Historical Background to Onitsha Ado ‘N’ Idu

There is no clearly definite version of the history of Onitsha. Recent researches which need to be probed further indicate an earlier migration from Ife, a stopover in Benin of some 700 years before progressing towards the present location of Onitsha. The history of Onitsha town could be traced to various sources. All the versions rule out autochthony with each of them indicating prolonged movements from various origins to the same destination called Onicha-Mmili.

It is generally believed that Onitsha as a settlement came about as a result of many migratory waves. One source, B. O. N. Eluwa asserted that the last Igbo Communities to migrate into present day Igboland from ancientAdo is Onitsha. Eluwa recognized Idu as the name by which ancient Igbo people called Edo land. In searching for Ado, Eluwa found out that Ado-na-Idu was a twin state and extensive empire which had Ife (now called lle Ife) as its capital.

Going further, Eluwa asserted that the extensive empire had the Ogene of Ife as its patriarchal mler. According to Eluwa, the last Ogene to rule Ado-na-Idu before many of the Igbo migrated to the present territory was the same personage the Yoruba recognize as Oduduwa. He affirmed that, Oduduwa was Igbo, and his city, Ife was the capital of Ado and the metropolis of Ado-na-Idu. The Yoruba according to Eluwa arrived Ado at the early stages of Oduduwa’s rulership. He suggested or second guessed that Oduduwa was in his youth at this fateful period.

Oduduwa received the Yoruba and encouraged them to settle in the land and they reciprocated this kind gesture by accepting him as theirfather. It was further asserted by Eluwa that at the time of the death of Oduduwa his eldest son was from one of his Yoruba wives. An attempt by the eldest son from the Yoruba wife to succeed Oduduwa rather than the eldest son from an I gbo mother led to a horrendous and fierce controversy which almost led to a civil war of a big magnitude.

It was revealed that at that time, the second and third generation Yoruba had been born in the land. Generally the conflict divided the nation into two and cut across Igbo and Yoruba communities who by that time had become a kinship group. A civil war of this nature by Igbo tradition between the two groups would be fratricide, that is bloodshed among blood relations. This became more aborninable because the civil war that was threatening was among two biological brothers-Ado people (led by Igbos) divided and ranged on both sides of the fierce quarrel overmlership succession, and with the Yorubas silently but fully pitching their tent on the side of the quarrel that favoured them. The implication of the foreboding bloodshed was the wrath of -Ala- the god of the land and also the anger of all other gods and the ancestors. It was told that to avoid such a terrible calamity the opposing Igbo and their supporters decided to migrate.

The decision to migrate and the attendant migration was not a carefully plamied and executed action. It was described as a panic measure. The panic was caused by the realization that the confrontation was between two Igbo groups as the Yoruba leadership was not directly involved. Families and kinship groups that migrated became scattered with some remaining in fractionalizedAdo, some in Edo land, some in Westem Igboland and others in Eastem Igboland.

This according to Eluwa is demonstrated in the way the ethnic clan called Onicha (or Onitsha or Onisa) is distributed, with nine of them in Ado State now Western Nigeria, four in Western Igboland, eight in Eastem Igboland and one (Onitsha-Mili) that first migrated to Edo land but is now in Oru (or Olu ).’ Going further Eluwa p. 108 narrates that “one of the last Igbo communities to migrate to present day Igboland from ancient Ado is Onitsha. The people of Onitsha migrated from Ado to the Town of U do now in the territory of Benin, but the capital of Idu (Edo land).

The story had it that they migrated from Udo further East through Aboh and that they were a part of the Eze-Chima clan. Other members of the clan were listed as Issele-Uku, Issele Azagba, Issele Mkpitime, Onitsha-Ukwu, Onitsha  Ugbo, Onitsha Olona, Obio, Obonkpa, Ezi, Ossissa, Obetim and Ashaka as well as a section of Obosi in the Old Onitsha division also said to be descended from the Eze Chima clan”.

Going further, Eluwa posited that Ado-na-Idu had a common language and that that common language – was Ado, which was basically Igbo, while each of its constituent communities spoke dialects of the language, such as Edo (or Idu) and Igbo. Eluwa also posits that, “since the Igbo were specifically identified as the leading opponents to the Yoruba attempt to usurp power through the Yoruba – related prince of Ife, there is no doubt that this Igbo opposition group included Onitsha people who migrated with it”.

There are other versions of the origin of Onicha Ado n’Idu. Some of these versions point to Benin as the main source of the migration of the people of Onitsha to their present place of abode. According to these sources, the Onitsha people originally came from Ile-Ife and journeyed to Benin. Under the tyrannical rule of the Oba of Benin (Oba Esigie), the entire people of Onitsha fled Benin in the 16th century, wandered through Ikaland founded by their kith and kin and with the help of Igala compatriots crossed the River Niger, and settled in the land called Onitsha.

