Geographically, nothing seems to connect the Igalas in Kogi State with the Ibos of Asaba in Delta State and the Ibos of Nteje in Anambra State, except perhaps networks of inter-state and inter-city roads. But historically and biologically, something connects them. What we know today as Asaba has its historical roots in both Kogi and Anambra State.
A woman named Diaba from Agbakuba village in Nteje, Anambra State, was said to have been impregnated by Onojobo, a prince and trader from Igala land, while she was residing in Eze Anyanwu’s court as one of the court girls.
Anyanwu was said to have hailed from the royal line of Ezechima, the legendary ancestor of numerous settlements east of the Niger, including Onitsha. This explains why Benin, Asaba and Onitsha seem to share a common culture and tradition as in the area of festival regalia like traditional coral beads and hand-woven big flowing white gowns and traditional titles such as the Onowu Iyasele of Onitsha and the Iyase Onowu of Asaba.
The Igala connection
Going back to the Diaba story, after she was impregnated by Onojobo, she was delivered of a male child called Nnebisi, a name which some Asaba sources interpret as “mother is supreme”, same as “Nneka”, in some parts of Iboland, but which Chief Patrick Isioma Goodluck Onyeobi, the Iyase of Asaba, disagrees with and rather claims to be a shortened form of ka anyi nebe isi nke a (let’s watch and see what this one becomes in future). Sunday Sun believes that Onyeobi’s interpretation is nearer to the truth as the names “Nnebisi” or “Nneka” are usually names reserved for female children in Ibo land.
“We’ve always had contact with Northern elements here because the founder of Asaba descended from an Igala prince”, notes Onyeobi. “We’ve always had contact with traders coming from the North as well as the Aboh traders coming from the South. They used to meet at the river bank here we call Igala bank. Nupe and Igala traders used to row down to bring fishes and other things. Our people were mainly farmers and slave traders. And these people used to come in long-range canoes to Asaba where they exchanged goods. So, it isn’t quite true when European historians tell us that our people were in perpetual conflicts. Though there were occasional conflicts, they intermarried.
“ Otherwise how could an Igala prince come to Asaba and marry a woman from Nteje. So, Asaba has always been a sort of meeting point and it will be instructive to know that it was near Asaba that the Lander brothers were captured in 1830 and later exchanged and given back to their brothers who used to come from the coast. So, it was a small community and peaceful then. We were never conquered by any group either from the East or West.”
With the exception of one of the major and longest roads that run through Asaba town, Nnebisi, named after the accredited progenitor, no other son or daughter of Asaba bears the name “Nnebisi” in Asaba today or had ever borne that name, at least in living memory, ever since the origin of Asaba as a people and later as a town. This only goes to show the extent to which Asaba people rever that name. They see him as something of a deity.
But lest we forget, we are still on with the story of the origin of Asaba. Shortly, after the birth of Nnebisi, his mother took him with her, while she was going back to Agbakuba village in Nteje. There she died, leaving Nnebisi in the care of her family relations.
The great discovery
But as young Nnebisi was growing up, he reportedly started noticing that he was being treated differently from everybody else around him. He also noticed that there were certain things he was not allowed to do, certain customs he was not allowed to partake in and certain traditions he was not allowed to observe. When he inquired why; he was told that it was because, by virtue of birth, Nteje was not his true hometown. He asked to be told his own hometown but nobody could tell him except to say that his mother got impregnated while living with one great king, Eze Anyanwu, staying in the land of one big river.
Out of annoyance and frustration, he decided to embark on a journey to find out his true home. A native medicine man whom he consulted told him that his fatherland is beyond one particular big river (later to be named by Mungo Park as River Niger) and that he would need canoe to cross the big river, before he could set foot on his father land.
Story has it that thereafter Nnebisi embarked on the legendary search for his lost hometown on a narrow long boat and a magical medicine pot – a charm given to him by the village medicine man at Nteje. This medicine was supposed to guard him and guarantee his safe arrival to his purported homeland. Nnebisi was supposed to carry this pot on his head and this magical pot was supposed to fall off at the site of his ancestral homeland.
Long march to freedom
Oral history said the pot fell and crashed at the present day Cable Point, off the shores of the River Niger by the great Onishe rocks – a shrine of the mythical goddess – Onishe of Asaba.
