Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Mobilizing support

At this point in the conflict, several distinctive directions of the search for support come into play simultaneously. The two groups adopt rather different tactics, and these reflect differing perceptions of the crucial support requirements.

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

1. Indices of commitment in the Inland Town

Byron Maduegbuna states that Onitsha is now being divided into two exclusive camps, in which social affairs attended by significant members of one side will be boycotted by those of the other. The most important figures are of course the chiefs, because the annual cycle in Onitsha involves numerous social activities whose organization is based within the village units chiefs represent and in which they must participate:  seasonal rituals, title taking, the Burial and Lamentation of the dead. Under the present circumstances, the first question is: which set of chiefs will be invited to participate,– the Ajie and his associates or the Onowu and his? (Or will compromises be worked out?) The second question is, How will those chiefs attending be received by the participating crowds? Each side has spies on the move to observe what is happening in the ritual life of the Inland Town.

That people are carefully counting these indices of support becomes a public issue when Mr. Ofo Asika (an Ogbe-Ozala agent of Onyejekwe) in an article summarizing developments in the interegnum thus far boasts that1

 “So far there have been three burial ceremonies at which the (chiefs) are to officiate. In all three cases, Chief, Mbamali the Ajie, and his lieutenants, the supporters of Mr. Onyejekwe have officiated exclusively in accordance with the previous resolutions not to fraternise with the Onowu.”

As ritual events accumulate, however, the pattern of attendance is not so clear. Village organization (in which chiefs havea very strong voice) exerts powerful pressure on people’s decisions about whom to invite, and in some cases people enter into rather complex negotiations in order to avoid offending either side. Where celebrants remain committed to particular village arrangements, more subtle assessments of support come into play. In mid-December, for example, a member of the prominent Egbuna family of Umu-Olosi takes his Ozo title, and invites the Ajie and his group. As Byron observes, this is in part uninformative since the Ajie himself is a member of that village, but when they arrive at the scene the chiefs are cheered. At a Lamentation of a woman living in the Waterside, the funeral is performed by Offiah family of Umu-Ase and the Onowu and his group are invited (again, this is expectable since he is a member of that village), but (according to Byron) when they arrive at the location many people hoot and jeer at them. An apparently significant development occurrs in the village of Odoje, which is ostensibly  controlled by Mbanefo the Odu, when the major segment opposed to him (which is referred to as “Odoje hands are two” (Odoje aka na bo), celebrates the Ozo-title-taking of one of its most illustrious sons, Daniel Ibekwe (at this time he is Solicitor General of Eastern Nigeria). I am told by one of the Ozo men who attended the afternoon initiation dance (graced, according to the Spokesman, “by Ministers of State, Legislators, Court Judges members of the Bench and Bar, Europeans and people from all walks of life”) that only the chiefs in Onyejekwe’s camp attended, but Byron later demurs, claiming that Ibekwe family has vacillated (and apparently somehow compromised in their invitations).2

A critical device designed to enforce clear-cut decisions is the traditional mechanism of Ostracism (nsupu), by which people are forbidden to share anything with particular others until the latter perform atoning rituals of “repairing Abominations.” This is apparently already occuring within the Umu-Ase, where Ogbaba family has ostracised one of its elders who steadfastly supports Enwezor, and both the Onowu and the spiritual head of Okwulinye Family are being threatened with this action.

From the perspective of the Enwezor side, the Prime Minister has the task of ensuring steadfast support from all of his faction of chiefs. Despite numerous rumors of further incipient defections, he manages to maintain the loyalty of eleven of the 16 chiefs (one down from the original 12 to 4 ratio). Royal Clan Conference supporters explain this apparent fixity by the power of the oaths putatively administered to them in accepting Enwezor’s money (which is said to have been covered by the Black Juju).

The evidence that ritual support tends to favor Onyejekwe has become sufficiently clear to the leaders of the Royal Clan Conference by early December that they are publicly calling for Government to undertake an Inland Town “plebiscite” to resolve the dispute3. Enwezor’s supporters are enough in doubt of the outcome of such a procedure that they openly oppose the idea4, demanding instead an immediate Government decision in favor of Enwezor to be followed with acquiescence by the local populace to the will of the authorities (represented locally by the Onowu).

Now  confident they will not be rebuffed in any major section of the Inland Town, Onyejekwe’s supporters decide it is time to perform the final ritual of the installation process:  the presentation by the new Obi of a cow to each of the six major Ozo-title-taking divisions in Onitsha.5 The event is announced in the Spokesman on December 21 and in the afternoon of that day, six clusters of a dozen or so men gather at Onyejekwe’s temporary palace, where the animals are tethered.

Obi-elect Onyejekwe supervises distribution of six cows,
Obi-elect Onyejekwe supervises distribution of six cows, December 21, 1961

Obi Onyejekwe arrives flanked by Akunne Ediboss (with his ivory horn) and Ofo Asika (who fans him), and sits on his throne briefly, receiving salutations from the six groups, while his assistants direct the distribution of the cows (to Umu-EzeAaroli, Oke-BuNabo, Umu-Ase-Iyawu, Ogbe-Olu, Isiokwe-na-Umu-Olosi, and Ogboli-Eke-na-Ubene Odoje).  Below, you see several of the recipient groups inspecting their animals near the temporary palace.


