By Emmanuel Ugwu, This Day
Arochukwu community in Abia State occupies a prominent place in the history of Africa. When you open the history books and read about the slave trade, the Long Juju of Arochukwu readily jumps out of the pages. Hence Arochukwu is a historical factor either for good or for bad, depending on your perception of the historical events. Nonetheless the people of Arochukwu strongly feel that they have not been treated fairly in history and this burden of wrong perception, even among their fellow Igbo, has contributed immensely to the slow pace of development in the area.
In fact, there is a feeling among the Aro people that there is an unwritten policy to deny the area developmental projects over the years by successive governments at Federal and State levels because of the wrong perception of the Aro and their role in the slave trade.
President General of Nzuko Aro Worldwide, Mazi Emma Kanu Ivi (Ugwuaro) said that the wrong perception of Aro people is rife even among the leadership of Ndigbo irrespective of the immense contributions notable Aros have made in national development and Igbo civilisation.
“It appears the leaders in Igbo land have a wrong perception of the role played by Aro in the past,” he said. “But we’re telling them that the contribution of the Aro to Igbo civilisation far outweighs their role in the slave trade.” Like a good student of history Mazi Ivi readily admitted that the people of Arochukwu were deeply involved in the buying and selling of slaves during the dark period of Black man’s history spanning from the 16th to 19th centuries.
According to him, their forefathers were buying slaves from those willing to sell and selling to those willing to buy, thereby playing a kind of middle man in the slave trade, which was “part of the legal commercial activities of the time.” And even at that, there was no slave market in the whole of Arochukwu throughout the duration of slave trade.
He pointed out that the Aro never got involved in the conquest of weaker communities to take slave as booties as was done by the warrior clans such as Abam, Ohafia, Abiriba, among others. And after the abolition of slavery the slave merchants from Aro quickly switched over to trading in commodities such as palm produce.
Even then the “misconception” of the role played by the forefathers of Aro people keeps resonating every now and then. For instance during the last Ahiajoku lecture in January, a University of Nigeria Nsukka lecturer, Dr Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe, stirred the hornet’s nest when he called for a demand that Aro descendants should pay reparations to atone for the role played by their ancestors during the era of slavery and slave trade whereby they “undermined” their fellow Igbo.
Naturally Aro intellectuals were aghast at such a call emanating from a university don, who according to them, should have known better and appreciate the positive roles Aro people have played in Igbo civilisation and national development. One of Aro intellectuals, Orji Ogbonnaya Orji, fired back, saying that “it is important for Nwaezeigwe (and those in his school of thought) to note that contemporary issues of development in Africa, Nigeria and Igbo land have gone beyond advancing obsolete and futile arguments about slave trade that creates more problems than solutions.”
Indeed, Aro have abundance of prominent personalities, past and present, as evidence of their positive contributions to national development, which far outweighs the part played by their fore bearers in slave trade. Take for instance the roles of late Dr. K.O Mbadiwe, (the man of timber and calibre), Mazi Mbonu Ojike (Boycott the boycottables), and S.G Ikoku, who were frontline nationalists during the struggle for Nigeria’s independence and were equally among the notable politicians in the nation’s post-independence politics.
In the education sector Alvan Ikoku towers like an iroko tree where he is well recognised as a torch bearer so much so that today his image adorns the ten naira denomination of Nigeria’s national currency. In the contemporary Nigeria the names of Aro people ring bells. The Super Eagles captain, Nwankwo Kanu, is a household name; so also is Professor Humphrey Nwosu, who as the chairman of the defunct National Electoral Commission (NEC), conducted the best general election so far in the history of Nigeria. And of course the elegant stallion of Nigerian music, Onyeka Onwenu is Aro woman, just as the chairman of Nigerian Economic Summit, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, is an Aro man.
With this array of accomplished individuals, it was easy for the president-general of Nzuko Aro Worldwide to affirm that “in terms of human beings Aro is highly developed, but in physical development of our area, we’re still very low.” It is therefore not surprising that the Aro have persistently been crying out to the governments at all levels to provide the needed physical infrastructure to elevate Aro to the status befitting it.
On July 18, 2009, when the highest ruling council in the Aro Kingdom, the “Okpankpo Aro” was inaugurated, the issue of underdevelopment of Arochukwu was on the lips of everyone. And the Aro are not crying in vain. A first time visitor to Arochukwu is usually confronted with a paradox of a community that has not matched its historical stature with commensurate physical development. The first shocker is the near absence of social amenities.
The only federal road leading to Arochukwu has long been dilapidated and has in fact become a subject of failed promises as the years roll by. Year after year the Arochukwu – Ohafia federal road features in the budget, but at the end of the day the authorities end up doing nothing to rehabilitate the road. The state roads are no better. Nobody talks of potable water and other social amenities. The state of health care delivery is so bad that the people depend mainly on health missions occasionally organised by Aro indigenes living in the United States of America.
Things would not have turned out this way if the government had lived up to its responsibility to the Aro people. For over two decades, the Aro have been waiting for their town to be elevated to an urban area. Mazi Ivi said government had in 1976 designated Arochukwu as an urban area alongside Aba, Owerri, Orlu, and Okigwe. However, while others have since been developed to attain the urban status, Arochukwu has continued to remain rural. The people blame governments at all level for abandoning the community to its sad fate.
