HISTORY OF WARRANT CHIEFS IN NIGERIA: EZE OKEZIE ABRAHAM CHUKWUEMEKA
Written by Chigozie Ikpo
The Warrant Chief system in Nigeria came with the Colonial Era, it was fashioned to ensure that the idea of colonization was actualized within the country and in Africa as a whole. Most countries in the more developed continents of Europe and America saw Africa as a fertile ground and then decided to explore the area to see how much of grounds they could cover and what they could make out of it. As far back as the 18th Century, these Countries moved into Africa, forming colonies and establishing authorities. They succeeded in taking over many countries.
The Warrant Chiefs System worked perfectly in the Northern and Western Parts of the country, with the Sultan and Emirs in Hausa/Fulani and the Obas in the Yoruba region already existing as Supreme Authorities in these regions. They were used as enforcers of the will of the British as they easily dominated the region. This system however could not work in the East, especially Igboland. This was because Igboland practiced a system that enforced the notion, ‘’Igbo Enwe Eze’’ meaning, ‘’Igbo has no King’’.
The traditional Igbo community practiced a Republican System of Government as the leadership of the Igbo communities centered on the Council of Elders who oversaw the affairs of the people. They were usually made up of leaders from various families who formed the decision making body in Ancient Igbo communities. The older members in the community made the laws and bounded them on the youths for enforcement. Only a few kings existed in Igboland and these villages got their kingship practice from other communities which used to be their settlement or other ancient method which of course made them different from other communities. These communities include, Arochukwu, Oguta, Onisha, Asaba, Agboh and the Ancient Nri Kingdom which stands as the Oldest Kingdom in Nigeria.
There had to be a way to get things together in the East, hence the introduction of the Indirect Rule System. This system brought about a leadership position called the Warrant Chiefs. They were saddled with the responsibility of holding things up for the Europeans. The British on their part had strained resources and so decided to use this indirect rule to ensure that were not always present but then their presence was still felt in full. Native courts were instituted for trying of cases. The position of Warrant Chiefs became the highest authority in these communities, due to the backing they had from the Colonial Masters.
In this Article, we look to examine the life and times of one of these Warrant Chiefs, pointing out his impacts in his territory and how his actions influenced his people.
EZE OKEZIE ABRAHAM CHUKWUEMEKA AGBARIGBA (1820-1929)
Okezie Abraham Chukwuemeka was born into the prestigious Umu Obailaka family. The family had two sons at that time, named Chwuemeka, the eldest son and Nduka his younger brother. They were known for their enterprising nature, explaining why he had to start trading at a pretty young age. He was the first son of Chukwuemeka Agbarigba Emeji, while his mother’s name was Ejiginialu Chukwuemeka Emeji. Owing to the fact that marrying many wives was not forbidden, his father had up to four wives and many children. On record, his father had a total of five sons, while his mother had two of them. He had females as well but their names and how many they were, were not covered in this research. The names of the sons in the family are; Okezie who happened to be the first son, Kanu his brother from the same mother, Agwu, Idika then finally Onuoha. As first son, he had a responsibility to take care of his younger ones, one which he did so well.
As a young man he engaged in the normal activities his peers were involved in. He was very enterprising, charismatic and energetic. He was involved in hunting activities and joined the band of village warriors where he rose in ranks as the years went by, establishing himself as a powerful warrior, wielding his sword which he fondly called “Ogbuonyeoma” and special charms. He was already a leader from a young age, exerting his influence among peers. He soon developed an idea of becoming a businessman. The major produce in ancient Umuagu was palm oil and palm kernel which of course still remains a major business income source for the community. He also went into other businesses including slave trading and was well travelled, doing business majorly in the riverine areas of the present day Niger Delta.
