The Traditional Social-Political Admin In Igbo-Ukwu


Culture is a way of life of a people. The Igbo are not only a proud race but also are highly political. They possess an advanced political system when compared with other African ethnic groups. The political system is segmentary with democratic principles that is superior to the ancient Greeks democracy. At the time of the arrival of the colonial masters, the Igbo traditional system of leadership was so absolute in Igbo-Ukwu. Because of the location of Igbo-Ukwu; at the heart of Igboland, the British administration reached Igbo-Ukwu at a time that could be said to be rather late. Precisely, Igbo-Ukwu came under the control of the British Government in 19051, over 50 years after it reached other locations in Igboland and just 9 years before the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorate in 1914. At this time, Igbo-Ukwu was called Igbo and appeared as “IGBO” in all British documents prior to the adoption of the name “IGBO-UKWU” in 1936.

Because of the late arrival of the British control over Igbo-Ukwu, Igbo-Ukwu people were afforded enough time to have heard about the implications of resistance to the British rule, so they were already well prepared, mentally, to receive the colonial dominance peacefully, but not without finding means of holding onto their traditional social systems. However, at some point, Igbo-Ukwu people being composed of the pure Igbo blood and character, the confrontation was inevitable. The result, like in other communities’ confrontations with the British authority, was the same products. As recorded in a British document, “in 1919, a police escort visited Igbo on account of some disturbances. Except for this, the villages have caused no trouble to the administration2.

Igbo-Ukwu first came under the Awka Division under Onitsha Province of the British Administration. Igbo-Ukwu was further controlled from the Ugwu-Okpu Agulu Divisional zone, a position which Igbo-Ukwu people was never comfortable with. Being surbodinated to Agulu was in itself a reversal of the traditional order, and one of the major mistakes of the British administration. Agulu, just like Awka and Onitsha, was in a more vantage position to serve the interest of the British administration. The British on the other hand, was not concerned about any traditional mechanism.

According to Chief I.P.O. Nwosu, from origin, Igbo-Ukwu had been under a Presbyterian government, i.e. government of the elders. During the Pre-colonial era, the community was under “Umuohia” a selected group of able bodied, upright and intelligent men comparable to our present parliament. Then another group of young men called “Ochutebe” who acted as executives. In the women wing, “Umuada” were the predominant and they had “Obumkpukpu” as their executives. These arms of government were responsible for the peace and order in the town. They were also responsible for its defense and security against outside aggressions3.

This system of administration was never entirely given up by the Igbo-Ukwu people, even during the colonial administration. In spite of the institution of the indirect rule system, that had put the warrant chiefs over and above all authorities, Igbo-Ukwu people remained defiant by clinging to the traditional system, a postion that brought the in conflict with the Warrant Chiefs and by extention the British Government. Up to the early 70’s, traditional and cultural matters are handled and determined on the basis of the three major groups. In the past and at present, the factors of co-operation are:

  1. Maintenance of common identity as a town
  2. Traditions and customs; their applications and usage.
  3. Defense and security
  4. Common social amenities; markets, schools etc4.

According to the British document of Mr P.V. Main, the Assistant Dictrict Officer in 1936, Igbo-Ukwu had no legend to tell of its foundation or the founder, except that the village is named after him5. Igbo-Ukwu, called Igbo at the time appeared in legendry stories and folk tales like as in “Olu na Igbo”. The term ‘Olu na Igbo’ is used in folklores as in Jews and Gentiles or as in Romans and Barbarians. But evidently, the ‘Igbo’ as used in these folklores may not refer to Igbo-Ukwu people alone, but to the entire Igbo world. The ‘Olu’, however, refers to the rest of the world that are not Igbo. There are other important village names that appears in folklores, like the Ikenga, Umuona, Ekwulu, Isu, and Ogbodi, which are villages that flank Igbo-Ukwu to the north, south, east and southeastern borders. Some of these towns or villages have been reduced or extinct due to wars and skirmishes, most of which were in relation to Igbo.  It is evident that all the legendaries of Igbo culture culminated on the Northern Igbo plateau and around Igbo. Most of these autochthonous people hardly have memories on legends of the foundation of their communities. The few legends that could be recovered show signs of incomprehensivity or a much later legendary that hardly goes beyond the 14th or 15th Centuries A.D.

