The Igbo (Ibo) Jews of Nigeria, who some consider a community of “Yehudim Maghrebim” (North and West African Jews, note: Maghreb also means northern Africa, and is not exclusive to Ibos) are the Jewish component of the Igbo (Ibo) ethnic group whom are said to be descended from the southern and westward migrations of both ancient Semitic and later Jewish peoples from the Middle East into West Africa. This migration, said to have started more than 1500 years ago, is believed to have taken deeper roots in the region during the reign of the Dja (Dia) rulers of several Songhai Empire regions.
According to the record Tarikh es Soudan recorded by Abderrahman ben Abdallah es-Sadi (trad. O. Houdas) one such community was formed by a group of Egyptian Jews, who traveled by way of the Sahel corridor through Chad into Mali. Another such community was that of the Dji (Dia) ruler of Koukiya (located near the Niger river), whose name is only known as Dialliaman (or Dia min al Yaman) also called Za-al-Ayaman (meaning â€œHe comes from Yemenâ€). According to local legends Dialliaman (Za-al-Ayaman) was a member of one of the Jewish colonies transported from Yemen by the Abbysinians in the sixth century C.E. Dialliaman is said to have traveled into West Africa along with his brother, and eventually established a local Jewish community in Northern Nigeria.
Other sources say that other Jewish communities in the region from Morocco, Egypt, Portugal, and possibly even Gojjam Ethiopia made their way into West Africa by way of the Niger. Some communities are said to connected to the Jewish Berber population like a group of Kal Tamasheq known as Iddao Ishaak of Niger that traveled from North Africa into West Africa for trade, as well as those escaping the Islamic invasions into North Africa and Mali.
According to Igbo lore of the Eri, Nri, and Ozubulu families the Jewish Igbo ethnic groups are comprised of the following 3 lineage types:
- Benei Gath: Igbos said to have descended from tribe of Gath ben-Ya`aqov, who was the 8th son of the Israeli patriarch Ya`aqov (Jacob). This lineage is traced though Gath’s son Eri ben-Gath. The clans said to come from this lineage comprise of the Aguleri, Umuleri, Oreri, Enugwu Ikwu, Ogbunike, Awkuzu, Nteje, and Igbariam.
- Benei Zevulun: Igbos said to have descended from the tribe of Zevulun ben-Ya`aqov, who was the 5th son of Ya`aqov (Jacob). This lineage comprises of the Ubulu Okiti, Ubulu Ukwu, in Delta State, who settled in Ubulu Ihejiofor. According to tradition, it is said that a descendent of the tribe of Zevulun named Zevulunu, on the advice of an certain Levite, married a woman from Oji, whom descended from the tribe of Judah, and from this union was born Ozubulu ben-Zebulunu. It is said that Ozubulu then went on to have 4 sons of his own who settled into other parts of the region. These sons being: Amakwa, from whom a clan in Neni, Anambra State descended, and Egbema, from whom the Egbema Ugwuta clan in Imo State and the Ohaji Egbema clan in Rivers State descended.
- Benei Menash: Igbos whom it is theorized may be descendents of the tribe of Meneshsheh ben-Yoseph, who was one of the grandsons of Ya`aqov (Jacob) through his 11th son Yoseph (Joseph). According to the Torah Jacob claimed both Menashsheh and his brother Ephrayim as his own sons. It is theorized by some that this is the possible lineage of the Amichi, Ichi, Nnewi-Ichi clans.
It is also more than possible that certain Nigerian Jews in the Nri families may be descendents of Levitical (Levite Priests) migrants from Djerba, Tunisia whom were said to have left Judea and settled in North Africa before and after the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem. The most likely scenario is that the ancestors of the Igbos were made up of familiar clans of Israelis and Judaens whom, for various reasons, left Israel before and during the Assyrian and Babylonian sieges. This would explain how their oral tradition contains the specific tribes these clans originated from.
Groups called Godians and Ibrim maintained much of the Jewish traditions of the Igbo Jews. These groups maintained the Jewish traditions that the majority of the communities lost over time due to their isolation from the rest of Nigeria society. Certain Nigerian Jewish communities have been making increasing connections with world Jewry through the help of Israelis who work in Nigeria, out-reach organizations like Kulanu , and members of the Igbo Jewish community outside of Nigeria who underwent Giyyur Khelqi (Orthodox Return conversion to Judaism) to the world wide Jewish community. Two synagogues in Nigeria were formed by Jews outside of Nigeria, and are maintained by the Jews in Nigeria.
Because no formal census has been taken in the region, it is unknown how many native Jews reside in Nigeria. There are currently 26 synagogues of various sizes and estimates of possibly as many as 30,000 Igbos practicing Judaism.