NNEBISI STRANGER FACTOR IN ASABA HISTORY AND THE CONFLICT OF IGBO IDENTITY (I)
Nwankwo T. Nwaezeigwe, PhD, DD
Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Odogwu of Ibusa Clan
From the Forthcoming Book:
POLITICS OF WEST NIGER IGBO IDENTITY AND ORIGINS— A Study in Immigrant Despotism among the Asaba, Ibusa and Ogwashi Clans
In writing the history of any community such as Asaba one fact which should be borne in mind is that no history of a community is an island unto itself. The past of every community is constructed on a web of interconnecting streams of events that flow in from the outside as much as they flow out from the inside. In other words it is impossible to write a comprehensive history of any traditional African society without reference to her neighbors, in the same sense the histories of her neighbors cannot be written without reference to her. As Richard Henderson rightly pointed out in the case of the Igbo:
The Ibo can be understood historically only in terms of their relations with the peoples surrounding them, who during some periods in the past have actually intruded into their midst and who certainly had strong influences on their culture.
In the same light, it is impossible to correctly reconstruct the past of Asaba without reference to her neighbors. Neighbors in this case and in historical sense cannot rightly be restricted to those communities which share immediate boundaries with her. In this case they include those communities that were able to exert one form of influence or the other on her even without sharing common geographical boundaries. Applying this sense to the reconstruction of Asaba history, it becomes plausible to say that prominent among the communities and people that strongly shaped Asaba past were the Edo through the Kingdom of Benin, the Igala through their kingdom, and the Aboh through their kingdom as well.
While oral tradition has been the bedrock of the reconstruction of the past of traditional African society due to the absence of written sources, the professional historian is tasked with the duty of critically examining their veracity by placing every version of a given oral tradition on the crucible of other intervening bodies of evidence. Thus to the professional historian, the evidence of the origin of Asaba does not just end with the recounting of the tradition of Nnebisi’s migration from Nteje east of the Niger and the adoption of same by the people as their official history because of their putative ancestral connectivity with him.
Such account would readily amount to historical despotism.
It is important to state that the present Asaba town defined in contemporary context as the Capital of Delta State of Nigeria is a comparatively old settlement of original Igbo settlers known as Ibokwe. These original descendants constitute the present Okwe town situated on the south-central border and, the two villages of Umuezeanyanwu and Umuezeugboma (Obodoachalla) both of which presently form part of Umuezenei Quarters of Asaba.
The history and development of Asaba from the earliest historical times to the period of European colonial enterprise had been a twisting stream of events occasioned by periodic interventions of the three powerful kingdoms of Benin, Igala and Aboh. Indeed apart from popular oral traditional sources much of the evidence concerning the history and development of Asaba prior to 20th century we owe greatly to the records of the Church Missionary Society (CMS)—the Anglican Church Missionaries who were the first European colonizing agents to set foot on Asaba land. As Samuel Onwo Oyeidu rightly pointed out:
When it comes to the study of the pre-colonial Asaba Society, we should perhaps go to the European explorers, merchants, government officials and Christian missionary agents. Some of these lived among the people and recorded their experiences. We are greatly indebted to them for our knowledge of the primal society of Asaba, the past history of its people and the relation of its inhabitants to the neighbouring towns.
Elizabeth Isichei—the Australian-born Asaba historian agrees with Onyeidu’s observation that the advantage Asaba has in tracing her pre-colonial past was as a result of her early contact with European agents. As she aptly noted, “Asaba is an Ibo town, which, because of its position on the Niger, came into relatively early contact with Europeans. This means that we have materials for its history in European records for more than a hundred years.” Thus in considering the origin of Asaba people, our attention should be markedly drawn to the accounts of the Asaba traditions of origin as recorded by her people on the one hand, and the European agents on the other during the 19th century.
Official Asaba oral tradition assigns the status of eponymous founding-father of the town to one Nnebisi—the son of an Igala fisherman and an Nteje woman who was a housemaid to one Ezeanyanwu. The crux of Nnebisi factor in Asaba history is inextricably tied to the knot of the following statements from an official Asaba historical account:
Geographically, nothing seems to connect the Igalas in Kogi State with the Ibos of Asaba in Delta State and the Ibos of Nteje in Anambra State, except perhaps networks of inter-State and inter-city roads. But historically and biologically, something connects them. What we know today as Asaba has its historical roots in both Kogi and Anambra State.
