Ikwerres and Their Denial of Igbo Identity

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This is a rejoinder to Mr. Okachikwu Dibia’s article entitled â€œIkwerre-Igbo Relationship As Seen By Ohaneze Nd’Igbo” published on www.gamji.com  wherein he attacked a comment reportedly made by the President of Ohanaeze Nd’Igbo, Chief Ralph Uwechue, that the Ikwerres are Igbos who now deny their true ethnic identity. It is an established fact that there are indigenous Igbo-speaking peoples in Rivers, Delta, Edo and Cross River States. My mission here is not to urge the Ikwerres and other Igbos who behave alike to admit being Igbo. Rather, I intend to correct some historical gaffes, deliberate distortions and logical fallacies contained in Mr. Dibia’s write-up, and state the truth as I know it.

It amuses me when indigenes of Igbo-speaking communities outside the South-East deny their Igbo identity. The Ikwerres, represented by the likes of Okachikwu Dibia, are the fiercest and most strident in this act of playing the ostrich. The renowned writer Elechi Amadi, an Ikwerre man, restated this renunciation before the Oputa Panel in 2004 but was reminded of his Igbo name. Ironically, he is quoted to have upheld the Igbo origin of Ikwerres in one of his writings. Howbeit, Igbos in South-East Nigeria justifiably regard the Igbo-speaking areas of Rivers State (Ikwerre, Etche, Ogba, Ekpeye, Opobo, Ahaoda, Ndoni, Egbema, etc) as their kith and kin. On the other hand, the Ijaws and other non-Igbos of Rivers State also rightly refer to these communities as Igbos, and even claim that Rivers State has been under Igbo rule since 1999!

Generally, a person’s native name, mother-tongue, pedigree and ancestral geographical location define his race. But this may not be so in cases where an individual bears a name and speaks a language unrelated to the one associated with his ancestors. However, when the indigenes of an entire community speak as their mother tongue a language associated with a particular race, bear names borne only by persons of that race, share boundaries with communities within that race and have traditions similar to theirs, then the inescapable conclusion is that they belong to that race. This is the place of Ikwerres and other Igbo-speaking communities in Rivers, Delta, Edo and Cross River States vis-à-vis the Igbos of the South-East. The Austrians and indigenes of Sudetenland in Czech Republic speak German, bear German names, have traditions similar to those of the Germans and share boundaries with Germany, although they find themselves in distinct countries. This is also true of the Yoruba-speaking peoples found in Edo, Kogi and Kwara States as well as in Benin Republic. Just recently, a monarch from Benin Republic visited the Alaafin of Oyo and acknowledged his Yoruba roots.

Another exception to the above is where the community was a vassal to or colonized by the race whose language and names they speak and bear, as seen in Northern Nigeria where the Hausa-Fulanis have administrative and religious hegemony over many minority tribes sequel to Usman Dan Fodio’s 19th century jihad. Even so, indigenes of such a community still retain their native names, language and traditions.

Contrary to Mr. Dibia’s fictitious claim, there was no time in history that Nd’Igbo colonized or dominated the Ikwerres or any other community let alone imposed Igbo names on them. They never desired or attempted it. Owing to its republican and egalitarian nature, the Igbo race was never organized administratively as to colonize others. Had this happened prior to British rule in Nigeria, same would have been noticed and documented by the Europeans. Does Mr. Dibia regard the period when the entire South-East and South-South formed one Eastern Region of Nigeria as the period of Igbo colonization? That would be absurd. This warped idea means that, perhaps, only Ikwerres were so “colonized”, for no other community has alluded to it. If Nd’Igbo imposed the name Ikwerre on Mr. Dibia’s people, did they also force other communities to address them as such? The Hausas call the Afizere people of North-Central Nigeria and Igbos Jarawa and Nyamiri (corrupted form of nye m miri – Igbo expression for “give me water”) respectively, yet every other ethnic group calls them by their real names. Besides, some people have pet names for their towns, as the Aros call Arochukwu Okigbo. I presume this to be the case with the name Iwheruoha which Mr. Dibia claims as the original name for Ikwerre. What I know is that Ikwerres and other Igbo-speaking peoples of Rivers State call Igbos of the South-East Isoma and vice versa.