“The Nupes and the Igalas, right from the 19th Century have always resided at Cable Point and they are still there”, Onyeobi informs. “Some of them were born there. Their fathers were born there. So, Asaba has always been a peaceful community until the civil war came.”
“The British chose to establish their means of communication to their bigger war armadas and ships in the sea by establishing in Asaba here what they call the Cable Point”, Chief Joe Achuzia, the Biafran war hero and former secretary-general of Ohaneze Ndigbo informs. “In those days, the system was so cumbersome that cable had to be laid all the way from Asaba here down through Burutu, cross the Escravos to the Atlantic. Hence the quarter in Asaba here known as Cable Point.
“Having set up a cable point, they moved upward about a mile into the hinterland where today you have the hotel – the Grand Hotel. There they established the seat of government because that was the deepest part of the Niger where their boat could anchor. And by so doing set up a post office for the purposes of communication, set up the resident quarters which were later converted into a catering rest house, set up a court for the purposes of administering justice and that court remains till today, the Court Four beside Grand Hotel.
“And, behind it, where we now have a library, used to be post office. They also moved about another half a mile inwards along the bank of the Niger to where today you have the stadium and behind it used to be known as Ogige where they have the prison yard and the administrative quarters. We call it Ogige because they fenced the place up.”
Back to the story of he and his journey to his home town, when the pot fell from his head at that spot in the thick forest, shortly after his arrival by the narrow canoe, on the other side of the riverbank, Nnebisi was said to have exclaimed “Ahabam”, an Ibo phrase said to mean “I have appropriately chosen.” It was from that exclamatory that Ahaba, the origin name of Asaba came.
From Ahaba and Asaba
But the name was inadvertently changed to Asaba during the British colonial occupation of Nigeria when the first colonial explorers to arrive and live in Ahaba could not hear the name properly, which appears to them to be heavily accented, much less pronouncing it correctly. At the end it all, they entered the name “Asaba” in their record books, rather than “Ahaba.” And that was how Ahaba came to be called Asaba. And, from then till today, it has always answered to the name “Asaba.”
In Ahaba, Nnebisi, who was happy that he had finally found his home town started intermingling with the household of earlier settlers like Eze Anyanwu, Ugboma, Odikpe and Obodo Achala. It is to be noted, however, that before then the area that later became known as Ahaba was known as “the town beyond the big river” with no particular name attached to it.
It was the arrival, from Nteje, of Nnebisi, his magical pronouncement of “Ahabam” and his marriage to two wives from the households of the earlier settlers that gave rise to the name “Ahaba” and later Asaba. From his first wife, named Ujom, he had three children, Onne (male) Ezeumune (male) and Ojife (female). From his second wife, whose name, nobody seems to remember, he had a son called Iyagba. Iyagba’s offspring are believed to be part of the lost seed and their lineage remains untraceable even till today.
But from the others, Nnebisi had five grandsons namely Ezei, Ugbomanta, Agu, Ajaji and Onaje, in that order. These five united to form the original 9 (nine) quarters of Ahaba or Asaba called “Ahaba ebo ite’nani” But later, by accident of history, the five grandsons of Nnebisi were to absorb most of the earlier settlers leading to the present make up of five quarters in Asaba, namely, Umuezei, Ugbomanta, Umuagu, Umuaji, Umuonaje.
These five Quarters or Ebos constitute the five Ruling Houses of Asaba. The Asagba of Asaba throne rotates amongst these five Quarters or Ebos. The order of rotation is in accordance with the seniority of these five sons, starting with Umuezei and ending with Umuonaje. The current Asagba of Asaba, the 13th Asagba, Obi (Prof.) Chike Edozien, a retired hospital administrator and Ist African Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, University College, Ibadan (later University of Ibadan), is from Umuezei quarters. His father is said to be a direct descendant of Nnebisi (the founder of Asaba). His mother was the daughter of a prominent Asaba chief, and a notable trader.
According to an insight provided to Sunday Sun, by Chief John O. Iloba, a retired civil servant and the Olikeze of Asaba, “the Asagbaship is held for life and once selected and enthroned the Asagba through a defined process is deemed to be the oldest citizen of the town and father of all.
