Igbo King (Eze)

Eze (pronounced [ézè]) is an Igbo word which means King. King-Eze/Igwe/Obi is a title given to traditional rulers to pay respect and homage to the Eze in Igboland. His Royal Highness or Igwe can be used to address such persons.

Igwe is derived from the Igbo word Igwekala or Eluigwekala, “the sky or heaven above the sky is higher or bigger than land”, implying that the Eze is a higher servant of the people. Obi is normally the centre building for receiving visitors in an Igbo leader’s or man’s homestead; and when used as a title of respect for the Eze, Obi implies: “the one who sits in the throne house or heart of the Kingdom.”


These traditional rulers are highly respected. They are the eyes of the government in their domains. They are the bridge between the government and their towns or villages. Kings have been in existence in Igbo lands but not fully recognised by the government until after the 70’s.

In Igbo tradition and culture, the Eze is normally an absolute Monarch advised by a council of chiefs or elders whom he appoints based on their good standing within the community. A popular saying in Igbo is “Igbo enwe eze”, which translates to “the Igbo have no king.” This popular saying does not, however, capture the complexity of Igbo societies as portrayed in many centuries of anthropological, sociological and political research.

The Igbo people had and still have ruling bodies of royal and political leaders where an individual can be recognized by the entire society as primus inter pares, i.e., first among equals. This status is usually hereditary and among the male lineage since Igbo culture is patrilineal. Women in Igbo cultures were known to develop parallel social hierarchies through which they both competed and collaborated with their counterpart male kingship and governing hierarchies.

Nowadays, each community consisting of a number of villages, wards and/or clans, can nominate their traditional ruler, also called Igwe or Eze. The Igwe has this role for life and can give titles to his community people, mostly out of recognition for their achievement and character. The title system varies from community to community, but except from different names, the hierarchy itself is in most cases the same. In most communities, the title system starts with the Nze title, given to persons in recognition of their community contribution. When the Nze titleholder reaches the elder age and remains in the village, he becomes part of the Igwe’s cabinet. Upon becoming a senior elder, the Igwe may honour him with the Özö or Ichie title, standing directly below the Igwe.


These titles and many other chieftaincy titles, each signifying certain achievements come along with privileges and symbols of authority. One could be allowed to wear a red or black cap, to hold a walking stick, an elephant tusk, a horsetail or a fan of ram or cow skin, all dependent on the local customs and the rank of title. Chieftaincy titleholders are privileged to do the “chief handshake”. This handshake starts with touching each other’s hand with the upper-side three times before shaking. If one of the persons does not recognise the other as a chief, even though he might pretend to be one, the touching stops after two times before the shaking. War heroes are a separate category of titleholders, they can wear parrot’s plumes in their hats and are the only ones allowed to dance the war dance.


Among his cabinet members, the Igwe appoints his Prime Minister and secretary and together with his full cabinet, the Igwe-in-council serves the community in matters of peace, development and values. For instance, he is called upon in cases of resolving internal conflicts. If so, each party needs to bring four kola nuts, a gallon of palm wine and 1,000 Naira to the ruler. The case is put forward, and the ruler will make the final judgement. The money, palm wine and kola nuts are returned to the winner, the latter two being given in most cases to the Igwe as a token of gratitude. The loosing party is expected to pay on top of their deposit the penalty or fine as stipulated by the Igwe. If the parties do not agree with the settlement, the case can be brought to court and fought out in a more formal way.


The Igwe-in council also works together with government, but they do only have an advisory role in this context. Villages and communities have many other groups and opinions represented, to mention the most important ones:

  • Town Union, responsible for development and organising social events of the community. The members of the Town Union are elected by members of the community;
  • Councillors, representing the community in political matters in the local government council;
  • Youth Organisations, responsible for youth activities;
  • Vigilante groups, maintaining security, law and order in the village and community;
  • Women Organisations, representing the women and
  • Church Organisations, mostly representing Roman Catholic and Protestant believes.

