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Francis Anekwe: Igbo Claim Of Ancestral Link With Israel And Republicanism [MUST READ]

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[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom the Book of Exodus, we learnt of Moses and his choice of ‘Dispersal System of Governance’ – that is, authority at the hands of many, in the administration of the people of Israel, which in modern terminology is called ‘Republicanism’ or ‘Representative Government’:

“Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not right.’ … You cannot do it all yourself. Now listen to the advice I am going to give you, and God be with you! … From the people at large choose capable and God-fearing men, men who are trustworthy and incorruptible, put them in charge … so making things easier for you by sharing the burden with them.” – (Exodus 18: 1-23).

The present article is a follow-up to our last one, titled: “Igbo Dispersal Culture and Challenge of Statehood”, which discussed the relevance of Igbo dispersal system of societal governance; its relatedness to Ndigbo diasporal-migratory disposition in today’s globalized world and Nigeria.

In the present article, our aim is to bring into the debate, Igbo claim of ancestral link with Israel, and its relatedness to their republican and inclusive traditional system of governance. It is to appreciate the divergences and commonalities (where they exist), between Igbo, Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba traditional patterns of societal organization (centralized and dispersal authorities, respectively). What are their implications for Nigeria today in the midst of the ongoing clamor for a new political arrangement that could enhance healthier relationship as neighbors, among different multi-ethno-religious groups of the country?

The article showcases, the rich cultural heritage of Nigeria’s three major ethnic-nationalities – taking Igbo as a case study; its relevance in the present-day reality of Nigeria’s political history, and search for ‘new political identity.’ The article prioritizes the relevance of our knowledge of these historical facts and cultural realities for better evaluation of current political impasse in the country.

Thus, the article does not intend to prescribe solutions or to forecast the eventual outcome. My only intention is to help improve public understanding of what is at stake. My hope is that this will evoke a more concerted and urgent sense of concern both within and outside the shores of Nigeria on the present political crisis in the country, than has thus far been forthcoming.

The Bible and Igbo Dispersal System of Governance

The Book of Exodus informs us of Moses’ early years as Prince, in the Palace of Pharaoh in Egypt; how he was acquainted with the culture of “Centralized and feudal System of Governance” – that is, monarchical, imperial authority. At the house of Pharaoh, Moses learnt all about monarchical, feudal and centralized type of societal organization that was the center of life at Pharaoh’s Palace.

However, Moses, after his call by God to liberate the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, at first, wanted to apply the system of centralized feudal authority, which he had learnt at the house of Pharaoh, in the administration of Israel. But God intervened through the wise advice of Moses’ African father-in-law, Jethro, priest of Midian. From then onwards, Moses began to run an inclusive and dispersal system of government in the administration of the people of Israel. He made sure that each of the 12 tribes of Israel was fully, represented in his government. Thus, the Book of Exodus goes further to say:

 “Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and did just as he said. Moses chose capable men from all Israel and put them in charge of the people as heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. These acted as the people’s permanent judges.” – (Exodus 18: 24-26 (NB. Emphasis mine).

Interesting to note that those Pharaohs, who raised Moses as Egyptian Prince, from whom he learnt the centralized, feudal monarchical pattern of authority, and eventually fell out with, originally, were militias from Arabian Peninsula. They were invaders, who conquered Egypt, sacked the original African Pharaoh they met, and installed their own (see Exodus 1: 8-14).

In other words, theirs was an imperial colonial power in Egypt.  No wonder, they were very brutal in dealing with the people of Israel. The Bible would later describe them, as a ‘Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.’ It was their Pharaonic Dynasty, and imperial power that subjected the people of Israel into slavery, dethroned and took over power in Egypt from the native African Pharaohs.

Again, this implies that in his early life, before he met his father-in-law, Jethro, Moses had learnt all about the Egyptian wisdom and civilization, especially, their system of governance – Pharaonic imperial, monarchical, militant, and feudal centralized authority. But from the moment he met his African (Cushite) father-in-law, Jethro, priest of Midian, all those things changed. Moses began to apply the African wisdom and civilization in the area of governance – that is, the “Dispersal Pattern of Societal Organization.” Moses began to apply this African system in the administration of the people of Israel.

