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Home Culture Origin of Onitsha- The facts

Origin of Onitsha- The facts

Nnamdi Azikiwe, in My Odyssey, An Autobiography, affirms that “in tracing my paternal lineage, I could say that both parents of my father are direct descendants of Eze Chima”. As for his maternal ancestry, Azikiwe is “the first son of Nwanonaku Rachel Chinwe Ogbenyeanu (Aghadiuno) Azikiwe, who was the third daughter of Aghadiuno Ajie, the fifth son of Onowu Agbani, first daughter of Obi Udokwu, the son who descended from five kings of Onitsha. Five of these rulers of Onitsha were direct lineal descendants of Eze Chima, who led his warrior adventurers when they left Benin to establish the Onitsha city-state, in about 1748 AD.

The meaning of the word Onitsha

Azikiwe further went on to narrate his knowledge of the origin of Onitsha as told by his grandmother thus:

As grandmother found me a willing listener, she used to enjoy entertaining me with stories relating to the early history of Onitsha. One day, I asked her 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 (others). So that the two words when joined together mean one who despises others.

R.N. Henderson conciselyfurther explains this attitude to non-Onitsha Igbos when he asserted that both Nri and Onitsha people employed the succinct proverb “igbo have no king” (igbo enwegh eze) to set their neighbors apart from themselves.  Onitsha people refer to ndi-gbo as “those who do not wash”, alluding to the traditional custom in the uplands of rubbing the body with palm oil as an aromatic, odor-masking substitute for bathing.

Oba Erediauwa of Benin, in his book: I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant, corroborate the above assertion, when he affirmed that “the Onitsha indigene (i.e. the native Onitsha Division) would frown if you called him or her Igbo. He is an “Onitsha man or woman” and would refer to all others as “those Igbo people.” This distinction is easily understandable having regard to the facts of history which tells us that the natives of the present-day Onitsha town migrated from the ancient Benin Kingdom. I was at a private social gathering of Onitsha people once when, in concluding a general conversation on the happenings on Eastern Region, a prominent Onitsha man in the gathering said “Look, we must face the fact. We have fought but we have lost the battle” (the battle, of course, being against non-Onitsha group, with Umuahia and Owerri indigenes now holding key positions and government and politics)”.

Interview with His Royal Highness, Edun Akenzua(MFR)

In an interview conducted on Saturday, 24 September 2016 with His Royal Highness, Edun Akenzua (MFR), the Enogie of Obazuwa both at his residence at No. 6, Uwa Street, off I.C.E. Road, Benin City, and dukedom in Obazuwa, Ovia North-East LGA, Edo State, the Enogie affirmed that the Onitsha people don’t see themselves as Igbo people thus corroborating Oba Erediauwa’s aforementioned view. He was of the school of thought that Onitsha people left Benin Kingdom and founded the dynasty at Onitsha during the Idah war that occurred during the reign of Oba Esigie. He however asserts that an area in Onitsha known as “Ogbeoza” was derived from the name “Idumwonza” area in the heart of Benin, off Sokponba Road.

It is worthy of note that Enogie Edun Akenzua is of the same father and mother with Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Oba Erediauwa, the 38th Oba of Benin.

Another meaning of the word ONITSHA

On the other hand, in an interview with High Priest Osemwengie Ebohon on Saturday 5th December 2016 at his Cultural Centre at Odenede Street, off Dumez Road, Benin City, he postulated that the word ‘Onitsha’ connotes Onisanliterally translated as ‘anus’ in Benin language; not in a derogatory manner, but rather to connote the southern part of Benin, as it was the only way the geographical southern part of Benin could had been described at that time, since the anus is regarded as southern or distal to the head of a person. According to him, it was later corrupted to Onitsha. In the very words of Ebohon, he sated, “Onitsha means “Onisan” which means the “bottom” or the “back” or “Anus” of the River. It can also mean the “posterior” part of the river”.

High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon is a historian, playwright, poet, antiquarian, journalist, teacher and native doctor. He is the founder of the renowned Ebohon Cultural Centre in Benin City

The reason Onitsha people despise other others

In his further quest to know why the Onitsha people despised others, Nnamdi Azikiwe affirms that his grandmother told him 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. It was therefore taboo for us to associate with others on a level of social equality”.

The despise of others by Onitsha people-The Ebohon angle

To further underscore the above assertions, Ebohon had this to say, during the above interview conducted at his cultural centre in Benin City on 5th December 2016:

The two types of Igbos which exist in Onitsha are the Onitsha Igbos who are Bini people and Non-Onitsha Igbos (from the surrounding towns). Oba Ozolua and Oba Ewuare I, were responsible for the founding of Onitsha due to their expansionist policies. During the period of one of these Obas, The Benin soldiers had to settle in Asaba because they found it difficult crossing the River Niger, just few soldiers eventually crossed the River Niger using boats and landed in Onitsha. It would be worthy to note that one of the King-makers of Oba Akenzua I, was a young boy from Onitsha, which according to a prophecy would grow up to be a good warrior.

