KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future

ONigeria: n leadership crises in Nigeria:

Reflections on the ancient Nri Kingdom and leadership qualities (1)


Chikodi Añunobi



 Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Part I of III


The Crises in Nigeria:

I have read Professor Chinua Achebe’s ‘The Problem with Nigeria(1) and have being following with great interest the ongoing dialogue in the Nigerian Diaspora about the crises in Nigeria, specifically that in Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series (2). It is obvious that weakness in leadership is at the heart of the problems in Nigeria’s failing experiment.


When one of the most repressive military regimes Africans has ever seen, the General Abacha regime, ended in 1998 and one of its victims, retired General Obasanjo was literally elected from political prison to Nigerian presidency, there was a sigh of relieve in all quarters in Nigeria.


Obasanjo was a Southerner but the Northerners had literally handpicked him to run. He was a self-professed born again Christian, but most of his support came from Moslems. Obasanjo was a retired General (which was a bad thing in Nigeria given the Nigerian military records of abuse), but the civilians welcomed him. Most people reasoned that since he had himself been victimized by Abacha’s military regime, he could identify with their plight.

Obasanjo was thought by many to be a balanced man who would bring the Northerners and Southerners, Christians and Moslems, Military and Civilians together.  Added to that, in 1979 Obasanjo became the only military dictator in Nigeria to hand power ‘willingly’ to a civilian administration. Obasanjo was to many, the man to heal old wounds. I personally thought to myself; ‘Here comes another African fairy tale in the making, another Nelson Mandela who went from political prison to South African Presidency, and showed his country what leadership was meant to be.’ 


Our daydreams did not last. We got instead in Obasanjo’s Second Coming, a regime that has rivaled that of Abacha in repression: intimidating, harassing, and imprisoning political opponents. Just like Abacha, this administration has used selective justice (and sometimes accusations of coup plotting) to try to silence formidable opponents. There has been more political violence (including many unsolved political assassinations) under this administration than there has ever been in Nigerian history. For more details on the track records of the Obasanjo’s administration, one can read A Case for Impeachment and Degrees of Treason by Okey Ndibe (3 & 4). History does indeed repeat itself! But, all that is ending.  Obasanjo’s administration has less than eight months left in office. This should therefore be a time of celebration for many critics of Obasanjo’s administration. It is instead a time of high anxiety in the Nigerian communities. Given the recent agitation in Obasanjo’s camp to bypass the constitution and seek a third term (which some perceived as the beginning of a lifetime presidency), will Obasanjo even hand over willingly to another candidate? Will there even be an election in 2007? If there is an election, will who succeed him? Is this person going to be more of the same or even worse? Will the Nigerian Union even hold come 2007? Or, will there be a civil war as the NIC (CIA) recent intelligence report on Africa  had predicted, with a wave of about 140 million Nigerian refugees destabilizing the entire West African region? (5) At this time of extreme anxiety in Nigeria and impending human catastrophe in West Africa because of recklessness in Nigerian leadership, it is appropriate to reflect on one of the most heroic acts of leadership that the African continent has ever seen. In addition, this daring act of leadership occurred in the territory of what is now Nigeria. This is the leadership of Nri civilization in the area.


If you have never heard of Nri kingdom or civilization (or know little about it), you are not alone. A British writer, writing in the West African Review Journal article in the 1930’s referred to its customs as the ‘Holy Grail of Africa’ (6), but over eighty percent of Nigerians have never heard of it. It has been called ‘The cradle of Igbo culture’ (7), but an estimated fifty percent of Igbo people (and eighty percent of Igbo youths) have never heard of it. They have been called the ‘Warriors of Peace (8) and the ‘oldest kingdom’ in Nigeria (9), but most lawmakers in Nigeria have never heard of Nri civilization. Most Nigerians do not know about Nri civilization because it is not in the mainstream Nigerian history.


But, could this obscure historical culture hold the key to peace and unity in Nigeria? Could the knowledge of Nri civilization help in solving the leadership crises in Nigeria?



Historical Background:

The origin of Nri people is still a subject of much speculation. What we know for sure is that the Nri clan existed from as far back as the 9th century. Nri (the founder of Nri clan) was the son of Eri and had migrated to the present day Nri from Anambra (Ama-Mbala) river valley. Nri was said to have inherited spiritual powers from his father.


