The Igbo Traditional Political System

Nri in Anambra state is regarded as the ancestral home of the Igbos. In Nigeria the Igbos generally occupied the former Eastern Region and a part of the Mid Western region. The Igbos generally had no Kings or Chiefs (i.e. Igbos enwe-Eze). However few towns like Onitsha had what looked like a recognized chief. The Igbos operated a democratic system of Government. The highest democratic institution among the Igbos is the Oha-na Eze (i.e. the Town Assembly). The largest political unit was the village/village group. This was by kindred then family unit.

The Igbos had a decentralised system of government. The executive, legislative and judicial power were vested in the

  • Oha-na Eze
  • the council of elders
  • the Ofor title holders
  • the family
  • the Ozor title holders
  • the Age-Grade
  • the Umuada
  • the ‘Ala’ or the Earth’s goddess represented by a Chief Priest.

The administrative system was decentralized and characterized by the principle of acephalous (absence of a centralized government). It was therefore a chiefless society which was segmentary and egalitarian in nature. There was no supreme king like Oba and Emirs in the North. Interestingly, however, each village in Igbo society is normally administered like a Republic, independent or sovereign state.
Be that as it may, there existed many institutions in the pre-colonial Igbo society, charged with the responsibility of judicial, legislative and executive functions like: the family group, village council, Ozo title holder, age grades and the Ala.
The Family Group is one of the most recognized institutions in pre-colonial Igbo society as the basic unit of every political institution. It comprised people of the same family. Not only that, each family group was autonomously headed by the title holder called ‘OKPARA’. The Okpara controls the family and judges any family disputes. He performed ritual and ceremonial functions on behalf of the family.
Village Council is popularly known as council of elders, it comprised of all the family heads in the village. However, the most important thing is that each village was administered as a sovereign entity and each family heads (Okpara) were reckoned or named an ‘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 maintaining law and order in the society as well as settlement of dispute between or among group of families. The chairman of the council was known as the oldest of the OKPARAS.
Ozo Title Holders was seen as the highest title of honour which was given to the specific individuals in pre-colonial Igbo society. To become an Ozo title holder, one must be prestigious, popular and wealthy. The most amazing thing is that the position wasn’t hereditary. Ozos were highly influential. They settled and adjudicated on different disputes. Not only that, they rendered valuable advice to the family heads (the Okparas).
Age grade was another important institution in pre-colonial Igbo society. They are group of young men on the basis of age.
The Ala is another political institution in pre-colonial Igbo society. Ala was popularly known as the goddess of the land. Cases like murder, homicide, etc was judged by the Ala. To any Ala, there is a priest called Ala’s priest who interpreted the pronouncement of the Ala. This explained Igbos belief in Amadioha, Igew-ka-ala, Ogbaegbu, etc in terms of needs.
Finally, the Igbo society is segmentary, Republican and sovereign in nature. There were no chiefs compared to Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani pre-colonial administration.

Political Administration

The main political institutions among the Igbos were the Oha-na Eze (The town assembly, the King or Rulers, the Council of Elders or Chiefs and the Age Grade). The Assembly of the whole town or village group is the highest platform for political decision and action. All adult males can attend and participate in the meetings of the town assembly. In the town assembly the titled elders presided over the affairs, deliberated over general decisions on a separate caucus consultation called ‘Igba Izu’ and finally announced final decisions which quite often won a general vocal approval of the people. Occasionally, the final decisions of the elders are rejected and fresh efforts are started towards winning common consensus.

The ruler or king where they existed was the most important person in the town or village. He had the Judicial, Legislative and Executive powers but didn’t act alone. He was advised by his chiefs who could remove him from the office.,, if he did not rule in the public interest.

The council of elders were made up of chiefs and elders in the town. For example, the war chiefs, the religious chiefs, the market chiefs, the family or ward chiefs e.t.c are all members of the council of elders. The functions of the council of elders include :

  1. Advising the King on day to day administration
  2. Removing the King if need be
  3. Regulating trade by fixing price for essential commodities
  4. Deciding on days for religious ceremonies and carrying them out
  5. Trying offenders and ensuring that the punishment imposed on them are carried out
  6. Organising age groups and assigning duties to them
  7. Negotiating peace with neighbours as well as planning for and engaging in war

The Age grade are formed by males and in some cases female children born within a given age bracket. For example, Children born between 1960 to 1965, can be grouped under one age-grad. Each age grade usually is organised under a leader and other officials. The leader normally is the oldest or strongest member. The age-grades were called upon to perform public services and duties such as:

  1. Clearing bush path
  2. Repairing the King’s house and bridges
  3. Preparing the town centres for ceremonies and Religious duties such as taking part in rituals and dances
  4. War duties and civic duties e.g. performing ceremonial functions
  5. Maintenance of Law and order and Peace
  6. Sanitation and cleaning of the environment

Judicial Administration

  1. The family settled minor disputes within the family level
  2. Council of Elders or “Amala” handled major disputes
  3. The final adjudication of cases was done by the deities
  4. The age grade settled minor disputes among themselves
  5. The Ala plays great role in Judicial functions. For example offences such as homicide, murder and birth of abnormal children are crimes against the Ala.
  6. The chief also takes part in judicial settlement.

Sometimes, the whole village may constitute itself into a court for the purpose of settling disputes. Finally, the ‘Dibie’ (native doctor) also settles disputes among the people.

Religion

The Igbos practised traditional religion. They had chief priests who performed sacrifices from time to time to appease the gods. The Igbos have great respect for the deities and the departed ancestors. The chief priests were the link between the people and the deities, as well as departed ancestors. The Igbos believe in re-incarnation.  Profaning of deities was a very serious offence among the Igbos. The religious life of the Igbos were surrounded by mysticisms and superstitions.

Features of the Igbo Traditional Political System

  1. Republic in Nature
  2. Powers were decentralized
  3. No system of taxation
  4. No separation of power
  5. Direct democracy when it comes to decision making