Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra State, has unique characteristics. One of the landmarks in the city is Niger Bridge built in 1965 to replace the ferry crossing system.
Always bustling with activities, there is no dull moment in Onitsha. Those who have lived in the city for many years are at home with its nature while those who are visiting or just on transit have so many reservations and fears about the city.
Onitsha basically has two faces – the indigenous areas and the residential areas. The Onitsha indigenous areas are those places occupied by the indigenes, (ndi Onicha) or Ogbe Onicha as the case may be. These areas include the inland towns- Osuma, Nkisi Aroli, Enweonwu, Awka road, Old Market Road, part of Oguta Road, Ugwunobankpa, part of 3-3, Inosi Onira , part of GRA, Isiokwe and Ogboli-Eke, among others.
The residential areas occupied mostly by non-indigenes include Fegge, Odoakpu, part of Woliwo and Awada, among others.
Despite having the Onitsha main market regarded as the biggest market in West Africa with thousands of traders and importers engaged in commercial activities there, hardly could one find a single Onitsha indigene inside the market engaged in trading.
The average Onitsha man is a white- collar job person while the bulk of other indigenes are lawyers, doctors, magistrates, technocrats and consultants in one field or the other.
According to an Onitsha author, Samuel Ikemefuna Bosah, the people of Onitsha left Benin to seek a new place of settlement in the 16th century during the reign of Oba Esigie who ruled the Benin Empire from 1504 to 1550. He said that during this period of emigration, the people of Onitsha who now live on the eastern bank of the River Niger were part and parcel of Edo tribe. This, he said, is the reason Onitsha people calls their town “Onitsha Ado n’ Idu” meaning Onitsha of Edo origin.
The emigrants were nicknamed “Onitsha” only after their exodus from Benin by people whose territory they marched through, ravaging and conquering all that stood in their way. As the early emigrants pushed towards the River Nigeria, some of them got weary and discontinued the journey and took permanent places of settlement.
The Ohime known as Obi Ezechima, whom history recorded as the first Obi of Onitsha, was a native of Benin and was said to have been forced to leave his native town because of quarrel over the kingship. He left with a considerable number of followers who made their journey eastward to the bank of the River Niger.
Their first port of call was said to be Ozara Agogoro and later Agbor in Ika land in the present Delta state. Here, they domiciled for several years during which they lived with Igbo speaking people and started to lose their original language and part of their cultural mode of life redolent in Benin.
As time went on, they began to speak the Ika dialect of the Igbo language but not without some difficulties. Hence, today, the Onitsha Igbo dialect is intermixed with some Yoruba and Benin words. Some Benin chieftaincy titles in use at Onitsha till today include Iyasere (Benin), Iyasele (Onitsha), Osuma, Osuma, Umodu, Omodi, Oghene and Ogene. Some other titles like Daike, Odu, Owelle, Ozi, Ojiba etc are of Ika origin.
History also recorded that it was two Igala men – Ogbodogbo and Okomanya, that first told Ezechima about a beautiful fertile and uninhabited land on the eastern bank of the River Niger, which was used as a fishing port by itinerant fishermen from Igala.
Chima was reportedly very enthusiastic to cross over to the land but unfortunately, because of old age he could not make it before his eventual death. It was his followers and children, among whom were Ukpali, Oreze, Chimevi, Dei, Ogwuezi, Oligbo and Daike that he commissioned to continue.
However, Oreze led the remaining people to cross over to River Niger while some of his brothers stayed back and later became the Obi of Agbor, Iselle Uku, Ogwuashi Uku, Obior and Daike, the Iyasere of Illah.
The modern history of Onitsha began around 1840-1873 during the reign of Obi Akazue X1V, Obi of Onitsha. By this time, what was a settlement of immigrants from Benin had grown into a town and was gradually maturing to a metropolis having given accommodation to people of different tribes.
