The turning point for Nigerian and Igbo historiography, was however to occur in the 1950s with the rise of an indigenous counter-narrative. This was led by Kenneth Dike, the first Nigerian to obtain a PhD in History and the first vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan. Dike led a new and bold historiography that sought to provide a solid scholarly counterpoint to the ‘High noon’ historiography that had then taken root.
Simply put, historiography, in the sum of its varied definitions, relates to the study of how history is recorded, beyond the more direct definition of history, as the record of event.
To fully distil the subject of Igbo historiography, I shall start by exploring the overarching subject of historiography within the Nigerian context, segmented into three historical periods – the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial epochs. I shall crave the indulgence of purists, and this is relevant, as the milestones of Igbo historiography were at least influenced by that of the wider historiography of the geographical region in which Igboland is located in the pre-colonial phase and indeed the geopolitical entity, in the colonial and post-colonial eras.
The Pre-Colonial Phase
The predominant method of recording history in the majority of political entities in this era was via the means of oral histories, passed down through the generations. As eloquently defined by Toyin Falola and Saheed Aderinto in their work Nigeria, Nationalism, and Writing History (page 5): “Oral history constructed the basis to formulate ideas and theories, not just on the relevance of history but also of religion, philosophy, cosmology, and other topics. In seeking answers to their being, their Creation, and their real and imagined differences with their neighbours, people principally turned to oral traditions.”
Scripted histories however existed in Northern territories subject to the influence of Islam, from at least the 9th to 10th Century AD. Additionally, in some parts of Southern Nigeria, specifically in the Cross River basin, there existed a form of script – Nsibidi – which albeit was restricted in its user-ship, being one of the pillars of the ancient Ekpe society, whose influence extended to the Igbo-speaking areas of the Cross River basin, notably Arochukwu, amongst others.
In addition to the written sources detailed above, were the accounts of foreign authors – mostly explorers, notably the Portuguese, in the 15th century, followed by those of other European actors, including explorers and missionaries, through the 16th century onwards. As Falola and Aderinto, further advance, most of these accounts were focused less on pure histories, but on the geography, topography, agriculture, cosmology and political structures of the territories encountered. Thus history was more of a necessary adjunct, less than the focus of the accounts recorded.
The Colonial Phase: 1861-1960
In this period emerged a variety of academic studies by European authors, mostly commissioned by the colonial and missionary authorities. As Toyin Falola defined in his work “Trends in Nigerian Historiography”, these works were mostly subjected to the intrinsic motivations of the authors and their principals, which had less to do with objective academic intent, but more towards the aim of furthering the objectives of their principals. The narratives inherent in this historiography were seen by many to be less than agreeable to a new generation of western educated Africans, described by Falola and Aderinto, as ‘Cultural nationalists’, who often published rebuttal texts. Notable in this regard were amateur historians like Africanus Horton, whose 1868 publication West African Countries and Peoples, was a strident defence of the civilisation and peoples of West Africa. Their simple motivation was a nuanced account of THEIR own histories. Telling in this regard, a quote from the opening lines of Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yoruba spoke volumes of this motive as “…a purely patriotic motive, that the history of our fatherland may not be lost in oblivion.”
Another cadre in the early colonial era being the proto-nationalist press, of the late 19th century, notable amongst which were John Payne Jackson’s Lagos Weekly Record and George Williams’ Lagos Standard, which directly and articulately provided a counter-narrative to the colonial commissioned accounts. These press were owned and driven mostly by the vocal Saro (Sierra Leonian returnees) and Liberian elements, who had, by the late 19th century, experienced an Africanist renaissance, and led a strident and robust advocacy elevating the African past. They were to be followed by the next generation of pure nationalist newspapers, such as Herbert Macaulay’s Lagos Daily News, from 1925 and Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot, from 1937, amongst others.
Formal rebuttal of colonial historiography emerged in the 1950s with the emergence of an indigenous historiography by a generation of Nigerian historians, led by Professor Kenneth Dike. Lidwien Kapteijn’s African Historiography Written by Africans, 1955-1973: The Nigerian Case (cited in Falola and Aderinto’s Nigeria Nationalism and Writing History advanced that this historiography was characterised by an inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary approach, involving oral history, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, etc. This provided a counter-narrative to that of the colonial scholars who had limited African historiography to written histories, thus declaring the non-existence of an African historiography prior to external involvement.
What was most significant of the new nationalist school of history-writing spearheaded by the so-called Ibadan School, i.e the Department of History, University of Ibadan, fittingly headed by Dike, was that they energetically pursued the writing of history from an indigenous perspective. This watershed, especially as it relates to Igbo historiography, is explored in more detail below.
The Pre-colonial phase
As was the case with the broad Nigerian perspective examined above, the recording of history in the Igbo-speaking territories, consisted of oral histories passed down in the various communal entities. Adiele Afigbo, in his work Ropes of Sand, cited the absence of a uniform historical narrative as due to the existence of these entities in small independent administrative units, separated by geographical conditions, but bound by a common language and in many instance cosmological influences.
The date 1884 is indexed here as the commencement of the colonial phase of Igbo history, based on the fact of the Royal Niger Company entering into notorious treaties with Riverine Igbo territories, which purportedly signed over their lands to the Company, in perpetuity. It is instructive to mention that while treaties had been signed as far back as 1877, e.g between Great Britain and Onitsha, they did not serve to assign the control of the territories to the former or its agents/proxies…
There were, as referred to above, scripted histories in the Igbo-speaking territories of the Cross River basin, namely the ancient Nsibidi script. Nsibidi was a pillar of the Ekpe or Mgbe Society, a male-only sacred lodge, with varied accounts of origins, but largely agreed to have been pre-eminent among the Efik, Qua-Ejegham and Efut peoples of the Cross River basin, in at least the 18th century – as referenced ironically by Reverend J.K.Mcgregor, of the Church Missionary Society, in his Notes on Nsibidi published in 1909. The Ekpe could be found in a variant in Igbo-speaking communities in the Cross River basin, known also as ‘Okonko’. However, Nsibidi was strictly limited in its usage in Igbo-speaking areas and was in any event, a sacred text, in its pure and most complex form – with this limitation highlighted by Afigbo, in Ropes of Sand, underscoring the more prevalent nature of oral history traditions.
