Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

The “Manifesto Competition”

On the same afternoon of August 20, 1961 as Enwezor is being presented to the chiefs at the Prime Minister’s residence, another large crowd of several hundred people convenes at the Onitsha Native Court House, including a considerable number of Umu-EzeAroli but many from other segments of the Royal Clan and also some observers from non-royal clans. While I attend neither of these meetings (not wanting to show favoritism toward one side), I hope that the tape recorder I have provided the organizers will give us a fairly full account of the candidates’ speeches at this “Manifesto Competition”. Unfortunately, the machine (or its handler) fails at several points, and consequently I obtain only portions of the verbatim discourse though the candidates did provide written summaries of their English versions which later become available to me. Consequently I cannot provide anything like a systematic comparison of performances, but only a series of sketches, based on these and consultants’ reports, reflecting a very limited vision of the whole.1

Since the Ajie, the Second Minister, is now officially among the contestants waiting to present their manifestos, the Fifth Minister, the Ogene, assumes political control of the gathering. But as usual Achukwu the orator spokesman engages the initial task of haranguing the crowd, urging them above all to listen carefully to the words of these men, to remember and to assess them carefully. He reminds the audience that the speech will first be given in Igbo, in order to judge the speaker’s competence in rendering native speech, and then will be repeated in English, because “The King of today must be a King of the world,” not merely of Onitsha.

1. The Ajie sets a tone

Since the Ajie is the most senior traditional figure who is also a candidate, present, he is allowed to speak first. Tall, physically massive, a strikingly handsome man, he quickly dispels any doubts about his ability to rise among the competition. He speaks forcefully and eloquently, both in Igbo (with clever use of traditional proverbs) and in English. The following is the verbatim English version.2

“My Compatriots,

The summoning of this assembly marks a new phase in the history of our land. It is a most significant change for it is the first time that aspirants to the throne of Onitsha are invited to address the people they want to lead and to present their manifestos.

It augurs well for unity and peace and for our future. And I wish to thank members of the committee of Umu-EzeChima who with skill and wisdom lay a strong foundation for peace and tranquility.

Your good works and contributions will most certainly be enshrined by history for the appreciation of the people of tomorrow.

I must also thank all those who have willingly supplied you with helpful information and material which facilitated your work. To all of you I am deeply grateful.

In presenting myself as one of the candidates, I earnestly appeal to you all to give me a chance to serve you. I cannot promise you the impracticable, but this much I can say, and that is, that if I am selected in this modern age I am at once your leader and your servant, and so upon me will lie the task of leading you forward, and at the same time serving your best interests.

I shall therefore endeavour to serve you to the best of my ability, and with patience and sympathy.

Our country’s new status as a sovereign state carried with it many privileges, advantages and corresponding responsibilities. It will be my duty to address myself to the important task of nation building, with honesty of purpose, tolerance and devotion to duty.

I will strive to promote the unity of the various tribes in Onitsha which is essential to progress.

In 1958, when the late King visited England via Lagos for the Constitutional Conference, he was given a never to be forgotten reception by His Highness Adeniji Adele II Oba of Lagos and his people. Again, last year when the King visited Lagos with Onowu, Ogene and myself on the happy occasion of the inauguration of our first Nigerian Governor general of the Federation, he was accorded a cordial welcome by the Oba.

My first duty, therefore will be to seek ways and means of raising funds to build a central palace worthy of Onitsha, and thereafter invite his Highness, the Oba of Lagos to visit us so that we may have the opportunity to reciprocate his kind hospitality and thereby forge a bond of friendship between us and the people of Lagos.

As an embodiment of our custom and tradition I shall endeavor to preserve all that is rich and noble in our heritage.

Our ancestors played their parts well in the light of their days. Our time is a difficult one. It is made more difficult by the wind of change which is blowing strong.

I shall see to it that we pay a great deal of attention to the development of our tradition, our art and research into our history.

I shall ensure that we build a museum, or a town hall, in which to collect and treasure our antiques wherever they may be found.

I shall work to discover the precious skill and wonderful genius of our ancestors.

From time, the Church and tradition had been at daggers drawn on the question of Ozo title taking by practising christians, a situation which ought not to have arisen, because every Onitsha man is a christian in heart and in action. There is a way whereby christians can take Ozo title without tradition yielding any ground, or the Church losing prestige. Please don’t ask me how. The secret is mine until then.

There is a great decline in the numbers of our Ndichie Okwa (2nd Grade Red Cap Chiefs) and Ndichie Okwareze (3rd Grade). If this continues, time shall come when there will be none of these grades of Ndichies to represent us in the Council.

I shall seek to remove all social discriminations which disintegrate rather than unite us. I shall rouse interest in our institution of chieftaincy and reintroduce the system of conferment of chieftaincy title to any Onitsha indigene who performs good and outstanding deed.

I shall organize a system by which our women folks too will be honoured for good and outstanding deed.

I shall do all these and more that are within my competence with the unanimous consent of Ndichie and Agbala Na Iregwu of Onitsha.

If it be my lot to represent you in any national assembly, I shall not fail to win for you respect and admiration.

