2 May 2009

Nigeria: No Apologies for Slave Trade, Says Aro Council of Elders


The Trans-Atlantic slave trade which led to the forceful enslavement of millions to the Americas and Europe, has elicited the call for reparation even to the United Nations by Africans.

However, in a very controversial paper presented at the famous Ahiajoku Lectures held last January in Owerri, the Imo State capital, University of Nigeria Nsukka based lecturer and Fellow of the Institute of African Studies, Dr. Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe, brought a new dimension to the slave history and reparation issue.

Nwaezeigwe said rather than look overseas for reparation, the Igbo particularly, should hold the Aro people responsible because, according to him, the slave merchants of Europe never ventured into the hinterland for slaves, rather it was the Aro slave dealers who sourced for slaves and delivered them to slave ships over the coast of Arochukwu in Abia State.

If the research fellow wanted publicity, he got more as the networks have become abuzz with reactions. So, in the Saturday Vanguard spirit, we went down to the source to unearth the true story, with an arranged meeting with a select intellectual group of Aro, who gathered at the old District Officer's (DO) house on the hill overlooking the sprawling ancient kingdom, a house now home to the chairman, Arochukwu Local Government Council, Hon. Chibuike Jonas.

Discussions dilated from anger to sheer braggadocio, with a consensus that in the unavoidable absence of a recuperating king, Eze Vincent Ogbonnaya Okoro, Eze Aro VIII, the president general, Nzuko Arochukwu Worldwide, Mazi Emma Kanu Ivi, who is head of Aro in charge of development, political and cultural issues would speak to put the records straight.

As you will find in this interview, Ivi, a chartered accountant, exhibited such sense of pride at the contributions of his forebears to Igbo and world civilisation, describing Arochukwu as a place of joy. On Nwaezeigwe's claims, Ivi said Aro was not apologetic on the role of their people during the slave trade era. Excerpts:

Africans have been calling on Americans and Europeans to pay reparation for their roles on slave trade that robbed the continent of quality manpower. Do you think this call is legitimate?

All through history, reparation has always been a thing of controversy, because anyone who asks for reparation must show why reparation should be paid. If it is proved that an injustice has been done, and the injustice was done against you, and the other party feels yes, truly an injustice has been done, they will be sorry for such wrongs, so long they feel they had gained some benefits for such injustice. In that context, reparation can be possible, that is, between Africans and the western world.

How would you then react to submissions by a University of Nigeria, Nsukka Senior Research Fellow, Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe, who, at Ahiajoku Lectures, said the Aro should pay reparation for sourcing for their slavery activities?

We have read what Nwaezeigwe said, and we believe the man has something to do with Aro people. He must have gotten his biases from schools he attended, his lecturers, or through other connections like in-laws, etc. I really think the man was writing from an angle of ignorance.

Nwaezeigwe is a scholar of Delta Igbo extraction, but a senior research fellow at Nsukka. He must have expressed whatever biases in good faith. Are we now discussing the messenger or his message?

We're not attacking the man. But when somebody is ignorant, he is ignorant. The Bible says that people perish because of lack of knowledge. That you are a Ph.D. holder in an area does not make you an expert in that area. Even if you are Ph.D. holder in an area, if your knowledge in certain aspects of it is not well grounded, you obviously are ignorant, your thesis notwithstanding. If you don't have proper information and you go defending things you completely know nothing about, it makes nonsense of whatever conclusions you come up with.

As far as we are concerned, the man does not have his record straight. He was talking about slave trade. Slave trade was a universal business at the time. Even in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, there are discussions of slaves and slave dealership in those days.

Even the Israelis of today, went into captivity for 40 years and they were slaves. Even among the Jews, they were buying and selling slaves amongst themselves.

The Bible even recorded, "treat your slaves as if they were your sons". So slave trade had existed from time immemorial. At a time in the world, people came to realise that it was no longer necessary to continue the buying and selling of human beings. When it was a legitimate trade, every person who was a businessman would have liked to participate. That time- Aro are being accused of dealing in slaves- but then it was a business that was in vogue, and it was legitimate.

From which part of Igbo land were the Aro sourcing their slaves?

There was no slave market in Arochukwu. Even the research fellow, did he say there was a slave market here? There has never been a slave market in Arochukwu. You cannot see anywhere in Arochukwu that slaves were being sold. Therefore, if you cannot see a market in a community that is being accused of trading in slaves, it simply implies that these slaves were available elsewhere.

Where, for instance?

It means that the products were available at the production site. It would then be necessary to ask where were these slaves coming from? The research fellow should have been able to find that out. Who were producing the slaves? The Aros were travellers as they still are today. In fact, the Igbo now are travellers, a legitimate character trait they have imbibed from Aro people.

