By Vincent Kalu
Abiriba Kingdom in Ohafia Local Government Area, Abia State had a rich and deep rooted culture of communalism, where what affected one affected the entire community. This stood them out among many Igbo communities. Also, the monumental success in commerce, industry and other spheres of human endeavours Abiriba indigenes recorded was hinged on the philosophy of “an injury to one is an injury to the entire community.”
Indeed, at that time, many Abiriba indigenes who experienced turbulences in their businesses, careers and health, among others, had seen the community standing by them. This cooperation led to the rapid development of Abiriba, which earned it the nickname, “Small London.”
However, like all good things that never last forever, this cherish tradition, overtime, started eroding, as self and primordial considerations began to take the centre stage, as opposed to communalism. The corollary is that the umbilical cord that linked Abiriba indigenes to communal fraternity gradually began to break. Individualism set in.
With the newfound practise of individualism, the community lost the things that made it thick. Individuals start to affirm their contributions to community development instead of giving credit to the collective. The spirit of Abiriba took flight.
Realising that individualism will not take Abiriba to the Promised Land, as it were; there is an effort to rekindle the old order. At the centre of this resurgence is Chief Jackson Agbai Abba (Kukunda Abiriba), a lawyer and chairman of the Dover Hotel, Lagos, who, like the Biblical Nehemiah who set out to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, has decided to reawaken and reinvent the true Abiriba spirit that characterised love, peace, oneness, industry and culture of excellence.
Recently, Abba brought back the Abiriba dream when he rallied indigenes and groups for the burial of Hon Ossy Prestige, former member of the House of Representatives, representing Aba North and South Federal Constituency, a naturalised Abiriba man.
Hon Prestige, who hailed from Ngwa community, in Abia State, took up Abiriba citizenship. He joined the community’s age grade, built a house and lived in Abiriba as a bona fide indigene. He had every right of an Abiriba indigene and was taken as a “son of the soil.”
When Hon Prestige fell sick and was taken from London to German hospitals, in search of successful treatment, Abiriba indigenes, like in the olden days, came to the rescue. The former Rep spent all his money and hope appeared lost over paucity of funds for treatment.
Abba stepped in. He brought together a few Abiriba people to raise funds to see how to save Prestige. He created a Whatsapp platform and called about seven persons to contribute money. Within two days, sufficient money was raised and moved to the former Rep’s family. Unfortunately, Prestige couldn’t make it. He eventually died, not because there was no money to foot his medical bill, but perhaps, owing to the will of God.
Abba also rallied Abiriba people to give Prestige a befitting burial deserving a true Abiriba son. It was the return of the true Abiriba spirit, where communalism reigns.
Abba took Daily Sun into historical excursion of the genesis of the Abiriba culture of working together, and what propelled him to embark on the journey of bringing it back to the community.
According to him, this came as a result of the nature of the business that the Abiriba people started then, which was blacksmithing that needed a lot of hands – those to do the billowing, smouldering, smelting, etc. This was a business that had its market at that time in Arochukwu, which was the centre of slave trade business for the South East and South-South.
He said: “The first set people who went there needed to move with people they trusted; so they needed to take apprentices whose parents could vouch for. Once you took, apprenticed and showed them the business, there was an understanding that after a certain number of years, once they had learnt the trade, you had to settle them to be on their own.
“Flowing from that, people found it very easy to take up their sisters’ male children (maternal relations), because of the matrilineal family system of the community; then your compound (paternal) relations and other people from Abiriba, who desired your skills and wanted them to be passed over to their children. So, you had this system of journeymanship.”
Abba pointed out that people started this apprenticeship scheme at a very young age of five, six, seven, as there was no formal education. At this age, they started relating with their masters; their fellow age mates. There was a level of bonding that necessitated them to create what they called, ‘specialisations’ in these trades. Those who billowed were not the same people that smouldered or smelted. There were other people who were dealing on elephant tusks; ivory trade. In this vein, they created chambers of commerce based on their specialisations.
Abba said: “Because of that level of affinity, if, for instance, you die early in the course of the business, your friend would inherit your apprentices and deal with them under the same condition that their master had entered with them. If they had five or six years to be settled and to set up their own business, but had stayed two or three years before their master’s death, they would stay with you for the remaining period of apprenticeship and you still settle them based on the agreement with their late master. These agreements were unwritten.
“From the slave trade, they started commodity trading, which involved seafaring that was a dangerous business. You needed to move either from Ifiayong to Itu (Cross River/Akwa Ibom states) or from Itu to Equatorial Guinea, Venadapo, Panya, etc as they were called in those days. The likelihood that you could die in the process was high because of the vagaries of the sea.