According to the same British colonial document, ‘Igbo had wars with all surrounding villages in the past except Umuona; It has fougth Oreri, it was engaged in a war against Ichida, Adazi and Agulu when the news of the Whiteman’s arrival at Onitsha was received. The elders relate that the war was not concluded as the whiteman took all their guns away6. Igbo also had wars with Amichi, the last of which was settled by the Colonialist. They also fought Azuigbo, Ikenga, Isuofia and Ekwulu people. Evidently, the situation on this plateau was that of the survival of the fittest, as the same story goes for almost every other community that have survived or have managed to continue to exist on this plateau. Many groups like the Ikenga, Umuona and Ogbodi were reduced maximally by some of these wars, although, it seems that migrations or expulsions took more toll on many of the groups.

From the foregoing, it is evident that Igbo-Ukwu people were well organized before the advent of the British administration, both for the purpose of war, land protection and administration and for the purpose of leadership and government. The basic functioning unit from the political or administrative point of view was the extended family (Umunna). Igbo-Ukwu was, like every other Igbo society organized according to genealogy, each group tracing their descent patrilineally from a common founder. The sons of the founder were the founders of the quarters, while their sons again were the founders of the extended families. The extended families are subsequently made up of the various families down to the nuclear families.

Therefore, in Igbo-Ukwu, the lineages made up the clan. The lineages constitute smaller socio-political units. The basic socio-political unit is the Umunna, which is patrilineal. The Umunna may be made up of a number of extended families or family groups. The large families are in turn made up of a large number of nuclear families. The Umunna is headed by the Diokpala, but with limited political power. He exercises control with other elders of the Umunna as a kind of primus inter pares in matters relating to the Umunna. In general, clan meetings or affairs, he acted as a representative for his Umunna. Usually, he may not interfere with other activities involving the smaller units within the Umunna unless he is invited to use his influence. The chief political units were the title group, the age group (elders) priests, and secret societies. Each of these has a part to play in the traditional government of the Igbo. The people are immensely democratic with the result that decisions tend to be slow. Administration is by council whose functions can be legislative, executive and judicial.

Generally, there are two main councils, the council of elders and the general council of all the citizens called ‘oha obodo’. The council of elders is the highest authority in the town. It is composed of the representatives of the major segment heads of the lineages. The elders are looked upon as the fathers of the clan and are expected to protect the interest of the town. The clan has pieces of lands in different locations and the elders have the duty to protect the boundaries of the locations. However, it does not only take age to belong to the council of elders, it also requires some form of good reputation, reasoning and wisdom, strength in war and farm work.

The council of elders legislates on matters of land ownership, cultivation of crops, animal rearing, initiation ceremonies, supply of labour for communal work and marriage customs. Legislation consists of rules to preserve the tradition, check offences and avoid offending the ancestors. No taxes are imposed and the only source of income remains the fines imposed in forms of kegs of palm wine, goats, fowls, sheep and confiscation of other properties. Taxation only crept into the nomenclature of the Igbo-Ukwu people during the colonial era. The ‘Isi mgba’ group and the masquerade group carries out the function of enforcing the law and maintaining peace and order.

Among the executive members, we have the priest and the elders. The priests are highly respected and feared because they are believed to be chosen by the gods. Their functions are mainly religious and to some extent political. They offer sacrifice for the people at festivals and they also beat drums to announce the days for the feasts and festivals of the various deities of the land. They also participated in councils or political gatherings and sometimes, they announced the day of general assembly.  The office is not hereditary in most cases and the custodian is believed to be inspired or called by the oracles. Most of the priest were men who had been called to and had taken the title of Ozo-Amuma.

In Igbo-Ukwu, government administration proceeds through the councils, and there were several tiers at which councils were called. These tiers could be analyzed on the following bases:


The lowest functioning unit from administrative point of view was the extended family, or the exogamous group. The composition of the exogamous group varied in quarters and villages. In any case, the exogamous groups were made up of a number of family units each consisting of husband, wives and children.  In matters affecting the group, all the adult members met at the ‘obi’. The ‘obi’ is the homestead of the earlier common ancestor and is usually built as a small meeting place in the original compound of the man. Usually, the man’s ‘ofo’ is found in the ‘obi’. The ofo is the symbol of manhood and independence, which every man made for himself on marriage and founding a new family. The sacred ofo symbol remains at the obi and passes on to the ‘okpala’; the first male child who inherits the obi. The ofo, which is in the form of twig taken from the ofo tree and consecrated by the ancestors, also remains the symbol to which he and his descendants would make sacrifices for family protection. The meetings of the family council are called by the projenitor of the family if he was still alive or by the heir of his throne; the okpala.

At the meeting, all the matters affecting the family alone were discussed and settled. The matters range from land disputes, rights infringement, members misbehavior, marital issues, initiation ceremonies, announcements etc. all adult males attended and have a room to offer their opinions. At the end, all the elders, by age or by title, would take council, by drawing aside to come to a conclusion. They might invite younger but knowlegable and intelligent ones to help them during the council taking. However, the more ceremonial offices of this meeting were reserved for the senior man present, whether he was the holder of the obi or not. At the end of the council taking, the Diokpala or a good spokes person whom the group appointed would announce the decision of the majority at the conclusion. In situations where the titled men are present, the senior titled man was given the right of opening proceedings and announcing the decisions and conclusions. However, he was only recognized in this instance as the figure head and had by custom no more direct executive power in the family than his own intelligence and personality gave him, other titled men present were much in the same position.

The elders of the extended families, minor segments or the full council settle disputes. The settlement by the head of the extended families can be regarded as settlement in low court. The case goes from the plaintiff to the headman (Okpala). He contacts the defendant and both appear on the appointed day, usually in the evening. The major offences comprise theft, rioting, land disputes, irregular land lease, and neglect of agreements, obligations and divorces. The case may end here with or without fines imposed on the guilty party. If either of the parties feels dissatisfied with the settlement, the case would proceed to the high court.

At other circumstances, the matter is between two families. Usually, it could be dispute between the two families or members or the different families. It could also be just be affair or relationship they needed to discuss. In this case, the two families gather themselves in the quarter or village meeting place as they chose. There, they would try to iron things out. If they fail in this process, they would thereafter call the quarter meeting.


The quarter council was the next operative unit of administration in the ancient Igbo-Ukwu community. The quarter council was usually called at the market place. It was usually called by the town cryer at the order of the holder of the quarter obi. The holder, as already dilated upon, is the diokpala or the senior direct descendant of the founder of the quarter. The composition of a quarter council was not quite the same as that of the family council. Like in the family council, all adult males have the right to attend the meeting, but not every member present has the right to speak or voice his opinion. The senior titled men present presided over the meeing and announced the decisions, but again, he had no individual authority. In the quarter gathering, therefore, it is a mere numerous gathering which was for matters of bigger moment, but the rights of speeches were based in the order of influences and positions in the families gathered. In this case, the various families would have nominated their represenatives who are either titled men, elders, wise men or men with skills in oratory. These people were known as the

‘Umuofia’ who were reputed wise and able-bodied men,

‘Ochutebe’ who were titled members selected as executives among Umuofia,

‘Umuokoro’ who were non-titled elders among the Umuofia,

‘Isi mgba’ not part of Umuofia, but were the law enforcement group, and

‘Obumkpukpu’ who were the executives for the women council.

These people have the duty of representing their families in discussion and presenting their case diligently. They may at intervals consult the other members of their families within discussion to get their views clearer or to ascertain if they have presented thoroughly in their speech. The first three groups took part in discussions, draw aside for conclusions, and through the senior titled person present, as the spokesman for the group, announced the majority decision. Again, a junior not in these groups might be called upon to assist, especially when he is known to be gifted with intelligence or oratory.

It is important to note that the Umuofia were taken from the active executives of the quarters. They came from the age-grade of mature married men who already own and controlled households. Their selection has nothing to do with the Okpala of the Obi, which is a birthright position that is never contested. The selection of the Umuofia also has nothing to do with the titles one might possess. Merit, family and public esteem of their capabilities were their qualifications, and marked the degree of their influence at the council. They were the captains of war in the olden days. It is also important to note here that during the quarter councils; the titled men only occupied the same positions they had occupied in the family councils. The untitled elders, refered to as Umuokoro, were important and reverenced during the councils for their experience and knowledge of precedent and of Native Custom. Reference was made to them when such assistance or information was needed. Beyond this, they do not exercise any control nor wished to take such control.

