Obi echie © Olisa Nwadiogbu


The kingship institution is hereditary, to the extent that only those who belong to the royal lineage of Umuezechima, made up of mainly Okebunabo and Umuezearoli, are privileged to ascend the throne.

The Obi of Onitsha is the custodian of Onitsha customs and traditions with the power of intercession and mediation between the living, the ancestors and the gods. The Customary/Political Constitution of Onitsha confers on the Obi such supreme religious and social powers that are only moderated by the Council of Ministers (Nd’ichie).

Until recently, the Obi was not expected to go beyond his palace and would not receive or discuss with visitors directly but through a royal spokesman.

The Obi must of necessity be a “state orphan”, as it is only the one whose father is no more that can ascend the ‘throne of his father’. Although the mother of an Obi may be alive, tradition restrains any interference by the mother of an Obi in his daily royal functions.

As part of the Onitsha tradition and culture, the Obi cannot be deposed, does no evil, cannot touch unclean things, is never wrong, nor could a judgment be passed against him. Above all, he is not expected to act against democratic norms.

The king’s palace is regarded as a sacred place and visitors to the palace must remove some certain gears, including certain types of caps and charms, or risk bringing harm to themselves.

As a demonstration of loyalty, Obi’s subjects greet the Obi kneeling before the throne and calling him various names that depict the mythical concepts of his deity. The names include:

Agbogidi: the voice of thunder and one without anger; Onye Nwe Obodo: the supreme and maximum ruler of Onitsha; Aka M’elu Igbo: the commander of the victorious Onitsha army or warriors; Ogbuefi: the one who initiates ceremony by the killing of a cow; Okwusie Obee: the one with the final decision; the ultimate judge

Muo the ever-knowing spirit with mystical powers and who, by initiation, symbolises life and death

Historically, Obiship succession was a major focus in the town as a result of the robustness of the contest for selection. For instance, when Obi Okosi I passed on in 1931, Onitsha was thrown into serious crisis following the misunderstanding between the household of Obi Okosi I and Nd’ichie on the succession to the Obi’s throne.

According to Milne, the succession, which lasted for four years, featured four candidates: James Okosi, son of Obi Okosi I of Okebunabo; J. E. Egbunike; S. N. Nzegwu, and B. N. Nzegwu, all of Umuezearoli. The inability of the Umuezearoli to agree on a common candidate compelled the British government, through Captain Dermot O’Connor, a former District Officer and a proponent of the rotation theory, to accord recognition to James Okosi as de facto 18th Obi in 1935.

However, on the passing on of Obi Okosi II in 1961, the same dispute that beset Onitsha for four years (1931 – 1934) again ensued among various groups, especially from Umuezearoli. This dispute, with its animosity and threat to lives and property; lasting a year and six months; absolutely defied all customary and traditional solutions.

In July, 1962, the Government of Eastern Nigeria, under Section 4 (1) of the Recognition of Chiefs Law 1960, appointed Mr. Harding, OBE, Senior Administrative Officer, to conduct an inquiry to ascertain and advise the government as to who among the contenders has, by tradition, custom and procedure adopted so far in his selection, the best claims to recognition. At the end of its duty, the board of inquiry advised the government that J. O. Onyejekwe had the best claims to recognition and the then government accepted Harding’s advice and accorded recognition to Onyejekwe as the 19th Obi of Onitsha. A major part of Obi Onyejekwe’s reign was subsumed by the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970.

After Obi Onyejekwe joined his ancestors in 1970, Obi Ofala Okagbue was crowned. He introduced communal self-help schemes that assisted greatly in revamping Onitsha and empowering the people badly bruised by the war.

With the demise of Obi Ofala Okagbue, the baton of succession passed on to Obi Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe.

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