WARRANT CHIEF ABRAHAM OKEZIE CHUKWUEMEKA AGBARIGBA
The British Colonists started conquering territories and taking over villages within the East with a show of force to resisting communities. They found their way into Umuahia and made their way to Umuagu. As already established in other areas, the indirect rule system was to be implanted in a newly conquered territory. The qualification needed for that position was express charisma with loyalty to the British Government. He met these criteria and was installed as Warrant chief from the village and became an intermediary between the whites and the community. The duties was clearly defined and outlined, and then he was installed.
The first success he attained was his ability to work well with the whites. His reign goes down as one of the longest regimes of a Warrant chief in history and he was said to be highly influential and powerful, spreading his tentacles to lengths and breaths of the region and beyond. Also he was highly instrumental to the acquisition of the land for the Methodist church, which later became the place were the first ever primary school, the central school in the communities was built by the same missionaries. He also spearheaded the rise of civilization within the community and beyond. His sojourn to other regions was a real eye opener for him and as such, he moved to implement some of the lessons he learnt from these in the community. These explain why he was able to come up with a concept for the house at Abadaba, one which still stands as one of the ancient strongest buildings in the entire Eastern Nigeria.
Being a rich and highly influential person in the community coupled with his position, it was normal for him to attract so many women. He had 25 wives and concubines as well, bringing the number of women around him above 30. Some of the women went to him for protection as slave trading was the order of the day. Other women were presented to him to marry because lots of families and communities wanted to be in-laws to such an influential person. Okezie married from different communities, taking wives from neighboring communities, like Obowo, Uturu, Ofeme, Amachara, Uboma, Ezinachi, Isuikwuato, He had a lot of children.
The Ancient Igbo community before the coming of the whites had their gods who oversaw the spiritual affairs in the area, with the chief priest acting as the “Mouthpiece of the gods”. The entire Igbo community recognizes the place of Chukwu Okike Abiama as the Supreme Being while having their “chi” which was either personalized or a communal god. His numerous travels especially his business inclination to the Niger Delta region brought him in contact with other gods and he embraced some of them .He belonged to societies like Okonkonko, Ekpe, Ozo and Ezumezu. He is said to have been in possession of a powerful charm which he used for protection especially in his younger days when inter-communal wars were common.
The coming of the whites brought about a turnaround in his beliefs. The missionaries managed to convince him to become a Christian and he became one of the pioneer members. Shortly after he accepted Christianity, Eze Okezie brought out all idols, fetish things and anything that was spiritually contrary to Christianity and burnt them openly at his “Ama. In his new found faith, he was given the name, “Abraham“. Eze Okezie gave the missionaries a vast land near Orie Umuagu market, where the Methodist Church was built. In recognition of his good gestures, the Methodist Church erected a monument in his honor which was later destroyed during the construction of Okpara Road. Also, in the early 90’s the Methodist Church issued a posthumous award certificate to Eze Okezie’s family in recognition of his outstanding support to the growth of the church.
Education in Igbo land can be traced back to the coming of the Christian missionaries to Nigeria in 1857. Their coming led to what we currently have as formal education here in Igbo land. Led by the Church Mission Society (CMS), they were able to gradually introduce reading and writing, which would aid communication between themselves and the ancient Igbo communities. As at the time these missionaries introduced education to Igbo land, Eze Okezie was already in his 40’s. He therefore had no recognized educational experience, and learnt how to communicate with the whites by way of association. He spent most of his early days as Warrant Chief using an interpreter, who stood as a link between himself and the Europeans. He referred to the interpreter as “Onye nnuta okwu nwa bekee’ (the one that understands the white man’s language). As time went on, he started picking up.
Okezie Chukwuemeka died in 1929 at a ripe age of 109. He was Warrant Chief until his death and remains the only Warrant Chief from Umuagu. His devotion to his Christian faith meant he was buried in the Christian way, in the Methodist Church premises in Umuagu.