Aside these, what could be deemed the earliest written accounts of contact with Igboland, may be found in the memoirs of the 17th century explorers and traders, who purchased slaves from the Niger Delta. A prime example being Jean Barbot, who details accounts of Igbo slaves brought to Bonny for onward shipment, as part of the nefarious trade, chronicled in the work Travels Along the Guinea 1678-1699. He also describes encountering a race of people, several miles northward of Bonny, who displayed markings from their hairlines to their eyebrows, which according to Onwuejeogwu (in Nri Kingdom) was suggestive of contact with Igbo peoples. Onwuejeogwu also cited an earlier account by Portuguese explorer, Duarte Pacheco Pereira, reciting a similar description of peoples, in his work Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis. However the most vivid account is that of the freed slave, Olaudah Equiano, in 1792, who describes his homeland in detail in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Whilst the theses of scholars like Catherine Acholonu and Innocent Nwoga, traced his origins variously to Western and Northern Igboland, there have been questions by others about the exactitude of this determination. Afigbo, in Ropes of Sand, embarked upon an extensive interrogation of Equiano’s origins, and while he was of the strong persuasion that Equiano was from Igboland, he highlighted some discrepancies in the said accounts, especially the rather detailed and complex insights Equiano provided, inspite of having been a toddler at the time the events were witnessed.
A more definitive account of Igboland, was as a consequence of the Church Missionary Society expedition, up the River Niger in 1841, of which the encounters were co-written by the German missionary, Reverend Frederick Schon and the legendary Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who had made this journey accompanied by a freed slave of Igbo origin, Simon Jonas. This was a follow-up to an earlier expedition by Macgregor Laird. This was followed by other accounts, especially with further expeditions in 1854 and in 1857 – the latter of which resulted in the establishment of a CMS Mission in Onitsha and indeed a primer of the Igbo language, written by Crowther, with the assistance of Simon Jonas. The 1857 expedition also included in the retinue Reverend John Christopher Taylor, the son of Igbo repatriates, who was later active in the composition of the Bible in Igbo language. All of these individuals created records of their encounters with the peoples of the territories of Igboland, in which they either lived or travelled – including accounts of the customs and traditions of the said peoples. Another notable record of this time, was the English trader, William Cole’s memoirs of his travels up the River Niger, Journal of an African Trader, published in 1862 and which details encounters with riverine Igbo people. Further references can be found in the notes of explorer Richard Burton, chronicling travels through some Igbo Kingdoms of the River Niger in 1863, in his work Wanderings through West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po.
In all, these were largely fragmented accounts of the travels and experiences of varied individuals, which did not even pretend to a wholesale study of the people and history of Igboland, beyond piecemeal, subjective snapshots.
The Colonial Phase: 1884-1960
The date 1884 is indexed here as the commencement of the colonial phase of Igbo history, based on the fact of the Royal Niger Company entering into notorious treaties with Riverine Igbo territories, which purportedly signed over their lands to the Company, in perpetuity. It is instructive to mention that while treaties had been signed as far back as 1877, e.g between Great Britain and Onitsha, they did not serve to assign the control of the territories to the former or its agents/proxies, but at best provided for exclusive trading rights. Furthermore, a telling feature of the 1884 treaties was that the clauses containing the assignments in perpetuity were contained in an addendum document. Treaties – Royal Niger Company and Native Chiefs (UK National Archives Ref: FO 881/6425).
The first two decades of this era witnessed the continued fragmented journal notes on individual Igbo communities, by colonial officials and missionaries. However, an original indigenous effort was also witnessed in this era, with the epoch-making History of Obosi and the Ibos, published in 1924, in bi-lingual format (Igbo and English) by Israel Eloebo Iweka, the first Igbo civil engineering contractor and later Igwe of Obosi. This work, which was edited by an indigenous C.M.S Priest, Reverend Ekpunobi, attempted the first history of the Igbos. However, it was quite clearly the work of an amateur historian. Nonetheless, this is not to take away the huge significance of this work, which was a brave, far-sighted and historic attempt by an indigenous author, to document a theory of origin of the Igbo people, as well as the specific history of his own community – Obosi.
Falola and Aderinto in Nigeria, Nationalism, and Writing History (p.69) observed that the early 20th century was however to see the development of historiography, developed almost entirely from the anthropological studies of European authors, who wrote the first social histories of Nigeria. In specific, reference to the Igbo-speaking territories in a number of works, emerged in the first three decades of the 20th century, written by anthropologists, either commissioned by the colonial authorities, or in consequence of their duties, as colonial civil servants. These works included Cross River Natives, 1905, by Charles Patridge; The Lower Niger and Its Tribes, 1906, by Major A. G. Leonard – both of these authors being colonial civil servants, employed by the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. Next were several volumes of studies by the colonial government commissioned anthropologist, Northcote Whitridge Thomas, spanning the law and customs of Igbo-speaking areas of Asaba and Awka, as well as a dictionary of Igbo language (1913-1914).
Next in this ilk was the oft-referenced Among the Ibo People, published in 1921 by Reverend George. T. Basden, an Anglican priest and anthropologist, who spent the years 1902-1926, serving in Igboland. This was then followed by Peoples of Southern Nigeria, published in 1926 by Percy Amaury Talbot, a political officer with the colonial government.