So, the Aro, as travellers would go to various places where the products were available and affordable. They would go to those localities who were experts in producing those products and the products then were slaves. So the producers of the slaves would be the people to pay reparation to their people, because they were sourcing, procuring, producing slaves amongst themselves.

The way you speak, producing slaves. Do you just get people and buy them. We are talking about human beings here ...

Yes. It was like a produce meant for procurement.

You sound like strategies did exist. Like you have six children, then you say, 'three for myself and three for slavery?'

No, we are not saying that: because Arochukwu never had market for slaves. Some communities were procuring and producing them.

Stories say those who were sold into slavery were rascals, thieves, murderers, society rejects, etc. What was the criterion for Arochukwu slaves?

So, you are saying that people were selling the people they had condemned? One thing that must be made clear is that Aro never sold their own people. Those who were selling, we believe, were selling those they wanted to kill, or those they wanted to do away with. And if you had something you wanted to discard, and you find somebody who comes willingly, takes it from you, and even gives you money, won't you be grateful to the people? Our people were assisting those who wanted to dispose of their unwanted. Therefore if the Aro were taking away from people those they had declared unwanted, who will you blame, and who will you congratulate?

You will appreciate the man who took away something they wanted to destroy, and preserved them, and eventually sent them to a place where life became much better than even those who wanted to send them away.

Given the opportunity, would you do this again ... ?

There can be no same opportunity. Slave trading has become illegal business. We have the knowledge today that selling people is evil and the society is wiser. So, there is no way we can give a reverse to what is evil because nobody would allow himself to be sold again. Those people who were calling those people unwanted would not do that now, so that circumstance will not arise.

When last I spoke with Eze Aro, he said Aro and Abam had this sacred bond (igba ndu). Was this a consequence of the supportive role Abam played in the Aro quest for slavery?

Abam were warriors, Idima, in particular. They are still warriors. Abam were always happy to go out there to exhibit their strength and power at war. To them, head-hunting was sport. They were always thrilled to engage in such expeditions. Their warrior inclination is still well expressed in their cultural war dance which is now internationally acclaimed.

Even in Aro today, my dancing tells you my history. My clothing tells you about my history. You cannot remove one from the other. If you see an Abam man his war dance, the paraphernalia of the costume distinctly reveal the gallantry of his forefathers at war.

They have the history and they are proud of it. The Aro and Abam have irreversible bonds that have survived till date. Recently, there was a case in Idima Abam, specifically, involving their king, the man came here and stayed with our king for over eight years, before a delegation of Aro-in-council, headed by my humble self, intervened to resolve the dispute.

They may not have listened to anybody else, but they listened to us, out of the understanding that had existed between our peoples for ages. So, our relationship with Abam had been mutual with none seeking material benefits in the bargain. These are practical issues that tell you that the relationship between Abam and Aro had been cordial and will remain so. If the relationship that exists between Abam and Aro exists between Igbo communities, I dare say that Igbo land would be a great place to be.

Let me tell you about the Igbo and Aro. Aro were the first set of Igbo that were widely travelled. And because they were widely travelled, they were knowledgeable in various fields. They were in contact with so many people that their influence expanded and their influence extended. Today, Igbo have learned that tremendously from Aro. In Nigeria today, Igbo are the most widely travelled. And they are investing everywhere in Nigeria.

They are investing everywhere in the world. They are expanding in presence in every other instance - in knowledge, experience and in influence, tapped from Aro. You can see that today, the Igbo are being accused by other Nigerians of domineering, and therefore there is a hidden plan of marginalizing them or hating them. So, it is not uncommon if we come back here to see some Igbo try to sow a seed of hatred against the Aro.

Are the Aro bitter that Nwaezeigwe is bringing this topic to the open at this time?

We are sympathising with him because he is ignorant. We even want to educate him. We say, 'come, come. If you are a research fellow, you come to research where your subjects exist. Only then you can enrich your materials'. You are talking about people from wherever you are. He should have come here to enrich his papers. But he has never visited Arochukwu.

You have come because you know where you will get your sources that will be reasonably authentic. That is what Nwaezeigwe should have done.

It is said that in some instances, Aro sold out entire communities and took over the land till date. Ajalli, in Anambra State, Mazi Emma Kanu Ivi, president-general, Nzuko Arochukwu Worldwide for instance?

That must be exactly where the man's biases come from. Tony Nwaezeigwe, an Ibusa man in Delta State, had a relationship with Akpu, And Akpu he is fighting for was an immigrant. Akpu is in Anambra. Akpu are the people he is trying to say Ajalli sold out. But then Akpu is existing.

