The IGBO

Traditional Society

Traditional Igbo political organization was truly democratic in nature. In tight knit communities, this system guaranteed its citizens equality, as opposed to a feudalist system with a king ruling over subjects. This government system was witnessed by the Portuguese who first arrived and met with the Igbo people in the 15th century. With the exception of a few notable Igbo towns such as Onitsha, which had kings called Obi, and places like the Nri Kingdom and Arochukwu, which had priest kings; Igbo communities and area governments were overwhelmingly ruled solely by a consultative assembly of the common people. Communities were usually governed and administered by a council of elders.

Although title holders were respected because of their accomplishments and capabilities, they were never revered as kings, but often performed special functions given to them by such assemblies. This way of governing was immensely different from most other communities of Western Africa, and only shared by the Ewe of Ghana. Umunna are a form of patrilineage maintained by the Igbo. Law starts with the Umunna which is a male line of descent from a founding ancestor (who the line is sometimes named after) with groups of compounds containing closely related families headed by the eldest male member. The Umunna can be seen as the most important pillar of Igbo society.

Mathematics in traditional Igbo society is evident in the Igbo calendar, banking system and strategic betting game called Okwe. In the indigenous calendar, a week had four days, a month consisted of seven weeks and 13 months made a year. In the last month, an extra day was added. This calendar is still used in some Igbo villages and towns to determine market days. Law matters were traditionally settled via mediators, and their banking system for loans and savings, called Isusu, is also still used. The Igbo new year, starting with the month Önwa Mbụ (Igbo: First Moon) occurs on the third week of February, although the traditional start of the year for many Igbo communities is around springtime in Önwa Agwụ (June). Used as a ceremonial script by secret societies, the Igbo had a traditional ideographic set of symbols called Nsibidi, originating from the neighboring Ejagham people. Igbo people produced bronzes from as early as the 9th century, some of which have been found at the town of Igbo Ukwu, Anambra state.

A system of Indentured servitude existed among the Igbo after and before the arrival and knowledge of Europeans. Indentured service in Igbo areas was described by Olaudah Equiano in his narrative. He describes the conditions of the slaves in his community of Essaka, and points out the difference between the treatment of slaves under the Igbo in Essaka, and those in the custody of Europeans in West Indies:
…but how different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us, they do no more work than other members of the community,… even their master;… (except that they were not permitted to eat with those… free-born;) and there was scarce any other difference between them,… Some of these slaves have… slaves under them as their own property… for their own use.

The Niger coast acted as a contact point between African and European traders from the years 1434–1807. This contact between the Africans and Europeans began with the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. Even prior to European contact, Igbo trade routes stretched as far as Mecca, Medina and Jeddah.