PRO WARRANT CHIEF ERA
The death of Okezie Chukwuemeka brought to a halt, the rule of warrant chiefs by someone from Umaugu as he had no successor. None of his children took over from him as Warrant Chief as they were not interested in the position of power. In the same vein, nobody from Umuagu community took over his position and his spot remained vacant. In the wake of his demise, the whites needed a free flow of their normal activities and indirect rule system, so they extended the territories of neighboring Warrant Chiefs around his territory to bridge the gap his death created. They started controlling the territory and activities in Umuagu. This continued until the Warrant Chief system was finally abolished.
Also, the Aba woman Riot of 1929 contributed to the distortion of the warrant chief system, same year Okezie Chukwuemeka died. The Riot was centered on revolting against the excesses of warrant chiefs reckless activities, coupled with the fact that a new law was made to impose taxes on woman. The riot weakened the warrant chiefs system and their powers stared to deplete.
ALLIES AND ENEMIES
As earlier stated, Okezie was Warrant Chief of Ohuhu and environs and just as he was in charge of these communities, there were other warrant chiefs who were also in charge of other territories. All the warrant chiefs within the Bende Division had their headquarters at Bende, where they always met to discuss important issues, to meet the whites as well as settle disputes. Amongst these warrant chiefs was Nwakpuda, who was Warrant Chief of Old Umuahia. Eze Okezie had friends from all communities he traded with, stretching to Afikpo, down to Obowo, then the old Bende villages and then Niger Delta communities. During the period of inter-communal wars, he turned to these communities especially those close by, for assistance. His enemies were people from within the community and outside who were jealous of his progress and wanted to cut him short. They however did not succeed in doing that.
Due to the length of time it took to put these records in place, the names of everyone who worked directly with him could not be properly documented and all names provided are subject to reviews. However, we were able to record that Okparaku from Umukonu, who was from the Umuedozie family, was part of his cabinet, as well as Johnson Ezeoma. Another person indentified as one of those he worked with was Ezechukwu Udumaga from Amaogwugwu, then Anyadike Madukaku who was said to be one of his key players.
Okezie Chukwuemeka on becoming a Warrant Chief decided to move away from his kinsmen at Umuezehiri, Umuagu and moved to a place he later named Abadaba-Okezie. Abadaba-Okezie is bounded on the East by Amabia-Ugwumkpa in Bende Local Government Area of Abia State, on the West by Umukonu Obiohuru in Umuagu, on the South by Aguebi in Umuagu and on the North by Ofeme community. The storey building, which was the biggest house in Umuahia and environs at the time, was built by the British government to serve as official palace and residence of Okezie Chukwuemeka. Part of the ground floor served as court room, prison. Hand-cuffs and leg chains used to hold criminals before being transferred to the headquarters at Bende are still in the building today. The idea of moving was to have a better place where he would be comfortable. The house was built with mud for the downstairs and soaked sticks for the upstairs. It was then covered with Zinc. All cases were treated upstairs and punishment given to offenders. Very serious cases were transferred to the bigger court at Bende. The house is still standing until this day.
Okezie Chukwuemeka was a business man who traded on commodities, slaves and lucrative businesses at that time. The practice at that time was that communities and families who had stubborn children and criminal elements opted to sell them off as slaves. Also, communal clashes were all about capturing lands and slaves. However, with the abolishment of slave trade and the advent of British rule, he abandoned slave trade.
KEY POINTS AND CONTROVERSIES
- NAMES AND TITLES:
FULL NAME: ABRAHAM OKEZIE CHUKWUEMEKA AGBARIGBA EMEJI
- OKERIGWE which literarily means OKEZIE OF IRON or A BRAVE AND STRONG MAN.
- OGBAKA ARI ORJI which literarily means A MAN THAT CAN CLIMB THE GREAT IROKO TREE WITHOUT ANY CLIMBING INSTRUMENT.
- OGBUJIOGO which literarily means A MAN THAT BROKE HIS CUTTLASS INTO TWO DURING A BATTLE.
- OBIBIE OKUCHIE which literarily means A MAN THAT IS CAPABLE OF DISTROYING AND REBUILDING WHAT HE HAS DESTROYED.