The same source goes further to recount the basis of the above connections of Asaba people with the Igala of the present Kogi State and Nteje town in the present Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State in the following words:
A woman named Diaba from Agbakuba village in Nteje, Anambra State, was said to have been impregnated by Onojobo, a prince and trader from Igala land, while she was residing in Eze Anyanwu’s court as one of the court girls.Anyanwu was said to have hailed from the royal line of Ezechima, the legendary ancestor of numerous settlements east of the Niger, including Onitsha.
But it was Asaba Development Association that seems to have captured the true picturesque character of the diverse origins of Asaba in which Nnebisi was defined as the progenitor of the third and largest group of immigrants:
The founding father of this third and larger group of settlers is Nnebisi. His children subsequently married and mingled with fresh streams of immigrants from Igala (Igara), Ishan, Bini and eastern Ibos mainly and in this manner enriched Asaba with the varied and virile elements of culture of which we boast today.
From this point one can look back at what the tradition said during the 19th century. In a dispatch to Reverend R. Lang dated 31st August, 1875, Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther wrote in respect of Asaba origins:
I found the people of that place (Asaba) claim relationship to Benin which they call “Idu” and the King, Obba for whom they still retain great veneration. Tradition says they were obliged to migrate from that Kingdom from causes of war some generations past. The King of Onitsha said that their fore fathers came originally from “Odo” (Edo) and were compelled to cross to the left side of the Niger on the borders of the Ibo country, whose language and habits they have since adopted. Their word for salutation is Do! (Ndo), the same as Asaba and Ado and Benin. The Ibo proper do not acknowledge the people of Onitsha and Asaba as well as Alenso as their pure race.
In his 1880 Report on the progress of missionary efforts at Asaba and its environs, Bishop Crowther reiterated his position on the Benin origin of Asaba people:
… The people of Asaba are offsprings of two distinct nations, namely, of Benin on the west, and of the Ibo on the east bank of the Niger; consequently they participate in the customs and superstitions of both nations; this is the foundation of our difficulty.
But it was Reverend Isaac B. Spencer, a Sierra Leonean of Igbo mother and Yoruba father who together with Rev. Edward Phillips at the head founded the CMS Mission at Asaba in n1875 that provided us with the first detailed account of Nnebisi version of Asaba tradition of origins in his famous essay, “Araba and the Arabans” dated December 8, 1879. Opening his account in a poetic style, Spencer wrote:
I have made it a special duty of late to enquire closely about the origin and precedents of the Araba people, their manners and customs, e t c., so that I can put into in condensed form, the popular legend of the first inhabitants of this place, as it is handed down by the tradition and as sung by native minstrels.
Thereafter he went into the tradition in the following words:
About a hundred and fifty years ago, there lived in Ntemedseh in Iboland, a great chief whose son Nebissi (the great progenitor of the Araba people) was early trained to the use of arms and in time excelled his companions in all martial pursuits. He one day slew a prince of the blood, in a quarrel that originated in the prince having offered some insults to his betrothed and therefore escaped with her to avoid certain and agonizing death. He crossed the Amambala (a tributary of the Niger) at Nsube, and after travelling days and days together in the forest, during which time his skill in hunting kept them both from hunger, he swam over to Araba, the River Niger at that time being not more than 50 yards in breadth. A sacred stone that he brought over with him as is reported, was put on the spot where he first set his foot on land; and that stone called ‘Onire’ has ever been, the chiefest of Arabas superstitions.
Reverend Spencer went further to conclude:
Nebissi immediately selected a convenient spot, and built a house to which was attached a garden, in course of time, six stalwart sons were born to him, viz: Ezenei, Afaji, Onojeh, Ugboma„ Agu and 0jiffeh, who took them wives of the neighbouring tribes and begat sons and daughters, and these are the ancestors of the present people of Araba. And the six portions to which Araba is divided are distinguished by the word “Umu”, i.e. children, being prefixed to the names of the several sons, thus— Umu-Ezenei, Umu-Ajaji, Umu-Onojeh, and so the rest.
On the relationship between the present Umuezeugboma (Obodoachalla), Okwe people and the rest Asaba people, Spencer again wrote:
Okwe and Atsarah were immigrants that settled at Asaba some years ago, but they increased and multiplied to such an extent, that the fears of Arabans were aroused, and like Pharaoh and the Egyptians thought it was high time to take some summary steps with them, least they should get too numerous and therefore dangerous. A pretext was soon found for a war with them, in which the people of Araba resolved that they must be either exterminated, or driven out of the land. The Atsarah tribes were slain to a man, one only escaping, and their wives and daughters becoming the property of the conquerors. The Okwes were more fortunate, and about two hundred of them fled and formed themselves into a little village; five miles from Araba, and surrounded by a marsh and an impenetrable forest on two sides as it were by nature, they successfully defined the power of the Arabans.
