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Chapter one


Before the European colonisation of the area that became Nigeria in 1914 the various peoples of Nigeria had been in existence. Many of these peoples had, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, lived in their present locations for centuries, and had had their own ways of life (Orugbani, 2005). They had, for example, practised their own traditional religions and had operated their own social and political systems based mainly on the principles of gerontocracy and primogeniture. Blood and family ties determined, to a large extent, the nature of relationships. Life in general was essentially communal; everybody was his brother’s keeper (Orugbani, 2005).

Precolonial Niger Delta comprises the history of incongruent city-states inhabited by distinct ethnic nationality groups, including: the Ijaw, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ibibio, Efik, Ogoni and other minority ethnic nationalities inhabiting the south coastal region of Nigeria. Archaeological finds show that some of these societies (especially Ijaw) had existed in the Niger Delta (West African coast) for centuries before the advent of European merchants. The archaeological record is a useful complement to oral traditions and written sources, but much work remains to be done in this area. Fortunately, the personalities and events covered in this section (late 19th century resistance) can be found in written history even though such works may have been prejudiced or meant to serve particular agendas.

According to written accounts, Portugal recorded the first western foray into the coastal plain of West Africa in the fifteenth century.[1] Before the arrival of Portuguese navigators in the West African coast, the Niger Delta (and by extension the whole of the West African coast) was not integrated into the global political economy. The Portuguese maintained a monopoly on slave and merchandise trade with city-states in the West African coast until the intrusion of trade merchants and missionaries from other nations (Sweden, Holland, Denmark, France and Britain) in the 16th and seventeenth century. Trade with these western nations transformed West Africa’s coastal region into an outpost of the trans-Atlantic commerce and brought it into the global capitalist economy. Since the fifteenth century, therefore, the Niger Delta has been significantly influenced and in fact transformed by global political economic processes through commerce and social relations with European capitalist merchants. Between the 15th and mid-19th centuries, the Niger Delta played a strategic and significant role in the trans-Atlantic slave and merchandise trade. As a prime example, from the seventeenth century until the prohibition proclamation in 1807, city-states of the delta supplied a great proportion of slaves to the Atlantic world compared to other regions of the West African coast.[2] In all, more than three million African slaves were shipped from the coastal city-states of the Niger Delta to Europe and the Americas.

In some places where conditions were favourable, well-organised states, kingdoms and empires sprang up and flourished. In the north for example, were the Kanem-Bornu Empire and the Hausa States of Kano, Katsina, Zaria, Nupe, Kebbi, and Kwararafa. In the forest region were the powerful kingdoms of Benin and Oyo, while in the extreme south, in the area popularly referred to as the Niger Delta, were the citystates of Nembe, Elem Kalabari, Okrika, Andoni, Bonny, Opobo, Ode-Itsekiri etc. (Alagoa, 1970; Stride and Ifeka, 1971, Crowther, 1978).

With regard to inter-group relations, the various peoples of Nigeria had freely met and traded together. The coastal peoples such as the Ijo, Andoni, and Itsekiri produced fish, crayfish and salt, which they exchanged for the agricultural products of their hinderland neighbours such as the Isoko, Urhobo, Ukwuani and so on. The major rivers such as the Niger, Benue, Forcados, Benin, Bonny, Escravos etc, for a long time served as trade routes and means of contact between the various peoples of Nigeria, especially in the south and the middle belt. In the north, pack animals such as camels, mules and donkeys were effectively used in the movement of goods and people from one place to another. These economic contacts, no doubt, led to social, political, and even religious relations amongst the peoples of the different geographical zones.

In the Ijo-Itsekiri area, the focus of this article, there is the general consensus that the people had “lived together for several decades” (Ayomike, 1990a: 17; Clark, 2003). The common impression is that it was the advent of the Europeans with their alien systems of trade, education, religion, and government that strained the hitherto cordial relations between the two groups. This article is an attempt to properly document the relations between the Ijo and Itsekiri in precolonial times. The aim is not to divide the people, but to enable Nigerians and the international community to put in proper perspective the recently hostile relations between the two groups.

