KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future

Eteng and the Igbo



By P-J Ezeh


Posted to the Web: Thursday, February 03, 2005


If we had developed a viable political economy 5,000 years ago, that is 2,000 years before Homer wrote the Iliad then the present Wall Street capital market forces should not be our model … If we were able to balance strong individualism and industry with fierce loyalty to the community and candid devotion to the common good of the extended family, neither the docile unity of decadent theocracies nor even the labile welfarism of socialist states should overawe us.


Professor Anezi Okoro, 1988 Ahiajoku Lecturer. The current Ahiajoku pan-Igbo annual service was delivered by Professor Inya-Abam Eteng who retired from University of Port Harcourt’s Department of Sociology. Professor Eteng is a rural sociologist by specialization and he spoke on what he called the Igbo’s post-civil-war crisis of disunity. It is Professor Eteng’s handling of some aspects of Igbo autochthonous social structure that I think should be looked at with particular reference to his views on the Igbo religion, and quondam sacred and secular slavery.


The public are excused to take a sociologist of Professor Eteng’s standing seriously on such matters but on this particular occasion a number of the conclusions the erudite speaker reached could do with some measure of objectivity. And for all the concern he expressed on the use of the Ahiajoku forum to sensitize the Igbo to rediscover the wisdom in corporate self-esteem, one expected he would not have ended up in the role of a biased Christian proselytizer that he did on the self-same occasion.


Since the coming of European Christian missionaries in the 19th century what the Igbo lack has never been piquancy of, largely undeserved, traduction of their tradition. What is needed is a re-presentation of the Igbo case in a fair manner that excludes prejudice or bias. Professor Eteng’s topic is very appropriate in the light of the prevailing problems among the Igbo. What is hard to see is why he chose to distort pictures of some of the Igbo autochthonous institutions. Worse, on a closer scrutiny his conclusion on each of the institutions under reference seems to be driven by personal commitments.


The four I would like to comment on are: (i) the pre-contact Igbo twin taboo, (ii) the osu institution, (iii) slavery, and (iv) the Igbo autochthonous religion. I put number (iv) last because it is the only one that has a measure of relevance to the subject the professor chooses to address. The incongruity of the other three is the first thing that attracts the attention of any critical observer.


Taking the subject of killing of twins in former times first, three points can be made. This practice no longer obtains among the Igbo. While it lasted, the Igbo were not the only human group that did that. If anything, anthropologists who have studied this practice in all those societies it used to occur found that it was the result of limited obstetrical knowledge. It just happened that the attitude of traditional societies to the phenomenon of twin birth oscillated basically to either of the two extremes; those like the Yoruba that see the birth of twins as a good omen and those like the Igbo that see it as portending calamity.


Each view is anchored on myth-driven lore. And each is held to be what was the best for the society. Neither, however, is based on empirical causality. Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer writing with their friends in the Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1996, p.626) after surveying all recorded instances have stated that for each traditional society it is an either/or situation between these two extremes.


With improved knowledge no Igbo person may now contemplate such an act. Twins all over Igbo area are now the pride of their parents and community. If they are people, like the respected prof who would have been victim, the proper attitude is not to becloud unbiased view of the matter with self-serving bitterness. Emotion may make one see an enemy where none exists.


The gemellology of the Igbo of yore might be faulty but even early European missionaries, in spite of themselves, saw Igbo parenthood as a model that was worth imitating. Bishop Basden in his Among the Ibos of Nigeria whose manuscript was concluded in 1917 would not run away from this fact. He wrote, ( University Publishing Co. reissue, 1982, p.64), "Igbo parents manifest deep fondness for their children … Children are priceless possessions, and no man can have too many." Save as a mislocated expression of personal grudge, it is hard to find coherence in the long discontinued practice of twin neonaticide and the topic of contemporary political disunity among politicians of Igbo origins.


The Igbo are not the only human group who once were involved in an inconvenient practice for reasons of the level of their scientific or social knowledge on the particular matter at a particular point in time. All human societies have been. The difference might be on the type of practice.


For example, in this unspeakable practice of apparent filial cruelty, an example might be cited in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It was right in the prevailing moral order for the Jewish general, Jephthah, to offer his only child in sacrifice to Yahweh for a victory in a war with the Ammonites (Judges 11: 30-40) but no Israel might in the present day do such for any reasons whatever. Friedrich Engels wrote in the Origin of Family that the English once had the conjugal practice known as group marriage. For those outside the sociological sciences maybe I should describe this rare form of marriage.


