The evolution and relevance of autonomous communities in contemporary Igboland: an essay in local governance.

Author:Uzoigwe, G.N.
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Essay


This article evaluates the major political revolution brought about by the establishment of British colonial administration in Igboland in 1891. Imo State is used as the microcosm for the study of the wider Igbo phenomenon of the impact of autonomous communities in contemporary Igboland. The article attempts to explain and understand the vehemence with which Igbo people clamour and fight for the creation of more autonomous communities, ceremoniously ruled by Ezes or Igwes. The fact that this fight has resulted in the fragmentation and destabilization of many communities somehow has failed to make any serious impression on those concerned, not even on the state government. The result is that many communities have been rendered ungovernable; and in some communities various atrocities, including assassinations, have become common. It is important to note, nevertheless, that the quest for autonomous community status is a common theme in Igbo history. (2) It should be noted also that although the term autonomous community gained official currency after Nigerian independence and has become a new addition to the lexicon of Nigerian political science and history, its genesis is traceable nonetheless to the Igbo concept of Obodo, meaning a town or village-group. This desire for the creation of autonomous communities is not--and has never been--only for purely political and emotional reasons. On the contrary, there has always been a strong belief that autonomous communities lead to more effective and better development at the grassroots level. Essentially, then, an autonomous community is seen as a beneficial and innocuous sort of home rule that is crucial for Igbo and, indeed, for the wider Nigerian political, economic and social development.

With the onset of British colonial administration the political independence of Igbo towns was completely undermined. For both administrative convenience and imperial necessity, these towns had to be brought under the control of the British imperial power. Politically, economically, and socially they were progressively integrated into the larger Nigerian state. That the colonial government paid a lot of attention to these towns was, in itself, a measure of their relevance. Effective control of the towns supported the control of the colonial Nigerian state.

The colonial town was the lowest level of colonial administration. Presided over, under normal circumstances, by the Warrant Chief appointed by the colonial government, the colonial Igbo town, through self-help efforts, played a crucial supportive role in the social, economic and political development of the town. (3) The town was also an important nursery for the new type of political education.

The diminution of the authority of Igbo towns and their traditional rulers climaxed in the 1976 Dasuki Report on local government reform. (4) Following the report the Imo State government promulgated a law that practically ensured that the Imo town lost its precolonial status as an independent, self-governing community. The law also transformed overnight the chiefs into Ezes and the towns into autonomous communities. (5)


Much has been written about "Warrant Chiefs" and the nature of colonial administration in Eastern Nigeria. (6) Suffice it to reiterate that the warrant chief system was anchored on the colonial Native Court system, itself the outgrowth of the 19th century Court of Equity. The Warrant Chief owed his authority to a warrant given to him by the colonial administration. This warrant not only made him a member of the Native Court but also recognized him as the de facto and de jure ruler of his community. The method of appointing these chiefs and the performance of their duties as agents of colonialism, have been generally condemned (7). However, a more detailed and less impassioned study of the Warrant Chief System in Igboland shows that many of them, far from being ruffians, riffraffs, rascals, slaves and vagabonds were respected, courageous and dignified leaders of their communities who, confronted with a new age of change which they did not fully comprehend, decided to serve in order to save their people and themselves. Although many of them were corrupt, dictatorial and ruled atrociously, many more provided courageous leadership in the unstable political climate of colonial occupation. It is thus time to review the bad literature surrounding the Warrant Chief System in Eastern Nigeria. This review is important because a good number of the current Ezes and Igwes of Igboland have their positions today essentially because their fathers or their grandfathers were Warrant Chiefs. It is also imperative that the historical record be properly balanced.

The revolution brought about by the creation of warrant chiefs in the administration of Igbo communities is very significant. "The position of the newly created 'warrant chiefs,'" writes Ntieyong Akpan, "was the direct reverse of that of the indigenous chief." (8) The colonial chiefs derived their authority from a colonial power and not from tradition or the general wish of their people. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the communities that had no chieftaincy traditions, they were not accorded the respect they thought that they deserved. Consequently some of them, confident in the support of the colonial government enforced their authority recklessly. Politically, their communities lost an independence that was so proudly guarded. They found themselves part of a vast commonwealth, the meaning and extent of which were beyond their comprehension.

The Warrant Chief was now the traditional and political head of the community but he was not himself independent. Simply put, he was the errand boy of the colonial administration and the people were essentially "guinea pigs" (9) used by the British colonial government to try out its fanciful ideas of local governance in a society like Igboland that did not have centralized authorities as was the case in the Emirate System of Northern Nigeria. For a people who were formerly answerable to a democratic ideal based on local governance, the impact of the transformation was great. For the new chief who was unused to the exercise of the authority he was now called upon to exercise without any precedent or training whatsoever, the situation was, to say the least, confusing. He simply carried out his functions according to his ability. Many of them did not perform adequately. The Town Council (as the old Town Assembly was now to be called), too, was equally confused but powerless to do anything about the new political reality. Thus, the colonized community also had its independence circumscribed. It was now required to operate according to the regulations governing the Native Court system, itself a colonial creation that only paid regard to those community laws it did not find repugnant. In the final analysis, indeed, the Native Court was subordinated to the Supreme Court of Colonial Nigeria. Economically and socially, too, Igbo communities were progressively integrated into the administrative structure of colonial Nigeria and subsequently became mired in political, social and psychological disequilibrium. Thus, Donald Cameron, a colonial governor, derisively...

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