At the Odigili beach, now commonly known as Otu Okwodu, a market was established and named after the Nkwo day. Traders met there once every four days to sell their wares. In the 18th century, emigrants began to converge at the market in large numbers, a trend that later developed to the now world renowned Onitsha Main Market.
First among the traders to settle in Onitsha were people from northern riverine areas of Igala, Lokoja, Nupe and Idah. As time went on, Yoruba and Ijaw followed but the most remarkable period was the arrival of the missionaries of the protestant denomination on July 25, 1857, led by the Rev Samuel Ajayi Crowther.
In 1863, Onitsha chiefs signed treaties of commerce and friendship with the British government. On December 5, 1885, Roman Catholic Missionaries led by Rev Fr. Joseph Lutz were warmly received by Obi Anazonwu. The missionaries made their mark, which still stands tall till today in Onitsha. The Holy Trinity Cathedral (now Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity) was built by the Catholic Church in 1935, while the Anglican All Saints Cathedral followed in 1952.
Dennis Memorial Grammar School (DMGS) was established by the Anglican Church in 1925 while St. Charles College and Christ the King College were built by the Catholic Church in 1929 and 1933 respectively.
Demography and Geography
Onitsha lies at a major east-west crossing point of the River Niger and occupies the northern most point of the river navigable by vessels. These factors have historically made Onitsha a major center for trade between the coastal regions and the north, as well as between eastern and western Nigeria.
Onitsha is bounded on the North by Nkwele town, on the south by Odekpe, on the east by Ogidi, Nkpor and Oba and on the west by the River Niger. The kingdom is made up of nine village groupings known as Ebo itenani. They include Umuezechima – the kingship group comprising Isiokwe, Umuezearoli, Olosi, Okebunabo and Awada. Obankpa –Umuasele and Iyiowa, Ubulu –na-Ikem, Ulutu-Mgbelekeke, Obior, Ugwu, Ubebe, Ogboli Eke and Agbomute.
In administrative groupings, Onitsha comprises six administrative units (Oba isi) namely Isiokwe and Ogboli Olosi , Umuezearoli, Okebunabo, Ugwu-no-Obamkpa, Eke –na-Ubene and Ogbe Otu.
Political and Cultural Organisation
Unlike some other parts of Nigeria where succession to kingship is hereditary while others engage in serious contest for the post, Onitsha people practice elective monarchy while the seat is reserved for the royal lineage only.
For the purpose of working the machinery of the civil administration, the indigenous Onitsha society has the highest monarch of the kingdom known as Obi. The Obi of Onitsha is regarded as the soul of the past, present and future of Onitsha people. He embodies all and is the “big house” (Obi) that swallows all. That is why he is addressed as “Agbo Ogidi”, the royal python that literally swallows its prey.
The present Obi of Onitsha is Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe, an engineer. Following the Obi in hierarchy are the Ndichie (Chiefs) known as Obi’s councilors and are divided into three grades-Ndichie Ume, Ndichie Okwa and Ndichie Okwaraeze.
The Ndichie Ume are the war chiefs and members of the cabinet. They execute the principal administrative duties in the town generally and also in their respective localities. The head of Ndichie Ume presently is Chief Okay Ononye, Onowu Iyasele.
The Ndichie Okwa are the second rank chiefs. They are primarily assigned the duties of assisting the Ndichie Ume in executing administrative functions. The current head of Ndichie Okwa is Chief Sam Okechukwu Chukwudebe, the Osuma Afa, Akanposi.
The Ndichie Okwaraeze are categorized as the third rank chiefs. Titles of this grade can be conferred on public spirited individuals who may not be ozo men by the Obi. The current head of this rank is Chief Chuka Ifejika, the Onoli Oguda.
The Ndichie are followed by the Agbalanze (titled men). They constitute a very important group in the administrative wheel of the Onitsha monarchy because of the high religious position they occupy in ministering to the traditional spiritual needs of the people.
Matters affecting traditional religion are ably handled by them. They see to it that title conferment is not abused but kept attractive and dignified in order to maintain high social status in the community.
