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Ochereome Nnanna’s ‘non-existent Igbo slaves in Bonny’


Ochereome Nnanna

Ochereome Nnanna

I am somewhat surprised by Ochereome Nnanna’s comments on my piece on the Origins of Nigerians. I normally expect criticism and even abuse over some of my views but his answer seems unfortunately to be something he wanted to say and was looking for an opportunity to do so. It is a pity. He claims that there were “non-existent” “Igbo” “Slaves” in Bonny and other Ijaw city states, basing his conclusion on a belief that ethnical classification of “Igbo” and “Ijaw” was some white men’s invention and curiously that an artifact from Abiriba was found by Professor Isichie in Bonny. That many Abiriba have names like Ubani (presumably a corruption of Igbani) and that I confused trade and cultural relationship between the Igbo and Bonny as a relationship of master and slave.

Finally that I somehow managed to damage Alex Ekwueme’s chances of becoming President because working for my “mentor”, President Olusegun Obasanjo, I, in some inexplicable way, influenced Obasanjo’s choice, thus climaxing a deep plan to sow confusion between various ethnic groups. What disturbed me most was that his piece left some idea that I, in cohort with others, hatched a plan to sow ethnic division in Nigeria. For him it is “just playing to the gallery, deployed by people with ulterior and unwholesome mindset to create divisions to get people fighting one another…. celebrating this fallacy”.

I reply solely to refute the insinuations littered throughout the piece about a hidden strategy to deride and divide the Igbo and other Nigerians, thus preventing them from living peaceably with their neighbours. As to the indictment of Obasanjo being my mentor and somehow making this affect Dr. Alex Ekwueme’s chances of being the President, I am beyond surprise that a respected columnist as Mr. Nnanna, without any iota of evidence could peddle such baseless accusation. What exactly did I do to harm Dr. Alex Ekwueme? Nevertheless, I am flattered that I was so powerful to be able to influence PDP. Obasanjo was never my mentor. He was my President and I was his Adviser and friend.

I have been on record celebrating the achievement of the Igbo. My parents spent over 40 years working among the Ibo in Enugu, Abakaliki, Enugu Ngwo, Udi, Aba and Onitsha. There is a Cole Street in Onitsha. I probably speak better Igbo than many Igbo people. My first language is Yoruba, the second Igbo, third Ijaw and fourth Hausa. I do not claim that I speak all equally well, but when both your parents are civil servants posted to all parts of Nigeria, you tend to pick up languages easily.

I grew up on the diet of Omenuko, an Igbo primer. “Okeketaraoseoji, da lala, tie npuku, o ok koko.” I maybe Mr. Nnanna’s alligator pepper!! He also may well benefit from the lesson in the proverb, “Gaga nogu, anukporunkunejuonu”. I am dried meat and would swell up and fill his mouth, such that he might find it difficult to chew or swallow. This is one interpretation: another is the pith of wisdom is brevity; yet another is that it is sometimes wise to be quiet. The Yoruba have a similar idiom about how it is impossible to speak with water in your mouth.

Among the Ijaws, there were trading ports both for slaves and other merchandise, where there are Igbo and Ibibio admixtures with the people. The Ijaws of Okrika, Bonny, Buguma, Abonnema, Bakana, Nembe, Brass etc. are ascriptive and assimilationist in their culture. As Nnanna himself admitted, Jaja was himself a slave who “purchased” his freedom, to become the celebrated King Jaja of Opobo, about whom there is plenty of Ijaw pride that one of theirs was so eminent and about whom Professor Minimah has written a quintessential play performed in Port Harcourt, Lagos, London and now going to New York.
I said earlier that the culture in these Ijaw city towns was assimilationist: people (Igbo) were welcomed into the household and never referred to as slaves. Instead, they were “people of the house or the home”(“wari bio apu”). The Kalabaris never referred to the Igbo who were assimilated as slaves.

They were members of the household, who had rights as the biological children of the chiefs, and in certain circumstances had more rights than the children of the chief or head of the household.

The Don Pedros have relatives in Umuaka (Imo), the Briggs were closely related to Isiokpo and a dozen other Igbo towns; Chief Michael Broadfield-Jack was called Abiriba as a praise name, not in denigration. My uncle, Chief Kio Young-Jack was known as Oke Ngbudu; my mother’s name is Ezinwanyi. It would be tedious to go on. Every Kalabari can trace people from his compound to various areas of Igbo land. The Riverine chiefs traded extensively with Igbo. They have large plantations in all parts of Igbo land and special markets and even “colonies” within Igboland, hence the “Kalabari beach” in Oguta, Imo State. My late first wife was from Oba, from the illustrious Ikokwu family. I could not therefore be anti-Igbo. I am on record as advising the Rivers people to seek the help of the Igbo and invite them back in rebuilding Port Harcourt seeing the failure of the people of Rivers to rebuild the once beautiful city of Port Harcourt!

There is no society in the world that did not have slaves and slavery. Among all the European nations, the Chinese, the Indians, Afghans, Slavic Russians, Uzbeks, Kazastans, Persians, the whole of the Middle East, had slaves and so on

It is absolutely astonishing for Mr. Nnanna not to know that for centuries the Nigerian coast was known as the Slave Coast. Nnanna conceded that Jaja was himself a slave, made a foreman by his master. He acquired considerable wealth and rebelled against Bonny, was defeated and expelled. He did not purchase his freedom. The two groups of slaves in Bonny were Igbo and Ibibio. That Bonny spoke pidgin or broken Igbo testified to the large number of Igbo there. Other nearby Bonny villages continued to speak Igbani and do not speak pidgin Igbo to this day.

Nor is the feat of King Jaja, from slave to king, a rare phenomenon: history is full of such exploits. In 1964, I went to Haiti and watched a voodoo performance: the songs and dance during the trance were Igbo. After the performance, none of the people understood a word of what they sang. In Brazil the various orishas depicted are Yoruba and the Brazilians are rightly proud of that heritage till this day. I am talking of white and black Brazilians. Many Brazilian words have now become Yoruba words – Akara, alubosa, etc.

I will not dignify the attempted slur on my parentage with an answer. I do not know of an Igbo Christopher Columbus or Mungo Park who discovered Bonny or any other Ijaw town. Nor do I know of any Igbo Henry Kissinger who led a cultural and commercial delegation to any Ijaw town to establish the trade and cultural peaceful interchange that concludes Mr. Nnanna understanding of the relationship between the Igbo and Bonny from his reading of Dr. Isichie’s book. They say in journalism that facts are sacred.

There were slaves in Igbo land as in all societies including in Bonny, which was a slave port like Lagos, Badagry, Accra, Cape Coast, El mina, Goree and others. Finally, allow me to mourn once again, here as elsewhere, the scrapping of history in our schools. Without history we cannot be a nation. Mr. Nnanna is not the only person who objected to some aspects of that article. I am glad that it generated some interest and I have learnt a great deal from those responses.
• Dr. Patrick Dele Cole is Officer of the Order Federal Republic (OFR)

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  • Iskacountryman

    kai…see nyamiri nose…

  • Ayo Faleti

    Obasanjo abandoned History in favour of Science and Technology; S&T we still don’t have, History and Humanities are now dead.
    The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water – James W. Gardner, Secretary of Education/Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson.