Many things have been said and written about Arochukwu oracle. That historic shrine had wrongly been labeled “Long Juju” by the British colonialists. Some historians had also given the shrine some fake names like: “Ibini Ukpabi” or “Ibn Ukpabi” and erroneously claimed that “the shrine originated from some fleeing Ibibio people”. Some had also leveled all manner of ill accusations against the shrine and Arochukwu people in the past. We will try here and address some of these long held wrong impressions because most of them are mere myths, without any truth in them. We will tell the truth. But let me first acknowledge that some of us born in certain homes from certain parts of Arochukwu, were mentored to know a bit about the famous Aro shrine and its practices. And as such, we can speak with some level of confidence the truth we know about the so called “long juju”. It is good to also know that the author of this piece is now an active practicing Christian and currently has nothing to do with the practices of the shrine. But we still owe it as a duty to put some aspects of our history in proper perspective in order to inform and help educate our people and others out there about some truths they need to know, especially as concerned the Arochukwu shrine. This becomes very important as there is much need for people to know certain things that concern them, more so in this time of information, communication and technology developing age.
Consequently, some truth may continue to emerge, from time to time, from some people who may have good information and knowledge of the shrine. This may influence a lot more to be said and written about the same shrine in order to help bury some of the falsity of the past and build more credible knowledge. As truth is sometimes lately revealed, history may be rewritten by people who know better to correct some errors and myths that may have been contained in the earlier versions of our history. Myth is an old idea or story that many people tend to believe, but which in effect is not true. Simply put, myth is a widely held belief of something which is not really true. For examples: The belief that “No road from anywhere to Arochukwu is near” is a myth because it is not true. Similarly the belief that “the Arochukwu shrine is “a long juju” is also a myth because there is nothing “long” about any Aro juju. Let’s explore what is termed the “truth” before we continue further. Truth is all about reality, without falsity. Truth may be provocative; it may also be bitter. Some truths are sometimes lately discovered and may even be revealed through revelation knowledge. Truth is objective; but it may also be subjective, especially when the truth is based on our feelings, perspectives, or opinions. Perspectives may change our opinions about things, yet it can never change the truth because truth remains sacred or sacrosanct. It is also true that when truth is finally discovered, it may help throw in some light that may wipe off the myths and correct some identified misinformation of the past.
We may ask, what are those myths and truths about the Arochukwu shrine?
There are many; but we will deal with some here and try to handle them, side by side.
Origin of the popular Arochukwu Shrine. That the Aro shrine is “Ibiritam and originated from Ibibio people” is a myth. It is not true. But that the shrine was indigenous to the aboriginal Igbo stock of Bianko group of Arochukwu who had dwelled in their Bianko land that housed the original site of the Aro shrine in a cave of waterfalls located near the present Baraki area of Arochukwu town is a truth. The ancient people of Bianko were among the earliest people that occupied Arochukwu homeland. They were originally true worshippers of almighty God of Abraham who they called “Chi-ukwu Abiama”, shortened to ‘Chukwu Abiama’. It is upon this name, “Chukwu”, that Arochukwu was named after. The people had settled in their ancestral Bianko land for some thousand years ago, far long time before the emergence of Aro-Ibibio war that brought in the gallant Ibom Isii warriors who came and helped the Aro win that war for the entire Igbo group. The Ibom Isii group also helped strengthened and expanded the new Arochukwu kingdom.