Adiele Afigbo in an article “The Anthropology and Historiography of Central South Nigeria Before and Since Igbo-Ukwu” (published in the journal History in Africa. The African Studies Association; Vol 23; 1996, 1-15–1996), criticised these works as having been coloured by the motivations of the authors’ principals, (a view echoed by Falola and Aderinto). Afigbo contended that these colonial studies in turn influenced the broad historiography of the ensuing period, describing them as displaying “the idiosyncratic waywardness of Colonial Anthropology… characterised by lack of focus, method, intensity or concept.”
Afigbo was to further observe that by 1920, the colonial authorities, now weary of a purely academic exercise by anthropologists, influenced the narrowing of focus down to the study of political systems – towards the simple aim of colonial governance. A phenomenon which he ingeniously described as the ‘High Noon’ of the anthropological study of Igboland and other areas of Central-Southern Nigeria. The result of this change of methodology, was the imposition of or emphasis on centralised authority (coincident with the imposition of indirect rule). Afigbo continues that by the 1930s, this had been ossified – first, into a typecast three-tier political model, consisting primarily of the fragmented pagan peoples of the forest (Igbo, Ibibio, Idoma, etc.); the centralised systems of pagan peoples (Yoruba, Jukun, Edo etc), and the centralised political system of the Muslim peoples of the North. Worse still, by 1940 this had been compressed into a two-tier system of ‘states’ and ‘stateless’ systems, advanced by E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Forte in their work African Political Systems. The decentralised political systems of the central Igbo communities and other ethnic peoples, with republican systems, were grouped under the heading of the ‘stateless’ peoples, while those with centralised sovereign political authority were classified as ‘states’, by implication suggesting the former to be in a less developed evolutionary phase, in comparison to the latter. Thus the so called ‘High noon’ concept, which emphasised central political authority as being the ideal or apex model of political structure concretised. This paternalistic and narrow historiography became the ‘accepted’ standard for the better part of the next three decades.
Dike advocated a break from the monotonal strictures of written history, citing the structural weakness of this approach thus “…many historians too readily admit evidence in journals of travellers or other written sources for gospel truth, where well-preserved traditions, which are common knowledge with anyone who knows the community well, could have corrected patent errors in the written accounts”.
There were few, if any, pretensions about the direct motivations of the colonial anthropological studies that were commissioned post-1920, which simply put, and as described earlier, were geared towards assisting the direct aim of colonial administration. A telling example of this being, as referenced by Afigbo, when G.I. Jones, the Welsh anthropologist, was detailed to Abakaliki in 1935, to conduct a study, with a view to creating a basis for centralised administration in the area. This completely ignored the pre-existence of a complex decentralised republican political system. G.I. Jones was later, in 1950, to go on to publish his own independent work, The Ibo and Ibibio Peoples of Eastern Nigeria (co-written with anthropologist Darryl Forde). Other anthropological studies in this period included the works of Sylvia Leith-Ross, who in 1938 wrote a seminal study on Igbo women titled African Women: The Ibo of Nigeria.
The turning point for Nigerian and Igbo historiography, was however to occur in the 1950s with the rise of an indigenous counter-narrative. This was led by Kenneth Dike, the first Nigerian to obtain a PhD in History and the first vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan. Dike led a new and bold historiography that sought to provide a solid scholarly counterpoint to the ‘High noon’ historiography that had then taken root. Adiele Afigbo in The Anthropology and Historiography of Central South Nigeria highlights Dike’s scholarly rebuttal of the ‘states’/’stateless’ peoples’ dichotomy in his seminal work, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta 1830-1885, as follows: “The Delta and Eastern Nigeria political organisations served well the needs of their day. The notion still widely prevalent that the multiplicity of independent political units was indicative of the non-existence of some form of authority is – to say the least – a superficial view. Beneath the fragmentation of Authority lay deep fundamental unities, not only in religious and cultural spheres, but also – as has been indicated – in politics and economics.”
Dike was to make another famous intervention, this time in his response to a comment made by Dame Margery Perham, in her article “The British Problem in Africa,” (Foreign Affairs 29, no. 4 (July 1951): 637–650. 39.), on the question of African self-government. Her comments were thus: “Until the penetration of the Europeans, Africans without the wheel, the plough, or transport-animal; almost without stone houses or clothes except for skins; were without writing and thus without history”. Kenneth Dike’s response, as contained in his epochal article, published in West Africa magazine in 1953, was poignant, with the relevant quote being as follows: “The point is not that Africans have no history but that there is profound ignorance concerning it, and an almost pathological unwillingness to believe the evidence of it when presented”. He went on further, “There is no criterion by which to compare one culture in terms of progress with another as each is the product of the environment and must primarily be judged in relation to the community.”
In Dike’s view, the focus of Western scholars, on one platform (clothing, transportation, housing, etc.) of ‘civilisation’ as being indicative of the progressiveness of the said society, were in his view perpetuating the errors of the 19th century evolutionists (Spencer and Morgan being examples). This cadre having indexed societies as savage, barbaric or civilised – remote from the demands of their ‘geographical and historical backgrounds’, but against subjective isolated criteria. This approach, which was used by scholars in respect of African historiography, had in Dike’s view in fact been abandoned by ethnologists. He relied upon Melville Herskovits submission in his work The Myth of the Negro Past, of which the relevant quotation was thus “…scholars drawing comparisons of this nature have merely reacted to their own conditioning which has given them a predisposition to favour their own customs and to place differing cultures on levels which are deemed less advanced”.