10-18-onyej-cowsThe members of each unit then struggle to drive the recalcitrant beasts back to their respective villages.  One proves so stubbornly maverick that it is eventually shot and must be transported to a place where its remains can be butchered and divided.


This ritual is strikingly simple, without fanfare or speeches. Its significance lying in the fact that no resistance is shown by anyone as the animals are accepted by representatives from each of the six major units and driven away, and also that no effort is made by Enwezor’s group to perform a comparable presentation. In light of Enwezor’s previous liberality, this is a noteworthy abstention. His allies remain silent about the matter, though Onyejekwe supporters claim that Enwezor himself has wanted to give the cows but the Prime Minister has warned him that receptivity to his gesture is too uncertain to risk a public effort of this kind.

The Royal Clan Conference now proceeds to organize further affirmations of leadership by Onyejekwe, who on December 28 formally announces the date of January 13 for the ritual of Ife-ji-ofo (“Serving the Yam Spirit”), the first major ritual of the farming season.6 Since this date differs from that of January 12 which was set earlier by the Prime Minister, it provides still another device for measuring the competitive strength of the two sides.

Obiekwe Aniweta in his capacity as General Secretary of the Onitsha Aborigines Association attacks this move in the Eastern Observer of January 8, arguing that it is “the duty of His Highness Obi Enwezor I as the proper authority, to repeat the Onowu‘s announcement about the festival.” Enwezor however makes no competing announcement. (Aniweta’s wife tells me she plans to do it on January 13.)  I am invited to and attend the feast of a segment of Umu-Orezeabo,  sub village in  Umu-Dei on the 13th, where I ams told by my host that eight women have sent him food that day, and I see dozens of women carrying the food being sent by wives to their relatives in other villages.

2. Mobilizing supporters in the Waterside

One tactic employed by Obi Enwezor is to employ the media to arouse sentiments of support among the local Ndi-Igbo populace, with the aim of producing a popular demand which will influence the (predominantly Ndi- Igbo) Ministers of the Eastern Region Government. In the Spokesman of December 6, Obiekwe Aniweta writes that

“The war against prejudice is still on. Apartheid has been introduced into Onitsha Obiship controversy. We preach against the discrimination in South Africa, while here in Nigeria nay Onitsha we discriminate against our brothers.

I have in mind the recommendation of the so called  Umu-EzeChima Association which stipulates that anybody whose mother is ‘non Onitsha’ should never be a king of Onitsha. Eventually, the members of this bogus body go against His Highness Enwezor I because his mother… was a non Onitsha Ibo.

I am still at a loss to understand why some of us think like people in the 16th century. In the name of tradition the non Onitsha are being treated like animals.”

Enwezor’s supporters encourage locally prominent Ndi-Igbo men to make their preferences known, and some do write articles in the papers on Enwezor’s behalf7, but Onyejekwe’s supporters are careful to canvass prominent figures who had previously sent Enwezor telegrams of congratulation, and manage to obtain public proclamations of neutrality from some of these personalities8. My own impressions from speaking with diverse Ndi-Igbo about the Obiship was that in general they favor Enwezor by virtue of sympathy for his Ndi-Igbo connections, but also that their level of interest in the issue is insufficient to generate the kind of social agitation which might benefit him greatly in Enugu.

Indeed, Aniweta’s emphasis on Enwezor’s non Onitsha connections backfires somewhat when the Royal Clan Conference forces use it to launch a new track of offensive. In the intensive “newspaper war” which rages in the local papers throughout the month of December, Mr. Ofo Asika (one of the new assistants to Onyejekwe, see above) responds to a series of questions previously posed by M.C. Edeogu of the Umu-EzeAroli Peace Committee by formulating a series of his own, one of which makes public a previously more covert point of contention:9

“…Obiekwe Aniweta wrote last [week] that J.J. Enwezor’s mother was from a ruling house in Nsugbe.

I believe him.

Can I have a complete statement as regards his father also?”

This is the first time that the issue of Enwezor’s paternity has been raised in the press and strikes an ominous note, since no criterion of eligibility for kingship holds stronger consensual unanimity among Onitsha indigenes than this one of paternity, and since such an attack constitutes a ground for legal action. Several people later comment pointedly to me that one could draw strong conclusions from Enwezor’s failure to respond either through rebuttal or court action.

3.  Attempts to influence the Onitsha Urban County Council

Given their strong majority in support by the Onitsha Ndichie (chiefs), Enwezor’s group consequently has a majority in the Custom and Tradition Committee of the Onitsha Urban County Council, and the Prime Minister therefore schedules a meeting of this Committee for December 2 to discuss the Obiship. That Saturday, all the chiefs attend except for Chief Okwusogu (the Ogbuoba, an Onyejekwe supporter). The results are leaked to the press, but the Spokesman does not carry the story, and the Observer merely headlined the fact that the meeting has been held and stated that “a decision was taken.” However, the radio news service flashes the decision itself, and The national Daily Express (date?) gives the affair some detailed coverage, stating that

“Chief J.O. Mbamali, the Ajie of Onitsha and second in rank to the Onitsha traditional Prime Minister (Onowu) Chief Philip Anatogu walked out of the meeting… convened to discuss the appointment of the Obi of Onitsha. …E.N. Nwokedi, the Ogene of Onitsha and N.N. Agbaka (sic) the Ojudor of Onitsha also walked out.

