The Igbo People


The Igbo or Ibo ethnic group occupies the Lower Niger Basin in the area now known as southeastern Nigeria. Before amalga-mation in 1914, the Igbo (Ibo) were organ-ized into several decentralized patriarchal units without a hierarchical political struc-ture that characterized the social structures of their neighbors to the north and south-west, the Hausa and the Yorubas.Igbo people are culturally homogenous, and members are united by one language with minor local dialectic variations.

There are two types of Igbo people, the Upland Igbo and the Lowland Igbo, the majority of whom still live in rural settings. In all of Africa, the Igbo ethnic group is credited for having the most democratic political system because of a clear absence of the chieftaincy system until the British invaded the area toward the end of the 19th century. In a desperate search for leaders, the British colonial officials imposed upon the Igbo a system of war-rant chiefs whereby noted Igbo merchants, who had collaborated with the British offi-cials, were appointed warrant chiefs to rule on behalf of the British Crown.

Today, Igbo people number between 15 million and 20 million people, depending on which census one relies on.In some oral tradition, the Igbo were supposed to have migrated from southern Africa, probably a breakaway band of the Zulu (Nguni) or another Bantu ethnic group. They originally settled in the con-fluence of the Niger-Benue River before migrating southward toward the Lower Niger Basin. Other oral traditions state that Igbo migrated from Egypt, passed through the Sudan, and headed southward to their current location in the Lower Niger Basin much like the stories of the Hausas and Yorubas of the same country.

However, more recent historical evidence suggests that the majority of the Igbo people, especially those in large cities like Onitsha, the nerve of Igbo culture, migrated from the ancient city of Benin in the 16th century during the reign of Oba Esigie of Benin, who ruled his people from 1504 to 1550. It was at this time that the first contacts with the Portuguese were made. This suggests that most Igbo were originally part of the Edo ethnic group in present-day midwestern Nigeria, and most probably related as well to the Ibiobio speaking people, which are considered to be the closest Igbo neighbors.

The Igbo have a vibrant culture that many are proud of today and it is often displayed in their elegant mode of dress, characterized by a flowing gown, a red or black hat, and a walking stick.In many parts of Igboland, the patrilineal extended family system is the norm; however, there are pockets of matrilineal groupings in which women dominate all aspects of society. Polygamous marriage is widely practiced with a man having more than one wife; though there is no evidence of a woman having more than one husband.Most Igbo live under an extended family unit, which may include generations of related siblings.

Before embracing Christianity, Igbo practiced a unique form of traditional African religion, which may equate to ancestor worship. The main God is known as Chuckwu,whom the entire village worships, and it is widely recognized as the universal being, the creator. There are also other lesser gods called “Umuagbar,” and below these are the “Ndi Ichie” or spirits of the ancestors. Some Igbo subgrouping also worships their personal god called chi.AnIgbo man carries his chi in his pocket on his way to sell his wares in the market.If he returns with all his wares sold, he pours a drink of gin or palm wine as a libation to his lesser god (chi); but if he returns home without a good amount of sale, he throws the chi out of the window and replaces it with another one.

He settles on the one that brings him personal fortune. The Igbo people are more practical in their belief system; if the god does not provide, there is no need to worship such a deity.The traditional Igbo society was prob-ably the most democratic society in sub-Saharan Africa, with the village assembly being the basis of civil governance where ordinary citizens could have their say.

But with the appointment of the Warrant Chiefs by the British during the early phase of colonization, this democratic decision-making process was abolished and replaced by a British-style customary system of civil administration dominated by the emerging elite, most especially the warrant chiefs and the Igbo merchant class.

At the village level, the king or Eze rules his people with the assistance of “red-hat” chiefs decked in local red beads indicating their ranks. The Council of Elders also serves in an advisory capacity to the king and, together with the beaded chiefs, maintains order and stability in the village. However, with the advent of colonization, the traditional social struc-ture of Igbo society is increasingly giving waytoamodernwayoflife, with Chris-tianity replacing the old traditional belief system which is well described in Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart first published in 1958.

One of the most legendary personalities in Igbo modern history was Dr. Nnamidi Azikiwe, who was born in the northern Nigerian town of Zunguru on Novem-ber 16, 1904. Azikiwe attended the Lagos Methodist Boys’ High School before pro-ceeding to Lincoln and Howard univer-sities in the United States. While in the United States, he met leading African American scholars and social activists like Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, who encouraged him to attend the second Pan African Congress in Manchester in 1949, where the main issue of the conference was decoloniza-tion. Azikiwe returned to Africa first to Accra, Ghana, in 1934 to become the editor of the African Morning Post,a platform he used to promote his anti-colonization views.

When Nigeria was granted independence in 1960, Azikiwe became the first president of the country; a position he held before the first military coup of 1966. With the coup came the Bia-fra war, under the command of a young Igbo officer, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu.

The war brought much suffering to the Igbo and nation, and as a group, they suffered the worst calamity of their recent history. By the time the war ended in 1970, nearly 3 million Igbo people had been slaughtered by federal forces led by Hausa, Fulani (Fulbe), and Yoruba gener-als. The Biafra war is perhaps the first case of ethnic genocide in Africa, and possibly the most brutal.

Pade Badru

Further Reading

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.

Afigbo, A. E. Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture. Ibadan and Oxford: Ibadan University Press and Oxford Uni-versity Press, 1981.

Amadiume, Ifi. Afrikan Matriarchal Founda- tions: The Igbo Case. London: Karnack House, 1987.

Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Hus-bands: Gender and Sex in an African Soci-ety. London: Zed Books, 1987.

Anyanwu, U. D., and J. C. U. Aguwa, eds. The Igbo and the Tradition of Politics. Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1993.

Arinze, F. A. Sacrifice in Ibo Religion. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1970.

Basden, G. T. Niger Ibos. London: Frank Cass,1966.

Cole, Herbert, and Chike Aniakor. Igbo Arts:Community and Cosmos. Los Angeles: University of California, Museum of Cul-tural History, 1984.