Above all, I shall see that we get our due share of everything for the greatest good of the greatest number.

I may mention that after the right of Isiokwe and Umu Olosi to the throne of Onitsha had been established, I would have withdrawn because of my personal comfort and the heavy responsibility the office involves. But recent events compel me to contest the seat to the end.

Cowards die many times before their deaths, but the valiant sees his death but once. If I am to be exterminated for obeying your command and serving Onitsha, and Nigeria as a whole, I shall be glad to have lived, gladder to die.

It was Horatius of Rome who said in the brave days of old:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And the temples of his Gods.”

Judge me, therefore, and my fellow rivals of the Royal House of Eze-Chima-Ogbuefi, from the conditions you have laid down which have become our constitution. And if you are satisfied that I have something to contribute to the development and upliftment of Onitsha, and if you are convinced that I can make the grade, then give me a chance to serve you. I am not prepared to buy the post. Not for anything.

My gratitude shall be my pledge to work selflessly and untiringly for the progress and happiness of our people. With your cooperation and God’s help and blessing we will usher in a new era, and build a peaceful and prosperous Onitsha which will be the pride of all.”

The Ajie’s performance brings an enthusiastic response, demonstrating an articulateness in his commitment to the public weal that is clear and to the point. His speech emphasizes both a sense of the value of tradition and a willingness to move with eyes open into modern times, but his own voice is strikingly modernist, depicting a model of leadership approximating the ideal type of an accountable British civil servant. Especially noteworthy are his uses of constructs of “service” in leadership, the balancing of privileges and responsibility, the values of tolerance, honesty, duty, promotion by merit (including the radical notion of confering chieftaincy title purely as a reward for noteworthy social achievement), democratic standards of “consent”, and the Benthamite-Enlightenment formula of seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number”.

But it is his manner of speaking more than anything else which makes a deep impression on the crowd, consistently presenting at once a poised and thoughtful yet imposing and decisive demeanor while speaking the values of a popular, approachable man. His English presentation makes use of appropriate proverbial phrases from Western tradition as readily as his Igbo version did in that vernacular. Both Onyejekwe (who is to follow the Ajie in making his presentation) and Odita (who has to wait almost until the last) say afterwards that they feel dismay for their own prospects as they behold the Ajie’s performance.

2. Onyejekwe Outlines a Program

Although Onyejekwe, the former police commissioner from Lagos, begins (as he later says) with the sense that he cannot possibly measure up to the previous candidate’s electric effect on the crowd, he proceeds to deliver a most remarkably thorough and well organized presentation which, indeed, reads in its written English form like a high quality professional resume. It is both complex and cogently argued, with rhetorical devices that make his words appear thoroughly convincing, almost compelling audience consent. There is almost no repetition, but (unlike some of the other candidates) his assertions were consistently well backed.


He begins with a tactful statement of appreciation for the efforts of the Royal Clan Conference Committee, then presents a brief commentary about the reign of King Okosi II, saying that the late king ruled during “a time when political, economic and social revolutions were in full swing”, a time when both Onitsha people and local administrations often showed lack of preparedness for change; on the whole, however, the late ruler “acquitted himself creditably” and “succeeded in holding the balance between the Onitsha indigenes and the stranger elements.”

Onyejekwe then presents a carefully reasoned assessment of the causes of “a steady decline in the excellent and distinctive qualities of the Onitsha indigene,” and of a present situation in which “the hegemony which we used to hold in the Eastern Region in the various fields of human endeavour is slipping from our hands.” He attributes this decay to the severe and chronic internal disputes which have immobilized Inland Town politics since the beginning of the twentieth century. After recounting the worst of these disputes in sequence, he observes that, if the community is to succeed as a viable entity in the emerging modern order, it must have the kind of leadership which can eliminate and then subsequently avoid such chronic crises.

Having identified the major contexts and the central problem of leadership in the community, the candidate outlines what he considered the essential qualities of a good leader:

“(a) Exemplary Character, particularly honesty and integrity;

(b) Power of Command;

(c) Knowledge, skill, and experience, acquired by study and practice;

(d) Determination; he must know his objective and then pursue it with determination and zest. He must not despair and should find difficulties and responsibilities inspiring;

(e) Sound Judgment;

(f) Confidence, and ability to inspire it in others;

(g) Discipline; he must subordinate self to interest of general good, and should be capable of instilling discipline and efficiency into others;

(h) Administrative ability, and interest in the welfare of others;

(i) Courage, moral and physical; he must not be scared by obstacles;

(j) Loyalty to his subordinates or subjects and sympathy in their causes.”

“Leadership”, he concludes,

“is an art and must be studied and practiced. It must be dynamic. Therefore, in selecting your next Natural Ruler you must have to look for a candidate fully possessed of these qualities. I am sure you will not be led astray by what we now profess nor by the garb the dress we have put on for ‘The habit does not make the monk.'”