‘The Asagba is both the spiritual and political leader of his people and rules through the Asagba-in-Council, which has supreme legislative, judicial and executive authority in all matters affecting the traditional society.”
Sources say that membership of the Asagba-in-Council is through the age-grade system and is open to all male indigenes of Asaba who qualify under the age-grade system. The Asagba of Asaba is greeted “Agu” meaning the “Lion” or “Obi” meaning King.
Marriage, customs and traditions
Since Asaba has ancestral relationship with the Igalas through their son, Onojobo, and Nteje, Anambra State, through their daughter, Diaba, Sunday Sun wanted to know whether they intermarry and whether they share some customs and tradition.
“We used to”, Onyeobi says. “In fact, it used to be the custom that if the Asagba joins his ancestors, the Nteje people used to come. But time has reduced this contact. But we still meet from time to time. We used to meet with Ilah people too because our ancestral mother is from Ilah.
“Igala people and we have a very common custom, that is the Egugun – the masquerade. It is not something we like to discuss. It is a taboo but we are supposed to have got it from them. But of recent, people have not been traveling to our ancestral homes. So, we wouldn’t know whether there are customs we share in common. But we receive Igala people warmly any time they come to join us. And we receive Ilah people because even in dialect, you cannot differentiate so much between an Asaba and Ilah person. We are conscious of that. And, even in code of conduct and behaviour, we are peace-loving people.
“As for marriage, I believe that if, for instance, my son, says he wants to marry an Ilah, Igala or Nteje woman, I will be pleased because of the common history we share. Some of us have married Igala people. There was a ceremony that I was watching on TV and I saw that some ladies there were Asaba people. And, th ey confirmed that they were from Asaba. That’s why I told you that the story that European writers used to feed us with, that we were in a perpetual state of war, is not true.”
Talking about marriage, it is generally believed among Ibos from other parts of Ibo land that marriage to Asaba women or ladies do not last, that no sooner than you married them, the marriage breaks up and they go back to their fathers’ houses.
Sunday Sun took this up with Rose Gwam Odogwu, former private secretary to Chief Dennis Osadebay, former premier of Mid-Western Region. Gwam-Odogwu who was former Chairman/Administrator of Internal Revenue Boards for former Bendel State but voluntarily retired from public service in 1995, initially refused to speak on the allegation, choosing rather to refer you to the National President of Asaba Ladies League, a body conceived in 1979 to bring together, under an organization, daughters and wives of Asaba for the unity, peace and progress of the town.
But pressed further to comment on the widely held view in some parts of Ibo land, she said: “It’s a very, very wrong impression because marriage is a question of good luck, God’s guidance. Marriage is something ordained by God and, if you are lucky that what you need is what the man needs you will live forever happily and bring up your children. So, it is not true at all. What is happening in Asaba is happening all over the world. Why should we not maintain marriage relationship? So, we love marriages like any other individual in every part of the world.”
She attributes the general break-ups in marriages to failed relationships. “Marriage for my generation was a family affair where family A after all the enquires take on family B equally after enquiries and observing all the traditional steps and ending finally in the Ayu-Ugba.
“This last step is the final handing over ceremony which simply moves the young bride from her father’s house to her new home which is the husband’s house. She would be accompanied by her unmarried colleagues in a beautiful procession of songs. Her personal effects and newly acquired domestic utensils (pots, pans, plates, spoons, and mortar) follow her.
“Now the growing trend is for the boy to meet the girl as against the family doing the meeting. The more marriages become individual affairs as against family affairs, the lesser the chances of rift reconciliation and therefore the greater the chances of failure. But this could be a mere generalization because good fortune cannot be ruled out.”
Talking about Asaba ladies, she couldn’t remember whether there are distinguishing features that used to mark out them out except on festive occasions like burial and traditional wedding ceremonies when they would turn out in their hand-woven akwa ocha (white cloth), coffeiured hair and bedecked in traditional coral beads called Ehulu and Uya made from the tail of a horse.
“But she remembers that the traditional bride-price or “dowry” for an Asaba woman or lady is 25 pounds with five pounds going to the mother of the lady. But nowadays she says, “tradition has gone arbitrary with no clear cut idea of what the twenty-five pounds dowry should be in terms of naira. I once overheard a discussion indicating a dowry refund to be no more than fifty naira.”