Objective of study

The broad of the study is to discuss the Western Ijaw and Itsekiri relation in precolonial period. The enornimity of this working will lead to presenting an overview of the state of Niger Delta in the pre colonial era, the evolution of Itsekiri and Ijaw land in niger delta and their pre colonial relation

Significance of the study

This conducting this research, the researcher searching for history of relation of the  geographic location has to follow two lines simultaneously. The first of them observes geographic location and the practice of residence in the area at a given period in this case the pre colonial era. The second line observes geographic location practice within society, putting emphasis on global aspects, culture, language and political context. (Danto, 2008) in essence the study will serve as a historiography of Western Ijaw And Itsekiri in Niger Delta.

Scope and Limitations

The scope of this study centers on the historical relation of the  geographical location and demography  of Western Ijaw And Itsekiri in Niger Delta. The major limitation faced by the researcher in conducting this research is the financial burden.

Research Methodology

This research used a  doctrinal research method and a survey research method. The doctrinal research method which is library oriented involved the collection of relevant articles, published materials, periodicals, articles and journals related to the subject understudy.

The Survey method aims at obtaining primary data, which can be analyzed, patterns extracted and comparison of such data to be made. Similarly, survey design is used in this study because it enabled the researcher to collect data from a informants that will be used for the study. The instrument used for this data collection is oral interview. The researcher asked the selected informants questions relevant to the objective of the study.


It is practically difficult at this level of academic research to accurately explain the traditions of origin of the people. Most accounts are controversial, spurious and speculative conjecture.  However, some of the traditions of origin of the people seem to stem from similar historical roots. A perusal of some of these accounts of traditions of origin, such as that of the Igbo and others illustrate the complexities of understanding and explaining African traditions of origins. A reference to the Igbo tradition of origin is not necessary a proper representation of Igbo people because an Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Edo, and other nations never existed in precolonial Nigeria. What existed were independent communities such as Nsuka, Okigwe, Umuahia, Arochukwu, but for the sake of discussion, the peoples in the south eastern part of

Nigeria are commonly addressed as the Igbo people of Nigeria.[3]

Where did the Igbo come from or where is their original point of migration? No research has adequately answered the question however; there are three popular perspectives of the Igbo traditions of origin, which are the hamitic, negroid, and aborigine. A few scholars have used comparative cultural similarities between some practices among tribes in Israel and those in Igboland to reach a conclusion that the early ancestors of the Igbo were Jews. Such cultural practices have been listed as naming ceremony, religious rites, rituals and symbols, enterprising spirit and love for adventure.[4] Further attempts to sustain this hamitic theory of cultural advancement is to deny the African the capacity of independently developing distinctive identity. Again, it represents a semblance of racism to argue that the Igbo migrated from the Middle East. It makes more sense to posit that the Jews may have in fact emigrated from Africa if we rely on archaeological evidence that human being may have first set their migratory journey from Africa.

The Negroid tradition of origin traces the people from the Niger-Benue region. It is argued, using linguistic evidence that this region once housed speakers of the kwa sub-group language, which included the Yoruba, Edo, Ijaw, Idoma, and Igbo. That it was from there these various groups began to migrate and developed distinctive language structure in the process of migration and settlement. In spite of the migratory history of the people, Afigbo’s draws attention to an aspect of the Igbo origin that should be properly contextualized, which is seeking to know if the people that eventually settled in the East of Nigeria arrived at the region “as Igbospeaking or they became Igbo-speaking after settling in this zone.”[5]

The answer is outside the scope of this study, but it is important to posit that the Igbo-language is restricted to a sub-group in Nigeria, which gives the impression that there could have been a surviving culture of Igbo trait in the south east before the migrants joined them, which may have resulted in the development of a distinct language.  The aborigine perspective supports Afigbo’s argument that “the Nri-AwkaOrlu complex was probably the earliest centre of Igbo settlements in Southern Nigeria, and that it was from there that waves and waves of migrations set out to occupy the other portions of present day Igboland.”[6] 