It is the type where a group of, usually consanguineously related, men recruit women into their lineage. But none of them is the exclusive husband of such women. Instead, all of them are their corporate husbands for all practical purposes. Do we now go on to conclude that English women of those days were driven by nymphomaniac instincts, or that their men were so libidinously anaemic that they must need their brothers to help them?


The level of knowledge any human group are exposed to at any given point in time determines how such a people manage the socio-ecological, biological or whatever other challenges confronting them. Therefore for any judgment of such a practice to be valid, it must not dislocate the practice from the time and space it is found.


Most of the foregoing observations apply also to Professor Eteng’s complaints on secular and sacred slavery (the osu). Secular slavery was pan-Igbo, because it was very nearly pan-human too!, but as the anthropologist, Professor Victor Uchendu, has noted in his own Ahiajoku lecture in 1995, the sacred slavery or the osu institution never existed in some Igbo communities, notably parts of Abia State, and the northern districts of present Ebonyi State.


Unfortunately looking at osu with present-day criteria or with the sectarian prism of the Christian proselytizer will give a wrong picture of the institution. If anyone has a way of getting a true Igbo elder that is old enough to have observed the institution in its pure form, such a person might help with the correct information. Failing this, any ethnography on the Igbo that was written before the three-prong assault on the institution by Christianity, colonization and, afterwards by, direct legislation of the Eastern Nigerian Government that finally outlawed it in the 1950s might also help.


The Igbo of the traditional times who understood the institution never discriminated against the osu . They feared the osu because of the sacredness of their status. Even if an osu did non-osu any wrong; economic of otherwise, the non-osu was barred from seeking redress. An osu was considered a supernatural agent. Each had a deity to which he was dedicated. In many cases it was even the non-osu that voluntarily ran to a deity and auto-dedicated himself because of the privileges attached to the status. Usually the osu would live at the shrine of his patron deity. All the property of the deity including the sacrifices that were made to the shrine also belonged to the osu enclave.


Because of the protection, secular and spiritual, the status was believed to confer, a parent plagued with infant mortality might even dedicate a child as an osu in the hope for a better luck. Mbonu Ojike narrated in his autobiography (My Africa, Lagos: Stevebond Press, nd. p.17) how his own father used such a strategy with regard to his (Mbonu) elder brother and the old man’s first son. Indeed that forefront polymathic erudite scholar glossed the name, Nwosu, that was given to the baby as "a son dedicated to the service of the gods."


Marriage between the osu and non-osu was tabooed. But so also was molestation of the osu in any form whatsoever. It was not a case of discrimination as anyone examining the institution without adequate or with wrong information might be led to believe. It was a case of a special status; one which was neither that of the ordinary human folk nor that of the spirit being. You feared the osu because of his sacred status as an agent of the supernatural. The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, noted such an attitude to the sacred as one of its key defining features vis-à-vis the profane. Discrimination is a wrong term in this context, just as the even more laughable term, caste that is often applied to it by ill-informed commentators.


Of course the Igbo are wise enough to know that the osu institution can be anachronistic in a plural, modern society. It was the Igbo themselves that supported a legislation against the institution by the Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly sitting in Enugu in 1956.


It is also unfair to speak about secular slavery as if it was a practice limited to the Igbo, or as if the form of it practised by the Igbo was worse than any other. The exception will be to find a human society of a post-hunting-gathering technological level that did not have that unhappy institution.


Indeed not only did slavery exist among the Jews of the Old Testament days, Christians right from the first century of the Common Era up to the official abolition of the practice in Europe and America in 19th century bought, sold and kept slaves. Philemon after whom the New Testament book between Titus and Hebrews is named was a slave owner. One of the key themes of the book was the mediation of Saint Paul in reconciling him with his runaway slave, Onesimus. As the Presbyterian clergyman and author, The Rev. James Dow (Dictionary of the Bible, London: Collins, 1974, p.76) notes, "[Paul] persuades Onesimus … to return to this master Philemon, he does not even suggest to Philemon that he should release Onesimus."


