The Guardian
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Like the Ekumeku movement, Nigeria needs to rethink her security


Chief of Army Staff, Gen. T. Y. Buratai

There are many who believe that when the British invaded the land that became Nigeria, most of the natives simply melted away after providing perfunctory resistance.

This is untrue. From Koko in Nembe, to Ovonramwen Nogbaisi in Benin, to Muhammadu Attahiru I in Sokoto, there was violent resistance to the British invader in various parts of what is now Nigeria.

The common thread with the above mentioned three, and some others, is that they were violently put down by the Brits, and had a definite end date.

However, there was a guerrilla movement against British rule that lasted a generation.

Run by names such as Dunkwu Isus of Onicha-Olona, Nwabuzo Iyogolo of Ogwashi-Ukwu, Awuno Ugbo of Akumazi, Agbambu Oshue of Igbuzo (Ibusa), Idabor of Issele-Ukwu, Ochei Aghaeze of Onicha-Olona, Abuzu of Idumuje-Unor, Idegwu Otokpoike of Ubulu-Ukwu, the Ekemeku Movement endured in two waves from 1883 to 1902 and from 1904 to 1914.

The war (aya oyibo in the Igbo dialect of the Western Lower Niger) was a war of resistance against the British encroachment into the affairs of ndi Enuani, the Igbo speakers in today’s Delta state.

It was a revolt to preserve the territorial integrity of the Igbo west of the Niger. Practically all the towns in the present day Anioma region were involved.

The name Ekwumekwu (meaning “do not speak about it”) was sourced from the stealth with which the warriors operated. Some historians such as Don Ohadike believe that Aya Oyibo inspired the Mau Mau of Kenya, four decades later.

British influence into the political, economic, religious cum socio-cultural autonomy of Enuani came with the establishment of the Royal Niger Company headquarters in Asaba in 1882.

After establishing itself, the RNC exploited its monopoly far in excess of what it could have made in a free-trade situation, and spread terror, visiting the slightest whiff of local dissent with venom.

In 1888, half of Asaba was decimated, and Obosi (a day’s walk away in what is now Anambra state) was razed to the ground the following year. In both cases the RNC alleged that the Asaba and Obosi people were involved in human sacrifice, hence the high-handed treatment.

In “stopping human sacrifice,” the soldiers lived off the people’s livestock and food crops, and sexually assaulted the women. This led to a lot of resentment.

The Ekumeku, who were well organised and whose leaders were joined in secrecy oaths, effectively utilised guerrilla tactics to attack the British. Their forces, which were drawn from thousands of Enuani youth, created many problems for the British.

Following the bombardment of Onicha-Ado (Onitsha) on 2 November 1897, RNC troops commanded by Major Festing engaged Ibusa in 1898, and used heavy armaments (destroying homes, farms, and roads) to prevail.

By this time however, the Ekumeku had become a great source of Enuani nationalism.

Sadly, even nationalism could not prevail against the Maxim gun, and after subduing the Benin Kingdom, in December 1902, the British government, which had by this time taken over from the RNC, sent a powerful expedition which systematically destroyed a number of towns and imprisoned their leaders. This, it was assumed, was the end of the Ekumeku.

In 1904, the Ekumeku rose again. This time it was the people of Owa (present day Ika North-East LGA, Delta state) against the British led by W. E. B. Crawford-Coupland.

In this second uprising, the rebels changed their tactics, abandoning the guerilla warfare of the first uprising for the individual defence of each town.

The trigger was a succession dispute in Ogwashi-Uku. One of the claimants, Nzekwe, feared that the British would deprive him of his throne, and decided to fight.

On 2 November 1909, the British sent an expedition to Ogwashi-Uku. It failed, and H.C Chapman, a Briton, was killed along with Hausa soldiers from the Royal West African Frontier Force.

The colonial government rightly assumed that the locals from Asaba to Agbor were providing assistance to the Ekumeku. The governor of the southern provinces, Walter Egerton wrote, “Whole country around the Niger is in a state of rebellion.”

RWAFF reinforcements arrived from Lokoja, and on November 2, 1909, they marched on Ogwashi-Ukwu.

The colonial government enacted the Collective Punishment Ordinance (CPO) – a law to punish an entire village suspected of entertaining the activities of the Ekumeku. This, and repeated military defeats broke the Ekumeku. By 1914, the movement had surrendered.

What are the lessons for us today?

First, the mentality of collective guilt, which many Nigerians believe in, was entrenched during aya oyibo. This mentality is still visible in the way our security services, themselves a colonial relic, treat Nigerians. Think people being killed in Odi, and the entire town suffering as a result.

Second, the direct incidents – soldiers bullying people, stealing from them, and assaulting women, which fed the resentment that led to Ekumeku, exist in today’s Nigeria. Our security forces still act that way.

Third, is that even with a vast military inferiority, the Ekumeku had dane guns at best, the British had the Maxim gun; a determined insurgency, which knows its home terrain, can endure for a generation.

Expecting a quick victory against Boko Haram, or militants in the Niger Delta, is a bridge too far.

Nigeria needs to rethink its modern security architecture.

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