There is no doubt that the above oral accounts raised a number of questions which will be clinically considered in the light of the evidence. First, being the earliest recorded oral tradition of Asaba the accounts are supposed to present some high levels of authenticity. However, being that the trajectory of every oral tradition is often determined by the trajectory of the giver’s mind-set, it is therefore not difficult to quickly assess the inherent level of bias in the account. In this case the question which will readily arise is who did Nnebisi meet at Asaba on his arrival, if we accept the thesis of Okwe and Atsarah (Obodo-Achalla) being recent immigrants even without the mention of where they migrated from?
However, another version seems to have answered the question in a manner that clearly proved that it was indeed Nnebisi who was the recent immigrant to the settlement. Quoting a 1934 British Colonial Intelligence Report on Asaba town by H. Vaux, and the account of the chiefs and Elders of Asaba during the investigation into the Role of Chiefs in Midwestern State by D.B. Partridge in I 974, this version states that “the first settler in Asaba, popularly called Ahaba by the indigenes, was Ugboma from Awka Division followed by Anyanwu, the son of a Benin exile called Chima.”
On Nnebisi, the same version goes further to state:
NNEBISI is the founder of Asaba. His father was a prince of the Atta of lgala in the Kwara State. His mother DIABA was a native of NTEJE in Onitsho Division of the East Central State of Nigeria. Nnebisi was born on the West Coast of the River Niger now called Cable Point, Asaba. During his infancy, his mother took him to Nteje. When he grew into manhood he joined his age group in the activities of the youth of his day. One such activity was the custom which allowed any young man who caught a cow for sacrifice to have its tail when killed. Nnebisi joined in the exercise of chasing cows on 3 different occasions but each time he caught the cow he was denied the tail of the cow according to Nteje custom. As a result of this incident in his life he confronted his mother and demanded to know his father. His mother then revealed his real identity i.e. that his father was an Igalla Prince and he Nnebisi was born at a place on the West Coast of the Niger now called the Cable Point where she and his father met. She directed him to Asaba. Nnebisi on his return to Asaba married an Igalla girl called UJOM who begot for him the following children: ONNE (Son), EZEUMUNNE (Son) and OJIFE (Daughter). ONNE through his wife NDO begot EZENEI (son). His second wife OBOWA had 2 sons called: ELIBo-ocHA (nicknamed Ajaji), ELIBO-OKEI (nick- named Onaje). EZEUMUNNE’s wife called ABAME of Illa in Asaba Division begot for him: (a) UGBOMA, and (b) AGU. The name of his second wife who got for him his third son named IYAGBA and lyagba’s seed are lost.” According to legend, lyagba was actually the oldest son of Eze Umunne, followed by Ugboma and then Agu.
It is however necessary at this stage to different the original Ezeugboma whose descendants with those of Ezeanyanwu constitute the original settlers, from the Ugboma of Nnebisi tradition whose descendants constitute the present Ugbomanta Quarters. Although while it might seem a bit unprofitable to delve deeper into the fault-lines of the accounts, one cannot however fail to underscore the important facts raised therein which by their novel nature present to us new grounds for reinterpretation of Asaba history.
There is no doubt that the contradictions inherent from the above three versions tend to present the notion of a past constructed on misty traditions which might have arisen from the constant fission and fusion of the population. In other words, the history of the origin, migration and settlement of Asaba people might not be unconnected with the frequent displacement of old populations with new ones due to the easy artery of communication afforded by the River Niger. This readily explains why the traditions are afflicted with a lot of denials and reconstructions of new traditions against the other. For instance, how can the same tradition that mentioned Ugboma and Ezeanyanwu as the original settlers of Asaba turn around to ascribe to Nnebisi the founder of the same town?
Again, if in 1879 Isaac Spencer recorded Ojiffe as not only one of the sons of Nnebisi but one of the six Quarters of Asaba, what then is the basis of the later claim that the same Ojiffe was not only a female offspring but has no major Quarters to represent his descendants? One fundamental question which might as well go for a riddle is on what grounds did the number of quarters which was stated to be six in the 19th century become five? In other words, what happened to the sixth which was recorded as Ojiffeh? At what point in Asaba history did Ojiffeh cease to exist as one of the major quarters of Asaba? Spencer’s account equally informed us that these children of Nnebisi later married among the surrounding tribes. The question then is who were those neighbouring tribes from whom the six sons of Nnebisi took their wives?
