For over 200 years, the people of Ohafia and Abiriba have shared a common boundary. Yet, they have shared diametrically opposite world-views.
While one lived in a pre-colonial world where the love of military glory was a consuming passion, the other was a wealthy black smith and a long distance traveller. To date, they have maintained two parallel lines: while one loves education, the other loves business.
OHAFIA and Abiriba, two communities located in the northern part of Abia State, are like twins separated by a few kilometres of expanse of land. But, even as they share a common boundary, one sharply contrasts the other in so many ways. Sometimes, nature, in its infinite wisdom, helped in scripting what has come to make one distinct from the other. As the saying goes in the two communities, it takes only a trained eye to see the difference.
Yet, Ohafia and Abiriba share certain fundamental practices in common. It appears that after over 200 years of living close to each other, they could not help sharing some practices, one being the matrilineal system, in which a woman inherits property from her father’s home. The child from such a marriage still traces his descent through his father, but relies more on his maternal side for his upbringing.
This practise has been used to explain why Ohafia and Abiriba women hardly married outsiders, until in recent times. In the two communities, women are seen as assets to their families. An Ohafia or Abiriba woman would never get so serious with a stranger as to marry him. If she does, it implies that she has depleted the family’s resources. On its own, the act will be a breakaway from the norm.
Another common feature is the age-grade system. Over the years, the system has become a vehicle for development, more especially in Abiriba, where all projects in the area are associated with one age grade or the other. There is an inexplicable sense of mission among succeeding generations to take up projects in the community that will surpass the performance of their predecessors.
Beyond that, the Ohafia and Abiriba people have maintained their distinctness, and a stranger who understands the rules can easily separate one from the other. The dialects of Igbo language spoken in both areas vary in a way. While the Ohafia man rebukes a mischievous child by saying: “Ifula nwantaa!”, the Abiriba man says: “Kalaa nwantoo!”. The Abiriba man says, Iwo, for anger, while his Ohafia counterpart says, Iwe. Husband is Ji, in Abiriba, and di, in Ohafia. To say, ‘Look at it’, in Ohafia, they say Le ya, and Kala ya in Abiriba.
Nature has also played a part in it, if the contrasting topographies of the two communities are taken into consideration. Unlike Ohafia, which is on a plain land, Abiriba is clustered over an undulating hilly outlay, and boundaries demarcating villages are hardly seen. Some of the exotic architectural designs that can be found in Nigeria dot the hilltops, giving the community the name, ‘Small London’.
Although the people of Ohafia are beginning to match their Abiriba counterparts in terms of infrastructure, the area still wears a more rural outlook than Abiriba.
In Abiriba, the Abiriba Communal Improvement Union, through the use of mutually competitive age-grades, spearheads development efforts in such a way that electricity, pipe-borne water and tarred roads, without the assistance of the government, reach a greater part of the community. There appears to be a deliberate attempt among the people to remain close to each other all the time.
Abiriba is a community of shrewd businessmen. The Abiriba man loves and follows the whiff of money to wherever it takes him, and no matter the risk involved. Over time, the quest for wealth has led him through thick and thin, to have business links traversing the entire West Africa, with tentacles stretching as far as Europe, America and the Far East.
Abiriba is a specialist trading community and one of the wealthiest communities in Igboland. A striking feature of trade and industry in Aba is the prominent role played by Abiriba people. Unlike Nnewi, in Anambra State, where businessmen have located the bulk of their industries at home, the Abiriba man has practically no industry in his land.
Instead, the traders and industrialists have, since the end of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970, tended to concentrate their activities in Aba, where they have good relations with Ngwa people and little difficulty gaining access to land. Of the 29 companies, including the two largest employers listed in Tom Forrest’s Makers and Making of Nigerian Private Enterprise published in 1994, 11 of them are owned by Abiriba businessmen.
The Abiriba man is restless and always on the move. When he is fortunate to move up the ladder, he takes along somebody from his community. He does not believe that he should be the only rooster that crows in the town. “No man”, the saying goes in Abrirba “no matter how successful, can bury himself when he dies. He needs other successful people to give him a befitting burial”. Or, “No one person, no matter how rich or successful, can kill a cow and eat it alone. The enjoyment of it is in the sharing”.
As the Abiriba man travels, pursuing his business interests from one end of the globe to the other, there is an unwritten rule among the people that he must bring home whatever he finds in foreign lands that will be of benefit to his people. He does not build a house simply because he needs a roof over his head.
