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Monday, June 14, 2021

The Incredible Shrinking Awka Town

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The primordial Awka town is shrinking in size and authoritative influence, a result of territorial encroachments and political marginalization.

By Chudi Okoye, Ik Cino Otti and Emeka Ral

It might be an interesting exercise to depict the territorial expanse of Awka town as it had been prior to colonization and compare it to what it is today, years after Awka became a capital city.

It might also prove illuminating to estimate the economic value of Awka possession when Awka people owned all the lands in their ancient town, and compare that to the total value of lands now owned by Awka indigenes in the converged conurbation called Awka Capital Territory.

In both cases we will likely discover a shrinking of Awka landed possession, even as Awka population has increased over time. A gradual erosion of Awka territorial possession is taking place right before our eyes, driven by government expropriation of Awka lands and by the increasingly audacious encroachment of Awka domains by the peripheral communities surrounding Awka town.

These territorial intrusions are proof of Awka political weakness at this point in time.

Nothing typifies more vividly the weakness of Awka town today than the case of Ugom. The ownership of this patch of land, currently the site of the Anambra State governor’s residence, is in contention. The site had once been reserved for the colonial government and today hosts the headquarters of Awka South LGA, Anambra State Police Command, Magistrate Court and federal prisons, along with the Governor’s Lodge. Awka people have long considered this land a grant to governments though it remains putatively Awka land. But Amawbia people have continued to assert a claim over the Ugom land, with their claim ubiquitously declared even in formal documents. On the official website of the Amawbia town union, it is unequivocally stated that the Governor’s Lodge is located on Amawbia land.

In contrast to the frenetic efforts of Amawbia people, Awka has not risen to emphatically assert its claim over the land despite historical affirmation of her title.

The history of Ugom should be considered unambiguous.

In 1904, following colonial pacification of the Awka area in the wake of the Agulu-Amikwo war, the British soldier and administrator Major (later Lt-Col Sir) Harry Claude Moorhouse, convened a meeting of Awka people to announce that the British Colonial Government had officially taken over the administration of Awka. He requested that Awka should provide a parcel of land where the incoming administration would be located. In response, the Awka spokesman at the meeting, Okolobu Ezikuno, promised that Awka would provide a suitable site. Eventually, two options were presented to Moorhouse and he chose the present Ugom site, apparently due to its hilly topography and proximity to three natural streams – Okika, Ogba and Obibia. As Moorhouse himself explained in a dispatch to his superiors in England on January 3rd, 1905:

“The one I finally settled on is about ¼ hour from the Agulu Quarter of Oka, is high and open on 3 sides, has an excellent water supply, a spring for drinking purposes in a ravine which cuts into the hills about 100 yards from the site of the European quarters (Okika spring) and a stream about ¼ mile away for washing, bathing etc. (Obibia stream); the top of the hill is a plateau with plenty of room to build European quarters, it then slopes away sharply and again becomes flat the ground falling away sharply and from the second plateau which should ensure good drainage”.

Similar to Moorhouse, a notable colonial anthropologist, Northcote W. Thomas, also observed in a report for the government (Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking peoples of Nigeria, 1911) that “in Awka town, the Amikwo quarter lies all round the government station. Men own land individually, and the boundaries are marked off by sticks.”  

These accounts show that Ugom did in fact belong to Awka and that it was ceded to the British authorities for settlement and colonial administration. It is therefore surprising that Amawbia now claims ownership of that area. Even more unsettling is the fact that the state government which is resident in Awka appears to tolerate this claim. The media, perhaps taken in by Amawbia propaganda, also abets this claim, with some reporters signing their dateline as “Government Lodge, Amawbia”. Even mapping tools like Google have fallen for this fiction, with depictions that tend to extend Amawbia boundary over the Government Lodge. Amawbia-sponsored social media content is also replete with this claim. All these have helped to crystallize the impression that the Anambra State governor resides on Awawbia land.

The reasons for the cession of Ugom land to the colonial government are known in Awka lore. For one, it was to protect the purity of Awka way of life. Awka ancestors saw Awka people as a special breed, and they were extremely protective of Awka culture and traditions. This attitude was often expressed in their unwillingness to assimilate strangers, and in their emphatic disapproval of mixed breeding. This did not mean that Awka people – who were themselves noted sojourners – were xenophobic. On the contrary, Awka often welcomed settlers but were more inclined to situate them on the peripheries of the cultural community. This happened with Amawbia people themselves, and it was the case too with the colonial government.

The other reason for the peripherization of settler communities had to do with the protection of Awka trade secrets. Awka ancestors did not want strangers in their midst to learn the secrets of blacksmithing, the mainstay of Awka artisanal economy. According to Amanke Okafor, “it was for those reasons of secrecy that Oka kept no slaves. Slaves found in Oka were few and in transit. Like the Jews, the Oka people kept their population pure. They did not encourage mixing. They seldom admitted other people to Oka citizenship and when that happen[ed] it was as a reward for significant services rendered to Oka town.”

Perhaps, looking back, Awka might have been better off assimilating the stranger communities into its fold. Had this been the case, Awka might have prevented the territorial losses that it suffered over time as these peripheral communities in time became autonomous and started to claim land allocations from Awka as their patrimony. Some even became adventurous, overtly or surreptitiously encroaching into adjoining Awka land, just as Amawbia is doing now with regard to Ugom. These territorial provocations did result in occasional wars, and in political tensions that persist even to this day between Awka and neighbors like Amawbia.