All Biblical scholarship confirmed that Midian, the native town of Moses’ father-in-law, was a typical African (Cushite) countryside in the southern province of Egypt. That Moses married an African woman from a black African family, later, caused some uproar and envy within the circle of Moses’ relatives. In fact, it ignited the jealousy and envy of Miriam and Aaron (Moses’ sister and brother, respectively), that God had to send leprosy to Miriam until Moses intervened through prayer, and Miriam got cured (See Numbers, Chapter 12).

 God was on the side of Moses and his African wife. Not only that: The entire nation of Israel, later, became beneficiary of the African wisdom of Moses’ father-in-law, from whom Moses learnt, and introduced, the inclusive leadership – republican dispersal system of governance in Israel (see Exodus 2:11-22).

In the Book of Numbers, God confirmed for Moses, the use of the dispersal and inclusive system of authority in the administration of the people of Israel:

“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Collect me seventy of the elders of Israel, men you know to be the people’s elders and scribes. Bring them to the Tent of Meeting, and let them stand beside you there. I shall come down and talk to you there and shall take some of the spirit which is on you and put on them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you, and you will no longer have to bear it on your own” (Numbers 11: 16-17).

In other words, the dispersal authority (authority at the hands of many), has solid African and Biblical foundations than the centralized system of governance (monarchical, feudal authority).

Igbo Claim of Ancestral Link with Israel

Igbo people have a village system of settlement. Every town is a confederation of villages. And every village is a confederation of sub-villages (Umunna (clan). In most cases, a village could make a town, but since all could trace their origins and cohabitation as a people to a common progenitor and customs, they maintain their unity and name as a town and people.

The village system of settlement is tied to the Igbo claim of ancestral link with Israel. Ndigbo claim ancestral descendant from the Biblical Patriarch Abraham through the Old Testament nation of Israel. In particular, they claim to be descendants of Gad, one of the Twelve Sons of Jacob. They claim to have descended directly from “ERI”, son of Gad, son of Jacob.

The Book of Genesis gives the following accounts of Jacob’s family – all his offspring and his descendants, who arrived in Egypt, with all the possessions they had acquired in Canaan:

“Jacobs’ family – These were the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who arrived in Egypt: … The sons of Gad: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi and Areli …” (Genesis 46: 8.16 (NB. Emphasis mine).

 We find similar account in the Book of Numbers – legislation on the Census, God gave Moses and the priest Eleazar son of Aaron:

“The sons of Gad by clans: for Zephon, the Zephonite clan; for Haggi, the Haggite clan; for Shuni, the Shunite clan; for Ozni, the Oznite clan, for Eri, the Erite clan; for Arod, the Arodite clan; for Areli, the Arelite clan. These were the clans of the sons of Gad. They numbered forty thousand five hundred men” (Numbers 26: 15-17 (NB. Emphasis mine).

Although, there are debates, recent archaeological evidences showed about the migration of Eri (the progenitor of Ndigbo) and his entourage, from the South of the Nile to the confluence of the Niger, from where he sailed down Anambra River to settle at Eri-Aka in the present day town of Aguleri about 5000 years.

Among Eri’s entourage when he first arrived at Eri-Aka in Aguleri about 5000 years ago, were also his two younger brothers: Arodi, and Areli, and their descendants, among others. Such that Eri, Arodi, and Areli – the three brothers, are often venerated together, as the ancestral founders and progenitors of Ndigbo in South Eastern Nigeria. They first established at Aguleri. However, some years later, Arodi and Areli, and some others advanced further into other parts of the present-day Igbo hinterland, where Ndigbo, are found today in Eastern Nigeria and environs.

Eri, as the eldest and leader of the group, remained at Aguleri, established his abode there, later died, and was buried at Aguleri. Both Arodi and Areli were also buried at Aguleri. They were buried at ‘Obuga’ Palace Shrine at Enugu village, Aguleri. The famous “Trinity-Iroko-Tree” at Obuga Shrine, Enugu Aguleri, still standing there today, grew up on top of their tombs. This is the ‘mystery’ behind the “Sacred Trinity-Iroko-Tree”, which have been standing there for over five millennia years, till date. It is today one of the most cherished archeological sites and pilgrimage centers in the ancient town of Aguleri.

