His Majesty, Eze Obidiegwu Onyensoh (Nri Enwelana) is the traditional ruler of Nri Kingdom, Anambra State. In this interview with Punch correspondent, TONY OKAFOR, the royal father, gives insight into his kingdom and more.
Was your growing up days rosy?
Growing up was bad because I came from a highly poor family. My father married 10 wives; my father was one of the traditional title holders (Onye Ichie) in this community.
Does it mean your lineage didn’t have royalty?
No, it had. My great grandfather was Nri Enwelana the first. He was also an Eze Nri. He was the 10th Eze Nri. I’m the 26th Eze Nri in this kingdom.
Back then, most men used to marry more than one wife, was your father among them?
I grew up in a polygamous family and you know what that meant. But my father died in 1943; I was only a couple of months old when my father died, so I did not get to know my father, and I did not get to know my mother either. My mother passed on after my birth.
So who took care of you then?
I started taking care of myself at a very tender age. There was a lot of problem, a lot of challenges. I never got that parental love, so I grew up all by myself. There was no person to take care of me. Nevertheless, God guided me to grow up. I was then thinking that maybe something is waiting for me in future.
How were you able to go to school then?
It was very difficult for me to go to school in this community. The primary school I attended had no roof, and I had no slate to write on, so I wrote on the ground and the teacher would come and examine my work on the floor. I used to wear one cloth for over a month and most times, the cloth would get torn on my body. No one was responsible for me, so I did everything by myself. It was a difficult world, but I managed to grow up.
It must have been very tough…
It was very tough. I could remember when we were small, I would walk naked and you could even see the ribs in my body. To eat was a problem and even when I managed to eat, it would be once a day. No one took care of me in that very large family. I went through primary school without books. I was just guided by my own destiny.
But you eventually left the village…
It was during my secondary school that I left this village for Hope Waddell, Calabar. I did not last in that school however, because I had to leave again. After Hope Waddell, I went to another school in Port Harcourt, and that was where I finished my secondary school in 1964.
Didn’t you stay back in Port Harcourt?
No. From there, I came to Lagos and tried my luck in playing football. After a while, the war broke out in 1966, and we were recruited in the war. I served at Nsukka sector and I was lucky to join an organisation that took us to Dakar Senegal.
What were you doing in Senegal?
I stayed there for three years. I was privileged again as the same organisation took us to America. That was in 1969.
And what did you do in the US?
I studied there. I attended three universities in America. I studied Mechanical Engineering and then I did my Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and did another Master’s degree in Industrial Management- that was in New York University. I stayed in New York after for a long time.
While I was in New York, I worked as a teacher and taught in the Engineering Department in the university. I left with the intention to start doing something for myself, so I later came back to Nigeria. I came to Port Harcourt and I founded my own construction company and worked there for a while. That was where I was till my predecessor, Tabansi Udene, passed on in 1979.
How did you ascend to the throne?
Here, we have a kind of system that when a traditional ruler passes on, we have to stay seven years without a king. Those seven years will give the people time to know which person would occupy the throne. They would look for signs and signals.
Is the throne rotational?
Yes. One section of the community produces, and then another does. There are three villages here. So the lot fell on my village to produce the traditional ruler and my village needed someone who would occupy the seat. In 1987, while I was in Port Harcourt, my people invited me home and I came, only to be told that the position of Eze Nri had shifted, and that I was likely going to be the person to occupy the throne.
And you just accepted?
Our method to determine who would become the king is not through election; it is divine. We would have to perform what we call ‘Afa’ (divination). The gods would have to say who it would be. Whoever the gods appoint for that position cannot refuse it. The gods were consulted and the lot fell on me. I could not believe it. I was like, ‘how can a poor man be the traditional ruler?’ I was a young man and I had nothing. I had just returned from the US and was looking for a way to earn a living. Let me also say that before you become a candidate for Eze, you must have taken all the titles.
Did you have all the titles then?
I had not taken any, so I had to start taking all the titles one after the other. I finalised it by taking the Ozo title. When that ended, I took a higher one – the Oba title. The long and short of it is that there are so many titles one has to take to become Eze Nri. You have to visit all the shrines in this community and all the ancestral homes. We are the descendants of Eri. All the Eri communities and all the shrines in the communities had to be alerted of the emergence of a new Eze Nri. It took us about three years to take all the titles.
