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Western Ibo Society and its Resistance to British Rule: The Ekumeku Movement 1898–1911*

  • Philip A. Igbafe (a1)

When the Royal Niger Company attempted to establish its authority in the Asaba hinterland in the 1880s, the existing town societies in the area provided the foundations of a resistance movement which became known as the Ekumeku. In 1900 the area came under the direct administration of the British government. British rule led to regulations against aspects of the people's religious and political practices and to the establishment of native courts, and provided a shelter under which missionary activities flourished. All these were considered by the people as inimical to their traditional way of life. This situation provoked a consolidation of the Ekumeku forces and galvanized the movement into action. Between 1902 and 1910 the Ekumeku offered a courageous and prolonged resistance to British rule in the Asaba hinterland.

In spite of this enduring consistency in opposing the establishment of European rule, the Ekumeku movement was not investigated along relevant lines primarily because it was much misunderstood in official circles, which took its external manifestations for its essence. This paper attempts, from oral and written sources, a study of the actual nature of the Ekumeku as a resistance movement, its organization, its responses to the challenges posed by European encroachment on the Asaba hinterland and its sources of strength which gave it its resilience.

In addition to administrative measures, legal enactments, special town laws and prosecution in the native courts, it is shown that the colonial administration relied heavily on the use of armed force to destroy the movement.

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1 National Archives, Ibadan (N.A.I.), C.S.O. 1/13, 29. Capt. Hogg, to Fosbery, 14 03 1904; B.P. 1521 p. 23ff.; Public Records Office, London (P.R.O.) C.O. 520/18. Fosbery, to High Commissioner, S. Nigeria, 2 01 1903.

2 N.A.I., Cal. Prof. 10/3, IV, Fosbery, to High Commissioner. S. Nigeria no. 19 of 2 09 1902, P.R.O., C.O. 520/18 Moor, to C.O. no.43 of 28 01 1903 (enclosure A).

3 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 29 Ian Hogg's report dated 14 Mar. 1904; Cal. Prof. 10/3, IV, Fosbery, to High Commissioner, S. Nigeria, no. 19 of 2 09 1902.

4 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 29. Egerton, to S. of S, no. 208 of 7 05 1904.

5 Tamuno, T. N., ‘Some aspects of Nigerian reaction to the imposition of British rule’, J. Hist. Soc. Nigeria III 11 1965 2; ‘The development of British administrative control of Southern Nigeria 1900–1912(London, Ph.D. Thesis, 1962), 231–2.

6 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 29. Egerton was convinced that the Ekumeku rising was ‘due to an entire want of touch between the political officers and the native communities placed in their charge’.

7 Anene, J. C., Southern Nigeria in Transition 1885–1906 (C.U.P., 1966), 242.

8 A description of the indigenous meaning of Ekumeku was given me by Emelieze of Ogbenta, Ogwashi-Uku, who claimed to be about 86 years of age. Interviewed 12 Dec. 1962.

9 Interviews with Elumelu Okwudionu and Ajiniuka Etokwe of Onitsha-Olona 15 Dec. 1962; Obi Mordi of Ogbowele, Obi Okolichi of Ogbowele and Monwuchie of Ogbowele, Ibusa 18 Dec. 1962. Obi Mordi is the next to the most senior Obi in the whole of Ibusa. A very old man now bent with age, he claims to have been born during the Ngiga War (Aya Ngiga), i.e. C. 1874, and still talks firmly, remembering events with delightful relish.

10 Interview with Okwufulueze, Umuneze Quarter, Ogwashi-Uku 10 Dec. 1962; Joseph Mordi of Alum Quarter, Ubuluku 13 Dec. 1962.

11 Interview with (i) Hon. F. H. Utomi, 10 Dec. 1962. He was the senior Tutor, St Thomas's College, Ibusa and was writing the local history of Ogwashi-Uku when interviewed. (ii) 3. I. G. Onyia of Asaba 14 Dec. 1962. He was a member of the Otu Raza (the governing age-grade) of Asaba, and was born in 1896. Issele-Uku was the area of earliest reaction of young men and chiefs against the Obi for supporting the Royal Niger Company and Missionaries in 1893.

