July 3, 2022

Ndigbo: Tribe Without Rulers?

By Suyi Ayodele

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Tuesday, May24, 2022)

The first time I heard the adjective, ‘acephalous’, was in my secondary Form Four Government class. The teacher, Mr. Abayomi Oduntan, a youth corps member, was teaching the topic: “Pre-colonial System of Government in Igboland”.

His introduction: “the Igbo society is generally referred to as an acephalous society”, rings a bell till date because of the pendantic pomposity of the adjective, ‘acephalous’, to the hearings of native Ekiti school children in my old Araromi High School (now Odo Oro High School).

We tee-heed at the sound of the word because the teacher had in earlier classes given us some words like gerontocracy, plutocracy (one Segun was quickly nicknamed that), political gerrymandering, etc.

Curiously, in his usual capital letter handwriting, Mr. Oduntan wrote ACEPHALOUS on the blackboard and asked for the meaning.

The best of dictionaries anyone of us could boast of was the “Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English”, owned by yours sincerely. Majority of the students had the “Oxford English Dictionary” and the Michael West edition of an English Language Dictionary. When we could not give the answer, like a son in-law who speaks grammar in his in-law’s place and must have to give the meaning, the teacher was forced to answer his question. He simply explained that ‘acephalous’ means a society without a clear cut leader.

In my native language, the term will be interpreted to mean; “ilu ti o si olori”- a community without a head. That was how the Igbo society of South-East Nigeria was introduced to us as school children in our formative years. That was about 40 years ago. Has anything changed in Igboland till date? We will come to that presently.

John Francis Marchment Middleton, a Briton, was a professor of Anthropology in the United States. In 1958, he wrote, in conjunction with David Tait, a seminar book titled: “Tribes Without Rulers: Studies in African Segmentary Systems”.

The headline is an adaptation of the title of the book. The book, which portrays Middleton as an African anthropology expert, has undergone a lot of reviews. For the purpose of today’s discourse, I will limit myself to the review of the book by Google.com and also limit the citation to the most relevant portion thus: “Recent research in Africa has shown a wide range of political systems, from small societies of wandering hunters to large states of several million people comparable with mediaeval European feudal kingdoms.

In between are many societies in which a central government is lacking; the political system is based upon a balance of power between many small groups, which with their lack of classes or specialized political offices, have been called ‘ordered anarchies'”.

In the book, of the six African tribes discussed, a tribe in Nigeria, the Tiv of the present day Benue State is mentioned. However, every indices of ‘ordered anarchies’ one could find in the book are playing out among the present day Ndigbo. And this calls for worry.

I have pondered several times on why the entire South-East Nigeria has become a theater of war. I have asked several times if truly, the Igbo Race is indeed an acephalous society. Several definitions of the term, different from the one my old Government teacher taught us, have come to play in my head. Acephalous in one instance, is defined as “not having a head; lacking a head or having the head reduced”.

In another instance, it is described as: “A term used to describe the political system of societies without centralized state authority”. Wikipedia defines an acephalous society as: “…a society which lacks political leaders or hierarchies.

Such groups are also known as non-stratified societies. Typically, these societies are small-scale, organized into bands or tribes that make decisions through consensus decision making rather than appointing permanent chiefs or kings.

When these societies do not possess distinctions of rank, they are described as egalitarian…the term is often used to describe groups of people living in a settlement with “no government in the sense of a group able to exercise effective control over both the people and their territory”. In this respect the term is also often used as synonymous to ‘stateless society'”.

Of all the definitions above, the phrase I fancy most is ‘stateless society’. That is a completely anomic society, very brutish, very mean, equally lawless and one that is out of control. This is what Igboland has turned to in recent times, a land of anarchy, bloodletting and gratuitous destruction. All these calamities are self-inflicted.

There is no way one will look at what is playing out in the South-East and one will not ask the question: “what do these people really want”?

No one in his right mind will deny the fact that the Nigerian nation has not been fair to the Ndigbo. Nobody in his right frame of mind can say he cannot see the level of marginalisation of the South-East in the scheme of things.

The present leadership of the country has never for one day pretended that it will be fair to the Igbo Race. If there is one good attribute one must acknowledge in General Muhammadu Buhari, it is his ability to keep to the spirit and letters of his five percent votes and 97 percent votes analogy in his political patronage of the various ethnic segments of the country, after he won the 2015 presidential election.

But General Buhari did not initiate the obvious marginalisation of the South-East and will not be the one to end it. That is the bitter truth. The marginalisation of the Igbo people will end the day other ethnic groups take a conscious decision to stand by the three ‘Rs’ of the Civil War, to wit: Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation and genuinely implement them.

