There are two rather different and, to some extent, incompatible perspectives from which the Onitsha people view their community and its history, and the outside observer must take both perspectives into account because they underpin a rather complex form of constitutive symbolism.
The Unifying Factor Of Ezechima
First, the community is seen as forming a coherent whole by virtue of its derivation from the unifying activities of a glorious founder king – Chima. When they take this view point, the people minimize the diversity of their origins. However, while the framework of their oral traditions therefore is based on kingly genealogies, Onitsha people also recognize the existence of nine distinct kings at any given time – nine kings representing nine descent groups.
When the people take this point of view, they stress the diversity of their origins, and implicitly adopt the perspective of a segmentary system. All contemporary Onitsha elders agree that Onitsha has always been a unity of Nine Clans (Itenani means nine), but no two persons agree precisely on the names of all nine.
The second major concept of origin is the “Children of King Chima” (Umu-Eze Chima) legend. According to this tradition, Onitsha people lived originally in a community called “Ado and Idu”; Idu referring to Benin City and Ado referring to the general country of the Edo Speaking peoples bordering Western Ibo country. Ado and Idu, located, according to one scholar, somewhere near Igbodo on the uplands west of Asaba, was ruled by King Chima but was tributary to the Oba of Benin. The latter’s queen mother, said to be named Asijie, once invaded the farmlands of this community to gather firewood and was assaulted by its residents. When she reported this assault to the Oba, he sent his war leader Ogbunwala with an army to retaliate.
King Chima was defeated by Benin in battle and his people were scattered. Some fled to Obior, while others went to Onitsha-Ugbo. From Onitsha-Ugbo, two groups continued the flight, some to the various towns of Isele and others northeast to Ukunzu. Enroute to Ukunzu, it is said, a pregnant woman of the group had to stop to give birth, and she and her offspring remained to found the town of Onitsha-Ukwu (“Great Onitsha”). From these scattered points, Chima rallied his people, and they moved on eastward. According to some informants, a dispute that had developed in Onitsha-Olona brought onto his second migration; it began from the northeastern area around Ezi, Onitsha-Olona, Onitsha-Ukwu, Obamkpa, and other towns. They moved eastward to the Niger at Illah, where they made a contact with a group of fishermen, who ferried them downstream by canoes to the site of what is now Onitsha. At this point, Onitsha tradition contains some ambiguities.
The Final Days Of Ezechima Journey
Whether King Chima himself ever reached this site; called ‘Riverain Onitsha” (Onicha-Mili) by the Western Ibo, is an issue still debated by Onitsha indigenes. They believe he was buried not in Onitsha but at Obior in the west. The people of Agbor on the western fringes of western Ibo country, on the other hand, claim that their founder was one “Chima”, who first migrated from Benin, crossed the Niger to Onitsha, then, later returned west to settle in Agbor.
Early Kingship Tussle for Onitsha
Onitsha tradition provides another view of the problem, for it is said that before the travelers embarked on the river near Illah, a dispute broke out concerning who would be king in the new community they were about to settle. According to this legend, the names of the disputants were Oreze (a son of King Chima), Ukpali Ezechi (or “Agbor Chima”), Ekensu (also called “Aboh Chima”), Obio, Obamkpa, and Isele (and others variably mentioned).
Each of these immigrants had brought one of the essential symbols of Onitsha kingship, a pair of the short cylindrical log drums called ufie which the king traditionally used daily to beat out in rhythm the names of ancestral kings as he ritually ushered in the dawn. It was suggested that all contestants destroy their ufie drums. After crossing the river the person who first cut down a tree, then fashioned and beat new ufie drums would be accepted by all as king.
Two leaders, Ukpali Ezechi and Ekensu, refused to accept this suggestion and departed; the former returning westward to Agbor, and the latter taking most of his followers outward where he eventually founded Aboh. The others agreed to the terms, and all destroyed their drums except Oreze Chima, who deceitfully lashed his own Ufie beneath the canoe which ferried his group to the site of Onitsha. When they all arrived at the eastern shore and began fashioning new drums, Oreze renovated his old drums, beat them, and proclaimed his right to supremacy. The other settlers refused to acknowledge his supremacy and remained with their followers nearby, holding and using their own ufie drums, but by his deceit Oreze had attained a kind of primacy among them; they agreed to muffle their own drums so the sounds would not carry throughout the community.
Correspondence Between Benin Legends Of War and UmuEzechima
There is considerable correspondence between the Umu Eze-Chima origin tale and the Benin legends of their war with Igala. The Onitsha name of the legendary Benin “Queen mother” Asijie appears to be a rendering of the name of Oba Esigie, whose reign around the beginning of the sixteenth century was marked by a war with Igala that extended into western Ibo country and disrupted many communities there. Moreover, the Onitsha name for the Benin warrior, Ogbunwala, corresponds closely with that of the Benin army’s slave commander during the reign of Esigie.
This Asijie theory is also contradicted by Bosah when he asserts that by and large, there are two versions of the incident which led to the exodus of Onitsha people from Benin. The first emanated from the Azu Ndu Primary School Reader published by the Church Missionary Society of the Niger Diocese. In this book written in Ibo, the story was told of how Esigie, mother of the Oba of Benin, one day entered into the farmland of Onitsha people in search of firewood. The farmers took objection to what they considered a trespass and therefore beat her up. When the woman returned home, she reported the matter to the Oba who became infuriated and ordered his giant warrior, Aguala or Gbuwala, to punish and drive the farmers away, and so the exit of Onitsha people from Benin was precipitated.