12 Interview with Okwudionu and Ajimuka Etokwu of Onitsha-Olona 15 Dec. 1962.

13 Interview with Okwufulueze of Umuneze Quarter, Ogwashi-Uku 10 Dec. 1962.

14 Interview with Michael Odu, Idumuosome Quarter of Ubululcu. He claimed to have taken part in the Ekunieku war of 1911 and to have preserved the gun used during that war.

15 Interview with F. H., Utomi at Ibusa 10 12 1962;Onyia, J. I. G. 14 12 1962;Tolefe, G. O. of Umuaji, Quarter, Asaba 11 12 1962.

16 Interview with Tolefe, G. O. of Asaba 11 Dec. 1962.

17 Interview with Obi Nwaeyizie of Ezi 15 Dec. 1962. Age c. 82.

18 The information on Ekumeku leaders given by Hon. F. H. Utomi was corroborated by Obi Chiogor, Obi Okocha and Obi Konwea, all of Umuekea, Ibusa 18 Dec. 1962; Obi Mordi, Okolichi of Ogbowele, Ibusa 18 Dec. 1962 and J. I. G. Onyia of Asaba. Awuno Ugbo was described as the youngest Ekumeku leader (Nwanta Ekumeku).

19 Obi Mordi and Okolichi of Ogbowele, Ibusa and F. H. Utomi.

20 The most useful information on the organization of the Ekumeku was from Okwufulueze of Umuneze Quarter, Ogwashi-Uku. Various other informants like Obi Okolie of Ashama 10 Dec. 1962, and G. O. Telefe of Umuaji Quarter, Asaba, also gave useful information on this aspect.

21 N.A.J., Cal. Prof. 10/3, IV. Fosbery, to High Commissioner, no. 19 of 2 09 1909.

23 N.A.I., Cal. Prof. 10/3, IV. Fosbery, to High Commissioner, no. 19 of 2 09 1902 dated at Ubuluku and no. 2 of 16 09 1902 dated at Asaba contain details of this defiant attitude.

24 N.A.I., B.P. 1521, 4ff. W. Fosbery, Div. Comm. to High Commissioner, S. Nigeria. ‘Reports on Asaba’ 16 Sept. 1902. The various complaints against the native courts are fully brought out in these reports.

25 See above for the people's attitude to the Native Courts.

26 In the 1880's, Asaba was the headquarters of the Royal Niger Company. It became a district of the Central Division of the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1900 and in 1906 Asaba became a district of the Central Province in the amalgamated Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. After the 1954 amalgamation, Asaba became a division of Benin Province.

27 N.A.I., B.P. 1521, R. A., Roberts to Secretary, S. Nigeria, Old Calabar 17 02 1902.

28 P.R.O., C.O. 520/93 Egerton, to Crewe Confl. of 39 04 1910 (enclosure). Capt. C. N. Sheffield's report on Ogwashi-Uku operations.

29 N.A.I., B.P. 1521, 20 ff. Notes and statements on the Ekumeku by Reginald A. Roberts, District Commissioner, Asaba 1902. The Obi of Akuku reported that his people had formed some bad company. Two chiefs from Ugbodu admitted that their people had formed a company called Ekumeku with no good motive. The Obi of Atuma stated that his people had formed a company called Ekumeku with the object of making war with the government. An indigenous trader, Mr I. T. Palmer, called the Ekumeku ‘this wicked club which made the people put on false appearances of friendliness in the presence of government officials’.

30 N.A.I., B.P. 1521, 23. Roberts, R. A. to Sec. Southern Nigeria, Old Calabar, 17 02 1902.

32 N.A.I., Cal. Prof. 30/3, IV. Fosbery, to High Commissioner, S. Nigeria, no. 19 of 2 09 1902; C.O. 520, 28. Moor, to C.O. no. 43 of 28 01 1903 (enclosure A). Actually, Otuochichi simply means a secret and nocturnal society.

34 Ibid. See also B.P. 1521, 32.

35 N.A.I., Cal Prof 9/2, IV, High Commissioner Moor, to Fosbery, , no. 14 of 7 10 1902.

36 See detailed reports on these operations in C.O. 520/18 Fosbery to High Commissioner, S. Nigeria, 2 Jan. 1903; H. C. Moorhouse: ‘Report on Operations in the Asaba Hinterland during December 1902.’

