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The Igbo People Lived In The Southeastern Nigeria History Essay

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Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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The Igbo people lived in the southeastern part of Nigeria in West Africa. Its people are among the most numerous ethnic nationalities in sub-Saharan Africa (Afigbo:1981) with a population estimated at about fourteen million people in Nigeria. One main important feature of the Igbo group is that they are regarded as one of the most widely cited examples of a non centralized society in sub Saharan African (Falola. 2005). This point was buttress by (Afrigbo: 1981) when he mentioned that the Igbo did not have a central political organization in spite of its great size and population.

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Igbo is one of the languages that the field of linguistics designates as Kwa, a sub-group of Niger Congo group of languages. The Igbo language perhaps emerged among the native speakers over 6,000 years ago. (Armstrong, 1964) To date, there is not comprehensive or reliable historical information on whether the language was first spoken elsewhere before the people entered the region where they have lived during the modern period. The Igbo people can be found in the area between Igala, the Cross River and Niger delta cities of Nigeria. The people are divided into five major cultural groups, the western or Riverine, Northern or Awka, Owerri, Cross River, and Ogoja Igbo. These cultural groups were considered by the colonial powers to be the ‘tribes’ of the Igbo society (Equiano, 1960).

The cultural groups include Awka, Nri, Ihiala, Owerri, Agbor, Ebu, Enugu, Eziko, Afikpo, Azumimi, and Asaba. These Igbo peoples share similar linguistic, socio-political, economic, and religious activities. However, each cultural group in Igbo society has its own distinctive customs, traditions, and institutions that distinguish them from one another.

Like many other groups, the Igbo have a number of competing stories explaining their origin. Some have suggested that the Igbo people were perhaps the so-called lost tribes of Israel, as they, like the Jews, practiced circumcision, confined women for a specific purification period after childbirth, and named their children after specific events or experiences that occurred within their community. (Equaino, 1960) However, there is no general comprehensive oral tradition of history binding all Igbo people. Some believe that they had always lived where they now and did not come from anywhere else, while others believed that their forefathers came from Egypt or Israel. This mythological idea of their origins has largely been abandoned since the 1930s, due to the absence of any useful evidence to buttress the claim that they originated from Israel or Egypt.

Among the Igbo people, young people are expected to respect their elders and obey certain cultural rules and regulation guiding the operation of the society. However, the Igbo people were highly individualistic and egalitarian; everyone in the society is believed to be good as others and therefore has a voice in the local affairs of the Igbo community.

The environment of the people is also an important point to mention. In the Delta Igbo region of Asaba, the land is very low lying but intersected by innumerable creeks and swampy areas (Basden, 1921). The dry season begins early in October to in March. In between this perios, a slight rain will fall, ushering in the harmattan season. During this period, there is excessive dryness as well as a dull haze, caused by minute particles of dust that obscure the sun. Between April and September, there are usually heavy downpours at intervals (Basden, 1921).

In the hinterland of Igbo society, the vegetation consists mainly of scrubs and jungle grass with big patches of moorland in the town. Extensive and picturesque clumps of trees are scattered about, indicating, the presence of town and villages or marked as places earmarked for burial ground. The soil of the Igbo region is reddish and sandy, except in certain hilly spots that are stoneless. The land of the Igbo region is of poor quality for agricultural purposes, and much labor is involved for which there is frequently no adequate return. The plant mostly found among the Igbo people includes the giant elephant-grass, the shorter jungle grass, and other varieties called “Ata”, or spear grass.

On the western side of the Igbo region, particularly in Agbor, Asaba, and Ibuzo, a large part of the community is covered by forest. The arable land for farming is much more fertile. In fact, great quantities of agricultural products such as yam, cocoyams, cassava, and vegetables are raised and labor is highly rewarded. The palm tree dominates among the trees found in the Igbo region. The people uses the palm trees and their products in the preparation of food, raffia palm for building, as well as using it for timbers, unlike the eastern Igbo community of Nnewi, Aba, Onitsha, and Enugu, where they have red soil containing ferrous iron which is not a good property for agricultural crops to grow.

Among the Igbo people, religion is a mixture of human and spiritual being. (Mbiti, 1975) The human categories consist of the priests, diviners and ritual elders who conduct religions worship and sacrifices to the gods. The Igbo people practice the worship of ancestors in groves of their ancestors (Arinze, 1975). Sacrifice in Igbo indigenous religion is performed in the town to ward off evil spirits, to petition the ancestors, and as expressions of thanksgiving. The people believe in supernatural deities or spirits such as anyanwu (the god of the sun), Igwe, (the god of the sky), and ale or ane (the god of the earth). In the tradition of the people, the gods of the town are the ancestors of the people there, who contribute to the maintenance of solidarity in the community, friendship, and love amongst its members. The spirits in Igbo society are varied from one Igbo society to another. They are located or animated in rivers, trees, road junctions, ward places, mountains, and hills. They are regarded in Igbo belief as the guardian spirits, which may be benevolent or mischievous, lovable or fearful. Examples of some of these spirits in Igbo community are the god of fertility and the water spirit.

Christianity is also a major religion found among the people. Christianity was brought to Igboland through Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Anglican missionaries. The missions were responsible for the establishment of Western education that became widely accepted by the people to gain literacy and honor within the church and society at large. Unlike Christianity, Islam is seldom found among the Igbo people except in Afikpo (Ottinberg, 1971), an Igbo village where the entire clan converted to Islam.