- IGARA MBA ANU EJU AKPA which literarily means YOU WENT TO A DISTANT LAND AND CAME BACK WITH MANY BAGS OF MEAT. Each time he was addressed with this title, OKEZIE would respond: ONYE INYERE AYA NYERE GI. This generally means that any man that usually receives gifts is a man who loves to give people. Okezie was generous to a fault.
- BURIAL PLACE
Okezie slept with his fathers and was buried in the Methodist Church compound in Umuagu according to the Christian rites as confirmed by the church. A notion however claims that he was buried at the right side of the ground floor of his palace. This belief lacks a lot of merit as Christianity at the time had a culture of buring ardent members in the church compound. Being who he was, it is highly unlikely such a person will be ignored.
- EMERGENCE AS WARRANT CHIEF
There are two different notions on how he emerged as Warrant chief. On the Invasion of Umuahia and Environs the military expedition forces the people of Ohuhu and Umuahia at large were tensed up because of the rumors of their exploit in other areas. Of course, the whites enforced their will on all local communities they visited, using a show of force on communities that dares to resist. On stepping into Umuahia in the Mid 19th Century, the fear was that the “Trouble Makers” have come around.
Finding their way to Umuagu, the first notion has it that everyone escaped on hearing they were around, but one man stood strong, opting to defend his village amidst the chaos. With just his hunting tools, he was brave enough to stand at one Umuagu until the British force arrived. His bravely attracted the whites and an instruction was given that he should not be harmed. His actions impressed the whites and they made him Warrant Chief, installing him as their “Ultimate Enforcer” over the community. The second notion however implies that the whites on their arrival to Umuagu needed an intermediary and the community presented Okezie to them as their representative.
The controversy in the length of his territory as Warrant Chief comes from the fact that he was quite porpular. While some persons think he was Warrant Chief presiding over Umuahia and neighboring communities, even up to Okigwe, his territory was just within and around Ohuhu, with Old Umahia and other divisions having their headquarters at Bende. He was a Very Popular Personality and his exploits transcended beyond his territory.
- EZESHIP AND SUCCESSOR
There was no record of Umuagu having a King before the coming of the whites, they were ruled by Village Heads and of course there were only few communities around the entire eastern region who had kings. The British upon seeing that the Warrant Chief system was getting weaker by the day, moved to ensure that the same concept of rulership in the North and West was also applied in the East, they had to be a Central Authority where everything flows through. It was for this reason that the idea of kingship was formed in this community. The entire kingship in these other region was an offshoot of the Warrant King System which subsequently saw them Metamorphose into kings in their communities. As such, his becoming King was based on the fact that he was the highest authority that existed in the land during the time.
More so, the concept of kingship was quite new in the community and Succession was not a major issue on the death of Eze Okezie Chukwuemeka as the community gently moved back to their Chieftaincy and Village Head rule after he passed, not having a succession option in place, even when he did have many Children who would have taken over.
There is no definite reason as to why succession was not clearly defined and respondents were not definite on why the leadership process experienced a halt after his demise. There are various legends as to the why he did not have any successor as the community swiftly moved back to their village head system. A notion has it that Eze Okezie placed a curse on the ancestral Stool before his death and warned his family members not to take it up when he passes.
The leadership of the community returned to the village Chiefs who piloted the affairs of the village until it was said that one Ogbudu Okezie arose after so many years to take over the office. It is noted however that other Warrant Chiefs from neighboring territories were charged to control the affairs of the area, pending the emergence of another warrant Chief. Later on, the leadership in Umuhu Autonomous with official headquarters inUmuagu fell to Igwe Onyema (Uhu 1 of Umuhu) from Amaogwugwu while the village that makes up the community retained their village heads.
A concretized leadership process was then recognized as soon as Umuagu became an Autonomous community. The Kingship became rotational, ensuring that the four communities within Umuagu took turns to produce the Autonomous Chief. The process started with Eze Abraham Ogubu, who was from Aguebi. After his death, Abadaba-Okezie family was approached, as course of history favored them but no one among them accepted. Eze Engr. John Amah Ezeomah, (Agu 2 of Umuagu) from Umuezehiri took over and remains as king until this day.
