The Igbo Delta Story

By Cheta Nwanze June 26, 2020

The Igbo Delta Story

According to Dennis Osadebey in the book, Building A Nation, Nnebisi was the son of an Nteje woman, Diaba, who had gotten pregnant for an Igala man, Ojobo.

Nnebisi grew up in Nteje thinking he was of the kindred, but one day, after a quarrel, he was told that his father was not from there, so he could not take part in land sharing.

He thus left Nteje with his followers, and followed a route which brought him to the great river.

If you look at a map of those areas, it is quite easy to trace the route taken by Nnebisi, which must hae taken him through Nsugbe, and then along the Anambra River (Ọma Mbala), and then to the point where the Anambra River joins the Niger River.

That precise point where the Anambra River joins the Niger River, is coincidentally, the precise point where you can take an eight minute boat ride and land at Cable Point in Asaba.

Nnebisi and his people crossed, landed at Ikpele Nmili and decided to plant their crops there for the year.

A year later, after a great harvest was (of course the area is rich in alluvial soils brought from upstream by the river), they decided to settle there.

Nnebisi called the place Ani Ahaba (We have settled in this land), and four hundred years later, some white chap hearing the name that the natives called their land, wrote Asaba in his map, and not Ahaba.

That man was Carlo Zappa, an Italian priest who was appointed Prefect of the Upper Niger by the Catholic Church.

Zappa spent a lot of time converting the natives in both Asaba and Onitsha, and all the way to Ojoto, East of the Niger, and Agbor, West of the Niger.

A look through Catholic records during the Ekumeku resistance will show that at the turn of the century, most of the Catholic priests in what is now the Diocese of Issele Uku in Delta State, came from the Onitsha area, as they were all under the same ecclesiastical province.

A look at the roll call of the dead from the Aba Women’s affair of 1929, shows that the wife of the Sanitary headman in Opobo was from Asaba, which kind of tells you the direction in which people went before the split of Southern Nigeria into East and West in 1954.

Up until that point in 1954, many from the Igbo speaking areas just west of the Niger River, found it easier to cross the river to do their business.

And why not?

The distance between Asaba and Owerri is just 102km.

Asaba to Enugu is 125km, while Asaba to Umuahia is 142km.

All of these places are closer to Asaba than Warri, which in modern Nigerian geopolitics is in the same state as Asaba.

Warri is 176km from Asaba.

The Asaba man, when he arrives in either of Enugu, Owerri or Umuahia, speaks the same language as the people in those places, barring the normal dialectal differences that occur in languages that are spread over large geographical areas.

This same Asaba man, would arrive in Warri, and would be at a complete loss as to what the native in Warri is saying…

Referring back to Dennis Osadebe, any young Anioma person who wants to learn his history should find Osadebe’s book, Building A Nation, and read it.

Osadebe understood where he was coming from, and was unequivocal about it.

Thus it was that he joined first the Asaba Union, then by sheer force of will helped to coalese it into the Western Ibo Union, and then by 1939, he was the General Secretary of the Ibo Union.

He joined OBN Eluwa on his trip around both Eastern and Western Igboland between 1947 and 1953, a trip which created the Igbo identity that we know today (until 1966) at least.

Osadebe was at the forefront of agitation to remove the Asaba Division from the Benin Province to which it had been joined in 1931 and either rejoin it to the Onitsha Province where it had been prior, or create a province of its own.

Of course that agitation fell flat in 1954 once the Southern Region was split into East and West, but being a pragmatic fellow, Osadebe teamed up with his Benin and Delta Division neighbours to campaign for the creation of the Midwest Region.

This campaign succeeded in 1963 with Osadebe becoming premier of the region.

Even at that, Osadebe maintained his close relations with his kin from across the river.

When war broke out four years later, more than any other, Osadebe’s people, from Asaba, bore the biggest blow.

This was where things began to take a negative turn for the Midwestern Igbo identity.

In 1964, a brilliant and ambitious 30-year old from Asaba joined the public service. Phillip Asiodu, an Oxford graduate who spoke Yoruba as a first languge, rose very fast.

By mid-1966 as #Nigeria was melting down around everyone, Asiodu was already a Permanent Secretary in the federal civil service.

Unfortunately, he faced the same mistrust that every Midwest Igbo faced in Nigeria of the time: where did his loyalties lie?

