Some Grey Areas of Aro History & Culture



The purpose of this paper is not to layout a researched history of the ancient and revered Aro Kingdom, but to excite research in two sectors which have for some probably obvious reason been avoided by other writers. There are only a few authoritative books relating to Aro history and culture. There are nevertheless, multiplicities of articles, pamphlets, magazines and books on the subject, but not all of them can be taken as reliable since their authors may only fairly be considered as writing with their feet in the clouds, to such an extent that they fail to separate the myth form the real.

Several of these authors relied mostly on oral history, which to a great extent is all that any historian would have to begin and end with in cultures where the art of writing did not exist prior to external influences from colonizing agents. Some brought in a sprinkling of references from achieves in the colonial office written for purpose other than the establishment of an objective history of the natives. Therefore, to a large extent the authors meant well, but allowed themselves to be carried away by the fantasies of narrated historical glories, and therefore filed up the gaps in our real history with events and chronologies which have no acceptable true evidence or veracity. The primary object of this paper is therefore to excite methodic reevaluation of the existing tenets and theories of Aro history and culture with particular emphasis on dating, chronology and origin.

The Acid Test:

All events occurring in human history lend themselves to several elementary tests. The primary ones are rationality and collaboration. The one tests the overall appeal of reported historical events to reason; the other seeks traceable independent evidences that point to the same reported events. Man in history depicts some unmistakable traces. His entrance in the earth environment is marked by the unmistakable imprints of change. The pre-historic man left collaborating evidences of his activity in his own skeleton, those of his kills and the stone or fossilized wooden tools and weapons he fashioned for his use. Later in the archaeological records, man wrote his story in the cave drawings that depicted in religious symbols and signs, his day to day activities of hunting, war and survival. As the centuries rolled by, we find man-made edifices that survived the ravages of war and such devastating natural disasters as earth quakes, volcanoes, floods and landslides etc.All these are collaborative material evidences of human existence in history and extraneous of man himself. In effect, any observer would just conclude “there lies the trace of human influence in the environment’, or “man was here’, briefly man ever leaves his footprints.

In all circumstances of human history, three basic needs have been dominant. These are food, clothing and shelter. As one goes back into civilization, he finds traces of how man had provided himself with these basic needs. In the processes of providing these essentials, man develops technology. This is seen in the evidences of tools for hunting, warfare, housing construction, and provision of clothing. Beyond a certain point though, traces of these element are lost to the all absorbing influence of the nature. The early man’s traces of food and clothing are found in some few fossilized remains. Housing at these initial stages were primarily tree houses or caves shielded from other animals competing for the same shelters. Subsequently man built dwelling houses from basic raw materials such as mud, stones and logs of wood.The invention of tools occasioned improvements in the housing, clothing and food components of human existence.

Inspite of the thousands of years that had elapsed some of these early dwelling places are still found in ancient places of South America (Aztec Kingdom) east Africa (Zimbabwe Kingdom), West Africa (Nok Empire) Nearer home there are arts and crafts evidences of the Benin Empire, the Igbo Ukwu Kingdom etc., to mention but a few. All these ancient places are located in the tropical and rain belts. Their edifices were built not with stones or marbles as those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. They are not more recent than the Aro Kingdom. Consequently, the ravages of war and the damages inflicted by mother nature on the structures would be about identical on the artifices, the walls of houses, the cooking utensils, hunting and war implements, skeletons of the their kills and dead etc.

Issues and Questions:

The question therefore arises, and these are very thought provoking questions. Where are the collaborative evidences of the Aro culture and history in the environment? If the kingdom existed as early as is indicated by the oral historians, where are the traces of the housing, weapons, tools, grave sites or other archeological records collaborating assertions? Has any indigenous artifice, directly traceable to the period of the Aro kingdom been identified and carbon dated?

Oral Aro historian talks about a spectacular war with its neighbor. What was the war all about? In history, several reason give rise to war. Was the Ibibio war for territorial expansion, agricultural land, or access to market? Aro is located within the valley of a river basin. About the time oral historians locate human civilization in the valley; recent geomorphological knowledge indicates that the whole expanse was swampy and sparsely habitable. The areas have not been ideal for agriculture and accounts for its inhabitants relying on the upland neighborhood for agricultural produce. If access to market was the cause, was the market not that of slaves acquired in the hinterland and routed through least populated and thereby least infested by hostile tribes, and easily traversable river routs to the Calabar estuary? If this were the case, was this then the geo-economic catalyst for the settlement of Igbo speaking people at the point where the Cross and Enyong River merge into the estuary to serve as brokers and middlemen to the slave trade across the Atlantic? If the European slave merchants are known to introduce guns and gun powder to their supplier of human cargo, is there any reason to predate the existence of guns in Aro prior to this period?

