Exclusive ATM Interviews With Major Players in Awka Kingship Saga
Awka Times Magazine spent several weeks, at different locations in Nigeria and USA, interviewing many of the key figures involved in the current political crisis in Awka. We probed them on the kingship crisis and on the ADUN matter, among other issues. Below, we narrate the key points from our interviews on the kingship crisis in Awka. (See our separate narrative on the ADUN interviews.)
By Chudi Okoye
The words came from the forces’ mouths. To hear the principals press their points, you would think that Awka is on the road to perdition. The partition is deep and right at this moment, with high-octane maneuvers going on, there are no obvious meeting points between the partisan forces. An insurgent camp, propelled by brash but ostensibly patriotic ambition, is arrayed against an immovable bastion of established authority. An inflamed insurgency collides with an untamed incumbency.
Such is the stalemate in Awka today and the climate of crisis that it has engendered.
You get a distinct sense of the situation from the series of interviews that Awka Times conducted with the major players in the Awka kingship drama. We talked to the principals, Eze Uzu II Gibson Nwosu and Ozo Austin Ndigwe who asserts a claim as Eze Uzu III. We talked to the lower tier of officials as well. And you can tell from their comments that the currents of contention run deep.
French diplomat extraordinaire Talleyrand once said that “speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.” But there was little disguise in the responses from either side in our interviews. Each side was eager to unburden, their comments laden and their sentiments vehement.
Everybody Wants Peace
Each of the principals, of course, protested his preference for peace. Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu told Awka Times, in an interview conducted at his palace, that he hoped for nothing but peace:
”Nobody needs or wants peace in Awka more than [me]. I have reigned as a traditional monarch in Awka for more than 20 years and have had no problems with anybody, not even with my [counterparts in state and national traditional ruler councils]. I want peace in Awka but it must be obtained with honor and integrity. I would do anything legal for peace to return to Awka.”
Chief Austin Ndigwe too said that he was wholly committed to peace. In interviews conducted by Awka Times at his residence in Awka and in Florida USA, he was unequivocal about his desires:
”If they want peace, I do too… I want peace. Any good king in his domain will always advocate for peace. I am very open to anything that will bring peace to our dear town, Awka.
“My primary objective is to do anything for Awka to move forward. I did not crown myself. I was crowned by the people. If the Awka people call me today and ask me to vacate the seat because it is the only avenue for peace to reign in Awka, I am not on a payroll, I will gladly make way for peace in Awka. I am here to serve my people and if God wants to use me to help Awka, there is nothing their petitions, court cases will do to thwart God’s plans. I am for peace, that was why I went to Izu Awka, removed my cap and pleaded for the suspension of Senator Ben Ndi ObI and former Eze Uzu to be lifted. Let us seek for peace.
“We need to come together as one, embrace peace and look for a way forward for Awka. Awka is losing a lot and the government is enjoying these crises. That is why the people around us are making fun of us. I am calling on all Awka sons and daughters to come together and find a way to an everlasting peace so that this town can move forward. I am calling on my opponents, my friends and my enemies to come together, not because of me but for the sake of our dear town, Awka.”
Unyielding Claims to the Stool
It all sounded very reasonable. Even uplifting. But, notwithstanding their ostensible dispositions, there was little indication in subsequent comments that either side was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice – renouncing their kingship claim – for peace to materialize. So secure in the rightness of their contending claims were they. Both were clear that they retained the authentic insignia as incumbent Eze Uzu, and would not stand down.
Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu was quite clear about that. “I am still holding the staff of office of Awka,” he insisted, “and by law, nobody can take it from me as far as I am alive, and have not committed an offense [for which I have been] tried and found guilty.” He insisted that “nobody followed any of the legal processes to [effect] my purported dethronement;” and so, he argued, “I am still the bona fide Awka King recognized by the Government.” He pointed out that “any senior official coming to Awka must come to pay a courtesy visit to me and not [Ozo Austin Ndigwe]” who he said “cannot attend any meeting of the traditional rulers in Anambra State because he would be arrested.”
