Pre-colonial Administration of The Igbo Society

Pre-colonial administration of the Igbo society: The Igbo nation is one of the numerous ethnic groups in Nigeria. These are the people of the south-eastern geopolitical zone. Igbo is one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria too. In recent times, the Igbo people are known for their high interest in business ventures; they can be said to be the business stronghold of the country. Also, in modern day politics, they now have kings who are being elected unlike its Hausa and Yoruba counterparts.

pre-colonial administration of the Igbo society
pre-colonial administration of the Igbo society

Also see: Historical constitutional development of Nigerian

Pre-colonial administration of the Igbo society

This was the period before the infiltration of the whites into the hinterlands of Nigeria in the 18th century. Pre-colonial administration therefore, was a type of traditional government that existed before the coming of colonialism in Nigeria. It was a government based on the customs and tradition of the indigenous people.

The Igbo people unlike the Yoruba and the Hausa had a complex system of administration in the pre-colonial era. Igbo society is reputed to have had a more decentralized political structure than any other major groups. The Igbo society was acephalous (lacking a leader or chief). It was therefore a chief less society which was egalitarian in nature.

They were unique among the other ethnic groups of Nigeria, due to the syndrome of what can be described as ‘Igbo enwe Eze’ – Igbos do not have kings. This is to say that every man was a god in his house. There were no supreme kings like Oba and Emir in the West and North respectively. However, few towns like Onitsha had what looked like a recognized chief; though, he was not so powerful like his counterparts in the north and west.

Igbo people preferred village by village rule as well as direct democracy and strong traditional belief of the tribes. Each village was a ‘mini-state‘ and people who lived there formed that old political unit. The people could take part in discussions and help in making the final decisions.

Every village in Igbo land had a council of elders that carried out executive, legislative and judicial functions. It constituted of representatives of every family that lived in that territory. Each representative had its own name in the council known as ‘Ofo‘.

Of all the members of the elders’ council, there was a member respected the most by others, he was the wisest and most senior of them all called ‘Okpara’. The Okpara could gather meetings and preside over it if need be. But he wasn’t treated like a king or Mr President. His voice wasn’t powerful and couldn’t make decisions without the voices of all the Igbo families in the village.

Also see: Ways of acquiring citizenship in Nigeria

Structure of the Igbo pre-colonial political system
Structure of the Igbo pre-colonial political system

Levels of the Igbo political system

There were basically four levels in the Igbo political system.

The family: this was under the headship of the father.

The kindred: it was a smaller social unit made up of the head of the nuclear family–the father or the okpara

The village: it was composed of the kindred and clusters of kindred and was headed by the okpara of the most senior kindred by order of birth.

The town: the highest political unit made up of villages which were collections of kindred with attachment of the land (ala or Ani) as a common unifier.

With regard to the subcultural area of Igbo land, there were lineage leaderships, influential age groups, powerful title and secret societies. There were also individuals carrying the title ‘eze or obi‘, indicating a special degree of influence and power but not controlled independently. The majority of such leadership positions were held by men.However, there were also female assemblies, individual leaders and female titles in some places.

Structure of the pre-colonial administration of the Igbo society

The structural organization of Igbo political system includes, the family group, the kindred, council of elders, ozo title holders, age grade and the Ala.

The family group: this was one of the most recognized institutions in the pre-colonial Igbo society, as the basic unit of every political institution. Each family group was headed by the Okpara; the okpara controlled the family and judged any family disputes especially in the absence of the father. He performed rituals and ceremonial functions on behalf of the family.

The Umunna: this was a form of patriarchy (line of descent traced through the paternal side of the family) maintained by the Igbo. The Umunna consisted of closely related families and was headed by the eldest male of all the male members of each family. It was seen as the most important pillar of the Igbo society.

Also see: Characteristics of a good constitution

The Village council: this was popularly known as the council of elders. It was made up of all the family heads in the village. Each family heads (okpara) were named ‘ofo‘ title holders in the village. They had the responsibility of discussing the matters that affected the life of the citizens. They also helped in the maintenance of law and order in the society as well as in the settlement of disputes between or among families. The chairman of the council was the oldest of all the okpara.

Ozo title holders: this was the highest title of honor which was given to specific individuals in pre-colonial Igbo society. Such an individual must be of high integrity, Popular and wealthy. Ozo title holders were influential in the Igbo society. They settled disputes and rendered valuable advice to the family heads, okparas.

Age grade: the age grade was an association of people that belong to the same age group. Members of an age group were selected based on the criterion of being born within a particular period. While some Igbo societies selected age group members based on those born in a particular year, some were based on a span of two years. The age group performed the following functions:

  • Public duties such as construction of roads, markets and clearing the path.
  • They protected and defended the village from enemies.
  • They helped in the implementation of policies made by the council of elders.
  • They helped to maintain law and order. Etc.

Also see: past Leaders of Nigeria From 1914 Till Date

The Ala: this was another political institution in the pre-colonial Igbo society. Ala was popularly known as the goddess of the land. Cases like defilement of the land or human, murder, homicide and adultery was judged by the Ala. To Ala, there was a priest called Ala’s priest who interpreted the pronouncement of the Ala to the villagers. This explains Igbo belief in deity (such as Amadioha, igwe-ka-ala, Ezemuo and ogbaebu etc) in times of need.

Also see: Differences between 1960 and 1963 constitution of Nigeria

So far, we have examined the Igbo society, the kind of leadership that existed in the pre-colonial era, the basic levels of leadership, the structures of leadership, and the roles of the leaders.

The Igbo traditional system of leadership does not only encourage development and transparency, it is also achievement oriented. It ensures that only the best and most competent hands are entrusted with positions of leadership. In this way, resources will be managed in the interest of the public and peace in the society is established.