The council generally sits in public and the people might have a voice. Any man however, could sit with the elders particularly in matters that affect him personally. This measure is a check on the elders. Apart from that, if an individual is dissatisfied with the decision of the council, he could summon the general assembly of the citizens to express his views. If an unpopular decision was taken or if the elders are despotic, the general assembly is called and the citizens could bring the whole business of the town to a standstill through boycott.

Land disputes dominate the list of cases. Agreements were not written and sealed as they are done nowadays. Agreements were oral and sealed with palm wine oblations, (and in most cases are honoured). On the other hand, such an agreement might lead to confusion and the resultant dispute would be referred to the council of elders. Here, both parties usually appeared with their family Umuofia who acted as “lawyers” (ndi okaikpe) and the witnesses (ndi-osiali). Witnesses were those who were present when the agreements were contracted and lawyers were the elders who were the keepers of history. An elder might also take a relation of his who is a noted orator to the council of elders, to represent his views where this elder did not see himself as capable of doing so.

The attributes of a good “lawyer” were good memory, good delivery and good reputation. A good use of the precepts, proverbs and traditions would be the base of technical argument. Decisions at all levels were expected to be unanimous and as a result were not taken in haste. The fine to be imposed will depend on the gravity of the offence. Fines were paid in terms of wine, goats, fowls or sheep. In situations where it is difficult to arrive at a solution, the meeting usually resorted to (Igba-Izu), taking council. A group of five to ten men selected at random at the suggestion of an influential elder. They withdrew from the group and discuss the pros and cons of the issue at hand. It took a unanimous decision and return to present their decision and the reason, which informed them.


The village or town council was invariably the same composition as the quarter council and was conducted along analogous lines. The village council was summoned at the instance of the Umuofia and by titled men concerned in the matter of discussion. These people would have met earlier, unofficially in one of the houses and agreed on the need to call the council. In the ancient times and up to this day, Igbo-Ukwu people council met at the ‘Amaehulu’. ‘Ehulu’ is one of the primitive deities situated at a central location in Igbo-Ukwu town. It is important also to note that, from the ancient times, the Nkwo market day was sacrosanct. No council meeting, no matter how urgent or important, could be called on Nkwo market day.

It is well assumed that ordinary routine executive matters were dealth with starting from the family council and by each quarter council. The village or town council met only for inter-quarter quarrels, warfare, epidemics, arranging dates for religious ceremonies and observances, sharing communal lands and properties and for sharing communal expenses or revenues. There were no higher functioning unit of administration than the Village Council. In Igbo-Ukwu, therefore, the Village Council was the highest and final court of appeal; the Supreme Court. They dispensed of justice among traditional clans. There were no lawyers and there were no liars. Judgment were based on true evidence. There is no play with legal technicalities. The Amaehulu village square was a sacred ground where the gods do not tolerate any foul play or lies. The traditional religion was such that the gods were pragmatic and being a religion affliated to the land, one has to stand barefooted on this land while making any presentation or defense. Such practice ensured that the truth was told all the times at this gathering and also helps to eliminated favoritism; bribery and corruption, in individual cases, hence preserve justice.

At the council, one of the titled elders from amongst the Ochutebe or the Umuofia was adopted as the senior political officer or the chairman. Any one of them could be delegated to deal directly with the elders of another clan council. Any one of them could be authorized by the council to be the speaker on a specific issue or to deliver the verdict or the opinion of the council to the general assembly. Usually, other elders would stand behind the speaker to show support and sponsorship. Any member could as well be selected to function as emissary or to carry the council message to other councils in other clans.

The position of titled men during councils in Igbo-Ukwu in the ancient times was that of respect and reverence in which they were held, which was certainly great and their influence powerful, but they had no intrinsic authority in administrative or judicial matters. The title holders received respect and attention as they implied sound social and financial standing. According to Main, ‘this attitude is comparable, perhaps to the attitude of England to its aristocracy. Honoured places were given to them for these reasons. They received reverence because of the mystic ceremonies and traditions surrounding them. They had an influence amounting to authority in religious and social matters but in the administration and judiciary, unless also in a majority, they did not have authority but only influence7.