“In the olden days, it was easy to spot out an Asaba woman”, Onyeobi adds. “But it isn’t so now. So, if you have a group of women, it is not easy because the town has become cosmopolitan. When they are doing burial, you can easily see that, they wear the traditional white cloth but nowadays they wear jeans and other things.”
“I think the present day girls are adapting to where society has placed them”, Gwam-Odogwu tries to explain. “Otherwise they had gone the way we did, tying our wrapper, wearing our skirts and so on.”
Symbol of Asaba Woman
“It is very rare in Asaba to make a woman a chief”, Onyeobi notes but adding “but. we are reviewing all that. Today, Omu is generally as a traditional chief among women. We have recognized the Omu as the traditional chief. So, she is one of the traditional chiefs of Asaba.
For those who don’t know, Omu is the leader of market women and presides over certain ceremonies in the market. In the olden days, every market day, she comes there to do certain ceremonies to appease the gods so there would be good market for women. And she is entitled to be given certain things from store to store, shop to shop. But she dresses like a chief in a way that makes her appear like a male,
Buchy Enyinnaya, the Sun correspondent in Asaba, says. She wears jumper, loose shorts, hat or something like that. Iyase contends that it is just to give her some sort of dignity and mystique because “some of these titles if you don’t put in some mystique in them, they become common. Normally, she is supposed to be the leader of market women and also appeaser of ancestral gods to make sure that no harm comes. But you cannot be an Omu if your husband is still alive. She is somebody who can perform sacrifices to appease the gods because we’ve always had in the olden days people we call the Odihes – their business was to go to Onishe which is our mother goddess here on the bank of the River Niger. It is a highly revered goddess. When Nnebisi was coming and was given a calabash, the place where we have Onishe shrine today was the spot where the calabash broke. That is the traditional originating home of Asaba.”
Asaba Transitions and Transmutations
Asaba used to be warlike in days gone by so much that they were said to have defeated in battle the armies of Aboh. Warriors in those days were called Odogwu. But somewhere down the line that gave way to agrarian/substience farming in which the strength of a man was judged not so much by the number of people he killed in a war or the number of heads he brought from it, but by the number of yams he had in his barn and the number of mouths he could feed with them.
Even so, this agrarian farming was to give way, first to goods trading in the hinterland and on the River Niger and later to education with the coming of the white man to Asaba. Many of Asaba men and women who became educated were employed in government service to serve as clerks, interpreters, teachers, administrators.. In fact, sources say the rumour about marriage to Asaba women not lasting long may have originated from the tendency by Asaba women of those colonial days not to take nonsense from any man, in marriage,
On the effect of education on the general lifestyle and fortunes of the people, Achuzia opines that “Asaba people lost the art of farming, the art of fishing and even commerce because everybody was involved in education for the purpose of civil service. In fact, I will say that Asaba were the forerunners in civil service.
“ It wasn’t very easy to find an Asaba man on the forefront of politics because of his mediating position as a civil servant. This notwithstanding, Asaba produced people like Chief Dennis Osadebay, Chief J.I.G. Onyia, Nduka Eze and so many others .”
Separating the Men From Boys
Talking about Asaba men, Asaba people have a ceremony that is used to mark out men from boys. It is called Igba-Nkpisi. A festival of establishing and identifying true Asaba sons, it is held once in 20-25 years. “At first sight one would think it was a traditional census taking of every one in the family”, Gwam-Odogwu recalls in her book, Reflections on My Generation, a book, which seeks, among other things to make a case for the return of Asaba sons and daughters to their culture and traditions. “But it is not, though it has an element of it in a sense that it tries to establish and identify within every family its true sons capable of being titled as these titled sons would in the future constitute the traditional ruling class.
“This, very serious business must be witnessed by all, especially daughters of the family, married and unmarried. In fact, the symbol of recognition of a true son which is the “feather installation” is the function of the eldest daughter of the family who is called the Ada-Isi. The ceremony has to be loud, colourful and memorable. The traditional dress code of Otogbo, Akwa Ocha, Aka and Ehulu is strictly observed. Traditional m seals and drinks are served in abundance and drumming processions and visitations mark this great occasion.”