Dike further submitted further that societies developed technologies and innovations based on their environment and needs. Thus, as he cited, wheeled vehicles in the tropical forest, would have been pointless for traditional inhabitants. Hence, in summary, a comparison of a culture with another as uncivilised was anomalous and narrow, citing Pidlington’s quote, “No human community is any lower, earlier, or more ancient than any other. All represent highly specialised human adaptations, the product of millennia of traditionalised culture”.
He challenged Perham’s theory further, by citing the existence of evidence of great African civilisations and the tendency of 19th century European scholars to, by default, attribute these to non-African hands. Examples cited being the Zimbabwean prehistoric ruins and the Benin and Ife Bronzes. He discounted this approach, especially the tendency to attribute any evidence of advanced civilisations in Africa to Hamitic influence. An approach, which he later cited (in a lecture at the proceedings of the First International Congress of Africanists, in Accra, 11-18 December 1962) as ‘the Hamitic hypothesis’, which he described as “the disreputable theory that Black people have made no contribution to human progress, that the civilisations of Africa are the civilisations of the Hamites”.
Dike advocated a break from the monotonal strictures of written history, citing the structural weakness of this approach thus “…many historians too readily admit evidence in journals of travellers or other written sources for gospel truth, where well-preserved traditions, which are common knowledge with anyone who knows the community well, could have corrected patent errors in the written accounts”. Dike proposed a systematic approach that involved the comparative study of oral traditions, with written sources, as well as other disciplines such as archaeological, linguistic and anthropological data.
Dike’s work inspired a generation of historians, who adopted a more robust indigenous historiography which employed a multi-disciplinary approach to the research of Igbo history. As stated above. The Ibadan School, which featured leading scholars of Igbo history, such as the earlier mentioned distinguished academics, Joseph Anene and Adiele Afigbo, as well as others like Boniface Obichere etc. Anene, in particular, a contemporary of Dike, eloquently echoed his colleagues’ thoughts a decade later in his work Southern Nigeria in Transition, 1885‑1906, stating thus: “Non-Nigerian writers are wont to refer to the inhabitants of the territory as a mere agglomeration or groups whose associations with one another were at best artificial. This view ignores the cultural and other unities which were quite pervasive.”
These scholars were in training or on the academic staff of the University College Ibadan, which first began to offer courses in African History in 1956, as a result of the activism of Dike. The critical thinking of the new historiography commenced in this period – the 1950s – and was to crystallise in the next historical phase. However, an important event at the tail-end of this phase was to have a significant influence of Igbo historiography – this being the Igbo-Ukwu excavation of 1959.
The Colonial Phase: 1960- Present Day
Igbo-Ukwu and Its Importance
After the 1939 discovery of artefacts at a building site at Igbo-Ukwu, owned by one Isaiah Anozie in present day Anambra State, this led the colonial authorities to seek further study of the site. Propelled by Bernard Fagg and Kenneth Murray, alongside Kenneth Dike, leading minds of the Nigerian antiquities movement, the services of Cambridge Archaeologist, Charles Thurstan Shaw was commissioned to conduct an archaeological study on the site. Shaw, who had been trained under Myles Burkitt and Grahame Clark at Cambridge in Classics, with Archaeology as a subject, had first cut his teeth in the then Gold Coast, conducting the first archaeological studies in that country, and establishing what became the National Museum of Ghana.
The postwar era was to see a revival of the interrupted trajectory of Igbo historiography, with a vast catalogue of research works published in the first 10 years after the war’s end. These included Adiele Afigbo’s The Warrant Chiefs Indirect Rule in Southern Nigeria, a detailed analysis of the whole history of the Indirect Rule system in Southern Nigeria published in 1972…
Shaw’s 1959 excavation work at Igbo-Ukwu documented several artefacts and the existence of two other sites, in the same vicinity owned by the Anozie family – Igbo Jonah and Igbo Richard. The artefacts excavated at Igbo Isaiah included intricate bronze works of an extremely high quality. The finding raised evidence of the existence of an ancient civilisation in the deep rain forest, occupied by the Igbo-speaking peoples. If the conclusions of the 1959 excavation was tentative, there was to be a further opportunity for Shaw to literally dig deeper into this lead in 1964. The second excavation was to provide even more precise confirmation of the existence of an advanced civilisation, via the complex and intricately designed artefacts found on the two new sites – Igbo Jonah and Igbo Richard. The former, in particular, contained a burial chamber, which contained the remains of what Shaw surmised to be a priest king, as evidenced by the ivory tusks, bronze breast plates and staff, and several other pieces of art located within the chamber.
Shaw’s research included carbon-dating of the artefacts discovered at the sites, which placed them at the earliest at 948 AD. Shaw had also employed oral history, of the peoples of the local and surrounding community, to ground his suggestion that the finds were the subject of the Nri civilisation. He was equally to endorse the indigenous scholarly narrative propelled by Dike, and followed by other members of the Ibadan School, amongst others. Afigbo in The Anthropology and Historiography of Central South Nigeria contends that Shaw’s findings provided compelling rebuttal of the ‘High Noon’ theory, which had relegated the so-called ‘stateless peoples’ of the rainforest belt, of course including the Igbos, to an inferior people, subject to the paramount evolutionary overview of the Kingdoms of Southern Nigeria, with Ife, Benin and to a lesser extent, Igala, being prime in this cadre. The dating of Igbo-Ukwu finds to the 8th Century, in particular, showed, as he stated that the Ife and Benin, at least two centuries later, showed that the civilisation at Igbo-Ukwu was an independent phenomenon from Western Influences, although he alluded to there having been some form of interaction with Asia, via the stones and beads used in the design of some of the Bronze artefacts, which he suggested were prevalent in Asia at the time. On this point, Afigbo advanced some criticism, of Shaw’s proposition, suggesting that it fell into the same trap of alluding signs of advancement in tropical African peoples to Asia or Europe. However it is the author’s view that Shaw’s theory of trade with Asia, does not negate the expertise-level or quality of the Igbo-Ukwu art, since trade in itself was a sign of advanced civilisation and that component in itself, constituted only a small part of the total material content of the works.
