Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Okoli Ijeoma Ada War: Agha Ìbenne

Gịnị mè ndị Ọka jì à sọ ènwè?

Enwe Imoka, the mona, Porto-Novo, Benin. Photo: Okouneva Olga via Wikimedia Commons.


Okoli Ijeoma was a 19th-century merchant warlord of the Aro settlement of Ndikelionwu in today’s Anambra State. He was notorious for his recruitment of the militaristic Ada people of the Cross River area for wars against his enemies or for the services of those who paid him. He was the grandson of Ikelionwu who founded Ndikelionwu in the 18th century.

Ikelionwu, sometimes Ikelionwu Ufele, Ufere, or Uvere, was born in Ifite Öka. Notedly an mgburuichi, Ikelionwu was a child with noble ichi marks. Ikelionwu came from the family of Eze Oshie. The name Ikelionwu appears to be a contraction of ike emelị ọnwụ, meaning ‘strength does not conquer death’.

"10 Aug. 1905. Edet market, Ndiya. An Inokun (Aro [Igbo]) man." Charles Partridge. British Museum.

In one account, Ikelionwu was kidnapped by the Amantogwu and later bought by a wealthy Aro woman named Ufere Mgbokwa who took him in as a son and carried out the necessary rites to take him out of slavery. Some accounts say Eze Oshie was the one who was sold. Ikelionwu had taken some of the wealth of Ufere Mgbokwa on her death, this was said to have been done incrementally by Ikelionwu while she was alive due to his later confirmed fears that he would not be able to inherit from her as he was not her blood descendant. Other accounts say an Aro merchant warlord named Ufere Mgbokwu Aka was the enslaver of Ikelionwu.

Ikelionwu established his own lineage of Ndikelionwu in the territory of the Omogho, similar to other Aro settlements in the north-central Igbo area (Anambra), particularly the Nde Eni cluster of Aro settlements under the founding Mazi Eni. Aro settlements were trading and slaving springboards into other areas. The Aro infiltrated communities through allies, marriage ties, and trading.

Ikelionwu later helped Öka with the drawn-out war started with Amantogwu over his kidnapping and was able to use the newly introduced gun from Arochukwu to Öka’s victory. The Aro were the main introducers of guns from Europeans and middlemen at the coast to Igbo communities in the interior in the 18th century.

Prior to the slave trade, the Igbo area was dominated by ritual specialists, often itinerant blacksmiths, from centres such as Nri, Öka, and Abiriba. As the slave trade intensified, in came the era of the merchant lords. As major players in the oracular network, ritual specialists like the Aro turned ritual networks into slave trading routes.

Aro colonies bolstered their populations by absorbing refugees and other migrants from neighbouring communities. Many Aro colonies were founded or dominated by originally non-Aro people such as Ikelionwu. This is not unlike the initial founding of the Aro themselves who are made up of a diverse set of lineages comprising Igbo, Akamkpa Ejagham, and Ibibio elements. The Aro also had non-Igbo allies such as the Ika people of present-day Akwa Ibom.

Ikelionwu had several sons, one of them named Ijeoma. Ijeoma went on to have a son named Okoli. An expansionist, Okoli was the warlord who hired the Ada to attack Öka sometime around the 1880s and 1890s. ‘Ada’ was a generic name used mainly by north-central Igbo for Aro mercenaries, notably from Eda, Abam, and Ohafia in present-day Abia State and Ebonyi State. The war between Okoli Ijeoma and Öka became known as Agha Ìbenne, the war of relatives. The story of how black monkeys became sacred to the Öka starts here.

Enwe Imoka

As part of their war plans, the Ada went into the bushes around Öka and laid in wait to ambush the Öka. According to tradition, monkeys inhabiting the bush became startled and fled from the Ada. These particular monkeys appear to have been the mona monkeys. It was through the alert of monkeys fleeing into the main Öka settlement that the Öka were able to thwart the plans of the Ada. The Öka assembled the Egbunoji, the Öka militia, and outnumbering them, the Öka overcame and defeated the Ada.