37 P.R.O., C.O. 520/18. Fosbery's report of 2 Jan. 1903. These courts had been established in obedience to Moor's instructions on the operations. See N.A.I., Cal Prof. 9/2, IV, Moor, to Fosbery, , no. 14 of 7 10 1902.

38 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 29. Ian, Hogg to Ag. High Commissioner (Fosbery) 14 03 1904; Cal. Prof. 9/2, IV, Moor, to Fosbery, , no. 14 of 7 10 1902 and enclosure.

39 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 29. Egerton, to C.O. no. 208 of 7 05 1904 and enclosures; B.P. 1521, 49, ‘Report on the Asaba District for Quarter ending 31 Dec. 1903’ by W. S. Boyle.

40 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 20. Egerton, to C.O. no. 208 of 7 05 1904.

41 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 29. Report by Copland Crawford, Divisional Commissioner, 25 Apr. 1904.

43 P.R.O., C.O. 520/24. Fosbery, to C.O. no.48 of 9 02 1904; C.S.O. 1/13, 28, 154.

44 Enugu Archives, I.D. C.S.O. 8/11. Father Zappa's letter dated 27 Jan. 1911 to Egerton claiming indemnity for the mission house destroyed at Ogwashi-Uku in Dec. 1909.

45 Ibid. On 15 July, 1909, District Commissioner Richardson wrote to Rev. Fr. Zappa at Ogwashi-Uku that ‘during the course of the next week it is intended that some troops will commence operations against Ogwashi-Uku’. This was an advance notice of the attack that eventually came off in Nov. 1909.

46 Ayandele, E. A., The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria (Longmans, 1966), 14.

47 Anene, J. C., Southern Nigeria in Tranxition 1885–1906 (C.U.P., 1966), 240–1; Interview with J. I. G. Onyia of Asaba 14 Dec. 1962.

48 P.R.O., CO. 520/24. Egerton to C.O. no. 208 of 7 May 1904 enclosures. Ian Hogg's Report on Asaba Hinterland operations dated 14 Mar. 1904.

50 P.R.O., C.O. 520/24. Fosbery, to C.O. no. 48 of 9 02 1904; C.S.O. 1/13, 28, 189.

52 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/13, 29. Notes on the Ekumeku by Ian Hogg to Acting High Commissioner, 34 Mar. 3904. Cal. Prof. 30/3, IV. Fosbery, to High Commissioner, no. 39 of 2 09 1902.

53 N.A.I., C.S.O. 3/33, 29, 723. Egerton, to C.O. no. 208 of 7 05 1904.

54 P.R.O., C.O. 520/36. Egerton, to Elgin Confl. of 16 06 1906. See also ‘The Crew-Read tragedy and its sequel’, The West African Mail, 23 09 1906.

55 P.R.O., C.O. 520/93. Egerton, to C.O. Confl. of 37 05 1910 (enclosure). Okonjo's claim was that his father would have ruled next had he not predeceased Nzekwe's father.

56 The fine followed the refusal of Ogwashi-Uku people to supply witnesses or identify the murderer. The fine of £100 and the additional £20 for failing to come to Ibusa were described by the Provincial Commissioner, Central Province, Mr H. Bedwell, as ‘very ill-advised’. He instructed that the fine should be reduced to £30. Enugu Archives: C.S.E. 1/8/171. ‘Special Instructions to Political Officer, Ogwashi-Uku Patrol’ by W. Egerton.

57 Ibid..

58 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/19, 30. Lt. Col. Trenchard's (Commanding S. Nigeria Regiment) Report. Enclosure in Egerton to C.O. no. 375 of 1910.

60 By 12 Dec. iog, seven N.C.O.'s and men had been killed, fifteen soldiers wounded, seven carriers killed and seven wounded. C.S.O. 1/19, 30. Trenchard's Report in No. 375 of 1910.