The case of Iyagba again presents another riddle, even though not reflected in Isaac Spencer’s 1879 account. Iyagba according to popular Asaba oral traditions although acclaimed as the original first son of Nnebisi before Ezenei is said to have no surviving descendants. However, extant evidence clearly prove that Iyagba’s descendants currently form part of Umuagu Quarters and that they have been agitating, although at heavy cost for their self-determination within the Asaba traditional polity. For instance, in 2001, a prominent descendant of Iyagba Ogbueshi Patrick N. Isidi who was championing the cause of Iyagba descendants appeared at the Enugu Zone of Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission held at Enugu from April 18 to May 7, 2001 to present a petition on the matter of Iyagba descendants’ self-determination agitation and the resulting gruesome murder of his kinsman Reverend Father Emmanuel N. Isidi on the very day he was to appear in court over Iyagba descendants agitation for traditional autonomy in Asaba. The cases of Iyagba and Ojiffe no doubt appear to suggest the possibility of the situation where an alien group evidently conquered and subsequently superseded the original Nnebisi descendants in the same fashion the original Nnebisi descendants conquered and suppressed the original settlers represented by Ugboma and Anyanwu descendants, but who preferred instead to maintain the tradition of origin of the vanquished. To state the obvious therefore, it is plausible to state that the current indigenous population of Asaba is an agglomeration of people of distinct origins who migrated in waves over time either as a superior group that subsequently imposed themselves on the existing population or a minor group that subsequently found themselves assimilated by their hosts.
The first instance in this case as recorded by Bishop Ajayi Crowther is the acknowledgement of the presence of those who claimed to have migrated from Benin and eventually amalgamated with some Igbo groups to form what became known as Asaba, without reference to the personage of Nnebisi as the progenitor. In this case there was an established fact of strong Benin influence on Asaba. This was indeed further collaborated by Isaac Spencer’s account of Benin invasion of Asaba and how Ekuro bird became a totem among Asaba people, which is recounted at length:
The Ekuro, a kind of woodcock of very beautiful plumage, is an object of adoration. The circumstances that gave rise to its worship are as follows:- Some ninety years ago, Osomadi, the son of Osude reigned in Benin. This prince was brave and war-like, and ambition impelled him to extend his dominions beyond the limits of those his ancestors. He therefore collected a powerful army and overran all the countries for three hundred miles and more. In one of his expeditions, he penetrated so far as to reach Araba, and surrounded the town with his warriors. For twenty days, the Arabans successfully repulsed all attempts of the enemy to get in the town; after that time, the courage and hope of the Arabans both failed them together and the chiefs counseled flight. The women and children were long before conveyed to a place of safety, on the other side of the river, and so one night, every soul escaped from the town, and took to dens and caves, and impenetrable thickets, where the warriors of Benin, unacquainted as they were with the geography of the place, could not find them early enough before daybreak, these Ekulos lighted down, and totally erased the footprints of the fugitives in the ground, so that no trail could be discovered to the hiding places of the Arabans. The invaders, after sacking the town and taking away as many oxen, sheep and goats as they can conveniently carry, departed, leaving the town in flames. The Arabans henceforth regarded these woodcocks as their savior, and ever afterwards held them as objects worthy of adoration. In consequence, large flock of them may be seen flying about in the town from tree to tree, no one molesting them. I have been making havoc of them, and have introduced several of them to the frying pan; their flesh is very reliable, and have the taste of a common pheasant.
The second account by Spencer even though made Nnebisi the fountain-head of the tradition did not mention the aspect dealing with his purported Igala father. And then there was the issue of the name of the settlement in which Crowther made use of the term “Asaba” while Spencer applied the term “Araba”, without reference to the now popular historical term “Ahaba”. It is likely thwerefore as Spencer stated that the term “Araba” was the original name of the town. The use of “Ahaba” might have emanated from the dialectal influence of Ibusa where the letter “h” is used in place of “r” in some instances, as in the case of the personal name “Hapu” for “Rapu”. Even among the Onitsha and Illah neighbours of Asaba, the term “Araba” was and still practically applied to Asaba in traditional sense. Spencer in his description of Onishe Deity spoke of “Onire”, which is also referred to in some West Niger Igbo dialects as Onihe, as in the case of Ibusa. The term “Asaba” appears to have been borrowed from the popular Japanese Buddhist Temple city of Asaba Ryokan situated on the bank of Katsura River, which was founded by a Buddhist monk named Yakuro Yukitada Asaba; just in the same fashion the name “Ibusa” was adopted in place of “Igbuzo” from Ibusa town in Papua New Guinea.
