For millennia, Awka people rejected the idea of a sovereign chieftain. The Awka village republic existed as a segmentary society based on well-defined kinship structures. Then colonialism ensued. The evolving colonial constitutions produced at some point a House of Chiefs which required Awka to nominate a sovereign chieftain as a representative in the new legislative body. Ever since, Awka has been caught in a chaotic transition from kinship to kingship system, wanting a king but refusing to acknowledge his exaltation.
By Chudi Okoye
Onwurah Uzoku was horrified by the very suggestion. The British, finally achieving the pacification of Awka hinterland following the Agulu-Amikwo war of 1902-1904, were looking for local chieftains to help them govern the newly established protectorate. They had selected several notables to serve as Warrant Chiefs representing the seven Awka quarters. And they approached the illustrious Agulu chief, Uzoku, asking to elevate him as paramount chief. Uzoku was mortified. He flatly declined the offer, proclaiming that Awka had never had a sovereign and that anyone allowing himself to be made one would be instantly eliminated by the Awka gods!
This historical nugget summarizes the uncomfortable experience of kingship system in Awka.
Oral tradition and anthropological studies affirm that ancient Awka was a segmentary society. ‘Awka’ was essentially a commonwealth of autonomous villages that coalesced over time to form an organic city state. But while the evolution into statehood required the institution of centralized political structures, the underlying autonomy of the constituent villages – themselves made up of lineage-based clans and kindreds – has survived.
There is a reasonable hypothesis to advance that at its core the crisis in Awka emanates from the contradiction of moving from a kinship to a kingship system in a society in which egalitarian instincts still hold firm. Communal laws are binding and sacrosanct in Awka; but at the same time there is a strong sense of individual self-determination. Although the federating units of Awka saw the value of a unified community, they never evolved into a unitary city state.
In this, Awka was not unlike most Igbo communities. It is widely attested in the anthropology of Igbo societies that they were, up until the arrival of colonialism, largely stateless societies, having few central governing institutions but with power diffused to village structures. Chinua Achebe, in his essay “Chi in Igbo Cosmology” argues that Igbo political individualism emanates from Igbo ontological belief system:
The idea of individualism is sometimes traced to the Christian principle that God created all men and consequently every one of them is presumed worthy in His sight. The Igbo do better than that. They postulate the concept of every man as both a unique creation and the work of a unique creator. Which is as far as individualism and uniqueness can possibly go! And we should naturally expect such a cosmogony to have far-reaching consequences in the psychology and institutions of the people… [W]e should… notice… the fierce egalitarianism… which was such a marked feature of Igbo political organization, and may justifiably speculate on its possible derivation from this concept of every man’s original and absolute uniqueness.
Awka was one of the Igbo communities with the fiercest disdain for monarchic or oligarchic rule. All on its own, without being familiar with the Athenian notions of democracy and completely unaware of the revolutionary upheavals that had led to the establishment of the English Magna Carta (1215) and Bill of Rights (1689), French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and United States Bill of Rights (1789), the Awka of antiquity autochthonously developed a culture that upheld the values of individual liberty and political democracy. These values were not codified in any written document resembling the classical documents of Europe and the United States. But they were deeply embedded in Awka cultural precepts and unwritten laws. They were embedded in the hearts of the people and evinced in the confidence and self-assertiveness of a proud people who did not accept the superiority of any other culture or community. Awka abhorred the idea of personal rule and was only governed by preceptual codes that embodied the collective spirit of the temporal and ancestral community. It was this attitude that led to the institution of a gerontocratic system wherein the oldest person in the community, Otochal Awka (initially the “Okokpa”), was revered as the embodiment of communal authority, as the personification of the collective wisdom of the temporal society and the intuitive counsel of Awka ancestral spirits. Here is one description of this system by Ezewulu Anatogu in his book, Awka: From Chieftancy to Monarchy:-
In each village, the men were divided into three categories – the Youths (Ndikolobia), the middle-aged men (Ndi-otu), and the elders (Ndichie) which also included the Ozo-title-holders. Although all the people took part in legislative matters at a village assembly, nevertheless, in execution of programmes, they had separate responsibilities. The Youths constituted the fighting force, policing the entire community against external aggression and internal subversion; seeing to it that laws made by the community were carried out; and also, seeing to the general sanitation and cleanliness of the village. The collection of fines and levies were entrusted to the Ndi-otu (middle-class) while the elders (Ndichie) in addition to political powers also wielded judicial authority by sitting over settlement of disputes and individual claim suits. Judgement on any case was usually delivered by the eldest man or most titled man present on the occasion. This is because in every community, the eldest man or the highest title-holder was regarded as “primus inter pares” of the community. (1996, p.11)
In his celebrated book on Awka history, The Awka People, Barrister Amanke Okafor tried to capture the primordial political order in Awka, stating as follows (note the spelling, “Oka”):
By their system of government, the Oka people were the freest people in the world. They were republicans. No one man ruled over them (Oka enwere eze). In their society, they regarded each other as equals. They were ruled by their laws, in the making of which every citizen participated. They managed their affairs in the democratic assembly of the whole people, called “Izu Oka”, to which every citizen had the right to attend. The womenfolk had their own assemblies.