When he does, he leaves his personality imprinted on the architectural design, and the building has to be the first of its kind in the community. In all of these, the Abiriba man has one shortcoming: he did not embrace formal education when his neighbour, the Ohafia man, did and, so, the first generation of Abiriba businessmen was largely illiterate. To the Abiriba man, it was money before any other thing.
But, in recent times, education has become vital to him. Somewhere along the line, he seemed to have realised that he may have all the money, but that without education, he may not know how to control or reinvest it. It took the Abiriba man a long time to realise the importance of education.
But, before he did, his Ohafia counterpart had made hay, entrenching himself in the bureaucracy. He began with the teaching profession. Education was the main industry in the area. To the Ohafia man, no profession was as noble as teaching.
It became so much of an obsession that every child born in the area looked forward to becoming a teacher. Today, while the Abiriba community boasts of wealthy traders and industrialists, the children of these teachers in Ohafia are found in the academia, and the professionals and control the political machinery in the area.
Before you can count on your five fingers Abiriba men who have attained the academic rank of professor, Ohafia has counted over 50 of them and more politicians, both at the federal and state levels; The first indigenous Vice Chancellor of University of Lagos, University of Nigeria and University of Biafra was an Ohafia man in late Professor Eni Njoku. The Ohafia man had a head start.
But, does he know that he owes it all to Eke Kalu, the former slave and an unsung hero, who was born about 1875 in Elu Ohafia and sold into slavery; who went as far as the present Cross River and Rivers states; was sent to school; and later promoted the overseer of the house of his master, Chief Mini Epele of Opobo, before his triumphal return to his family in Ohafia?
It is not certain how Ohafia and Abiriba came to be in their present locations. There are as many versions as there are people telling the stories. However, the stories agree that the two communities originated from different sources. While some trace their origin to Israel, others trace it to Egypt and, sometimes, to the Bantus in East Africa.
All the accounts agree that the forebears of Ohafia people migrated from Isi-Eke, from a place called Umuajiji, in Ubeku, Umuahia, while those of Abiriba migrated from Ene, in today’s Cross River. The Ohafia people, the story goes, left Andoli and settled in Isi-Eke, from where they ran away. One night, it was said, the people heard the rattling sound of calabashes. The sound was interpreted to mean that they were being invaded.
A commotion ensued. As some of them escaped toward Ngodo, others went towards Isuochi. At one point, some of them headed towards Abam. Leading the group heading to Abam, was a man known as Ezeama Atita, and two sons called Uduma Ezeama and Onyereobi Ezeama. When they got to Abam, Onyereobi’s wife, who was heavy with pregnancy, could no longer walk. He, therefore, remained in Abam with his pregnant wife, while the group continued on the journey. In the present location of Ohafia, at a place called Ugwumgbo, Ezeama Atita, and his second son, Uduma, settled.
After many years, their offspring established the 26 villages that make up today’s Ohafia.
The ancestral headquarters of Ohafia is in Elu Ohafia. Each village is governed by an Eze ogo. All the Eze ogos come together to form the Eze Ogo-in-Council, which, with the Amala, decide how the community is to be governed. The overall traditional ruler, Udumeze, who lives in Elu Ohafia, intervenes only when there is a matter between an Eze ogo and a subject.
In the past, the culture of Ohafia was hinged around one’s prowess in war. They were constantly on the lookout for wars in which to take part. They became something like mercenaries and the people of Arochukwu, who were all over Igboland ‘hunting’ for slaves, harnessed this warlike spirit in Ohafia people to their own advantage.
The practise of beheading a fallen foe was a favourite pastime. A human skull was valued as a souvenir, and it was a proof of a man’s courage, which brought to the Ohafia man different types of honour. Only those who brought home a human head could join the Ogbu-Isi society and wear the eagle plume of courage. The love of military glory became a consuming passion and the focus of all social values.
On the other hand, Abiriba, the people say, means Ebiri-Abaa, which roughly translates to, a fertile land that enriches those who live in it. Whether the people migrated from Israel, Egypt or from East Africa, the different accounts agree that they arrived Abiriba from Umon, in Cross River State, through Ena, Eberiba, Udara Abuo in Ohafia, and then Agboha, in the present Abiriba.