“The implication was that there were two basic hazards – because of the nature of the kind of things they were trading in, you could lose your entire merchandise through capsizing of your boat or the Customs could say you were carrying contraband and seized the goods. When either of these happens, sometimes, your entire lifesavings were in that boat. What would the traders do? They had a settle or unwritten law that once such a thing happened, your age mates, and the same people who were in the same line of trade would all rally round and made sure that you found your feet again; they would raise capital for you to stand again.
“They equally had cultural practices through the Ekpe system, which was a way they organised the society – like issues of child birth, when a child is born what would the community (this is outside Abiriba) do? When there is marriage, what would the age grades do in terms of supports? When one of them died, the same system was applied as they would celebrate the person. These were all parts of the Ekpe system and the cultural practices embedded in the nature and the behaviour of the Abiriba people.”
On why the culture has given way to individualism, the Kukunda Abiriba said two major issues were responsible for that. The first, he said, was the crash of Nigerian economy in the 1980s, and because of that, a lot of their people lost their entire capital because of government policies. Most of the factories owned by Abiriba people collapsed and in this direction, the owners could not honour those unwritten obligations that they had because they themselves didn’t have any capital. So, there was no way they could settle their brothers or apprentices.
He said: “So when you had too many of our people who had crises at the same time, it was impossible for anybody to help the other. If it were one person or few, they could rally round them, but this time, it affected almost everybody. By the early 1980s to mid ‘90s, the crisis had become pervasive because of the devaluation of the currency and the inability of the traders to settle international business obligations. The credits that they were being offered abroad all dried up.
“The consequence was that nobody could help anybody; almost everybody collapsed at the same time. That led to individualism, as young men no longer found it attractive to be apprentices under anybody, and even when they were apprentices to somebody, they had no faith to ensure loyalty to their master was sustained. As most of them were coming, they were already thinking of themselves.
“Most of the assistance that people rendered came as a result of the exploitations of collective labour. Overtime, people worked for their masters and raised capital for them, which was surplus. That capital was not just appropriated by their masters alone; they kept that surplus and used part of it to settle some of the apprentices at the appropriate time. They also used part to settle society when there was any calamity.
“Now, because you no longer have faith in the system, young men and apprentices became extremely individualistic, and some of them even refused to be apprentices and they started struggling on their own and when they made it, they are only concerned about themselves and may not really be bothered about the next person. That is what we had for a few decades.”
On what informed his trying to reawaken this culture, using the late Hon Ossy Prestige, he stressed that no society was changed by everybody. Change, he said, starts with a few people who decide to say, no, we want things to go towards a particular direction.
Abba said: “I felt that I needed to start telling the younger ones how our community used to be. We have tried individualism and we have seen that it is not helpful. In those years when we looked after each other, there was almost zero unemployment in Abiriba. Because of this, there was almost zero crime in our community. If they wanted to punish you as a magistrate or police officer in Abia or the Old Imo State, they would transfer you to Abiriba because for one or three years, there would be no crime reported, and there was no case.
“We have tried individualism. The consequence is the high rate of unemployment and the high rate of crime. Crimes that were never there, we are now seeing them in Abiriba. My thinking is that we need to go back to what our forefathers practised. We have realised that self is nothing without the community.
“Secondly, Ossy as we know, exemplified the Abiriba spirit. He started as low as being a barber and from there, he went into clearing business. He had people who passed on the trade to him. What did he do? He took a lot of Abiriba young men to teach them the same trade. I’m sure as at the time of his death, he had more than 20 clearing agents that he raised, even though he was in the House of Representatives.
“For me, there was the need to tell our people that there is a reward for not just thinking about yourself, but for thinking about the community. If something very bad happens to you in the course of doing community service, the community will not turn its back on you; they will rise and stand by you.
“The development and the landmark institutions you see in Abiriba today were as a result of our forbearers, who didn’t think of themselves but the overall good of our people. They built Enuda High School, Egwuana Girls Secondary School, Onarubi Secondary Technical School, Akahaba General Hospital, Okezie School of Midwifery, Library, Post Office in 1964, Pipe borne water and others.
“Most of the people who pioneered this development were city dwellers and they had the option to enjoy themselves in the cities and not be bothered about home. But, they engineered to bring those institutions home so that the children of the poor, palm wine tappers, farmers, etc would have the privilege to enjoy the type of amenities in the cities while at home.