The nearest thing to kings that the Oka people had was the Society of Ozo title-holders. The members of this Society had traditional functions in Oka, and had a part in the management of the affairs of the town. They declared wars and made peace, on behalf of the town; and they settled disputes. But they ruled no one. They were just “primus inter pares” – first among equals.
When the British came, they wanted to make Onwurah Uzoku the paramount Chief of all Oka. But Onwurah declined saying that anyone who allowed himself to be made king of Oka would be struck dead by the gods of Oka instantly! (Amanke Okafor, The Awka People, Book 1, 1992; p. 8)
Allowing for the slightly imprecise language of a non-professional historian, the account given above by Barr. Okafor captures the antiquity of Awka political organization and the attitudes underlying it. The account shows clearly that kingship is alien to Awka people. A striking part of the account is the horror expressed by Onwurah Uzoku who had been invited by the colonial administration to take up the position of Paramount Chief for all of Awka. A similar reluctance was displayed decades later, in the dying days of colonial rule, by another Awka chieftain also asked to assume paramountcy over Awka people. This was in 1959 and the person in question was Ozo Obuorah Nnebe. The Eastern Region Government earlier in 1956 decided to accord recognition to traditional rulers as partners in local administration. The legal instrument for this was enacted as the Eastern Nigeria Chieftaincy Law of 1957, with a House of Chiefs eventually constituted in 1959. Several towns that were at the time without traditional rulers were encouraged to select one. Awka was among them. Based on an excerpt of a report attributed to P. Hezekiah Dike, Awka at the time approached Nnebe who was seemingly reluctant and had to be “cajoled” into accepting the position (in parenthesis, we note that Chief Nnebe subsequently presided over a pretty robust chieftaincy regime which belies his initial, supposed timidity!) It was thus that Awka came to have its first traditional ruler, in the person of Ichie Obuorah Nnebe, as paramount ruler of Awka, taking the title Ichie of Awka. He started out as a 3rd Class chief, but was soon recognized as 2nd Class chief by the Eastern Nigeria Government.
But every traditional ruler that Awka has selected has faced a crisis of acceptability. Ichie Nnebe endured constant challenges, with large parts of Awka, primarily “Mgbogo” villages, refusing to acknowledge the paramountcy of this Agulu chieftain. This was one of the original causes of the “Mgbogo vs. Mgbede” conflict. The next traditional ruler after Nnebe, Ozo Alfred Ndigwe, who was installed as the first “Eze Uzu” under the amended constitution of 1986, similarly suffered endless outrages. In our time, we have witnessed the serious crisis of legitimacy faced by the current traditional ruler, Eze Uzu II Obi Gibson Nwosu. Just as Nwosu now suffers the reality and utter humiliation of a competitive crown, his two predecessors also had to contend with the challenge of competitive crowns whilst still on the stool. In all these cases it has meant that the Eze Uzu, putatively paramount over the entire Awka polity, was or has been unable to command the undivided loyalty of Awka people as a whole. Without the indivisible support of the entire Awka citizenry, there follows a crisis of legitimacy. This in turn makes for unceasing instability.
We could theorize, on one level, that the harassments and indignities heaped on Awka monarchs simply reflect the self-preserving instinct of a society that remains uncomfortable with the idea of monarchy, a system it adopted mainly for the opportunistic reason of more effective democratic representation. Awka adopted the initial paramount chieftaincy model, which it later modified to a constitutional monarchy, primarily to take advantage of the political space for representation in the regional/state government. The monarchy model may be a necessity but Awka republican traditions are alive and well and they find expression as a system-regulating mechanism in the relentless irritations heaped on Awka monarchs!
Obi Gibson Nwosu himself, during his meeting with the Awka Pacesetters Club in 2015, in fact offered an interesting perspective in line with this paper’s hypothesis. According to the Club’s narrative,
[Eze Uzu II recalled that] Awka did not have an original culture of kingship. In the past, the Ozo Prestigious Group was the power engine of Awka [politics]; [it] dictated the rulership, cultural and traditional patterns of the Awka society… The Otochal Awka was… the [ultimate] symbol of rulership of Awka people akin to a king… The Ozo Awka [was] the ruling class, but [the buck stopped] with the Otochal Awka whose approval must be sought…for…every decision made [before finalizing] agreements.
