The Ezeigbo title outside Igboland may be an embarrassment to Igbo culture and dignity but politicians outside Igboland exploit it to their own advantage. While the governors and other politicians need them to win elections, the Obas and Kabiyesis see them as intruders, interlopers and impostors who are encroaching into their kingdoms … This is the reason why HRH The Deji of Akure is fighting back. The real king does not want a fake king in his kingdom … We need to have the courage to do away with this dangerous trend which tends to cause disaffection between us and the host communities across Nigeria. Let us abolish this Ezeigbo title outside Igboland for peace to reign.
—Joe Igbokwe, responding to the crises associated with the Eze Ndigbo title outside Igboland, in “Eze Ndigbo Outside Igboland: A Needless Distraction” Sahara Reporters, October 24, 2015.
The recent clash between the Deji of Akureland, Oba Aladelusi Aladetoyinbo, and the Eze Ndigbo of Akure, Gregory Iloehike, over the latter’s royal regalia, including beaded crown and palace, quickly reverberated across the country, by throwing up for debate the excesses of Igbo community leaders outside Igboland. Give them a metre, someone once said, and they’ll take a kilometre.
The opening quote is excerpted from the contribution to the debate by Joe Igbokwe, himself an Igbo man, living outside his homeland. In addition to a robust discussion of the excesses of holders of the title in Lagos, where there are at least 54 of them within the metropolis, Igbokwe recommends that the title be abolished completely. However, the issues involved are so complex that a one-off solution might not be feasible. Four such issues will be discussed here.
First, it is important to realise that titles, such as Eze Ndigbo, are cultural products, and like every cultural product, they cannot be easily eradicated or abolished by word of mouth or even by legislation. The Eze Ndigbo title followed the formation in 1976 of Ohanaeze Ndigbo as an umbrella socio-cultural assembly of all Igbo people at home and abroad. It was only in recent years that the excesses of the title holders became a public menace, especially in the South-West, where the Igbo are widely established as traders and artisans.
Second, the Eze Ndigbo is, however, more than a cultural title. It has political and economic implications as well. As Igbokwe rightly points out, the Eze provides a rallying point for politicians in election campaigns and in dispute mediation, involving members of the Igbo community. To this extent, it could be said that politicians are also interested in the title.
The Eze also functions as a point of contact for the Igbo community in economic matters. In this capacity, he facilitates the settling down of new members, while assisting existing ones in maximising their trading and occupational potential. For example, he mediates between landlords and their Igbo tenants and tax collectors and between competing groups within the Igbo community. It was the highhandedness of the Eze Ndigbo of Akure metropolis, one Gregory Iloehike, in resolving the leadership tussle in Mojere Market, the Igbo-dominated spare parts market in town, which brought him into confrontation with the Deji of Akureland.
This brings me to the third major issue, the excesses of the Eze Ndigbo in the South-West. Not only are they engaged in supremacy battles among themselves as in Lagos and Oyo states, they cause, or contribute to, tension between rival Igbo groups. Worse still, they often disregard the tradition of their host communities and promote conflict with the established traditional rulers. That was the case with Iloehike. Not only did he keep the Deji and his Council of Chiefs waiting for hours, the fellow appeared in full royal regalia, including a beaded crown and a staff of office. Above all, he was reportedly rude in addressing the established monarch.
The Deji was absolutely right in cutting him to size and insisting that there is no place for an Eze Ndigbo of royal status in Akure or elsewhere in Yorubaland. This leads to the fourth issue. Yoruba tradition does not permit the existence of a monarch without territory or a monarch within another’s territory. Even more importantly, no chieftaincy title could originate within a Yoruba monarch’s territory without his approval. This, in fact, makes the title of Eze Ndigbo null and void in Yorubaland. This does not mean that the Igbo could not select or elect a leader among themselves. The point is that such a leader cannot be a chief, let alone a monarch, in Yorubaland.
Yoruba monarchs have been very lax in allowing the nonentity of a title called Eze Ndigbo to exist in their territories for several decades. Come to think of it, the title has no foundation, as it was not conferred by any constituted authority, and the titleholder has no territory. He and his people are migrants, and the land on which they live and work is rented or leased.
Of course, chiefs from other places outside Yorubaland are recognised by the Yoruba but they cannot participate in Yoruba rituals and they must defer to Yoruba authorities. The thing about Eze Ndigbo is that it was not even conferred on the bearer by any constituted authority in Igboland. No Eze Ndigbo can parade himself as a titled chief in Igboland, because the title was not conferred on him according to Igbo established chieftaincy tradition, which in itself is a recent invention.
In this regard, the comments of another Igbo man, Sonnie Okafor, are pertinent: “It’s high time the Igbo stopped deceiving themselves. What’s the meaning of this Eze Ndigbo? The Igbo know no king. We all know that: Igbo enweghi eze. Igbo amaghi eze. What we had in the good old days was the Igbo Union. Having a king was forced on us shortly after the civil war. This issue of Eze Ndigbo is due to moral decadence in our society.”
Okafor’s statement reminds me of my early studies in anthropology, when Igbo society was often cited as an example of an acephalous, that is, headless, society. The recent invention of royal tradition also meant the invention of royal regalia, which the late Professor Chinua Achebe once mocked as varying from that of a clown to that of the Pope!
It is high time Yoruba monarchs got together to limit the debasement of their own tradition by such invented traditions as the Eze Ndigbo title in Yoruba territories. Similarly, the Yoruba Afenifere socio-cultural organisation must work hand in hand with the Ohanaeze Ndigbo socio-cultural organisation in finding a lasting solution to the menace, rather than continue to talk at cross purposes.
This brings me to another issue, the tit-for-tat solution suggested by an Afenifere leader and former Senator, Dr. Femi Okurounmu. His suggestion that the Eze Ndigbo title will be permitted, even with the royal paraphernalia, if the Igbo also allowed the Yoruba to install an Oba in Igboland. Such a solution contradicts a basic Yoruba traditional tenet, namely, that an Oba must have a kingdom, that is, an ancestral territory.
Similarly, the courts have failed to resolve the problem. For example, in 2014, one Justice Mashud Abbas of Oyo State High Court ruled in favour of one Dr Alex Anozie as the rightful holder of the title of Eze Ndigbo of Ibadanland and Oyo State among three contenders, because, according to the judge, he was democratically elected and sworn into office by the Igbo Community Development Association in 1997. What authority does an association have to swear in a title holder of the traditional status of chief or monarch?
That’s why any solution to the Eze Ndigbo problem must work towards recognising them as mere community leaders. No more. No less.