After (they) had walked out, the remaining 12 kingmakers adopted a letter by the Onowu recognising Chief Enwezor as the Obi of Onitsha.

The Committee rejected a letter from Chief Mbamali which asked the committee to recognise Mr. J.O. Onyejekwe as the Obi of Onitsha.”

The Custom and Tradition Committee of the OUCC then forwards their decision to the Eastern Nigeria Government under the auspices of the Council, copying the letter to the Council itself. The scheme is however exposed in a letter to the Council written by Mr. J.C. Odiatu and published by the Spokesman on December 7:

“I humbly wish to appeal to the Onitsha Urban County Council not to allow its good name to be dragged into the present Onitsha Obiship dispute…. Recently, it was announced over the radio that a Committee of the council… has recommended to the Regional government the recognition of one of the candidates without the knowledge of the full Council. The point is that the Committee has no right to discuss the matter when it has not been read to the full Council and which it was learnt, was merely sent to the Council for its information.

The Onowu as Chairman of the Custom and Tradition Committee responds to this by forwarding the decision as a motion to be brought before the Council’s meeting of December 30. The meeting is given strong publicity in the Spokesman of that day as Mr. C.C. Ifebuzo, an Onye-Igbo Councillor and also Publicity Secretary for the Onitsha Market Amalgamated Traders Association (OMMATA), announced a counter-motion he intended to present:

“1.(a) Bearing in mind that a matter in the Committee stage is constitutionally confidential… until it goes to full Council, may the Council then know who sent the proceedings of the Tradition Committee of December 2 to the NBC and the press.

(b) What steps have you taken against the announcement and publication?

2. Do you know that it is a slur on the high standard of the new Council as outsiders consider the publication and announcement as a mark of ignorance on the part of the Council for rushing a matter in the Committee stage to the press and radio?

3. Onitsha Obiship tangle is a matter limited only to the Onitsha indigineous [sic] elements. May we know why it is brought up before an official Committee of OUCC which comprises the Onitsha indigineous [sic] and stranger elements for discussion?”

Apparently the original motion is subsequently withdrawn, and the Council passes quickly by the countermotion, which (as the OUCC Chairman said as he moved on to other matters) is “receiving attention.”10

4. Frustrating relations with Regional and National Government

On December 11 the Spokesman announces that the Eastern Nigerian Government has reappointed 12 of the First Class Chiefs who had represented their Provinces in the recently dissolved Eastern House of Chiefs, leaving empty the seat previously assigned to the Obi of Onitsha. On December 12 the newly constituted House meets and elects Chief Agbasiere of Owerri Province as their Deputy President, succeeding the late Okosi II. To many Onitsha people these events suggest that their fears of Ndi-Igbo domination are being realized: not only have they failed to install an Obi who might win the Presidency of the House of Chiefs, they have now lost the position of Deputy.

Both factions continue to make frequent pilgrimages to Enugu in hope of influencing Government, and one morning in mid-December Peter Achukwu comes by Byron Maduegbunam’s house and takes him off to the University of Nigeria at Nsukka to visit Zik (who is there to be installed as Chancellor). Perplexed by the position the Governor General appears to have adopted in sending a congratulatory telegram to Enwezor, the Special Committee’s leadership hope to suggest to him several neutrality-affirming documents he may be willing to sign for use as a press release.

Byron later recounts to me this episode. When they arrive at Zik’s residence in Nsukka and are ushered into a waiting room, Achukwu excuses himself and disappeared. After a considerable wait, Byron finds himself addressing Zik alone. The two men are well acquainted11, but Byron would much prefer to have someone of Achukwu’s oratorical wit, dynamic bearing, and reputation for political effectiveness to present their case.  However, he sees no other way than to do his best.

When he gives Azikiwe a pre’cis of the interregnum to date, it develops that the Governor General appears to have little knowledge of the situation beyond what he has read or heard in the news reports, and he sent the telegram under the impression that the kingship selection process was finished. When Byron suggests some alternative press releases, Zik remains indecisive about what action he should take, and Byron eventually returns to the sitting room to await Achukwu’s return.

The Orator spokesman reappears early the next morning, saying he has remembered a vehicle he had purchased that had subsequently been wrecked some distance north, on the road to Makurdi, and he had driven out to see if it was still there. He had forgotten about Zik. Byron complains to me  that Achukwu has often done similar things during their numerous trips to Enugu.12

In any event, the apparent indecision on the part of diverse Government officials foster many rumors in the Inland Town about what Government may do next. One Onitsha man known to be an Intelligence Officer and currently on home leave becomes the subject of much speculation about his “spying”, and one day when I am talking with Obi Enwezor he tells me he has heard that I have been making trips to Enugu and consulting with Government Ministers.13

The “newspaper war”, which reaches an apex for Onitsha in early December when as many as four Obiship-related articles per day appear in each local newspaper, increasingly takes on the character of rehearsing tentative elements in legal briefs, as if anticipating their presentation to Government, the essential issues being whether the Onowu and his fellow chiefs or the Royal Clan Conference are the legitimate “King makers”, whether a “plebiscite” would be appropriate, which Ofo is legitimate, and what ritual procedures are truly “traditional” in the act of “crowning” an Obi.

