OKOLI IJOMA OF NDIKELIONWU
The legend of all times, HRH Lord Okoli Ijoma sometimes called Okoro Ijoma, succeeded his father Ijoma Ike as his first son and the heir to the throne of Ndikelionwu. Okoli was a 19th-century merchant warlord of the Aro settlement of Ndikelionwu in today’s Anambra State. He was notorious for his recruitment of the militaristic Ada people of the Cross River area for wars against his enemies or for the services of those who paid him ruling over the entire region in the now known Anambra state from 1856 until the British conquest of the igbo heartland in 1896.
Many stories have been told about Okoli, mostly oral as many events were rarely documented during those years. One story has is that Okoli Ijoma was regarded by people who knew him as immortal, fearless, stubborn and defiant. Immortal as "No blade or spear can pierce his skin". Others said He could almost predict and was certain about the future; many of his subjects and allies would go into a treaty with him for their protections, others would disagree that this is one of his exploits to intimidation. He was sought as far away by Awkuzu in 1885, and Achalla in 1889 which were beleaguered then.
Many of wars which involved Okoli were never documented officially but was told and are always referred by people who have managed to pass on history as folktale in various soothing versions.
It was documented that Okoli hired the Ada to attack Awka sometime around the 1880s and 1890s. ‘Ada’ was a generic name used mainly by north-central Igbo for Aro mercenaries, notably from Eda, Abam, and Ohafia in present-day Abia State and Ebonyi State. The war between Okoli Ijeoma and Awka became known as Agha Ìbenne (Maternal War or the war of relatives). The story of how black monkeys (Enwe Imoka) became sacred to the Awka starts here. As part of their war plans, the Ada went into the bushes around Awka and laid in wait to ambush the Awka. According to tradition, monkeys inhabiting the bush became startled and fled from the Ada. These particular monkeys appear to have been the mona monkeys. It was through the alert of monkeys fleeing into the main Awka settlement that the Awka were able to thwart the plans of the Ada. The Awka assembled the Egbunoji, the Awka militia, and outnumbering them, the Awka overcame and defeated the Ada.
The activities of the ‘Ada’ during and prior to the time of Okoli Ijeoma also forced Nri to compromise its absolutist pacifist position and laws under Nri Enwelana who, as Eze Nri, broke taboo by sanctioning the formation of a war group, the Amakom, against Okoli Ijeoma and the Ada raids. The Eze Nri had earlier warned Okoli Ijeoma against his aggressiveness to no avail and thus cursed him and formed the Amakom military alliance comprising several settlements around the Nri-Awka area, including Awka.
These turbulent times contributed to the estimated number of over a million Igbo people being sold and taken over the Atlantic by Europeans, and to British colonies like Barbados, Jamaica, and, before the 1770s, Virginia in particular.
But one notable site, Ose Okwudu at Onitsha central market has derived its name from Okwudu Ocha, who was Okoli's flutist. Okwodu Ocha as the story goes spent seven days on that location employing all possible device with his flute to goad his master to proceed on his self-assigned attempt to lock horns with an allegedly powerful Oba N'Iduu but the river Niger constituted to an unanticipated impregnable barrier forcing Okoli Ijoma to return home with his mission unaccomplished.
Okoli Ijoma lived in a two-story house in Umuochu Village around 18th century, built with local material and held a law (Omenuko) court in a circular building called Ogbagburugburu which was an architectural masterpiece and first during his time. HRH Nnama of Nibo was the deputy chief judge of legendary eastern "Omenuko" court headed by Okoli Ijoma. Both became friends and in-laws; Nnama sealed a lifelong blood treaty with this warlord in 1876 through the marriage of his sister to Okoli's Second son, Nwene Ijeoma, this alliance offered Nibo great protection and safety during turbulent times.
Okoli Ijoma was at the peak of his power when the British were trying to consolidate their holding on eastern Nigeria. Nibo was one of the first town to capitulate to British militia. HRH Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor had sent an emissary to Okoli Ijoma briefing him how mighty strength and arsenal the British battalion has got, and that Nibo war council has decided not to wage a futile war but to surrender. Okoli sent a "flag-staff" message to his friend wishing him well but vowed that he rather dies than be ruled by any other person; be it white, red or black and kept preparing for war. As a divide and rule tactic, then British split Ndikelionwu into two; Umuochu and Ndikelionwu, when they could not dismantle Okoli’s leadership after he won them at Ikpa-Umuochu. After the bloody massacre of Agulu town warrior, Okoli Ijoma still fiercely fought the British and its newly gathered alliance, he successfully held out against them, but he only could only wage this war for a year. This marked the end of Nnama’s alliance with Okoli, who had stubbornly vowed that he would not be ruled by any other king and continue to wage a military campaign against the British, suffering great losses.
Having resisted for a year and having left with nothing to fight with, Okoli dressed up in his royal robe, sat on his royal throne and put himself down after drinking from a royal cup. He eventually putting an end to his own life rather than succumbing to the enemy hence keeping to his word. Before the British could arrive Umuochu, Okoli Ijoma was gone. He was buried in Umuochu in an underground castle still sitting on his throne. Okoli Ijoma was documented to have died around 1906. ( NB: I am trying to place a timeline on these dates as they do not make sense )
Umuochu was later united with Ndikelionwu during Ike Mbonu's regime. Meanwhile, Nnama was appointed as a Warrant Chief by the British in 1896 and continued to serve as Nibo’s traditional ruler until his death in 1945
Today Okoli Ijeoma may not be remembered as one of the heroes of lifetime since it has gradually washed away in the minds of many. Indeed, it was often because of the threat of attack from Okoli Ijoma and his mercenaries that towns formed alliances with the British, which resulted in a more insidious form of colonisation.