BY Dr. Korie Patrick Chukwuemeka
Aguneze Ahiara is a town in the present day Ahiazu Mbaise Local Government Area of Imo State, Nigeria.
Aguneze is located along the Owerri-Umuahia road about 39 kilometers from Owerri and 25 kilometers to Umuahia on latitude 50 32i 44ii N and longitude 70 18i 10ii E.
The boundary neigbours of Aguneze are Obowu, Akpim Ekwerazu, Ogbe, Otulu and Onicha Ezinihitte.
Historically Aguneze is the first of the ten sons of Ahiara Akpukakpu who gave each of the sons before his death an “ofo”, the symbol of authority, justice, righteousness, truth and good governance as a form of covenant.
The tens sons are all towns today with ten ofo (Ahiara ofo iri) and in unity.
According to history handed over by oral tradition and documented by Chief (sir) Mbilitem H Emecheta in his book, Aguneze had three Villages:
2. Nnenvula ( Itu na Choko)
3. Umuagu ( made up of Umunzeri, Umuakpoke and Aguetiti)
All these villages could intermarry to this day.
Later the three villages were separated into their component parts as follows:
Akakwa is the first son of Aguneze.
However, following a conflict between Umuigwe in Umuchoko and Akakwa, the people of Akakwa fled and dispersed.
Oral tradition had it that ajala was not happy and requested for the return of Akakwa for appeasement to stop the calamity on the community.
Spirited effort was made to bring them back but a few returned. Due to their small size, they now joined Umuchoko.
Historically, Akakwa is a different village from Umuchoko and they could even inter marry. There are families in Umuchoko today whose maternal homes are Akakwa.
Itu and Umuchoko (Itu na choko) are brothers and cannot inter marry. Due to the merger of Akakwa and Umuchoko, Aguneze is now made up of three villages namely:
Aguneze like most parts of Igboland before the advent of British rule had no eze (Igbo enweghi eze).
However, leadership was theocracy, which later inculcated a form of gerontocracy and then representation (oha na eze).
Chief (sir) Mbilitem H Emecheta reaffirmed this in the book “Aguneze Ahiara: The Historical, Cultural and Developmental Perspectives”.
The central meeting place was Eke Aguneze. Two historical events that buttressed this were:
The sacking and return of Akakwa in which it was the gods that were giving directives.
The war between Ikpa ( Ahiara) and Nwambara, Ikpa was the person that led the war and also the person that held the ofo; a fact that led to the saying “ onye na aju ogu, jukwa Ogu Ikpa”(he who invokes the gods for justice should emulate Ikpa).
In these two events, there were no mention of a king or ruler, rather it was the gods and the people.
It is believed that the war between Nwambara and Ikpa took place before the sacking of Akakwa.
This form of leadership was aborted by the British colonial rule when they introduced indirect rule using the warrant chief system (1891-1929).
The warrant chief system was an imposition of the colonial masters on the people to assist them in the collection of tax and administration through the native courts.
Enclopedia.com described the warrant chief system as a necessity to extend indirect rule to parts of the British colonies such as Igbo land without a tradition of chieftaincy institutions.
According to information on Wikipedia, Mbaise area came under British rule in 1902 during the Anglo-Aro war.
By 1906 when the war was over, present day Mbaise was under British control with the indirect rule implemented.
A native court was established at Nkwogwu Nguru by 1905 with a residence for the British Dr Rogers Stewart who was killed in a case of mistaken identity.
The killing led to the Ahiara punitive expedition by captain Brain Douglas and Harold Hastings.
The Court at Nkwogwu was destroyed during the 1929 women ’riot. Following reforms from the riot, regional courts were established in different parts of Mbaise area in the 1930s.
These courts were in Itu, Afor Enyiogugu, Obohia, Orie Ahiara, and Uvuru. Aguneze is part of Ahiara and was administered through the Orie Ahiara court.
According to Chief (sir) Otuechere Akponye in his autobiography, “in Ahiara, chief Onyekwere of Nnarambia was paramount.
With him many people were appointed in other areas of Ahiara as headmen, tax agents etc to enhance the collection of tax from the people of the colonial division.
In order to maintain peace law and order native courts were established in Mbaise, the Ahiara native court, later renamed customary court was established at Obodo Ahiara”.
This implies that at inception of warrant chief system, there was none from Aguneze. Earlier than 1919 when St Matthias School Aguneze was opened and during the First World War (1914-1918), Ngaka Mgbeokwere was a headman to Chief Pius Onyekwere.