Chief Ndigwe himself was clear that for now he is not too concerned with official recognition. “I am not interested in whatever government is doing,” he declared, adding: “I know that at the appropriate time, the truth must prevail.” He insisted that “this town belongs to us. We crown our king and Government is expected to recognize him and issue him a certificate, and not the other way around.”
Chief Ndigwe, considered by some as Eze Uzu III, argued that “the constitution says that if an Eze Uzu commits an offence or becomes mentally [impaired] or [otherwise incapacitated] on health grounds, he can be dethroned.” He said this was exactly what happened with Eze Uzu II. “Gibson [Nwosu] was duly removed and dethroned,” he insisted. “All processes were rightly followed.” His voice rising, Chief Austin Ndigwe then declared: “I am the substantive king of my people. I was duly crowned by the oldest man in Awka [who was] 118 years old. I was presented with a traditional staff of office by the regent in the presence of all the kingmakers.” And then he threw down a challenge: “Gibson [Nwosu] says that he’s a traditional ruler. But for three and a half years now, he can’t come to Imoka, he can’t come to Izu Awka, he can’t come to any function organized by any Awka man or woman, except for those of his close allies. Let Gibson [Nwosu] call Izu Awka and I will do the same, let us see who is in control of the community; let us [find out] whom the Awka people will listen to!”
It is a daring challenge. And it hints at the Weberian distinction between “legal-rational authority” issuing from formal designation, and “traditional authority” validated by customs and cultural intuition (see Daggers and Swagger in the Kingship Saga in this edition of Awka Times).
The Process Argument
Who wields the valid authority as the incumbent Eze Uzu of Awka? There is mutual contempt, it would appear, between the two principal actors. Dr Gibson Nwosu advanced a process-handicap argument, stating that “the person who now calls himself Eze Uzu wanted to take over from his uncle [Eze Uzu I, Obi Alfred Ndigwe]. But Awka kingship constitution does not allow that due to the rotational method. This has been his desire, so he [is] ready to do anything to achieve it. He [has resorted to] using the money [that] he thinks he has to bribe feeble-minded people to win them [over] to his side.”
Ozo Austin Ndigwe, for his part, seemed to have a ready retort to the process-handicap argument. “This [process issue is what] people often [allude to],” he said, “and they say that it is not [the turn of] my quarter, so why must it be me? I put it to you why it must be me,” he declared, and then laid out a lengthy argumentation to make his point:
“[Gibson Nwosu] comes from Amikwo [quarter]. In Amikwo [quarter] they have five [villages]. Among these villages Nwosu’s village, Isiagu, is the youngest. They have Umudiana which is the oldest, Okperi, Igweogige, Isiagu and Obunagu (who are settlers). So why was it Gibson [Nwosu] who came from the youngest village that would be crowned? The answer is very clear… S.M. Okeke was the most qualified, but they said that he was fighting Awka…, and that he was an Ogboni man. And then there was Ozo Gbim (Panyie Ozo) whom they rejected because they said [his ancestors were] from Amawbia, foreigners who settled down amongst us. [Then there was Azuka Nwachukwu], from Okperi. They said that he did not have the financial capacity to lead. Azuka Nwachukwu insisted that he had the [wherewithal]. So Awka asked him to contest with Gibson Nwosu. In the process Awka selected Gibson Nwosu, considering that he was a retired air force service man, a sole administrator, etc. [This was done] even though his village was the youngest. So, from the days of Gibson [Nwosu], the rotation was changed for [many] reasons [including] financial capability and all-around qualification.”
Chief Ndigwe appeared to be arguing that although the constitutional principle of rotation based on seniority is codified, there is an implied principle of expediency which anchors constitutional formality. It is unclear if this argument is valid, but Ndigwe recalled that even the first Eze Uzu (his uncle) had not been the eldest among the declared contenders when his village Umuayom, being the most senior Awka village, was asked to produce the first monarch in 1986. There had been other notable candidates who were older, but in the end Chief Alfred Ndigwe was selected, based, he argued, on broader pragmatic considerations. Awka political culture is gerontocratic, but it is also pragmatic and meritorious, Ndigwe suggested.