In his ground-breaking work, Nnanyelugo S. I. Bosah (circa 1973) stated that the people of Benin migrated to Nigeria from Egypt in about 900 A.D. Their first settlement was at Ile Ife before they left for Benin from where they further migrated to Onitsha after eventually crossing the River Niger. According to Bosah, during the period of emigration, and for many centuries after, the people of Onitsha who now live on the eastern bank of the River Niger were part and parcel of the Edo tribe. It is for this reason that Onitsha people fondly call their town “Onitsha Ado N’Idu, meaning Onitsha of Edo Origin. This gives credence to the claims of Onitsha people that their progenitors came from Egypt, domiciled in Ile Ife, continued to Benin and settled in Onitsha. It is noteworthy that the emigrants were nicknamed “Onitsha” after their exodus from Benin by people whose territories they marched through, ravaging or plundering all that stood in their way. They used guns against opponents who stood in their way, a weapon they knew about during their stay in Benin.

The name Onitsha means despiser. According to various sources, this name reflected the manner in which the emigrants dealt with obstacles placed on their various routes by adjoining towns and villages. Their leader was a powerful man of dominant influence called Ahime – a name later corrupted to Chime and later Chima. This migration to Onitsha is supposed to have taken place in 1520 during the reign of Oba Esigie of the Benin Kingdom.

According to W. R. T. Milne in his Intelligence Report on Onitsha, Chima might have been forced to leave Benin because of a dispute over kingship in the year 1468. In the course of the great movement, some of Chima’s loyalists settled in the neighboring towns’ of the present-day Onitsha Ugbo, Onicha Olona, Ogwashi Uku, Onicha Ukwu and Asaba.

When Chima got to Agbor, he left with some of his followers, leaving part of his family behind and migrated to Obior. The sojourn of Onitsha people in Obior marked a turning point in their history. One of Chima’s henchmen called Olona, with time, left Obior and founded a new home called Onitsha Olona. Other segments of the immigrants, especially those engaged in trade, travelled far afield and founded new settlements, such as Issele Uku, Obamkpa, Ewulu and Onitsha Ukwu. Others went down to the River Niger and traded with the people of Igala and Idah. It was also acclaimed that they maintained trading depots in places like Ilah, Ebu, Ilushi, Ode, Igbokenyi, Nzam and Anam.

The fame of Eze-Chima had travelled far and wide. At a time, he was visited by a noble Igala man called Ogbodogo with a large retinue. In the entourage was another nobleman named Okomanya. During their conversation with Chima they relayed the story of a beautiful, fertile and uninhabited land on the Eastern bank of the Niger. This land was occasionally used as fishing ports by migrant fishermen from Igala. Chima, impressed with this story, narrated it to his children among who was Oreze. The children agreed to send Oreze the second son to scout the land in company of Ogbodogo and Okomanya. This adventure was to be undertaken in the canoe belonging to Ogbodogo and Okomanya. Both Okomanya and Ogbodogo were ready to provide a fleet of canoes to ferry the emigrants. No sooner was the arrangement firmed up, than Eze Chima took ill and died.

Historical TimelineFacts about Onitsha Ado 'N' Idu

  • 1857

    Arrival of the British

    Onitsha town had as far back as July 26, 1857 become the cradle of western civilization east of the Niger. This was when the first British Ship named the Dayspring dropped anchor on the banks of the River Niger during the reign of Obi Akazue. Reverend Aj ayi Crowther of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and Dr. Baikie were in that ship which was under the command of Captain Grant. Hence, the ship was armed with the “Gun” and the “Bible”.

  • 1879

    Onitsha Bombardment

    Onitsha was bombarded by a British ship HMS Pioneer in 1879 for alleged pillaging of the United Africa Company's properties by the natives.

  • 1884

    Inception of Treaty & Arrival of the Roman Catholic Missionary

    The then Obi and his Chiefs signed a Treaty of Commerce with the British in l884 after which in 1885, the Roman Catholic Missionaries arrived Onitsha for the first time from Brass.

  • 1899

    Arrival of Royal Niger Company and Acquintance with Onitsha People

    Obi Anazonwu died in 1899 when the charter of the Royal Niger Company expired and the civil administration of the Niger territories was initially taken over by the British Government. Many Onitsha indigenes served the British as clerks and interpreters and for the missions as teachers and catechists.

  • 1900

    The 20th Century Igwe

    Obi Samuel Okosi became the king of Onitsha on 8th April, 1900 was serving the Catholic Mission in Aguleri when his acceptance was announced following the recommendations of the Bedwell Inquiry,

Igwe Samuel Obi Okosi

His Royal Highness Samuel Obi Okosi
His Royal Highness Samuel Obi Okosi

The featured book titled ‘Origin & Developments – Agbalanze Onitsha Cultural Association’ is a major contribution to the growing body of published materials on, and documentation of, the life of the people of Onitsha Ado N’ldu. It calls for-further research and understanding which will enable the present generation to effectively strengthen and re-position our Ozo institution and Agbalanze Onitsha Cultural Association for the future. I welcome this book and commend it to a worldwide readership of both Onitsha indigenes and everyone interested in indigenous cultures and traditions.

His Majesty, Nnaemeka Alfred Ugochukwu Achebe, CFR, mni
Obi of Onitsha
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