This brief closing assessment of the qualities of leadership both surprises and delights many in the audience who have awaited the words of this socially powerful policeman with considerable trepidation. The tone is not imperious and dictatorial (as many expected of a policeman), but sophisticated and sensitive, and it brings out dimensions of which many in the audience may have been little aware. The traits outlined are relevant to traditional leaders, but they also resonate with requisites for effective management in complex “modern” organizations combining bureaucratic and political processes. In comparison with the Ajie‘s vision of leadership, Onyejekwe’s is stronger, with a rather more military (and unilateral) cast, conveying a strength which the audience receives with enthusiasm.

In a concise manner, Onyejekwe has presented an insightful lecture on politics as an art forged by experience, ending with a useful warning about the present context of speech making: do not be swayed solely by such impressionistic elements as public oratory or dress style, he emphasizes; look well at each candidates’ credentials. Having emphasized these qualities, he proceeded to outline his own.

He begins the autobiographical section of his presentation with his genealogy, taking care to trace flawlessly a descent from the primordial King Chima through both paternal and maternal lines. Then he traces his educational experience from the excellent CMS run Dennis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha to the even more prestigious King’s College, Lagos (where he became a College Prefect and “Head of School House”), to scholarships, civil service, examinations passed, and advanced courses in government administration taken in the United Kingdom. Under the rubric of “sportsmanship,” he recalls some stellar experiences playing Inter Colonial football for Nigeria, and his captaincy of various athletic teams both in college and in the police force, concluding that “You are aware of the prominence given to sports in the training for character and leadership, and in the development of the spirit of forgiveness and forbearance.”((This may be read in light of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s perennial emphasis on the exemplary significance of athletics.  But note also that Zik’s view of sports centered in boxing, and the goal of “knockout blows.”  See My odyssey pp 93-5, 404 16.))

Under the heading of “Administrative Ability,” he traces his experience as follows:

“I have been in the Senior Service for the past fourteen years and employed on divisional, provincial, and area command, and on administration at all levels. I have sat on top level councils and boards in my present superscale rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police, and take an active hand in the government and administration of this country. By the nature of Police service, administrative ability, power of leadership, personality, good social status, good relationship with subordinates and the public are among the criteria for promotion to higher ranks. I have handled several chieftaincy disputes in Western and Eastern Nigeria.”

Here he both establishes some extremely impressive leadership credentials and addresses the significant fears of many local people toward policemen. By stressing that the assessment of leadership in the police ranks is in accord with the ideal in other ranks of civil service, he perhaps lowers anxieties of some of those who regard Nigerian policemen as contemporary sorcerers and money grabbers. The last sentence in the quotation is particularly significant as an indicator of negotiative leadership.

Onyejekwe then emphasizes his long history of “interest in Onitsha affairs,” observing that he has been a member of the Ozo Title Association for more than 13 years, and citing his patronage of age sets and his holding of offices in the Onitsha Improvement Union at various stations “abroad.” After mentioning his receipt of a King George VI Coronation Medal for Meritorious Service, he concludes his autobiography by saying,

“This short biography is replete with evidence of leadership, administrative ability, knowledge, strong personality, exemplary character, and high social status. You will, no doubt, find in me the most suitable material for the office of Obi of Onitsha. I hate blowing my own trumpet but it is permissible on occasions such as this to do a bit of it in order to assist you in making your assessment. ‘The taste of pudding is in the eating.'”

It is noteworthy that the audience responds not at all negatively to these concluding comments but rather with a cheer. The candidate manages both to present an impression of sublime confidence and to emphasize his awareness of the artificiality and ostentation inherent in a contest situation of this type, without appearing to place himself above the proceedings. He also displays a mastery of proverbial phrasing and cliche, (as shown here in English, but also in Igbo).

Then follows a lengthy, 14 point policy statement, the heart of this “Manifesto,” centering around the necessity of “restoring the solidarity of the people of Onitsha by settling all internal disputes.” He promises to “rehabilitate our women traders” and if feasible their traditional organizations; to “encourage the men to return once more to trading;” to “reintroduce the uloko-obi, a committee to advise the King and the Chiefs, expanding its membership to include (for expert advice) suitably qualified Onitsha indigenes;” to appoint “accredited committees” to examine the history of Onitsha land tenure and to aim at controlling the sale of Onitsha land; to appoint other “accredited committees” to research the history of Onitsha in general, all of its customs and traditions; to ensure strict observance of regular seasonal ceremonies (“except those that may have to be scrapped for the general good”); to win back for the Chiefs their former places in local government; to strengthen the role of the age sets by expanding their range of activities; to “encourage good education and training” of young Onitsha people, and to develop their sports and athletics; to “bridge the existing gulf between the Onitsha indigenes and certain non- Onitsha elements;” to ensure good government and honest administration; and to “ensure the general welfare of Onitsha.”

His presentation concludes as follows:

“My reign will be one of Unity, Peace, Progress, and Prosperity. I offer to you my services, knowledge, and experience, demand of you unflinching support, unalloyed loyalty, hard work, and toil without tears of course. I hope that with God’s grace and guidance we shall succeed. Thank you.”

