Igbo Political Systems

(collated by Uzoma Onyemaechi, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Title Men Obi/Eze Functions

The political arrangements for the purpose of administration varied. Obi is the name of the head of the family in the Igbo areas. In old Owerri and Umuahia provinces, the word chief or Eze is commonly used, representing the majority of the state. The members of the eze's cabinet are called the Nze. They are the Chiefs' or Eze's councilors. Among Onitsha Igbos, the majesty's councilors are called Ndichie, meaning chiefs. There are three grades: (1) Ndichie Ume (2) Ndichie Okwa and (3) Ndichie Okwaraeze. The principal functions of both Nze's and Ndichies are to assist the Obi/Eze in keeping law and order in the communities.

The functions of Ndichie in the community generally, irrespective of grade, are: first, to act as the Obi's representatives and play the role of public relations officers in the interest of the ruling Obi; second, to maintain law and order; third, to uphold the property of religious and customary practices; fourth, to dispense justice according to equity and the law of the land; fifth, to promote social welfare; and, lastly, to defend the land against aggression. All these councilors are supposed to play a vital role as peacemakers in their localities and owe allegiance to Obi/Eze the ruler.

Female administrative titles have not been popular among the Igbo since the late 19th century when the European colonialists entered into the heart of Igbo land not merely to trade but as cultural modifiers. The colonial powers have been described as "bringing with them the Pax Britannica at the tip of the sword and the nozzle of the gun well into the first quarter of the 20th century."

Among the Owerri Igbos, the wife of Nze, the councilor, automatically becomes the Lollo, an honorary title of a councilor. But the Onitsha Igbos once had a woman chieftain appointed by the Obi to care for the women's affairs; namely the maintenance of women's dignity, customary laws and their behavior. This is called Omu, the Queen Mother.

In the kingdom of Obi there was a place for the female-counterpart ruler, the Omu. The ruler Obi is a hereditary successor to his clan's throne. Both the Obi and the Omu worked together for the betterment of their subjects. The position of Omu was dropped from the throne by the colonial government. The Onitsha Igbos have not yet restored this great women's institution in Igbo land. The last Omu (Queen Mother) of Onitsha that ruled was her Highness, Chief Nwagboka Egwuatu of Ogbeotu Village. She died in 1890. However, women in Igbo land at present are confirmed with the title of chieftaincy, not for administrative purposes but for the roles they play in the community and in the market.

An Egalitarian Society

The Igbo society is patterned on that of egalitarian society in which almost everyone is equal. The structure of the system looks thus, but in practice does not conform. There are established ranks and positions of honor. There are marked differences in political organization. The Igbos have kings, chiefs, Eze and other titles of honor. Movement to the top is open and free for any individual.

An egalitarian society is characterized by the adjustment of the number of valued statuses to the number of persons, or fixing or limiting of persons capable of exerting power. As many persons as can wield power, whether through personal strength, influence or authority, can do so.

The Igbo social structure is defined by the blood line. This is traced by patrilineal linkage. The family is the center or the nucleus into which the he child compound is formed. From here it extends to village level, clans, and town. The blood relations create associations between man and his neighbor. The social organization develops in the form of an extended family to a kind of village government. There is a strong tie in religious observations, trade and marriages. In each community there are associations of age groups; men with titles, poor and rich citizens interact with one another in war or in peace. All participate in community affairs, in decision-making and all development efforts. The main credo of Igbo culture is the emphasis placed on individual achievement and initiatives, prestige and egalitarian leadership.

Some western and African historians/anthropologists found no credibility in a society without kings. Most of the Europeans who visited Igbo areas could not understand Igbo social organization because of the lack of a monarchy. The representative organization, especially in Igbo culture, was not monarchical but republican. "The Igbo," writes Phoebe Ottenber "have a non-hierarchical type of political organization and have been referred to as 'ultra democratic' in their values." Even Margery Perham (1957), for all her attachment to Lugard's northern Nigeria, was obliged to refer to the Igbo as "sturdily democratic."

Individuals remain loyal to the headman, who acts as the head of the community. The feudal system that is present in northern Nigeria and Yoruba State could not exist in Igbo land because of the level of the Igbo society, and also the separation of tribal religion from the titular headship within the clan.

Recognition of Old Age

The Igbo village is made up of two or more compounds. Each compound is based on patrilineal relationships. Status is accorded to the male by seniority, irrespective of polygamous family and agnatic emphasis. In the family, the first son is the head of the family and holds the family heirlooms like Ofo, Chi, and Obi. The first son (Opara) holds the symbol of the family authority. There are two Igbo positions of esteem that are formally institutionalized (1) Opara (first son) and (2) Ada (first daughter). The first two children, namely Opara and Ada, have higher status in an Igbo family. In a monogamous family, the birth order follows. The younger always gives respect to the older brother or sister. Before the younger ones address the older child, whether within the family or outside the family, the younger one adds the word of respect--Ndaa or Dede. The leadership of auth

Seniority accorded to old age is one of the primary beliefs among the Igbos. Besides the age status, the greatest honor is given to one in his mother's lineage or Umunne. When one visits his or her mother's home (mother's lineage), that person is given the highest honor and respect. Whenever one has any serious troubles with a father's lineage (Umunna), they appeal to one's Umunne (mother's lineage) for assistance. As a custom in Igbo land, the Umunne will surely come to one's aid.

The following example is culled from Chinua Achebe's book, "Things Fall Apart," depicting the important role of maternal section of an Igbo person's life:

Okonkwo's gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy's heart. The confusion that followed was without parallel in the tradition of Umuofia. Violent deaths were frequent but nothing like this had ever happened. The only course to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman; a man who committed it must flee from the land -- and before the cock crowed Okonkwo and his family were fleeing to his motherland.

In Igbo society, the Umunne supports one against Umunna (patrilineage) even when one is affected by the spirit of the ancestors.

Position of Elders

In an Igbo community, elders are respected and honored. All leaders act as a village head and are often approached in both good and bad times. A leader is always expected to speak the truth and is often required to vindicate his innocence regularly at the rite of Itu-Ogu (making a wish). This is a sign of affirmation of innocence. The village head oftentimes is the village priest. He maintains his prescribed status as a necessary condition for the maintenance of his high office. Sometimes an elder is a titled person, who chairs traditional functions in the family compound and in the village.


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