Also during the battle between Arhuaran and Oba Esigie, there were no serious migrations, because after the war, peace emerged in Benin Kingdom.

The disruptive tendency from Benin that helped the migration

It is Okwechime’s view that the movement that ended up in Onitsha could definitely not have been one precise action. Onicha-Ugbo tradition talks about various alerts of invasions from Benin (called Idu). The first of these alerts of possible invasions (Aya Iduh) had led to the movements of Onicha-Ugbo and Issele-Uku from the original settlement. Subsequent movements from these points apparently led to the founding of the other Onichas from Onicha-Ugbo; the other Isseles form Issele-Uku; Obomkpa and Ezi, culminating in the founding of Onicha-Milli (Onitsha) and Obosi among other Umu-Eze-Chime setttlements cast of the Niger.

Thus, among the disrupted and displaced Ibo communities as a result of possible invasions were nine which trace their origins to an ancient Ibo sacred king (eze) named ishima or chima (hereafter “Chima”), who ruled a legendary community called Ado-na-Idu (“Ado and Idu”) and paid tribute to the Oba of Benin. Nine towns in the Asaba-Agbor uplands share this Eze Chima legend  and their oral traditions trace their dispersion from Ado-na-Idu to a dispute between Eze Chima and either Oba Esigie or Oba Ozolua, one of whom was almost certainly on the throne at the time of First Portuguese contact and the Benin expedition against Igala.

Omorodion in his write-up on Arhuanran, The Prince Betrayed by Birth, corroborates and affirms the earlier-mentioned emigration theory by Henderson et al.  However, in his own narrative, the “great chief” was Oba Ozolua the father of Osawe (who later became Oba Esigie) and Arhuanran, who went the way of his ancestors, and not Oba Esigie.

The Benin history on the record of events culminating to Onitsha

In Benin history, there are records of invasions of the Igbos on the western side of the river Niger (Ohimwi), reported in the traditions of the West Niger Igbos as “Aya Idu” by the following Obas: Oba Ewuare the Great (c 1440 AD), Oba Esigie (c 1504 – c 1549), Oba Orhogbua (c 1550 – 1577), Oba Ehengbuda (c 1578 – 1605), Oba Eresoyen (c 1735 – 1749).

The last major invasion, which greatly shook the area, was during the reign of Oba Akengbuda (c1750 – 1803). In definite terms, apart from the conquest of Igboland west of the river Niger during the reign of Oba Ewuare (c1440 AD), according to Egharevba, there was no specific recorded history or tradition of Benin war (Aya Idu) against the present day Umu-Eze-Chime. All the towns and villages in the area were nevertheless known to have dreaded the might of Benin warriors and hence paid tribute to the Benin monarch.

The facts about the Onitsha people

The people of Onitsha who now live on the eastern bank of River Niger were part and parcel of the Edo tribe. It is for this reason that Onitsha people fondly call their town “Onitsha Ado N’ldu,” meaning Onitsha of Edo origin.

It is noteworthy that Bosah cited in his work the comments of Mr W. R. T. Milne; a one time Administrative Officer, who in his intelligence Report on the Town of Onitsha, wrote inter alia that “Chima, a native of Benin, is said to have been forced to leave his native town because of a quarrel to have the kingship. With him left a considerable following who gradually made their way Eastward”.

The Partridge’s report account talked about one man called Chime who was expelled from Benin. Chima was regarded as the first Obi of Onitsha.

That Eze Chima died in Obior, is under no contestation, as affirmed by His Royal Highness, Kingsley Ugochukwu Ofuokwu III (JP), the Obi of Obior, during the interview with him at his Palace in Obior, Aniocha North LGA, Delta State on Wednesady 9th of November, 2016. In attendance at the interview were Professor Chief J.N. Egwu (the Isama of Obior Kingdom), Chief Innocent O. Osu (the Iyase of Obior Kingdom), and Chief B.S.C. Elue (the Okwulegwe of Obior Kingdom and a former Deputy Governor of Delta State), who all participated and contributed to the interview. They commenced by stating that Pa Dibia, who was cited by S.I. Bosah in his Groundwork of the History of Onitsha Culture, was a one time Olishe of Obior. According to them, Chima lived and died in Obior, and buried in his “Ibah”. Modern Obior now came and built a house over the grave as a monument. Their narrative was as follows:

At the ‘Ibah’, the effigies representing the children of Eze Chima are depicted there. The journey of Chima and his followers lasted many years, according to Bosah, he used the word ‘peregrination’ which started in 1530 AD. Their first settlement was Agbor and after a time Chima left and settled in Obior. On the arrival of Chima in Obior he placed his ‘Oji’ which is a symbol of settlement, the people of Obior, call it Oshai Oba and women are forbidden to see it. It should be noted that Eze Chima lived and died in Obior.

