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The Nri Kingdom (900AD – Present): Rule by theocracy

The kingdom of Nri, in the Igbo language called Ọ̀ràézè Ǹrì is a medieval Igbo[1] kingdom that originated around AD900 and presently still in existence, although its influence and territory have significantly waned. It is among the oldest existing monarchy in Nigeria[2] and had its capital at Igbo-Ukwu.

nri pic1 map of igboland
Map of Igbo Land. (source)

 

Nri is an ancient Igbo town in Anambra state, Nigeria. The Igbo people are one of the most numerous ethnic groups in the country and predominantly occupy the south-eastern parts comprising of Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, and Imo states. Although they are found in their numbers in every part of Nigeria, and the world, the states mentioned above are core Igbo lands. The Nri kingdom is popularly credited as being the cradle for Igbo civilization, culture, and religious practices, the latter being what they were revered for. Their religious institutions were so highly revered it instilled fear in people.

The kingdom did not have absolute control over the whole of Igbo lands even at its peak (between the 12th – 15th centuries)[3]. This is primarily due to its method of leadership which was a cult-like religious-polity, a theocratic indirect leadership style. Albeit, it wielded an undisputed influence over all Igbo territories. It was the base for all Igbo cultural, traditional and economic activities, and at its peak, its influence extended outside of Igbo lands.

The Kingdom of Nri was very peaceful with a no permanent organized fighting force. Its philosophy was peace, wisdom, justice, harmony and one with creation. Its pacification has its roots in the Nri religious belief that violence was an abomination that polluted the earth. Unlike most kingdoms of the 12th to 18th century and earlier, slavery was frowned upon, and it was a kingdom where all people were welcomed including outcasts from other communities and were a haven for runaway slaves. The Nri kingdom perfected and employed innovative skills in rituals, economy, diplomacy, administration, and management of a segmented and autonomous people.

 

 

HISTORY AND ORIGIN

Nri is widely asserted to be the motherland and cradle of the Igbo ethnicity. It is also generally believed and widely accepted that Eri was the founder of Nri. The origin of Eri however, is vague. One theory goes that Eri was a divine being sent by Chukwu (God), to make peace, cleanse abominations and provide foods for the Igbo people. Thus in this theory, he descended from the sky.

Another explanation of Eri’s ancestry, however, was that Eri is the grandson of the biblical Jacob, and his father is Gad, the 7th son of Jacob. Eri was a high priest to the pharaoh in Egypt. Before the scriptural mass Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, he sensed the impending onslaught of the Egyptians against the people of Israel his people, as the Egyptians increasingly grew envious.

nri obugad
OUTSIDE AND INSIDE OF THE OBUGAD TEMPLE IN AGULERI. Source: public domain

Eri therefore left Egypt, crossed the river Nile and entered southern Sudan from where he entered Chad. From Chad, he crossed the Benue river and came to Lokoja, then traversed the river Niger and came ashore near the confluence of the Ezu and Omambala Rivers called Agbanabo or Ezu Na Omambala[4], here it was spiritually revealed to him that he was to settle. This location is present-day Aguleri in Anambra state, though at the time it was not known as Aguleri. So Aguleri might have actually been the Motherland of the Igbos. This notion even becomes increasingly bona fide when you consider that in Igbo land it is a well-known tradition that no man can break Kola nuts at a gathering when an Aguleri man is present. That honour is entitled to him.

Another fact to bolster this claim is in most Igbo Communities before a King is coronated he must fulfil an age long tradition of visiting and paying homage to Aguleri with his entourage where they spend a compulsory seven days visiting sacred places and making sacrifices to certain deities in shrines. Another pointer is the ObuGad Temple that is situated in Aguleri which was built by Eri in honour of his father Gad.[5]

Eri had two wives by the time he arrived at the Ezu Na Omambala confluence, Nneamaku, and Oboli who were the first and second wife respectively. Nneamaku bore five children Nri-Ifikwuanịm-Menri being the first son also known as Nri, Agụlụ, Ogbodudu, Onogu, and Iguedo the only daughter, while Oboli the second wife bore an only child Onoja.

Onoja founded present-day Igala in Kogi state[6]. Eri’s first son Nri-Ifikwuanịm begot Agụkwu Nri, Enugwu-Ukwu, Enugwu-Agidi, Nọfịa, and Amọbia. His sister Iguedo begot Ogbunike, Ọkuzu, Nando, Ụmụleri, and Nteje which are known today as the Umu Iguedo clan. Onogu begot Ịgbariam.

Eri’s first son Nri-Ifikwuanim was a spiritual priest like his father. He left Aguleri and settled at a thick forest he called Agu-Ukwu Nri[7] which is the present-day Nri Kingdom. Here he engaged in hunting, farming and also performed priestly duties and demonstrated his spiritual prowess just as his father Eri did in Egypt, by the cleansing of abominations, expert use of herbs and roots and giving honourable titles to his subjects.

