Thursday, September 8, 2016

Dele Cole’s Nonexistent ‘Igbo’ Slaves

By Ochereome Nnanna
On  Tuesday, 30th August 2016, at exactly 10.41am, I received a text from an unidentified frequent sender of messages to my platforms whenever he reads topics that agitate his mind, whether written by me or others.
He wrote: “Greetings. How can Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, in today’s Vanguard Newspaper…assert that the Igbo were slaves of the Ijaw? If, for the purpose of argument, one or two Igbo men were captured, held as slaves, or were sold into slavery in those days, how does that translate to the Igbo (an entire ethnic nationality) becoming slaves to the Ijaw…?”

Dele Cole’s article was entitled: “Nigerians And Their Origin”. He was displaying his rich knowledge of how people, not just in Nigeria but also in different parts of the world, acquired their current ethno-racial identities; how some powerful conquerors like the Jihadist Fulani, “dropped” their language and adopted those of their majority subjects, the Hausa, in order get assimilated and rule over them effectively.

Cole, at the tail end of his very interesting tapestry of sampling, however, made a conclusion I found both curious and contradictory compared to his earlier conclusion about the “Igbo” and “Ijaw” (I am putting these words in inverted commas for a reason that will be explained shortly). According to Cole: “Who are the Hausa-Fulani? The French of Normandy conquered England in 1066 and adopted their language. They were not known as French-English but English…Thus in the North of Nigeria they (Fulani) should be known as Hausa”.

Before I go on, let me correct Cole. The Fulani never dropped their language. Though they adopted the Hausa and other languages in areas they conquered (such as Nupe in Bida and Yoruba in Ilorin) they still maintained their Fulbe language and identity. In fact, former Governor Sule Lamido of Jigawa State, a Fulani royal who hails from Bamaina in Birnin Kudu Local Government of the state, told me he did not “learn” Hausa until he went to school.

 The portion of Dele’s article that riled my friend most was where he wrote: “The Ijaws of Bonny adopted the language of their slaves, Igbo, and speak Igbo now. In other Ijaw areas, competent Igbos became chiefs of (administration), chiefs of staff or even war generals. In (three) Ijaw enclaves, they became kings themselves – King Jaja of Opobo, King Amakiri of Buguma and King Pepple of Bonny. These facts did not make Buguma, Opobo or Bonny Igbo…”

Don’t you find it contradictory that “Ijaw” enclaves could adopt the “Igbo” language of their former “slaves” and not be Igbo, while the Fulani should become Hausa because, according to Cole, they adopted the language of their Hausa conquered subjects? Talking of conquest, it is totally fallacious, misleading and mischievous for Cole to say: “The Ijaws of Bonny adopted the language of their slaves, Igbo”.

While Igbos (like all other Africans captured in wars and forest raids in ancient times) often ended up being sold as slaves by their own kinsfolk, it is not on record that any “Ijaw” clan ever fought, conquered and or enslaved any hamlet sharing ethno-cultural and language characteristics now described as “Igbo”. As recently as a century ago, there were no specific ethnic groups known as “Igbo”, or “Ijaw”. What we had were the Abiriba, Owerre, Umuahia, Ikwerre, Okrika (or Wakiirike) Kalabari, Igbani (Bonny) and so on.

It was during the colonial era that scholars and politicians aggregated people of similar ethno-cultural and linguistic characteristics and called them “Igbo”, “Ijaw”, “Yoruba” and so on. The Hausa-Fulani phenomenon is a product of this process of aggregation for political solidarity and academic convenience. Therefore, there was no such thing as “Igbo” slaves of “Ijaw” people. Rather, it is on record that those now known as “Igbo” (especially the Aros) often sold their neighbours captured in wars as slaves.

Some were bought as merchandise in the norms of ancient times and sold to kings and merchants of the coasts who were and still are known among Igbo as Ndi mba mmiri (people of the seas). These included the Efiks, Kalabari, Bonny and other kingdoms that had flourishing trade links to European merchants. Some of these slaves who were not sold to the White merchants were retained by their masters, and later bought back their freedom through personal enterprise. From then, the sky became their limit. This was the story of King Jaja of Opobo, the ex-slave boy from Amaigbo in Orlu originally sold in Bonny Kingdom, and others who became kings.

If this “slave” issue is still a big deal I would like Patrick Dele Cole to search his own Sierra Leonean paternal ancestral linage and let us know how free of it he is. Cole is not a native Sierra Leonean name. It is usually linked to the freed slaves of Freetown, some of whom were originally Igbo! For me, it is just a play to the gallery, deployed by people with ulterior and unwholesome mindset to create divisions and get people fighting one another, rather than cohabiting peacefully as good neighbours.

This is not the first time that Patrick Dele Cole is celebrating this fallacy. He was very fond of doing it in 1999 when Olusegun Obasanjo and Alex Ekwueme were contesting for the presidency and he worked for Obasanjo, his mentor. My own Abiriba people have strong historical links to the people of Bonny, where we sold our blacksmith merchandise. Prof. Elizabeth Isichei notes that there was a special kind of dagger made by Abiriba blacksmiths known as abreba found in Bonny, and this existed before the coming of the White man.

My people still name some of their sons Igbani and their daughters Ubani. Actress Uche Jumbo’s father from Abiriba flourished as a coastal merchant. What was known of relations between the Igbo and the riverine people was that of trade and cultural interaction, not war and imperialism. It is people like Dele Patrick Cole that throw up these divisive issues for some queer personal aggrandisement.
*Ochereome Nnanna is a commentator on public issues 

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