Thus Onyejekwe accomplishes what has seemed to most at the outset an impossible task: he equals and indeed in many ways surpasses the performance of the Ajie. His speech is thoroughly organized, reflecting an Anglicized, modernist, logical procedure minded personality, yet at the same time conveying the intention to use these skills to revitalize diverse facets of the traditional system. Thus he emphasizes a committee approach to the problem of researching tradition, and not merely groups selected by him but rather “accredited” ones, that is committees legitimized by a grounding in the consensus of the people (including, of course, the one under whose auspices the candidates were at present performing, which he had previously singled out for praise). His manifesto is broad, ambitious, yet appears convincingly plausible, backed as it is by the qualifications he is able to state, and his confident concluding remarks are therefore as enthusiastically received by the crowd as they are thoughtfully predicated on what has gone before. In light of the whole, his words do not seem unduly presumptious, and the audience responds with loud and prolonged cheering.

3. Onyechi Improvises

The candidate who follows Onyejekwe does not fare nearly so well. Jacob Onyechi, a retired administrative officer whose occupational qualifications appear on paper roughly comparable to those of his two immediate predecessors, has however recently been driven from his active role as Secretary of the Royal Clan Conference Committee as a result of behaviors some say amount to his disgrace. On this very day, he first drove in his car to sense the situation at the Prime Minister’s meeting before choosing instead to attend this Manifesto Competition, and he does show considerable courage to appear in front of what promises to be a predominantly unfriendly audience. When his turn comes, he seems uneasy in the aftermath of the two previous performances.3

Alone of all the candidates, he speaks almost entirely with an Englishman’s manner and intonation, hedging his comments with afterthoughts and complexities, developing his presentation extemporaneously and without notes. He begins appropriately enough with an allusion to his genealogy, but instead of spelling it out before the gathering he merely refers them to his written application.4 Then he commences a sprawling biographical sketch:

“I was born and bred in this town, living both up in the Inland Town and down in the Waterside from time to time, owing to the fact that my own maternal grandmother was living down in the Waterside. And I had my parents not necessarily my father, who was away to work, but his mother. And I enjoyed my early days with my contemporaries, whom I generally meet from time to time in all spheres of work, I look at some of them here, I’ve just been looking at the faces of some of them who know me from my infancy…” (crowd becomes unruly, someone hisses; the chief’s bell is rung to silence them).”

The last sentence appears to express his awareness that his audience is regarding him with hostility and contempt toward these efforts. In the face of this humiliation, he seeks to remind them of some deeply shared social bonds.

The sketch gradually shifts to what the candidate claims are his many achievements in administrative service that constitute evidence of previous praiseworthy efforts on behalf of Onitsha, but instead of enumerating these he says, “I need not mention them one after the other, but anyone who knows me well could bear with me that I have taken many risks for the welfare of this town….” And a bit later on he says this:

“I do feel that it is time for us to retrieve all our losses, not only, and particularly, from our fellow Igbo men here, but from all sources. And I feel that having served grandly for 37 and one half years, the experience and knowledge that I have acquired can all be to the benefit of my own people. I told you that I have retired, and left the service… and I pledge to serve you, and be your servant… and to serve you, in the best interests of this town.”

At the point where Onyechi announces his retirement, the crowd begins clapping haltingly, then the applause build up through the sentence, as if to suggest that the speaker has said enough (and should, perhaps, now indeed “retire”). Finally, the orator spokesman has to yell for silence.

Clearly by this time the candidate’s presentation is becoming increasingly disorganized. This pattern of tentative assertions followed by disorderly audience responses continues through the remainder of the speech. Onyechi refers to various issues the position of the chiefs in the Onitsha Urban Council, the problem of Inland Town amenities, possibilities of getting loans and grants from government but for the most part he raises each subject rather vaguely, and the only indications he offers for solution are implications that whatever significant remedies he might have in mind must be secretly planned and secretly implemented. This contrasts most sharply with the emphasis on responsible procedures made by the previous speaker, and members of the audience begin commenting openly among themselves about Onyechi’s performance as he struggles to complete his talk. Afterwards, this speech is generally derided as the weakest of the lot.

4. Akunnia Emembolu does his best

Only one other candidate is subjected to considerable ridicule for his performance, the man from Isiokwe Village, Moses Emembolu, thrust forward by the people of Isiokwe as their hope to establish, if not an immediate dynasty, at least a strong validation of their right to contest the throne. Like the Ajie a handsome man whose imposing physical presence is widely admired as kingly, Moses Emembolu like most of the others speaks with great confidence, assertiveness, sometimes with considerable wit. However, his presentations both in Igbo and in English sprawl badly, a sign of weak organization (and relative weakness in educational background compared with the other speakers).5

Emembolu begins well enough by tracing his genealogy, concluding that “On both sides I am well off, and I raise my two hands as a good citizen of Onitsha!” This is strongly applauded; it makes implicit reference to the genealogical problems of the absent candidate Enwezor (whose name had previously been called to come forth and take his turn at speaking, followed by a period of silence while the audience awaited the absent voice).