The Bible mentioned Eri (the progenitor of Ndigbo), as one of the sons of Gad, who was one of the twelve sons of Israel (Genesis 46:16; Numbers 26:16). This is a common myth among Aguleri natives, and indeed, Igbo people in general. It is confirmed by oral traditions, archaeological evidences, and biblical testimonies about the migration and settlement of Eri with his entourage at a place near Anambra River, later called Aguleri. The people go on to confirm this conviction by appealing to the many identical cultural and religious elements practiced among the Jews and the Igbo (See Book of Leviticus, among other Books of the Bible).

Writing on this, M.A. Onwuejeogwu, the renowned Igbo historian, says:

“Oral tradition in Aguleri has it that Aguleri originated from Eri, a man sent down from the sky to rule mankind. He came down at Omabala/Ezu (Anambra) River confluence and finally settled in a place called Eri-Aka in Aguleri. The earth was not as firm as it is today when he came to the earth. His authority to rule and his power over men, were derived from God. This is the reason why Aguleri is regarded as the cradle of Igbo civilization.” – (M.A. Onwuejeogwu, cited in Elizabeth Isichei (ed.), “Igbo Worlds” (London, 1977).

Among the Igbo, the first son is usually, called “AGU” (Lion). The name Aguleri means “Agu-uli-Eri. Which loosely translates, “Eri’s first ‘adorned’ son.” The European missionaries when they first came to the town could not easily pronounce the word, “Aguleri.” So, they called it, “GLORIA IGBO.”

The youngest son of Eri, named Menri (Nri) was a priest. He and his family migrated into the Igbo hinterlands. Menri’s children established at Nri and later expanded into other “Umunri” towns in Igbo hinterland. As we saw before, according to local legends, the descendants of these towns, and descendants of Arodi and Areli (younger brothers of Eri), migrated later from Anambra River Basin to become founders of other towns and villages in what we know today as Igboland.

In this regard, the renowned African/Igbo historian, Elizabeth Isichei writes:

“One branch of the children of Eri (Umueri), became the people of Nri, whose travelling ritual experts travelled far afield in Igboland, purifying communities of evils, and proclaiming a distinctive ethos of peace. The antiquity of all this can be gauged by the fact that superb works of art in bronze and other media have been discovered very near Nri, and have been dated to the ninth century.” – (E. Isichei, “Entirely for God: The Life of Cyprian Michael Tansi”, (2, 1980).

In addition, the traditions of “Umu-Eri” clan in general, which includes the ancient state of Nri, show that both they and Igala are descended from a still more ancient community in the Anambra valley, and that is Aguleri. Writing on this, Isichei says:

“We are all descendants from Eri; but Igala went one way, Agukwu another, Amanuke another, Nteje another and Igbariam another. This separation of Igala from us happened so long ago that now we do not understand Igala, nor can they understand our language.” – (E. Isichei (ed.), “Igbo Worlds” (1977).

M.A. Onwuejeogwu, also in his book, “An Igbo Civilization: Nri Kingdom and Hegemony”, writes:

“The children of Eri migrated: Ogbodudu from Aguleri to Amanuke; Onogu to Igbariam; Onoja to Igala; Iguedo to Umuleri, Nando, Awkuzu, Ogbunike, and Nsugbue, etc. Agulu as the first son of Eri remained at Aguleri. Each settlement then followed its own existence and development owing allegiance to Aguleri, where their collective ancestral temple remains.” – (M.A. Onwuejeogwu, “An Igbo Civilization: Nri Kingdom and Hegemony” (1981).

The collective ancestral temple is the “Obuga” Palace “sacred Shrine” located at Enugu village, Aguleri. Obuga is the collective ancestral temple of Aguleri people, and indeed, the whole of Igboland. It is the most “sacred and oldest traditional shrine” (Temple) in Aguleri and Igboland.