In some communities, the groups listed above may not have any representation. Then, there are many other persons who can play an important role in the community, for instance the school’s headmasters, principals etc.

Kingship in Igboland

Scholars generally believe that Igbo kingship institutions originated from three sources. The first source is indigenous and ancient priesthood, which traditionally combined clerical and political duties in the village-based republics. This is the case in several places, notably in Ngwa – where Josaiah Ndubuisi Wachuku was Eze and paramount chief during British colonial times. Ezes also existed in Arochukwu, Awka, Nri-Igbo, Owere and Northern Nsukka. Enugu-Ezike, Ovoko, and Iheakpu-Awka are home to the Igbo-Eze communities. The King is variously referred to as Eze or Ezedike, depending on lineage.

The second source is the colonial imposition on Igbo communities by the neighboring Benin Empire. There is, however, an opposite view wherein the Eze of Nri imposed or influenced the constitution of the Benin Oba’s status. The differing points of view are particularly focused on the communities of Asaba, Onitsha, andOguta. According to some scholars who argue against what is known as the Afigbo and Omenka Thesis on Origin, Igbo kings of these places trace the historical roots of their investiture immediately to the Oba of Benin. They tend to be called Obi.

The third source of origin of Igbo kingship is believed to be 19th and 20th century colonial impositions by the British Empire. Under an indirect rule policy, Warrant chiefs (recognised noblemen who served as tax collectors) were created by the colonial administration. Though native to the communities, the Warrant Chiefs were usually selected from among those most cooperative with the foreign rulers. For this and a number of other reasons, the Igbo populations usually resented and often overtly resisted the authority of the warrant chiefs. An example of such resistance is the Igbo Women’s War of 1929. After Nigeria gained its constitutional independence from Britain, many of the Warrant Chiefs tried to maintain their power by seeking to transform their identities. Those with residual political influence and new-found wealth bought honorary Eze-sounding titles, and clamored to be retained as ‘traditional rulers’ by the government of independent Nigeria

The Nri and the Onitsha kingship systems are the system that existed in the Igboland before the coming of the Europeans.

The Nri kingship Systems                                                                                                                                          The Nri people who traced their history to the biblical times, through Zilpah, maid-servant of Jacob’s wife, Leah, who begat Gad and who in turn begat Eri, the founder of Nri clan, claimed to have established their kingdom in 948 Common Era (c.e.), and thus became “the oldest kingdom in Nigeria”. The first Eze Nri, (Nri king), Ìfikuánim, a priestly king, who wielded no military power over his subjects, was famous for upholding a humanistic system that was uncommon at the time (Ikime, 1980). The Nri Kingdom provided a safe haven for all those who had been rejected in their communities and thus became a place where “slaves were set free from their bondage”. It was for this reason that the Nri devised the Ozo title, which other communities in Igboland later embraced, to shield initiates from being taken to slavery, which was very rampart at the time.


Everything was to however change upon the arrival of the British colonialists, who saw in the advanced welfarist system of the Nri Kingdom and the widespread loyalty it enjoyed, a serious impediment to their parasitic and inhumane pursuits. After failing to capture the kingdom and the king, the colonial forces threatened to slaughter all the people of the kingdom, unless the king appeared before a colonial court in another town. It was then a taboo for the Nri King to travel outside Nri town, his seat of power, but in order to save the lives of his people, Eze Nri, Obalike, who was the king at the time, agreed to travel to Awka to appear before the court. Not content with this humiliation which Eze Nri and his people were subjected to, the British colonialists in order to completely dismantle the Nri kingdom, forced Eze Nri to annul all codes of taboo and abomination still binding other towns to Nri. To finally nail the kingdom, the colonialists introduced the so-called Warrant Chief system whereby many artificial kingdoms were created in various parts of Igboland, which thus rendered the Nri Kingdom almost insignificant.