There was war, and war was part of life in those days and wars brought conquest. In this instance, Aro fought and Aro were victorious. Aro conquered the enemy, and the ibo nwa eze Akpu (door of the king of Akpu) is here in Aro Kingdom. It is here in Arochukwu as part of the relics of defeat to Akpu.

When the door was brought, it was preserved and it is now part of the relics on display at the Arochukwu Federal Government Museum Centre. It is an evidence of what happened in the past. That conquest came as a result of a battle of who will occupy certain aspects of the land then - Ajalli occupied where they conquered, and Akpu triumphed where they are today.

Akpu migrated from somewhere to that place and Ajalli migrated from Arochukwu to that place. And you know that Aro had a system of mutual integration? And if you go to Ajalli today, Ajalli is made up of all manner of people, but under Aro coloration.

You think the call for reparation is really necessary?

An aggrieved person must always ask for compensation. If it is justifiable, yes. We should have called for reparation for colonialism. Somebody came here, colonised you, suppressed you, destroyed your culture, destroyed your traditions, imposed upon you, mentally and spiritually, his own way of life. And today, black men become European people in mentality and behaviour. Have you asked for such reparation?

Are you speaking like this because Aro are being accused?

I'm not speaking like this because Aro are being accused, rather, I am speaking like somebody who knows what he is talking about. Somebody is accusing Aro of dealing in slave trade, and I'm saying that Aro were dealing in slave trade when the trade was legal and therefore legitimate.

I'm saying that Aro did not play any bad role. Today, however, slave trade is no longer fashionable and everybody who was engaged in slave trade, as a Christian must regret it, because it was an evil. Slave trading was legitimate then, killing of twins was legitimate then, burying people with live people was legitimate then. But today, knowledge has triumphed.

People did not know the harm they were doing before. Human sacrifice was also a mark of worshipping God, otherwise, God wouldn't have told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, until God said, no, and provided an alternative. Abraham would have killed his son. That was what was demanded of him. So, it was then legitimate, and even religious. But with time, the evolution of knowledge and experience, we now know it is something evil. So any person who takes his son to go and sacrifice to make money or to please God is an evil person today.

Are the Aro 100% Igbo? Igbo, as a ethnic group, or as a language or as a nation? In any context, are you 100% Igbo?

From the origin, Aro is Igbo. But the make up of people of Aro are from various manner of people.

We hear that Aro are mostly of Ibibio stock, the reason they unfeelingly sold Igbo into slavery?

That is not true. We have people of Ibibio stock in Aro of over 700 years ago who have been assimilated with the Igbo in Arochukwu. Aro believe in assimilation. We assimilate people. We don't destroy people. As others will say, unwanted people. Aro will bring you, train you, integrate you, assimilate you and you become part. So, here, you can't differentiate.

The original settlers, the owners of the land, are Igbo, that is what you are saying?

I am one of the original settlers. I am an aborigine. I am Bianko. The original inhabitants were Igbo.

Where did you come from to settle here?

Just like you ask yourself where did the Igbo come from? It is a global quesstion. Some people claim they came from Saudi Arabia, others say they came from Israel or even Sudan.

Where did the Aro come from?

Aro have an aborigine, and so far as I know, the people who own the land, own the land. The Aro own the land. They came from various places to make it up. Those who came from Akpa are here, those who came from Ibibio are here, those who are the original settlers here, we are here. So the calling up of the Aro is a question even the historians, Prof. Kenneth Dike and others who have done elaborate research on Aro have not been able to agree.

And when the Aro wants to behave like a superior Igbo man, as God has made him to be anyway, he claims that he was specially made Igbo, maybe coming from Israel, or from any of the Jews. Even some Europeans say we look like people from Asia, or people from Portugal, or people of the Hebrew race.

What is the criterion for such assumption?

Because when they (Europeans) came here they found something distinguishing in the Aro. In terms of intelligence, in terms of wisdom, in terms of administrative competence. They found in Aro, an administrative system that was comparable to advanced communities at the time. And in Aro here before, we had a confederal system. Here we have a kingdom that has never been in dispute.

In Aro here, we had a system where each kindred produces and manages a certain group of people. In Aro here, consultation is part of our governance system, so conflict resolution is very easy in Arochukwu. Conflict that will lead to destruction, killing, maiming in other societies, if it happens in Arochukwu, we had a conflict management system that baffled the early Europeans.