The village council, being the highest court of appeal, cases reach it through the heads of quarters or from the heads of the families or from individuals involved in the case of issues with neighbouring villages. Here the plaintiff and the defendant must appear if necessary, with their witnesses. The elders, comprising of the Umuofia, Ochutebe and Umuokoro may use age groups as messengers who carry the summons to the defendant. The people are called together by the aid of town criers.

In extremely difficult cases, resort is made to the oracle and quite unlike the modern society, the gods are greatly feared and respected because of their impartial verdict and ability to inflict instant punishment on the defaulter which often come in the form of death. Oracles are shrines at which appeals are made to a god.  Priest who acted as the god’s mouthpiece issued the god’s judgment or opinion. This is done after clients have made offerings to the god. Igbo oracles secure blessings from the gods, fortune or message from the ancestors and pronounced judgment on disputes.

Oracles are also effective in killing disputants who invoke it falsely or who knowing the truth, swear to the veracity of their false claims. A litigant who invokes an oracle falsely is believed to be the guilty party, such offenders are at times killed instantly by the oracle. On the whole, litigants are so convinced of a famous oracle’s powers that they would tell the truth; the final result being that innocence and guilt were correctly apportioned.

On the whole, therefore, the function of the traditional government of the Igbo can be reasonably said to be legislative, executive, judiciary and religious. It provided good administration and organization to carry out its business and organised system of law and justice. It is a useful pattern of government, which provided a system connected with the peoples’ religious beliefs, their relationship with one another and their business. The government is simply Theo-centric. It kept Igbo-Ukwu clans together and made it possible to call the people a community and not merely a gathering of individuals. It provided leadership.

The Igbo generally resist any trait of central leadership or dictatorship. They resist anything that tends to undermine traditional confidence and shake the sense of common purpose and solidarity, which constitute the spirit of traditionalism. Every culture also naturally resists external political influence but that of the Igbo is peculiar for its extremity. This was illustrated during the colonial era, where it was extremely difficult for the colonialist to amalgamate and rule the Igbo kingdom and other similarly organised societies of the Southern Nigeria. The Igbo fought tooth and nail to resist such influences and when the war waged against such traits failed, the Igbo believed on the other hand that “when the roof and walls of a house fall in, the ceiling is not left standing”. Igbo hardly agree on one point and this had been the bane of Igbo politics and general Igbo socialism.


Women (umuada) are also a powerful group. They held their own council which was led by exectives called the ‘Obumkpukpu’. They can call the general assembly when they feel that the council or the men are neglecting certain things, which they ought not to neglect. The general assembly is normally called for cerebrations, sacrifices, announcements, hearing individual or group complaints and for development programmes.


Igbo-Ukwu women, usually grouped into Umuada and Inyomona, are a powerful group. Umuada is the society of all female citizens or freeborn in Igbo-Ukwu community, while Inyomona represents the society of all females married into Igbo-Ukwu community or kindreds. The basic socio-political unit in Igbo-Ukwu is the Umunna. All women may not be part of the Inyomona, but there must be at least a basic socio-political unit to which she is an “Ada”. That is why Umuada is regarded as the most basic and recognized society for Igbo women. Women in Igbo-Ukwu society enjoy certain measure of freedom which enhances the development of their capacity and resources in the traditional setting.

In the olden days, politically, Umuada were powerful in the traditional Igbo-Ukwu society. They could call the general assembly when they feel that the council or the men are neglecting certain things, which they ought not to neglect. The general assembly is normally called for cerebrations, sacrifices, announcements, hearing individual or group complaints and for development programmes. But Umuada could call any man who errs to order at any time. No man was above the summon of Umuada.

Under good guidance and thorough enlightenment, the Igbo-Ukwu women community have always played prominent roles in the towns’ development programmes. In the early 70s, Igbo-Ukwu Women Organization, an executive committee of sixty women represented the town’s women. These were the policy makers and planners. Under the leadership and able guidance of their President, Mrs. E. Ubabuko; the Secretary, Mrs. Angelina Okonkwo; the Treasurer, Mrs. Nwoye Ezeokafor, and Patron, Mrs. R. C. Okafor, Igbo-Ukwu Women Community had participated in series of projects within the town.

