Igbo Village Democracy
[From Elizabeth Isichei, Igbo Worlds An Anthology of Oral Histories and Historical Descriptions (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978), 71-75. Section entitled "Village Democracy: an Agbaja example," collected by E. N. Okechukwu.
Note that a number of the Igbo words in this selection should contain diacritical marks which are not reproducible in the word processing format used for this project.
Background. One of the justifications of English (and French and American) colonizers is the need to instruct colonial subjects in self government. This justification is based on the belief that the people did not govern themselves effectively prior to the arrival of the colonizers. A number of Igbo have argued that they had democratic governing procedures before the arrival of the outsiders. As you read this document identify all of the ways that decisions are made and enforced in the village. What roles did different groups of villagers paly in the process? How were these activities different from European conceptions of self government? How would villages regard Western ideals of representative democracy?
There is a broad similarity between the accounts of the workings of village democracy in different parts of Igboland. All reflect the deference paid to age and experience, and the respect paid to wealth, which could be institutionalised in different ways, such as the purchase of titles. Like the traditions from Agu-inyi, these Agbaja traditions reflect the increasing prominence of the wealthy. . . . The different political institutions in the community--the masquerade, the age grades, the village meetings--gave different forms of poliltical weight to different sections of the community. Women sometimes acted as an effective pressure group. Traditions collected elsewhere in Igboland describe how the rainmakers influenced decisions, by threatening to make it rain on the days when the community did farm work for the elders! [71-72]
Noo Udala, aged c.102, in Umuaga, 19 June 1973
Before the white man came we had no chief that saw to the affairs of the town. But we had several institutions that helped us organise our activities. The government of this town was not vested in one man. Even though the oldest village, Umunnacha, had certain privileges, it did not present or produce a paramount chief. In the olden days, each village had a person that we could now call a chief to head the town's political and administrative activities. This man was normally the oldest man of that village, and was called onye ishi ani. Within this village we have another man that heads the affairs of a 'lineage' or .umu.nna called okenye .umu nna. During any cases affecting the whole town, the ndi ishi ani, village heads, would meet and discuss effectively the issues involved. They met as equals though at times preference was given to the village head from this village, Umunnacha, as we are the oldest village. But before any decision was carried, the issue must have been agreed on by all. After arriving at this decision, each village head would go home to discuss decisions with their respective communities.
All adult males and very aged women were entitled to attend the village level meetings. The meetings were normally held in the village square called obodo. The onye ishi ani of that village presents the issue already discussed by the ndi ishi ani of the whole town, and then would call for some comments. Each person was free to talk during the deliberations, but bad contributions were jeered at with occasional embarrassing shouts of Di anyi, tukwunyo (our colleague, sit down). Good contributions were widely acclaimed with occasional clappings and shouts of Okwu ghi di mma (your speech is good). In most cases, the reaction of those present helped us to know the acceptable line of action. But it was still necessary that the onye ishi ani should give the verdict, but within what the people in general had agreed.
After taking the decision at village level, we then retired to the lineage or umu nna level. Here almost all adults both men and women were allowed to attend. At times very intelligent children, .umu atalu akq, were admitted. The okenye umu nna, normally the oldest man of the lineage, would introduce the issue already discussed in the village level. It is in this umu.nna that people talk as freely as possible, as they are within their very nearest relations. Decisions here are quick, because most people present had heard of the issue at the village level, and because the people saw themselves as very intimate relations that must accept the opinions of the okenye umu nna.
From this umu nna level, the next unit, which though small in numerical strength is important, is the family unit of one man, called ezi na ulo. Here each man heads the decision making of his family unit. His wife and children normally took orders from him. They could be influenced by him to carry out a village decision or refuse it. So the man in his own house was his own chief over his wife and children.
In the same way, decisions could travel from the family to town assemblies.
Age grade societies
The executive function of Umuaga government was the sole duty of the youths, through their age-grade organisation. This organisation is in different grades, each being made up of young men of the same age. Each group took a name and appointed the eldest of them as their head. These age grades perform both civic and military duties in the town. They acted as the nightwatchmen of the town, when threatened by rogues. They also did public works, like clearing the forests and making local paths and roads. These age grades also were charged with guarding public morality through censorship of their members' behaviour. In most cases, they were the people who enforced the decisions of any judicial council.
Umu ada or Umu okpu
We also have another type of government functionary in Umuaga. This is the group known as umu okpu or umu ada. This is made up of women born in the town and married within or without, but in a less distant neighbouring town. They brought much pressure to bear on any bad things that were going on in the town or village. Particularly, they were charged with the affairs of the women in general, but they went far to make sure that women married into the town from other towns were conforming to the norms of the town. They disciplined the offending women through very serious sanctions that ranged from seizure of property, to the isolation of the culprit from their affairs. . . .
You also have the masquerade cult mmanwu as a government functionary. Much of the function of these masquerades is to effect obedience to the sanctions of the town on a culprit. These masquerades could invade a culprit's home, and seize all his belongings until the owner paid the stipulated fine for his crime, and again reclaimed his property by a further fine. This police action of the masquerades is generally referred to as iri iwu. Some masquerades, the clever one of the young boys, called Iga, also kept surveillance over the village streams during the dry season, to see that water wasn't misused.
We also have another women's group called oha eshi. This was a governing and police council made up originally of very aged women. Eventually, energetic middle-aged women joined. This council of oha eshi was originally a group responsible for the sanitation of the town as a whole. This council kept up a day-to-day inspection of all parts of the town, and each village or lineage had a representative. This reported to the council on the sanitary situation of her area. If she could not effect a remedy by compelling the people to be clean, she reported to the enlarged aha eshi council. This council then visited the offender and made away with his belongings, especially a woman's own, like cooking utensils and fowls. These were reclaimed after some payments ....