The Onitsha kingship Systems                                                                                                                                   Next, is the Onitsha kingship system, which stemmed from an earlier contact Onitsha people had with the Bini Kingdom following their migration to some interior parts of western Nigeria. As attested by (Umeh, 1999), Onitsha people were original Igbo who migrated from the Igbo hinterland, crossed to the western bank of the River Niger, and moved into the deeper interior of the west. However, following “a quarrel with the Binis and their leaders”, Onitsha people migrated back from Benin where they had previously led migratory lives as warriors, traders, philosophers, priests, professional artisans, carvers, blacksmiths, bronze-makers or famers.


Elizabeth Isichie (1976), reports that the social, cultural and religious practices of the OnitshaAdo (as the Onitsha people were known), are consistent with those of the Aros, Afikpo, Bende, Okigwe (the indigenous Igbo), with other elements borrowed from the Benin. In other words, the Onitsha kingship was a borrowed system from the Bini Kingdom. These were just few instances to prove that any trace of kingship system in Igboland, prior to the arrival of European colonialism, was a mere accident of history rather than a natural phenomenon, and thus was due mainly to human movement. For most communities in Igboland therefore, their primordial political organization was republicanism, where every family was represented in the village assembly by its head or the oldest man. It was this village assembly, also known as the Council of Elders, which determined what happened in every Igbo community.

The Council performed all legislative and judicial functions that kept the society moving. There were, however, some notable individuals, who on account of their personal worth, status or merit, like celebrated warlords, holders of the prestigious Ozo title, powerful medicine men “DIBIA“, members of secret societies, etc, who equally belonged to this Council. Young men of fairly the same age, who organized themselves in groups, known as “age grades”, were responsible for the executive arm of government. The “Age Grade” system was a potent force in Igboland and provided a viable platform for every adult male to showcase himself and enable him to participate in running the community administration. It was the age grades that ensured that all laws enacted by the Council of Elders were faithfully implemented. These included the carrying out of communal works such as road construction and rehabilitation, market development, provision of security services, sanctioning of erring members of the community and rewarding those who excelled in their various trades or vocations, as well as rendering assistance to people in difficulties, etc.

It was this “village republicanism”, the democratic nature of Igbo society, or the fact that in Igboland, power did not reside in one single person, but in a collectivity of elders, that led to the common aphorism of Igbo Enwe Eze, (that the Igbo have no king).

But the Igbo have kings, since the concept of kingship was not alien to the primordial Igbo as evidence by the fact that in most communities in Igboland, people bear the name or title of “Eze” or King. In Igbo every society, for instance, whoever is the holder of ofor – a symbol of truth and justice – is regarded as the king – Eze-ji-ofor. Some people also bear names like Ezena-gum (I desire to be king); Eze-ewu-zie (The king has arrived); Eze-ekwu-nam (May kingship never elude me); Eze-ako-n’obi (Kingship never lacks in a homestead); etc. However, the Igbo “king” does not hold his position by mere accident of birth. He grows up to earn it. The Igbo king equally knows that he does not possess absolute knowledge. He rules by consultation through the village assembly.

Introduction of Warrant Chief System

In their quest to exert political influence and control over the colonized people, the British colonial administration in Nigeria, instituted Native Courts over large parts of the country and appointed local agents to superintend over their affairs. Since the British did not have enough resources, human and material, to run the territory, or did not want to spend in a colonial territory, they decided to select some local individuals whom they installed as Warrant Chiefs, and gave them power to run the government at the local level, while European colonial administrators sitting at the remote centres of the administration kept a watchful eye Known as the “Indirect Rule” system, this was imported to Nigeria by Lord Frederick Lugard, who as Governor General, had experimented with it in East Africa where he once served as administrator. In both the Northern and Western parts of Nigeria, which already had a centralized kingship system, the Indirect Rule System worked perfectly well.