For you to be an Eze Nri, you also have to die.
How do you mean sir?
Yes, the candidate for the Eze Nri must die symbolically, and after three days, the person will wake up. During the person’s death, he takes a new body and when he wakes up, he must shine like a star.
What I am telling you may sound like exaggeration but I tell you, it is the truth! The candidate must die! When the candidate dies, he will be buried in a shallow grave for three days; his body will be buried, but his head will be left outside the grave. During that period, he will undergo a transformation; pass through a stage, from human being to spirit, after which he will wake up and his body will be adorned with white chalk (Nzu) and he will shine like a star.
What happens next?
From there, he will leave his father’s compound. He will not leave through the door. It is presumed that he has grown above passing through the door.
So you didn’t pass through the door?
No. They had to put a ladder for me to climb over the fence and I landed outside and I left my father’s compound. This happened like 28 years ago.
And what happened to your family during the time you ‘died’?
While you are in the grave, you are being mourned by your family and the entire village will be in festive mood, eating and dancing every day. After that traditional mourning, when you wake up again, you take a new body and you are now a spirit.
After that stage what follows?
So when you have taken a new body, you go to a confluence river. The nearest to our community is the Ezu River, which is in Aguleri. At that confluence, they employ divers, who go down deep into the sea to scoop clay, which would be used to mould a pot. The Eze will drink from it and we call that pot, Udueze.
After the Eze has drunk from it, the pot would be seen as a very precious pot because the clay used in moulding it was got from the depth of the sea, from a confluence of two rivers.
When the divers go in there, they would want to test your agility and spirituality as an Eze. If the diver does not come out, well, that is it! But if the diver comes out with the clay that would be used in moulding the pot, then you are Eze (king).
Around our place here, we have two confluence rivers where an Eze Nri could be taken. There is Lokoja and there is Aguleri. Since Lokoja is far from us, we have to go to Aguleri, that is Ezu na Omambala, Abanaba.
From there, you will visit all communities that are descendants of the Nri Kingdom and then you go home triumphantly as a king. Then you embark on another visit to Umueri clan, which contains 118 settlements. You have to visit as many as you can, and they will know that a new Eze Nri has emerged.
After then, the clans will now return the visit to Eze Nri, where the Eze Nri will settle in his Obi (domain) and receive them.
During that period, the Eze Nri will stay in a hut that is akin to half room, and will return to the spirit world for eight days, before he will now become a human being again.
While he is in that spiritual state, he does not receive visitors because he is still a spirit. But after the two market weeks of eight days, he could receive visitors.
But before then, no one sees him, he is served food from underneath the door; no one is permitted to see him physically. When he leaves the Obi after eight days, he moves to his palace, which at that time, must not be a zinc building but would be built by a certain leaf, called Uma, which is usually broad. That is where he would stay for two years before his palace would be changed.
What is usually the first thing the Eze does when he begins to reign?
When the Eze now begins to reign, his first performance must be Iguaro (annual ritual). The purpose of the Iguaro is to give all the communities the opportunity to see the Eze for the first time. Before then, there is a transfer of authority from the previous Eze to the current Eze. This is usually done by the children of the former Eze. While that is done, no one enters the room where it is happening until everything has been done. Thereafter, the Eze has completed all the requirements, and he could then begin to take decisions.
His first decision is taken from a mud elevator platform, and anytime he wants to make decisions, he has to sit on that platform. The throne you now see is a new innovation.
Going down memory lane, do you still remember your school mates?
I don’t think I can remember them because I did not school in one school. I schooled in Hope Waddell for some time, then I moved to another school, and I think that school is demised now. I think the school is called Enitona High School; it was a big school back then.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife in 1976 when I visited Nigeria, and afterwards we got married and I took her to New York, and we had our first child in 1977 and we lived there and then visited Nigeria again in 1981, and went back. During my young days, I did not spend my life in Nigeria; it was from the warfront to Senegal and to America. It was in 1976 that I came back to Nigeria to look for a wife, and when I married, I went back to America. I had my four children there, and there was nothing like courtship with my wife or doing the usual boy/girlfriend thing because I did not have time for that.
