Taking on Dr Azikiwe on Onitsha origin

Onitsha, Origin, Historical, Inaccuracy

Posted from Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe's Autobiography "My Odyssey" listed on Amazon UK for £7,009.00 or $11,461.00.

“One day I asked her (grandmother) the meaning of the word ‘Onitsha’. She explained that it had historical significance. The terminology meant one who despised another. It is a contraction of two words, Onini to despise, and Ncha meaning others. So that the two words when joined together mean one who despises others. Then I asked her why we despised others. She patted me on the back and told me that it was due to our aristocratic background and tradition. I insisted that she should explain to me the basis of this supercilious social attitude. She told me that we despised others because we descended from the Royal House of Benin and so regarded ourselves as the superiors of other tribes who had no royal blood in their veins, “
“I continued to belabor my grandmother to tell me more of the history and origins of the Onitsha people. She narrated that many many years ago, there lived at Idu (Benin) a great Oba who had many children. Due to a power struggle regarding the right of precedence among princes of the blood and other altercations, there was a civil war in Benin. One day, the supporters of one of the princes insulted and assaulted Queen Asije, the mother of of the Oba of Benin, who was accused of having trespassed on their farmland. Enraged at this evidence of indiscipline and lawlessness, the Oba ordered his war chief and brother, Gbunwala Asije to apprehend and punish the insurgents. In the attempt to penalise them, Chima, the ultimate founder of the Onitsha city-state, a prince of the blood in his own right, led the recalcitrants against his Uncle, Gbunwala. This intensified the civil war which rent the kingdom of Benin in two and led to the founding of Onitsha Ado N’Idu, , ” “As the great trek from Benin progressed, some did not have the stout heart of the pioneer-warrior, and decided to settle at different places, known today as Onitsha -Ugbo, Onitsha-Olona, Onitsha-Mili, Obior, Issele Ukwu, Ossomari, Aboh, etc,
” SOURCE – Nnamdi Azikiwe: My Odyssey, Chapter I (Spectrum Books, 1970) “My
Genealogy and Nativity” p 11 – 12

I write to humbly disagree with Zik’s account of the origin of the Onitsha people . The fact that his beloved parents told him so, did not make it credible historical information to be put in print.

The Bini people apparently were civilized enough to have recorded history, dating back to 12TH century, hence, there is recorded history of Bini Kingdom, and the chronology of its monarchies, which never indicated any record of a bini prince by name ‘Ezechime”, who was exiled from the kingdom. Ezechime who was supposed to be Bini prince would have had the benefit of the courtly groom, which included basic traditional record keeping system of that era. So If he had basic traditional education or otherwise that aided the Bini People to record their credible history, why didn’t Ezechime or his grown princely children record accurate and unified account of his odyssey and ethnic genealogy? I have not found “a single” account where Ezechime or his children, called “umu-Ezechime (numbering nine clans or towns) ever mentioned the following:

• The name of the Oba of Bini that was the immediate patriarchal ancestor of EZECHIME
• Name of the reigning Oba of Bini when EZECHIME was exiled or departed from Benin Kingdom

Why is absence of recorded account important to the veracity of Zik’s narration? Onitsha people and a few children of Ezechime claim that they are from “ADO”, apparently a bastardized Bini word “EDO”. History records state that Oba Ewuare was the king of the Benin Empire from 1440 until 1473, and it was him in about 1440 A.D to 1473 A.D, who changed the name of the country, from “Igodomigodo” to “Edo”, which was a name to immortalize and deified his (slave) friend who he claimed saved him from a sudden death. Pertinently, if Onitsha claims that Ezechime originate from “Ado”, the historicity of Ezechime in Bini Kingdom could not have before Oba Ewuare, since the word Edo was introduced by Oba Ewuare. Significantly, as a prince, Ezechime’s genealogy or his political travails could have been important enough to necessitate a royal chronology.

