Arochukwu people of the South Eastern Nigeria are one people with an enviable history. In the pre-colonial days, the Aros spread across the length and breadth of the East, establishing trading posts wherever they went. They also took the veneration of the one supreme God to these places, manifest as Chukwu Abiama, Ibini Ukpabi (christened Long Juju by Europeans) whose cave temples are still found in Arochukwu till date. Despite having a fierce army, made up of Ohafia, Abam and Abiriba warriors to protect them, the Aros never conquered nor ruled over any of these territories; their sole interest being in fair trade and the spread of the gospel of Chukwu. Besides palm oil and gin, one of the commodities that the Aros exchanged for money with the British was slaves, and they thrived as middlemen between the hinterlands and Europe, whom they traded with.
But with the abolition of slave trade, the Eze Aro, along with Oba Ovonramwen of Benin, King Jaja of Opobo, Obong of Calabar and a host of other great monarchs of Africa were deposed. Also, Arochukwu was invaded by the British troops, and the kingdom which flourished for many centuries began to decline.
Till date, the stigma of the slave trade rests heavily upon Aros wherever they go in Igboland, with the Igbos, who also participated in the trade calling for reparations and apology from the Aro, who in turn, maintain that it was a legal trade as at the time, and secondly, they should not be brought to bear the blame alone.
In this interview with ONUKWUBE OFOELUE, Mazi Imoh Kanu, who is the present curator of the Ibini Ukpabi Temple, Arochukwu, defends the Aro Kingdom and its role in the slave trade era, and also speaks on why the Aro remains unique among the Igbo people.
How did you become the curator of the Ibini Ukpabi?
Incidentally, this job was given to me by Mazi Kanu nwa Kanu, Eze Ibom Isii. Ibini Ukpabi, which some people call Long Juju, was brought about in the days when our ancestors, right from this Ndi Okoro. We are the factor owners of the Long Juju. By the way, don’t think there is any long Juju, we are not fetish at all. We are not idol worshippers. It was bequeathed to us by our ancestors, Mazi Okoro Mgbugo of blessed memory. Later on, it was handed over to Mazi Orji Okoro, popularly known as Mazi Orji Udo of blessed memory too. Because I had passion for history and antiquities, anthropology, they told me to please, come and take over as the curator of the Long Juju, and I said, ‘who am I?’ The Aro say that, ‘Ebe umunna gi si iga eje, iga ejeriri ya’, you don’t say ‘no’.
I started taking care of Ibini Ukpabi. I take people to Ibini Ukpabi; show them the wonders of the world there. It is my job to ensure that everything goes well when people visit the Ibini Ukpabi, and to keep the area neat and safe. It used to be the job of an illiterate, but by God’s grace, I can read and write.
We are made to understand that people go to Ibini Ukpabi for consultations and offer sacrifices in the form of animals
That is very wrong history. They may even tell you that we scarified human beings, but there was nothing like that. We do not offer anything to the shrine; it is not even a shrine. What we did in those days was that, wherever there was an issue to be settled anywhere in Igboland, the people came here to see how it would be amicably resolved. It was the seat of adjudication.
Those who called it Long Juju stated that very erroneously. There was no Juju; there was never juju. If you go down there you will not see any Juju. Rather, there were seats where some people sat and did adjudication, and settled the disputes. These are people who had the fear of God; who settled the disputes. For instance, rogues were brought there, and they would ask: ‘are you really a rogue?’ Then they would ask him certain questions in such a way that he would not be able to tell a single lie. We had the intelligentsia who were masters in the art of extracting the truth from such people. So, when this has been done, and the truth is discovered, the person would be punished. And for stealing, he may be given some lashes of the cane.
Can you explain how the institution of Ibini Ukpabi started, and how that name came about?
It was bequeathed to us by our ancestors. Ibine is a first name, and Ukpabi is an Aro name. Ibine was the name of the man who instituted it, while his father’s name was Ukpabi. It is also wrong (as some people have insinuated) to say that it was gotten from the Efiks or the Ibibios. He was one of the ancestors of Aro; Ibom, in fact, Ndi Okoro, this compound, to be precise. That is why you cannot go there without letting us know. We are the de facto owners of Ibini Ukpabi. It’s not a foreign name, and Ukpabi is a common Aro name.
Is it also true that there are caves there?
Yes, natural caves, not man-made. The caves are large enough to take at least 20 people at a time, and no matter how tall you are, your head can never touch its roof. It’s a large area. That is where people sat to pass judgment. They sat on mats or chairs.