The shrine has traditional Igbo names given to it by the founders. The Bianko people were the original founders of the shrine. They gave their shrine some unique Igbo names; popular among such names were: ‘Ivu Chukwu Abiama’ (the face of God almighty), ‘Ovia Ikoro’ (the forest of mystery), and ‘Ivi na Ukpabi’ (the two foundation mangers of the shrine). The most popular of the three names were ‘Ivi na Ukpabi’ and ‘Ivu Chukwu Abiama’, shortened to “Ivu Chukwu”. Names like “long juju”, “Ibn Ukpabi” and “Ibini Ukpabi” were all fake names, and myths created by people who were not well informed about the shrine. When one is not well informed in any subject matter, he or she is deformed in the knowledge of that matter. That was the case of those who ascribed such fake names to the juju. The truth remains that the true and original names of the shrine were indigenous to the Igbo speaking people of Bianko who originally owned the shrine and still own it in reality. Examples abound: They named their shrine “Ivi na Ukpabi” after the names of the first two leaders at the shrine’s cave. But unfortunately people later corrupted the names to “Ibi-ni Ukpabi” which sounded like “Ivi na Ukpabi”. In truth there is nothing associating “Ibn” or “Ibini” with Ukpabi. ‘Ibn’/‘Ibini’ are strange names or words in Arochukwu. But ‘Ivi’ and ‘Ukpabi’ are both indigenous and popular traditional Igbo names in Arochukwu kingdom. Till date people answer Ivi or Ukpabi as names in Arochukwu; but no one answers ‘Ibn or Ibini’ which are strange names in Arochukwu and Igbo land.
Every group that formed the present Arochukwu kingdom contributed something meaningful to the traditional Aro kingdom commonwealth assets. Part of the contributions of the Bianko group is ‘Ivu Chukwu shrine’ or ‘Ivi na Ukpabi oracle’, which is one of the most popular and important Arochukwu kingdom joint assets every Aro now has a right of ownership claim to.
Was the Shrine created to aid slavery? No. Any claim that the shrine was created by the Aro to facilitate slave deals during the transatlantic slave trade” of about 400 years ago is a big lie. A myth many people had wrongly spread across in order to discredit Arochukwu people and their shrine. That was the false narrative upon which the British relied to wage a vicious war against Arochukwu in 1901, which they called Aro Expedition of 1901-1902. They claimed, the Aro shrine was established for slavery purposes and that the war against the Aro was to destroy the Aro shrine, curtail their influence over the people within the Niger Delta region as at then and in order to help end slavery and slave trading in the region. That claim was indeed a hoax, a mere ploy to exploit the Aro. The truth remains that the shrine was created many centuries ago, long before the transatlantic slave trading activities began. Slave trading was never the main occupation of the Aro and was not even introduced by the Aro. The Europeans brought the trade and encouraged it. However, it has never been in doubt that “Ivi-na-Ukpabi” shrine was employed by the Aro to facilitate their various businesses, long before the transatlantic slave trade commenced.
That Ndi Aro acted as middle men in the business of slave deals as at then is a truth. But that the Aro oracle was set up as an instrument for slave procurements is a myth. The truth is that people from other communities who were eager to destroy or dispose of their own unwanted people went to Ndi Aro to seek help to achieve their goal. Ndi Aro mainly acted on the Help seekers’ request and never used the powers of their shrine to force people to procure slaves. The shrine was never an instrument used for procuring slaves for trades by the Aro. Rather the shrine helped a lot to preserve the lives of those who their own people had wanted dead. It is true that Ndi Aro got involved in slave trading when the trade was in vogue and legal, but they quit when it became illegal. They moved to other lucrative legal businesses available to them as at then. Nevertheless, we must affirm here that slavery or slave trading is evil, and a very bad thing before God and man. And so it is a matter of regret for the Aro in any way they got involved in it as at then. We regret it. But the truth is still that the Aro shrine was not created during the slave trading era; nor was it created for the purpose to aid slavery and slave trading. The hidden truth remains that the shrine was even employed to save lives of many victims who their own community had already condemned and brought to the Aro shrine to destroy for them, especially during the slave trading era. But Aro don’t kill people, nor spill blood. Others might do that. Not the Aro. When such people were brought to the Aro shrine to face tough judgment over certain serious crimes, the Aro would adjudicate over the matter with fairness and justice. Those not found guilty as charged would be discharged and acquitted. But those found guilty would be condemned; and their people (not the Aro) would be asked to determine their fate. Most often, their community people would demand that they, the guilty, be sacrificed to the shrine as a punishment for the crimes they had committed. In other to please them, the Aro would oblige them; but would still not sacrifice the guilty. The Aro would rather preserve their lives and carefully evaluate them further to see if they would be good as domestic servants to the Aro or sold out as slaves to the Europeans. Thus in reality, the Aro and their shrine were somehow found very useful in preserving the lives of those their own people wanted dead.
Another truth about the “Ivi na Ukpabi” shrine is that it is as old as the defunct old Arochukwu kingdom. It has been in existence for some thousands years ago, very long time before the ancient Aro-Ibibio war that birthed the present Arochukwu Kingdom occurred. The shrine predated the formation of the present Arochukwu kingdom. As said earlier, it is true that the Ivu Chukwu shrine, the face of God, was actually linked to the powerful name of ‘Chukwu Abiama’ upon which Arochukwu people (of the biblical Arodi) derived their surname, ‘Chukwu Abiama’, to make up their unique kingdom name to read Arochukwu or Umu Chukwu Abiama.
Mazi Imouh Kanu from Ibom village, a traditional curator at the old site of the Aro shrine at Bianko land, was right when he declared in his interview with ‘The Saturday Newswatch’ of 29th June, 2013 that his ancestors of Ibom Isii met the “Ivu Chukwu” shrine at the Bianko site location when they, his ancestors, first arrived Arochukwu many centuries ago. This is a fact to support the truth that the Aro shrine (Ivi na Ukpabi) had already been established by some people (the Bianko group) much earlier, and that the shrine had been popular long before his Ibom Isii group came to the defunct ancient Arochukwu kingdom, which predated the present Aro kingdom. But he, Mazi Imouh, was completely not correct when he erroneously claimed that his ancestors of Ndi Okoro of Ibom village originally owned the shrine. Such a claim is a myth; which they might have been peddling around to confuse some people. The truth is clear. His (Ibom Isii) ancestors cannot be the originator of an institution he has rightly confirmed their ancestors affirmed they met on ground when they first arrived Arochukwu. The institution of ‘Ivu Chukwu’ predated the arrival of all Ibom Isii to the ancient Arochukwu. Their ancestors met the relics of the shrine there at Bianko land; and did not create what they met on ground when they arrived. And so they do not originally own it. The truth remains that their ancestors met the abandoned relics of the shrine site at the abandoned Bianko land.
The original site of the shrine at Bianko was abandoned by the Bianko people, the original owners of the shrine, when the people left their historic Bianko land and migrated to their new and current place of abode in Asaga for safety during that historic Aro-Ibibio war. It is true that Ibom people who came and helped win that historic war for the Aro, soon after that war, took over the abandoned Bianko land and the relics of the shrine. That Ibom people took over the relics of the old site, and may now be performing some rites there, didn’t make them the original owner or founder of the shrine. The founders and original owners, the Bianko people, took away ‘their shrine and its powers’ when they left their old ancestral Bianko land and moved on to Asaga. They transferred their shrine and all that it stood for to their new home at Asaga some centuries ago. They also later created outlets in Amuvi and Amangwu to complement its expanding activities, to the knowledge of very few Aro people. The activities of the ‘Ivu Chukwu shrine’, post Aro-Ibibio war, have been going on well since all these many centuries at its Bianko headquarters at Asaga village. Bianko group or kindred in Arochukwu consists of the following villages: Asaga (the Head), Amuvi, Amangwu, Isinkpu and some part of Atani. In truth, Amangwu, Isinkpu and portion of Atani belong to a sub group called Amaja who are traditionally part of Bianko group. The entire Bianko group with the royal Okennachi family constitute the larger Okennachi kindred in the present Arochukwu kingdom. That is why ‘Ivu Chukwu Abiama’ activities are permitted in Amuvi and Amangwu to some extent. Other villages in Arochukwu may somehow be part of it, since the shrine became part of the commonwealth assets of the entire Arochukwu kingdom. It is also true that the old site of the shrine at Bianko land remains an important historic and tourism site where tourists and visitors from all over the world still troop to, to explore and behold. But the spiritual activities of the shrine had long been relocated to Asaga. It is advisable that the shrine site at Asaga be also developed in order to attract more tourism interest in Arochukwu and Abia state of Nigeria.