Speculation starts when one starts to trace the origin of Eri, and this attracts different theories. In the Nri mythology, Eri descended from the sky, sent by God to make peace (settle disputes and cleanse abominations) and provide Igbo people food (yam and cocoyam) (10). Some historians speculate that Eri may have migrated to the Anambra area out of the Igala dynasty of central Nigeria. But there is convincing evidence that Onoja Oboli, the founder of the Igala dynasty was actually another son of Eri. Yet, some early western writers believe that Eri was part of the Israelis who left Egypt during the mass exodus, migrating to the Anambra river valley via the Niger river.  But, some Igbo historians frown at this assertion because of lack of solid evidence and implying that it is another way of saying that Igbo culture is not capable of evolving into a civilization. Professor A. E. Afigbo condemned the Hamitic origin as “sophisticated racial rubbish,” saying that “…most colonial officials and writers…believed that nothing culturally important could come out of Igbo land. Thus any Igbo-speaking group, be it the Aro or Nri, which would appear to have achieved anything historically significant, was severed from the Igbo stock.”(11)


However, the Israeli/Egyptian origins theory is the official account of the present Eze Nri, Nri-Enwelana II, who went further to trace Eri’s origin to the biblical Eri (the son of Gad, the son of Jacob).


In his 2004 New Year Welcoming Address, he   states that:


Nri Kingdom is the oldest Kingdom in Nigeria. It was founded around 900AD by the progenitor, Eri, the son of Gad. According to biblical accounts, Jacob had Leah as his wife who begot four sons for him. When Leah noticed she had passed child-bearing age, she gave her maid – servant, Zilpah to Jacob to wife, and through Zilpah he had a son named Gad. Gad then bigot Eri, who later formed a clan known as Erites vide Genesis Chapter 30 verse 9; 46 verse 16 and Numbers chapter 26 verses 15-19. Eri was therefore amongst the twelve tribes of Israel via Gad.


During their stay in Egypt Eri became the high priest and spiritual adviser to Pharaoh Teti, the fifth dynastic king of Egypt around 2400 BC.


During the Exodus, which marked the beginning of the mass movement of the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Eri was amongst the tribe that left Egypt following the injunction from God to the Israelites (see Deuteronomy chapter 28 verses 58 – 68). Some of these tribes founded settlements in the southern part of Sudan, where they established the “Nok” culture, which is similar to that of other (sun Cult) culture, like Nri, Fiji, Samoa, and Jukun in the Northern part of Nigeria and elsewhere. But others who could not remain in the Southern Sudan traveled further South, some branched off to Jukun, in Northern part of Nigeria, others continued and arrived at the confluence of Rivers Niger and Anambara known as “Ezu-na-Ọmambala” and settled there while some veered off to the Island of Fiji in the South Pacific Ocean. An intelligence report notes that the Fijians have the same sun culture with the people of Nri. (12)


The origin of Eri (be it Igbo or non-Igbo) should not diminish the richness of  Igbo culture and the contributions of Igbo culture to western Africa.  If we are to believe the scientific origins of all humans (which is somewhat in agreement with the biblical account) that all life started from one source, then we have to believe that all Igbo communities migrated to the area at one time or another. Therefore, every group in the area who speaks Igbo is as Igbo as any other and as foreign as any other.


Although the Origin of Eri is still a speculation, the activities of the Nri Kingdom and priests in the area is not and are well documented by early European visitors and some early Igbo anthropologists and historians. In the ‘Ropes of Sand’, Professor Adiele Afigbo out of frustration about the lack of interest in Nri civilization said that:


Yet in spite of these and other equally eloquent testimonies to the important place which Nri occupies in Igbo history, scholars failed until lately to recognize that it was for the Igbo what Ile-Ife was for the Yoruba people – the center around which their world was believed to have been created, their cultural homeland and that probably its history holds some of the answers to the many complex questions posed by early Igbo history. (13)


Professor Elizabeth Isichei states that Nri was “a kind of holy city, the Rome or Mecca of the Igbos” In Igbo Worlds (citing M. A. Onwuejeogwu), she noted that:


“In Igbo history, there is a sence that all roads begin from Nri, the Holy City…The first ethnographer [European] never visited Nri, but his inquiries among Igbo informants led him to lay a great emphasis on its unique spiritual role, and the reverence and precedence which is accorded to the Nri section by all other I[g]bo  clans proper in their vicinity.” (14)


    Although this is coming from a Nigerian historian who is citing another, it is actually sort of a summation of the field notes taken by early European visitors to the area.


