History and Oral Traditions of Igala People

Traditions of Igala People IF we assume, as we surely can, that the Niger and Benue rivers played an even more strategic role in the Nigerian past than they do today, then it is clear that the Igala area holds the key to an important chapter of Nigerian history, a chapter which particularly concerns the problem of interrelations between different groups in Nigeria. The Igala are located at one of the natural crossroads in Nigerian geography, the Niger-Benue confluence, and this has brought them into contact with a wide range of peoples. The confluence area, like Poland in Europe, seems to have been pulled in different directions at different periods. At times the Igala have been oriented towards the Yoruba, at other times towards Benin, or again, later on, towards the Jukun empire, and they themselves have exercised a considerable influence on surrounding peoples such as the Idoma, the Northern Ibo and the Nupe.


The vast range of contact between Igala and other peoples creates many problems for historical analysis, since so many threads have gone into the fabric of Igala culture, and Igala culture itself spreads outwards beyond the boundaries of the kingdom. To simplify these problems for discussion, this paper concentrates on internal problems of development, on the influences that contributed to the development and growth of the Igala political and social system. And it excludes the influence that Igala itself has had on surrounding areas. In trying to reconstruct the Igala past, my main source of material is oral tradition. But I also try to discuss the oral traditions in the light of linguistic information which Professor Armstrong has made available, and in the light of my own knowledge of Igala political and social structure.

To simplify the many problems of analysis that are present in oral tradition, I shall concentrate on certain crucial problems. In the Igala case these are three in number. First there is the problem of variants in the traditions, and particularly the problem of divergence on the question of origins. The second problem is the problem of chronology, which can be summarized briefly here by saying that the oral traditions seem to cover only a fraction of the total time-span of Igala history. The third problem is the problem of separating the political facets of the traditions from their historical functions. This third problem is one that holds the key to the other two. The shortcomings of oral tradition in terms of diversity and in terms of chronological inadequacy can probably be explained by the fact that oral traditions perform a political as well as a historical function-in Malinowski’s phrase, they provide charters of institutions.

And when we look at them as supposedly objective records of the past, we are perhaps distorting their perspective and failing to grasp something of the essential function of oral tradition. For this reason I begin with a brief sketch of the Igala political system, and try to show how this inevitably brings diversity into the body of oral tradition.

The Igala form a kingdom whose ruler, the Ata, has his capital at Idah on the river Niger. The total population of the kingdom in 1962 was around

460,000. Constitutionally the king’s position was more like that of a Yoruba oba than that of a strong ruler like the Oba of Benin. The Igala Ata ruled over a loosely federated kingdom in which the major provinces were organized and behaved like petty kingdoms. The provincial chiefs were relatively autonomous in their provincial capitals, and were only subject to the king in certain sovereign matters such as the payment of tribute,

jurisdiction over homicide, and succession to their own offices. As in the Yoruba kingdoms, a strong ruler could improve his position against that of the provincial chiefs. But basically the kingdom conformed to what Southall calls the pyramidal or federated type rather than to the other type of kingdom, like Benin, in which power is strongly centralized.

The federated type of kingdom probably tends to have a higher degree of diversity in its oral traditions than kingdoms of the centralized type, since each provincial centre of government is also a centre for oral tradition, and the tradition of the royal group itself does not have the same kind of overwhelming authority that royal tradition has in a kingdom like Benin. In Igala some of the provincial chiefs are themselves members of localized branches of the royal clan, so that in addition to the problem of divergence between the histories of different descent groups, one gets the further problem of divergence within the royal traditions themselves, according as they come from the capital or from royal centres located in the provinces.

Igala is divided into clans, and its political structure is based on a system in which clans perform political functions at either the central level, in the capital, or at the provincial level or at the local level in the districts. Each clan has its own traditions, and in each case the tradition is partly concerned with justifying and validating the clan’s political function. For instance, the royal clan is concerned with legitimating its right to rule, and bases this claim on the principle of descent from older dynasties in other kingdoms. The royal dynasty in Igala is an immigrant one. The indigenous population of Igala is represented politically, and in the oral traditions, by a group of clans called the Igala Mela, who are supposed to have occupied Idah from the beginning.