‘Ivu Chukwu Abiama’ was conceived by the Aro as part of Aro diplomacy concept to market and execute Aro idea to attract and influence people from outside Aro communities to come to Arochukwu to seek ‘the face of God’ for solutions to their various and numerous problems. The essence of Aro diplomacy is to execute certain Aro economic policy ideas couched on the Aro going out to many communities outside Arochukwu to seek further economic prosperity, foster peace and order, procure intelligence for the Aro, and enhance Aro image and influence by building strong network for business connections, and good inter personal and community relations. This indeed helped the Aro to spread and live everywhere they chose peacefully and successfully. The Aro shrine was therefore intelligently packaged to support Aro economic diplomacy, including ‘belief system for export related activities’; but was never made for the Aro internal services. This is because Ndi Aro themselves do not worship the shrine nor seek the services of Ivu Chukwu in solving their own internal spiritual problems. As Umu Chukwu, Ndi Aro believe that they carry the spirit of the living God within them, flowing in their blood, and can always call upon the almighty God wherever they may be to help reveal to them solutions to any problems they may have. This may somehow be a myth. But there may be some elements of truth in it. It is a matter of faith and confidence. Nevertheless, that is the reason Ndi Aro are very bold and confident in themselves. And it is also why they will never tell any of their Aro colleagues that ‘Ivu Chukwu Abiama’, the ‘Ivi na Ukpabi’ sends him or her some greetings or goodwill messages. This is so because what one Aro knows, another Aro may also know. But the truth remains that only very few Aro really know much about ‘Ivu Chukwu Abiama’, the ‘Ivi na Ukpabi’ shrine and its activities. It is a special privilege to know to some extent. Ndi Aro always use their diplomacy to keep certain things about their shrine secret, at least to some extent. And that is why we can never tell it all at any one time. This is in line with an Aro mantra of: “if you know this, you may not know that; and you may never know it all”. And so there is always room for people to continuously strive to learn and know more.
That the shrine is a juju, is very doubtful. This is because originally you may hardly see any true charms, amulets or even mascots at the shrine’s site. But you may see things that represent meeting arrangements. The shrine is a powerful meeting point of a group of knowledgeable and wise Aro men who can render justice on issues brought before it with wisdom, fear of God and boldness. Consultations may be made outside the shrine, mainly within Aro intelligentsia class with a view to obtain relevant intelligence that may help in delivering well deserved judgment on very difficult issues. Therefore, the shrine is a network of powerful wise men and unique traditional class that meet to deliver fair and good judgments on matters brought to the Aro shrine from people from outside Arochukwu.
That the shrine is a “Long Juju” is a myth. It is a big lie which has been told and retold severally that many now tend to believe it. The truth is that there is nothing “long or short” in any Juju at Arochukwu. The British who named the shrine “Long Juju” were playing at their own imagination. They got more confused about the exact location of the shrine and its extent of existence because they kept destroying one site to the other in 1902 in their several futile attempts to destroy the shrine and cut down, what they termed, ‘Aro influence over the people of the entire Niger Delta region’ of what later became part of Nigeria. All the efforts of the British as at then to completely destroy the shrine and its network came without much success as the number of clients coming to the shrine from outside Arochukwu kept growing and people secretly kept trooping in to seek some benefits from the services of the shrine. The British invaders then ended up declaring that the “Aro juju” might be so long with so much magical powers; and that might have made it very difficult to be destroyed completely. Hence they labeled the shrine the ‘Long Juju of Arochukwu’ – a myth many people have come to accept as a truth, but which is not. The truth remains that there is nothing long or short in any juju in Arochukwu kingdom, past and present.
Another myth is the narrative that the ‘Long Juju’ served as a “Supreme Court for the people of Arochukwu kingdom”. That is a big lie. The truth is that ‘Ivu Chukwu Abiama shrine’ was set up for outside market activities, including judicial services. It served as the highest traditional court that adjudicated on matters brought to it from people coming from outside Arochukwu kingdom, and never from people within Arochukwu or for the Arochukwu people themselves. The shrine only settled cases for the people coming from outside Arochukwu community. It never served as any Supreme Court for the Arochukwu people. Rather it was the highest traditional court in Igbo land for many people coming from outside Arochukwu. To those outsiders, the judgments given to them at the shrine was final, and not reversible. The Aro wisely made it so and would always affirm it to the outsiders that the decision of the oracle once made upon them would be final. And no one, no matter the status or wealth, could reverse the judgment once delivered. It was a matter of confidence, influence and power of tongue.