Comrade Ogbonnaya Akuma, a member of Okpankpo Aro, said that the Aro on their part have been developing their area in terms of putting up modern buildings, but insisted that the main ingredients of urbanisation, namely social infrastructure was far beyond what the people could do on their own.
According to him, only government possess the financial capacity to put in place such infrastructure that would transform the area and elevate it to its rightful status of an urban town. There is also the nagging issue of the failure of government to accord the Eze Aro the privileges that traditional rulers in his class enjoy.
The present Eze Aro holds the national honour of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) but his subjects are clamouring that he should also be made a chancellor of a federal university in order to place him on the same pedestal with other first class monarchs such as the Obong of Calabar and Obi of Onitsha, who were all on the same status during the first republic.
No matter the sorry state of affairs in Arochukwu the area holds a special significance for every Aro man and woman whenever they are. The town is regarded as the headquarters of Arochukwu Kingdom, which goes beyond the physical area to include all Aro communities worldwide. Presently there are over 150 Aro communities within and outside Nigeria and all the communities owe their allegiance to the Aro Kingdom and regard themselves as part and parcel of it irrespective of place and distance of abode.
“This is a specia0l kingdom made up of three kindreds, but has welded together over the past 700 years,” said Mazi Ivi. Not even the crave for autonomous communities could split the Aro Kingdom. During the regime of former Abia State governor, Chief Orji Uzor Kalu, communities in the state were split into several autonomous parts but the Aro people resisted the political temptation and remained intact. The constituent kindreds, namely Okennachi, Ibom Isii and Ezeagwu are still bonded together in one kingdom. Traditionally Okennachi kindred produces the King while Ibom Isii crowns the king with Ezeagwu playing equally important role to stabilise the kingdom. Though Ibom Isii and Ezeagwu have their respective traditional rulers for ease of administration they still owe allegiance to the Eze Aro, and this allegiance is symbolised at public functions of the kingdom during which Eze Aro sits on his throne and is flanked on the right by Eze Ibom Isii, while Eze Ezeagwu sits on the left hand side.
The administrative structure of the kingdom is organised in such a manner that the 19 villages in Aro kingdom have their administrative councils, followed by the kindred councils, the national council and the Okpankpo at the apex of the administrative structure. Historically the Okpankpo was reserved for the aged wise men of the kingdom, who were well grounded in the culture and traditions of Aro people and those wise men were usually so advanced in age that they walk with the aid of walking stick hence the name “Okpankpo” (he who holds the walking stick).
“They gather and discuss every issue concerning the Aro kingdom and their decision concerning this community, the Aro kingdom, including those in the Diaspora remains final,” said Mazi Ivi. But things have changed and the present paramount ruler of the kingdom, Eze Aro VIII, Mazi Ogbonnaya Okoro, has seen the need to reform the Okpankpo to meet the needs of the changing times. Last January, he dissolved the Okpankpo, which he inherited from his predecessor, late Mazi Kanu. In explaining his action to his subjects His majesty, Mazi Ogbonnaya Okoro, the Eze Aro said that on mounting the throne, he allowed the previous Okpankpo to continue to function for the sake of continuity “but passage of time, development and new ideas in this modern age necessitate that this organ be strengthened to achieve better results for our kingdom.” And so seven months after the dissolution, precisely on July 18, a reformed Okpankpo was inaugurated with 36 members comprising both the old and the young men of the kingdom.
In his inaugural address the Eze Aro, flanked by the Eze Ibom Isii, Mazi Kanu Nwa Kanu and the Eze Eze Agwu, Mazi Okoroafor Uro, described the new Okpankpo as “an assemblage of intelligent, civilised and enlightened leaders” adding that “the current membership has been deliberately chosen to consist of those individuals who will take us on the wings of dynamism, expertise, hard work, innovations and achievements”. Though the Okpankpo has been reformed to meet the dictates of modern times, the old practice of excluding women from the fold still remained. “We will get there but not yet,” Mazi Ivi said in acknowledging that Okpankpo reformation did not go as far as admitting women into the highest decision making body of Aro Kingdom.
Much is being expected from the re-branded Okpankpo, which has Dr Nkemka Jombo-Ofo as the Speaker. The Eze Aro indicated this much when he spelt out the direction the Okpankpo should move. He said: “We all know that a new kind of competition is now part of our world. There are new ways of resolving conflicts, new ways of expanding economic frontiers and interest, new ways of evolving communal relationship, new ways of attracting development and projects to one’s community.
“All these I intend to entrust to this new Okpankpo and to challenge this assemblage of brilliant individuals to do more for Aro.” As part of the innovations, the Aro monarch has created nine specialised sub-committees to facilitate the operations of the new Okpankpo. These include culture and tradition, political and intergovernmental relations, infrastructure, youths empowerment, finance, legal and security, inter-communal relations, humanities (health and education), and special duties.
Having evolved new ways of doing things and determined to shed the vestiges of the bad old days of slave trade, the Aro may be on the threshold of ending their sulking and complaining about neglect in development. Indeed the people are in upbeat mood to take their destiny in their own hands and translate into reality their claim of being a special breed of the Igbo race. “We are special in our customs, in our traditions and most especially in our values,” he emphasised.