Most notable Igbo historians disprove Onitsha’s Edo genealogy, but not their Edo prolonged residency and domiciliary. The fact that culture contact of Ezechime and Bini Kingdom resulted resulted in pseudo-monarchy of Onitsha people do not translate to blood genealogy with the Edo people. Professors Afigbo, Onwuejeogwu, Nzimiro, Onwumechili, Alaezi, Echeruo, among others, who were the giants in the research into Igbo history uniformly posted a caveat that although:

"The names of the founding fathers, the basic customs, and the language (were) Igbo.....It is not unlikely that some kingship emblems may have been borrowed from Benin....... A distinction must be made between the origin of the people and the origin of some political institutions. "

I concur with these giants, in toto.

We also know from all accounts of the migration of Ezechime that he left with his nine frown sons and large descendants; and even if Ezechime recklessly omitted to record with specificity of his travails and genealogy, his grown adult sons like, Onicha Ugbo, would have at least done the needful as an traditionally tutored “Bini prince” versed in the culture of written history; that is, if he were truly a Bini prince as claimed by the Onitsha stock of Umu-Ezechime. However, Onicha Ugbo, who was the disputed first son of Ezechime passed on to his descendant that his ancestors (including Ezechime) came from Nri in old Awka district of Eastern Region. The purported Nri genealogy explains the central distinguishing feature of all Umu-Ezechime, which apart from their pseudo-monarchical government, was their celebration of “ozo title traditional rites”, which is 100 % core Igbo culture. In fact, this has a fundamental factual implication to the extent that even Umu-Ezechime who never had “direct” contact with hinterland or mainland Igbo where this “Ozo title rites” are religiously practiced, also celebrate this ozo rite. The universality of this ozo culture amongst the Umu-Ezechime means that Onitsha people could not have copied their “Ozo title rites” by their direct culture contact with mainland Igbos, as their brothers west of the Niger river and as far off as Agbor celebrate r “ozo rites”. Hence, Ozo traditional rite which has nothing to do whatsoever with Bini culture was not a product of “ culture contact” with mainland Igbo, but a product of Ezechime’s “Igbo heritage’ , which is principally justified by his Igbo patrilineal genealogy.

Moreover, the prefix “eze” is a word of royalty indigenous to only Ibo people and their relative at Igala. But it is a choice official title of “head of Igbo clans”, which is a linguistic aberration closest to the notion of monarchy in vastly republican Igbo system of government. “Eze”, as official title of paramount ruler in Igbo land is antique Ibo version of “Oba”, “Alafin” or Emir; that is, before the trending aliases of Ibo warrant chief’s phenomenon. I, personally come from the “Eze Onyiuke” ruling family of Nimo, in Awka district. My great grandfather was Eze Onyiuke the 1st, while my grandfather was Eze Onyiuke the 2nd etc. So such royal prefix belong to central Ibo mainland, and Ezechime who did not settle in Onitsha could not have borne such title or prefix in his name, without being exposed to such mainland Igbo culture.
Also, by the excavated artifacts at IgboUkwu, there was a thriving Ibo indigenous civilization in Ibo land older than Bini civilization and kingdom; hence, the buried King of IgboUwku was an “eze” (King which existed before the Bini Kings or Bini monarchy. Therefore Bini culture could not have been the source of the Prefix word “eze”. It is a further proof that Ezechime was a migrant Igbo man, like the modern day Igbos.

Where did Zik’s title “Owelle” come from? Is “owelle” a bini royal title or name or concept? No, the word is not closely related in content and structure with Edo language, but it is derived from the word “owelle” (Anambra dialect) or owerre (Imo dialect), which is indigenous to mainland Igbo. It is significantly more located in Anambra state around old Awka district, which again correspond to Nri geographical location. Nri is next town to my village Nimo. I will state a brief history of my village to support what I have to say:

The name of my town is Nimo, in old Awka District of Eastern Region. History have it, that the progenitor of Nimo was called “OWELLE” , who begot four sons; Nimo(the first son), Abagana, Abba, and Ezi-Owelle(his last son). In the third reign of my family as the monarch in Nimo(as warrant chiefs), my great uncle , Eze Alfred Onyiuke , decided to prefix his name with his ozo identity , “Owelle” ; which was derived from the name of Nimo’s progenitor , “Ogbuefi Owelle”. My great uncle was later to be identified as , the “Eze Onyiuke, III, the Owelle of Nimo. Also, not only is the word “owelle” an expression of name and title in mainland Igbo, but it is also names of Towns, like: “Ezi-Owelle” and “Owerre”; also it is name of Ibo shrines, like “Udo-Owelle” etc.