The Eze Uzu opined that [the] emergence of an Awka King did not quite go down well with the [Ndu] Ozo who felt that the power they wielded all through [Awka] history had been watered down tremendously, and so [they] did not and [have] not relented in challenging the powers and leadership of Awka Kings, including his present kingship… [He said] that this had been the way of Awka people and that he is not the only one it happened to. The same thing was done to Igwe Alfred Orimili Ndigwe, Eze Uzu I; it also happened to Ichie Nnebe…, those that were kings in Awka before him.
Continuing, he said that one has to look deeply and realize that it is a common practice of Awka people to disgrace and disregard their leaders and kings. [He cited the example of] Orimili Ndigwe, [noting] that people threw sands and stones at…his car, on the road and at village squares. Why? Because, Awka was yet to come to terms [with the fact] that the king is the ruler and no longer the Ndu Ozo! (Awka Pacesetters Club, Peace and Reconciliation Committee Report, 2016, pp. 13-19)
Obi Gibson Nwosu made similar points in his interview with Awka Times. As he put it, “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.”
Nwosu’s comment reinforces the idea that the harassment of Awka monarchs is likely an instinctive self-preserving mechanism of a republican polity.
The Eze Uzu, however, brings up a different perspective on the matter. As Nwosu describes it in the Pacesetter report:
[In pre-modern times], the moment the Ozo Awka [took a] decision and the Ọtọchal Awka concur[red], it [became] a law of the Awka people. [However] this medieval arrangement [that served Awka well] in the times of old… can no longer work for Awka people. It can’t work! Right now [Awka is] an integral part of the country Nigeria; there is the federal government constitution with provisions which supersede every other rule of engagement. In the order of governance, there is the Federal Government, State Government, Local Government and then the Town Union administration as officially upheld. The President-General (PG) heads the town union, whereas the Monarch – the traditional ruler – supervises the leadership of the town union led by the PG.
These are the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. There is nothing like the ‘Ozo Society’ in the Nigerian Constitution, or ‘Ajaghija’ or ‘Ahiajioku’ or ‘Amanwulu’. Nevertheless, the[se] are customs which can only be respected [by the] people [even if they have no role in the national dispensation]. (Pacesetters Report, op. cit. p. 19)
I will address later Obi Gibson Nwosu’s suggestion that the traditional ruler institution is recognized by the federal constitution as part of the governance structure of Nigeria. I will dispute that claim. But for now let us further interrogate the suggested rivalry between Ozo Awka society and the newly emergent institution of monarchy. Eze Uzu II hints at this rivalry with a faint suggestion that it may be because Ozo Awka, once an apex governing body in Awka, resents its marginalization in the new democratic dispensation. That may well be the case. But if it is indeed true that the emergence of the new governance institutions (Eze Uzu and the town union) and the marginalization of the primeval power blocs has created tensions among Awka governance institutions, is it entirely due to jealousy and resentment on the part of the dispossessed power blocs, or could there be something else at play?
Without doubt, marginalization can create disaffection among groups who suddenly find themselves without direct access to the new centres of power, in this case the state government leadership. More so in the patrimonial, patronage-based system that is Nigerian democracy. However, it is also likely that the emergent new powers are acting in a way that incites such resentment, perhaps unwittingly. If we read again, for instance, the statements attributed to Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu in the Pacesetter interview (cited above) one senses an unmistakable disdain for the ancient governance institutions of Awka. The monarch gives the impression (assuming that the Pacesetter reporting is accurate) that he believes that the traditional governing institutions of Awka are antiquated and have no place in the modern democratic dispensation. If he believes that, or gives the impression that he does, it is only natural to expect resentment from the slighted institutions. It could become a toxic matter if the new monarch also acts in a manifest manner that affronts local tradition.