Those appointed into the native courts became the warrant chiefs and tax collectors. They derived their warrant from the court.
Tax payment was one of the conditions for appointment into the native court by the colonial government.
Chief (Sir) Otuechere Akponye in his autobiography stated that Francis Okorie Akponye was invited for appointment as a member of the native court via Chief Onyekwere because of his prompt tax payment.
However, he declined it because he was a teacher then and the court composition then was of elderly men, he rather recommended his uncle Uchegbu Ijeoma to replace him.
This event may have taken place after 1925 as Francis Okorie Akponye started teaching in 1925 according to Chief (sir) Otuechere Akponye in his autobiography.
This confirms that the court was opened in the 1930s as documented in the Wikipedia because of reform from the Aba women’s riot of November 1929, which started because of imposition of direct taxation, introduction of new local courts and especially of warrant chiefs.
Chief (Sir) Mbilitem H Emecheta in his book, Aguneze Ahiara: The Historical, Cultural and Developmental Perspectives documented the initial warrant chiefs as follows:
Umuchoko : Nwokonkwo Uzowunne succeeded by Nwokeke Eberibe
Itu: Anyanwu Ukpabi succeeded by Chief Thomas A Odu
Umunzeri: Anyanwu Agwuocha
Umuakwaka ( Aguetiti) : Egwim Anyaegbu succeeded by Akidi
Umuakpoke : Uchegbu Ijeoma succeeded by Ibegbulem Uchegbu succeeded by Chief Festus U Ibe.
There were chiefs from the different component parts of Aguneze and Chief Festus U Ibe was the last of the chiefs. Chief F. U. Ibe, who was living with his uncle Columba Onuoha in Jos, was a teacher until 1949 and returned home after his father’s death to replace him at the Orie Ahiara court.
He was attending the court with Chief Thomas Odu from Itu. Sequel to continuous reforms in the customary court administrative system, by 1960 representatives at the courts who were not literate were dropped.
As a result of the reform, Chief Thomas Odu was dropped and only Chief F.U. Ibe continued. Chief Andrew Anyanwu from Ogbe and Chief Aririguzo from Otulu were dropped same year for the same reason.
The composition of the customary courts changed from participants who were only nodding their heads in agreement to participants who could write down the court proceedings.
With the local government reform of 1976, which replaced divisions, autonomous communities, a new form of local and traditional administration emerged.
In addition, the traditional rulers were excluded from local government administration.
Aguneze and Otulu became one autonomous community (also one electoral ward to date). Our first traditional ruler, HRH, Eze Festus U. Ibe, Eze Di Oha Nma 1 of Otulu na Aguneze was presented to the local government on the 16th of August 1978, given staff of office by Sunday Ajibade Adenihun, the military governor in 1979 and crowned in 1980.
The process of selection of the eze was democratic. The following people indicated interest in contesting for the Ezeship:
Godfrey Chukwu from Otulu
Anthony Mebirim from Otulu
Chief Festus Ibe from Aguneze
James Chilagorom from Aguneze
Chief Vincent Eke from Aguneze.
Otulu as a community later conceded the ezeship to Aguneze because they had the Local government representative. This led to the withdrawal of the candidates from Otulu.
Chief Vincent Eke later withdrew and the election held between Chief Festus Ibe and Mr James Chilagorom. Chief Festus Ibe emerged the winner and was presented to the local government and later crowned as Eze Di Oha Nma 1 of Otulu na Aguneze.
Otulu later became an autonomous community in 2004 and HRH Eze Festus Ibe remained the Eze of Aguneze as Eze Di Oha Nma 1 until 3 December 2014 when he joined his ancestors.
In essence, Aguneze as an autonomous community had her first traditional ruler in 2004.
HRH Eze Festus U Ibe was a bridge between the colonial times when warrant chiefs were imposed on the people to form traditional institutions as a form of indirect rule and new Nigeria when autonomous communities were created, empowered to elect their traditional ruler as part of self-rule. He was the first elected traditional ruler of Otulu na Aguneze.
The traditional ruler was given a befitting rite of passage by the entire community coordinated by the Aguneze Development Union (ADU) and the Traditional Council with High Chief Cosmas Onyejiji as the Traditional Prime Minster.
On the burial day, at the requiem mass, the chairman Mbaise Traditional Rulers HRH Eze Chidubem Okoro announced that the traditional handing over of the staff of office will not be performed that day because of unresolved issues in the late eze’s family.
He said that in its place, the Traditional Prime Minister, High Chief Cosmas Onyejiji should be in charge of the cabinet. This announcement caused some resentment among the members of the late eze’s family.
