Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Major Elections Intervene, 1961

Editor’s Note, 2021: I return to this material from so vast a distance in time that it seems obvious we are viewing a “New Nation” rushing towards disaster. Hindsight gives us this privilege. At the time I wote this, i was trying to place the persons and activities centering around Onitsha within the emerging national context, planning to build a picture of “A Mighty Tree” evolving within that matrix. In doing so, I present below some activities of some of the major characters depicted in this volume — for example, Peter Achukwu — to show how local characters and pursuits were operating within that larger context.

These plans were however left incomplete. Today I find myself refusing to return to the political processes of that era beyond what I have already done in this volume. It’s “too far past” to try to revive those context we observed, from increasing distance, as the nation “fell apart”.


In  the New Nigeria of 1961 from the perspective of Onitsha, much political activity is under way.  The coalition Federal Government (which joins together  the Muslim-oriented Northern People’s Congress or NPC controlling the Northern Region, and the Igbo-dominated NCNC, now running our Eastern Region) confronts its  major opposition, the Yoruba-dominated “Action Group” (AG) in power in the Western Region.  This tripartite “balance” among the three major Regions has provided the grounding for Nigeria as a newly-independent state, with its federal parliament located in Lagos.  At the outset of 1961, the major political leaders are traveling about, enacting their own importance.

The Federal Prime Minister (Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa) pays a visit to Onitsha during his January tour of the East, while the Premier of Western Nigeria (Chief Obafemi Awolowo) makes his own Eastern venture during February, though he avoids Onitsha, home of his arch-rival Nnamdi Azikiwe, focusing instead on the vicinity of Calabar where agitation for a state-separation from the Eastern Region (and opposition to the NCNC) is strong.  Dr. Michael Okpara, Premier of the Eastern Region and now successor to Zik as head of the NCNC, travels widely through the Eastern Region in May and June as a point of his party’s honor that the Eastern House of Assembly would run its full five years of tenure (thus would not be dissolved until the spring of 1962), ultimately contradicting himself  (at the end of October) when, announcing EHA dissolution, his Government provides 16 days of preparation for the coming elections. (Two months earlier, both local newspapers  announce the end of the OUCC tenure, with new Local Government elections scheduled for October 16 (?) 1.

Nigeria’s Governor-General (Azikiwe himself) makes a visit to Onitsha in May, but he must now appear to some extent as a figure “above politics”, a symbol of the Greater Whole.   Helen and I have this opportunity to see an Onitsha crowd respond to him,

Our two local newspapers, however, have been exchanging barbs regarding imminent election prospects since early in the year.

The Action-Group’s Eastern Observer, recognizing its precarious position as an outpost of the AG in this Region, has adopted a generally rational, programme-presenting stance, while losing no opportunity to criticize the “planlessness” and corruption of the ER Government.  The Nigerian Spokesman (its position secure as the NCNC mouthpiece for the ruling national coalition) meanwhile pours undiluted vitriol on the Opposition, name-calling for example the AG as  “the tyrannical, the all subversive, the all treacherous self seeking tortoise,” 2, or (in an editorial), while the NCNC “now and before”, has been a party that  “has established a tradition of love for all, even for its enemies,” the AG has lost ground “because it hates its opponents to the bone…” 3

Since the first days of Nigerian Independence, the paired parties of the ruling coalition have been engaged in a frontal attack on the AG-ruled government of the West, first by separating the capital city of Lagos away from the WR, second by breaking the WR into two pieces by creating a Mid-Western Region (MWR) and third by establishing formal inquiries into the conduct of various WR entities, (for example, the National Bank of Nigeria, controlled by the WN Govt).  Since the Northern Region is geophysically larger and more populous than the entire ER and WR combined (a situation deliberately ensured by the former Colonial Rulers, whose distrust for the parties of the South contrasted sharply with their fondness for the almost Medieval stabilities of the North), these efforts might well be seen as enhancing the North’s already potent national power  (with rulers based in feudal autocracies and having almost no commitment to democratic processes except tactically, its populace at great disadvantage to the South in Western skills, education, etc.).

special situation of NCNC: historic leader (zik) now elevated to exalted but remote position as G‑G;
Zik’s & NCNC’s historical role during nationalist movement: opposition to govt, vigorous criticism;
now NCNC “establishment” ‑‑ need to establish identity of new leadership associated with Dr, Michael Okpara.
Exemplification of Zik`s role: abstract discussions about international relations (Pan‑Africanism) while nitty‑gritty of politics centering on Western Region.
Okpara’s task:  justify alliance with North, demonstrate effectiveness of EN Govt.