Obuga is where the founding fathers of Ndigbo lived, buried and are venerated (namely, Eri, Arodi, and Areli). It is a temple dedicated to the memory of Gad, the father of Eri, Arodi and Areli. For Aguleri people, “Obu-Ga” is the “home of Ga.” Obu means home and “Ga” is the owner of the home. The word “Ga” is the Igbo rendering of Gad.

Moreover, till today, Aguleri people celebrate an annual festival called, “Oriri Obibia Eri” (Festival of Eri’s Arrival), in honor of the first arrival and settlement of Eri and his entourage in the town. This is the oldest festival of the town. It predated the arrival of Europeans in Igboland. The occupant of the Obuga ‘Royal stool’ (the oldest royal stool in the whole of Igboland), “Eze-Ora” of Enugu kindred village, Aguleri, is a direct descendant from the ancestral family of the first son of Aguleri, first son of Eri. Each occupant of the “throne” (Eze-Ora), from time immemorial till date, had always traced their royal dynasty (‘priest-kingship’) to their founding ancestor, the first son of Aguleri, who was the first son of Eri, son of Gad.

The Eze-Ora of Enugu village, Aguleri, is also regarded as the bearer and custodian of Ndigbo royal scepter (OduduEze). This is why before coronation, the candidate for Eze Nri (‘Umu-nri’ clan) must come to Aguleri to collect a lump of sand (otherwise called “Odudu-Eze”), from the bottom of Anambra River. Without the “Odudu-Eze” from Aguleri, no Eze Nri is crowned. This is very strongly, expressed in the address of the presiding priest when the candidate for Eze Nri is about to be buried in a shallow grave as part of the life-death- ritual initiation:

You who are about to enter the grave, rise up again with a vivid shining body. May no sickness or harm befall you: Rise up as previous eze (king) Ndri have done. Rule your people with truth and justice. Go to Aguleri, obtain your odudu, and may you return safely to rule your people – (E.E. Uzukwu, “Worship as Body Langauge: Introduction to Christian Worship: An African Introduction”, 99, 1997).

The Eze-Ora of Aguleri, as the representative of direct descendants of Aguleri’s eldest son (first son of Eri), assumes the responsibility of the custodian and chief-priest of “Obuga” Shrine.

The British, during their colonial enterprise in Igboland, could not penetrate or conquer Igbo nation so easily. It took them many years since their arrival in Nigeria before they could penetrate traditional Igbo governance structure and system. This was long after they had already done so with other ethnic-groups, e.g., Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba in the North and West parts of the country respectively. The Igbo system of societal organization and priest-kingship tradition had proved to be the toughest British encountered in their colonization enterprise in Africa.

This was because of Igbo republican-dispersal pattern of societal organization, and the presence of traditional “priest-kingship” stool, such as “Eze-Ora” in Aguleri, or “Eze-Nri” in Nri town. This type of system of traditional societal organization and priest-kingship stool, was replicated throughout Igboland before the colonial onslaught of the British ‘Warrant-chiefs’ was later introduced in the region.

 With the introduction of the infamous British “indirect-rule” and their institution of “Warrant-chiefs” chieftaincy system, the colonialists, eventually, succeeded in rendering redundancy, and almost irrelevant, the influence of traditional “priest-kingship”, and pattern of dispersal governance in Igboland. Such was the case of what happened to “Eze-Ora” of Enugu Aguleri, and especially, to “Eze-Nri”, among others.

With the introduction of “warrant-chiefs”, the original traditional rulers lost their influence if not significance. They were simply referred to with a vague name, “Eze omenani” (priest-kings (for mere traditional customary ceremonies), while the newly introduced “warrant-chiefs”, became known as “Eze-oyibo/Eze-beke” (which literally means, White colonialists’ local-agents, or appointed-chiefs). With the passing of times, some powerful ‘warrant-chiefs’, with the help of the colonialists, and in some places, the missionaries, started to celebrate the traditional annual “Ofala festival”, which used to be the preserve of the traditional “priest-kings”.