But then one riddle which has continued to elude the contents of all the versions of Asaba oral tradition is the origin of the popular reference to Asaba respectively as Araba-Ibokwe, Asaba-Ibokwe, and Ahaba-Ibokwe, depending on the dialect of application? Surprisingly, while successive pro-Nnebisi oral traditions continue to subdue this aspect of their history for the obvious reason of protecting their perennial land tussles with Okwe, they continue to apply the same in their informal identity, just as Ibusa people would often refer themselves as Igbuzo-Isu Mbaogu, and Ogwashi people referring themselves as Ogwashi-Adaigbo.
Although there have been attempts in recent times to dilute the Ibokwe historical syndrome with the new concept of Asaba-Ujom. But then the question is why Asaba-Ujom and not Asaba-Nnebisi? Moreover, Spencer’s account seems to have proven the aboriginality of Okwe people within the prism of Asaba traditional history. It is therefore likely that the term Araba which indeed appears to be the original term was a personal name connected with one of the major immigrants from Igala land, probably Nnebisi’s original father, since the term appears more Igala in etymological form than Igbo.
There is no doubt therefore that this oral tradition has been carried forward to this day by Asaba people without surgical historical analysis of its veracity in accordance with the golden rules of historical scholarship. To state the obvious, the Nnebisi version appears to have assumed the status of a historical Gospel scrupulously used by the dominant immigrants to re-assert their right of settlement over the aborigines, which invariably became the historical charter for their claims over disputed lands against their neighbours.
This charter in assuming the status of official history of Asaba however failed to put into consideration the fact that not only was Nnebisi’s mother a housemaid to Eze Anyanwau of a town known as Ibokwe, but that the descendants of the original inhabitants are represented today by Okwe town, and the two villages of Umuezeanyanwu and Umuezeugboma. It also failed to put into consideration the fact that Nnebisi’s major reason for migrating to Asaba from Nteje was not to found a settlement but to trace the whereabouts of his Igala father.
The arising fundamental questions are first, on what historical basis is Nnebisi therefore defined as the founding-father of the town when his mother was a housemaid to Ezeanyanwu whose descendants, together with those of his kinsman Ezeugboma constitute part of Umuezenei Quarters of the same Asaba? Second, does any part of Asaba tradition state either in detail or in passing that both Ezeanyanwu and Ezeugboma at one point of their history bequeathed the right to the title of their land to the son of their housemaid and an itinerant Igala fisherman at the expense of their descendants? Or could it be said that the doctrine of Nnebisi progenitor-founder emanated from the right of conquest? If it is taken that Nnebisi became the progenitor-founder of Asaba by right of conquest, how then can one explain Isaac Spencer’s account that the present dominant population of Asaba were indeed descendants of aliens who successfully conquered the earlier Nnebisi settlers around 1840?
In his sworn affidavit at the High Court of Delta State dated 25th August, 2020 in a land dispute between Umuaji Quarters of Asaba and Achalla Ibusa community, Obi Samuel Ogochukwu in supporting the claims of Umuaji Quarters stated:
That the land in dispute was formerly part of Asaba land founded by their ancestor Nnebisi by settlement. As the founder thereof, he farmed, lived, hunted, and reaped the economic trees thereon without any let or hindrance. That Nnebisi begat Onneh and Ezeumunne and before his death, he shared his land among his sons, the land in dispute was part of the share of Onneh who similarly farmed, lived, hunted, and reaped the economic trees thereon. That Onneh begat Ajaji, Ezenei and Onaje and before his death, he shared his land among his sons, the land in dispute was part of the share of Ajaji farmed, lived, hunted and reaped the economic trees on the said land. That Ajaji begat Afeke and Onishe and the latter begat Uda, Atufa, Nnikwu, Okponike, Ekwo, and Agueze and they constitute the seven villages in Umuaji Quarter, Asaba namely Umuafeke, Umuda, Umuatufa, Umunnikwu, Umuezeafadia, Umuekwo and Ogbeagueze villages.