Obiekwe Aniweta continues to play the prominent role for Enwezor’s side, pursuing a line of ad hominem attacks, claiming that the entire dispute was in essence a continuation of the 62 year “battle… between Oke-BuNabo and Umu-EzeAroli“, and engaging in some overt threat behavior:14

 “I must have to bring to the notice of Oke-BuNabo people, the fact that we the people of Umu-EzeAroli have been watching every of their movements as far as the present Obiship controversy is concerned with great interest.

When every thing is set and done, we are going to use all the powers and privileges at our command to pay them back.”

The frequency of articles taper off gradually during the remainder of December and into January, partly perhaps because an element of symbolic fatigue seems to set in:   the main protagonists are increasingly re stating old points. In early January of 1962, Obiekwe Aniweta runs a series of five articles appearing in both papers and applying his analysis of the O’Connor Memorandum to the recent events. Written in his now familiar combative style and covering ground previously discussed, they are followed by a sixth which accuses the Spokesman Editor of making “deliberate omissions” in the articles’ contents, and suggests that the Editor should be replaced by a “non native of Onitsha” who would be unbiased toward the issues of the current dispute.15  The Spokesman responds that editors have the right to edit, and that “the business administration of the Zik Group of Newspapers is not and cannot be directed by outside people with vested interests.” In the same issue it runs a request for articles “On Obiship deadlock in Onitsha in relation to the role of the ‘Spokesman‘ in the matter”, adding that

“…only able contributors with no interest at stake, unconnected with the matter or with anybody or faction and with a free mind who can judge facts about the role of the ‘Spokesman’ need send their views. The ‘Spokesman’ is however not bound to publish all or any of the articles sent.”

While Aniweta emphasizes to me that his efforts are aimed to further the interests of his benefactor, it is hard for me to assess what influence his efforts are actually having on the overall process. The responses I hear in the Inland Town and most of those printed in the newspapers are overwhelmingly negative. Jerry Orakwue (who privately conveys to me his great fatigue over the repeated Press attacks regarding the contents of his book, especially some ambiguous statements he had made about the authority of the Onowu in the succession process) uses some space in his own Spokesman response to chide Aniweta for his “childish” and “stupid attempt to threaten the peace loving people of Onitsha”, and claiming that “we are tired of his fairy tales”, he concludes that “no amount of press controversy will settle this dispute”, indeed such exercises might “do more harm than good”16. A local Onitsha philosopher who regularly contributes to the Spokesman writes a poem alluding to Aniweta’s “Apartheid” thesis, accusing him of “telling lies against” Onitsha, and warning him that in the future “Foes shall refer to your words.”17 One outsider in responding to the Spokesman’s request for unbiased articles wonders if Aniweta’s ideas are those “of the people from ‘behind the iron curtain’.”18

By mid January, the Editor of the Spokesman openly advocates that the Eastern Nigeria Government should now intervene in the interregnum, in light of the intransigence of the two opposing sides and in keeping with the point “that it is the welfare of the majority and not that of a handful that matters”:19

 “It is this point that made Lagos newspapers like the ‘Daily Times,’ the ‘Daily Express,’ the ‘West African Pilot’ and some Eastern (Region) newspapers which are not even near Onitsha to hold the view that Government should step in to end the deadlock. Some also suggested an inquiry. If these far away newspapers can hold such view, and are free to say so, why can’t the ‘Spokesman’?”

During this very time, officials of the Eastern Nigerian Government have quietly requested the leaders of each side to compile and present to the Onitsha Province administration a brief Memorandum stating the essentials of their case.

5. The Royal Clan Conference undergoes a final transformation

Having completed the ritual process of installing their King, Conference leaders now seek other means to display their strength.  They are facing growing oppositions. The Onoli, Chief Ibeziako, who is now representing Enwezor in a semi-legal capacity in delivering messages to the Government, makes a series of complaints to the officials at the Onitsha Provincial offices in Onitsha about various actions of Onyejekwe and his supporters (for example, the announcing of festival dates), and someone instigates the Nigerian Police to investigate Byron Maduegbunam for forgery of signatures on the various Resolutions the Conference had made.20 Partly to respond to such harrassment, the members of the Conference seek some more directly public activity which will retain their initiative and lend itself to a more directly confrontational mode.

Peter Achukwu provides a solution during discussions at a Conference meeting early in January. The Special Committee’s work is now finished, he said, as is that of the Royal Clan Conference. What remains is to organize the entire Onitsha, the “Onicha-Eze-Chima: the traditional, ancient group comprising both the direct descendants of the primordial King and those who accompanied them when crossing the Niger. The Special Committee, he said, has attained a permanent role as the “Inner Chamber” of the King, the Uloko-Obi. The Royal Clan Conference will now form the General Chamber, while the “Onitsha-King-Chima” as a whole should now handle the final procedures of the Kingship dispute. A meeting of this group should now be assembled.