The new ‘warrant-chiefs’ received official recognition from the colonial government, while for the ‘priest-kings’, the tradition of the community had put there, there was no formal government recognition. With this, the place and role of traditional stool holders (priest-kings) in Igboland, became redundant in the new dispensation. ‘The last straw that broke the Camel’s back.’

Prior to the introduction of the infamous “warrant-chiefs” – indirect-rule system, the influence of the priest-kings’ role of Eze-Nri was very much felt throughout Igboland. This was because of Eze-Nri’s pan-Igbo priest’s reconciliation role; a role he played throughout Igboland, until British dispossessed him of that highly cherished African tradition and custom. This implies that the major custom and tradition which used to hold all Igbo communities together, united them as a people through Eze-Nri’s ‘priest-kingly’ role, was broken and destroyed by British colonial government. Since then, things started to fall apart in Igboland – (apologies to Chinua Achebe’s novel, “Things fall apart”).

The British succeeded in subduing Ndigbo, from the moment the colonialists destroyed the “Eze-Nri” African traditional “priest-kingship” role, its influence in Igboland; set aside the republican system of dispersal authority, and in its place instituted “warrant-chief” system, which they used effectively in executing their ‘indirect-rule’ colonial exploitation in the region. Today, most of the chieftaincy tussles and infightings in Igboland, owe their origins to the colonial imposition of ‘warrant-chiefs’ in various Igbo communities. It has remained the permanent ‘scare’ of colonial dispossession of African culture in Igboland!

The two most respected, renowned Igbo historians, Isichei and Onwuejeogwu confirmed the founding story of Igbo nation. Both authors confirmed the Igbo claim to ancestral link with the founding Patriarch of Israel as well as the culture of dispersal identity between the two nations. (See Elizabeth Isichei (ed.), “Igbo World” (1977); M.A. Onwuejeogwu, “An Igbo Civilization: Nri Kingdom and Hegemony” (1981).

The findings of these authors and experts on Igbo history, show that dispersal system of administration is one of the major cultural practices and traits, very common among Ndigbo and Israelites. There are many other examples of cultural practices very common among the two nations. They have also some biblical backing (See Book of Leviticus).

In all, however, we can say that the Igbo account of its origin is probably a legend. But to say so is not to deny that materials of historical value may not be derived from such myth, provided rational principles of evaluation are employed.

Other peoples, for instance, the Yoruba have also similar legendary-mythical story about their founding progenitor, Oduduwa. The city of Rome, has similar founding story, about the twin-brothers, whom Roman mythology celebrates till date, as founders of the city of Rome. The Pantheon, located at the centre of the city is in honour of the legendary-mythical twin-brothers.

Every people or group have their own myths about their founding story and origins. Therefore, Ndigbo are not doing anything different when they trace their origins as a people to ‘biblical times and Patriarchs of Israel.’

Igbo Dispersal Culture and Other African Patterns of Societal Organization

In general, traditional African society had two broad patterns of political organization, dispersal and centralized authority. With regard to the societies with dispersal of authority, this way of societal organization is found mainly among bands of hunters and gatherers such as the pygmies of Central Africa, the San of the Kalahari Desert, etc. These are small autonomous groups. There may not be more than a hundred people in the group. An elder or kindred head, assisted by or along with family heads, assume the religious and socio-political leadership.

This pattern of societal organization is found also in fairly populous ethnic groups which are not receptive to a strong centralized authority. An example is the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria, as we saw before. The organized pattern among the Igbo is the village-group. The village-group is the federation of clans. The clan is composed of the kindred, and the kindred is made up of extended families. The head of the eldest or the principal clan presides over the assemblies of the village-group attended by other heads. But decisions that affect the life of the clans constituting the village-group necessarily involve consultation on family, kindred, and clan levels. Orders, which come from the top without prior discussion or negotiation are ignored. Hence, the people say: igbo enweghi eze (Igbo have no king).

