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Igbo / Ibo

Nigeria Map - Language The Igbo are found primarily in the southeast and speak a Kwa language of the Niger-Congo family. This language ties them, historically, to regions east and south of their contemporary locations. In 1990 it was hard to find any major town in Nigeria without an Igbo minority, often in an ethnic enclave.

As communities they have traditionally been segmented into more than 200 named groupings, each originally a locally autonomous polity. These groupings vary from a single village to as many as two or three dozen nucleated settlements that over time have expanded outward from an original core town. Most of these central villages ranged from 1,000 to 3,000 persons in the nineteenth century. In 1990 they were as much as five to ten times larger, making severe land shortages and overused farmland a widespread problem.

Precolonial trade up the Niger River from the coast stimulated the early development of a few larger towns, such as Onitsha, that in 1990 contained a population of several hundred thousand. Igbo culture, however, unlike the emirates and the Yoruba city-states, does not count urban living among the traditional ways of life.

For the Igbo as an ethnic group, personal advancement and participation in local affairs are matters of individual initiative and skill. Villages are run by a council of the most respected elders of the locality. Colonial administration created local headmen, or "warrant chiefs," who were never fully accepted and were finally replaced by locally elected councils.

This development does not mean that Igbo culture is exclusively dedicated to egalitarianism. Rank and wealth differences have been part of the society from early times and have been highly prized. Success, eldership, wealth, a good modern education, political power, and influence have all been recognized as ways by which people, especially adult males, could distinguish themselves. As with all Nigerian societies, Igbo life is complex, and the organization of local and regional society is stratified into more and less affluent and successful groups, families, individuals, and even neighborhoods.

Graduates of secondary schools form "old boy associations," some of which have as members wealthy men linked to one another as local boosters and mutual supporters. Comparatively speaking, Igbo are most unlike other Nigerians in their strong positive evaluation of open competition for success. Children are encouraged to succeed; if they do so skillfully, rewards of high status await them. It is no accident that the first American-style landgrant university, linked for guidance during its founding to Michigan State University, was at Nsukka in Igboland, whereas the first universities in Yorubaland and in the north looked to Britain and its elitist traditions of higher education for their models of university life.

The impressive openness of Igbo culture is what first strikes the outsider, but closer inspection produces several caveats. Besides differences of wealth and rank achieved in one's lifetime or inherited, there is a much older tendency for people who trace their descent from the original settler-founders of a village to have higher status as "owners of the land." Generally, they provide the men who act as priests of the local shrines, and often they provide more local leaders than descendants of later arrivals. At the other end of the scale are known descendants of people, especially women, who were originally slaves. They are akin to Indian "untouchables," low in status and avoided as marriage partners.

As with all Nigerian ethnic groups, there are internal divisions. Generally, these have to do with town area of origin. More northerly areas have had a feeling of separateness, as do larger towns along the Niger River. Beyond Igboland, people from the region are treated as a single unit, live in separate enclaves, and even face restrictions against ownership of local property in some northern towns. Once they had suffered and fought together in the civil war of Biafran secession in the 1960s, these people developed a much stronger sense of Igbo identity that has since been expressed politically. Nevertheless, localized distinctions remain and in 1990 were significant internally.

The peoples of the Atlantic Coast and the Niger River delta are linguistically and culturally related to the Igbo. But the ecological demands of coastal life and the separate history of contact with coastal trade and its effects have produced ethnic differences that are strong enough to have made these people resist the Biafra secession movement when it was promulgated by Igbo leadership. Ijaw, Ibibio, Anang, and Efik live partly from agriculture and partly from fishing and shrimping in the coastal waters.

Religion, social organization, village life, local leadership, and gender relations have been deeply affected by this ecology-based differentiation. Although there has been a natural and historical pull of migration to Lagos, especially by young Ijaw men who went to the city to find work and send home remittances, the area boasts its own coastal town of Port Harcourt in Efik country that is, in a sense, the headquarters of this subgrouping.

To a lesser extent, the peoples of the western bank of the Niger River — and the western delta—especially the Bini speakers and Urhobo — are culturally close to those around them but have a sufficient sense of linguistic and historical separateness to see themselves as unique. These differences have been partly buttressed by the past glory of the kingdom of Benin, of which a much diminished remnant survived in 1990. Benin had been used to provide the south first with an extra region, then with extra states when the regional level of government was abandoned in 1967.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2016 19:40:18 ZULU