Where did the Igbos come from?

By Mazi Nweke, Enugu State, Nigeria


         
Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu

“Majority of Igbos are satisfied to accept the Israel hypothesis supported by the triple testimonies of oral tradition, Eri migration and archaeological evidence.”

Where the Igbos migrated from has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt. The ancestry of the Igbos has bothered many people for a long time. Many historians, philosophers, sociologists, archaeologists and anthropologists have raised a lot of dust on this issue. A lot of views have been proffered but yet the origin of the Igbos remained a mirage.

Suffice it to say that the Igbos have found themselves in Nigeria and indeed they are Nigerians like every other tribe. This tend to support the claim of an elderly Mbaise man from Imo State of Nigeria, whose name remain anonymous, in a book by Dr. Elizabeth Isichei titled “History of the Igbo People”. The elderly Mbaise man maintained that the Igbos did not come from anywhere. But the fact remains that the Igbos must come from somewhere beyond the limited knowledge of the Mbaise elder. Another claim seek to establish that the ancestors of the Igbos originated from the area they inhabit, presently known as Awka-Okigwe. Hence, the communities known as Umu-Nri regard themselves as the descendants of a hero called Eri, who along with his wife, Nnamaku, was sent down from the sky by Chukwu, the Igbo supreme God. I must confess that this claim sounds just like a fairy tale. Even a ten-year-old child would never believe this story. There is no “abracadabra” in Igbo man’s origin, certainly he is from somewhere.

The Igbos are more pragmatic in the claim of their origin unlike some other tribes in Nigeria. To suit their natural and competitive tendencies, they rarely rely on myths, legends and oral traditions. What the average Igbo man cannot hold on in respect of practical evidence, he would rather resign to faith and to God with whom he is more comfortable. This explains why they give such names as Chimaroke (God knows my portion), Chijioke (The Creator God), Chikelu (God creates), Chukwuma (God knows), Chinenye (God gives), Chukwuebuka (God is great), Chukwudi (God exits), Ngozichukwu (blessing of God), Eberechukwu (mercy of God), etc.

Well, there are three basic ways of providing the historical claims of any people or tribe. These ways are by written documents, by oral tradition and by archeological evidence. Needless to say that the Igbos have these three ways to present in the justification of the claim of their origin. The historical problem of the Igbo man since the inception of Nigeria has been how to convince his fellow Nigerians that he is part and parcel of the political entity called Nigeria. While some people have tried to link the Igbos to the Jewish race, others simply see them as the Jews of Africa. It is not a mistake to mention that the Igbos have genealogical relationship as well as historical resemblance with the Jewish race.

First and foremost, they are adventurous and aggressive like the Jews. The Igbo and Jewish customs permit a man to raise children from his brother’s widow. Both the Igbos and the Jews have a common tradition of lengthy funeral ceremony (Genesis 50:1-3). Igbos and the Jews have common circumcision; date on the eight-day following the delivering of a male child. Igbos and the Jews use intermediaries in marriage negotiations, this is practicable in Igboland up till now. Abraham did it while negotiating Rebecca for Isaac (Genesis 24.). Many groups of scholars have the view that the Igbos originated from the Jewish stock. To make this view more acceptable, Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo ex-slave in London, who is said to have travelled widely, happens to be the first person to write about the Igbo tribe before his death in 1797. Equaino, in one of his findings, discovered that some names amongst the Igbos such as Uburu and even the “Igbo” itself are derived from Hebrew words.

The vast majority of the Igbos who fell victim of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have been forgotten. They lived lives of toil and suffering, and their children rapidly lost a sense of their Igbo identity. One of them, however, by his courage and ability, won his freedom, and went on to a remarkable career which he described in an autobiography which is one of our most valuable sources of knowledge of the Igbo past. He was the first of many Igbos who have achieved distinction in Europe, and the first of a series of notable Igbo authors in English. His name was Olaudah Equiano, which might mean Olaude Ekweano and he was born in about 1745 and died in 1797.

Rev. J.T. Basden, an Anglican missionary, who worked in Igboland for over a decade, shared the opinion that the word ‘Igbo’ might be a shortening of a longer name of an Igbo influential ancestor. Another school of thought led by Late Professor Dike, whose book was expanded by I.C.U. Enochusi in his book: “The Living Document of Ekwulobia”, found out that the Igbos had three origins and settled in their homes in two different periods. According to them, the first branch of the Igbo was the Jewish stock who wandered through the Sudan and eventually settled at their current home earlier than 9th century A.D. Those Jewish Igbos have the same tradition and custom with the Jews of the Eastern World. They are the Nris, the Aros, the Igbo Ukwus, the Otuochas and so on.

The second origin is the Benin or Oduduwa origin. These Igbos were believed to be a part of the descendants of Oduduwa, the father of the Yorubas, and originated from Benin Kingdom only to settle at River line area or the Ika Igbo country land of the Igbo man in 17th century A.D. Dr. K. O. Dike, in support of this assertion, said that there was an eastward movement of population from Benin in 17th century A.D., which resulted in increased population of the Western, or Ika Igbo country. The third Igbo origin is the Benue River Region origin. These Igbos migrated from Igala country of the Benue River country into Igbo belt late 17th century A.D. to avoid the Fulani slave trade. Majority of these Igala Igbos settled in the Northern part of the Igbo territory.

According to a team of researchers from University of Ibadan, led by Thusten Shaw, it is now believed that some ancient Igbos had settled at Igbo-Ukwu-Aguatat-Anambra State earlier. That in 19th century A.D. Igbo-Ukwu, Ekwulobia and the environs were believed to belong to Jewish Igbos due to the period of the settlement. Another group headed by A.E. Afigbo linked the Igbos to branch of a Negro race who originated along the latitude of Asselar and Khartoun. Some linguists in support of this came out with the view that the Igbos originated from Niger-Congo family. This was due to the alignment of the language with that of ‘kwa’ in this area who were separated from Igbos by the Niger-Benue confluence.

That the Igbos migrated from Isreal is no longer in doubt. According to Uche P. Ikeanyibe, as for geographical migrations and settlements, majority of Igbos are satisfied to accept the Israel hypothesis supported by the triple testimonies of oral tradition, Eri migration and the biblical evidence of Eri as a true historical descendant of Israel and the archaeological evidence, some of which are now lodged by Anambra state Government at Igbo-Ukwu Musem”.

Speaking on the origin of the Igbos, on behalf of Nri people, during an audience participation programme of Radio Nigeria on July 13, 1966, Ogbuefi Madubueze Enemmou was quoted as having said, “about two years ago, Israel government sent delegates to our place, Nri to confirm the historical relationship between Igbos and Hebrew people. We took Israeli officials round historical places in our town. They expressed surprise at what they observed as obvious similarities between our custom and theirs. Later, they could not help but conclude that Nri and Igbo in general are among the lost tribes of Israel”.