The traditions of origins of other communities are not fundamentally different from those already identified. Among the Benin, there are various perspectives that stem from the migratory account of Egharevba; 

Many, many years ago, the Binis came all the way from Egypt to found a more secure shelter in this part of the world after a short stay in the Sudan and at Ile-Ife, which the Benin people call Uhe.  ….Tradition says that they met some people who were in the land before their arrival. These people are said to have come originally from Nupe and the Sudan in waves.[7]

Egharevba’s account of the Benin tradition of origin brings out some interesting connection with those of the Igbo. How did the pre-colonial Nigerian people come to the idea that most of them migrated from the East? Egharevba’s Sudan may have been the Niger/Benue confluence because of the linguistic evidence that the Benin language belongs also to the kwasubgroup of languages dispersed from this region. Reference to Ife in this instance conveys the impression that the peoples that settled in the Yoruba and Benin regions of modern Nigeria may have migrated within the same period from the centre of dispersal at the Niger-Benue region. This similarity in the Igbo and Benin traditions of origin could be accepted as drawing a common line of family-hood among these people. 

The same observation is made of the Yoruba of south western Nigeria. History has it that one of the accounts of traditions of origins talks of on eastern migration, especially from Mecca to its first recognized site at Ile-Ife. Such account is no longer popular as argued by Atanda, but that the probable region of dispersal could be the same Niger/Benue conference already established.[8] Be that as it may, a brief discussion of the Yoruba–eastern migration theory will further strengthen the core of these discourse that Nigerian people have more in common. Bello’s account of the origin of the Yoruba locates the people’s migration from the Middle East.

That “Yoruba are descended from the Bani kanan and the kindred of Nimrud…. Yarub ibn Qahtan drove them out of Iraq to west wards and they travelled between Misr and Habash until they reached Yoruba.”[9] The Yoruba must have passed through various pre-colonial Nigerian communities before settling down in the present site. This is the message conveyed by Johnson, in line with Bello. According to Johnson;

The Yoruba are said to have sprung from Lamurudu, one of the kings of Mecca, whose offspring were. Oduduwa, the ancestor of the Yoruba, the kings of Gogobiri and of the Kukawa two tribes in the Hausa country. It is worthy of remark that these two nations, [Hausa and Yoruba] notwithstanding the…distance from each other…still have the same distinctive tribal marks on their faces; and Yoruba travelers are free among them and vice versa, each recognizing each other as of one blood.[10]

The salient point from Johnson’s account is the continuation of the long line of connection among the three major and dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria, namely; the Eastern factor in their traditions of origins. What that suggests for national development is simply for intellectuals to emphasize this area of convergence of the Nigerian people than focusing on the minor issues of divergence.

Explaining the Hausa traditions of origin may not be as straight forward as others already discussed because of the peculiarity of the region. For the sake of presentation, the Hausa region covers all the communities that are now located in the present north west and north east regions of modern Nigeria. There about three accounts of tradition of origin and the most popular account is that of the the Abuyazidu’s (Bayajjida) legend. It has been expressed that the earliest states in Hausaland originated from Abuyazidu who was a migrant from Baghdad in the Middle East, and that due to a family feud, he had to leave Baghdad, and he stopped at Bornu and married Magira, the daughter of the king. With time he left Bornu and finally got to Daura where he married the Queen of Daura after killing the snake that prevented the people from fetching water from a well. That his son Bawo, gave birth to six sons that established and organized the people in this part of the north into the six states of Daura, Kano, Zazzau, Gobir, Kastina and


What we intend to achieve with this narrative of traditions of origin is to demonstrate that pre-colonial Nigerian peoples have a rich traditions of origins that connected all of them together, even if reference is drawn from the middle east source of origin. The bulk of the people of the middle belt and north eastern parts of Nigeria are said to have migrated from the Bantu[12] and Chad regions respectively.[13] The traditions of origins of the other peoples in the south – south region are influenced by the three dominant groups of the Yoruba, Benin and Igbo. For example, elements of the Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ijaw and Delta Ibo traditions of origins are spiced with distant ancestral connection with the three big groups[14] while some of the people of Ibibio are believed to have migrated from Cameroon.[15] As already emphasized, a close study of the various traditions of origins indicate a bond of oneness among the people, which is also observed in the peoples system of state formation.