When Eri died Agulu took over leadership and that was how the Aguleri name came about. “Agulu” and “Eri” are often referred to being saying “Agulu Nwa Eri” in Igbo language meaning “Agulu, the son of Eri”. It was from that location that the Igbos multiplied, spread and founded other Igbo communities. When Nrifikwuanim-Menri grew old and was nearing his end, it was not his wish to die outside of his ancestral home; therefore, he instructed his children to take him back to present day Aguleri. There he eventually died and was buried. Till present day his grave site is still marked and can be seen at Okpu community in Ivite village of Aguleri. Oral history passed down from older generations in Aguleri tells of the magical springing up of three gigantic trees barricading the entrance to his grave, the trees are said to share a common root and are so enormous that to get a complete view one has to go back many miles.

The traditional Igbo believe Eri had some form of a very powerful spiritual knowledge or powers. This might have contributed to the discombobulation of his person with time after he passed on. He was atypical, and the mystical ability he possessed must have aided to establish his character as he faded into time as some kind of supernatural, mystical being; hence, the school of thought which relates that he was sent by God and came down from the sky. He passed on this ability to his son Nri-Ifikwuanim who founded the kingdom. Could it be that this was the bases as to why Nri kingdom was such a revered kingdom spiritually by its subjects.

 

POLITICAL STRUCTURE, CULTURE AND TRADITIONS

The Nri kingdom operated a decentralized democratic and highly theocratic system of leadership over Igbo lands. Albeit most Igbo colonies already exercised a type of societal republic as opposed to a feudalistic system that involves a king with absolute or an enormous amount of authority over its subjects.

The leader of Nri is called the “Eze Nri” in the Igbo language which translates to “king of Nri”. He is a priest-king in its truest definition. He is more of a ritualistic father figure with mystic powers but no military authority.

nri king
PRESENT DAY EZE NRI ENWELEANA II OBIDIEGWU ONYESO (MFR). Source: public domain.

 

The Ikenga chooses the next Eze Nri. He must be recognized by the public and must not have a father that is still alive. Before being crowned, he must prove that he is also the choice of Chukwu (God), Eri(Founder of Nri), Ndiichie(ancestors) and Alusi(spirits).  Diviners do this through their revelations and visions. Each Eze Nri traces his ancestry to Eri and undergoes a ritual reproduction of Eri prior to becoming Eze Nri. During the ritual, the Eze Nri Elect is celebrated alive as already dead, and any funeral rite that would have been accorded to him when he truly dies would be performed as part of the coronation process. If he had a wife and children, they would enter into a state of mourning as they would if he was dead. On becoming the Eze Nri, he is no more perceived to be whom he used to be. After this ritual burial, he must then go to Aguleri to obtain a lump of clay from the bottom of the Anambra river; this clay is used to make a ritual pot “Odudu” for the shrine of Nri Mmenri. Any Eze-Nri must complete all of these rituals and processes before he is finally crowned Eze (king), handed the “Ofo” (spiritual symbol of power) and saluted as Igwe (heavenly one). Upon his death, he is to be buried seated in a wood-lined chamber. After the death of an Eze Nri, there is usually an interregnum period. During this time it is expected that the next Eze is revealed through supernatural signs.

Royal burials have been unearthed by archaeologists that date as far back as the 10th century[8].

The Eze Nri Leadership style is unique in that it does not employ military might in other to exert its authority. Rather it used its religious influence and control of trade routes to expand and maintain control of power. The philosophy of the kingdom is peace, harmony, and oneness of all creation with the creator “Chukwu Okike.” Nri became a haven for runaway slaves. Slaves that found their way to the kingdom were freed. Outcasts from other communities were welcomed, they were called “Osu” and everyone irrespective of status was treated equally, although the Osu were not allowed to eat with the freeborn locals. This earned it many admirers and converts. The kingdom gained allegiance and expansion not by force rather through conversion and ritual oath swearing. A palm frond called “Omu” often associated with restraint is an essential Nri religious symbol and used in many religious and ritual processes.

The Eze Nri who mostly lives in seclusion from his people has priests that assist him. Ritual priests under the employ of the Eze Nri are called Ndi Nri and are easily identifiable by their facial scarifications.

nri pic2 ndi nri priest
FACIAL SCARIFICATION OF NDI NRI PRIEST. Source: public domain

This quickly identifies them as a representative of Eze Nri who represents peace harmony, justice, and divine powers especially during their travels. They usually travel with a ritual staff of peace in their quest of winning converts or carrying out their duties. They have the authority of the Eze Nri over lands that are under its influence called Odinani Nri. These priests have the power to cleanse the lands of taboos, restore peace and harmony to the lands and conduct rituals. Honourable men that live within the Odinani Nri territories can also share some of Eze Nri’s responsibilities by becoming Ozo. Men with these titles are collectively called “Mburuichi.” The Mburuich nobles and Ndi Nri priests are part of the “Ikenga”.

