Dear Reno Omokri,
It is with a sense of mortification that I write this open letter to you considering that I had reached out to you on Instagram with a book proposal but then deleted the messages a few hours later. I used the ‘unsend’ tab. This was many moons ago.
But this is not why I am writing you today; what transpired in the past has found for itself a cozy home in the past and wouldn’t take kindly to exhumation. Instead, I am writing you about something pertinent, because of posterity.
I’d like to dig into history and dredge up what I learnt about our people, the Igbo people, who are multilingual; each clan, with their authentic dialect and the unification of people into distinct groups thus creating organic boundaries along these lines. Not everything started with colonialism. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Igbo towns had borders, villages knew where their boundaries ended. People were coordinated, too.
Sometime in 1620 when the Benin Empire was invaded by the Portuguese and Italians who came from Ethiopia, a certain merchant, Obua Ajukwu, led the migratory movement of the Bini people down west, passing through Uriapele. And this happened when Oba Ohuan died.
Amongst the Bini people whom Obua Ajukwu took with him were Oba Ohuan’s servants and warriors, and it was to the hinterland where there was water that he took them.
Here is the story, so you can allay your confusion:
Odogbo was the only surviving son of Oba Ehengbuda. He was installed about 1602 and took the title Oba Ohuan.
He was aware of the violation of his father’s wife by Iyase Ogina and was determined to avenge this action. He ordered Iyase Ogina to vacate the City. Iyase Ogina advised the young Oba to be patient, but the Oba refused. Ogina then agreed to leave but he would take the city with him. They then resorted to a test of supernatural strength in which Ogina had initial advantage.
Oba Ohuan was advised to strengthen his supernatural powers and so he went to Evbuohuan where he fortified himself for several months before returning to the city to be joined by the chiefs. They ordered Ogina to leave the city, then effected this order by throwing eggs, snails and tortoises at him while they swore, “you have been quenched and will vacate Benin”.
Ogina left and settled in Okogo.
In the course of this struggle, Oba Ohuan attained such renown that spread far and wide, becoming a famed doctor, physician and telepathist. He died childless around 1656 and was succeeded by a great grandson of Oba Orhoghua who was installed with the title Ahenzae. Five other princes from various Obas followed in succession namely Akenzae, Akengboi, Akenkpaye, Akengbedo and Oreoghene.
My mother, Ona, who is from Oguta, was born and raised in the aristocratic family of Obua Ajukwu. Infact, the descendants of Obua Ajukwu are scattered all over the world as intellectuals, politicians, teachers, writers, filmmakers and they are well versed in the history of how Bini people arrived on the shores of Oguta Lake.
What you, Reno, forgot is that during the Dark Ages, from the 6th to 14th century, anybody could own a slave, especially in Igbo land. The Portuguese did not arrive Edo first. They were received by the Yoruba people who earlier had brought their servants and translators into contact with the Oba of Bini. This contact was successful in building understanding between the two peoples due to the very closeness of the Yoruba and Bini languages.
Now, let us look at the Itsekiri. Like many confused Igbo people who say that they come from Israel, the Itsekiri person also claims that he came from Egypt.
Dear Reno, can you explain this? Or don’t you understand the aesthetics of linguistics? You claim that similarities in dialects or names show that the Igbos were slaves to the Itsekiri. What you chose to forget is that the words you see have been anglicised and that nobody wrote English amongst your people; one can decide to subvert history to prove their points.
I created a table for you and I hope this can help you see these words that are similar and may sound the same, accordingly belonging to the same Bantu language – just as many words in Shona sound like Igbo words.
History shouldn’t be distorted in this era to suit your thoughts. A myth can’t be discarded because you think Africans can’t decipher when one is saying the truth.
If I may remind you, even Igbo people in Imo speak different languages; it is important that one should be aware that describing these languages as dialects is deceptive.
Oguta language is not a dialect, according to Oguta people. Oguta is in Imo State. Normally, it should be called Igbo land, but the people of Oguta refuse to be called Igbo people. There is also Egbema and Ohaji – this develops a link to Ijaw, as we know that in cultural identification, the Oguta people share similar cultural similarities with the Ijaw people; and that those who live in the riverine areas live in similar fashion.
It is important to remember that slavery was well in vogue in the 14th century and according to speculations, Itsekiri people had not arrived at their current geographical location until the 16th century; however, Igbo people have existed hundreds of years before the Itsekiri came to their current settlement.