This then was the principle upon which Austin Ndigwe sought to validate his selection. He claimed that Eze Uzu II had been impeached following alleged misconducts, and that due process was followed to select his replacement. He averred that after Nwosu’s “impeachment” an Izu Awka (the Awka general meeting) was called where his seat was “declared vacant”. The next eligible village to produce an Eze Uzu, based on rotation, was Nkwelle. The village was asked to present three candidates from among whom Awka would select the next Eze Uzu. According to Ndigwe,
“The [correct] processes were followed. Now, if we should go by that constitution, the kingship would not come to our quarter. It would go to Nkwelle. I agree, wholly and entirely. [The option to present the Eze Uzu candidates] was then granted to Nkwelle. It had six months [of the regency period] to produce [eligible candidates]. [The Awka Traditional Ruler] Constitution says that you must be an Ozo Awka [title holder] before you become a king. It is a very clear [provision]. (Even Gibson Nwosu [himself had to take] the title of Ozo Awka to become an Eze Uzu.) But there was no Ozo man in Nkwelle at all, even till date. So after five months, [Nkwelle was approaching] the expiration of [its nomination] time. [As is happens, my village Umuayom and Nkwelle are part of the same Ifite section]. If we could not produce candidates it would be [translocated] to the Ezi section. [There was a scramble]. A meeting was then called asking Nkwelle to hurry up with the nominations. Nkwelle however said that they did not have any eligible persons, since there was no Ozo man from their quarter. Nkwelle then suggested that any other village from the [Ifite] section should produce candidates. Apart from the financial burden, Nkwelle people were also afraid because they did not know what the outcome of this matter would be. So they sat and said it should go to our own village [Umuayom] which is the oldest in the section and in Awka as a whole. Then they came to me… There was just four days left. Our people called a meeting and sent a delegation to me. I slept over it. I woke up, and said it was a challenge but I would do it. I was crowned just two days to the end of the six-month selection period. [This was done] by the Otochal Awka which is what the constitution says, in the presence of the Regent who presented me with the staff of office. It was done in the presence of all members of Ozo Awka and Council of Kingmakers. So what are they talking about?”
To Chief Ndigwe, then, due process was followed, from the broader perspectives of constitutional law and political expediency. You have to imagine however what might have been the fate of Gibson Nwosu’s incumbency had a qualified candidate emerged from Nkwelle rather than one from the same Umuayom family that produced the first Eze Uzu. In other words, did the controversy concerning Ndigwe’s eligibility becloud the case for Nwosu’s culpability? The conflation of the two is probably why Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu would not accept his “impeachment”, or why that outcome was never exhaustively interrogated: because the legality of Nwosu’s replacement became the issue.
Chief Austin Ndigwe did not agree with this thesis when Awka Times put it to him. “Even if it [had been an] Nkwelle candidate,” he argued, “[Gibson] Nwosu would not accept him because he’d never believe that due processes were followed to dethrone him. Awka kingmakers have gone to court three times [in the last] nine years. His record of atrocities [is there for all to see]. So he’s just using it as an excuse. “
Ruse or not, though, the reality is that Gibson Nwosu has flatly refused to recognize the validity of his purported dethronement. He not only questions the integrity of his presumed impeachment but also the legitimacy of his putative successor. He simply writes off the Ndigwe insurgency as an illegality. And so, to any suggestion of a negotiated settlement Nwosu responds with unequivocal rebuff. He told Awka Times that “the person parading himself as Eze Uzu III is a lawbreaker. So why should I sit at a discussion/negotiation table with a person who has sworn not to abide by the laws?”
Nwosu also had a word about Ndigwe’s supporters:
“There is hunger in the town, so I do not blame their supporters who fell cheap for the foods and drinks they offered to them and the little stipend given to youths to write nonsense against me in the social media.”