However, in trying to apply the system to Igboland, the British colonial administrators without a proper understanding of the custom and tradition of the people, arbitrarily chose their preferred candidates, and gave them warrants as members of the Native Courts. Moreover, in appointing the Warrant Chiefs, the colonialists looked for their lackeys, those who could be referred to as stooges or errand boys, people whose main qualification was their readiness to unquestionably obey the orders of the colonial masters. Sometimes, people of little standing in their communities, slaves or slave merchants, were equally fished out and installed as Warrant Chiefs. In some other cases, persons of external origin were also installed and imposed on the people. Generally, majority of these Warrant Chiefs had little or no legitimacy beyond the fact of their being installed as king, by the colonial government.


Not surprisingly, for many of these chiefs who were not used to exercise of governmental authority, but who now had been called upon to exercise it without precedent or training, the situation was simply confusing. No wonder therefore that many of these chiefs actually abused the system, which accounted for the many lapses and criticisms leveled against the Warrant Chiefs, and by extension, the Indirect Rule System. In point of fact, majority of these Warrant Chiefs had depended heavily on forced labour, coercion and extortion to legitimize their authority. The main source of power for the Warrant Chiefs was the “control of Native Courts and of Labour”, while lamented that “the Warrant Chief institution had, in many places, become synonymous with greed, avarice and corruption”.

Even though many of the Warrant Chiefs were said to be corrupt, dictatorial and ruled atrociously, nevertheless, some others had provided courageous and progressive leadership, judging by the climate of the time. As was generally known, majority of the Warrant Chiefs did not receive formal education nor were they taken through the rudiments of political administration before being appointed to the exalted office. Following the “Aba Women’s Riot” of 1929 over sundry local issues, and not excluding the alleged high-handedness by the Warrant Chiefs, when thousands of women besieged the Native Courts and attacked Warrant Chiefs, it became necessary for the British to abolish the Indirect Rule and Warrant Chief systems and order for the reform of the local administration in order to create a ‘proper’ indirect rule government.

Based on intelligence reports from its field officers, which revealed the existence of a considerable variety of pre-colonial local political institutions and jurisdiction, the Colonial Government in the 1930s created new local Native Authority Councils and Courts composed mainly of elders and other members of the local elite (Ishi-ani). These councils were believed to resemble the traditional structures of local administration, but hardly became so, since they were based on large-scale ‘clans’ or ‘federations’ and other units which were much larger than the communal units in pre-colonial Igbo society.

The Native Authorities, NAs, as they were then called, were criticized not only because of what was seen as their “non-traditional character”, but also because many of them were seen to be corrupt. Equally, there was no female representation in these councils, while the newly emerging educated elite exerted pressures to be represented in local politics. By the 1940s, the British colonial administration introduced the “Best Man Policy” Okacha Nma, (Axel Harneit-Sievers, 1999), by not insisting on having only the elders as representatives in the councils, but encouraging communities to choose younger and educated elite representatives.

Establishment of ‘Houses of Chiefs’