Many members however object that any effort by the Royal Clan Conference will now probably be blocked by petitions to local officials warning that the peace would be disturbed. Someone then points out that the Osita dinma Age Grade has had made a decisive, independent vote for Onyejekwe in September, but the potential value of their alliance has not yet been well exploited. Now is the time to bring them forward in a more prominent role: persuade them to call a general meeting of the Inland Town, at which time the “Onitsha King Chima” could be inaugurated.

J.C. Nwokedi, the President of Osita dinma (and a brother to Nwokedi the Ogene, he is a staunch supporter of Onyejekwe) agrees to summon a meeting of the Inland Town for the stated purpose of discussing the recent banning of the Inland Town’s youthful masked dancers, the Ulaga masquerade. Later, reporting back, he says that when he went to the police to arrange the meeting, however, the police delayed acting on the petition, and when Enwezor’s people learned of the prospective gathering Chief Ibeziako again petitioned Onitsha Province officials, warning them that such a meeting would probably result in rioting.

So the Conference leaders consult with three Onitsha barristers now working informally for Onyejekwe’s side.   Emma Araka, F.O. Anyaegbunam, and Chuba Ikpeazu (very prominent local men) agree to arrange a meeting with Norman C. Perkins, the Provincial Secretary In charge of Onitsha Province. Mr. Perkins, a British expatriate with impeccable credentials who has worked in the administrative branch of the Eastern Nigerian civil service since 1946,21 receives Byron, the Ajie, and Chief Ibeziako to argue the issue of the meeting. After hearing the latter’s views that rioting would accompany such a convocation, the Ajie and Byron agree to sign a document accepting responsibility should trouble arise, and in return they demand that many policemen and C.I.D. men be sent to observe the proceedings so that agitators cannot not disrupt the meeting with impunity. Mr. Perkins agrees to allow the meeting.

The Spokesman publicizes the event on January 20:


and at 4 pm a substantial crowd (including Aniweta, Emma Enwezor, and a number of other Enwezor supporters) gather at the Obikporo  Square. A spokesman of Osita-dinma (the “Ruling Age-Grade” opens the meeting with a brief discussion of the Ulaga masquerade (chiding parents to prevent their children from parading this recently banned figure), and then, reminding the crowd that the issue of Obiship remains open,  he asks if anyone wishes to speak.

Peter Achukwu walks over to where Byron Maduegbuna stands, takes his file folder, and strides quickly to the speaker’s platform. In the presence of Enwezor’s sons and supporters, he begins to list Enwezor’s many “Abominations”, and then interacts with the crowd in the following manner:22

Achukwu: “Enwezor has told us the name of his mother. Let us hear from him about his father. I, Peter Achukwu, am attached (natambili) to Oke-BuNabo. I come from Ogidi. Would you want me to be your King?

Crowd: “No!”

“Would you want an Ogidi man to come and be your king?”

Crowd: “No!”

“Would you want an Nsugbe man to be your King?”

Crowd: “No!”

“I am honored that Onitsha people allow me to live among them.  I would never claim to be king. Why does Enqezor, whose father comes from Nsugbe, claim to be King of Onitsha? He should be honoured to live among Onitsha people and not aspire to be king. Should such a person be made King of Onitsha?”

Crowd: “No!”

“Should the Onowu have crowned him?”

Crowd: “No!”

After the crowd’s embracing of this openly slanderous behavior, apparently without any effort on the part of Enwezor’s supporters to contradict him, Achukwu proceeds to organize the “Onitsha of King Chima” organization, which resolves to present Onyejekwe to the Eastern Nigeria Government demanding recognition.

Byron Maduegbuna, whose home face that of Chief Ibeziako across Old Market Road, later tells me that during the evening after this meeting, he observed all of Enwezor’s supporters filing into Ibeziako’s chambers. That meeting, he says, “lasted far into the night.”

Local newspapers are discreetly silent on the outcome of the “Mass Rally,” but The Daily Times of Lagos publicizes it on January 22, stating that “The struggle for the Obiship of Onitsha took another dramatic turn on Saturday when at a mass meeting of more than 16,000 Onitsha indigines… the people disowned Chief Joseph Enwezor… and resolved to give all traditional and customary recognition to Chief Joseph Onyejekwe….”((T.C. Ikena, who was there, estimated the crowd at “several hundred”.))

Peter Achukwu later displays a letter he has received from one of the barristers supporting Enwezor, which demands that he make a public apology for slandering the new Obi or face a Court Summons. He expresses amusement at this, later wondering why no Summons has ever appeared.

For some time afterwards I see little of Enwezor’s people, but I hear from several sources that serious conflict has erupted in Enwezor’s family. One of my friends in Oke-BuNabo who has been strongly opposed to Enwezor, but not an active participant in interregnum affairs, says he heard that Enwezor’s son Emma has confronted his father with the evidence that “they are not real Onitsha people,” and after examining the books of his father’s business has despaired of rationalizing these business affairs, and has returned to his station at Calabar. One rumor says he accused his father of squandering vast sums of money in the pursuit of kingship while neglecting both his own enterprise and some of his needy sons schooling in the U.K.  Another stated that  £48,000 had disappeared from his accounts.