Nwosu also claimed that a “majority of the people wearing the red cap, following the illegal king, are all cultists.” Ouch!
Certainly, this was not mere contretemps. You could sense the bitterness felt by the Eze Uzu towards his nemesis, Chief Austin Ndigwe, and his entourage.
“I would have refused him [Austin Ndigwe] access to my cabinet but I never knew that he would go to the extent of forgery and maliciousness to ascend the throne. After becoming the Traditional Prime Minister, he became so malevolent and committed all sorts of crimes which I will reveal at the appropriate time. At a point, I could no longer condone his vicious acts. So I sacked him from my cabinet.
“Chief Dilim [Okafor] was originally my Traditional Prime Minister before Austin Ndigwe appeared from nowhere requesting to be just an honorary member and just to be a part of the cabinet, contributing his own quota to Awka. Accepting him was my worst and [most] lamentable mistake. He came in with a master plan and when [Okafor] resigned, he became the Traditional Prime Minister.
“When Austin Ndigwe was the Traditional Prime Minister, all he did was to arrange for people to be given chieftaincy titles, and he would end up seizing all the car gifts that were meant for me and they never reached me… In the last cabinet meeting that Austin Ndigwe attended, he swore that he must dethrone me as the Eze Uzu of Awka by all means. He is the real cause of the Awka crises.”
Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu was not done. He also broached the vexed issue of land sales:
“They said that Eze Uzu has sold off every Awka land. But Awka lands are bequeathed through the Umunna or by quarters or even individuals. So where are those Awka lands that I grabbed and was selling? The person selling lands is Austin Ndigwe. Go to Umuayom and ask, he has sold all the lands belonging to Umuayom. Court ordered him to pay N700 million as compensation for all the land he sold which he is yet to pay. If anybody knows that I have sold land to him, come out and point out the land.”
For his part, Chief Ndigwe was also unsparing in his castigation of Dr Gibson Nwosu. As he put it, “Awka made a fundamental mistake in crowning Gibson Nwosu as her king. He has never represented Awka people well. His administration has gone from one bad issue to another; land sales…, selling of admissions quota, abominations.” He lobbied other accusations as well, which we are leaving out as a matter editorial restraint.
Religion or Tradition?
It is not simply over the matter of material perquisites that the two principals have parted ways. There is deep divergence too in their religious sensibilities, it seems. Both profess to be Catholics, but they seem to be a world apart in their feelings about religion and tradition. One asserts the primacy of his Christian faith, the other the preeminence of tradition. According to Ndigwe,
“Church is the fundamental problem in all these crises. The church should seek peace, a common ground and not side with one against the other… [Gibson Nwosu] is parading himself as the Igwe of the Catholic church. I’m a Catholic. A staunch one at that. I single-handedly built the biggest church in this town that cost me nearly N400 million. Cardinal [Anthony Olubunmi] Okogie came to [consecrate and dedicate the church]. But I can never side with the church to do what I believe is not right. We have customs and tradition. Catholic church cannot come and destroy Awka customs because of issues that the church may have with one individual. They cannot extend it to the town. I am a bona fide Awka man, and if I [reincarnate] I will still like to return as an Awka man.”
This couldn’t be more different from the position taken by Gibson Nwosu, who was particular about his Christian faith in his chat with Awka Times:
“The main problem with the Awka people is their difficulty in accepting that everybody has the freedom of worship and freedom of association.
“I can never compromise my faith for anything and I am fully prepared to defend it always. I have written to the Zambian embassy to come and take their daughter [my wife] home if my people ever maltreat her for performing the dust-to-dust rite during my burial.
“The major claim of the Ozo people that led them to [carry out my] purported dethronement is that I committed an abomination by standing by my faith in the dust-to-dust crisis. [This is] a move supported by the Ozo Awka constitution which states that an Ozo man is entitled to be buried according to his faith.