Another group is the Ogbonachiana (the ruling age grade). This comprises men of an age group appointed by the Obi of Onitsha to be the watchdog of the people’s rights and liberties. They act as policemen watching the public behavior of social organizations such as masquerade groups, dancing societies, youth clubs and market women.
The sixth cadre is referred to as Agbalaniregwu (commoners). They are the non titled men, yet they are vital to the political structure of the town. They are like the fuel, which supplies power to the administrative machinery of the city.
The women groups in Onitsha are also uniquely organized. There used to be the Omu (queen mother) in Onitsha who used to oversee the affairs of women but at present, the administrative structure of the Onitsha women folk remains vibrant through the Otu Odu, the highest title for an Onitsha women. There is also the Ikporo Onitsha society and the Umuada, Inyemedi and Umuagbogho groups, who have continued to make the women folk relevant in Onitsha.
Onitsha people are always proud of their culture and identity.
Chief Mike Areh, Edegbogbogaga Onitsha sums it up this way: “It is education and culture that makes the Onitsha man distinct. Education is our only industry because we are not traders and businessmen. But no matter your level of education, if you refuse to identify with our culture, you are by implication, nobody.”
Ejiofor Umegbogu (Omenyi), a historian, lawyer and broadcast journalist told Daily Sun that it is the tolerance for the diverse cultures and beliefs of the Onitsha people that has made the kingdom to prosper beyond measures.
“Many villages make up a community. But a collection of communities make up a kingdom. Kingdoms are formed either by assimilation, naturalization or conquest. Onitsha is called a kingdom and many people don’t know why. It is a collection of many faces. They include the Igbo community-the Igbo settlers, the Ado community that is those of Ado, Edo origin, the Edo people that migrated and the Idu people, the Igala that were inhabitants of the land before the Edo people came.
“Onitsha Ado n’Idu comprises the Edo and Igala people plus the Igbo settlers. For instance, in my village Odoje, we have those we call Odoje Odumegwu gbuoagu. They are originally from Ojoto, Idemili South. Odumegwu Gbuagu was a great medicine man who was contracted to come and kill a lion terrorizing Onitsha those days. He came basically for that, performed the task and settled with his family. Some other persons from his original place joined him and they became Onitsha people.
“As there are diverse communities that make up the Onitsha kingdom, so there are diverse cultures too. As people come, they come with their different cultures and Onitsha is a conglomeration of such diverse cultures. Igala, Igbo and Benin cultures.
“There is no discrimination in the diverse cultures as all are given free hand to practice their own cultures. For instance, even till today, the Igala women in Onitsha are not buried in their husband’s family in death. They must be returned to their father’s homestead. In the same Igala people in Onitsha, their women join the masquerade cults while it is forbidden in the Edo origin of Onitsha people. For a woman to ‘know’ the masquerade in this other part of Onitsha, the person must have attained menopause while certain rituals must also be performed.
“The Igbo ancestry in Onitsha has their traditional practices like the new yam festival. While the Igala people perform their own with dogs while the Bini part celebrates their own with corn meal.
“The good thing is that unlike many communities who would try to jettison most of these diverse cultures, we encourage all of them in Onitsha. We respect each other people’s culture. There is culture contact and assimilation in Onitsha and no one tries to swallow the other. We maintain such balancing of culture in Onitsha and it has helped a great deal. For instance, in Onitsha, there is no struggle for kingship among communities in Onitsha. It is a known fact where the royal lineage comes from and no one outside that lineage dares challenge the status quo no matter how influential, rich or connected.
“Onitsha has achieved high level of balancing of cultural heritage which gave it that unity and harmony despite the many differences in historical and cultural anthropological heritage of the different people.
“Onitsha is the headquarters of Christianity in Igbo land so to say but there is high level of ecumenism to the extent that those who are core traditionalists flaunt it without any conflict with the Christians.