The seismic change that Shaw’s Igbo-Ukwu research engendered in Igbo historiography was substantial. It opened a floodgate of new research geared towards exploring an origin theory of the Igbo people, on one hand, and a bolder and more confident acknowledgement of the technological and administrative capabilities of the Igbo beyond the now tired narrative of the ‘High Noon’ anthropology theorists. The most ambitious, wholesale research flowing from the Igbo-Ukwu discovery, was by anthropologist Michael Onwuejeogwu, who conducted research into the history of the Nri-Oreri-Igbo-Ukwu people that was designated to fill the gap in material research. His research was to cover the period 1966 to 1972, of which his findings were published in two volumes, with the latter being in 1981. The impact of later research following in the wake of Shaw’s is discussed in further detail below.
The Post-Colonial Phase: Igbo Historiography in Independent Nigeria
The immediate post-independence era saw a vast quantum of scholarly contributions to the new wave of indigenous Igbo historiography which followed, on the legacy the afrocentric school of historiography, which had been ignited in the immediate pre-independence era of the 1950s. These works spanned a multi-disciplinary sphere. Examples included sociologist Victor Uchendu’s work The Igbo of Eastern Nigeria published in 1965 and which employed the multi-disciplinary approach advocated by Dike, in composing a comprehensive ethnographic study of Igboland, whilst deconstructing some of the narratives of earlier studies of the Igbo by European scholars. Ukwu I Ukwu’s authoritative work, The Development of Trade in Igboland (published in the Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 4 June 1967 p.651). As stated earlier, Michael Onwuejeogwu commenced his ground-breaking work on the Nri people in 1966, involving the intensive gathering of oral histories.
Of great importance was the pioneering work conducted by Felicia Ekejiuba on the contributions of Igbo female actors, following the work of Green and Leith-Ross but from a indigenous Africanist perspective. She published the work, Omu Okwei of Ossomari, a biographical study of the legendary female sovereign of Western Igboland in the early 20th century, in 1967. Ekejiuba, alongside Chieka Ifemesia, blazed the trail of indigenous female Igbo historians, engaged especially in gender studies of Igbo womanhood. Additionally, she was several years later to publish an important collaborative work with the doyen of nationalist history writing, Kenneth Dike, on the history of the Aro: The Aro of South-eastern Nigeria, 1650-1980: A Study of Socio-economic Formation and Transformation in Nigeria.
At this time also, Adiele Afigbo achieved the distinction of becoming the first Nigerian scholar to obtain a PhD in History from an indigenous university – The University of Ibadan – in 1964. It was thus not surprising to note the approaches he was to adopt in a lifetime of hugely important research work. Other scholars developing their research focused on Igbo-speaking areas in the post-Independence era, included Felix Ekechi, who conducted extensive research on the impact of missionary activity on Igbo-land, likewise. By June 1967, there were clearly green shoots of a future bumper harvest in Igbo historiography, with the emergence of several indigenous scholars engaging in qualitative study of several important subject areas.
This was however to change by July 6, 1967, with the commencement of the Nigerian Civil War, which had the effect of, first, causing the migration of several of the aforementioned scholars, amongst others, from the institutions they had been engaged with, back to Eastern Nigeria (Biafra). The vast number of these persons were engaged by the University of Nigeria, which was renamed the University of Biafra. However, this was to be short-lived, as Nsukka, the University town, fell to the September 1967 onslaught of the Nigerian Army. The vagaries of war were to truncate all wholesale academic research and publication – a situation that persisted till the cessation of hostilities in January 1967.
The postwar era was to see a revival of the interrupted trajectory of Igbo historiography, with a vast catalogue of research works published in the first 10 years after the war’s end. These included Adiele Afigbo’s The Warrant Chiefs Indirect Rule in Southern Nigeria, a detailed analysis of the whole history of the Indirect Rule system in Southern Nigeria published in 1972, and which involved a comprehensive study of the structure of the system and its impact on Igboland. The was followed by his magnum opus, Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture, a solid historiographical study of the Igbo, published in 1981. It spans origin theories to relationships with other ethnic communities. In 1972, Ikenna Nzimiro, published his work, Studies in Ibo Political Systems and Felix Ekechi published, Missionary Enterprise and Rivalry in Igboland, 1857-1914.
In 1973, Elizabeth Isichei published the first of her celebrated works on Igbo history, The Ibo People and the Europeans. This was to be followed up in 1976, with the hugely ambitious and ultimately formidable work A History of the Igbo Peoples. The task Isichei set for herself was no less significant, based on the often cited but wholly accurate consideration of the multiplicity of accounts of Igbo communities, based on their non-homogenous nature. A feature of their largely republican administrative structures that had attracted the narrow Stateless people’s categorisation of three decades earlier by foreign scholars. However, this work was celebrated for its competent effort in managing a complex narrative, with Isichei herself acknowledging the difficulties in a homogenous approach to the subject of the history or histories of the Igbo peoples.
Chieka Ifemesia, published her Traditional Humane Living Among the Igbo in 1979, bringing to the mainstream a complex and important subject. This being in addition to her significant earlier work on The Niger Trade, with papers published as far back as 1958, even as prelude to her brilliant PhD thesis submitted at the University of London in 1959: “British Enterprise on the Niger: 1830-1869”. Michael Onwuejeogwu, having completed his research on the Nri, published his seminal work, An Igbo Civilisation: Nri Kingdom & Hegemony in 1981.
