeting of the Association held on tuesday and attended by a crowd of over 10,000 people the Association accused the Ajie of usurping the powers conferred on the Onowu of Onitsha by installing Mr. Onyejekwe the Obi of Onitsha.”

The same article also reported that “an extraordinary meeting of the traditional kingmakers, the Ndichies,” held on the same day “passed a vote of confidence in the Onowu,” and that on November 29 “members of Oreze family, head of Umu-EzeChima, Onitsha, and the Umu-EzeAroli, at a meeting held at Umu-EzeAroli Square,” passed a similar vote of confidence. A second article in the Observer recounted an interview with the Onowu which quoted him as saying that “it was his exclusive prerogative as the Onowu, in accordance with the Onitsha customs and tradition, to install an Obi and that he was in no way bound to consult the Umu-EzeChima.”

However, the Spokesman of December 2 reported a November 30 meeting held in the Ajie‘s house and attended by seven Onitsha chiefs, which was apparently held with an aim to counteract these events. The seven chiefs supporting Onyejekwe forwarded to national, regional, and local Government officials a statement which resolved that the Onowu had acted “arbitrarily, unconstitutionally and untraditionally” in enthroning Enwezor, that the whole of Enwezor’s installation procedures was a “downright prostitution of our cherished custom and tradition”, that “we dissociate ourselves from the dictatorial and uncompromising attitude of (the Onowu) and his most irregular, unpopular and untraditional installation of (Enwezor),” that “we have implicit confidence in the Conference of Umu-EzeChima (traditional kingmakers) and its democratic methods of selection and presentation and subsequent installation of (Onyejekwe)”, and that “we pledge our unstinted support and loyalty to His Highness Onyejekwe I.”

The leaders of the Royal Clan Conference made an effort to deal with regional news services when they travelled to Enugu with Onyejekwe shortly after his Installation, carrying a Resolution signed by seven of the Onitsha chiefs, the Presidents of the Ozo Society and of the Ruling Age-grade, and two senior representatives of the “City Mothers” (Otu-Ogene), and formally presented him to the Regional Government with a request for official recognition. In Enugu they discovered that most of the high Government officials (as well as many of the Onitsha elite residing there) were assuming that the contest was over and Enwezor had won. Byron later told me that the Ministers had apparently relied entirely on the news services for information  “they never bother to read their Memoranda,” he said.

In Enugu Onyejekwe’s supporters now worked to counteract Enwezor’s previous actions, by arranging cocktail parties for members of the media and for the relevant Government officials, where they provided detailed information about both the O’Connor Memorandum and the sequence of events in the current interregnum. Returning to Onitsha, they did the same for local representatives of the national newspapers, and a special committee was assigned the task of arranging a lavish entertainment for the Editor of the Eastern Observer.

After their week in Enugu, the Conference leaders found regional and national newspaper coverage much improved from their point of view. The NBC radio news did continue to favor Enwezor, so the Conference gave that agency a sharp public rebuke in a press release which claimed that it14

“has continuously suppressed all the truths about Obi Onyejekwe and published false news so as to give impression that Obi Enwezor has the unanimous support of the people when, in fact, only the Ndichie (Red Cap Chiefs) are behind him.
The NBC is bought, but that does not matter to us. We are to be ruled. If we say no, he will not rule us. He will rule only the handful of Ndichie. We, the majority, do not want him. We have our King  the rightful King, according to our custom.
But we shall deal with the NBC when the time comes….”

  1. The final list of signatories as submitted to later Commission of Inquiry was 78, but this included some elders and chiefs not present at the gathering itself. See Harding 1963:120‑121 for the Commissioner’s comments about alleged forging of some of the names.  What may likely have happened was that Byron Maduegbuna later went to the absent chiefs and other important figures supporting Onyejekwe and obtained their signatures (or, having obtained their assent, simply entered signatures). []
  2. This ritual, called ji gbutopu eze nwulu anwu, traditionally included a ritual offering to the spirit ogbo- na uke.  See Henderson 1972: 301, 546. []
  3. I was told an interesting story about how Ediboss obtained this vehicle, but that will wait for the time when his own page is constructed. At this particular moment, the fact that he had declined to hire a driver and that he himself was not competent to drive, is sufficient here. []
  4. the Icheku  is a tropical leguminous tree, Indalium indum, called “Velvet Tamarind” in English and bearing an edible fruit that tastes similar to Tamarind.  It is revered, regarded as having medicinal powers. []
  5. The man earing the hat in the image here is known as Ogbu-Agu, an honor for his having killed a leopard.  A non-titled man, he was nevertheless a hard-working and respected Isiokwe elder. []
  6. Mr. Ezeocha willingly discussed the sequence with me afterwards.  The primary requirement was that certain fine details of the  ritual not be seen by the uninitiated. []
  7. This was another indicator of Isiokwe’s ambiguous position in Onicha:    genealogically royal (and senior) but belonging to a predominantly non-royal village.  Now it was expanding a connection with another locus of non-royal seniority. []
  8. See Henderson 1972:271-4,304-5. []
  9. I was told that in precolonial times his head was completely shaved except for a tuft on one side to be left as a mark of Kingship. []
  10. a traditionally crucial part of the Udo ritual.  One formal address to the Obi-Onicha is “Termitehill” (Nkpu), and he is said in earlier times to have slept for a month beside one during his time at Udo, in order to energize himself with ancestral powers. []
  11. See Meek 1937:186, and Henderson & Umunna 1988 for extended discussion of the central significance of the termite hill in Onitsha leadership symbolism.  This had declined by 1961 (insofar as the ritual just described reflected contemporary awareness of its importance).  However, see the final page of this chapter, where it emerges as an issue at the 1962 Harding Commission of Inquiry. []
  12. This symbol is associated with the taking of Ozo  title in the hinterland Ndi‑Igbo areas, but I had seen it used in Onitsha mainly during the funerals of titled men. []
  13. Onyejekwe’s supporters justified their crowning pattern by grounding it in what they claimed to be the well‑known Onitsha proverb, “The King’s Crown is in the King’s Hand” (Okpu Eze Di Eze N’aka).   The proverb I had previously heard of this type was “The King’s Kola is in the King’s hand” (Oji Eze Di Eze N’aka), referring to his special rights to distribute kola in meetings. []
  14. Printed in the Nigerian Spokesman Nov. 30, 1961.  The Spokesman of Dec. 2, 1961 printed an Editor’s Apology to Enwezor and his supporters for the headline it placed over this release, which stated “ONITSHA TURNS DOWN ONOWU NDICHIES OBI”. []
Scroll to Top