You have to prove yourself worthy through bravery, hard work, honesty, moral probity, truthfulness, and steadfastness in safeguarding or fighting for the interest of your people, before they bestow you with any title, or honored by the community. Thus, the Igbo say, “Eze-bu-ilo”, which literally means, “The king is an enemy.” A ruler, or someone who claims to be a community leader, but lacks the basic requisite qualities, or had abdicated them, is seen by the people as an ‘enemy’ – “Eze-bu-ilo.”

However, as an autonomous community, some village-groups may come together and constitute themselves into mini-kingdoms. An example of this is found among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Gikuyu of Kenya or the Massai of Kenya and Tanzania. In each case, the pattern of authority is basically, as in the village-group. The only exception is that a kind of status symbol or aristocratic associations may develop. For instance, the ozo chieftaincy caste (among the Igbo), has a status symbol of success and sign of increasingly political privilege and responsibility.

Others are Age Grades and Trade associations. In each case, it is a situation where laws or decisions affecting the society at various levels and in various shades and forms are discussed in meetings of Age Grades, married women, daughters (married to other village-groups), titled men and women, elders (of family, clan, or kindred heads), and so forth. But in all, the society is founded on sacred; and ritual is exercised on various levels by heads of families, kindreds, clans, and village-groups (ancestral cult, common festivals and related cults at various levels) and by priests of divinities.

 In some communities (as among the Nri kingdom of Igboland, as we saw before), there is a priest-kingship in one village-group. The king of this group exercises ritual authority in most of Igboland. In these groups, contact with neighboring groups is mainly through exogamy and trade. Disputes and wars are settled through treaties and agreements, which ensure the safe passage of citizens through others’ territory. The settlements are done through persuasion rather than in coercion. However, the major weakness of this type of societal organization lies in its restrictedness and lack of centralized authority that can help it to withstand external aggression. Such village-groups may be highly vulnerable in defending themselves against a centralized and militant group.

The second pattern of societal organization, the centralized authority, is found in the ancient African kingdoms, such as the Ganda, the Oyo, Bini, Ashanti, Abomy, Zulu, Kongo, Hausa, and Egba. The authority in these societies are structured in form of monarchies which are either autocratic or oligarchic. In the autocratic situation, the ruler directly appoints and removes from office his representatives, as he likes. One may argue here that this kind of dictatorship is not characteristic of typical African kingdoms. But at least there are found prevalent in those kingdoms such as Mali, Songhai, which were however, under the influence of Arab-Muslim culture.

On the other hand, the monarchies which are oligarchies are more typical of African pattern of kingship. Some call this an African traditional society’s form of monarchical democracy. There the monarch rules with the council of chiefs. The exercise of authority is collegial. Although, the person of the monarch is sacred, in the sense that he is seen to have an intimate relationship with God and the divinities. Nevertheless, he works very closely on daily basis with his council of chiefs. A good example is the Oyo kingdom of Yorubaland.

It may be said that the monarchical or centralized system of governance provides the people with more cohesion, wider interaction and so forth, than the system of many heads of clan. But at the same time, it can also, be easily manipulated and turned into autocratic or tyrannical rule. While the system of inclusive governance of dispersal authority, which is republican in nature, remains the best option since it is the one very close to the ideals of modern democratic principles.

However, our concern is not to say which of the two systems (centralized – monarchical, or dispersal – republican (authority at the hands of many), is better than the other. But rather, to indicate how useful each of the systems can be in evaluating the present political reality in Nigeria.

Moreover, experience has chosen that these historical antecedents and divergences in culture and value systems of Nigeria’s three major ethnic-groups were at the root causes of the continued conflicts, violence, bloodbaths, insecurity, and political instability in the country. Such that the problem of Nigeria, unfortunately, instead of slowing down, is escalating every day. This shows that Nigeria’s problem is both historical and cultural.


The cultural affinity of the Igbo with the nation of Israel, as a people with dispersal culture of governance, helps one to put into right perspective the present political crisis in Nigeria, and to evaluate objectively, the call in some quarters today, towards rethinking Nigeria’s political system and structure.

All this confirms the usefulness of better understanding the basic cultural differences between Nigeria’s three major ethnic-groups, for any meaningful debate and honest resolution of present political impasse besetting the country.

Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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