Ikenga is a power circle in the Nri kingdom headed by Eze Nri. Ikenga is often regarded within the Igbo community as the god of achievement and power and is associated with the right hand.

The Eze Nri possesses divine authority and managed trade and diplomacy on behalf of the Nri people. He had the powers to undo evil and cleanse the lands from abominations and taboos.

nri pic3 - nze na ozo
NZE NA OZO TITLED MEN. Source: public domain)

 

The Eze Nri confers honourable titles on his people like Ichi, Ogbuevi, Ivijioku, Ekwu, Amanwulu and the highest being the “Nze Na Ozo” title. This title is highly spiritual, to be an Ozo means the bearer is Nze, and to be Nze means to become the living spirit of the ancestors. Nze, therefore, is the moral conscience of the society and is seen as a fair arbitrator in cases of conflicts within the territory[9]. Title holders were respected and honoured because of their accomplishments, but they were not feared or revered.

There was the “Umunna” meaning sons of the father; this is a patrilineal group of closely related males of a particular ancestry headed by the eldest man. This structure is the backbone of the Nri society and indeed all Igbo communities.

In as much as the Nri kingdom was a peaceful territory, they had a series of rules or things that were considered taboos. They were mainly in seven categories: human, animal, behavioural, speech, temporal, place and object. For example, giving birth to twins was a taboo and falls under the human type. Killing or eating of pythons was forbidden and was a taboo if it happened and this falls under the animal category, etc. Rules like these were how the kingdom exercised authority over all of the Igbo lands. Igbos scattered all over the world under different authorities or leaderships had a sense of duty to abide and obey the Eze Nri doctrines and guidelines.

The Nri people like all Igbos are highly ingenious and invented their own way of almost everything including time. The Nri priests were knowledgeable in the movement of heavenly bodies which enabled them to calculate the lunar months accurately. In fact, according to a British government anthropologist Northcorte Thomas in 1910, he reported getting the Nri names for Orion, great Bear and other stars which aided the priests in calculating intervals between each lunar period and also in finding directions during long travels.

In the Igbo calendar, a week had four days; a month consisted of seven weeks and 13 months made a year, a day is added to the last month of each year. This calendar is still used presently and is what Igbo people in villages use especially in determining market days; Eke, Afor, Nkwo, and Oye.

The Nri kingdom had its own currency Manilla,[10] Manillas are armlets made from bronze, copper or gold, and even developed their own system of banking and savings called Isusu which is still very much in practice today. Their economy was good primarily due to trades, agriculture and they were also great hunters. Nri and its territories were international markets for palm oil trade. They were also highly skilled in arts particularly famous for their bronze works. Some of the many discovered works in Igbo-Ukwu, Anambra state, is dated to as far back as the 9th century. These discoveries are a reminder of a Middle ages civilization.

nri Nigerian National Museum Bronze_ceremonial_vessel_in_form_of_a_snail_shell,_9th_century,_Igbo-Ukwu,_Nigeria
Bronze ceremonial piece in form of a snail. Nigerian National Museum

 

nri Nigerian National Museum Bronze_pot,_Igbo-Ukwu,_9th_century
Bronze 9th century Igbo-Ukwu pot . Nigerian National Museum
nri 1280px-Intricate_bronze_ceremonial_pot,_9th_century,_Igbo-Ukwu,_Nigeria
Bronze 9th century Igbo-Ukwu pot. Nigerian National Museum
nri Nigerian National Museum 338px-Cresentric_bowl,_bronze,_9th_century,_Igbo-Ukwu,_Nigeria
Bronze 9th century Igbo-Ukwu Cresentric pot. Nigerian National Museum

Igu-Aro is an annual Nri festival during which Eze Nri declares the new year and calls out the Nri calender to his subjects.  Eze Nri Bụife (AD 1159 – 1259) was the first Eze Nri to observe the Ịgụ-Arọ Festival as a pan – Igbo affair in 1160AD[11].

The Nri calendar consists of 13 Lunar months.

Onwa Mbu: begins from the annually from the 3rd week of February.

Onwa Abua: from March to April, this period normally is the period of tilling lands and cultivation or farming,

Onwa Ife Eke: from April to May, this is usually known as “Ugani” in Igbo meaning hunger period.

Onwa Ana: from May to June, this is the period in which yam seeds are planted.