The wider and most popular tradition of origin among the Igbo people and historians is that the people first lived in the area known as the “Nri” complex but later moved to other areas dominated by the Igbo speaking people in Nigeria. Furthermore, archaeological evidence has shown that Nri-Awka Orlu region is the first area of settlement where the people live oral tradition had it that the earliest settlers of this area engaged in fruit gathering and hunting as their main pre-occupation. Later, they proceeded to search for wider space to sustain their livelihood. Conflicts among them also led to their dispersion which made them to settle in several other towns located in the Igbo speaking region. In the course of their migration, the Igbo people ensured they maintain their contact through the amalgamation of various villages informally to form confederations and to work out a common line of defense and other cooperative ventures.

The Nri civilization is believed to be the birthplace of Igbo culture and civilization. Bronze works have been excavated dating to the ninth century in the area. The bronzes excavated in this area were regarded as excellent in quality among anthropologists and art historians.

Politically, the Igbo system of government centered on the village cleans with close associations outside the immediate kinship groups. Since everyone has a right to rise in the society, the Igbo political tradition emphasized competition between families, lineages and clans. (Anene, 1956). The political structure of the Igbo speaking people in southeastern Nigeria is based on marriage affiliations and religious associations to bind the people in the community. These institutions have special significance in the promotion and maintenance of law and order in the Igbo settlement.

The political geography of Igboland is reflected in the village structure, clan and lineage of the people. The Igbo people are usually divided according to their clan and lineage within their community. The wards were grouped around the large village market that operated every four or eight days depending on its size and importance. Every ward in the town has its own group made up of extended families whose compounds were close together. The Igbo political organization has two distinctive in institutions namely the Ama-ala (council of Elders) and the assembly of citizens. These two institutions usually come together to deliberate on issues that affect the general relationship that happen among different people living in the settlement. It is through these institutions that people in the community have assess to fair hearing, fairness and social justice. In the maintenance of justice in the community families of lineage heads were responsible for rituals and sacrifices to a particular clan or lineage. These sacrifice in the Igbo context where used to maintain peace, prosperity and happiness of the Igbo people. In addition, the rituals conducted by family lineage also help to remind the people of their common ancestry and unite the group of Igbo people within and outside their environment.

The political system of Igbo society is non-centralized except for among a few groups where kingship political tradition exist. The Nri community is believed among the people to be the oldest kingship system found among the Igbo people. This practice is unlike other areas in Igbo society, where no central authority is recognized in the organization and administration of the town. They developed an elaborate and highly ritualized priest kingship around which rich Igbo traditions have survived. Furthermore, the Igbo people developed a vital political structure by organizing highly developed secret societies used as an instrument of social control. (Afigbo, 1981).

In Igbo culture, the production of goods and services primarily depends on the ownership and control of land. Land ownership is usually a private affair, controlled by the elders of a clan or family. Farming was the dominant economic activity of the people during the pre-colonial period. Igbo farming revolves around the contribution of entire household. The distribution of agricultural labor within households is shared depending on the farm size in the community (Buchanan, 1976). Another sector of the Igbo economy of critical importance to the Igbo community is art and craft production. The discovery of the Igbo Ukwu bronze shows clearly that the people have been engaged in trade with their neighbors for such items such as bronze, and carnelian beads from markets in the Sudan and beyond (Oguntomisin and Edo, 2005).

In addition, archaeological evidence as shown that the Igbo Ukwu potters were making well-fired and durable pottery of excellent quality. Igbo pottery can be found in diverse forms and for utilitarian purposes, with exquisite finishing that include banished and elaborate decorations. These pottery products produced have been largely sold in commercial quantity between the Igbo people and their neighbors. The Igbo are arguably one of the most entrepreneurial groups in Nigeria. They have been known for trading in different types of manufactured goods such as computers, mobile phones, electronics, machines, auto parts, and pharmaceutical drugs.

Oladiti Abiodun Akeem

Further Reading

Afigbo, A.E. Ropes of the Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture. Oxford: University Press (in association with Oxford University Press), 1981.

Alagoa, A.E. “The Indigenous political systems of Igbo.” Tarikh 4:2 (1973).

Anene, J. C. “Benin, Niger Delta, Ibo and Ibibio peoples in the Nineteenth century.” In Ajayi and Espie (ed.) A Thousand years of West African History. London: Evans Brothers, 1965.

Arinze, F. A. “Sacrifice in Igbo Religion”. In J. S. Mbiti (ed.) An Introduction to African Religion. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975.

Armstrong, R. G. The Study of West African languages. Ibadan, Nigeria: Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, 1964.

Basden, G. T. Among the Ibos of Nigeria. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott, 1921.

Equiano, O., “Ibo society in mid century.” In Hogkin (ed.), Nigerian Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Falola, T. Simon Ottenberg: An Introduction in Igbo Art and Culture and other Essays by Simon Ottenberg. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2005.

Oguntomisin, D. and Edo, V. O. African Culture and Civilization. Ibadan, Nigaria: General Studies Programme, University of Ibadan, 2005.

Okpoko, A. I. and Ibeanu, A. M. (2005) “Igbo civilization: An Archoelogical and historical Ethnographic profile.” In Ogundiran (ed.), Pre-colonial Nigeria: Essays in honor of Toyin Falola. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2005.

Ottenberg, S. “A Moslem Ibo village.” Cahiers d’ Etudes Africans 2 (1971).

Shaw, T. Igbo-Ukwu: An Account of Archaeological discoveries in Eastern Nigeria. London. University Press Limited, 1971.


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