They act as kingmakers in the political system, and also control an earth cult which symbolizes the fertility and benevolence of the land throughout the Igala kingdom. One other aristocratic clan which I should mention is the clan of the Achadu, who is head of the kingmakers and holds the Igala Mela group together-though in fact the Achadu’s clan, like the royal clan, is of immigrant origin and traces its descent to an Ibo who came into the Igala area for hunting. I select this small group of clans-the royal clan, the Igala Mela, and the Achadu’s clan-for special emphasis, because their traditions provide a framework that helps to co-ordinate the notions held in other, less important clans concerning origins and the sequence of time.

This outline illustrates some of the structural and political factors that make for diversity in Igala oral tradition. Let us go on to examine this diversity in more detail, concentrating in particular on the problems surrounding the origin and introduction of the kingship. It is unfortunate here that one of the few articles that has appeared in print on this subject takes a rather extreme view of this question of origins. This is the article by Miles Clifford, a former District Officer who was strongly influenced by Sir Richmond Palmer’s idea that kingship diffused into Nigeria from the east down the Benue valley. Meek, who was similarly influenced by Palmer, had published his Jukun study, A Sudanese Kingdom, five years before Clifford published his own article. The combination of these factors seems to have encouraged Clifford to emphasize traditions of a Jukun origin for the Igala kingship, and to argue that the first Igala kings, who took over from the Igala Mela at Idah, came from Wukari.

Clifford argued that a breakaway group of Jukun moved eastwards from Wukari, staying just south of the Benue, and that they settled at Amagedde

in the north-east of Igala, before finally moving from there across country to Idah. Clifford further argued that the first three of four Igala rulers, whose names appear on my list before Ayagba, lived and died in the Amagedde area, and that the first Igala king to rule at Idah was Ayagba.

He also implies that the institution of kingship did not exist at Idah before it was introduced there by the Jukun. By paying special attention to the Jukun tradition of origin, Clifford gives the impression that other traditions of origin for the Igala kingship were either non-existent or else of no importance. He quotes a story by the French traveller Burdo, for instance, which connects Igala with Yoruba, and dismisses this as being ingenious but fantastic. And elsewhere he says that the Jukun tradition is the one most in favour with the royal house.

But this argument that most of the Igala believe in a Jukun origin for their royal house gives an entirely false impression of unanimity and agreement in the oral traditions. The following legend, collected in I960, claims a historical link between the Igala and Benin royal dynasties through the migration from Benin to Idah of a brother of the Oba of Benin. This legend is current in the ruling subclan of the Igala royal house. A slightly different version of royal origins claims that the first king, Abute Eje, was fathered by a leopard. But I have argued elsewhere that this myth is a symbolic claim to Benin origins.

Long ago, there was a chief of Benin (Onu Ibini) who came to the throne when it was the rule that the first son born to the Oba should succeed him on the throne. Now this chief and his wife quarreled, and because the wife hated her husband, when she delivered a male child she did not take it for her husband to see. Shortly afterwards one of her co-wives also delivered a male child, and immediately went with it to the chief. So the Onu took all the insignia of his title, even down to the hat that the chief wore, and had all these things placed in a neighbouring town for the second child, who later on became chief of that place.

When the Onu died, the followers of the two brothers heard the news and began to discuss the succession. Those living at home said that it would fall on the senior brother, but the other party refused, on the grounds that the younger brother had been given the insignia of office, and still had them in his possession. In his reply the first group asked whether it was the rule that the elder of two kinsmen should step down to let the junior take his place.

This argument led to fighting, and to so much killing that the junior brother said ‘If this goes on, my father’s people will wipe each other out and the family will perish for the sake of a title. The best thing I can do to prevent this is to go away and leave the matter to be settled by God.’ So he went away, and was followed by the Bini who are the ancestors of the people in the country opposite Idah, right up to Asaba (Achaba) and Kukuruku (Ingele). Those that grew tired on the way stopped wherever they liked and were left behind. When the younger brother came at last to cross over to Idah, the people around noticed the things that he was carrying and reported to the elders at home that a stranger was coming with some amazing things. The elders themselves went to look, and decided that the stranger was a man of truth, so they invited him to settle with them and become their Ata.

After this, the new Ata sent his own child back to Benin with a message to say that the elder brother could be given the Oba’s title as he himself was more than satisfied with his new title of Ata. In return the Oba’s messengers came to Idah and reported back that they were received with great ceremony in which the Ata had followed strictly the custom of their own forefathers, breaking kola for the visitors and invoking their ancestors by name. The Oba commented ‘God has indeed given my brother the senior position’, and from that time onwards the seniority of the Ata over the Oba has been accepted.