Is it also true that a woman could conceive and bear children after going to Ibini Ukpabi? Did any miracle like this actually happen?
The presence of God is always strongly manifest in that place. If you take that water that flows there, and use it for prayers to get anything you want in life, it will work for you. No incantations, no sacrifices. If you drink that water, something will definitely happen. It works till date.
So the place is not the place of juju, but the divine presence of Chukwu Himself.
What is the place of the Aro people among Igbos, traditionally?
We are the head among the Igbos, whether people believe it or not. An Igbo cannot break kola nut in the presence of the Aro without the authority of the Aro. In our journey back home, we passed through the Congo, then Cameroon area, through Ikom to the middle of the Cross River area, through Edda, Afikpo, Ohafia, before we got to the place where we are residing today. Some people thought Aro means the spear that was used in conquering the Ibibios when we came. As we came in, we discovered that Chukwu was already here waiting for us, the very Chukwu Ibini Ukpabi. That is why you have our name as Arochukwu – Aro, which belongs to Chukwu, God. We are very industrious, and the Aro man is always very neat, very industrious. The Aro man, by nature, does not steal; you could hardly see one in the prisons in those days. We had other people who worked for the Aros.
It was said that the Chukwu Ibini Ukpabi was used for slave trade at a point. Can you explain this?
It was not used for slave trade. It was rather used in saving many lives. You that brought the man for the Aros to sell, where did you get him from? You told us that this fellow committed abomination and had been killed, and we say, okay, and take the man to the presence of Chukwu: ‘did you really commit what you have been accused of?’ and you say, yes. Those regarded as abomination included those who were born twins, the women; those who grew upper teeth first instead of the lower teeth, some who had affairs with their brother’s wives, their daughters or even their father’s wives, and a lot of other evils, including war criminals. It was not just Aros that saw this as abomination, but the whole Igbo nation. When they are brought to us, they give us ultimatum to destroy them so that their lands may be cleansed of the evil they committed. We will then ask them to tell the truth, and because of the glorious presence of Ibini Ukpabi, they will be afraid to lie. But we do not threaten anyone.
We do not spill blood. We don’t kill. It was through intelligence that the truth was extracted from the accused persons. When they are found guilty, the accusers will mandate the Aros to dispose of them, and the Aros, to make it look like that person had been killed, would get an animal, kill it and collect the blood, mix it with uvie, the camwood, then pour it inside the water. When they see the blood, they would conclude that the person had been claimed by Ibini Ukpabi, and leave. But it is at the same instance that the person is transported through the cave to Itu, then Calabar on a journey to the Americas or Europe, the unfortunate journey of no return. Till today, the Aro do not spill blood. So Chukwu Ibini Ukpabi was not used for evil, but to save lives which would have been wasted because of human failings in some areas, and nature in some others.
You that says the Aro man deceived people by selling slaves, where did you get the slave you brought to the Aro man? The Aro man never engaged in warfare at all, so there was no question of the Aros engaging in wars in order to capture people for slavery as some mischievous people have insinuated. The sword of Damocles’ was around the neck of those whose intent was to kill these people whom we, through Chukwu Ibini Ukpabi, saved by selling them off. The Aro man is very innocent.
People go about saying that black Americans are descendants of Africans sold into slavery by the Aros. Yes, I agree. But who brought them to the Aro man? It was because of what we did then that those of them who passed through our hands survived, they would have been extinct today. We sold them to the Portuguese and Spaniards, yes, but in order to save them.
What was the secret behind the growth of the Aro Kingdom in pre-colonial times, despite the fact that Arochukwu town is a small place compared to some of the Diaspora communities?
As I said before, the Aros were very industrious, and we are still industrious till today. We have no autonomous community as a result. In the whole Aro, there is only one community, we don’t have autonomous communities, which dissects villages and towns. We are so united, and that is the secret. That very Chukwu Ibini Ukpabi brought us together and has kept us united. We eat and drink together without fear. That is why Schnapps was declared illicit gin, because they didn’t want the Aro traders to compete with their (Europeans) marketers, his or her majesty. They wanted to sell their own foreign ones but would not want us to sell ours by declaring it illicit. What makes it illicit? That is why they came up with the word, ‘aromatic’, which means ‘Aro man is thick’, Aro man is wonderful. When you bring this drink, we use just one shot to share it among ourselves. We also have only one Eze Aro, no other king.
What is Otusi? Is it related to the Ofo?