I did not manage to ascertain the truth value of these rumors, but Emma Enwezor does depart from Onitsha soon after the January 20 rally. I regret this, because he is one of the most compatible people I have met there, combining a sophisticated sense of the need for both modernizing development and social justice with a kind of guileless openness and confident optimism which we have found unique in Onitsha.

T.B. Akpom later tells me he has stopped attending meetings of the now expanded Conference (officially renamed Onicha-EzeChima), finding that the numbers of participants has become so large that “too many cooks are spoiling the broth. They cannot come to any decisions without hours of argument.” Achukwu, however, is pleased with his new creation, reporting that more than 100 people have attended one of the meetings.

One of the new group’s first tasks has become to deal with a loss of patience by Obi Onyejekwe. On January 26 he has received a letter from the police department in Lagos, demanding that he either return to his duty in a new posting at Enugu or officially retire,((Some members of the Special Committee believe this is another example of behind-the-scenes harassment by the Enwezor group, but the latter do not claim responsibility.)) and his supporters are astonished to hear him expressing an inclination to go.

Akpom says that Onyejekwe had believed that his formal selection by the Special Committee would finish the contest, and he has complained to Akpom after yet another demand for monetary expenditure that “I never knew this would all be so much trouble.” Rumors of his impending departure spread to Enwezor, who brings forth goats and a cow for feasting his family on the coming Sunday. The new Onicha-EzeChima formation however mobilizes, marches en masse to Onyejekwe’s house, and points out to him that for a man who has Gone to Udo to put on a police uniform and serve the Government outside Onitsha would be an Abomination. After warning him that if he left Onitsha he should never return, they convince Onyejekwe to submit his letter of retirement to the Federal Govenment, and Enwezor has to cancel his feast.

Aside from this one indispensible action of social constraint, Onitsha King Chima does not make any major accomplishments I can detect, though they do send some delegations to Goverment officials in Enugu. For a while they hold regular meetings, and I do hear the name frequently emphasized in discussions by people with whom I am unfamiliar, suggesting that Achukwu’s tactic has given a wider circle of Inland Town people a sense of active participation in the interregnum struggle. The concept itself is not an innovation, but its use in this context is new to my ears.

6.  Moses Odita reappears

In the midst of the December press war, in the Spokesman of the 15th appear three interconnected articles. On the front page is a brief statement by Akunne  J.N. Odukwe, a member of Ogbe-Ozala who had for a time played a part in the Royal Clan Conference and who is known to be a strong supporter of Moses Odita. Odukwe writes denying a claim made by Aniweta in the Spokesman of December 11 that Odita (among others) had “submitted… written application to (the Onowu) for approval” (thus recognizing the Prime Minister’s right to crown the new Obi). Odukwe stated that in fact, Odita had sent his application through the Onowu and his chiefs, to the Umu-EzeChima.

On page two, Odukwe presents a long press release (said to be in response to a request made by the Editor of the West African Pilot for a statement by Odita on his position in the Obiship), attacking the Prime Minister for his behavior during the interregnum. the release claims that Onowu had found Odita guilty of committing an Abomination with disregard for the evidence, in order to block the latter’s aspirations for the Kingship, and that he had ignored the “fourteen conditions to be fulfilled by any eligible candidate which he was asked to study,” and instead rushed to proclaim an Obi of his own choosing.

Odukwe encloses the “fourteen conditions” (which are in fact those very ones established by the Special Committee of the Royal Clan Conference) as an Appendix to his press release, along with the Manifesto presented by Odita to the Conference, observing that

“From the Manifesto it will be observed that there is royalty in his blood, and that he is the most suitable candidate coming as he did from the direct line of the Obis of Onitsha.

It is considered that he fulfilled the fourteen conditions, but up to now [Children of King Chima] could not say why at last he was side tracked….”

Let all the Onitsha men and women, at home and abroad read Mr. Odita’s family tree and consider him with the other two candidates and say whether justice was not miscarried.”

The third article presents the “fourteen conditions laid down by Onitsha”, on the basis of which it could be argued that Odita surpasses Onyejekwe, because the latter does have a “visible deformity.” Odita’s own Manifesto is printed on the following day.

This material (some of which is also printed in the Observer) begets little public response except from the Onowu, who is quoted by the Observer as finding Odita’s claims “childish and senseless”, denying the rumor that two chiefs had shifted their support from Enwezor to Odita, and stating that it would be an Abomination for anyone to do so.23 In private, Byron Maduegbuna tells me that certainly Akunne Odukwe is now pushing forth Odita.  Odukwe’s refusal to participate in Onyejekwe’s presentation to the Prime Minister in September (and in subsequent Conference activities) thus made sense. But Byron then suspects that the Onowu might encourage Odita, since the RCM could be expected to back him liberally “with thousands of pounds.”

