A vacation in the ancient kingdom of Arochukwu is incomplete without an encounter chance with Ibini Ukpabi, the historic Long Juju of Arochukwu. It was a powerful deity, highly revered and feared for its exploits. It was also known for what it did or did not do in Igbo land, West Africa and beyond during the colonial days. But like a “prophet, the Long Juju of Arochukwu was feared, respected abroad with little or no honour at home”. It is therefore not surprising that many Aro hear of the Long juju but neither knows the location, has ever encountered the deity. However, for visitors to the Kingdom, the curiosity to see, visit and know more about the deity is often very high, feverish and palpable.
In 1975, (some 45 years ago), I had an encounter with Ibini Ukpabi as a young student because the story of Aro and the long juju dominated our history class. As an Aro, my class mates threw up a challenge at me to lead them to the shrine. I did and the memory of that visit has never left any of us. It was an experience to treasure. That tourist excursion became a binding force on what has become a life time friendship. The long juju deity in the ancient Arochukwu Kingdom was a temple of justice in the defunct eastern Nigeria and beyond, during the era of pre-colonial trade. At that time, the traditional approach to conflict prevention, management and resolution was anchored on revered deities in Igbo land.
The Aro deity otherwise called Chukwu or Ibini ukpabi stood out among the rest. It was a major destination for the complainants, the accused and others who want to know tomorrow. The Aro, as those of Arochukwu origin were called, dominated the rest of Igbo land in pre-colonial trade. The Kingdom was also regarded as a haven for knowledge and fountain of wisdom. All parts of south eastern Nigeria made long treks to Arochukwu to seek wisdom, knowledge, see tomorrow, present cases in dispute to the Long Juju deity on matters considered complex and beyond human resolution. Others came to know their destiny. The public trust was huge. The impact was a bitter-sweet experience- depending on which side one was standing. But one thing was certain; no dispute ever came before the Long Juju without a verdict. It hardly adjourned cases. Its verdict was instant, usually delivered with precision, courage and consequences. The judgment of Ibini Ukpabi was like “god’s case, no appeal.”
Therefore, a visit to chukwu of Arochukwu (the long juju) was at that time like taking a case to the supreme court of Nigeria in today’s contemporary time. It was a period when the Long Juju deity was famous, considered very powerful, unblemished and largely seen as the last resort in conflict prevention, management and resolution in eastern Nigeria communities. Its influence helped to strengthen the influence of Aro far and wide.
On that fateful, we arrived Arochukwu about noon, headed straight to Determination Guest House in Ugwuavor (my village) to spend the night. It was also a chance to consult widely on dos and don’ts before the trip. Our guide had intimated us that our journey would begin with a visit to Eze Aro to obtain his royal blessings. The experience of our visit to Eze Aro, Mazi Kanu Oji, CFR was huge and a different story for a different day. On arrival at the shrine, located around the vicinity of the popular Aggrey Memorial College, within the valley towards the Iyi-eke river, near the boundary between Aro and Cross River state communities, we were welcomed by the natural scenery, forestry, historic mangrove and topography of the area. The environment brought instant fear, fever as we descended with measured steps towards the deity. As we approached, a team of traditionalists and curators said to be managing the shrine appeared from nowhere” stop there” they ordered. “Where are you going? Where are you from? They queried. “They are students on excursion” Our guide, a young man in his early 40s grounded in Aro dialect and history quickly answered. Apparently satisfied with the explanation of our guide, the curators then took over. “Now listen, the process of justice, operations by the Long Juju is a mystery only known to the deity. It is therefore not open for questions, debate, discussion or speculation, do you understand?” they queried, looking in our direction. “Yes sir”, we answered in trembling voices.