With the achievement of ‘internal self government’ by each of the three regional governments in the country – the East, the West, and the North – in the mid 1950s, both the Northern and the Western Regional governments, besides having elected parliamentarians, also established second legislative chambers, known as “Houses of Chiefs”, which were modeled on the Westminster type. This time, it was no longer the colonialists imposing their will on the people, but Nigerians deciding what they thought would be good for them. For the Igbo dominated Eastern Region in particular, this was an opportunity not to be allowed to slip off so it could stand on equal footing with the other two regions, that is, the West and the North, which already had established kingship systems. Thus, due to its peculiar political nature, the government of Eastern Region commissioned a former district officer and Cambridge anthropologist, Mr. G.I. Jones, to advise it on the necessity or otherwise of establishing a “House of Chiefs” in the region. In a report which he submitted to government, Mr. Jones saw the proposal for the establishment of a “House of Chiefs” in the East as a political decision that should be taken by the regional government, at least, to gain the sympathy of some minority ethnic groups in the region who already had established chieftaincy traditions. He however recommended a limited inclusion of chiefs as ex officio-members in the local councils, a procedure for their official recognition by government and payment of salaries for those of them serving at county and district levels. Based on Jones’ recommendation, the government established the “Eastern House of Chiefs”, while a number of chiefs were accorded government recognition, without any known criteria, and graded as “first class” and “second class”, with some of them appointed to serve as members of the House of Chiefs. This arrangement remained in force till the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in July 1967. At the end of the civil war in 1970, Mr. Ukpabi Asika, who was appointed Administrator of the East Central State, where majority of the Igbo belonged, was more concerned with rebuilding the war-ravaged areas of the state than sparing any thought for the institution of traditional chieftaincy. Even when the East Central State was split into about fity-four divisional administrative units and a Divisional Administration Department (DAD) put in place to superintend over their affairs, Mr. Asika did not still think that chiefs could play much role in his administration. Instead, he encouraged the formation of strong town unions to drive development down the grassroots, while relegating the chiefs to the background. Ukpabi Asika’s non-challant attitude towards the chieftaincy institution was not surprising, and stemmed from his perception of the role played by the chiefs in the creation of the Biafran Republic, since most of these chiefs constituted the bulk of membership of the “Eastern Nigeria Consultative Council” that advised Odumegwu Ojukwu to pull the Eastern Region out of the Nigerian federation and declare it the Sovereign State of Biafra.


What Role for Traditional Rulers

The State Chieftaincy Edict did not provide any role for the Traditional Ruler beyond his community. This is contrary to what obtained in the First Republic, when some first class traditional rulers were appointed members of the “House of Chiefs”, and thus legislated for the entire region. Traditional rulers are the custodians of the people’s culture and tradition. They are however to be “consulted” in all land matters. This means that the Igbo Traditional Ruler, unlike his counterpart in the northern and western parts of the country, have no power to alienate any community land without the consent of his subjects. As “impartial fathers” of their people, Traditional Rulers are to engage in peace-making within their community as well as in conflict with their neighbours. They are to promote community development, and in consultation with members of their cabinet, organize local consensus. The Anambra State Traditional Rulers’ Law of 1981 further encouraged Traditional Rulers to “cooperate with the local government council” and assist them “in the collection of taxes”. All these functions are no easy task, which means that any genuine Traditional Ruler must be fully committed to his role and responsibility. Unfortunately, many of these Traditional Rulers, as businessmen and contractors, are hardly in their palaces, thereby leaving many of their functions largely unattended to. In point of fact, Traditional Rulers as people at the grassroots of the administration, have the responsibility to attend to the endless streams of visitors that daily throng their palaces with one problem or the other. They are to arbitrate in both local and external disputes, such as land matters and other sundry issues. They are to help mobilize their subjects for community development in consonance with the Town Union. These functions require patience, perseverance, and a good knowledge and application of human psychology. However, many Traditional Rulers complain that they are not usually supported by government. According to them, government does not give Traditional Ruler any “security votes” with which to deal with security issues that daily confront them. This means that many of these Traditional Rulers have been carrying on these responsibilities with their meagre resources. It is only recently that the Enugu State government, for example, has started paying stipends to its Traditional Rulers, otherwise those of them with no visible means of livelihood, have been living from hand to mount, which is very demeaning and embarrassing. Many of today’s Traditional Rulers, not just in Igboland, but in Nigeria as a whole, are no longer the “antiquated, archaic and uneducated yesterday men”, who were only good in breaking the kola nuts and pouring libations to the ancestors. Among these Traditional Rulers are retired technocrats and administrators, educationists, diplomats and international businessmen. In that wise, government could tap on their wealth of experience by giving them positions of responsibility such as membership of boards and parastatals, setting up a National Council of Traditional Rulers where some Traditional Rulers could meaningfully contribute to national development. Since in times of problems government would always rush to the Traditional Rulers to help stabilize the system, during peace time, government should as well set up a standing committee made up of experienced Traditional Rulers that would constantly advise it on sensitive national issues. That is where a constitutional role for Traditional Rulers in the country comes in.



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