If Professor Eteng expected to demonstrate the relevance of this disused institution on the Igbo contemporary political situation it is not clearly demonstrated in the printed version of his lecture whose copy I have. If this was achieved ad lib in his speech, I am not in position to know because, sadly, I was not able to attend. I conclude that the autochthonous religion which he mentioned may be a factor in the Igbo contemporary social situation but it is from a perspective that he ignored. The supremacist status he awarded the imported faith vis-à-vis the indigenous religion would normally be questioned in conventional sociology. The seeming superiority of the two proselytizing Middle Eastern faiths with globalizing ambition is a function of the political and economic power behind them. It is all well and good for those who wish, to join them. What is unacceptable and flies in the face of the prevailing concern for protection of human rights is for those in positions of authority, including the academic domain, to intimidate the powerless into abandoning a system they truly accept and better understand.


The Igbo and perhaps all other people in the former colonies have reached a point in the post-colonial order where the salutary motto ought to be, even as the Igbo themselves say, "Live and let live." There is Christianity in China.


There is Christianity in Japan. But in each case the indigenously authored religious systems are also retained, with pride. You really count not talk of a culture without its religion, for the latter is the lifeblood of the former. "When the religion of a civilization dies," H. D. Major is credited to have said, "the death of the civilization speedily fellows." Where the revered prof blames the resilience of the Igbo autochthonous religion as the obstacle to effective organization, I suspect abuse of the Christian theology, instead. A more practical undertaking would have been to explore a possible relationship between the latter and his subject. For example, it is a well known fact that certain wrongs because of their gravity and level of threat to the common good were either unatonable at all or went with the form of atonement that was too difficult to secure. Murder and tabooed sexual intercourse are only two examples. Because of the inescapable dire consequences, the commission of those offences was very rare among the traditional Igbo.


Because of the abuse of the Christian concept of atonement, in the present-day Nigerian massified variant of the religion, evil has become more or less glamorized. No act is too heinous to shock the usually unthinking frenzied yelling crowds so long as the perpetrator ends up saying certain slogans in favour of the foreign faith. It could have been an inveterate election rigger who kills anyone in the rival camp that may stand on his way; it could have been a blood-thirsty gangster who terrorize unarmed, hapless members of a college community, it could have been a high office holder who has embezzled public fund to finance his personal ambition killing everyone in a position to blow the whistle on him … it could be any manner of common criminal; so long as the person ends up uttering certain slogans in favour of the foreign faith, then Hey presto he is a saint again!


Some preachers even make the point of pooh-poohing any attempt at serous efforts to lead an honest life. Righteousness outside their own brand of Christianity is like a filthy rag.


It must rank as the world’s greatest deontological puzzle! Nothing can be more deleterious to the common good than glamorization of evil.


Pace Professor Eteng there is as yet no evidence before the public that Okija is part of the problem. By all means let the police investigate but elsewhere in the world the matter will be considered too fundamental for police alone to handle. Police are important in this because of some of the issues raised but government should also have involved people with the requisite expertise in the primary subject of belief systems.


When on p. 61 of his text, Professor Eteng commands, "Note the similarities between students’ cultism and Okija Ogwugu cultism,"  it strikes one as an empty invitation. There is nothing to compare for the pre-eminent reason that the appropriate data objectively collected by a neutral party are absent.


For the so-called student cultism one can rely on the works of Professor Ogbu Kalu and his cross-disciplinary, multi-loci team (The Scourge of the Vandals, Nsukka: UNN Committee on the Eradication of Cultism, 2001) and lately sociologist Nnanna Arukwe and his friends’ Beyond Renunciation (Nsukka: Kontak Publishers, 2003). What are we to rely on with regard to Okija? Elsewhere in the world, perhaps even elsewhere in Nigeria, you cannot deal with an issue such as Okija without involving anthropologists, soicologists of religion and social psychologists.


It is also a reflection of the sorry situation among the Igbo today that out of the three commentators who have raised some dispassionate questions with a view to getting at the true position of the Okija matter two; Wole Soyinka and Segun Okeowo, were from non-Igbo. Colonel Achuzie’s lone voice was drowned by the more strident, hysterical yelling of his kith and kin too Europeanized to talk about shrine. Nevertheless when I borrowed a copy of the current edition of the Church Hymnary to see if it had been rewritten from the way we used to sing it those days, lo and behold in the second line of the last stanza, of song number 365 the all-important word is still there. A Methodist told me that they too had the same song as number 904 in their own hymn book and that it had exactly the same lyrics.



*Dr. P. Y. Ezeh is a senior lecturer in the department of Anthropology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Dr Ezeh teaches at the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.



culled from Vanguard, Thursday, February 3, 2005

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