The leader of the group was a man known as Oke Ukpabi, who had a son, named Ukpabi Oke. Father and son lived at Ndi Ogogo, where the father died. Ukpabi Oke, in turn, had four sons, named in order of seniority as Inyima Ukpabi Oke, Chukwu Ukpabi Oke, Ali Ukpabi Oke and Oko Ukpabi Oke. While Inyima Ukpabi Oke remained at Ndi Ogogo, Chukwu Ukpabi Oke moved to Amogudu, Ali Ukpabi Oke settled in Ihungwu, Oko Ukpabi Oke moved to Ama-Elu Nta.
Theoretically, Abiriba is divided into three geo-political zones – Ameke, Amaogudu, and Agboji. But, practically speaking, Abiriba remains one. The boundary line separating one village from the other is blurred. They abhor anything that will bring division among them. For this reason, they have refused the creation of autonomous communities in the area, in spite of its expedience.
As in Ohafia, Abiriba is organised in a confederal system of government. The three geo-political zones have their Ezes, who legislate on residual issues.There is an overall Eze, the Enachuoken, who lives at Ndi Ogogo, in Ameke. He is said to be a ceremonial head and concurs to decisions reached by the Enachuoken-in-Council, made up of representatives of the three zones. The Otisi, a deity, is the mess of the Enachuoken-in-Council and stands as the symbol of authority.
Any law proclaimed in Abiriba, without the Otisi cannot stand the test of time. Otisi can only be seen in the public when laws are going to be enacted or repealed. The Abiriba man had not the war-like traits of his Ohafia counterpart. He is not a warrior in that sense. The only insight history gives into his past is that he was a wealthy black smith and a long distance traveller, who worked on raw iron from what is described as the mines of Okigwe-Arochukwu ridge.
AS a result of the abolition of slave trade, internal warfare declined and it became safe to travel. The Ohafia people, whose warlike exploits made peaceful travel impossible, were now able to work abroad. By 1913, most of them were trading at Itu, in Akwa Ibom State, and Calabar, in Cross River State.
Before now, the Ohafia man, with his entire war prowess, went through a ritual, to purge him of his war-like traits. Perhaps, he needed to be told by no less a force than the colonial might the old order had passed away. And it came about in 1901, when a unit of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) based in Calabar laid a siege on Ohafia and Ebem. It was in response to the destruction of Obegu, in today’s Abia south, by fighters from the two communities.
The Ohafia people had looked forward to that encounter. The people were in high spirit, sharpening their machetes and loading their dane guns with gun-powder. As usual, it was another opportunity for them to cut human heads. But, in their ignorance, they failed to realise that the firepower of the white man was far and above their crude weapons.
Enter Eke Kalu, the former slave. He had since returned from Opobo and was now visiting Calabar as a businessman, when preparations to raid Ohafia and Ebem were in high gear. The sight of RWAFF soldiers marching in Calabar, coupled with his experience in Eket when he was a gun carrier, compelled him to seek a way of saving his people.
Eke Kalu knew from experience that his people, the famous and dreaded warriors of ancient Ohafia, the lions of the jungle, the proud and gallant sons of Uduma Ezema, would challenge the soldiers. He realised also that though the military tactics of the Ohafia warriors might surpass that of the RWAFF, yet their weapons were crude and nowhere near the firepower of the rifles and machine guns of the RWAFF soldiers.
He, therefore, hurried out of Calabar in a canoe and, passing through Ikun, arrived Ohafia. It was an Eke day and, on arrival, he went through the area, warning the people against challenging the soldiers. Four days after his return, the British soldiers were on their way to Ohafia, taking the Akoli Adda route.
Passing through Elu, they arrived in Ebem, where they pitched their tents at Ifi Iri-opu. Captain Mowatt commanded the soldiers. No sooner did the soldiers arrive than an Ebem warrior, Idika Echeme, was said to have charged at them.
Thereafter, the order to open fire was given on the other side of the line. Soon, trees and human beings began to fall. Each time cannon balls went off, trees and charging Ebem warriors were cut down. The pillar of Ikoro Nde Anaga also came down. When they saw what was happening, the surviving Ebem warriors panicked and took to the forests for refuge.
After Ebem was reduced to rubbles, the British soldiers turned their attention to Ohafia. As they approached, Eke Kalu was waiting for them, not with machetes or dane guns. He had a long bamboo, at the top of which he tied a white handkerchief, which he waved frantically in the air, saying to the hearing of the approaching soldiers: “Ayi kwere na ndi beke”, meaning: “We surrender to the British”. Given his exceptional courage, Captain Mowatt was said to have demanded to know Eke Kalu’s identity. Coming close to the captain was an opportunity the former slave needed to demonstrate, before his people, his ability to speak English language.