They are synonymous. That is the source of the spiritual power of the Aro man. Once you are a member of that Otusi Aro, you cannot shed blood. From the first week of September, to the third week of September each year, the Otusi, or Ofo is brought down. Once it is brought down, any evil man around must stay away; no one can also perpetrate any evil against others, or that person will be knocked down by the Otusi. It protects the Aros. The Ofo is a thing you hold in your hands – there is a tree called Ofo, and there is one in front of the Eze Aro Palace. Once you hold it, you are confident that no evil will befall you. Nobody can attempt to do any evil to you. And you too cannot do evil to anybody. Once you have that Ofo, witches and wizard cannot attack you.
Does it mean that Arochukwu has just one Otusi or does every family have one?
It is like one kola nut. When you break it, some have three lobes, four lobes or five. The Aro man knows the meaning of each. If there are two, it’s gworo; if six, trouble. When they are five, you that is sharing will be authorized to break it. The Eze Aro cannot sit and break the kola for you, he is the King. That is how we are different from other Igbo communities, who will say ‘oji eze di eze naka’ (the king’s kola is in his hands). So the sharer takes that extra one lobe as his gain. The other four will be shared to everyone.
Why is there usually an Aro settlement in almost every Igbo community and even outside Igboland?
No Aros, no Igbos! The Aros were traders. Slave trade was secondary; that was not the original trade of the Aro people. We taught other Igbo people the art of trading.
That brings the question: are Aros also Igbos or are they a different stock?
We are all Igbo but there are Igbos and there are Igbos. The Aros are the Okwara (first son), and the Nri people are the Ulu (second son). We are the head Oke Igbo, which is why we are called Aro Oke Igbo. It’s what we pronounce an abomination that the rest of Igbo accepts as such. In the past, the Eze Nri was under obligation to present his first yams to Eze Aro who did the ceremonial cutting of yams before they would eat the new yam. When kola nut is presented anywhere, the Aro must pick first as the eldest before people of other communities pick theirs. What they purport today as the history is very wrong, biased. Nri tarried on the way when we were coming back to Igboland. That is why you have the dwarfs in Nri area. It’s only in Nri that you have dwarfs. When they were coming, they stopped at the Congo and took two dwarfs, male and female, because they neutralize charms, and brought them home. The reason you see them at Ogidi is because, when an Nri daughter was about to get married to an Ogidi man, a pygmy was given to them as a gift. This was for them to be able to neutralize any charm. The Nri were in Congo getting pygmies and other things – they are fetish – while the Aros left them there and came to take this portion of the land. We arrived first. Ndi Aro are industrious people – we traded in textiles, akwa mmiri, akwaete, and we also are very hard working farmers. The farming villages of Aro travelled to Abakaliki, Nkerefi, Uburu, Nara, Onicha-Uburu, Okposi, and other Ohaozara communities. Ugbo, Ugwuavo, Amangwu are the farmers. The Aro who found these communities comfortable would return and take their brothers to also benefit. They brought civilization to these communities; they brought new goods and exchanged with these people in trade. The whole 19 villages of Aro have Diaspora settlements. Obinkita have theirs in some Akwa Ibom areas and Ngwa. Some Atani people are settled among the Ikwerre in Rivers and Anambra, especially where Stephen Osadebe comes from. Some Ibom and Ujari people migrated to Orumba North and Ajalli. Professor Humphrey Nwosu’s town in Anambra. Orumbah North is also home to Ndikelionwu, an Aro settlement. The Amuvi people are settled in Umulolo and Lokpa in Imo State. The Ibom, which is my own village, are settled in Itighidi, Ugep and other areas of Cross River State. Agbagwu are in Afikpo, Edda, while Ugwuakuma are in Calabar area. Amasu people are at Uzuakoli and Awgu. Amankwu people are settled at Aro Ndi Izuogu. Amoba are also in Ohaozara and Abakaliki. The Aros are so vastly scattered that they are even much more than those of us at home. If they decide to return, there will be no place for them to stay.
Are there prominent Aro people from these places?
Yes, so many, but I will avoid mentioning names. Most Igbo governors past and present are of Aro origin, but they would never want to make it known that they are Aros. They avoid that, but we know all of them. Any child who goes into the bush to fetch firewood, and does better than others, they will say he got his wood from the evil forest. The industriousness of Aro people has become a cause of envy among other Igbos, just as Nigerians are envious of the industrious nature of the Igbos. The word Mazi is an Aro word. While many Igbos use it, they don’t know the meaning. Mbonu Ojike of blessed memory, who was Minister of Finance, was the first to use it in place of mister. You can’t bear it if your father is still alive, in that case you are still Nwa Mazi.
(First published in Saturday Newswatch, Vol. 1, No. 24. June 29, 2013)