In the tide of the second wave of Nigerian historiography, an increase in gender based history – especially of women’s history – came to the fore. As observed by Aderinto and Osifodunrin in “Third Wave of Nigerian History”, historical research highlighting the prominent and important role of women in African societies had commenced in the course of the nationalist historiography era, in counter to the colonial narrative, thus highlighting the progressive nature of indigenous societies.
These were JUST a few of the vast number of scholarly works that approached the subject of Igbo history from a methodical and detailed indigenous and intrinsic perspective. As highlighted, there were multifarious perspectives to engaging the history of a complex ethnic nation. However, the next question arising was the broad historiographical context in which these publications emerged. Assistance is provided once again by Saheed Aderinto in conjunction with Paul Osifodunrin, in the work “The Third Wave of Historical Scholarship on Nigeria”, published in the Festschrift, Essays In Honour of Ayodeji Olukoju. They advanced that whilst the pioneers of Nationalist historiography in the 1950s could be described as propelling the first wave of Nigerian historiography, by the 1980s, this wave had ebbed in its force. A second wave of historiography emerged in the 1970s, which was focused on specific issues, such as gender, sociology and economic history.
With regard to Igbo historiography, the view of the writers is that the timeline is not so clear cut, with the simple fact involved being that the Nigerian Civil War had, as mentioned earlier, resulted in a lull in the evolution of historiography – especially in the light of Shaw’s Igbo-Ukwu research finds, being that most of its scholars had been either trapped within the Biafran enclave or – if otherwise – had been handicapped by war-time conditions from conducting research. The war had, in fact, claimed the life of one of Nigeria’s foremost historians of the first wave – Joseph Anene, leaving a yawning gap in the immense scholarship that he had advanced both in the broader landscape and, in particular, in Igbo historiography. This interruption of research into Igbo history was acknowledged by Afigbo in The Anthropology and Historiography of Central South Nigeria (specifically relating to follow-on work based on the Igbo-Ukwu watershed), stating thus: “It is also possible that it was the Nigerian crisis of 1966-1970 that had held back the revisionism that had already set in, since most of those involved in it were bottled up in the rebel enclave and could not undertake any research or four years.” Thus one would find that a vast number of the works cited above and published before 1982 displayed characteristics of the first wave nationalist historiography.
In particular, the question of an origin theory of the Igbos formed a common thread in a vast number of the major works of the immediate post-war period. Two prime case studies include Onwuejeogwu’s work on the Nri civilisation. This was specifically focused on Nri, as said, however a fundamental part of the Nri oral traditions, being the mythological origins of Nri, is what a number of writers have described as “the cradle of Igbo civilisation”. The Nri origin theory of the Igbo people was explored in detail by Onwuejeogwu, though more from the perspective of an anthropological summary based on oral histories. Onwuejeogwu’s submission also being that the Eze Nri’s influence transcended the description of a priest-king, advancing that Eze Nri’s influence actually included the political. He went on to state significantly that “…It is entirely incorrect to state that the Igbo east of the Niger have no Kings and no State systems or that the State system was derived from Idah”.
The other case study being Afigbo’s Ropes of Sand which undertook a robust historiographical study of the Igbos, spanning some significant issues. Afigbo explores the origin theories, from the Nri to the Aro perspectives. He also adopts a fairly robust counter to the Hamitic origin theory, which traces the origin of the Igbo to a Judaic ancestry. This work also examines the relationship of the Igbos to some of their neighbours – unsurprisingly, the Igala and the Edo. Ropes explores the place of the narratives of a man, who he described in another publication, as the first historian of Igbo origin, Olaudah Equiano. Specifically weighing the probative value of his historical accounts, Afigbo equally explores Equiano’s allusions to a Judaic Igbo origin, whilst maintaining his studied disdain for this.
Thus it may be seen that most of the prominent works on Igbo history in the first decade after the war, were indeed subject to the first wave of Nigerian historiography as defined. However, this was not an exact science, as may be seen by the fact of Nzimiro’s Studies in Ibo Political Systems and Ifemesia’s Traditional Humane Living Among the Igbo being quite specialised in their focus. However by the 1980s, Igbo historiography began to respond more emphatically to the demands of the second wave of historiography. A number of works focused on specific subjects of Igbo history began to emerge. Onwuka Njoku’s excellent study, A History of Iron Technology In Igboland, published in 1986, explored the iron-working craft in the area, following on works earlier undertaken by archaeologist Nancy Neaher, titled Igbo Metalsmiths Among the Edo (published in 1976) and Awka Metalsmiths Who Travel (1979).
The 1980s was however to see the slow but steady emergence and growth of the Civil War history. Whilst there had been no shortage of authors on the subject, especially the ubiquitous first-hand accounts, there were extremely few perspectives from Igbo historians or authors, or more specifically, those who had served on the Biafran side. Civil war literature had been churned out in the course of the war, as part of the information campaign necessarily occasioned by the exertions of war. However, these were understandably tainted by the essential character trait of propaganda i.e. doubtful objectivity. There were, of course, works of historical value published by ostensibly objective foreign authors, notably Michael Mok’s Biafra Journal (1969) and John De St Jorre’s The Brothers’ War (1972). However the complexity of the situation being the natural bi-polar suspicions engendered by whatever perceived influences the authors were deemed to be under. For instance, Frederick Forsyth’s The Biafra Story (1969) was burdened by the author’s clear and undisguised friendship with Colonel Ojukwu. This scenario was to continue well into the second decade after the war, with former Biafran journalist, Nelson Ottah’s Rebels Against Rebels suffering from criticism on account of his switching of loyalties to the federal side, in the course of the war. He had, of course, underlined his editorial influences by articles he had written in the Daily Times, shortly before and after the war’s end. A fate which had earlier befallen Raph Uwechue’s Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: A Call for Realism, published in 1969, after the author had also transferred to the federal side. It is important to define that there is nothing to categorically delineate that the authors did not retain honest belief in their written accounts; however the issue I highlight here is one of perception of the same, in the fraught post-war period.