An Igbo man in battle dress. Photographed in Öka (Awka) by Northcote Thomas, c. 1910-11. MAA Cambridge.

Enwe Imoka, the mona, is celebrated during the Imoka festival and is sacred to the Imoka feminine divinity, the national divinity of the Öka people. It could be that the Enwe Imoka was already sacred to Imoka before Öka’s encounter with the Ada due to traditions that say monkeys were dedicated to Imoka early in Öka’s history. There is a widespread practice prohibiting the eating or harm of certain animals designated sacred in communities in the Igbo cultural area.


Abam, Ohafia, and Eda, and other Cross River Igbo, were mercenaries hired by different warlords and communities. The Enugwu Ukwu people became known as Ike melu Ada for outsmarting the Eda by poisoning food and water sources on the Eda warrior’s route towards Enugwu Ukwu, a tactic also used by Enugwu Ezike.

Before the Aro introduced guns and the Abam came with their headhunting practices, Igbo people mostly used clubs and staves to fight with ‘crash’ helmets to protect from blows to the head. The Abam used ambushing and rushing tactics. They'd lay in wait and rush enemies while they were unprepared or preparing their guns. They used daggers, ogbuonyeoma, for short-distance attacks. The Abam painted their eyes with blood and wore mostly loincloths and palm leaves.

The Amakom Alliance

The activities of the ‘Ada’ during and prior to the time of Okoli Ijeoma also forced Nri to compromise its absolutist pacifist position and laws under Nri Enwelana who, as Eze Nri, broke taboo by sanctioning the formation of a war group, the Amakom, against Okoli Ijeoma and the Ada raids. The Eze Nri had earlier warned Okoli Ijeoma against his aggressiveness to no avail and thus cursed him and formed the Amakom military alliance comprising several settlements around the Nri-Öka area, including Öka.

These turbulent times contributed to the estimated number of over a million Igbo people being sold and taken over the Atlantic by Europeans, and to British colonies like Barbados, Jamaica, and, before the 1770s, Virginia in particular.

Map of communities attacked by the Abam, after John Oriji (2011).

The dreaded Abam and Eda (Ada) made the north-central Igbo, roughly Anambra State today, build high walls around their compounds. In other areas, people built trenches and stockaded their communities. There was an already established settlement pattern used by many Igbo communities of placing slave quarters in the periphery of the main settlement, invariably the most vulnerable areas to attack.

An Igbo tower photographed by British colonial government anthropologist Northcote Thomas, early 1910s. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. Although impressive, the obu na enu structures reveal the immense pressure raids put on communities in the north-central Igbo area, especially from the Abam, Ohafia, and Eda from the east. Necessity pushed for innovation. The obu na enu towers were used for tracking movements and had loopholes for gunfire and thick walls for defence.

Okoli Ijeoma died in 1905, right around the start of the British incursion into the Öka area and the beginning of the colonial era in the Igbo area. The Okoli Ijoma war was one of the last major conflicts involving the ‘Ada’ before the arrival of the British.

Sources: Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Felicia Ekejiuba (1990). “The Aro of South-eastern Nigeria, 1650–1980…”; Ugo Nwokeji (2011). “The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra…”; Elizabeth Isichei (1977). “Igbo Worlds…”; Amanke Okafor. “The Awka People”; John Oriji (2011). “Political Organization in Nigeria…”; Ndubueze L. Mbah. (2019). “Emergent Masculinities…”; L. R. Baker; A. A. Tanimola; O. S. Olubode; D. L. Garshelis (2009). “Distribution and Abundance of Sacred Monkeys in Igboland”. American Journal of Primatology; Robert D. Jackson (1975). "The Twenty Years War”.


Unknown said...

I am impressed with your knowledge of the Igbo culture/history... I will like if you could regal with our origin as a people. I'd much appreciate it. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Well put together. Reading your posts is enough for a University degree in Igbo (and it's surrounding ) Culture

Unknown said...

Well put together. I love the simplicity in the story telling. Nice research