The Facts behind the Ezechima Story
This story, in all intents and purposes, cannot possibly stand the test of truth in view of the fact that the ruling monarch in Benin when Onitsha people left the territory was Esigie by name. His mother, therefore, could not have borne an identical name. In fact her name was Idia. Her title was Iyoba (Queen-mother). On assumption of this title the Oba sent her to live at lower Uselu in Eguae-Iyoba (Queen-mother’s Court). It is therefore obvious that by the dignity of her office, the queen-mother had no need to fetch firewood by herself.
Secondly, the Oba’s giant-warrior, Aguala or Gbuwala, who frequently featured in Onitsha mythology, seems a mistaken identity for Oguola who was regarded as the wisest Oba of Benin, having caused a trench to be dug around the town in which he resided and thus protected it from invasion. By this act the town later became known as Benin City. Oba Oguola reigned in the closing period of the 13th century.
For all these reasons, it is sensible to infer substantial migrations and even to assign tentative dates to them. The settlement at Onitsha of King Chima or some of his people may be placed well after the beginning of the sixteenth century, perhaps around the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Contributing to the debate on the origin of Onitsha people, in an unstructured interview conducted on 12th October 2016; two days after the 2016 Ofala Festival with the Obi of Onitsha, who referred the researcher to Ofili Ukpabi (2016) – The Registrar of The Traditional Court of the Obi in Council and The Traditional Custodian of Records, Palace of the Obi of Onitsha (The researcher was a participant Observer at the Saturday and Sunday 8th-9th October 2016 Ofala Festival in Onitsha), who affirmed that Ehime in Benin is Eze-Chima in Onitsha, and that Ehime left Benin in 1500 AD when there was a struggle for the throne, and that was when there was no male issue to succeed the Oba. He was not conversant with the story of Eze-Chima being a descendant of Prince Arhuanran – the Enogie of Udo. He however declared thus:
There was a vacum which led to the depature of Eze Chima from Benin Kingdom, with this Chima had declared his intention of leaving Benin for Ado (a new settlement across the River Niger). Thr significance of this declaration is that the coronation of the Obi of Onitsha is not complete without getting to Obior. The original name of Eze Chima eas ‘Ehime’, but dut to his interaction with different peoples, Ehime was corrupted to ‘Kime’ and eventually ‘Chime’, ‘Eze’ on its own was a title. It is worthy to note that the Onitsha people from Benin Kingdom interacted well with the Igala people which led to a lot of inter-marriages.
For example the mother of Eze Chimaedi was Igala from Attah dynasty, also the mother of Obi Eze-Aroli was the daughter of the Attah of Igala. The Onitsha cultiure and tradition is a mixture of Benin, Igala and Igbo (Nri). After the death of Eze Chima, his body was interred in Obior, while his hair and nails were buried at ‘Udo’ which is popularly known as the ‘Udo Shrine’ which as well is the coronation ground of the Obi elect of Onitsha.
Ose market was the first loaction of the first palace in Onitsha and the ‘Ani-Onicha’ is a shrine which links the Onitsha people with their homeland in Benin Kingdom.
The deep rooted relationship between Onitsha and Benin
Finally there has been a continuous relationship between Benin and Onitsha for a long period of time.
Also, in an interview with Chief Dr. D. U. Edebiri (OON), the Esogban of Benin, at his residence at No. 3, Ogiesoba Avenue, off Airport/Ogba Road, GRA, Benin City on 26 September 2016, he affirmed that from traditional history, the people of Onitsha have always claimed that they are descendants of Benin. He affirmed that there was a similarity in the culture and tradition of Benin and Onitsha. Accroding to a story told by his father, the Onitsha people migrated from Benin during tehe Benin-Idah war, which led to the creation of the dynasty in Onitsha. Areas like Agbor, Aboh, Asaba and Onitsha paid homage to Benin in the olden days, but he was not aware of the Obi of Onitsha having any reations with the Benin royal family. He also stated that the Kolanut was not of Igbo origin, the Kolanut was gotten from Benin which spread to the Igbo country and yet the Igbo people hold the Kolanut in very high esteem. Even in their pattern of prayer, the Igbos reply with ‘Ise’ which is a Bini word. All this are traces of Benin connection with the Igbo country, especially Onitsha.
It is important to note that the Esogban title, which the interviewee – Chief Edebiri – holds, is the second in ranking in the Eghaevbo N’Ore titles in Benin Kingdom. The Esogban is the keeper of the Edion Edo (Elders Shrine), and deputises for the Iyase of Benin .
In a related interview with His Royal Highness, Patrick Ekhoeorutomwen Igbinidu (JP), the Iyase of Udo, at his Palace in Udo, Ovia South-West of Edo State on 25 October, 2016, he affirmed that the original name of Udo was “Ewogbe Oye” and that presently, none of his current elders in Udo has any knowledge of the link between Udo and Onitsha bearing in mind the passage of time, and that it was a long time ago. Nonetheless, he knew from his late father, who also was a chief, that there is a relationship between Udo and Onitsha. According to him, his father had many idols of which there was a particular one where he usually had his bath. This was called “Osu-Onitsha”. No woman was allowed into where the Osu-Onitsha was. Only men were allowed there. Sometimes a big snake would emerge through a passage where water usually flushed out from. As a boy, he would ask his father what was inside a particular pot inside the grove of the idol, and his father’s response was always “Osu-Onitsha”. If a sick person took water from the pot, the person would be healed almost immediately.
If asked whether there is a relationship between Udo and Onitsha, he would say “Yes”. The people of Udo wanted to revenge the death of their master; Prince Arhuanran during the reign of Oba Esigie. The Iyase then; Osauye, gathered his warriors to battle Oba Esigie and his troops. The Udo people were eventually conquered and dispersed into so many areas including the present Ondo in Ondo State.