Furthermore, was Ikwerre ruled by the 19th century King Jaja of Opobo, an ex-slave from Amaigbo in Imo State who transformed to king of Opobo (Igwe Nga) in present-day Rivers State? Even so, that is not tantamount to colonization by Nd’Igbo. However, the case of Jaja shows that some of the present-day non-Igbo indigenes of Rivers and Bayelsa States may be descendants of Igbo slaves who escaped exportation overseas and settled in the midst of Ijaws, gradually acquiring a semblance of the latter. For instance, a friend of mine from a community in Yenagoa told me that Igbo words and expressions constitute about seventy percent of their vocabulary.

History has not credited the Aros (Ndi-Aru) with colonialism, as we know it, although many of them travelled and settled around several parts of Igboland and beyond as merchants of goods and slaves and messengers of the Long Juju. Prior to the advent of Christianity, the Long Juju was voluntarily employed by its Igbo and non-Igbo adherents for traditional adjudication, divination and resolution of spiritual problems; it was regarded then as the earthly abode of God (Ihu Chukwuabiama). Today, as a legacy of our interaction with Ndi-Aru, some families in my town bear names like Nwaru and Uzoaru, yet they neither colonized us nor had any settlement in my town.

Let Mr. Dibia tell us. Between what dates in history did Igbos colonize Ikwerres? Who were the Igbo administrators? Where, when and how did Nd’Igbo force Ikwerres to change their names? What are the non-Igbo names Ikwerres bore prior to the alleged colonization and forced name change? One wonders why Ikwerres have not changed Ogbako (Igbo word for gathering or meeting) to something like Rogbako to make it less Igbo. Did Nd’Igbo also “force” them in 1963 to use that word when they formed Ogbako Ikwerre Convention? Surprisingly, Mr. Dibia, whose surname is Igbo word for [native] doctor, neither told us if his first name Okachikwu is also an Igbo imposition nor gave the non-Igbo names of his ancestors. I can mention the names of all my ancestors up to the founder of my village around the 15th century!

Pray, in line with Mr. Dibia’s bizarre hypothesis of Igbo colonialism, did Nd’Igbo also colonize the Igbo-speaking peoples of Anioma in Delta State and Igbanke in Edo State? A friend from Igbanke informed me that his people should be part of Anioma in Delta State, but Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia whose mother hails from there influenced their being in Edo State. They bear Esan names, speak the language in order to be taken as such, yet their mother tongue is a dialect of Igbo. In his 18th century autobiography entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written By Himself, Olaudah Equiano, whose roots have been traced to somewhere around Edo and Delta States, declared unequivocally and proudly that he was Igbo! That is how it should be.

We know that every language has dialects which vary from each other. Some persons erroneously interpret these dialects as distinct languages, possibly because some dialects are so deep that indigenes of another community within the same race hardly understand them. But if all indigenes of the communities concerned understand the central language of the race, then they belong to that race. When the Ikwerre man speaks what he says is not Igbo language, the average Igboman who speaks Igbo understands him, even easier than some other Igbo dialects. A dispassionate look at the Ikwerre tongue shows that it is just a dialect of Igbo language. The inherent (not the recently invented) variations are understandable for a dialect, for same are equally noticeable among the Igbo communities in the South-East. The names of the Igbo four market days of Eke, Orie, Afor and Nkwo and pagan gods of Ala, Amadioha, Ojukwu, Agwu, etc are the same among Ikwerres.

There are available records showing that during the colonial era, Ikwerres and other Igbo-speaking communities of Rivers State related with the British colonialists under the name of Igbos. It was only after the Nigerian Civil War that they began renouncing any link to the Igbo race and altered the spellings and pronunciations of their names and towns to pass them off as non-Igbo. For instance, Amanweke, an original Ikwerre name was changed to Rumuokwuta to make it less Igbo. They did this to avoid being left out of the new Rivers State by Gowon’s regime, and to curry favour with the Ijaws who were given charge of the new state. There is even a rumour that the Ikwerres took an oath to do so. A maternal uncle of mine, who was born and bred in Port Harcourt, narrated how immediately after the Civil War an Ikwerre friend of his startled him by feigning ignorance of the Igbo language in which both of them had conversed previously!

There exist in some parts of Abia and Imo States two traditional dances called Eshe and Uko played during the funeral of elderly men and women, respectively. My grandfather, who died in 1988 at over a hundred years, told me that long before his birth, players of those dances, on invitation, travelled to Ikwerre and other Igbo-speaking parts of Rivers State to play same during funerals. I witnessed this when my eldest uncle who played Eshe travelled severally to Ikwerre and Etche to play same. Could this have been possible barring any cultural and linguistic similarities between the communities involved? The same interactions which Mr. Dibia claims existed between Nd’Igbo and Ikwerres from the 16th century equally existed between Nd’Igbo and Ijaw and other non-Igbo communities of Rivers and Bayelsa States, yet they do not share the same cultural and linguistic similarities with Igbos as Ikwerres. However, a legacy of this interaction is that some of these peoples bear Igbo names such as Nwokoma, Chukwuemeka, Ebere, Odo, etc, just as some Igbos in Abia and Imo States bear their names such as Amakiri, Igbani, Gogo, Cookey, Ubani and Igoni.