No further public expression of Odita’s interests occurs at this time, except for a remarkable “Appeal to Onowu” written by Odita himself and printed in the January 22 issue of the Observer.  Addressing “This humble appeal to Onitsha Community as a whole and to the Onowu, Ndichie Ume, Ndichie Okwa and Okwa Aranze and Agbalanze of Onitsha in particular”, he evokes “THE CONSCIENCES OF ALL ONITSHA PEOPLE to right their wrong and let justice and truth prevail.”

Going on, and  pointing out that “No witness has been produced to substantiate the allegation that His Grace the Archbishop accompanied me to the Church for the blessing of my Ossissi,” he proceeds to argue that taking material things to the Church for blessing should not be considered Abominable, observes that some Onitsha chiefs and Ozo men regularly submit themselves for Church blessing, and asks “what then is wrong with my presenting my lifeless and unwashed ‘Ossissi’ for the same Church blessing?” Then observing that “I never admitted that I committed this desecration or ‘alu’ against Onitsha tradition”, he states that “The articles purchased [for “Repairing the Abomination”] were bought by my sisters and the fees were paid by my relatives as I continued to refuse to associate myself with the practices which were most unjust and unfair to me”, and he concludes that while the ritual had indeed been performed without his “having had hands in it,” the decision could be reviewed by Onitsha Community and “it could still be pronounced void and improper.”

Odita seems to argue here, first that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that he had done the acts of which he has been convicted (somewhat clouding the case by the question of the Archbishop’s presence), and second that if he has done them, they are in any case not Abominable acts. I find It an ingenuous form of quasi legalistic argument, but his willingness to make it so openly implies that he remains entirely transfixed on both horns of his moral dilemma: his desire for both continuing approbation from the Roman Catholic Mission and accession to a Kingship whose leadership standards are in some ways quite deeply opposed to Roman Catholic ideals.

7.  A sense of impasse arises

By the Spring of 1962 the Interregnum situation in Onitsha seems to have stagnated into “impasse”. While the supporters of Onyejekwe claim “majority support” (a claim which Enwezor’s group does not so much deny as regard it as irrelevant), the socio-olitical division of the town (insofar as this is reflected in major ritual processes) seems ambiguous  — the pivotal ritual roles of chiefs give their majority support of Enwezor an additional weight counterbalancing the relative weakness of Enwezor’s group in overall numerical strength of support. Among the Waterside Ndi-Igbo Enwezor is clearly the preferred King, but their interest in the matter does not seem strong despite Aniweta’s efforts to stir up an analogy to “Apartheid”. The officials of local and regional Governments remain inscrutable, though it appears that most of those who are Ndi-Onicha probably tend toward supporting Onyejekwe, while most of those who are Ndi Igbo probably favor Enwezor. The issue might well come down to which of these interests exercises the strongest influence over chieftaincy affairs in the Eastern Region.

From our own point of view, the prospect of what might come next seems to drain away, as more people are becoming passive and speak fatalistically about the probability of a Commission of Inquiry. By January, 1962, the national newspapers are calling for Government to intervene in the conflict, while the local papers dispute the issue (the Spokesman calling for an inquiry or plebiscite, the Observer rejecting these and demanding that Government “just decide”), and I was privately informed that Norman Perkins, Provincial Secretary in charge of Onitsha, has called upon both major sides to present “Memoranda” formally summarizing their case.

In view of comments made by many people we are working with, I think I might well be drawn into participation in such an affair, and the sense that we have considerable attachments to both major sides maks me feel extremely ambivalent about publicly declaring my opinions (aside from my commitment to the distancing “camera” role which has become my refuge. I want no part of any legal involvement with the Interregnum process, and Helen and I begin to act upon an increasingly strong feeling that it is time for us to leave.

Events on the national level reinforce our growing desire for disengagement. In April of 1962, the plan for the national census is announced, to be conducted on May 13, and the census process itself quickly tends to degenerate into a scramble for numbers which will later have consequences at all levels of government. In Onitsha, the Spokesman publishes reports that various Ndi-Igbo “tribal unions” are threatening to impose fines upon any home townsmen who fail to return to their rural homes to be counted (while its own editorials inveigh against this action, calling upon all town dwellers to “stay put”).24 When we are returning to Onitsha from a visit to Uga (a Village group located in the vicinity of Nnewi) on the Friday evening preceding Census weekend, we encounter an unending stream of vehicles headed in the opposite direction, vastly larger than the normal Friday evening exodus to the hinterlands, a visible, traffic-jamming proof of the effectiveness of the call “homeward.”

During the weekend itself, as counting is being done, we witness one Onitsha census enumerator (mostly these are Ndi-Onicha, temporarily hired) reporting to an assistant to the Town Clerk that he has found his area of Fegge to be almost entirely abandoned (a condition we confirm to be general in the Waterside, whose corridors seem to echo like a tomb). The Assistant Town Clerk aggressively replies, “We will count them anyway!” On May 15, the Observer trumpets the exodus under the headline, “Non natives Hurry Home”, reporting that “The famous £500,000 Onitsha main market was almost empty…” and that the Administrative Officer in charge of census in Onitsha Division has stated that “duplication of counting people may likely occur.”