The departure from Obior to Onitsha, was not a direct journey, the travellers led by the grand-son of Eze Chima, Oreze, journeyed from Obior to Idemuja clan, Onicha-Ukwu, Okwenzu down to Illah, before crossing the Niger, they were helped by two Igala fishermen named ‘Ogbogodoh’ and ‘Okumanya’. Oreze became the first Obi of Onitsha due to his leadership skills.

There are three hypothesis which exist in connection to Eze Chima

They are: the Idu hypothesis which claim that Eze Chima came from Benin; the Umueze Chima hypothesis by the Umueze Chima clan of Onicha-Ugbo and Onicha-Olona who believe that Chima was an Igbo man and finally the Copy cat hypothesis which posists that the Umueze Chima clan admired Benin tradition and culture, thereby copying them (Benin). The corruption of Ehima’s name started in Agbor, were the Agbor people do not have the ‘chi’ diptongue but that of ‘ki’, due to that, the name ‘Ehima’ was corrupted to ‘Ikime’. Also the word ‘Eze’ is a bini word, as well as the name of the bini princess who was the wife of Chima

At this juncture, it is worth mentioning Miller’s Intelligence Report on Aboh when ittraced the origin of Onitsha to Benin, were for a long period of time there was living near Benin a people who were called Onitsha. They regarded themselves as Bini and spoke the Benin language, though they were believed by some to have been descendants of people who came to Benin from Aro-Chukwu as agents of the “long ju-ju” and who never returned. During the reign of Oba Esigie, 1504-1550, who was one of the great Obas of Benin, it happened that the Onitsha found a woman gathering sticks in one of their plantations. As they had previously forbidden this to be done, they seized the woman and flogged her. Unfortunately for them this woman proved to be no less a person than the Oba’s mother. Esigie was greatly incensed when he learnt of the way his mother had been treated, and summoned the Iyasere of Benin, who happened to be his half-brother, a man called Gbunwara, and ordered him to raise an army and avenge the insult. Gbunwara did so, invaded the land of Onitsha and after two days fighting conquered them. Rather than be enslaved, the Onitsha fled from Benin. They escaped eastward into the land of aborigines, the Ibo, and intermarried with them and acquired the Ibo language. They founded various villages, Onitsha-Olona, Onitsha-Mili, or Onitsha-Ezechima now known merely as Onitsha, situated on the east bank of the river. At this time the non-river Ijaw were in full command of the Niger, it was therefore a great feat on Ezechima’s part to cross the river at all, but having crossed it he dared not found his town on the river bank, but did so a mile or two inland. His town with the waterside town attached to it has now become one of the most important towns on the Niger.

Owing to the fact that Chima is an Igbo name there have been doubts about whether the emigrants were from Benin. Rather they would appear to be Igbo people who were displaced by Benin military expansion eastwards from about the mid-fifteenth century. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the migrations were sparked off by the disruptions generated by the war between Benin and Idah in 1516. Yet, another scholar has argued that the migrations were caused by political dispute in Agbor at the end of the seventeenth century.

This was followed by Benin attacks in the mid-eighteenth century which led to further migrations. Both events have thus been mixed up by the oral traditions.

At this juncture, it is worth mentioning Miller’s Intelligence Report on Aboh when ittraced the origin of Onitsha to Benin, were for a long period of time there was living near Benin a people who were called Onitsha. They regarded themselves as Bini and spoke the Benin language, though they were believed by some to have been descendants of people who came to Benin from Aro-Chukwu as agents of the “long ju-ju” and who never returned. During the reign of Oba Esigie, 1504-1550, who was one of the great Obas of Benin, it happened that the Onitsha found a woman gathering sticks in one of their plantations. As they had previously forbidden this to be done, they seized the woman and flogged her. Unfortunately for them this woman proved to be no less a person than the Oba’s mother. Esigie was greatly incensed when he learnt of the way his mother had been treated, and summoned the Iyasere of Benin, who happened to be his half-brother, a man called Gbunwara, and ordered him to raise an army and avenge the insult. Gbunwara did so, invaded the land of Onitsha and after two days fighting conquered them. Rather than be enslaved, the Onitsha fled from Benin. They escaped eastward into the land of aborigines, the Ibo, and intermarried with them and acquired the Ibo language. They founded various villages, Onitsha-Olona, Onitsha-Mili, or Onitsha-Ezechima now known merely as Onitsha, situated on the east bank of the river. At this time the non-river Ijaw were in full command of the Niger, it was therefore a great feat on Ezechima’s part to cross the river at all, but having crossed it he dared not found his town on the river bank, but did so a mile or two inland. His town with the waterside town attached to it has now become one of the most important towns on the Niger.

Owing to the fact that Chima is an Igbo name there have been doubts about whether the emigrants were from Benin. Rather they would appear to be Igbo people who were displaced by Benin military expansion eastwards from about the mid-fifteenth century. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the migrations were sparked off by the disruptions generated by the war between Benin and Idah in 1516. Yet, another scholar has argued that the migrations were caused by political dispute in Agbor at the end of the seventeenth century.

This was followed by Benin attacks in the mid-eighteenth century which led to further migrations. Both events have thus been mixed up by the oral traditions.


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