“There is no dethronement if my crime was that I said that my wife will perform the dust-to-dust rites during my burial and vice versa. [Eze Uzu I] Orimili’s wife did the dust-to-dust rites when she lost her husband; yet she is still a full ‘Ojiefi’. Why will mine be a reason for dethronement?… At an Izu Awka where they brought up the issue of my adherence to dust-to-dust, I pointed to some individuals there who belonged to the Ogboni secret society and asked them if, as Ozo titled men, they would not give instructions for the burial rituals of their Ogboni society to be followed. They could not answer the question. Then I asked why I should be castigated for trying to follow the [precepts] of my own faith. It is a double standard… In any case, if the offence they are alleging is about what might happen when I die, have I died? Has the event happened? I am still alive, so it remains merely a spoken word. The truth is that they are just using the dust-to-dust issue as an excuse to carry out a pre-determined political agenda. It is a subterfuge.”
Ozo Awka, Okwu Awka
From his words and demeanor, it seems that Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu is no longer hoping for an accommodation with Ozo Awka society. As he put it,
“Ozo people have been looking for my trouble but they found out that I surpass them in everything. They hated me, and Austin Ndigwe aligned with them to get hold of my throne. In fact, information that reached us is that Austin Ndigwe had always wanted to be monarch and that he deliberately took the Ozo Awka title simply to align with the Ndu Ozo and use them as a stepping-stone to ascend the Awka stool.
“Ndu Ozo [are fighting me in order to retain their political relevance]. They used to make decisions in the town as was the practice before the emergence of Ichie Nnebe [the first Awka traditional ruler]. They don’t want to relinquish power. They are fighting to be above Eze Uzu. They want to maintain power and as such had had problems with all the past kings. But I, with my level of education and commitment to Awka, refused to acknowledge their leadership. I am superior to them. I have a high mental superiority over them. So coming out to exchange words with them is undermining to my personality. They would never understand.
“The monarch is supreme. All other institutions can still go ahead and function based on their own constitutions but should never decide for the monarchical system. Also where their constitutions conflict with that of the government, they should make amends.
“Ozo is a club. Ozo is an investment; you pay some amount of money to become a member and when another person wants to join, you gain a share from the money the person pays. There is only one head in a town.”
An ally of Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu’s, High Chief Ndi Obi, in an interview with Awka Times, echoed the monarch’s thoughts on Ozo Awka, and went even further. According to Senator Obi,
“The Ozo people must be reminded that the Ozo group is a society and that is why every Tom, Dick and Harry can be an Ozo man. If you have money you simply pay to join. In spite of all the monies that they share, have they ever thought of taking out 5% of it for the development of Awka? I used to confront them. Ozo Awka has no constitutional function in Awka affairs. I said this to them in their meeting. The truth be told, if something were to happen in Awka today, government would not come to Ozo Awka to find out what happened because they do not know of the existence of such group, neither would government come to Ndi Obi because I am no longer in government. The only thing they may do is to tell me that they are coming to Awka to do something, for my information because of my position in the society. They know that they can’t come to Awka without telling me. Not because I would do anything but because of my own personal recognition as a leader in my own right – positions I’ve held, jobs I’ve done, etc. Nobody knows you. So stop deceiving yourselves. Obiano does not recognize Ozo Awka. If he wants anything, he would go to the traditional institution or to the administrative institution. So, I cannot join them in self-delusion.”
Part of the complication in Awka politics is the creation of a competitive Ozo society, known as Ozo Ivhe. This was probably a reaction to the running battle for supremacy between Eze Uzu II, Gibson Nwosu, and the primordial Ozo Awka society. And there is a suggestion that Nwosu instigated the founding of the competitive body. Chief Austin Ndigwe told Awka Times that it was wrong to have created such a body, merely out of disgruntlement. He said that Ozo Awka is a society with rules and regulations and its members are bound by such rules. If you default any of the rules and regulations, Ndigwe argued, you serve your punishments and do not go to form an opposing group. He said that Ozo Ivhe was uncalled for. “I have been suspended four times [from Ozo Awka] because of my radicalism, but I always apologized and paid all my fines. We should stop taking laws into our hands and not do things because we felt that we can do them.”
Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu however denied ever instigating Ozo Ivhe. “I am not one of the initiators of Ozo Ivhe,” he said, though he noted that the new “institution is registered with the CAC and it is very much allowed. Ozo Agulu saw that Ozo Ivhe is treading the right path and decided to join them. Now they hold meetings together and they have my full support because they are doing the right thing. It is affecting the Ozo people because they now have rivals.”
Nitty Gritty of Osunankiti
Nwosu indicated that he had tried his very best to appease the recalcitrant Ozo Awka society. He recalled that he once had to perform Osunankiti, a redemptive cultural rite performed by an errant member of the community to avoid more severe social sanction. Gibson Nwosu performed this rite as he was asked to do, though from his account of it not from any sense of guilt.
“I was not [raised] in Awka. I grew up in my [maternal] hometown, Ihiala. So I didn’t know what Osunankiti meant. When the Ozo members were chasing me, I asked the late Machie (from Umuogbu village) to explain Osunankiti to me and he pointed out that Awka people are greedy and like merriment a lot. I asked if [performing] it would stop the backbiting and hatred and he answered in the affirmative. So I ordered drinks, cooked and invited the Awka people following the advice of Onwuemelie and Machie, after telling them how Ndu Ozo were oppressing me. The problem abated after the merriment. But they are now using it against me [as if it was an admittance of guilt]. But I didn’t know what Osunankiti was. This recent crisis is being propagated by Uzu Awka [Austin Ndigwe].”
In the end, Eze Uzu II, Gibson Nwosu, told Awka Times that he is taking all the perturbation in his stride, and is carrying on with his duty. He declared, rather dolefully:
“I am no longer perturbed by the hatred and Awka predicament. It has been a common practice of Awka people to disgrace and disregard their leaders and kings. People threw stones and sands at [Eze Uzu I] Orimili Ndigwe’s car on the road and at the village squares.
“This is the aftermath of the earlier [history] of the Awka people who never practiced the system of kingship. They are not used to people telling them what to do and they are not open to modernization.”
Development? Why Look At Me?
It is a regrettable turn of events, the seeming estrangement of a monarch from his community, or at least from the cultural leaders of the community over which he presides. It also feels like a tragic tale because Awka town is the ultimate loser in the kingship quagmire. One consequence of this is the continued toleration of Awka marginalization in Anambra State political affairs, and also, most depressingly, in the continued neglect of Awka infrastructure and development.
Here, again, Gibson Nwosu differs from Chief Austin Ndigwe. Nwosu said categorically to Awka Times that the issue of development was not his responsibility: “I am not supposed to have a special plan for Awka infrastructure and development,” he protested. “I am not the governor. My prayer is that an Awka person would become a governor someday and that could only be achieved if there is peace in Awka.”
Austin Ndigwe, however, seems to see a more interventionist role for the monarch in Awka development. He said:
“If Awka gives me her support, my major motive as her king would be to recover all the lands collected by individuals in the name of government without any meaningful development.
“We have an education fund to which I have donated N10 million and it has about N13 million now. This is for our children who might not have the wherewithal to go further in their studies.
“I have friends that will help with financing. My prayer is for this dust to clear. There are Awka sons and daughters who are influential and would love to invest in their town if not for these crises.”
Sadly, the conflicting conceptions of kingship role continues, and Awka community as a whole suffers amid the dismal contest for power.
- Interviews with Eze Uzu II, Gibson Nwosu, and Ozo Austin Ndigwe were conducted by editor Emeka Ral and reporters Stella Nzekwe and Ella Okonkwo. Further interview with Ozo Ndigwe was conducted by the publisher in Florida. Interview with High Chief Ndi Obi was conducted in Abuja by editor Emeka Ral and Abuja correspondent, Nedu Offodile.