He chose #Nigeria, and as tends to be the case with people who have to prove themselves, showed his loyalty to Nigeria only too well.

The war had a personal effect on Asiodu as his brother Sidney, a well known prize winning athlete, was killed during the Asaba Massacre in 1967.

But Asiodu kept his head down, and remained firmly Nigerian, and non-Igbo.

That was the birth of the split in identity.

A people defeated in war have a tendency to bow their heads.

Those who can, reject being members of that defeated group.

So it is no surprise that those Igbos who could (borderlands) decided that they no longer wanted to be Igbo.

Midwest Igbos created a new identity to the extent that the town of Igbo Akiri changed its name to Igbanke.

Its most prominent son, Samuel Chiedu Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, who along with Alexander Madiebo narrowly escaped death in the July 1966 coup, dropped “Chiedu” from his name.

To be honest, I cannot hold people responsible for such behaviours. The city of Gdansk in Poland was once called Danzig, and it was in Germany.

Going back to Dennis Osadebe, after the war, some prominent Igbos including Osadebe banded together to try and resurrect the Igbo Progressive Union which had been proscribed by Aguiyi-Ironsi in 1966.

So they formed the Igbo National Assembly whose stated goal was to unify Igbos under a common umbrella body.

In no time, the INA was banned by @NigeriaGov, but by 1976, shortly after the murder of Murtala Mohammed, they tried again.

This time, went the route of a socio-cultural organisation.

Thus Ohaneze Ndị Igbo was born, and one of the original signatories to the Ohaneze charter was Dennis Osadebe. Along with Ben Nwabueze, and a few others whose names I don’t recall.

Osadebe knew that the place of the Midwestern Igbo in #Nigeria‘s geopolitics would always be with his kin from across the Niger, and he always acted accordingly.

Osadebe was the one who coined the term Anioma, as the entry region of the Midwestern Igbos into Ohaneze.

Some of these things are simple to check out, for example, the expression “Anioma” does not appear in any document predating 1975.

The funny thing is that by 1992, even Asiodu who was perhaps most directly responsible for the identity crisis facing his people, had come around.

In 1992, along with some notable people from Anioma, Asiodu wrote a letter to IBB asking him to take Anioma out of Delta state, excise Onitsha and Atani from Anambra state, and create an Anioma state which would have been a part of what is now the South-East geopolitical zone.

The signatories to that letter, dated 15/6/92 were as follows: Nnamdi Azikiwe, Owelle Onicha; Dennis Osadebe, Ojiba Ahaba; Phllip Asiodu, Izoma Ahaba; Anthony Modebe, Ogene Onicha; Ben Nwabueze (from Atani in Anambra); Chukwuma Ijomah (from Aboh in Delta); and Ukpabi Asika.

BIC Ijomah died just over a month ago, so of all the sages who signed that letter, only Phillip Asiodu is still with us, and for whatever reason, IBB did not act on the letter.

What is the lesson from Chief Asiodu’s apparent turnaround?

Once your name is Emeka, Nigeria will eventually happen to you.

This is what people like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala understand.

This is what people like Austin Okocha understand.

This is what great men like Osadebe, Ijomah, Achuzia, and finally Asiodu, understood.

The truth is that based on our history, the Anioma man never saw the Niger River as a barrier. As a matter of fact, just read Chinua Achebe’s Chike And The River, and you’ll get a sense of how people used to cris-cross the river at that salient point before the bridge was built.

The remnants are still there today. Cable Point projects into the river, it is clearly an old market, and Onitsha Marine also projects into the river.

That is the original location of the famous Onitsha Market.

Has any one from Onitsha ever stopped to ask himself why the Basilica of Holy Trinity was built basically a few metres away from the river at Onitsha Marine?

Cross the river to Asaba and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is in an almost identical position.

Both churches were built about the same time, commissioned by the same man, Carlo Zappa.

How else do you explain that the dialect of Igbo spoken in Asaba, and that spoken in Onitsha, are the same language?

In the end, the Anioma man, because Biafra lost a war 50 years ago, may deny his identity all he wants, but it will not change the fact – in the Byzantine politics of Nigeria, the day will come when you will be told who you are.

It’s the one thing Nigeria never fails at. Once your name is Emeka, or Chike, or Nnamdi, or Uju, or Chukwu

1,578 views