Then Emembolu commences to draw a biographical sketch, asserting that if Onitsha people are seeking a candidate who “knows book” (a traditional Igbo metonym for education), he is an ideal choice because he has worked for many years in the Bookshop of the Church Missionary Society, rising through the ranks to become a manager. This statement is courteously received, though from an Onitsha people’s perspective, embracing familiarity with many Senior Service Government officials, it possesses a slight aura of quaintness.

But then he proceeds to elaborate this point in great detail, tracing his every move within the company until he arrived at the rural Igbo community of Mbawsi, where he has remained for many years. He then provides a detailed account of his involvements in this town, showing how well he has become known there as a responsible citizen and how, when Nnamdi Azikiwe’s struggle for Nigerian independence began to touch the Eastern Region, he played a variety of supportive political roles in Mbawsi and other towns of the region. Gradually the audience becomes restless toward this long recital, and the chief’s bell iss rung several times. Members of the Committee begin whispering to him to be brief and more to the point, but the candidate seems determined to present his case in the manner he has chosen and he plods relentlessly on.

Finally he begins discussing his prospective program for the community, introducing this by saying, “Now, you ask me to present my manifesto, my program of action, if you lift me up as the King of Onitsha, which I hope you are going to do….” This is interrupted by a spontaneous, loud collective outburst of laughter, mingled with bits of applause and the brief, lilting, hooting sounds Onitsha elders often make when expressing amused astonishment at some improbable action. The bell rings insistently to calm the crowd, but the candidate speaks on right through it, insisting in English, “No, I hope so! And I’m serious, you can’t keep a good man down! You cannot!”

He proceeds finally to outline his policy plans, speaking at the outset about his strong determination to “guard Onitsha customs very zealously.” Then he begins by recommending the creation of a series of Inland Town “Village Councils,” to be presided over by the chiefs of each village. Since such councils have in fact been operating in Onitsha from time immemorial, this recommendation is regarded by all informed listeners as strong evidence that the speaker knows rather little about the very customs he is swearing so stoutly to defend.

From that point he has for the most part lost his audience, though he persists for many more minutes; the same concurrent and open audience commentary arises as during the previous speech, and the candidate’s voice begins to break repeatedly as he meanders his way to the end of a total presentation roughly twice as lengthy as that of any other speaker.

When Emembolu later hears his performance played back on the tape recorder for those who linger after the competition had concluded, he shows considerable satisfaction and pride in it, and members of the audience also speak admiringly of him for the self confidence, courage, and steadfastness he has displayed, qualities greatly valued by Onitsha people. But his presentation also displays to them a weakness in educational attainment and in experience as an administrator and leader, his attainments reaching only teacher’s training beyond Standard Six, and years spent in a Bookshop in the hinterland community of Mbawsi could hardly match a career like that (for example) of Onyejekwe in Lagos, first in contexts of elite education and then closely connected to the centers of national power. Though Emembolu’s candidacy continues to be treated with courtesy, the members of Isiokwe Village are afterwards greatly embarrassed that his performance has reflected less credit on their group than they had dared to hope. After all his years in Mbawsi, their candidate presented an oral performance that sounded less like the sophisticated speech of an Onitsha native and somewhat more like the manner (as they saw it) of a small town Igbo man.

 5. Other candidates perform with variable results

People I later consult from among the audience generally agree that the remaining candidates performed quite well. (Most of these speeches went unrecorded.) The presentation of Moses Odita, the retired development administrator, is placed in a class with those of the Ajie and Onyejekwe, presenting a speech in the style of the latter if rather less brilliantly organized. The other two candidates, Ikeme and Ukpabi, speak along roughly similar lines, but receive somewhat more negative criticism than did the top three. (Ukpabi, however, less well known than most of the others because of his long absence working in the Northern Region is surprisingly impressive, and he is highly praised for his assertiveness.)

A sense of the dynamic performance and response process during a traditional Onitsha speech may most readily be obtained from the Igbo language versions, and the following verbatim translation of this interaction during the speech of John Onuora Ikeme, the former Onitsha Town Clerk from Ogbe-Ozala who had only very recently appeared in town to engage in the contest, provides the best of the two complete recordings in Igbo that I obtained on this occasion.6

(There is applause following the preceding candidate’s speech. The orator spokesman (Peter Achukwu) interrupts to continue the proceedings.)

Orator-spokesman: “Umu-EzeChima, Welcome!”

Audience: “Yes!”

Orator spokesman: “Listen with your ears to the ground!”

Audience: “We are listening!”

Orator spokesman: “Hear what is said! Let us take care to listen well and understand well. You don’t bother with a person’s speech except to understand what he is saying.”

The candidate, Ikeme:

Ajie, Ogene, Ndi-Onicha, I greet you all. Before I will speak what I will speak, there is something I want to touch on (imetu aka), about the paper which the Umu-EzeChima wrote.” (Here he refers to the Special Committee’s Report about candidate qualifications and procedure.) “I read in one place about how wine (mmanya) is to be given (by the candidate). This makes me afraid whether the people will hear what I will say, because I gave no wine; there is also nobody whom I begged to speak for me among you, nobody I discussed the matter with or asked to accompany me to my place. This requirement worries me, because it is surprising where a person, after drinking a man’s wine and eating his food, will stand in matters of confidential discussion (agbaba izu, ‘whispering’)!”