- FAMILY CONFLICTS
He was not always in good terms with his family members, especially the extended family. This emanated from the fact that he was largely charismatic so they saw him as being stubborn. Also, he was doing well and seemed to have lots of potentials. The family conflicts heightened after the family of Nduka, his uncle accused him of selling one of their sons into slavery. Okezie would have been executed but for the violent reaction of his brother Kalu, who threatened the assailants and cleared his brother’s name.
- COMMUNITY ISSUES
During his time as warrant chief, he certainly made some enemies in the course of discharging his duties. The fact that he was a warrant chief, someone working for the whites, and what he represents, with the taxes he collected on behalf of the Europeans and all, madde it that some of his decisions certainly did not go down well with some locals. Slave trading was soon abolished and that brightened his relationship with the community a bit. Another resentment the community did have for him was due to the fact that he chose not to associate with his age grade or most members of his community and family. He adopted foreigners into his cabinet going as far as the riverine areas to get workers, amongst people he related with in the course of his travels.
Also, his decision to move away from his own part of the village when he was made warrant chief and build his house in another part of the village certainly left a bitter taste on the lips of his kindred who felt he turned on them and there was this notion that he deceived the community into erecting the building, telling them the place would be residence for the whites, where they will dwell and control things within the community but on completion, he moved in with his large family, it can also be said that moving to that spot was for security reasons as conflicts and clashes would originally start from the villages in front so opted to live inside rather the front.
He was also said to have a special route where he passed through. One which connects to his house and the stream behind it, then cuts to the market and village square through Ama Okonko Getting his own route was a means of being discreet. The road has since been left to fallow and no longer exists. He also opened up two routes to the Eme Nkpa River to ensure steady supply of water. The two routes are still in use today.
There was a monument of Okezie erected in the community next to the Methodist Church compound at Orie Umuagu. It was erected by the Methodist Church with the approval of the British government. The monument was, however, destroyed by government in order to create a road which cuts across the Umuahia to Okigwe Road.
The general concept of warrant chiefs in Africa was centered on exploitation and colonization, these ideas led to their use of already established authorities to enforce their will, but on confirmation that it was not going to be feasible as it was in the west and north, the warrant chief system had to be a solution. We cannot say it was a perfect solution because the system was soon riddled with mischief and recklessness on the part of these chiefs, one which was to the financial benefit of the Europeans.
There are warrant chiefs who in the middle of the rancor, managed to stand out as exceptional. The testimony of Eze Okezie Chukwuemeka is one that points to the fact that he was a principled man and a wonderful personality. He had a lot of influence and hence, put the name, Umuagu on the map and in the scheme of things. Even though he has been dead for almost 100 years, his legacies still lives on and he is a well known name within the community.
It is worth noting though that not everyone will appreciate his actions for obvious reasons. He was working for the whites who were seen as enemies, saddled with the duty of collecting taxes and levies for the government. This however does not undermine his attitude as a person and how much attractions he brought to his community.
Eze Okezie Chukwuemeka Agbarigba Emeji lived a fulfilled life and slept with his fathers when he was stricken by age and takes his place as one of the greatest sons of Igbo land.
Agu M. C. (2021, December 17) personal communication (personal interview)
Confirmgist.com.ng (2016, November) The Birth of Autonomous Community in Igboland. Confirmgist. https://confirmgist.com.ng/2016/11/birth-autonomous-community-igbo-land/
Dickson-Okezie D. (2021, December 15) Personal Communication (Personal Interview)
Ezeoma J. A. (2021, November 30) personal communication (personal interview)
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Okezie N. J (2021, December) personal communication (personal interview)
Okparaku E. (2021, November 22) personal communication (personal interview)Click here to give us five stars rating!