Our romance with Nigeria has by this time worn very thin.  Judging by current regional and national political events (of which the Census scramble iss only one symptom), the country seems to be sliding inexorably toward deeper disasters. In May the Western Region’s Action Group Government finally splinters and collapses following the prolongued assault against it by the coalition of Northern and Eastern political powers. While this development has little direct, immediate impact upon Onitsha, its implications for the future of democratic politics in Nigeria are grave: if party politics is played with the aim of deliberate destruction of minority parties by majority coalitions, where might this process end?

While the logic of these developments seems crystal clear in retrospect, I must admit we do not at the time trace it with much precision. We do begin to experience a kind of cynical rejection of the national situation, reflected in such indicators as a sharp rise in our sense of defensive patriotism combined with an unprecedented affection for Time magazine (one of the few news sources of that kind that is regularly available. Our research money is in any case running out, and so we book our flight back to the U.S.A., scheduling our departure for mid July.

Confronted with a suddenly severe shortage of research time, during most of early 1962 I shift my emphasis away from the Inland Town and into Onitsha Waterside, and experience this escape with a strong sense of relief, enjoying the increased contact with Ndi-Igbo traders, whose interests seem more realistically practical and whose values tend toward expressing more idealistic and optimistic views of the world than those we have found dominant in the Inland Town. I restrict my efforts among Ndi-Onicha largely to reading the local newspapers, where (after weeks dominated by extended discussions about the significance of the collapse of the Western Region Government) on July 7 (almost the eve of our own departure) we read in the Spokesman that the Eastern Nigerian Government has appointed a one-man Commissioner to probe the Onitsha Obiship dispute:  the Secretary of Onitsha Province, Mr. R.W. Harding.




  1. NS Dec. 8, 1961 []
  2. NS Jan. 9, ’62.  The failure to include the names of the senior chiefs among “the VIPs” present in this news release is highly unusual and does imply an attempt to avoid committing the Ibekwe family to either side of the dispute.  I did not attend this afternoon event, but was present the previous night, where I did not take careful note of who was present.  I hope to write more about this latter event elsewhere. []
  3. NS Dec. 5, 7, 1961 []
  4. EO Dec. 6, 1961, NS Dec. 9, 1961. []
  5. Initially they think to present cows to the “Nine Clans” (Ebo-itenani, the hallowed, ancient division), but they decide that, since few could agree on the nine designations and since the six-fold categorization (a recent device stimulated by European administrative officers) divides the community more equally in terms of population, the latter much more effectively reflects mass support. []
  6. NS Dec. 28, 1961.  See Henderson 1972:385‑88 for a description of the ritual. []
  7. E.g., an attack on the Spokesman‘s bias by Chike Okongwu in the EO of Dec. 2, in which this respected local intellectual discerns a “landslide” favoring Enwezor. []
  8. For example, the banner headlined statement by Minister of Agriculture P.N. Okeke in the NS of Dec. 14, 1961 that “I do not want myself to be in any way involved in the matter of the selection of Obi because my stand in the Onitsha Chieftaincy dispute is complete neutrality”. []
  9. NS Dec 12, 1961. []
  10. NS Jan. 2, 1962. A Spokesman editorial on January 3 comments that this response was an appropriately face‑saving alternative to publicly censuring the traditional committee. []
  11. See On Byron Maduegbunam. []
  12. A noteworthy feature of his character is a tendency to make sudden decisions and then become so totally involved in their consequences that he forgets about other matters, but my guess here is that he also assumed Byron could be relied upon to make a good presentation to Zik. []
  13. Helen and I do go there several times during this period, but our purposes are to try to do some  historical research in the Government Archives, to learn something about the Enugu Branch of the Onitsha Improvement Union, and to visit a German sociologist and his wife (Josef and Janine Gugler) who were working there. We made no reports to anyone about the Obiship, and nobody asked us anything. []
  14. NS Dec. 9, 1961. []
  15. NS Jan 9, 1962. []
  16. NS Dec. 13, 1961. []
  17. NS Dec. 11, 1961. []
  18. NS Jan. 13, 1962. This may have been an allusion to his self advertised role as Secretary of the Nigerian Soviet Friendship Society, or perhaps to his recently-published book on “The Church and Communism”. []
  19. NS  Jan.  12, 1962. []
  20. Regarding the latter, Byron tells me that one of the signatories of the Resolution of No Confidence had indeed resided in the mental institution at Abeokuta at the time, but he affirms that his power of attorney had been legally transfered to the man who had in fact written the signature.  Aniweta observes to me in another context that he and other Enwezor supporters are indeed harrassing various people involved on Onyejekwe’s side. []
  21. Perkins has recently (1960) completed a massive report on corruption in the Enugu Municipal Council, and Queen Elizabeth has awarded him the O.B.E. []
  22. I was not present at this meeting.  The quotations are combined from several different versions.  As such it is an imaginary construction, but I think it closely approximates the patterning of the interaction that occurred. []
  23. EO Dec. 21, ’61. []
  24. See for example the Nigerian Spokesman May 10, 1962. []
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