Audience: (Applause; agreement with an obvious statement.)

Orator spokesman: “Our people, Welcome!”

Audience: “Yes!”

Orator spokesman: “Will you refuse to crown our son King?”

Audience: “No!”

Candidate: “That is enough for me.”

A voice: “Listen carefully remember this well (bulu ya n’obi, “carry it in heart”).”

Candidate: “I thank the Ûmu-EzeChima for calling me here today, to come to tell you how I stand. It is in the strength of the Umu-EzeAroli that I started to come here; they and I are standing together. I told my people that ‘the man you select I shall stand with, I will not contest him’ (zoo azo, “scramble”). But afterwards, it was not what we said that was done.” (This refers to the disputed procedures used among the Umu-EzeAroli in selecting Enwezor.) “The Onya said to us, ‘we eight or ten people, we should go to Onitsha!'” (He implies that the Onya decided to work with a small minority among the Umu-EzeAroli, instead of mobilizing consent across the entire sub clan.)

Audience: (Laughter.)

Orator spokesman: Order! (The chief’s bell rings.)

The candidate: “So that you may understand that I and the Umu-EzeAroli are in agreement, what I will do today is what they tell me; they came with me in this mission now. I shall strike my points one by one (Okwum, agam akutusi ya aka ofu ofu, i.e., in my discourse I will proceed in a logical sequence].

 “I wrote an application (tinye akwukwo, lit. “put paper”) to become King because I am a son of Eze Chima, both on the right hand and the left hand. Now you will know how I am a son of Eze Chima: It was Eze Aroli who begat Chimedie; Chimedie begat Ijelekpe; Ijelekpe begat Onwudachi; Onwudachi begat… eh, mmm, eh….”

Audience: (Becomes rowdy in reaction to speaker’s evident weakness in knowledge of his own genealogy; this is really an embarrassment for him.)

Candidate: “Onwudachi begat Nnakando; Nnakando begat Emeka; Emeka begat Ikeme, who begat myself. Have you seen how it stands up (ka osili kwulu oto?”

Coming to my mother’s side, I am the son of Dei. Dei begat Onira; Onira begat Ejiaka; Ejiaka begat Azike, Azike begat Egwuatu, who begat my mother. That means that I am Dei….”

Audience: (Cheers him. It is an impressively Onitsha ingrown genealogy.)


“What I shall tell you today is the things I will do if I become King of Onitsha (which I shall be able to do). First is the matter about our land, how we took our land to give to other people. There are those who took the land and gave it on lease; if I am given a chance to rule you, I shall see about that matter (afu maka ya bu okwu).

Audience: (Begins applauding him continuously. The chief’s bell is rung to stop it. The ending of the statement constitutes a very weak promise for dealing with such a strong problem, and the sustained perfunctory applause marks this fact.)


“All those who are called the landowners, who have land in this town, I shall give them advice, explain to them what is a lease and what is freehold; he who takes our land to sell, and is paid, and then goes away and takes that money to achieve the Ozo title, to receive honor that way, and that ends it that is not good. What we want is lease; at every month you will be given some money (kobo kobo, “pennies”) each time. That is the first thing I shall see to.

“Next, if you look across Nkisi stream, there is our huge land over there, that land is not useful to us. If you go to Port Harcourt and Aba and other places, their lands are all made use of, because they have people who speak for them in government. The Agriculture Department people are in Nkwelle; from Nkwelle to Onitsha is not up to six miles; what prevents the government from seeing that land not lie there for nothing, when we are the owners? There are some people to whom the government gives money, to tell the people to work on their farms and get food. But we seem to wait for the people of Ogbunike and Anam to bring yams to us for eating.

“Again, if you go to other places, you will see that the white people (oyibo) are bringing things called Industry. There is none yet that has come to Onitsha. I shall see that the white people put their eye on Onitsha. The land we have is plentiful for making Industry, so that the people of Onitsha may progress with their work.

“The next thing I shall do concerns the age grades (ogboo) in Onitsha. I will explain to them and help them start doing a good job, that it is not enough to go make Lamentation for the dead, or lavish feasts. The money they contribute month by month, nobody knows what good comes of it. Other towns give out Scholarships, or use their money to help the hospital (uno ogwu, “medicine rooms”), or work of various kinds that God has made as good. I trust that explaining to these associations what to do with their money will be useful to Onitsha.

“Also it worries some of you that the position of our Chiefs in the Council of Onitsha is not right. Anybody who goes to the Council meeting will see that a person like Onowu of Onitsha, when he wants to speak, he must stand up. He will say, ‘Chairman, discuss things well….’ And he must raise his hand before he speaks. If this does not appear disrespectful to our Onowu, to myself who worked with the Council it seems disrespectful to me. But it is in your hands, it is you who put Onitsha to shame (ifele neme Onitsha). If I become the King of Onitsha, and rule you (chiba unu)….”

Audience: (Becomes unruly, there is laughter at these rather tactless remarks and this dictatorial phrasing. Some people jeer at the candidate.)