Onwa Agwu: from June to July, known in Igbo as “Igochi na Mmanwu” meaning masquerades.

Onwa Ifejioku: from July to August, Ifejioku means yam Ritual.

Onwa Alom Chi: from August to early September, this means yam harvest for “Alusi” only. Alusi is an Igbo deity.

Onwa Ilo Mmuo: September ending, this is the period of “Onwa Asato” festival, Onwa Asato means the Eighth month.

Onwa Ana: October.

Onwa Okike: early November, Okike ritual usually takes place,

Onwa Ajana: November ending another Okike ritual takes place.

Onwa Ede Ajana: from November ending through early December.

Onwa Uzo Alusi: early January to early February, offering to the Alusi deity.

During the Igu Aro festival Eze Nri also distributes yam seeds to the people. He usually prophesies to the people that after some days which usually does not exceed ”Izu Ano”(four weeks) they will experience the first rainfall, and after that, they can go ahead and plant their seeds.

 

DECLINE OF NRI KINGDOM

British colonialism and the advent of missionaries were the primary cause of the decline of the Kingdom. The missionaries through their teachings and western education injected European ideology into the Igbo society. Christianity was first rejected by the Igbos, but many locals later converted to Christianity. Once Christians, they were prevented in participating in the rituals usually associated with the kingdom, as Christianity grew stronger and traditional society broke down. Certain cultural practices began to be erased and more of British culture integrated into the culture of the Nri people.

In most Igbo lands the British introduced a foreign Eze concept. Warrant chiefs were introduced as Eze to enable the British to have centralized control of the people. Warrant chiefs were African representative installed by the British and given political duties to assist the British with indirect rule. British officials carried a higher salary and required more pampering.

The British and other European states had a very frosty relationship with the kingdom mostly because of their highly spiritual nature and staunch stance against slavery. Many slaves who mainly were kidnapped by the Aro confederacy in the bight of Biafra or Igbo lands have been referred to by British slavers as very rebellious and having a high rate of suicides and escape attempts to escape slavery[12].  Isichei,

Repeated attempts were made by the British to control the kingdom which was resisted for decades[13].

In 1911 the British troops finally got the 15th Eze-Nri Obalike deposed, the Eze Nri renounced his ritual power and left the kingdom(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igboland), some historians say the British achieved this by threatening to destroy Nri and all of its people unless Eze Nri complied. To prevent genocide, the Eze Nri left. Although another Eze Nri was later crowned, the kingdoms influence and traditions have never remained the same.

 

NRI KING LIST

  • Eri 948-1041
  • Eze Nri Ifikuanim 1043-1089
  • Eze Nri Namoke 1090-1158
  • Eze Nri Buife 1159-1259
  • Eze Nri Omalo 1260-1299
  • Eze Nri Jiofo 1 1300-1390
  • Eze Nri Omalonyeso 1391-1464
  • Eze Nri Anyamata 1465-1511
  • Eze Nri Fenenu 1512-1582
  • Eze Nri Agu 1583-1676
  • Eze Nri Apia and Alike 1677-1700(both died the same day)
  • Eze Nri Ezimilo 1701-1723(Assasinated)
  • Eze Nri Enwenetem 1724-1794
  • Eze Nri Enweleana 1795-1886
  • Eze Nri Obalike 1889-1936(Deposed by the British)
  • Eze Nri jiofor II Taabansi Udene 1937-1987
  • Eze Nri Enweleana II Obidiegwu Onyeso(MFR) 1988-present

FOOTNOTE

[1] Also called Ibo in English

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igboland

[3] https://olivernwokedi.wordpress.com

[4] http://obindIgbo.com.ng/2014/11/history-Igbos-came-nigeria-settled-south-east/

[5] International Journal of Modern Education Research 2016; 3(6): 52-59. ISSN: 2375-3781 Obu-Gad: The Sacred Temple of Mortality and Brotherhood in Aguleri Kingdom Madukasi Francis Chuks, Settler Guliano Federico, Okeke Nkiruka Joy.

[6] http://logbaby.com/encyclopedia/history-of-Nri-kingdom

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igbo_people

[8]http://www.jackobian.com/threads/complete-history-and-past-kings-of-nri-the-center-of-igbo-civilization.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nze_na_Ozo

[10] Chanda Burrage. Intro into contemporary Africa, Pennsylvania State University

[11] Prof. M.A. Ọnwụejeọgwu 2003

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igbo_people

Lovejoy, Paul E. 2003. Trans-Atlantic Dimensions of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 92–93. ISBN 978-0-8264-4907-8.

Elizabeth Allo (2002). Voices of the Poor in Africa. Boydell & Brewer. p. 81.

Rucker, Walter C. (2006). The River Flows on: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America. LSU Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-8071-3109-1.)

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igboland

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