Society and Culture

Igbo People of Nigeria – Culture & Beliefs

Igbos are an immensely proud, dynamic, progressive and ambitious people. In research by archaeologists, historians, linguists and agronomists into their origin, the part the Igbo played in the development of Nigeria shows that they are people who, once converted to Christianity by foreign missionaries, placed their greatest emphasis on education.

Despite the efforts made by Forde and Jones in the 1950’s, few scholars of the Igbo could produce facts adequate to support with absolute certainty an accurate analysis of Igbo origin. There is a certain school of thought, however, from colonial times that runs contrary to popular Igbo belief that Igbo civilization might have evolved from Nok, Ife and Benin civilizations. The accepted doctrine is that the classic transition from Stone to Iron Age came to Nok culture from Meroe or the Phoenician settlements in the Maghreb (Okigbo, 1986).

Who are the Igbos?
Historians of Igbo culture have not agreed on their exact origins: They have located the Igbos originally around the Niger–Benue confluence; thence, due to population pressure, they migrated through the Niger. Igbos during the migration moved from Egypt, through the Sudan and southwards to their present location. Archaeologists have based certain of their conclusions on Igbo child-naming and the meaning of names assigned at birth. Naming/circumcision ceremonies, for instance, are as important to the Igbos as they were to the Hebrews of old; one has only to read the Old Testament to note the similarities between Hebrew customs and those of the Igbo in this as in many aspects of life.

    It has become a part of our history that the Igbos have manifested their zest for adventure and industry in their roles as national public servants, educators, captains of industry and commerce, financials [sic] and philanthropists, and have contributed in no small measure both to the emancipation of Nigeria from colonial rule and the progress of developing this country. (Emeka Ojukwu, 1989)

Social Organization

{div width:250|height:250|float:left}{module Inside Advert|none}{/div}Nigeria is made up of numerous tribes. Many of these tribes supposedly came from different parts of Africa many centuries ago. Several history books claim that these tribes originated from Sudan, Egypt, North Africa and other territories. Among the early settlers in Nigeria were the Igbos, Hausas and Yourba. During the immigration, many Onitsha Igbos who live in the eastern part of Nigeria came all the way from Benin, which is part of the Edo-tribe. Other history books claim that Onitsha people emigrated from Egypt. From Benin in the 16th century, they left for Onitsha, in the heart of Igbo land, during the reign of Oba Esigie of Benin (1504 to 1550). During this period, Christianity came to Benin; having been introduced by the Portuguese in the year 1500. The Oba Esigie encouraged the inhabitants to improve the craft of brass work.

“Yet, on the contrary, there is now accumulated strong evidence that the Igbo civilization was distinctive and evolved into forms significantly distinct from those of the Nok, Ife and Benin civilization.”

The colonial contact brought many changes in the traditions of Igbo people. With the arrival of a new culture, the Igbo traditional beliefs, religion, family structure and functions, and social stratification were all affected. The gradual substitution of new status values for the old in the areas most exposed to foreign rule had an infectious impact.

The Igbos place great emphasis on individual achievements and initiative. Individualism is rooted in a group solidarity. There is great emphasis placed on cooperation and group actions. The traditional government is democratic in nature, based primarily on consensus of opinion — one man, one vote. Great emphasis is also placed on communal cooperation and achievements. The communal character of the Igbos may be traced from the formative influence of their traditional social pattern, the influence of their nucleated residence pattern and the ideological urge to improve their life.

There are legends of men who have started from extremely humble beginnings and made it to the top without losing touch with humanity and charity. One of these is the story of the Igbo genius slave, born Jugbo. Jugboha from Amaigbo, Nkwerre Imo State, later known as King Jaja, began life as a slave in Bonny, graduated to a canoe paddler, successful trader, and, ultimately, head of the House of Pepple and finally became King of Opobo; a king not to be surpassed. ‘The Saga of Jaja so charmingly written up by de Cardi (1899); Dike (1956); Jones (1961) etc., illustrates the Igbo at his best: courageous, adventurous, hard working, charitable, obstinate, proud and faithful to his friends and benefactors.”