Orator spokesman: “Welcome to all of you! Listen to the speech!”


“If I am given the chance, the Instrument which the Government made to form Onitsha Council, it will not be like that in my presence; in particular, the Chiefs: when they come into the Council, we will know that they are the rulers of the town. The Chairman will be there, but no one who comes into this town will tell our (Prime Minister) the Onowu to sit down!

“And again, you have seen when they made the Eastern House, there was one called “The House of Chiefs.’ You see some Chiefs there who are called ‘First Class Chiefs,’ they are not Chiefs at all but they fill up that place at Enugu. But before we started ruling ourselves (before Independence), the government recognized our Senior Chiefs as ‘First Class Chiefs.’ But there are none of our Senior Chiefs at Enugu in the House of Chiefs’, because it has become question of payment, and that stops at the usual place where it stops. Our Senior Chiefs whom we call ‘First Class Chiefs’ have become ‘Third Class Chiefs.’ If I were given a chance, I shall ask about it (aju ese ya).”

Audience: (Laughs at him. After his extended build up of the case, the concluding sentence is again far too weak as an statement of plans or will for action.)

Candidate: “Another thing, those Chiefs who give our King a hand in ruling the town, my mind tells me they do not now have much voice (onu rinne). If I am given a chance, I shall make them have power (ka ike di fa n’obi).

“In our town, if a man has not taken Ozo title, when he speaks it is said that his speech has no benefit. But among those who are not titled there are some who have the strength to rule, and if I become King I will use them to give hands to the Senior Chiefs and to advise me.”

Audience: (Applause.)


“Again, our women called Ikporo Onicha (Women of Onitsha), it is clear in your eyes that it has been a long time they suffered about things concerning this town. The efforts they are making, the sacrifices they make (afa nine fa n’agba), we the men do not feel it in our body (emetu anyi na aru). If we were to give them hand, think with them, I am sure they will tell us, saying this is what we want to do. If I am given a chance, I shall help the women.

Concerning our custom (odina ani anyi), if I were given a chance, it will not be touched before me (ma kpa ya aka n’irum, during my reign), it will stay as it is, because in whiteman’s country (obodo oyibo), if you enter into their church (uno uka fa), there are ghosts there (ndi mmuo di si ya).

Audience: (Applause.)


“I went to the white man’s country, that is why I am saying it. I saw it with my own eyes. There are church people of different types in this town. They need our help. I shall not become a King and deny the church. I shall help them in money and prayer. I will also make you (emekwu ka unu) the people of my town help them. Whether they be the Fathers (Roman Catholic), or Church Missionary Society, whichever you are. If there is trouble for you, you will be helped. If they want land, there will be a consideration to give them land.

“I left this Onitsha two years ago. And up to this time since I left Onitsha, things did not go well. I do not mean you were not living. But our roads have all spoiled; they have stopped putting in lights, they have not progressed (agaro n’iru).”

Audience: (Applause.)


“The water that you drink, the way it was when I left is still the way it is now. But if you go down to the Waterside (otu), things are better. The Inland Town (enu onicha is (the real) Onitsha, the people in the Waterside are those who came to live with us (ndi bialu binyelu anyi). When I was here (as Town Clerk), I tried to ensure that when the Waterside got a share, the Inland Town also got one. But now it all goes to the Waterside. If I were King, it will not happen.”

Audience: (Applause.)


“You remember that last time it was said that the Onitsha Council will have a loan from government, we were to be granted 500,000 pounds for working on the roads. It will be sweet to me (oga asom ka, I shall be interested), because I know how much I suffered when the (Onitsha Main) Market was built.

“It will also be my duty to see that those who came to live with us (ndi bialu binyelu anyi), the strangers (ndi ani madu), and the Onitsha people are living in peace (bi na ndokwa). It will not be sweet for me that we drive them away (chupu) or cheat (megide) them. But I will not permit them to put their hands into the things of Onitsha. Also, in this Onitsha Inland Town, no strangers will encroach on our land.”

Audience: (Applause.)

Candidate: “You have heard what I said. You know very well who I am.”

Audience: “Yes.”


“I shall not tell many stories to say what I have done for Onitsha. But I shall put down one or two. You know that the thing that makes Onitsha wonderful is your Onitsha land, our heritage (ife anyi kwudolo, “what we met”). I fought to keep it. You know the day the agreement was signed to build the new Onitsha market, there were people on the council who said that it will not be built. I had many sleepless nights on that. I worked on them until their minds cooled and they signed the paper for me. And from the beginning to the end I saw it being built. And while it was being built I don’t think there was anything bad you heard about it.”

Audience: “No!”


“Again, you know how bad the Ugwu-na-Obamkpa Road was before. I worked to improve it, but the council stood in my way. I went behind their backs and arranged to improve it; they put in the new road and told me to carry on!”

Audience: (Applause.)