To the captain’s question, he proudly replied: “I from Elu Ohafia; my fadda, Imaga Agwunsi, say he no wan war”. The captain was pleased and to another question, he replied: “I is de onle man for Ohafia hear English”. When the British soldiers left Ohafia, the profile of the ex-slave rose among his people. The fact that he could engage a white man in a conversation earned him respect and honour. Consequently, they appointed him their adviser.
The event that changed the course of Ohafia people forever occurred shortly after, and Eke Kalu was, again, at the centre of it. There was, in Ohafia, a man identified simply as Vincent, a Sierra Leonean, who was the Native Court Clerk in the area.
He was said to be “extremely wicked in his dealings with Ohafia people”. The day came when he locked some men in the prison for what was described as a trivial offence. The men broke out of the prison and were intent on beating him up, when he reported the matter to one Major Cobham, who despatched some policemen to his rescue. The prisoners were promptly rearrested and fines were imposed on them.
After this event, Ohafia people started looking for a way out of what had become regular persecutions in the hands of the Sierra Leonean. As a solution to their problem, Eke Kalu, advised them to build schools and educate their children who, knowing what the clerk knew, would better challenge him and his successors in future. The first school was opened at Ndi Imaga Shed. From now on, the desire for education swept through Ohafia like a bush fire.
ABOUT two major waves of migration to Calabar have been identified in Abiriba. The first wave took place during the slave trade. When the obnoxious trade was abolished, the second migration started, beginning with black smiths and, later, traders. Two black smiths, identified as Nwafor and
Udehi, led the migrants. The story has it that Nwafor settled at Umonta, while Udehi settled at Umon, near a plantation where he fashioned out hoes, cutlasses and other farm tools.
As time went on, Udehi moved over to Umonta and both men opened a workshop.
With time, Abiriba people began to abandon iron work. It was now considered to be tedious profession and not profitable enough. By the turn of the 20th Century, the Abiriba man had gone into buying and selling with Europeans. From now on, the economic history of Abiriba began to show a shifting pattern of migration and commercial specialisation, in response to changing economic opportunities.
In the 19th Century, and early in the colonial period, trade in palm produce developed to the south, down the Igu tributary of the Inyang River, which joined the Cross River in the Itu area. The area was where Abiriba traders came to establish their business. There also developed a strong trade in smuggled gin from Fernando Po. A separate line of trade, associated with the smithing items, moved in the direction of Bende and later to Uzuakoli, where there was a large Abiriba quarters, and along the rail line from Umuahia to Port Harcourt.
By the early 1950s, the direction of the migration began to change. The Abiriba businessman began to move towards Aba. In the days of pre-colonial times, Aba had had a market place, near the Asa River, known as Eke Oha. After the Arochukwu expedition, Aba became an administrative centre and a garrison town.
Its location on the railway aided its growth as a market centre and rewrote the economic geography of the area. It was in Aba that the Abiriba man made his first business breakthrough in second-hand clothing, popularly called okirika, a period that marked his entrance into international trade. Apart from okirika, he was also involved in the importation of sewing machines, gramophones, stockfish and cement. From 1954, he started importing large consignments of stockfish from Norway and Iceland. By 1956, Abiriba men, such as the late Chief Nnana Kalu, had visited Iceland.
Then came the Nigerian Civil War, during which Igbo people, including Abiriba businessmen, lost their properties. At the end of the war, the Biafran currency became worthless. Between 1970 and 1973, Abiriba men who were able to return to big-time business were able to do so through loans and advances by their pre-war overseas trading partners.
By January 1972, two years after the war, an Abiriba businessman, Chief Obewu Ukegbu Onwuka, had begun importing containerised goods through the Apapa ports. By 1973, the businessmen had entered into what one of them described as the “innovation of importing cement in bulk, through a charter party agreement”.
In 1976, when a ban was placed on the importation of stock fish and second-hand clothing, it was like pulling the rug from the foot of the Abiriba businessman. Again, he tried to adapt, shifting interest from trading to the manufacturing business. Today, he ranks among one of the foremost industrialists in the country. From Aba, he has today reached the four ends of the globe pursuing his business interest.
By Ebere Ahahinu