“For you to be an ozo title holder and be a Christian as well can’t work. You have to choose one. There is nothing like ozo uka (Christian Ozo) in Onitsha. Though there is no segregation between both in the kindred meetings. In kindred meetings, everybody is served with one plate in serving food and kola likewise once cup while taking palm wine no matter your status.
“It is an abomination, unheard of that Onitsha man killed a fellow Onitsha man either by physical or diabolical means. In the 70s, there was no fencing of houses; there was thoroughfare to have easy access to neighbours. Unfortunately, the infiltration of strangers and breeding of criminals in the early 90s changed the situation,” he said.
The other face of Onitsha- the residents
As earlier said, while the indigenous Onitsha are engrossed in their cultural heritage and white collar job lifestyles, the Onitsha residents are on their own making great impacts in their business. From the Onitsha Main Market to the Relief Main Market, Ochanja Market, Iweka Road Electronics Market, Oguta Road Aluminum Profiles Markets, Bridge Head Drug Market and Carpenters and Tools Market among others, business has also taken shape in various individually owned plazas that habours various shops and different arrays of business.
The famous Upper Iweka
Upper Iweka is the most popular part of Onitsha. Serving as the entrance and exit point as well as connecting points for entering various parts of the city, it is like the famed Ojuelegba in Lagos.
Today, Upper Iweka is wearing a new look as part of the urban renewal project but touts and pick pockets and ‘one-chance’ robbers are still on the loose in the area. In the night, flesh hawkers also occupy a sprawling lane close to the Lagos park where they ply their trade.
Some also insinuate that some blood sucking demons operate in the Upper Iweka area going by the number of vehicular accidents and tanker fire incidents that keep occurring within the area.
Otu adi asi ndo (In Onitsha, no apologies)
There is a common saying in Onitsha that no one renders apology in the city, Otu adi asi ndo. This slang took its roots from the varied ugly experiences people have passed through in the course of time. There is the impression that if you don’t mind your business in Onitsha, you will run into problem.
A resident, Nduka Obeta, said: “I had an experience where I saw two people fighting along the road within the Lagos park axis by Port Harcourt road. It was a serious fight and they created a scene. On getting to stop there to find out what was amiss, my phone was stolen in a jiffy. Another person’s wallet containing cash was also forcefully collected from him there and when he protested, deafening slaps landed on his face in quick successions. Since that time, I’ve learnt to mind my business because somebody even told me that the fight was stage managed so that they might use the opportunity to rob some people.”
Lack of potable water a big low for Onitsha
Infrastructure has not kept pace with urbanization in Onitsha while haphazard building practices without zoning regulations has left in its wake a chaotic and congested city rife with some degree of lawlessness. The World Health Organisation Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution database’s 2016 update indicates that Onitsha is the most polluted city in the world
Despite the thick population of residents and indigenes in Onitsha, there is no public water supply in the city. Public taps stopped running in Onitsha since year 2000 during Mbadinuju’s administration while successive governments in the state have not made the Greater Onitsha Water scheme functional.
The implication is that there is indiscriminate sinking of boreholes without requisite supervision and adherence to stipulations. There are fears that residents are drinking acidic water with serious health implications.
Kenneth Ozokwelu, a trader at Onitsha main market but resides within New Cemetery road axis voiced out his frustration this way: “It is only in this kind of environment that a landlord will build 5-storey building with about 18 apartments of three bedrooms each and refuse to provide water. We pay N240, 000 per year and still carry plastic cans to and fro to climb this upstairs every time in search of water. Government is not helping us while the landlords are also exploiting us” he lamented.
Thriving hospitality industry
Despite bad condition of roads presently within Onitsha metropolis, the city enjoys robust hospitality and entertainment.
Transport mogul, Chief Godwin Ubaka Okeke of GUO motors said: “Onitsha is a beautiful place. If you do the right thing here, you will succeed. If the government can create a more enabling environment for the people, the city and the people can blossom in an unprecedented manner.”