“The Long Juju is a cult of sort and its knowledge and way of judgement is unknown to any man ok”. They continued. “It is therefore a taboo, reprehensible to table its process of adjudication or the outcome of your visit for discussion, knowledge sharing or both”. “Yes sir” we chorused again. Inside the Long Juju conclave, the judicial pilgrimage route is a six-foot gully that welcomes visitors and tourists to the acclaimed ancient temple of judgment. We were face to face with ancient history that spoke for itself. As we starred around the environment, the scars of the civil war were visible. Although not touched by the war, the curators confirmed that most of the artefacts were destroyed, looted or taken to unknown destination during the war when the deity was abandoned to its fate. It was a visit of a life time. A journey not for the faint hearted but better for the brave. We were exposed to evidence of its exploits, influence, stories of its “naked” power and justifications for the numerous devotees, disciples, and agents from all over Igbo land. The chief priest showed proof while the efficacy of its power will last forever. At that young age, with limited exposure, education and knowledge at the time, we were totally captured by our new environment, the oratory of the curator, sense of history, and ability to speak to the deity in a peculiar dialect known only to both of them. None of us were in any position to interrogate the story, mystery, assumptions and facts that defined our encounter with the deity.
Our guide, traditionalists around and the curator corroborated the widely held belief that the Long Juju called Ibini Ukpabi or Chukwu of Arochukwu was part of the essence Aro influence and history that shaped the role of the ancient Kingdom as the heartbeat of early Igbo civilization. What remained certain over the years was the fact the Aro as a people exploited the public trust on the efficacy of the deity fully to promote commerce, trade, education, culture and Aro social dominance in Igbo land during the ancient times. Equally noteworthy is the fact that the role of the Long Juju and the Aro during colonial trade has remained a subject of research, and debate by historians and social commentators. It has also been a major source of admiration, envy and sometimes outright hatred for the Aro in the midst of non-Aro.
However, Aro scholars and historians have continued to manage the divergent interpretations of Aro phenomenon in West African history. One argument that stands on its feet is the position of the Aro, that journey to Ibini Ukpabi for judicial redress and other matters arising was voluntary based on choice than any other consideration. For the Aro, involvement in pre-colonial trade took place only when it was legal and globally legitimate. The Aro people and one of the few surviving historical kingdoms east of the Niger takes no responsibility for matters arising from pre-colonial trade for which all known Kingdoms in Africa played different vital roles.
Unfortunately, today, the Long Juju is abandoned, neglected and ignored in spite of its potentials to serve as a national monument and tourism destination. The development is a statement on our country’s level of attention to history and recognition of national monuments. This is why a recent visit by a presidential team all the way from Abuja to explore and document the historical significance and opportunities of Ibini Ukpabi, the Long Juju of Arochukwu as a national monument and tourism center raised high expectation that may be sooner or later, “a Daniel will come to judgement”. Historians across the country have welcomed the visit as an idea whose time is long overdue. They called for a comprehensive programme to be put in place to identify and develop such known centers of history all over Nigeria as sources of foreign exchange through tourism. They argued that this will be easy if special attention is paid to these known Kingdoms by supporting them with social infrastructure especially access roads.
Generally, a visitor to Arochukwu kingdom will be attracted to its serene environment, relics of historical sites, order and civility. In Arochukuwu, the visitor is at home and in peace with nature, relaxed in an ancient Kingdom truly rich in customs and tradition. Interestingly, apart from Ibini Ukpabi, there are other historic tourist sites that exist in the city of Arochukwu. Early contacts with the whites established the Aro firmly as a unique people with rich culture in a United Kingdom. At a time when most communities have been fragmented through questionable “political creation of autonomous communities” the Aro resisted this move, ensured that Arochukwu remains the only Kingdom untouched east of the Niger. It is a kingdom where tradition and Christianity enjoy co-existence and mutual respect. At a time when the search for non-oil revenues through tourism is deepening, Arochukwu has all the features of an international tourism center. All that is required is provision of basic infrastructure especially good road network. Encounter with Ibini-Ukpabi, the popular Long Juju of Arochukwu is a potential international tourism experience waiting to be explored.