The Asaba tragedy
But a sad event, a tragedy took place, some years ago, in the history of Asaba people when, during the Nigerian Civil War when the Federal troops entered Asaba and massacred some say hundreds and some say thousands of Asaba men in what was obviously a reprisal over what they perceive as their support for their Igbo kit-and kin across the River Niger, during the civil war, a support which led to the over-running, by the Biafran troops of the entire Midwest all the way down to Ore.
The incident which is well-documented in Peter Okocha’s seminal work, Blood on the Niger, shows that the sordid affair took place when Asaba people trooped out en masse, singing and dancing, to welcome the Federal troops who had beaten back the Biafrain troops and retaken the territories originally overran and occupied by them. But rather than welcome the jubilant natives with open arms and open hearts, they gathered together at a place called Ogbuawu Square in Asaba and mowed them down with machine gun fire, A few escaped because dead bodies fell on them and they pretended to be dead. And when the soldiers left, they managed to come out.
“It was a terrible experience because many generations were wiped out and some homes have never recovered till today”, Onyeobi laments. “I was in Asaba that time and if you managed to come out, there was real silence. You couldn’t see a chicken. You couldn’t see a goat. There was smell of death all over the place. As Charles Dickens would say, it was the worst of times. It was not the best of time.”
Infrastructure-wise, Asaba is a town, a state capital, modernizing slowly. With the exception of the eight major roads that criss-cross the town – Osadabe, Nnebisi, Okpanam, Ogbe-Ogonogo, Cable, Ibuzo, Interbau and Ezenei, other roads in the town are more or less glorified un-tarred main roads such as you see in hinterlands. And, with the exception of modern architectural buildings on some parts of the town like Okpanam Road, an oak-lined road, many parts of the town look like villages what with village-like settlements. In Asaba, the old live side by side with the new.
All the same, some indigenes contend that Asaba, as it exists today, as a state capital, is far from what it used to be, years gone by. “To be quite frank, somebody from the beyond that had lived in Asaba, say twenty years ago, coming here today, will be surprised and will not know that it is the same town”, says Achuzia. “The scene around Asaba has changed, we are hoping that it is for good. But to the discerning eyes the change in Asaba has been something that has been going on, it has been evolving over the years.”
Igbo is the native language of Asaba but curiously while 95 per cent of the residents speak Igbo, some would swear with their lives that they are not Igbo. Achuzia attributes this development to the unfortunate incident that happened during the Nigerian Civil War in which many Asaba indigenes, mainly males, were massacred for allegedly supporting their kith-and-kin on the other side of the River Niger during the civil war. Many of the indigenes who returned from the war to take appointment with the Federal Government, did that upon the public renunciation of their Igbonness, Achuzia noted somewhat sadly. And, since then the trend has continued from generation to generation.
Leisure and night life in Asaba
But what Asaba lost in infrastructural development and perhaps identity, it gained in a swinging night life. Like most cities where night life is on the upswing, Asaba bubbles. Not even the subsisting 5a.m. to 7 p.m. operational hours for commercial motorcyclists can diminish the city’s night life.
At Asaba, you find ladies, mostly young girls of school age, hustling to sell their bodies to willing pleasure-buyers. From Cable Point road, to Ibuzo Junction, down to Ezenei Street, directly opposite Grand Hotel (owned by Chief Sonny Odogwu, it is unarguably the most prestigious hotel in Asaba), these young girls can be spotted waiting anxiously for patrons.
Other good hotels where a visitor can check in and have a time include Zenith International Hotels, on Okpanam Road. Nel Rose Hotel, Orchid, Chronicles (Nnebisi Road), Chadef, De-os Hotel, Lone Palm Hotel, Little Angels, Saints, Sovitel, De Phil, Excel Suites, Monalisa Hotel, Ultimate Hotel, Desires and Leisure Hotels and Emadora Hotels. Their services are complemented by the one provided by such eateries as Al-Mingo Restaurant, Mt. Biggs, Mocwis, Sizzlers and Dreams
But during the day, Asaba wears the look of a struggling city. Movement around the town is easy depending on your choice of transportation – the ubiquitous commercial motorcyclists or taxis, including the brand new executive cars painted in green, red, yellow and black colours.