It is also true that ‘visiting clients’ to the shrine who passed through the shrine pathway were made to pull off some of their dresses (but not completely naked) as a means of making them establish body to spirit aura contacts with the shrine. Usually, one could see some items and dresses scattered along the narrow path to the shrine. That was what people then often referred to as “hills of rags”. It was part of an idea to put some fears in the hearts of visitors to the shrine and to make them develop some awful respect for the shrine. Shrines generally operate on principle of spiritual ‘contagious contacts with an underlying belief that when a person drops his or her personal wears or items at the site of shrine, an inseparable contact is then established between the person and the shrine’. It may then become possible to manipulate the person to fear and to respect the shrine and its decisions. That used to be an old time practice for all shrines of that nature in many parts of Africa. It wasn’t peculiar to the Aro shrine.
It is also a myth that those who were found guilty by the shrine ‘were killed beside a flowing river called the red river. In truth, the shrine does not kill offenders; rather it prefers levying huge fines on the offenders for some economic value to the practitioners. But when the people who brought the offenders that had been found guilty, insisted that the shrine should not release the guilty to them, even after paying some fines, the guilty would be carefully taken away by the Aro and preserved for some other good uses of economic value. Death of the guilty has no economic value to the Aro. The truth is that there is no ‘red river’ of death anywhere around the shrines. There is also no ‘point of no-return’ either. Both narratives of the ‘red river’ and ‘point of no-return’ are mere myths, without truth.
Some had accused the Aro of using their Ivu Chukwu shrine “to perpetuate their dominance in Igbo land and to procure slaves for trading”. This is a lie. The truth remains that Ndi Aro never set out to dominate any group of people in Igbo land or anywhere else. Ndi Aro respect other peoples’ rights and values. The truth is that they always set out to make themselves prominent for good reasons everywhere they go as they aspire to succeed in many ventures they go into. They easily adapt themselves to new environments and circumstances. They move in tandem with dictates of the times and are not limited by challenges. They seek to be successful and prominent, and not domineering as such. They are conscious of who they are, anywhere they are; they care for others; and have values they always respect. Unfortunately people often mistake their quest for prominence and success as negative tendencies to dominate and intimidate others unnecessarily. This is an unfair accusation against the Aro.
Finally, the real truth about the Aro shrine story is that “Ivu Chukwu” shrine was never “Chukwu Abiama”, God the creator of heaven and earth, nor was it ever conceived to be so. It was rather conceived to be a “spiritual temple” serving as “the sight of God” or “the face God” to attract external clients to its services. Its services were found very useful and helpful to many non Aro people from many different communities outside Arochukwu. They sought the shrine’s help for adjudication and arbitration of disputes, conflicts resolutions, interpretation of mysteries, and protection from harm. For them that believed in the shrine, it worked for them. The shrine was a network of intelligence and diplomacy for providing solutions to many problems of non Aro nations and people who need its services. It was never meant to serve an internal spiritual use of the Aro themselves; and was never an instrument of intimidation and dominance of others by the Aro. The oracle was though feared and respected, prominent and paramount throughout the length and breadth of the Niger Delta region and beyond. Aro people mainly used it for economic gains for themselves and for building spiritual induced confidence and morale boasting for the external users. Aro are very smart people; they don’t reveal at a go all they know. They are everywhere all over the world doing well. To many people, ‘Ivu Chukwu Aro’ or ‘Ivi na Ukpabi’ shrine was (and still remains) a mystery. And to some others, it is very legendary in their minds; and yet to some few others it is a mixture of a mystery, legendary and myth. The virtues and characteristics of the Aro are relatively worthy and are now being seen in the lives of almost every Igbo person. One of the major contributions of Arochukwu to the entire Igbo nation and people is the general acceptance of the name ‘Chukwu Abiama’ as the true name of the almighty God of Abraham (‘Chukwu Abram’ or ‘Abiama’) who the Igbo truly believe is the creator (Chineke) of the whole universe