My grandfather told me that before 1913 when Lord Lugard gave it its current name, Port Harcourt was called Igwe Ocha. Let Mr. Dibia refute this, and also tell us if Ikwerres objected to the name imposition by the British. When he claimed that Ikwerres bear Ovunda while the Igbos bear Obinna, he lumped two things together. The name Obi in Igbo means either heart or house; thus Obinna literally means either father’s heart or father’s house. In some Igbo dialects, obi in the second sense is referred to as ovu or obu which also denotes the central living-room in a man’s compound, usually detached from other houses therein. I doubt if ovu has a different meaning among the Ikwerres. The name Amadi is popularly borne by the Ikwerres, just like in Imo and Abia States. It is the short form of Amadioha (Igbo pagan god of thunder) and figuratively means a (free) man. Let Mr. Dibia tell us the distinct meaning it has among the Ikwerres. In Mbaise, Ngwa and Arochukwu, the second child in a family is called Nwulu or Ulunwa; in Ikwerre it is Worlu or Orlunwo.

I expected Mr. Dibia to provide a cast-iron evidence of the non-Igbo origin of the Ikwerres. Barring such, it is hard to believe that the Ikwerres and other Igbo-speaking communities outside the South-East are not Igbos. It is a known fact that as an ethnic group spreads geographically, several variations emerge in its language. Again, communities on the border between two ethnic groups most times find themselves being receptacles of conflicting cultures and languages. Mr. Dibia should know that the fact that Ikwerres opposed the NCNC’s nomination of a non-indigene to represent Port Harcourt in an elective post is not enough to give them the status of a distinct ethnic group. When Enugu State was created, its indigenes asked other Igbos to leave their public service. Even some Lagosians opposed the appointment of fellow Yorubas from other states into Bola Tinubu’s cabinet.

By dismissing appearance, language and name while preferring character alone as the determinant of a people’s race, Mr. Dibia seems to suggest that a particular ethnic group in North-Central Nigeria where husbands allegedly offer their wives and daughters to cherished male guests is of the same race with the Eskimos of Eurasia who reportedly exhibit a similar character. It also follows from his postulation that since Nd’Igbo are republican and egalitarian like the Greeks, they both belong to the same ethnic stock. This will be a great assault on logic. He forgot that even siblings have distinct characters. Happily, there are some Ikwerre people who admit the truth of their Igbo identity. Currently an Ikwerre man is the 3rd Vice-President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the pan-Igbo socio-cultural organisation.

Perhaps, Ikwerres had hoped to be taken as non-Igbos upon renouncing their Igbo identity, only to face the reality that no matter how strong in flight a butterfly is, it is not a bird! Now, they and others in the same boat are victims of self-induced identity crisis which the likes of Mr. Dibia are perpetuating. I am proud of my Igbo identity; God forbid that I should turn myself into a bat, neither air nor land animal! What, however, I cannot explain is the hatred the Ikwerres have for Igbos, exemplified by Mr. Dibia’s malicious and unproven accusation of “the ill activities of the Igbo in Ikwerre”. They were willing allies of the Ijaws in the formulation and implementation of the anti-Igbo Abandoned Property policy at the end of the Nigerian Civil War. A very amusing argument by Mr. Dibia is that Ikwerres are better endowed than Nd’Igbo, a spurious claim for which he supplied no supporting statistics. I assume he has the enormous crude oil reserves in Rivers State in mind for his claim.

However, the admission or denial by Ikwerres or any other Igbos of their true race will neither enhance nor derogate from the status of Nd’Igbo. Nevertheless, in line with Mr. Dibia’s emotional plea, let Ikwerres and others of that hue be whatever and whoever they now claim to be. But my father told me that in spite of its unsightly appearance and feeding habits, the vulture (udele in Igbo) is still a bird; and despite the beautiful yellow-black stripes of a particular species of rat (called oguru in some parts of Imo and Abia States) it is still a rat.

Ikechukwu A. Ogu, a legal practitioner, writes from Central Business District, Abuja. Email: ikechukwuogu@yahoo.com


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