Does history make anyone feel dizzy? Is it hard to look at facts and history before making statements that can’t be verified? What you have done is to kick off a conversation, which is good, but this should be done well – linking all the things that the Europeans saw and then decided among themselves that this country should be lumped together. They listened to the languages and compared and contrasted the cultures and traditions, even religions.
According to the book, In Truth for Justice and Honour by Austine S.O. Okwu, “… Igbo slaves, who were in the slave holding pens were settled in plantations in Calabar in the 19th century from which they were, as occasions demanded, picked and ritually slaughtered at ceremonies and royal burials by the Egbo, the Efik free-born secret society about which missionaries had written extensively. The slaves, in order to stop their extermination, which in fact was the primary purpose for their immolation in large numbers, banded together and took the blood oath, igba ndu, to resist their masters and the secret society. The slaves saw their salvation in solidarity and in resolute action against a formidable common enemy.”
So, I think you, Reno, created your version of the slave narrative, to suit yourself. This is wrong, because from what I know, as a student of history, yes, there was “considerable mistrust and lack of confidence among Ndigbo because of the fact that the Aro were in cohort with the Ijaw slave agents in the slave traffic in Igbo land.”
It’s shocking how you interjected the osu narrative with an unintelligible remark. I would like to give you a public lecture on the caste/class system in Igbo land: the Igbo class system appears complex to many. There are different castes.
The Igbo society was divided into different castes:
Diala/Dibia: they are the landowners and the diviners or priestly caste. They are mostly farmers, palm wine tappers, hunters. They are superior to other castes.
Nze na Ozo: the intellectual and warrior caste. They are direct descendants of Kings and Kingmakers. It is from this caste that Ndi Eze are chosen. They are the most powerful society of spiritual men.
Osu: the osu people are the caste of the rich, the wealthy and the travellers. Generally the osu caste comprises the merchants. Many of the osu people in Igbo land, prefer to live in foreign lands.
Ume: there are more Igbo people in this caste. Many of them are people who are not able to trace their genealogy.
Ohu: the ohu caste means the slave caste. Ohu means servant, so the great bulk of the Igbo population are in this caste, especially poor people with large families. Most of the ohu are peasants, artisans or others who work in manual labour, so this is where they end up becoming wealthy as grass to grace.
You can tell the caste of anyone by their surnames and titles.
Many other Igbo groups, especially the Abam, the Abariba, Ada and Ohafia were in the slave trade confederacy for a variety of reasons. In parts of Igbo heartland, Owerri and Ngwa, many of the leaders were in secret alliance with the Aro and allowed the latter free passage with their human cargo towards the coast. The arrangements and agreements promoted insecurity and quasi slave operations such as kidnapping of debtors and adversaries and selling them to the Aro in order to settle old scores. In Enugu and Northern Igbo grassland areas, slave raids were common. Thus, Igbo land was a place of considerable insecurity, mistrust and limited inter-community communication and association.
There were no references to the Itsekiri in all history texts I have read, enslaving Igbo land. Perhaps, Dear Reno, you can show us where historians recorded it. Oral history is fine too. We will need to know how this happened.
For some reason, I reflected on what you have written and I have my fellow Igbo people to blame. We cannot be crypto-Igbo when it comes to the demonstration of the authenticity of our Igboness. To lament about marginalisation, while playing second fiddle with our language and history and at the same time, engaging in the language and dressing styles patronising those of the groups who are marginalising us is certainly both sad and disappointing. Such acts reinforce those forces that are deliberately consigning us to the cultural and political marginalia in Nigeria.
Like they say, we should not hunt with the hound and run with the hare.
What you, Reno, is trying to do, is to place the Itsekiri tribe on a pedestal that is too big for it, by distorting history – to make people think you are from a strong and formidable tribe. This is good. Everyone should do that for their tribe without bathing themselves in grievous falsehood.
By occupying Sapele, Warri, Burutu, and Forcados, one can’t see how a people created from Yoruba ripples can suddenly have the courage to enslave a race that is known for its warriors. I have heard of slaves having slaves, but a tribe, jettisoned in confusion, borrowing names from the Yoruba, the Igbo and the Edo, it is not hard to think Reno never ever took a class in History.
My mother, a lineal descendant of Obua Ajukwu, would say, “This is the folklore of Idu and Oba,” which means that everything you, Reno, said is codswallop, tosh, havers, flapdoodle, blathers and applesauce.
–Onyeka Nwelue, a writer & filmmaker, studied sociology and anthropology