Do you have taboos in your community?
Yes, as a matter of fact, this community is the centre of creation of taboos. We pride ourselves as people with tradition. Taboos in our community are graded; there are ‘nso’ and ‘alu’. ‘Alu’ are those taboos pertaining to human lives. Taking people’s property, making someone to do what they ordinarily would not do is ‘alu’. We have 124 taboos, which we respect in Nri. We were observing all these until it went through abrogation. My predecessor, Tabansi Udene, abrogated a lot of taboos. It was a taboo for Eze Nri to go out of his kingdom, Eze Nri cannot pass through water, he cannot travel. You are not even supposed to see Eze Nri, you can only hear him but you cannot see him. Now, Eze Nri can go out. I can even shake people’s hands now. If it were before, you will not see me; we cannot sit and talk this way. When I took over, I also abrogated a lot of taboos too.
Before now, Eze Nri cannot have only one wife, but I abrogated that. Before the abrogation, Eze Nri must marry at least four wives. In all, I abrogated 100 taboos. My predecessor did the same thing, and we kept doing this, so that our people can fit into today’s world.
The Eze Nri does not see a corpse or attend a funeral, and that is still standing up until now. He cannot eat or sleep in people’s houses.
But can he sleep in a hotel?
That one has been abrogated now. At least the Eze Nri can at least sleep in a hotel. As you see me, I don’t go to people’s houses, I cannot go to market and I cannot carry something on my head. All these have not been abrogated. I cannot do menial job and so many other things I cannot do as Eze Nri.
Would you know if all your other predecessors were educated?
I am the first Eze Nri that attended the University in the whole world, for now. I have set a precedent in that. Many others can now follow after me. Before now, Eze Nri would not go to hunt for what to eat with his family, the community provided. But now, it is tough for the community to provide for Eze Nri, so Eze Nri has to look for what he and his family would eat.
Now, there is a government that recognises the traditional ruler, and we have to attend government meetings. My predecessor refused to attend meetings of traditional rulers in Enugu, because they added a woman and he would not attend any meeting with a woman.
You said you abrogated a number of taboos in your community, did you abrogate the Osu cast system in your kingdom?
Yes, my predecessor abrogated Osu cast system in 1932. Nri does not believe in Osu anyway, we believe that all people are created the same.
Another ‘Nso’, which we had, was a child that cut the upper teeth before the lower teeth. That child was regarded as ‘nwa alusi’ (child of the deity) and that child would be thrown away. But that has been abrogated. Another is the killing of twins, which has also been abrogated. People were killing kids, just because there were twins. If a family had twins, they were packaged and taken to the evil forest where they were disposed of. But now, any child that is found in Ajofia (evil forest) is brought here, nursed to life and also trained.
With all these, how do you manage the affairs of your immediate family?
When the Eze Nri returns to become a human being from the spirit level, he faces the same challenge any other human being faces. He has to look for a way to take care of his family like every other person. As I told you, I have only one wife and four children. My own is even better because I am educated, I work, and I can always feed myself. But for previous Eze Nris, the community had to fend for them and feed their families. But now, things have changed and I take care of myself and my family.
How does the palace politics run?
Here, we have a system, which we devised management-wise. We have the Ndialo Eze, they are the political wing of the people in our cabinet. We also have the Nze ma Agboo – 12 of them. They are the ones that take care of the tradition. The Ndialo Eze are titled and non titled men, who are experienced in politics, who do the politicking while the Eze and his Nze ma Agboo take care of tradition. So they don’t mix. When you come here, the other people are taking care of their own responsibilities and same for the others. The Ndialo Eze go to represent the community in government functions while the other arm takes care of traditions.
Must somebody be rich before he can be made a king?
It all depends on the gods. Once they choose someone; the person does not have to be rich. Only the gods know the criteria they use to select an Eze. Once all the signs have been detected, you do not have to be rich nor have many wives. I started with nothing; I was only 30 years old then when I was chosen.