And also Aro had a system of communication. Even in those days, writings called Nsibiri was developed by the Aro, that even when we are talking with other Igbo, we give signs to another full-bred Aro that only the Aro can decipher and implement.

The other Igbo would see but he would not understand. Aro had such system. And so, such kind of intellectual development of Aro people as at that time rated them higher in the eyes of the Europeans or those who came from outside in those days. They found in Aro a people with a special level of wisdom and intelligence. These are also documented.

People say the Aro used the Long Juju to bamboozle and sometimes force on foreigners the belief you have just described?

What is juju? Juju is not an Igbo language. Even the juju that they said they met in Aro here could also be found in India, in Europe, in America. So, the juju is not an Aro language.

The reference was because they got confused. They were looking for the Long Juju everywhere and they couldn't find it.

They would trace here, they would trace there, they would say the juju is long, yet they would not find it. That too was part of nsibiri. The oyibo man will go and destroy, and go and destroy and still see that the juju is still here. They say this juju is very, very long. As a matter of fact, what they referred to as juju is Ibini Ukpabi.

And it is still here?

Of course. Ibini Ukpabi is a system of worship, developed by Aro that were helping those who had need for spiritual succour. Those who had complexities they could not resolve in their areas, sought somebody who could interpret. Just like in those days, when you had a dream, you would be looking for those who would interpret dreams. In the Bible, you can see Daniel and others, they became prominent because they were able to interpret dreams.

And so, people with complex riddles in their places they couldn't resolve, Arochukwu had a system that could help them resolve that. People were coming to Arochukwu on pilgrimage to resolve their problems through the assistance of the oracle called Ibini Ukpabi.

And because of the influence of Ibini Ukpabi, many people were coming to this place constantly and the white man saw this as a threat to their own influence. Before the Europeans came, Arochukwu had gone extensively everywhere. Arochukwu people had become travellers, they were not travelling because the Europeans came, no.

The Europeans also discovered that no matter where the Aro man domiciled, he had a super-link to Arochukwu. So, that inter-connectivity of network of Aro perplexed the Europeans, and their desire was to cut off or destroy that network, so that they could be able to wield their influence over the Igbo.

Are you saying Aro will not apologise to anybody on their roles during the slave trade era?

I told you earlier on, Arochukwu is not apologetic about what happened in the past. When Aro were involved in slave trade, the trade was very very legal. When slave trade became illegal, Aro man quickly dropped out as people who are law abiding, very obedient, hardworking, well focused.

They switched over to other forms of legitimate businesses. The issue of slave trade is a regret for the whole world and not of the Aro, because the whole world realised that it was evil. So, how should the Aro, being a small proportion become apologetic about it. You recall it is evils like slavery that made God bring His only Son (Jesus Christ), yet He couldn't solve it until recently when all the world agreed that it was evil. If Aro is still involved in slave trade, then it will be very, very unfortunate.

We had men like Alvan Ikoku from here. What manner of man was he?

Alvan Ikoku was a true Aro son. He believed that through hard work you could succeed. Alvan Ikoku gave himself education from home without even attending any higher institution. He was the first Igbo graduate and he read through the use of local lantern. He passed all his intermediate and final degree exams without going through any university.

He never stepped out of Arochukwu for his education. He stayed here at home, struggled through correspondence and finally acquired his education. It was after he acquired his education that he decided to step out of Arochukwu. He was the first Igbo man to establish a private college in Nigeria.

So, it will be wrong to say that such a man benefitted from the spoils of slave trade?

No prominent Aro son benefitted from the proceeds of slave trade. Aro wealth has always been from dint of hard work.

Another example is Mazi Kanu Uche. He struggled, passed through thick and thin and made it. T.K. Uche was contemporary of eminent Igbo like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and the rest, yet he was not rich. Nwa Aro icho, Nkpola icho (Aro son distinct, money distinct). Aro man does not look at wealth, rather Aro man has always been more for the acquisition of knowledge than the indiscriminate acquisition of wealth.

We believe more in what knowledge you can acquire than how much wealth you can acquire. The more knowledgeable you are, the more regarded you are in Arochukwu. In Arochukwu here, you hardly see signs of unfathomable wealth, rather you see quantum of intelligent people. Even in the diaspora, wherever the Aro is domiciled, you hardly see indiscriminate wealth. We have regard for character and integrity.

How would you rate Chibuike Jonas as chairman, Arochukwu Local Government Council?

Jonas Chibuike is an Aro boy. He is doing the work a very good Aro man will do. He is exhibiting integrity, he is showing that you can do much with little, prudence. He is exhibiting that an Aro son does not steal. He is doing good work, we are urging him not to allow external political influence to derail his vision.

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