The Ijaw


The Ijaw, also called Ijo, Ejo, Izon, Ezon, Ejon, Uzon, or Ujon from the name of the founding ancestor Ujo or Ojo, appear to be one of the oldest populations living in the Cross River/Niger Delta region of Nigeria and claim to have lived in their current location for over 7,000 years. Their language has no immediate cognates, which helps support the idea that they speak a unique language called Izon and belong to the Ijoid family of the Niger-Congo phylum, some Ijaw claim they origi-nated in Upper Egypt while others say in South Africa. They number over 14 million people, or 10 percent of Nigeria’s popula-tion, and are broken up into a number of subgroups, including the Ibanji, Okrika, Kalabari, Nemba, Akassa, and Defka.

It appears that the Ijaw have lived in the Delta region before the fifth millennium BCE, and they were able to keep a sepa-rate identity because they lived where the agriculturally dependent Bunue-Kwa groups were unable to penetrate. Ijaw eco-nomics were based on fishing; they dried and salted fish for trade with agricultural-ists for yams and other goods. In addition, the Ijaw had direct access to the sea and also traded sea shells as ornamentation and salt to inland group.In the 12th century, a number of states grew, and by the 16th century, the Ijaw formed a number of powerful kingdoms with strong central rule. In the 15th cen-tury, they came into contact with Euro-pean traders and became involved as middlemen supplying slaves.

Around 95 percent of Ijaw are Chris-tians today, but the remainder follows the traditional religion. Traditional religion involves both ancestor worship and water spirits, or owuamapu, who do not share form or emotions with humans. Ancestral sprits watch over the living and, in honor of them, bits of food from a meal are offered. In addition, traditional religion has divination as part of its practice. It is noted that some of the traditional practices of the Ijaw are similar to those of the Igbo in elaborate wooden carvings, dance, masks, and music.

British colonization of the Ijaw took place between 1884 and 1894 as different states were forced to agree to be British protectorates. It took until 1902 to bring the whole of the Delta area under British control with the defeat of the Igbo. Many of the Ijaw converted to Christianity and sought better jobs through education.Nigeria became independent in 1960 and became a republic in 1963. The crisis of the Biafra War from 1967 to 1970 greatly impacted all of the southern part of Nigeria, though the Ijaw did not support the Igbo attempt for independence.

Ijaw “rebellion” began later with the discovery of oil in their part of the country.Feeling denied most of the financial benefits of the oil monies, they have become embroiled in conflict with the government. While they are able to take advantage of higher-paying jobs, they have not seen the social improvements they would like. The conflict has escalated with Shell Oil rigs and Shell employees being taken over or kidnapped by Ijaw militants. A major issue the Ijaw see is the environmental damage caused by oil exploration and pumping stations, which impacts fishing and other aspects of their livelihood. In 2010, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, himself an Ijaw, was sworn in as the acting president of the republic in response to further threats of violence on the part of Ijaw youth.

Further Reading

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.

Falola, Toyin. Culture and Customs of Nigeria. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

“Ijaw and Ibo Beliefs: Self, Soul, and After- life.” _Religions/Other_religions/ijaw_and_ibo _beliefs.htm (accessed May 28, 2010).

“Ijaw History.” (accessed May 28, 2010).

“Ijawnation.” (accessed May 28, 2010).

“Nigeria: Swear-in Jonathan or Leave Our Oil, Ijaw Youths Declare.” .html (accessed May 28, 2010).