In the past the Bini used to send eight slaves to Idah to be made eunuchs whenever a new Oba was appointed, and the Ata used to keep four of these eunuchs and send the other four back to the Oba. Igala kingship has also been connected by tradition with Yoruba, and the explorers who ascended the Niger in the nineteenth century were given various explanations of this connexion.5 Unlike Clifford, we should take all these different claims seriously as forming a set of divergent views about the origin of Igala kingship.

This divergence and the existence of different theories about the origins of the kingship are an essential feature of Igala oral tradition, and to emphasize only one of these views or even to try to select between the traditions, carries the risk of misrepresenting the nature of the historical corpus and of missing its essential point. So I would argue that all the traditions are equally valid, and that the first task of historical analysis in this case is to provide a framework within which the divergent views can be reconciled and synthesized.

To find a solution to the problem I now move on to the second major problem, which is that of chronology. In dealing with oral traditions based on king lists, there is a strong temptation to construct a time scale by computing an average length for each reign and using this figure to arrive at the estimated time span which the whole dynasty might have covered. Clifford for example, did this, in the case of the Igala, and assigns the colonization of the Agatu area from Wukari to the beginning of the seventeenth century, and Ayegba’s arrival at Idah to the later part of the same century. He does not say explicitly how he arrived at this date, but after comparing his article with unpublished notes by Clifford and other government officers in the files at Idah, I am convinced that he worked out the average reign of the kings for whom we

have actual dates, and extrapolated this backwards to cover the reigns of previous rulers throughout the dynasty. The table of rulers given here provides exact dates from 1834 onwards, and shows that between 1834 and 1956 there were ten rulers. This gives an average reign of twelve years, and if this average is applied to the full king list, which varies between twenty-five and twenty-seven names, it produces a hypothetical time span of 300 or 325 years. This would take Abutu Eje and Ebulejonu back to the early I6oos, as suggested by Clifford and by the other administrative officers who have worked on this problem.

But this kind of chronological reconstruction makes an assumption, which seems to be false in the Igala case, though I would not argue that it is false in all cases. In the Igala case it is wrong to assume that the traditions are based on a unilinear concept of time in which events follow one another in the strict order of historical sequence. I suggest that each people’s oral traditions have their own kind of historical perspective, and that the historian’s first task is to understand this perspective before trying to fit the traditions into a unilinear time scale.

The Igala traditions are partly mythological in character, and the early period does not have the same time value as the latter part of the dynastic record. Instead it takes a synoptic view of the past, compressing events and developments that must have covered many centuries into single reigns. Abutu Eje, for instance, is chiefly remembered because of his associations with the leopard myth; his name Eje, leopard, is a symbol of his descent from this mythical founder of the royal clan. Similarly, Ebulejonu is treated by Clifford as an actual historical figure, whereas in fact the account of her reign contains mythological allusions to the marriage between the Achadu and Ebulejonu, the female Ata.

This marriage in turn is a symbol of the ritual authority that the kingmakers possess over the king through their control of the succession and of the earth cult. All these early members of the royal house have mythological attributes, and cannot be regarded as historical figures occupying the same dimension of historical reality as the kings who ruled Igala in the nineteenth century. Ayegba, for example, ranks as the founder of the dynasty in the sense that he forms the apical ancestor of the royal house, and in the sense that he is said to have fought a war which freed Igala from Junkun control.

But Ayagba also is a stereotypical figure, a founder and creator in the same kind of tradition and historical idiom as Oduduwa among the Yoruba, or Nyikang among the Shilluk. His supposedly historical achievements in fact symbolize the creation of a nation with all its political institutions and its full individuality. Ayagba is said, for example, to have defined the external and the internal boundaries of the kingdom, to have created the title system around which the clan system itself revolves, and to have assimilated all the important immigrant groups

that have contributed to the development of the Igala kingdom.

In short, Ayegba is a symbol of the nation and of the creation of Igala nationality. When the Igala wish to identify their nation and its land, they talk of an’Ayegba, Ayegba’s land. But to regard this development as the achievement of a single person, accomplished within one reign, is a good example of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness applied to historical thinking. Ayegba is a mythical figure, and in the indigenous perspective of Igala tradition he stands for a long period of creative political evolution, which is not necessarily bound by the conventions of time that we would apply to the possibilities of royal achievement.