At the graveside, the Ahiazu Mbaise traditional rulers entrusted the staff of office to the first son of HRH Eze F.U. Ibe for one year, as is their tradition.
The traditional handing over of the staff of office of a late Eze to his first son is a sign of respect and not transmission of ezeship from father to son.
It is expected that the staff of office should be returned after the period of mourning for a new traditional ruler to be elected.
The process of electing a new Eze commenced after the traditional mourning period with the establishment of a Constitution Drafting Committee.
The committee had representatives from all the three villages of Aguneze with Mr Val Ukah as chairperson and Celestine Ndu as secretary.
The draft constitution was presented, reviewed line-by-line, clause by clause and adopted by the entire Aguneze people through the ADU under the chairmanship of the President General Barrister Ihedioha Akponye.
To affirm the sacredness of the constitution and the decision of the community to ensure a smooth transition from Eze Di Oha Nma 1 to the new eze, all Aguneze sons who were 70 years old and above assembled at the Onugotu, decreed and affirmed that no indigene of Aguneze should be an obstacle towards peaceful election of an eze.
The Onugotu is a center at the Eke Aguneze market where all the “ogi ofo”, elders from the village used to assemble, strike their ofo on the ground to indicate something was sealed and binding, and the people would respond “ ihaa”. This process was invoked on the constitution and the election process.
The constitution adopted election as the basis for the selection and replacement of a traditional ruler.
The constitution also made provision for an ezeship selection and screening committee. The first committee was set up with Barrister C.Y Anyanwu as chairperson and Engr. Ebere Korie as secretary.
The committee started work and requested for interested eligible sons of Aguneze to indicate interest in the contest by obtaining a form.
In response, High Chief Cosmas Onyejiji and Chief Ben Ibe obtained the form and were screened. The election was scheduled to hold on 1 January 2019 after a manifesto day on 26 December 2018.
On the manifesto day, High Chief Cosmas Onyejiji pledged to continue attracting development to the community, would ensure peace and harmony. Dr Val Otuechere, who represented Chief Ben Ibe, apologized for his absence, pledged loyalty and respect for the process.
However, on 1st January 2019, when the voting had commenced, a group of people drove in and attempted to disrupt the process.
The DPO of Ahiazu Police station and zonal commander who later joined, addressed the community and the election was rescheduled.
Aguneze community demonstrated a high degree of restrain and utmost respect for the process. The election finally held on the 28 September 2019 and High chief Cosmas Onyejiji emerged as the winner. He was presented to the local government on the 4th October 2019.
On winning the election, he chose to be known and addressed as” Obodo nwe Eze 1”. This demonstrates that the Ezeship belongs to the people and a sign of the democratic process through which he emerged.
It also indicates that he is going to be a servant leader, as the crown belongs to the people. It is a call for open doors and acceptance of all.
As with all democratic electoral process, Chief Ben Ibe approached the court to challenge the emergence of High Chief Cosmas Onyejiji. The suit was dismissed in favour of High Chief Cosmas Onyejiji and ADU on December 3, 2021.
On the 4th of February 2022, His excellency, the executive governor of Imo State, Senator Hope Uzodinma presented HRH Eze (Engr.) Cosmas Onyejiji the staff of office recognizing him as the traditional ruler of Aguneze.
By this recognition, he is the first traditional ruler of Aguneze to receive a staff of Office for Aguneze as an autonomous community.
Eze Di Oha Nma 1 received his staff of office for Otulu na Aguneze and only became the Eze of Aguneze when Otulu became an autonomous community in 2004. He is also the first to receive a staff of office under democratic rule.
It is worthy of note that His Royal Highness, Eze (Engr.) Cosmas Onyejiji, Obodo Nwe Eze 1 of Aguneze, a mechanical engineer by profession, a man of peace, was a high chief with title “Obioha” and the Traditional Prime Minister of Aguneze.
He was able to ensure peace in the community throughout the period of ezeship tussle. This is a strong indication that he is close to his people, loved, respected, well rooted in the tradition and culture of the people of Aguneze. He has extended a hand of fellowship to all and sundry and the response has been wonderful.
He is our royal father and a father to all. The community is once more matching forward to progress, peace and prosperity.
Today, April 19, 2022, the entire people of Aguneze have crowned and installed him as Obodo Nwe Eze 1 of Aguneze.
Long live Obodo Nwe Eze 1.
Long live the people of Aguneze
Long Live the people of Imo state and Federal Republic of Nigeria.
May your reign continue to bring us peace and prosperity!