This research work is divided into five chapters.

Chapter one examines the general introduction of the research. It provides for the objectives, significance of the research and literature review.

Chapter two discusses Niger Delta in Precolonial, exploring significant figures and events such as King Jaja’s Arrest and Deportation, Nana: The Ebrohimi Expedition and The Akassa Invasion 


Chapter three examines The Evolution Of Itsekiri And Ijaw Land In Niger Delta

 were considered under the headings Traditions of Origin, Migrations and Settlements  of ijaw

and A Historical Trilemma Of Itsekiri.

Chapter four deals with the Pre Colonial Relation Of Western Ijaw And Itsekiri. It discuses the Economic, Social,Religious, andPolitical Relations Western Ijaw And Itsekiri in the pre colonial era.

Chapter five provided a conclusion of the essay.

[1] Pereira, D. P, Esmeraldo De Situ Orbis, translated and edited by, George, H. T. Kimble, London: The Hakluyt Society, 1937; Dike, K. O., Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta 1830-1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956; Ikime, O, (ed.), Groundwork of Nigerian History, London: Heinemann, 2000; Alagoa, E. J, A History of the Niger Delta, Port Harcourt: Onyoma Research Publications, 2005; Nwokeji, G. U., Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Ryder, Alan F.C., Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897 (Ibadan History). London: Longman, 1969.

[2] Tamuno, T. N., The Evolution of Nigeria: The Southern Phase, 1898-1914, New York: Humanities Press Inc., 1972; Dike, K. O, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta 1830-1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

[3] See G.E.K. Ofometa, A Survey of the Igbo Nation (Onitsha: Africana First Publishers Limited, 1963)

[4]  For details of other scholars comments, see J.O. Ijoma, “Igboland: A Historical Perspective”, in G.E.K. Ofometa (ed.), A Survey of the Igbo Nation. p. 40

[5]  A. E. Afigbo, “Igboland Before 1800’’, in Obaro ikime (ed.), Groundwork of Nigerian History (Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) PLC, 1999), p. 75

[6] A. E. Afigbo, “Igboland Before 1800,’’ p. 77.

[7] J. U. Egharevba, A Short History of Benin (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1968), p. 1

1.     [8] J. A. Atanda, “The Yoruba People: Their Origin, Culture and Civilization,” in O. Olatunji (ed.), The Yoruba History, Culture and Language (Ibadan: Johnmof Printers Limited, 1996), p. 7.

[9] M. Bello, “The Origins of the Yoruba,” in T. Hodgkin (ed.), Nigerian Perspective (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 78

[10]  The Girgam, “The Legend of Daura”, in T. Hodgkin (ed.) Nigerian Perspective, p. 75-76

[11] A. Obayemi, “States and Peoples of the Niger-Benue Confluence Area,” in Obaro Ikime (ed.), Groundwork of Nigeria History, p. 147

[12] J. A. Lavers, “Kanem and Borno to 1808,” in Obaro Ikime (ed.), in Obaro Ikime (ed.), Groundwork of Nigeria History, p. 188

[13] A.A.B. Aderibigbe, “Peoples of Southern Nigeria,” in J.E. Ade Ajayi and lan Espie (eds), A Thousand Years of West African History (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1965), p. 191

[14] M. E. Noah, “The Ibibio State System,” in J.I. Elaigu and E.O. Erim (eds.), Foundations of Nigerian Federalism: Pre-Colonial Antecedents, p. 134

[15] E.Z. Obata, “Patterns of Political System in Pre-colonial Nigeria”, in J.I. Elaigu and E.O. Erim (eds.), Foundations of Nigerian Federalism: Pre-Colonial Antecedents (Abuja: National Council on Intergovernmental Relations, 1996), p.317

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