The bottom line is that Nri civilization has been credited with the following:

-          As being the ancestral home and cradle of the Igbo culture. (15)

-          As first to invent bronze in West Africa. (16 & 17)

-          Introducing agriculture in Igboland. (18)

-          Introducing commerce (markets) in Igboland. It is noted Nri went and enthroned markets at the request of a community and stations one of its priests in the market to supervise it (make peace and settle disputes). (19)

-          Introducing cowry money as a method of exchange in the area. (20)

-          Installing and authenticating community leaderships ‘East and West of the Niger River’. (21, 22 & 23)

-          Introducing the Igbo cosmology and calendar (4 day week, 28 day {7 week} month and 13 lunar-moon year). (24)

-          As spiritual councilors and diplomats. (25)


While ths and monumental contributions to the history of the area, they were not the major reasons why I chose to undertake over four years of research and to write a book on Nri. I was strucook on Nri. I was struck by their humble and timeless leadership to the people of the area, especially in Igbo land.  They lead in inventions, spirituality and morality but never sought to rule or dictate to anyone.  They shunned violence and their world revolved around outreach to neighboring communities to make peace.  They even stood in the middle of full blown warfare bare handed, with only their hearts and passion for peace. It really got my attention. Why did they do it? Why was peace and stability so important to them? Why were they so successful at making peace? These are the questions Nigerians, indeed Africans, and the world ought to be asking. The answers to these questions are what we are missing by neglecting to study and learn from the ancient Nri civilization. And it may help in resolving the leadership crises in Nigeria. 



See PART 2: On leadership crises in Nigeria:  Reflections on the ancient Nri Kingdom and leadership qualities (2)




Chikodi Añunobi is the author of Nri Warriors of Peace, a historical novel about 11th century Nri Kingdom. Nri Warriors of Peace won the Best Books 2006 Book Awards in the ‘Fiction & Literature: Multicultural’ and ‘African American Fiction’ categories.  Añunobi is a descendant of Nri from Enugwu-Ukwu Nri in Anambra State, Southeastern Nigeria. He lives and works in Washington USA as a Software QA Engineer. Añunobi can be reached at ChikodiAñ




1. Chinua Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria (Heinemann, 1984)

2. Chinua Achebe Foundation, Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series

3. Okey Ndibe, A Case for Impeachment (, April 11, 2006)

4. Okey Ndibe, Degrees of Treason (First published in The Guardian online, November 17, 2005.)

5. National Inteligence Council (NIC), a branch of CIA, Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa's Future  (March 2005)

6. M. D. W. Jeffreys, “Holy Grails of Africa” (The West African Review, October 1936) 7(109) pp. 16, 21  

7. Otigbuanyinya O. C. Onyeso Nri: The Cradle of Igbo Culture and Civilization  (Tabansi Press Ltd, 2000)

8. Chikodi Añunobi, Nri Warriors of Peace (Zenith Publishers LLC, 2006)

9. Obidiegwu Onyeso (HM Eze Nri, Nri Enwelana II), The Nri Kingdom, (, Feb. 2004)   p. 1

10. Elizabeth Isichei, Igbo Worlds: An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978) p. 22-23

11. Adiele Afigbo, Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture (University of Michigan Press, 1981) p. 39

12. Obidiegwu Onyeso (HM Eze Nri, Nri Enwelana II), The Nri Kingdom, (, Feb. 2004)  p. 1

13. Adiele Afigbo, Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture (University of Michigan Press, 1981) p. 34

14. Elizabeth Isichei, Igbo Worlds: An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Institute for p. 21

15. Ibid.

16., Nri Kingdom (Igbo)

17. Thurstan Shaw, Unearthing Igbo-Ukwu: Archaeological Discoveries in Eastern Nigeria (Oxford Univ Press, 1977)

18. Elizabeth Allo Isichei, Igbo People and the Europeans  (St. Martin's Press, 1973) p. 30

19. Obidiegwu Onyeso (HM Eze Nri, Nri Enwelana II), The Nri Kingdom, (, Feb. 2004) p. 5

20. Ibid.

21. Isidore Okpewho, Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (University of Oklahoma, 200) p. 180

22. Elizabeth Allo Isichei, Igbo People and the Europeans  (St. Martin's Press, 1973) p. 30

23. Adiele Afigbo, Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture (University of Michigan Press, 1981) p. 34

24. Ibid p. 51-52

25. Elizabeth Isichei, History of Nigeria (Longman Group United Kingdom, 1983)

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