2.  special position of AG ‑‑ minority: opposition in Fed, N, E; desperate effort to consolidate power base in W; reaching out to influence, articulate disgruntled elements in the E, N thru shift to radical democratic, socialist, nonaligned stance.

3.  Special position of N:  seen only from a great distance in this study:

1.  First year of independence:  much activity; regional visits;  OUCC situation; EHA; Fed: Chike Obi relevance.


One new factor is the presence of both the Dyamic Party (Chike Obi’s radical movement which some are saying is “communist”-inspired and -financed) and the OMATA,  the organization of main market traders, which is putting forward its own candidates for the OUCC.  Control of the Onitsha Urban Council is no longer a sinecure for the NCNC, and the obvious dynamism of current poltics reflects this change.

Meanwhile, some potentially serious conflicts were emerging at the levels of local, regional, and national Government.  Though an election to the Onitsha Urban County Council had long been announced for October, the OUCC itself had not yet been dissolved, and its performance was being subjected to increasingly intensive criticism in the local press.

Moreover, the representative in the Federal Parliament for Onitsha Urban Constituency, Dr. Chike Obi, had been brought before the High Court in Lagos in January on a charge of sedition preferred against him by the Federal Government, and was later stripped of his parliamentary seat by the NCNC leadership. A special bye‑election was thus to be scheduled  for that seat.  This development was particularly significant because Chike Obi was not only an Onitsha Indigene (and his treatment therefore an affront to many people in the Inland Town), he was also the undisputed leader of the new and radical Dynamic Party, previously an arm of the NCNC but which now began to organize separately with the intention of challenging NCNC supremacy in the East, both in the Federal bye‑election and in the local and regional elections.  Yet by July no date for the bye‑election or the regional elections had been set.

These developments strongly affected the Royal Clan Conference and its Special Committee in part because many of the actors in the interregnum struggle played significant roles in party politics.  Douglas Molokwu, a member of the Special Committee who was currently unemployed, was helping to organize an Inland Town chapter of the Dynamic Party, while Orefo  the Owelle (one of the three Senior Chiefs supporting the Conference) agreed to be one of its patrons.  Byron Maduegbuna, Obiekwe Aniweta, the Ajie, and candidate Enwezor all participated in the local NCNC (though the two younger men were currently much interested in the ideas of Chike Obi and his Dynamic Party).

The diverse impending elections generated considerable anxiety also in part because of the uncertainty in scheduling and partly because of the potential outcomes envisaged. Obiekwe Aniweta, in his role as Assistant Secretary of the NCNC (Onitsha Inland Town Chapter), implied in a news release to the Observer that Chike Obi was being attacked in the NCNC because he was “an Onitsha man,” and suggested that “another Onitsha and non‑Onitsha Ibo dispute” may be emerging.7   Douglas Molokwu claimed that the Special Committee’s activities would have to be accelerated because the Igbo people were scheming to undermine Onitsha indigenes in all three elections, and unless Onitsha obtained a new King by August, “we will lose our amenities.”

The context of an Igbo vs. Onitsha confrontation was kept very much in the forefront of local consciousness by frequent front‑page news accounts presented during the first half of the year, which reported the court proceedings concerned with the “Otu‑Obosi Riots” of November 1960 and vividly described how the large armed crowd of Obosi squatters confronted Government officers and police sent to seal their houses on the disputed land south of Fegge, shouted “We have nothing to do with the Police, we want to see Onitsha people”, sang war songs (“We will die! ‑‑/anyi ga anwu/), and ultimately attacked the official contingent with knives, various projectiles, and guns. 4.  When Byron Maduegbunam and I visited the Otu Obosi site during that summer, Obosi squatters were present in substantial numbers and some questioned our intentions.  Byron spoke with them in the Obosi dialect so they would not suspect he was an Onitsha man.