In these review processes it will be worthwhile recalling that the European contacts with West Africa was concentrated initially in the Guinea (which term included Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Ghana) and Benin environs by Portuguese explorers.

Subsequent excursions to the coast centered around the mouth of the Congo River with Fernando Po as a jump off point. The lucrative and thereby the increased demand for slaves led to the entrance of other European countries and to the inclusion of Badagry, Opobo, Calabar and their environs. Consequently, prior to this obnoxious trade, the European had no contact with the area between the Niger delta and the Calabar estuary, as much of their interest before the slave trade, concentrated on the trade for gold and ivory. Those commodities were not available around the Calabar estuary in economic quantities to warrant their putting their boats to that shore. It must also be noted that with the abolition of the slave trade, the coastal trade in the zone became dominated by palm produce.

An Uncharted Cultural Zone:

Culture is eclectic. No human society has an unadulterated culture purely its own. One academically spectacular element of the Aro culture is the Ekpe cult. Academic in the sense that its origin, content and form like the rituals of the “Chukwu” oracle from which the town Aro obtains the suffice that labels it Arochukwu, (IbiniUkpabi or was it Ibn Ukpabi – implying an Arabic influence as Obinkita was ObotOkonIta – deriving from Ibibio origin? This problem arises from the lack of derivation of the alternate name “Ibini”) transcend the similitude of the cultures in the Aro immediate environment. The areas of research into this cult, – which is not a secret society as generally understood and legally defined, but rather an open society with secrets, as its membership, its time and place of meeting are known – are numerous but subtle.

Different authors have ventured to classify it differently as, or a combination of a judicial, religious, convivial, co-operative self-help fraternity or mystical organization. In each case, the authors were singling out the observable characteristics of the society and using these as the basis for their differentiation. There are very obvious constraints to a formal discussion on EkpeAro in a medium like this. One can at best proffer areas of further research and investigation. If in the process of this tickling of the mind, the issues are independently researched and collectively reviewed among persons in a position and within circumstances for its discussion, then such vague areas as to its origin, concept and philosophies will be better appreciated to the benefit of all Aro adult males who are its sole natural adherents.

Helpful Landmarks:

To assist in this research, it is pertinent to point out certain landmarks which should act as guides. For a start, it would be expected that an institution like the EkpeAro, with similitude in several other cultures and civilizations must have developed from contacts with varieties of religions and “mystery” schools and cults. Some of these visible contact points will be indicated in this paper, others will be developed by subsequent research. There is an acceptance that Ekpe originated or migrated into Aro from the northern riverine areas (Elu Anyim). To some, the term Elu Anyim refers to the Eko speaking tribes of the north eastern Cross River areas. Others assign it to tribes beyond the Oban hills on the eastern slopes to the Cameroun. If these were to be taken literally, then one would expect the linguistic analysis of the EkpeAro passwords, greeting and exaltations to be good traces to its origin in those regions.

Incidentally, look-alike cults that exist in these areas share identical wordings which as with the Aro’s do not have any meaning in their language or common usage. When questioned as to the meaning of the wordings, the people simply answer by attributing it to the ‘lost origin of the cult. Is it therefore not possible that there was a cross migration of practices in the institution of the cult? Are some of those practices not a mixture of concepts absorbed somehow, some time from the Europeans or their agents at the coastal contacts and merged into native cultures to metamorphose into this highly enriched cult? It is known that some early Europeans that camped on the slaves’ shores of West Africa belonged to one form of mystery school or the other. Their advance party, settlements at the coastal bases and raids inland, usually included Negroes some of whom practiced with them the same or similar fraternity rites. Fortunately, it is easy to identify the nature of rites they engaged in. From authenticated history we know that several Negroes were initiated in an Irish regimental freemasonry lodge of Boston as early as 1775. Several of these Negroes later formed their own lodges.

When Liberia was established in 1821 the members of these lodges who came along must have influenced the formation of the first Grand Lodge in Liberia in 1867. The Gambia also had its Charter with one Richard Hull as Provincial Grand Master in 1726 even though its first lodge was not erected until 1792. The certain presence of Freemasons for instance in the hinterland of the Calabar estuary during the slave trade was specifically recorded in the ship log of an English vessel. Its crew were attached by native raiding for salves for some Spaniards. Captured and about being executed, the English captain recognized the Masonic emblem on the neck-kerchief of one of Spaniards and thereupon made a recognizable sign to the Spaniard in consequence of which the English team were promptly freed. There is therefore the feasibility of the concepts of these fraternities being introduced or revealed to or uncovered by the natives. It is known that some slavers/traders were cast of the ship or coastal communities after a mutiny or other strife. It was also common for some slavers/traders to have been stranded and settled inland on account of ill health which during the very peak of the rains rendered passage to the coast to catch a boat impossible. EkpeAro songs were originally entirely in Efik. This is not strange as the point of contact with the European fraternities was at the Calabar estuary. It is therefore to be expected that the contact of the ‘native’ with the ‘foreign’ cult was at this estuary’s port. Having prepared the mind of the reader and person interested in the necessary extended research in this field, let us examine briefly some other relevant landmarks of the EkpeAro which are obvious to all casual observers. Those exclusive to members are for obvious reasons explicitly excluded.