Knowing their part of the job very well, as initiators and helpers, they had taken it as a point of duty to take the lead in any developmental project in the town. For instance, one of the various working organs of the Igbo-Ukwu Women Community is the ‘OCHIOLU’ Group. This group appoint the women in the villages in rotation to do community work particularly, the continuous clean-up exercises of the town’s famed market – Nkwo – Igbo-Ukwu. The Ochiolu group is an organ instituted in the early fifties for community work, and they have been very active before a more organized set up of Igbo-Ukwu women meeting was formed. Under the leadership of some women like – Madam Paulina Anekwe and Madam Lucy Okoye (Foundation Members) the Ochiolu group had grown into a stage where it is soley indispensable to the women group.

It is important to note that in some parts of the town like in Ihuakaba, Ezihu, certain women are appointed Local Sanitary Inspectors. They go around the villages, noting house-wives who have not kept their compounds, latrines, and footpaths neat, as the Goovernment Sanitary Inspectors had said. Those who default was put under penalty. To make this possible, the women executives arranged periodical education rallies. This is the forum for the enlightenment of women on their role in community development. During these rallies, series of talks on economic viability, health, house-wifery, citizen training, morals etc., were given by special invitees from within and outside the town.

On December 19th, 1974, during the annual rally of Igbo-Ukwu women Community, the women deliberated on the need for secondary school in the town, to lessen our expenses on secondary education. Hence, they unanimously passed a resolution that in no distant future, a girls’ secondary school will be built in the town. Serious actions planned by the women were withheld following the reorganization of the town’s union by the Igbo-Ukwu Development Union. They hoped to prosecute their resolutions when the environment was favourable to do so.

In one of the executive meetings held in February 1975, the house viewed seriously the need for a separate water scheme for the town to alleviate the problem of water scarcity. When this was presented to the general meeting, the women expressed explicit support to any kind of levy or contribution if this were possible. They passed a resolution that investigation into the possibility of continuing with the old water scheme should be made. This plan on this was underway when they heard of the good news that the Community Council is deliberating seriously on this. They hoped to give their maximum share of responsibilities when the plan went through.

When in July 1975, the women organization were informed by the Community Council of the proposal to build a Council Secretariat in the town, the women on the 23rd of July 1975, joyously collected thirty-six huge trips of sand to start-off the project. It would be recalled also that the sand used in building the present Amaehulu Hall was collected by the women folk long ago. The women Community Obiuno section had always played a major role by providing labour (sand) and finance in the Obiuno Youth Health Center Project. To boost this venture, the entire Igbo-Ukwu women community gave financial aid too.

The programme of guarding the town in the night by our young men to combat the wanton menace of armed bandits, also received applause from the women. Various women groups, organizations and individuals, have financially donated to boost the moral of the night-guards. Thanks goodness, peace and rest had gradually returned to the town. Igbo-Ukwu women apart from promoting development in the town feature prominently in social welfare in community and National levels. To mention but few examples: The Local Branch of the National Council of Women’s Societies was founded by Igbo-Ukwu women and the Headquaters first sited at Igbo-Ukwu, from where it was later moved to the new Headquarters – Aguata

Going deeper into the history of Igbo-Ukwu Women Association, one would understand that from time immemorial, Igbo-Ukwu women had always been active. In the early fifties and beyond, the leading group was the famous “UMUTU” group with Mrs. Janet Orji as their Secretary. They were a set of intellectuals for policy making and crime eradication. They were among the leading women both within former Awka Province and Eastern Nigeria at large.

[1] Main, P.V. Assistant District Officer, Intelligent Report on the Ugwu-Agu Group,
Awka Division, Onitsha Province, 1936.

[2] Op. Cit.

[3] Chief I.P.O. Nwosu, Private archives 1974

[4] Chief I.P.O Nwosu private archives 1974

[5] Main, P.V. 1936

[6] Main, 1936

[7] Main, P.V. 1936.

Archaeology Discovery