Although Obosi leaders (who had long resisted joining the NCNC largely because of its substantial dominance by Onitsha people) declared during the Premier’s visit to Obosi in early June that the whole community now supported the NCNC, and proclaimed  that “We are law‑abiding people” 5, from the perspective of most Onitsha indigenes real physical danger lay immediately present on the south side of town, where the historically primary (and still very current) confrontation lay between the land‑holding Children‑of‑Ase and the Obosi people illegally squatting on their land.

The problem of the Onitsha Urban County Council

Of all the potential political disruptions of the Special Committee’s research tasks, however, the only one to have a direct impact on its work arose through the activities of Peter Achukwu.  In February of 1961 Achukwu told me that his “Onitsha Community League” (OCL), an ad hoc organization he would mobilize from time to time to demonstrate for civic responsibility, was investigating irregularities in the operation of the Onitsha Urban County Council’s Conservancy Service (which disposed of  “nightsoil” in the township, and which had recently been transferred to private contractors with what Achukwu described as “very bad results”).  I heard no more of the matter until early in May, when both newspapers reported that the Criminal Investigation Department was examining alleged revenue losses of “thousands of pounds” in the operation of the OUCC conservancy services .((EO May 1 & 3, ’61, NS May 9 ‘6))

Then, on June 14, the Spokesman column “Spitfire” (long known for its relentless criticism of colonial‑era administrations) suggested that the Onitsha Urban County Council too often “fails to get the praise for the good things that it does”, that its main weakness was insufficient monies “to make its development speak”, that its L1 capitation tax should be supported by all those who “love development”, and that the present council should be given a trial before subjecting it to a “shake‑up.”  In response, Chike Okongwu (an Igbo intellectual who was Achukwu’s collaborator in the OCL) wrote an “Open Letter to Spitfire” printed in the Eastern Observer, suggesting that “wooly thinking and cheap journalistic antics” had become characteristic of this once‑critical column, that suggesting a “trial” period for an OUCC “whose life is about to come to a happy end” was absurd, and that a council (“the most inefficient… Onitsha has had for some years now”) “which waits ‘for its last term of office’ to bestir itself to work” coud deceive nobody except “itself and those of Spitfire’s mentality” 6.

After the Nigerian Spokesman described the OUCC meeting of June 24 in which “the Chairman, Mr. B.C.I. Obanye, disclosed amidst cheers the prospect that the Council might soon raise a loan of L500,000” for the purpose of constructing a total drainage system for the township, the Onitsha Community League called a “mass community meeting” for June 29, at which (the Observer reported [EO July 1, ’61]) the OCL “passed a vote of no confidence in the OUCC and accused it of gross inefficiency,” and called on the Eastern Minister of Local Government “to stop further negotiation with the present Council on the issue of the Drainage Scheme loan.”

This action aroused the antipathy of the Nigerian Spokesman, which reported a Federal M.P.’s condemnation of “the action of a body which calls itself ‘Onitsha Community League’ led by Mr. Peter Achukwu”, saying it was illogical to infer that because the OUCC was inefficient in its conservancy services it would also be inefficient “about everything else costing big money” [NS July 3, ’61].  The Editor of the Spokesman became quite irate, accusing “This Barking 2‑man League” of being “the worst danger to the people’s welfare,” affirming “how politically dishonest, how insincere this ugly monster of an organisation has been”, accusing it of trying “to rape the Onitsha development scheme”, and suggesting that its leaders were “a handful of noise makers who want to get into the Council and the Parliament” [NS July 5, ’61].

Note that : The list of members contained in Achukwu’s files on the League included 27 well‑known local figures, including prominent women traders and Hausa chiefs as well as both Onitsha indigenes and non‑Onitsha Igbo. No Onitsha chiefs were included ‑‑ presumably to emphasize the non‑traditional character of the group.   I do not know how active these members were; clearly activation of the OCL was currently being done by Achukwu and Okongwu.