What is common to all accounts of Ezechime was that he lived amongst the Bini people, and whatever his gift of nature was , made him not only useful to the Bini monarchy, but also enriched him greatly; and his obvious prosperity could be explained by his large descendants of nine clans. Unsubstantiated account narrated that Ezechime or his proximate ancestor was a magical mercenary from Nri town Igbo land who offered his services to the Bini monarchy; hence, he settled and got assimilated into Bini Kingdom, until he lost his welcome as result of power play in Bini Kingdom. That is, he lost his political patronage and had to flee Bini Kingdom


In law, very little weight is placed on “ self-serving” testimonies of the accused, but much weight is placed on any adverse admissible confession of the accused. To drive home my point, Zik chose not to be curious and challenge the veracity of his parent’s account of Onitsha history, and his omission was patronizingly self-serving, as with his famed cognitive know withal he would have easily cast such conjectures to dustbin of faulted history. There are other Umu-Ezechime who have equal or even better claim to the Ezechime blood line that have contradicted the great Zik’s account. See Google(Facebook) : Anioma people: Oral Accounts and Analysis of Ezechime, by Stella kwashi.

For example, the Onicha Ugbo people indicate that Ezechime was originally an Nri priest. Having assimilated into the Bini population , he led a revolt against the Oba ( after the Oba’s mother had trampled on his farmland) and this led to his expulsion from Benin. (the name of the Oba was not given).

According to the referred article “Anioma people”,

“ the Issele Uku, Ogboli and Ogbowele communities still hold on to their claims of migrating from Nri. Amongst Umu-Ezechime , the Ozo title system( called Okpala or Ichimmor) is well developed . Also in In such towns like Onicha Ukwu or Issele Mkpitime , it is such title holders that provide leadership. The most senior called the Okpalabisi” .

Also, both Issele Uku and Obior claim that “Ifite” (a people claiming lineage of Ezechime) was not a son of Ezechime but a follower whose origin was from an eastern homeland, and he was related to “Obomkpa” (another satellite Igbos like Ezechime clan).

Obomkpas’ claim that their ancestor , “Anagba” migrated from Ogidi in Anambra State and that Anagba was a relative of Ezechime and his spiritual consultant. This will put the origin of Ezechime at least according to this account to Ogidi.

The importance of “Ifite” and “Obomkpa” genealogical accounts to the present inquiry of ethnicity of Ezechime is that it objectively located Ezechime’s ethnicity to Igbo mainland through his kinship fraternity and adventurous comradeship with known Igbo ancestors of Ifite and Obomkpa peoples or clans.

Therefore , as against Zik’s account, Ezechime did not have Bini royal blood for he was not burn in the purple, rather he was soldier of fortune in Bini Kingdom. However, due to cultural diffusion in lieu of culture contact with Bini loyalty and its monarchy, expectedly, Ezechime and his descendants were exposed to a culture with a novel system of governance, and which was radically different from their Igbo “republican” system government. It’s a trite fact that every culture or civilization borrows from each other wherever there is direct cultural contact, and so was Onitsha’s case. Hence, the source of “Onitsha pride” is not traceable to their alleged “ Edo blue blood” , but rather it is product of their early contact with Bini people and their obvious exposure to complex Bini monarchy and the civilizing impact of an awareness of a world beyond the forests of the Igbo hinterland.

Also it is indisputable that commerce and development follow human settlements along the coasts; hence, Onitsha indigenes benefited from its location at the Niger River basin. E.G the Royal Niger Company , which made Onitsha the center of commerce, brought enormous civilizing influences that benefited the Onitsha people. Hence, Civilizing contact with Bini Kingdom and early education before other mainland Igbos were the reasons for the vanishing air of superiority of the Onitsha people over other mainland Igbos. Just like, air of superiority associated to Lagosians over all other Nigerians; and many other ethnicities that have had the advantages of early “civilizing head-start” over others.