“There is another thing I saw in the paper you made: that the King will know book and will have strength of heart. If I am a coward, you all know it. If I am a hero, you know it. But I shall state one thing. There was something I did to make you of Onitsha wonderful. In 1936, there was the day that was the first time our Obi Okosi left Onitsha to go to a foreign place. He came to Enugu, and climbed upstairs to see how our white man’s administrative office was. A European (oyibo) stood there and refused to let him pass. The Igwe was there, Francis Onowu was there, also Obianwu, the Ogene, Odu Mbanefo was there, Nwosisi was there, Nnoka was there; my people, it was an impasse; everyone was afraid. But I stood up and elbowed that man into a side corner!”

Audience: (Applause.)

Ikeme’s speech is regarded by local critics as a good effort, its main strength lying in its direct forcefulness and assertiveness. He makes some points concerning aspects others missed, or less pointedly emphasized. Especially relevant are the matters involving relations between Ndi Onicha and Ndi Igbo (focally the issues of land sales and relations between elected Council leaders and the Obi and Ndichie), which draws considerable applause.

But his effort is also significantly flawed, first because he shows no competence in the use of appropriate Igbo proverbs, which implies insufficient depth of familiarity with traditional customs (and too much involvement in English terminology instead). Second, he presents an impeccable genealogy, but momentarily forgets one of its vital links (an inexcusable faut pas for an Onitsha public speaker). Third, although he wisely and fairly effectively grounds his qualifications in his own past record of administrative work as Onitsha Town Clerk (during which time a number of important amenities of proven value to the indigenes were developed in the town), he couples this chronicling of his own achievements with both pedantic efforts to “educate” his audience, and makes some harping implied or explicit criticisms of Onitsha people themselves (Will the people listen to what I say, since I have not given them any wine?; I will show the age gradests what to do with their money (instead of squandering it, as they do now); “It is you who put Onitsha to shame….”). Such negative and condescending imputations toward the audience implies that they are not only ignorant, inferior in knowledge to experts in bureaucratic language like himself, but also perhaps corrupt (an accusation from which the candidate himself suffered considerably near the end of his tenure as the Onitsha Town Clerk). Fourth, his peremptory “When I rule you…” and other like phrases are regarded as excessively arrogant. While assertiveness is desired in contestants, his seems somewhat extreme, especially in light of his great tardiness in pursuing his candidacy; he has just now arrived in town.

These features, associated with an open implication that effective government necessitates “going behind people’s backs” and with his strong support of Christian church activities in the town, produces an ambience that reminds many in the audience too much of past Onitsha politics and makes them uncomfortable about the speaker’s prospective intentions as a King.

On the other hand,  though he would never become seriously in the running compared with the three foremost contenders, and had not (as he mentions at the outset of his Igbo presentation) at this time even done any significant campaigning or made any formal ritual steps, his speech in English created fewer negative effects and received more positive responses than did the one just translated from Igbo. It was assessed as well written and forcefully, effectively, and concisely delivered. Audience responses reflected these differences.

At the conclusion of all the speeches, the Ogene as presiding Senior Chief stands before the assembled crowd and asked of them: “Do you want the Committee to assemble and make their vote, to choose who will be our one candidate from those who now stand before us?” With a thunderous affirmation the multitude gives them its mandate. He then adds, addressing the candidates, that they should submit their manifestos written in English to the Committee to aid it in its decision. The crowd then disperses, the Special Committeemen leaving the Native Court with the view that they have a clear mandate for what now must be done. They arrange a tentative time for the special meeting where they will gather to vote in a secret ballot.

6. The urgent task of assessment

At the end of the competition, many spectators express bewilderment both at the rich diversity of ideas and perspectives presented, and at the range of qualifications displayed by the candidates who spoke. Several members of the Committee ask rhetorically, “How can we select from among all these fine people one man to lead us? How can we ever manage to agree?” Aware as they are that Enwezor is probably at this very time celebrating his own presentation to the Chiefs, and that the Committee is deeply divided by virtue of its lineage-segmented representation, the Conference also understands that a clear decision and one which will engender strong consensus within the community as a whole is essential, and must come no later than a few days ahead. But many doubt it can be done (though on the basis of this contest it appears that three men stand well above the others).

  1. More representative descriptions and comparisons of Onitsha speechmaking will appear in later pages of this Chapter. []
  2. As written down by the Ajie for later submission to the Committee.  How close this rendering was to his verbatim performance is problematic, but it does provide a model of his public speaking style.  Later examples of his extemporaneous speaking in Igbo will better exemplify his oratorical skills (see   []
  3. The tape recorder was working properly at this point and his speech in English was tape recorded  verbatim.  I do not believe that he spoke in Igbo, but am uncertain about this. []
  4. The one ancestral name he does mention, Enendu, itself arouses a murmur in the crowd because Enendu was the historical figure whose behavior in a kingship struggle in the 1870s led to subsequent and repeated efforts to disqualify his entire segment from future competition for the throne. (See Chapter  Four, Umu-Eze-Aroli and other Royals.) Onyechi’s written application in English was quite different from the audiotaped account of his voice, but displayed similarly vague and rambling qualities. []
  5. The following summary describes the tape- recorded English version, though the two presentations followed closely parallel courses. []
  6. Note, in what follows, that I indicate terms rendered in English by displaying them underlined. []
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