However, the OCL proceeded to expand its criticism of the Council to include the deplorable condition of the Township`s roads and streets (a subject on which the Spokesman’s writers themselves had been frequently eloquent), and it gained the support of the Vice‑Chairman of the Council in publicly censoring the Council officials in charge of street maintenance.  Emphasizing that the League did not oppose the L500,000 loan itself but only its allocation for disposal by members of the current Council, the leaders of the OCL went on to point out a further impropriety: the Council’s insertion into the newspapers of a Public Notice proclaiming its “Vote of Confidence on Onitsha Urban County Council Chairman” [see EO Jun 28, ’61].  The OCL also expressed its indignation over the “unholy war” declared on it by the Spokesman (and “threatened other steps” it might take” against that periodical)  [NS July 8, ’61].

The Editor of this local journal of Eastern Nigeria’s ruling party then backed down somewhat, expressing shock at the Council Chairman’s self‑advertisment at public expense, and granting that on this issue the OCL “was duly alert and outspoken.”  But the editorial also cautioned the League not to “give impression that it is bitterly against the Council or its individual members” [NS July 11, ’61].

Some members of the Special Committee of the Royal Clan Conference feared that Achukwu’s harassing activities in local government politics might sufficiently offend the N.C.N.C. that the status of the forthcoming Committee Report regarding the contest for Ob iship in Onitsha  would be tarnished, but Peter Achukwu himself saw no connection between his two roles.  In February he had told me that the OCL was merely an “English version” of the Inland Town’s organization of “Commoners”, and that it had no significance in Onitsha indigene affairs, only regarding  matters affecting the Township. He was unusual in Onitsha for defining such strict separation of spheres of relevance, and despite criticism he continued his research on the Obi’s /ofo/ staff during the same time his OCL activities occurred.

Since January, people have known that Onitsha Urban County Council elections are scheduled for October 24,  and (much more recently) that those for the Eastern House of Assembly are set for November 16 (“coincidentally”, the birthday of Nigeria’s Governor General Nnamdi Azikiwe).

In Inland Town Ward A, Obiekwe Aniweta stands for nomination to that Urban Council seat, and wins (he tells me), only to be deposed by two heads of the NCNC Caretaker’s Committee, Mbamali the Ajie (for obvious reasons outlined in recent pages above) and Moses Balonwu (a strong Roman Catholic attuned to other events outlined above), who replace him with their preferred candidate.  Obiekwe has been without work for some time now (except for his assistance to Enwezor), and his recent applications to Ibadan University and the University of Nigeria (Nsukka) have failed.  (His applications to Fourah Bay and Moscow’s Friendship University remain pending.)  He has considered moving to Lagos, perhaps as a launching pad for further travels to Ghana or London or Moscow, but Enwezor wants him to stay and help for his Going to Udo, so he has hoped to get some local activity to support himself meanwhile

Byron Maduegbuna, the standing Secretary for the NCNC Branch in Central Ward B, has been mobilized by the quick nomination the NCNC has awarded to NN. Annah (brother of CC Annah, the strongly activist Roman Catholic advocate in the NCNC) for that Ward, and Maggie Obinwe plans to contest her recent religious-controversy opponents for that seat, as a member of  the Onitsha Market Amalgamated Traders Association party).  Byron surrenders to the NCNC leadership and opens his house for a campaign party for candidate Annah (and invites me to attend, which I am happy to do).  Much palm wine flows, though the stout and beer are reserved for “dignitaries” (like myself).  Both Annah brothers (who arrive in a an NCNC microbus) make passionate, “pushfull” speeches, with much audience participation, and a number of those who have bicycled to the party also speak and ask many questions.  I attend a number of these gatherings,  and witness the fact that they are all high in energy and interest.

Peter Achukwu (Ochanja), whose Onitsha Community League (OCL) has been run largely by him as a thorn in the side of the OUCC (whose activities he has repeatedly exposed as corrupt) has decided to run for an OUCC seat as an Independent against the designated NCNC candidate for Odoakpu Ward E. The Nigerian Spokesman‘s

  1. 9-2-1961 []
  2. NS February 1, 1961. The Tortoise is the AG’s electoral symbol for the forthcoming elections. []
  3. NS 3‑16-1961.  While the hostility label given the AG seems apt enough, the love image accorded the NCNC with the same breath staggers the imagination. []
  4. see, for example, NS & EO, Feb 1, 1961, and NS & EO, May 2, 1961 []
  5. NS June 2, 3, & 5, 1961 []
  6. EO June 19, 1961 []
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