On a more scholarly ground, the world renowned linguistic professor , Joseph Greenberg would disagree to the truth of Zik’s genealogical narration of Umu-Ezechime. Why? Zik’s story that Onitsha people are genealogically linked to Edo people is antithetical to Greenberg’s core postulation that “language” is veritable instrument of proving or disproving the historical connection of peoples , or their genealogical unity. He would simple say that if Onitsha people are genealogically related to Edo people, there must be a substantial linguistic similarities, as well as mutually intelligible words and phrases existing between Onitsha and Edo peoples. There must be linguistic labyrinths that survive the distance separation of the two cultures. That the greater the similarities or shared words, the greater the evidence of genealogical connection; and vice versa.

Joseph Greenberg professed that genealogical unity of peoples of different ethnic groups could be ascertained by comparative analysis of the structural content of their languages. He found that linguistic ethnology is a resource to determine common ancestry of peoples of different ethnic groups. Hence, language was the DNA used to trace genealogy of people.

So what do we have here? The language spoken by all Umu-Ezechime, including Onitsha, is not distinct language, but just a dialect of Igbo language, as not only is the language mutually intelligible with spoken and written Igbo language of main mainland Igbos, the language spoken by Onitsha people is 99 % Igbo language; both in content and structure. The Igbo language has many dialects; Onitsha’s (a sub-set of Ijeke-ebe’s dialect), wawa, Owerri, Ngwa, Ika-Ibo Abor, Ibuzo, etc), Afikpo, etc; but they are all mutually intelligible. With Ika-Ibos, one has to strain one's ears a little bit, because of the influence of their proximity to Edo people.

However, the facts that Onitsha’s Igbo dialect and Edo language are not mutually intelligible, or structurally related, except less than 1% royal terms borrowed from Edo monarchy, indicate no genealogical connection with the Edo people, although the two peoples interacted at some point. Hence, by any stretch of facts or imagination, the Onitsha people could not have been descendant of Bini prince, as any Edo prince must be first and foremost be a Bini man by blood. Note Edo Culture is typically patrilineal, and any purported matrilineal lineage is inconsequential to a person’s genealogy as Edo man.

Finally, we are in the era of DNA, which is a conclusive scientific proof of genealogy. So why the speculation? In fact let the Obi of Onitsha provide his DNA , to match it with any Edo man, not even a blue blood, in other to rest this inferiority complex for eternity.

Little things matter in life. For when an intellectual giant like the great Zik put in print such obvious faulty genealogy of his people I take it seriously. Who can tell me the difference between the irrational refusal of Onitsha to accept their Igbo genealogy and heritage, and the foolishness of the Ikwerre Ibos, who after the Biafran war abandoned their Ibo identity, and painstakly changed all the prefixes that reveal their Igbo heritage to the other tribes?
Was it not what happened to Egbas and Ekitis who after the defeat by Oduduwa with help of the treachery of Moremi decided to jettison their Ibo Identity and heritage. Yes, I have credible literatures that make old claims that a substantial part of Yoruba people were of Ibo genealogy , and this claim is supported by DNA.

Could it be the same inferiority complex influenced Zik's decision to start his political career in Western Nigeria parliament, until he was rightly driven by Awolowo back to East?. The Ibos stupidly bailed him out and provided a political board for him by foolishly and myopically throwing a proud Easterner, in the person of Eyo Ettah under the bus, and there by inadvertently created or laid the foundation of “minority politics” in Eastern region that impugned the hitherto homogeneity of the Eastern political elites, which regrettably buried all Igbo’s national posture as formidable federal power brokers.

Also, I was on the internet when I saw an article written by a world renowned Ibo mathematician and inventor by name Philip Emeagwali who hails from Onitsha. He wrote; and he was unabashedly boastful of his Edo and Yoruba heritage as Onitsha man. Gush! I was disappointed and surprised that such an intelligent man could suffer such grand inferiority complex, and decided to drop my emotions for him in his Facebook. However, I have lately seen another of his article where he wrote as proud Igbo man, and has taken the pains to educate a lot of diaspora Igbos of their rich heritage and culture. I am very happy that he changed, listened or a received cultural epiphany; whichever is the case, good riddance.

Publish Date: 

Sunday, 21 December 2014