We may recall here the charges preferred against Obi Gibson Nwosu (see Charges Against Eze Uzu Gibson Nwosu) which later led to his purported impeachment. Much of the charges had to do with behaviors which were considered repugnant to Awka tradition. Nwosu of course denied all the charges, point by point. But the sense of his own words in the Pacesetter and Awka Times interviews in a way lends credence to the narrative emerging in the local community that the incumbent traditional ruler had been acting in a manner abhorrent to Awka customs and traditions and detrimental to Awka interests. Some of the monarch’s positions on cultural issues, especially when it came to choosing between the precepts of his Catholic faith and Awka customs (see The Nitty-Gritty of Osunankiti and also 20 Seconds of a Widow), gave the impression that the incumbent Eze Uzu may be too modern in his outlook and perhaps too devout in his adherence to a non-indigenous religion to perform a role which is intrinsic to the Eze Uzu institution, namely to act truly as the embodiment and custodian of Awka customs and traditions. It may be in part a suspicion of his exogenous cultural orientation that caused Eze Uzu II to suffer a deficit in traditional legitimacy, forcing him to rely more and more on the legal legitimacy (statutory certification) as his only source of authority – as indeed many consider that also lacks charismatic legitimacy! (see Daggers and Swagger in the Kingship Saga)
Some of the charges brought against Obi Gibson Nwosu also evoke another issue with deep historical and cultural resonance. This goes back to earlier times when the colonial administration, probably out of ignorance of the traditional governance systems in Igbo land, imposed Warrant Chiefs on local communities without appearing to care too much about the status of those Warrant Chiefs in the local community. I will quote Ewulu Anatogu (op.cit, p.12) at some length on this subject:
These warrant chiefs naturally usurped the powers of the traditional government of their respective communities and exercised their authorities solely in accordance with the wishes of their colonial masters.
The exercise of these powers by the warrant chiefs in utter disregard to norms of the community was regarded by some scholars as the remote cause of dissension between the chiefs and the people they were lording it over. In spite of this, some of these warrant chiefs were totally rejected by their people on the ground that they had no moral right to rule their subjects, either because they were not traditionally qualified to hold such positions, or because of their bad character or lowliness of birth (some were osu caste), or because of their abject poverty before assuming such positions. Most of them were neither members of plutocratic class nor gerontocratic hierarchy in their respective communities. In order to remedy these defects, some of the warrant chiefs hastily performed Ozo titles to enable them sit among the elders.
Their performance in local administration was considered collectively to be very poor, repressive, autocratic and corrupt. In essence, these warrant chiefs were regarded as stooges to the British Crown.
Of course nothing in the charges of misconduct levelled against Obi Gibson Nwosu remotely approaches the horrific experience with the Warrant Chiefs of the colonial era. But there may have been sufficient historical resonance for a community concerned about its powerlessness over its monarch – who has to be certified and remunerated by a foreign power (the state governor), who on the whole appeared too beholden to the external democratic potentate, and who seemed to disdain the Awka customs and traditions – that it forced a groundswell of local opposition to the monarch, culminating in his purported defenestration.
The foregoing suggests that Awka may truly be experiencing the pains of a ‘prismatic society’. It may be trapped in the tension of a stalled transition, straddling the twin prisms of its own tradition and ‘modern’ monarchy. Awka is in the middle of a monarchical transition and, not unlike the experience of nations going through tough democratic transitions, the town is experiencing unavoidable upheavals associated with the termination of one governance ideology and the institution of another. To explain further, Awka may still be striving to adapt its political tradition – a form of ‘gerontocratic democracy’ dominated by a certain elite groups – to a new monarchic order which relegates those once-powerful institutions. There is a kind of irony in the fact that Awka is having to replace its old republic with a monarchy specifically to gain more effective representation in the modern democratic order! It is a Devil’s Bargain (a Faustian bargain) that thrusts Awka into constant tension, into a tortuous and seemingly unending political transition.
Awka may be experiencing the pangs of a protracted monarchical transition, but she will probably in time acclimate to the idea of having a monarchy. The elite political settlement required to consolidate monarchic transition is still working itself out in Awka, and the current leadership crisis is certainly part of that – part of a longitudinal process of political reorganization to turn an ardent republic into a hierarchized monarchy able to participate more fully in the Nigerian democratic dispensation. It may seem like an interminable transition for those engaged in the process, but it is comparative to historical standard. For, if one really thinks about it, Awka has had a unitary chieftain for only 60 years – from the initial accession of Obuorah Nnebe; 33 years since the adoption in August 1986 of the Traditional Ruler’s Amended Constitution (an adaptation of an original chieftaincy constitution secretly drafted and registered by Nnebe) and the ascendancy of Ozo Alfred C. Ndigwe as the first Eze Uzu in March 1987. Arguably, this is not long enough a timespan for an impetuous and restless republic to discard its millennia of non-monarchic habits!
Awka may yet develop greater acceptance for the newfangled monarchic superstructure which, out of necessity for greater democratic representation, she elected to superimpose on the substructure of her ancient republican institutions. The monarchy could indeed become an acquired taste for Awka. But there are significant structural impediments to such an outcome present in the current experimental design of the Awka political system.