EkpeAro Hall

The meetings of the association are held in a building called the MgbanaEkpe. Each village in Aro has one such hall. The architecture is standard in terms of its basic parts and orientation. The areas of heightened further research arising from these are raised by the following questions: – Why are the MgbanaEkpeAro oriented East-West and partitioned into an ante chamber, a middle chamber and an inner chamber? Is there any significance to the two PILLARS found in its ante chamber which are oriented north-south? Are there any connotations to the location of ‘fixture’ in the near ‘center’ of the ante chamber about which the general assembly and meeting take place, and what are the ‘situations’ of the Eze-ekpe in that assembly? What is the significance of the separation by veiling of the ante and the middle chamber with the “ukara”, and the distinctions between ceremonies undertaken in the ante, the middle and the inner chambers?

The Rites

Ceremonies of initiation are not discussed before non-initiates, but it will be worthwhile understanding the esoteric symbolism and mysticism behind numbers used in the incantations, degrees of initiation, musical instruments, the colors of the “nzu, uvie and odo” (silver-white, bronze-wine red, and gold yellow), the pre and post initiation exhortation and acclamations etc. Are these not the same universally applicable sacred numbers and colors found from as early as the Mithrac mysteries?

Some authors had fully attributed the symbols on the ‘ukara’ to be of Egyptian hieroglyphic origin and tended to confuse it with the early attempts of the Aro people to develop a system of writing (Nsibidi). Nsibidi should be understood and left for what it was. It must have simply been a system of symbols developed by the cult members for their own exclusive use. From subsisting evidence, it was never intended to be taught or imparted indiscriminately for common use. The concept was to vale the esoteric knowledge from the eyes of the un-initiated.

The Symbols

The Nsibidi used on the ukara is replete with geometric forms which in other well researched mystery schools denote moral and philosophical interpretations. The most pertinent ones are the square, circle, point within a circle, cross, sun, human and animal icon, and, weavy lines. How these relate to the secret doctrines of EkpeAro Vis a Vis those of other mysteries are worthy of further research as to origins and affinities. We had noted that the passwords used at the initiation of members are not words in common use in any known language and conforms with the practice in other mystery schools and fraternities. When the Aro man says that his Ekpe is derived from Elu Anyim, is he being as usual secretive? Does he by ‘anyim’ imply a fathomless mystery, a region from where all things come and return to? Does the mystic not address the ‘anyin’ or is it ‘inyang’ as follows:-

“And you, vast sea, sleepless mother, Who alone are peace and freedom to the river and the stream, ONLY another winding will this stream make, only another murmuring this glade, AND then I shall come to you, a boundless drop to a boundless ocean”.


In closing this treatise which for constraints is limited to this brief, it must be recalled that the concept is firstly, to excite research on the mysteries and symbolisms of EkpeAro at the proper quarters by adepts who alone can observe the ancient precept that one does not cast pearls to swine. Secondly, it is hoped the profane academics should recognize the gaps in the history of Aro people and endeavor individually and collectively to remedy the hiatus. This should be approached from a multi-disciplinary perspective. A lot of history can be developed from the arts, drama, science, technology, linguistics of the people, as it is the reasoned opinion among many Aro elite, that oral history has not fully given us our roots. For a start, every Aro citizen should strive to observe, retrieve and refer all bits and pieces of artifices found in the process of land excavations in the process of commercial stones, sand and gravel mining, building foundations, shallow wells or graves diggings etc., to the EzeAro palace for cataloguing, storage and eventual study. There is a probability that much may have been overlooked and lost in the past. From now on, the blame would be on those now living not on those who had gone and who in their days, prompted by what they perceived as higher ideals, kept sacred and secret those elements of history which we now dearly miss. To the Aro’s the exercise would be economically utilitarian. The general maxim is that the better the history of a people is understood, the earlier it is to plan for their future.

Similar articles by the author are available in “Perspectives on Aro History & Civilization: The Splendour of a Great Past Vols. 1, 2 & 3” or at

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