Pre-colonial History of Nigeria: The Story of the Igbo People

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Pre-colonial History

Delving into the pre-colonial history of Nigeria unveils a rich tapestry of cultural heritage, and a significant chapter in this narrative belongs to the Igbo people.

The Igbo people have variously been described as segmentary or acephalous people. This is because the people had no centralized states and operated a kind of government without kings.

The history of the people just like most Nigerian societies has been the subject of much speculation. Some of the traditions have it that the people migrated to their present location from either the north or middle east. Others believed that they had been in their present abode from the beginning. To this latter group, Igbo land is the centre of creation.

According to oral traditions such as that of the Nri, the ancestor of the Igbo, Eri descended from the sky and sailed down the river Anambra and arriving Ageleu, met some autochthonous group which had no living memory of their own and settled with them. As their population increased, some groups migrated to other parts of Igboland to establish their own settlements. Another tradition points to somewhere in the present Awka or Orlu clans as the centre of origin from where they dispersed to other areas. Some groups such as Umuri claim to have migrated to their present area from Idah. The Onitsha and the Igbo on the other side of the River Niger (Delta Igbo), claim Benin Origin. These various traditions are however difficult to reconcile due to the limited knowledge by historians of the past of the Igbo. Unlike other ethnic groups such as the Benin and Oyo where there were professional historians in the palaces, none of such people existed in Igboland as there were no equivalents of Oba and Alaafin and palaces, over most part of Igboland.

Another popular version of the migratory story of origin of the Igbo people is the one that points to Isreal. As a result of the so-called similarities between the culture of the Igbo and the ancient Hebrew, some scholars have speculated that the Igbo people might have been one of the lost tribes of the Hebrew who migrated southward. However, modern scholars no longer take this tradition seriously as it is based on the now infamous Hamitic hypothesis.

Political organizations of the Igbo people

As mentioned earlier, the Igbo have variously been described as acephalous, segmentary and fragmentary people. This is because, unlike other ethnic groups in Nigeria such as the Bini’s and the Yoruba’s, they did not build any strong centralized states. The village was, therefore, the center of government which has been described as direct democracy. This means that all lineages including all male adults in the village participated in its political process. Among the instruments of government were the age grades or age set and titled societies. One of the institutions of government was the Amala Oha which was a form of the general assembly. In this assembly, all adult male members met to perform legislative functions. In ancient times, the meetings of these assemblies were held in the open village square. The decisions of these assemblies in matters affecting the village or individual were final. In Igbo society, the life of every individual was highly respected and recognized in the society was not based on family background but on individual capability and age. The elders were highly respected because they formed the core of village administration. In the same way, hardworking and wealthy individuals were also respected and given important responsibilities in society. Just like other ethnic groups in Southern Nigeria, the male population was divided into age set or age grade corresponding with the youth, middle age or able bodied men and elders. Each age set had its own special rights, duties, obligations and responsibilities in matters affecting the village.

This was the system before the imposition of colonial rule on Nigeria. When the British could not find a man of authority who they would use in their indirect rule system in Igboland, they decided to create “a man of authority” by appointing certain individuals (such as those who assisted the British in their conquest of the towns and villages and in some cases, messengers and carriers to British invading forces) in the society as “Kings”. These appointees who were given government paper of authority  “warrant” and made to preside over the affairs of their communities, were known as “warrant chiefs”. These “warrant chiefs” in later years metamorphosed into Eze and Obi and if one looks closely, one will find out that some of the so-called Obi, Eze and “red cap” chiefs in Igboland today are the progeny of warrant chiefs appointed by the British in their years of exploitation of Nigeria.


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Hello readers, you are welcome to your info connect. My name is Emmanuel, I am a graduate Mechanical Engineer, a blogger, and Digital Marketer. I share educational and career information and content to enable viewers who are aiming for success to attain it in their various fields. I hope you enjoy your tour here.

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