The fact, however, was that there were very few accounts from the perspective of the ‘rebel side’, likewise almost all literature existing were from journalists, or a few first-hand accounts, most of which represented the perspective of the victors. Two of the earliest works to buck this trend were Arthur Nwankwo’s Nigeria: The Challenge of Biafra and, Ntieyong U Akpan’s The Struggle For Secession, 1966-1970; a Personal Account of the Nigerian Civil War published in 1972. These two publications displayed somewhat diverse styles. The former being a distinctly frank apologia for the Biafran cause. The latter, written by no less a personality than the former head of the Biafran civil service, however adopted a more cautious tone, in its account of events in the Biafran State. A no less significant account, a few years later, being Fola Oyewole’s Reluctant Rebel, published in 1977. The author had, by his own account, been compelled to serve on the Biafran side, by factors beyond his control. However by 1980, after the publication of General Olusegun Obasanjo’s first Civil War text, My Command, perspectives from the ‘other side’ began to emerge. It was of course no surprise that this was under a civilian regime. These included Colonel Alexander Madiebo’s The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War, which was unique from the author’s experience as a combatant and indeed General Officer Commanding the Biafran Army. By the following year a slew of publications of the same ilk followed, such as Bernard Odogwu’s No Place To Hide: Crises and Conflicts Inside Biafra, the author having been an intelligence Chief in Biafra; Adewale Ademoyega’s Why We Struck, the author having been one of the key actors in the coup attempt of January 1966 and one who also served briefly under the Biafran Army. Ben Gbulie’s Nigeria’s Five Majors: Coup d’etat of 15th January 1966, First Inside Account. Other works appeared in quick succession featuring first hand narratives from ex-Biafran actors, with Hilary Njoku’s A Tragedy Without Heroes: the Nigeria-Biafra War and Requiem Biafra by Joe Achuzia, being both published in 1986. By the 1990s, a lull in the publication of Civil War literature occurred, coincident with the re-entrenchment of military rule. In the years to follow, with the return of a civilian regime, a succession of other works were published detailing the history of the Nigerian Civil War, from several authors, both within and outside academia, differing in quality and veracity, and largely subjected to the personal motivations or emotions of the authors. The task before the historian in these circumstances is to adopt a rigorous comparative enquiry, to distil the veracity of these various accounts. On an aside, if there was a perfect example of the structural pitfalls of written history, this is it.
In the tide of the second wave of Nigerian historiography, an increase in gender based history – especially of women’s history – came to the fore. As observed by Aderinto and Osifodunrin in “Third Wave of Nigerian History”, historical research highlighting the prominent and important role of women in African societies had commenced in the course of the nationalist historiography era, in counter to the colonial narrative, thus highlighting the progressive nature of indigenous societies. Felicia Ekejiuba had, as described above, blazed a trail in the historical study of Igbo women in the 1960s, with her 1967 work, Omu Okwei of Ossomari. A powerful biographical case study, which unlike its predecessor studies on Igbo women, namely those of the above-mentioned Sylvia Leith-Ross (African Women: A Study of the Ibo in Nigeria), first published in 1938 and Margaret Green’s (Ibo Village Affairs), first published in 1947, it adopted a distinctly indigenous perspective, in keeping with the nationalist historiographical style of the first wave.
Ekejiuba was, in the second wave of Nigerian historiography, to continue her leading role as an Igbo women’s historian, with a number of ground-breaking works, which though not centred on Igboland, were indeed based on research amongst Igbo women, including African Widows, published in 1982 and her 1995 work Down to Fundamentals: Women-centered Hearth-holds in Rural West Africa, which was to be referenced copiously in numerous global works in women’s studies. Equally, Nina Emma Mba, was to consolidate her reputation as a women’s historian, with the work Nigerian Women Mobilised, published in 1982 and Nigerian Women in Politics 1986-1993, edited in conjunction with Clara Osinulu and published in 1996. However, it needs to be mentioned that these works, as is quite obvious, were not centred on Igbo women’s history, specifically.
This was to change, from the 1990s onwards – a period described once again by Aderinto and Osifodunrin, as the third wave of Nigerian historiography. They described this period as being characterised by highly specialised sub-fields of historical research e.g crime, sex, business, etc. They were to specifically delineate that these sub-fields borrowed from the larger over-arching fields of Women’s history, amongst others.
The third wave, as it relates to Igbo historiography was to see a renaissance in study into the origin theories of the Igbo. Specifically, the Hamitic origins of the Igbos was once again to gain the further attention of scholars across various fields. This coincided with the alleged discovery at Aguleri, Anambra State in 1997, of an Onyx with the inscription ‘Gad’ (one of the lost tribes of Israel) behind it.
The third wave, as described, saw a proliferation of works on specialised sub-fields of Igbo Women’s history, as the authors described. The charge in this phase was led by the historian, Gloria Chuku, who declared her intent quite emphatically from 1995, with her excellent PhD thesis titled, “The Changing Role of Women in Igbo Economy, 1929-1985.” She was to go on to publish several authoritative works, largely centred on Igbo women, but in highly specialised sub-fields ranging from economics, to conflict. Her first book – and some may say her magnum opus, was Igbo Women and Economic Transformation in South-eastern Nigeria, 1900-1960, described as “the most comprehensive study on Igbo women, covering all Igbo subculture zones”, which was published in 2005.