Other examples, from our own time (the mid-20th century), are the late Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu and the late middleweight champion of the world Dick Tiger. Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu started life as a petty trader, rose to an ex-produce inspector, a multinational businessman, a transport rnagnate, a banker, a financier, and, finally, a Knight of the British Empire. The late Mr. Dick Tiger Ihetu from Nkwerre-Orlu, Imo State, started as a bottle picker and retailer at Eke Oha, in Aba Township in 1951-1952. Within this time he entered boxing and rose to become world middleweight champion before 1960. Tiger was also a businessman, a school proprietor and a member of the British Empire (M.B.E.).

{div width:200|height:90|float:right}{module Inside Advert 200×90|none}{/div}The modern Igbo, with his Christian education and Western orientations has the belief that the good should be rewarded in heaven and the bad should be treated with hellfire after death on earth. The traditional Igbos believe in the ideology that the spirit goes neither to heaven nor hell, but comes back on earth to join his lineage unaccomplished mission which was cut short on earth. Infant mortality may be one case in which a person may return on earth. in certain cases, a child lives for a certain period of years and, just when the time comes for her to be useful, she dies. When such an event occurs, the individual family seeks the help of a diviner (the medicine man) who specializes in the reading of the future through his “Oracles.” Such inspiration is regarded as an act of God. Another cause of infant mortality is attributed to the nefarious act of witchcraft.

The Igbo people are increasingly mobile, but not nomadic. They were found in all parts of Nigeria before the Nigeria/Biafran Civil War. They are also presently found in many African countries, particularly Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea (Fernando Po), Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Liberia and Dakar. Because Igbos are known by their neighbors as hard workers, “The go-and-get people”, and petty traders, they have come to be hated by their Nigerian counterpart.

The Igbos accept changes easily and adapt to them. They readily embraced the Western type of education through Christian philosophy of evangelization. The priesthood, farming, taking of titles, welfare and trading are among the traditional avenues to status. The nature of the exposure to different situations has made it possible for the Igbos to accept certain innovations, modify elements of their social, religious, economic and political structures in order to accommodate the changes, and retain other basic patterns, such as achievement orientation, long-term goals, hatred of autocracy and a strong communal character.

There are general beliefs in the spirit world, both animate and inanimate. The spirit world is the abode of the creator, the deities, the disembodied and malignant spirits and the ancestral spirit. It is the future abode of the living after death. The world of the dead is full of .activities and the supernatural. Between man and God are the spirits of man’s ancestors who have lived according to the tribal laws and mores and who have practiced its wisdom for those on earth to follow.

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart,” London, ENGLAND: Heinemann, 1958.

Afigbo, Adiele E. “Prolegomena to the Study of the Culture History of the Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria”, in “West African Culture Dynamics: Archaeological and Historical perspectives.”edited by Swartz, Jr., B. K. and Dumet, Raymond E., New York, N.Y.: Mouton Publishers, 1980.

Dike, Kenneth Onwuka. “Trade and politics in the Niger Delta, ” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Forde, Daryll and Jones, G. I. “The Ibo and Ibibio-speaking Peoples of South-Eastern Nigeria,” London, ENGLAND: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Isichei, Elizabeth. “”A History of the Igbo People, London, ENGLAND: MacMillan, 1976.

Isichei, Elizabeth. “Igbo Worlds: An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions,” London, ENGLAND: MacMillan, 1977.

M. le comte C. N. de Cardi. “A short description of the natives of the Niger Coast protectorate,” in West African studies edited by Kingsley, Mary Henrietta, London : Macmillan, 1899.

Njoku, John E. Eberegbulam. “The Igbos of Nigeria: Ancient Rites, Changes and Survival,” New York, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.

Okigbo, Pius. “Towards a Reconstruction of the Political Economy of Igbo Civilization,” Ahiajoku lectures, Owerri, Nigeria: Ministry of Information, 1986.

Ojukwu, Chukemeka Odumegwu. “Because I am involved,” Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books Ltd., 1989.

Ottenberg, Simon. ed. “Cultures and societies of Africa.,” New York : Random House, 1960.

Perham, Margery Freda, ed. “African discovery, an anthology of exploration,” London, Faber and Faber, 1957.


(collated by Uzoma Onyemaechi, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

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