61 Enugu Archives: I.D. C.S.O. 8/11 as C.S.E. 1/64/6. Rev. Father Zappa's letter to Egerton 27 Jan. 1911. Claiming indemnity for the Roman Catholic Mission houses destroyed during the rising.

62 Ibid..

63 See official minutes on Egerton to Crewe Confl. of 19 Apr. 1910 in P.R.O., C.O. 520/93.

64 P.R.O., C.O. 520/93. Enclosure in Egerton to Crewe Confl. of 19 Apr. 1910.

66 See below, p. 456 ‘The Unlawful Societies Proclamation’, no. 16 of 1905 became, after 1906, ‘The Unlawful Societies Ordinance’.

67 P.R.O., C.O. 520/707. Egerton to Harcourt Confl. of 30 Nov. 1911.

66 These are fondly recapitulated by the elders in Asaba District as ‘Aya Ekumeku’.

69 From Obi Okolie and Okonji Nyo of Ashama 10 Dec. 1962; see also N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/21, 9. Further Report on the Ekumeku by Norton-Harper 27 Oct. 1911. Crawford's Report of 25 Apr. 1904 in C.S.O. 1/13, 29.

70 N.A.I., C.S.O. 5/25, 9. Military Intelligence Report on Southern Nigeria for 30 Sept. 1911 dated Nov. 1911 by Capt. G. C. Corry-Smith, Acting Intelligence Officer.

71 See below, p. 456.

72 Enugu Archives: I.D. C.S.O. 44/10 as C.S.E. 1/63/39. Report by Col H. C. Moor-house; see also official minute on Egerton to Crewe Confl. of 19 Apr. 1910 in C.O. 520/93.

73 P.R.O., C.O. 520/32. Thorburn (Ag. High Commissioner, S. Nigeria) to C.O. no. 465 of 22 Nov. 1905; C.O. 588/1.

74 P.R.O., C.O. 520/32. Thorburn to C.O. no. 465 of 22 Nov. 1905.

75 P.R.O., C.O. 588/1.

76 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/21, 9. Boyle to Harcourt Confl. of 14 Aug. 1911.

77 P.R.O., C.O. 520/113. Egerton to Harcourt Confl. of 24 Feb. 1912; Enugu Archives: Confl. C.S.O. 54/11 as C.S.E. 1/20/39. The ordinance legalized the imposition of fines on towns, villages and communities whose conduct occasioned the use of soldiers or police to suppress disturbances or enforce the lawful orders of Provincial and District Commissioners.

78 Record Office, London (P.R.O.) F.O. 2/101. Sir Ralph Moor's ten-point programme of June 1896 in Moor to F.O. no. 50 of 14 June 1896, Geary, W. N. M., Nigeria under British Rule (London, 1965), 112.

79 Accounts and Papers (9), LII, 335, ‘Southern Nigeria Report for 1903’. Among other things, the Acting Colonial Secretary, Southern Nigeria, Mr H. Bedwell, wrote: ‘where pacific measures have failed it is necessary to give the only lesson that is understood—punishment by arms. To open an area for trade by force of arms, implies as a rule, the closing of the trade routes immediately affected and, for the time being, a loss of trade; but this has to be recognized and faced; otherwise the impossible position of an administration “governing” areas through which its officials are unable to penetrate is created— a reductio ad absurdum.’ See also Sir Walter Egerton's statement in 1905 that ‘throughout the whole of the territory now under our control, settled government has only been established by a show of military force, and yet the whole cost of introducing and maintaining law and order-involving the ma ntenance of a large military establishment—has been defrayed from local revenues without incurring any debt’. Accounts and Papers (II), 1906, LXXV, 3, ‘Southern Nigeria Report for 1904’.

80 N.A.I., C.S.O. 1/21, 5. Egerton, to C.O. Confidential of 8 10 1909.

81 See Corfield, F. D.: Historical Survey of the Origins and Growth of Mau Mau (London, 1960. Cmnd. 1030, H.M.S.O.).

82 Village Chiefs. Singular, Onogie.

* This paper in its original version was first presented at the 15th Annual Congress of the Historial Society of Nigeria. The oral evidence on which sections of it are based was collected in 1962 and 1963 during part of the field work for my doctoral thesis.

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