“We will always remember Igwe Kalu Ogba, Ikwan Onwuka (Ikwan Okpogo Okpogo), Jona Ndukwe Kalu (Ndukwe Nta), Nnanna Kalu, Echeme Emole and others. They are long gone, but their footprints in our community are still visible.”
Against this background, Abba reemphasised that the value a person brings to Abiriba determines what he gets from the community. This is because Abiriba, as a community is based purely on merit, success and what you bring to the table.
According to him, “in those days, if a slave or apprentice showed sufficient commitment and focus, his master could go as far as betrothing any of his daughters to him. Abiriba was essentially founded on success and nobody cares about your background. This is why from generation to generation you see people, who had nothing in terms of wealth, but overtime they distinguished themselves with the kind of success they attracted, and our society celebrates them.
“Take Ossy, for instance. A lot of people didn’t know that he wasn’t naturally born in Abiriba, just like most of us. A lot of us came from one community or the other. Ossy came into Abiriba and embraced Abiriba and the Abiriba spirit in terms of his ability to distinguish himself in every single thing he tried to do.
“When he worked in O Man Paint, he was the most successful and celebrated employee. When he started his hair cut shop, everybody knew he has the best shop on Faulks Road, Aba. When he went into clearing at the port, he didn’t just make a success of it, but also virtually, every importer in Aba needed to give him goods for clearing because of the kind of efficiency he displayed. He was celebrated to the point that he was made the president of Association of Clearing Agents in South East. That tells you the kind of person he was.
“He embraced the Abiriba spirit of excellence. Once everybody saw that he excelled, not just that the society embraced him, but they celebrated him. That was why in 2014, the Enachioken, the traditional ruler of Abiriba, made him one of the seven chiefs that were made in Abiriba. That was the first time people were made chiefs in Abiriba since 1993.
“When we heard from the grapevine of his sickness, I called his number, he didn’t pick and I called him on Whatsapp, he answered and confirmed it. At that time he was in London, and we knew being an inpatient meant a lot of cost. I told him clearly that we would raise our widow’s mite, whatever it is, but he objected to it and said that it would appear as …, but I told him, it didn’t appear as anything; that is who we are as a people, and that is exactly what he would do for the next person if we were to change positions.
“We created a platform and called about seven persons: Chief Ebueme Ezikpe, Chief Jombo Kalu Onuma, Prince Eke Onuma, Prince Eke Ogbuewu, Prince Okafor Ukaegbu, Chief Ebe Uwaka, Pastor Ndukwo Obewu, Shaka Obasi, and another person who craved anonymity, as well as my humble self. And within two days, we raised what we felt was sufficient money and moved it into an account he nominated. He was very happy and nobody thought that he wasn’t going to come back alive. We felt that we needed to do what we should do to save his life; we were already planning a grand thanksgiving on his return, but unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.
“When he died we had no option, not just to raise money, but to make sure that the Abiriba people were fully mobilised. I’m not sure anybody in Abiriba has been given that kind of burial. We gave him that kind of burial because we needed to tell our people that if you work for the good of the community, the community would not forget you.
“Ossy wasn’t representing Abiriba, but he was representing Aba North and South; he was working more like a governor; he opened up roads, which for years were not touched. He bought buses that were taking children to school free, something that a man called, Ugorji Eke from Item did in the 1970s in Aba. He empowered the poor; he got concerned and spoke out at all times on anything concerning his constituency during plenary.
“We just didn’t celebrate him for the material things he did for the community, but for the projection; the way he projected the image of Abiriba community. We always say it that the Abiriba man by his nature is given to excellence and if given an opportunity he will bring excellence to bear in any assignment and that is what Ossy did when he had the opportunity. That is part of the reason we needed to celebrate him the way we did.”
On who is an Abiriba citizen, the Kukunda noted that the fabric of the Abiriba person is such that he or she is not defined sorely in terms of birth, either one’s father or mother from Abiriba, adding, “that is part of it, but not enough. It is defined in terms of anybody who, although was not born in Abiriba, but accepts Abiriba as his or her place. To put this in practice, the Abiriba Communal Improvement Union (ACIU) Constitution in 1942, spelt out clearly on what will make you a citizen of Abiriba.”
On the willingness of the young people buying into this campaign, Abba said, he was optimistic because people will always buy into what is good. If they see that the result at the end of the day projects goodness, “I think they will buy it. Most of them have seen individualism and I’m sure they are equally aware of its minuses. When they see how progressive it is carrying everybody along, they will buy into it.”