Her scholarly articles have been no less important, an example being her “From Petty Traders to International Merchants: A Historical Account of the Role of Three Igbo Women of Nigeria in Trade and Commerce, 1886-1970” (African Economic History 27 (1999): 1-22; “Crack Kernels, Crack Hitler: Export Production Drive and Igbo Women During the Second World War”, Gendering the African Diaspora: Women, Culture, and Historical Change in the Caribbean and Nigerian Hinterland, edited by Judith Ann-Marie Byfield; Denzer and Morrison (2010).
Nwando Achebe has produced a number of highly respected works centred on women and sexuality. Her first book Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960, published in 2005, was a glorious celebration of the Igbo female personality and achievements. It was to be followed by the award-winning biographical work, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria Ahebi Ugbabe, published in 2011.
In 2007, Egodi Uchendu published a book Women and Conflict in the Nigerian Civil War, after having amassed an impressive catalogue of published scholarly articles and chapter contributions in historical works, on the subject of Igbo women’s history, especially in the sub-genre of conflict studies. These include: “Women, Power, and, Political Institution in Igboland,” (Ogundira, A. (ed.) Precolonial Nigeria. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2005, 203-214. 2005); “Women in Anioma and the Nigerian Civil War” in Nigeria in the Twentieth Century Falola, T. (editor.); “Woman-woman Marriage in Igboland”, contained in Critical Essays on Gender and Sexuality in African Literature and Film (edited by Azodo, A. U. and Eke, M. N). These distinguished academics being three of several scholars of Igbo women’s history. However, their works present an exciting phase of academic exploration into this subject and an invaluable resource to the larger historiography.
The third wave, as it relates to Igbo historiography was to see a renaissance in study into the origin theories of the Igbo. Specifically, the Hamitic origins of the Igbos was once again to gain the further attention of scholars across various fields. This coincided with the alleged discovery at Aguleri, Anambra State in 1997, of an Onyx with the inscription ‘Gad’ (one of the lost tribes of Israel) behind it. Proponents of the Judaic origin theory found guidance in a passage from the book of Exodus Chapter 9, verses 6-7, which read 6-7: “And they wrought onyx stones inclosed in ouches of gold, graven, as signets are graven, with the names of the children of Israel.” This theory has of course been a long-standing one, Olaudah Equiano having made reference to a similar perspective in his 1789 work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African. (It is important to mention that in respect of Equiano’s origins, Catherine Acholonu was to publish her thesis on his Igbo origins in her work, The Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano, in 1995; likewise Africanus Horton, the son of enslaved Igbo parents, had made reference to this in his 1868 work, West African Countries and peoples).
In support of this theory, Professor I.K. Ogbukagu published his work, The Igbo and the riddles of their Jewish Origins in 1997. He was to be followed in 1999 by Onwukwe Alaezi, with the book, Ibo’s Hebrew Exiles from Israel. This school of thought ironically had the sovereign endorsement of no less a person than the Eze Nri Enwelana Obidiegwu Onyeso. This renaissance of sorts in the Hamitic theory coincided also with the proliferation of Judaic religion in Nigeria, with Igboland as an epicentre.
Creative Industry, Electronic/New Media and Igbo Historiography In the Third Wave: The Way Forward?
While the larger focus of this paper has been on academic works of history, what has indeed emerged in the last 20 years has been the emergence of the creative industry input in the recording of history. The emergence of the Nollywood phenomenon, likewise creative works based on historical themes in Igbo history, such as Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, following a tradition spawned by the first Igbo novelists like D.N. Achara, author of Ala Bingo and Pita Nwana’s Omenuko, both published in 1933, have created a new dialogue and sparked interest in Igbo history, to an extent well beyond the expectations of advocates of the Society for Promotion of Igbo Language and Culture, six decades ago. However, the very nature of creative art is clearly antithetical to the important process of accurate historical documentation. Hence the role of the creative arts has merely been as a spur for more detailed research on a vast sea of questions, still yearning for historical research and resolution.
The real change has been the emergence of film, as a documentary platform of Igbo historiography, seeing to the rise of the historical documentary, as a record of historical events. Film records have been created of events, culture and traditions in Igboland, since the 1940s at the very least, with examples being the Oscar-winning documentary Daybreak in Udi, commissioned by the colonial government and directed by Terry Bishop, which won an Academy Award in 1950 for best documentary. In the same ilk were several documentaries created by the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, founded in 1960, which were largely public information productions. It is important to mention that virtually all of these have been destroyed by successor managers of the said organisation.
A substantial number of recent works, especially in the new millennium, have slowly emerged in quantum, creating a new window of opportunity. Noteworthy have been the works of documentarists of the Nigerian Civil War. However, two of the most outstanding efforts in this regard are, first, Most Vulnerable Nigerians: The Legacy of the Asaba Massacres, the product of the research of Professors Liz Bird and Fraser Otanelli, into the acts of genocide at Asaba and environs, during the Nigerian Civil war. The other is the award-winning documentary film, Afia Attack by the director, Ujuaku Akukwe-Nwakalor, which documents the oral accounts of women who braved the violence of the Nigerian Civil War to engage in trading across enemy lines. These were works of serious historical research and professional presentation, which point the way forward in the on-going journey of Igbo historiography.
The emergence of the Internet and social media have also presented a veritable and democratic platform for the presentation and recording of history. The emergence of Internet platforms, warehousing images, documents – in the form of Online Musea, is not just welcome, but crucial in the ongoing journey.
Ed Emeka Keazor, a lawyer and historian, writes from Lagos.
This is the text of a paper delivered at The Igbo Conference, held on April 21, 2018 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.