In all, the South-East has my sympathy for whatever ‘punishment’ the Nigerian nation is meting out to them for their audacity to ask for a separate country in 1967.

Whether we like it or not, those issues that gave birth to the agitation for a Biafran State in 1967 are still very much with us and have spread beyond the South-East to virtually every part of the country. Our situation now is such that only God knows how many nations will come out of Nigeria should we decide to hold a referendum to determine the nationhood! But that is where the sympathy for Igboland ends with me.

I cannot, in any rational analysis, situate why a race will turn the sword at itself because others are not treating it very well. If we all agreed that indeed the South-East has always gotten the short end of the stick in all manners of things, we need to ask how the killings, arsons and banditry in the region are going to help their case.

How the killer squads in Igboland are able to carry out these killings without anyone detecting them beats my imagination. If you say you want an independent nation and you kill half of your compatriots, who will occupy the land after the independence? Why has it not occurred to the gunmen of the South-East that the Okechukwu, Adaeze and Uzoma they kill on a daily basis have no single effect on the other parts of the country?

What set of people destroy their own homes in protest against the ill-treatment from other people? How do you kidnap your kinsman, collect N80 million ransom and still have him beheaded? Who loses when on every Monday, you impose a sit-at-home order on the entire South-East, but the traders in Oyingbo Market in Lagos are having a field day and no single hamlet market is shut down in the entire North and South-South and South-West? Whose economy gets destroyed, when you threaten people with violence on a weekly basis? Have these felons considered the fact that Aba City is turning to a ghost village? That Ariara Market is becoming an ordinary village market? Have they given a thought to the fact that since traders discovered that Onitsha Main Market is no longer safe, they have found alternatives? Do they go to other states to see how the losses of the Ndigbo are becoming the gains of other people?

This now brings us to the issue of the leadership structure in Igboland. Is Igbo indeed an acephalous society? Are there indeed no leaders in the South-East, who call the shots and who have the goodwill to bring back sanity to the region? Rose Mary Amenga-Etego of the Department for the Study of Religions, University of Ghana, Legon, in her critique of Middleton and Tait’s book interrogated the use of the term, “uncentralised”, by the authors to mean that “there is no holder of political power at the centre, and specialized roles with clearly defined authority are less easy to find”.

Amenga-Etego, in her 2012: “Tribes Without Rulers? Indigenous Systems of Governance and Sustainable Rural Development”, described the viewpoint as “questionable” and asked: “who defines the center or what is meant by political power in this religio-cultural context”?

In her conclusion, she posited that in African anthropology, “the religio-cultural systems provided the necessary social cohesion and political harmony for some of these indigenous African societies hitherto described as ‘stateless’ or “tribes without rulers”. One cannot but subscribe to her assertions here. The Igboland of yore is never without rulers. They may be republican in nature but the region never lost its sanity. There were the Obis, the Ndichies, the Dibias, including the ancestral spirits (masquerades), who imposed heavy sanctions on grave infractions.

The Igboland of yesteryear was organised such that the society categorised murder into male and female depending on how it occurred and appropriated punishment as the occasion demanded. The age grade society with ritualised initiation ceremonies were also there to curb youths’ excesses.

The village squares were used as courtrooms to determine cases. Town criers summoned the people to meetings that were presided over by Red Cap Chiefs and titled men. At the most extreme end was the issue of ostracisation for capital offenders. Such a society cannot be said to be “headless or without leaders”.

The question now is: what has happened to the structures mentioned above and many more that the forebears of the Igbo Race used to administer their society? Are there no Obis, no Ezes and no Ndichies in Igboland anymore? Has Igboland abandoned the practice of age grades? Are there no elders in the land such that criminals, under the guise of freedom fighters, now hold courts openly? Who are the parents of the “unknown gunmen”? Are the gunmen really “unknown” or the people are pretending not to know them? If their parents and family lineages are known, what happens to the principles of traditional sanctions?

This is the time for the leaders of the region to come together and talk to their children. The South-East is going at a rate that will make the insurgency in the North-East and North-West pale into insignificance.

Igbo leaders and all the socio-cultural organisations in the region must put on their thinking caps. They have the responsibility to shed the toga of acephalous appellation the region is attracting to itself and put a stop to the “ordered anarchies” going on there. Every man knows when the rain starts to beat him.

Igbo leaders cannot be exceptions. Unless something is done and done very urgently and immediately, the South-East will lose the last vestige of empathy it enjoys at the moment. Is the Igbo Race truly without leaders? The answer is theirs to provide!

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