To compare Ayegba with the later Igala kings is like comparing King Arthur, or the popular image of William the Conqueror, with the later kings and queens in English history, or Oduduwa with the present Oni of Ife. This view that Igala traditions take a synoptic view of the past, and are not concerned solely with unilinear development of time, may explain the divergence that exists in the Igala traditions of origin. The Yoruba, Benin, and Jukun traditions manage to co-exist because they refer to a period which is indistinct from a strictly historical point of view.

Each tradition, as I shall try to show, emphasizes a different aspect of the mythical past, and the problem of trying to account for divergent traditions of origin resolves itself into a problem of explaining the function of myth in Igala tradition. And this brings us on to the third main general problem, which is the problem of separating the political facets of the traditions from their historical aspects, since I suggest ultimately that the function of myths in the Igala context is mainly political.

To distinguish between myth and legendary history, the distinction made by Levi-Strauss between myth and art may be useful, with his definition of myth corresponding to my characterization of the early period of Igala oral tradition, and his definition of art corresponding to that of legends whose function is more strictly historical. Levi-Strauss argues that in mythical thought the argument proceeds from a concept of structure to a fact or a set of events whose function it is to make the structure apparent.

Mythical thought can disregard laws of sequence, time, and place in its examples because the examples are oriented towards the structure itself

rather than towards objective reality in its most immediate presentation. In Igala tradition, for example, a clan can be descended from a leopard

because the leopard symbolizes the principle of royal descent and the inherent right of persons of royal descent to rule over others. It stands for much more than the image of an actual leopard. Similarly Ayegba’s reign uses the conventional idiom of one king’s achievements to illustrate the

principle of national sovereignty, and the reconciliation within the institution of kingship of the conflicting tendencies that are present in the Igala political system.

Mythical thought, to quote from Levi-Strauss, ‘starts from a structure by means of which it constructs a set (object and event)’. Historical thought on the other hand, to continue the analogy with art, uses facts and events to discover the structure, and to demonstrate the relationship between that structure and the laws of objective reality. Historical thought cannot distort time, position and sequence in the same way as myth, because the essence of history lies in analysing the relationship between individuals and the external factors which condition them, and their contribution to history.

Myth is concerned with structure in the abstract; history is concerned with process and with the detailed workings of a structure in time. Myth constructs its own examples according to its own laws. History has to treat

its examples, and the set of circumstances which surrounds them, as given

facts from which to begin analysis. Myth and history are ultimately equally

concerned with reality, but with reality under different aspects. Myth is

more concerned with the relationship of structural principles to one another; history with discovering laws of objective causality.

Thus I would argue that the early period of Igala history is concerned

with the interaction of a number of different principles of political growth

and change, and with the structure that was produced by their interaction.

The time-span is conventionally defined by associating each major change

with one reign or one generation. But this attribution of time is purely conventional, and stands for the passage of a much longer period if we think in objective terms of the probable time span of Igala history. The political principle with which these early myths are concerned is the principle of descent, and they make an antithesis between the facts of royal

descent and non-royal descent. This antithesis corresponds to a basic

division in the Igala political system between the kind of powers of legislation and sovereignty that are vested in the royal group, and the powers of local administration and eventual control of the royal group that are vested in non-royal clans throughout Igala. But in addition to this binary pair, the myths also introduce the principle of non-descent, the principle of achievement, represented by the stereotype of the hunter who plays such an important part in Igala myths of origin.

Whereas the principle of descent or ascribed status stands for continuity in the political system, the principle of achievement stands for change and realignment. The communities founded by hunters are those which have introduced a new factor into the static situation created by the opposition of royal to non-royal descent. They have modified existing structural alignments and catalysed tendencies that were present in the former system. For instance, the first Achadu conforms to the stereotype of the hunter who is cut off from his kin and all his connections by birth. But by his own merits, by the principle of achievement, he becomes head of the kingmakers and unites the indigenous population, represented by the Igala Mela, into a corporate group, which becomes able to exercise ritual authority over the royal group, and over the king in particular.


By J.S. Boston


WHATSAPP +447978370636
In this article

Join the Conversation