The irony of this is that the very thing that Awka ancestors sought to prevent, namely cultural mingling, has become a reality in contemporary Awka society.

The encroachment into Awka land continues even to this day, often with the connivance of some Awka indigenes. Amikwo and Umuokpu have seen the worst of it. Amawbia had at one time sued Igweogige-Amikwo village and others claiming that the land stretching from Old Awka Government Station to Omuko village belonged to them! Amawbia later abandoned that claim. But on another occasion it laid claim to all the lands housing the Federal Science and Technical College (formerly known as GTC), Paul University and almost the whole of Amikwo quarter. Similarly, in yet another audacious intrusion, Nawfia town joined by Amawbia went to court against Umuokpu village (and by implication all of Awka), the two claiming that they shared a common boundary at obubu mmia Umuokpu (by Eke Umuokpu market). The implication of this brazen claim was that Umuokpu-Awka village did not exist!

It is not only Amawbia that has attempted to claim ownership of Ugom. Nibo town has done so as well. It is on record that the first ever conflict between Awka and Nibo which later degenerated into a full-blown war around 1505 AD was over these same Ugom lands. Nibo had trespassed on the Obibia stream axis where the Governor’s Lodge would later be located, claiming it to be its own. This resulted in a clash between the two communities, with Awka emerging victorious after capturing Obikpo, a fearsome mercenary that Nibo people had hired. Victory meant that Awka retained ownership of the Ugom land up until the time it was ceded to the British colonial government in 1904, and in the period ever since.

Notwithstanding this historic defeat, Nibo design on the land never abated. In 1974 people from Nibo yet again trespassed the land across the Obibia stream claiming that it was not owned by Awka. This time, rather than put up an armed confrontation, Awka sued Nibo for the trespass and won.

But again Nibo people would not relent. They had appealed the judgement relating to the 1974 trespass. Also, as Amawbia began to assert its own claim over parts of Ugom, Nibo had sued arguing that it was the rightful owner, not Amawbia. Awka was able to intervene in the matter to rebuff the claims of both Nibo and Amawbia.

Still, Nibo and Amawbia claim continues, much as it had done in historic time. This leads one to wonder whether Awka cession of the land to the colonial administration had not been a conscious calculation to quash the restiveness around Ugom by just handing it over to a foreign power. It is not an improbable speculation!

These territorial assaults on Awka are matched by an unrelenting political assault on its status as a capital city. Amawbia’s undisguised coveting of Awka land is no less irksome than its egregious attempt to brand itself as the “seat of government”. Awka may not today be fighting a shooting war with Amawbia, but there is no doubt that Amawbia still wages a furtive warfare against Awka using modern means – social media branding, cartographic distortions (as seen in the Google map above), signpost defacement (there are reports that signposts naming Awka as headquarters of Awka South LGA are removed or maliciously defaced), manipulation of journalists (encouraging them to report the Governor’s Lodge as a site located in Amawbia), etc.

But Amawbia’s effrontery is hardly answered by Awka these days.

Whereas the parent body of Awka Development Union (ADUN) has not bothered to set up an official website, its Amawbia counterpart runs a professional website where it details the glories of the town as a seat of government from colonial times to the present. Amawbia has been busy making a public claim, putting its fingerprint all over Ugom, driving a strategic public relations agenda to ingrain Amawbia into public consciousness as the real seat of power in Anambra State. Amawbia seems to speak with a sense of certainty, asserting her ownership of the Ugom land and projecting a status as the real power centre while Awka stutters, consumed by its own internal leadership rifts, bickering over banal and barely consequential matters.

As Amawbia fights the war of perception, the fear is that it could actually parlay this into real political gain, to a point where it could begin to position itself as the de facto capital of Anambra State. There are already signs that this might be becoming the case. For a start, there is the reluctance of successive state administrations to fund the development of the Three Arms Zone – the site in Agu Awka area where the Government House, Governor’s Lodge, Banquet Hall and House of Assembly are to be located. This project, if completed, would force the final relocation of the governor’s residence into an uncontested territory in Awka. But this project remains unfunded. Why?

It is unclear if Awka leaders are even pressing the issue.

While the state government refuses to kickstart the Three Arms project, there are emerging reports that the current governor, Obiano, barely shows up these days at the Awka Government Offices, that he has in fact built an office near the current Governor’s Lodge at Ugom out of which he conducts government business.

There are serious implications if this is the case. It is possible that while Awka is navel-gazing – consumed by internal squabbles over ADUN PG and Eze Uzu titles – its nifty neighbor to the southwest lobbies to stall the migration of power from what it considers its own land at Ugom. Proximity does matter in the dispensation of administrative power. Amawbia has all the incentive to forestall the move to Agu Awka.

So while Awka people and their leaders wallow in perennial leadership struggles, the peripheral towns surrounding Awka are peeling off landed assets from the regional juggernaut. More insidiously – in the case Amawbia – Awka is also likely losing relevance as the administrative centre of Anambra State.

In these various ways, territorial losses and administrative usurpation, Awka prestige as a state capital is shrinking right before our eyes. If Awka could get its act together, it should start a campaign to force the relocation of the Anambra State governor from Ugom to Agu Awka.

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