History of Ngor Okpala Local Govt.
Ngor-Okpala Congress In America
A Brief History of Ngor-Okpala By Rev. Theophilus Okere
All history is a remembering, but it is more than merely that. For it is also history that shapes the collective memory of a people and it is this identity—who they are, a sense of bearing—where they are coming from and ultimately a sense of their future—where they are heading to. That is why the Igbo proverb derides the man who does not remember where rain overtook him or the one who was absent at a burial presuming to exhume the body or the first son who claimed he had a first son before his father.
A brief sketch of the history of Ngor-Okpala should be the foundation of all reflection on its future. It is in this context that I offer this sketch of the history of Ngor-Okpala.
Like Mbaise, Ngor-Okpala is a political unit evolving from the effort made at the turn of the century but especially in the early fifties by the colonial power and later regional and federal government to implement a policy of local government. Such local government units were based as much as possible on the principle of cultural affinity and contiguity and the exercise had been preceded by extensive anthropological research into the indigenous culture.
The southern boundary of Ngor-Okpala has been naturally and permanently determined by the course of the Imo River and its tributaries. The western boundary is somewhat arbitrary. But it had to be drawn to respect the cultural homogeneity of the sprawling Etche clan which eventually went with Ikwerre into the Rivers State. The same applies to the Eastern flank, to respect the very distinctive and massive cultural block which was Mbaise, though it took some time to extricate Onyeaghalanwanneya (Umuohiagu, Logara, and Obiangwu) from integration into Mbaise. The Northern boundary was the most difficult to draw, and when it was drawn, it was clearly the most arbitrary, the least permanent and the most easily liable to shift, for the simple reason the Ngor-Okpala and Oratta are really from one cultural whole.
This is the reason why the two have been at times merged, with Owerri supplying the name and Umuneke serving as the capital or headquarters, and at other times de-merged with the integrating of some town into one or the other, as in the recent case of Obube, Ulakwo, Agbala, and Obibi-Ezena being adjusted out ORATTA. This has been done no doubt, partly in order to balance out the new reality of the population explosion that is Owerri urban, but certainly in acknowledgement of the cultural homogeneity of the entire axis from Irette and Owerri to Okpala. This axis is the traditional home of Mbari art, the home, the dance and music genres – Ogbom nwangelenge, Nwokorobo, Alija, Nkwa Igbugbo, Ubo, Eshe and Ikom; the home of the vast majority of Njokus, Mgbekes and Mgbakwos, the Nkwochas and Okeres of this world.
It is the great food basket that has for years, long before the fertilizer revolution, grown the surpluses that fed Mbaise’s teeming populations. It is the basin of the big weekly-Eight Day-markets: Ekeukwu Nnorie, Afor Umuohiagu, Eke Isu, Nkwoala Umuebi, Eke Uhie and Orie Obibi.
Yet within the relative homogeneity of the original culture, there is a lot of variety and difference, encouraged by the multitude of independent towns and their relatively low population density, sparsely scattered over a very vast land area. Nothing shows this more easily to the curious observer than the great variety of dialects of the Owerri Igbo spoken within our borders. Distinct from Ngwa, distinct from Mbaise and distinct from Etche Igbo, the Ngor Okpala dialects, while being recognizable as belonging to one family, are nevertheless often unlike each other.
A brief historical overview illustrated the checkered, zigzag movement in the efforts of the colonial and later governments to relate these people to each other politically. After the Native Court Proclamation of 1901, Owerri District was constituted in 1902 with the appointment of Warrant Chiefs and the Establishment of Native courts which became the first organ of justice and administration in Colonial rule. The six courts of Owerri division were: Owerri, Ngor, (which then included Obube, that is Ngwoma, Egbelu, and Ulakwo), Okpala, Oguta, Umuapu, and Nguru (Mbaise).
Following the 1929 Women’s Riots, new reforms based on extended families and aiming at centralization initiated a proliferation of Courts and Owerri Division had 51 out of 132 courts in the Owerri Province by 1936. Each Court was a Native Authority (N.A.). In the 1940’s there were, in reaction, further reforms, this time creating Federal Councils by the merging of many Courts into fewer Clan Councils, and Owerri Division consisted of Mbaise, Mbieri/Ikeduru, Oguta, Oratta, Ohaba, and Ngor-Okpala itself consisted then of Etche, Okpala-Eziama, Okwe, Umuaro Imerienwe and Obike Court areas or towns groups while Oratta Clan then included Obube, Obibi, and Agbala.
Then retreating from the Colonial policy of indirect rule and embracing direct elections into people empowered local governments, the Eastern Region local government ordinance of 1950 introduced a three tier system of County, District, and local councils. In 1977, the new Imo State created 21 local governments merging Oratta and Ngor-Okpala under the name of Owerri with headquarters at Umuneke. The Second Republic (Shargari) again de-merged the Siamese Twins. And so, it stands for now.
At the beginning, I mentioned Mbaise as a local council area designated about the same time as Ngor-Okpala. But there the similarity ends. Mbaise has since gone from strength to strength and, today, comprises three vigorous local governments, Aboh, Ahiazu, Ezinihitte, each one boasting an elaborate infrastructure in tarred roads, pipe-borne water, electricity, hospitals and secondary and technical schools, with the burgeoning of cottage industries, banks and mini townships. Significantly, all the untarred roads in Mbaise are frequently graded during the year and remain motorable, all-season roads. Above all, Mbaise has woven such a close-knit sense of identity and affinity that they now have emerged as a political block no government may toy with except at its own peril.
Not so, unfortunately with Ngor-Okpala. Here, growth and progress in nearly all these areas has been stunted. I will spare you the depressing litany of underdevelopment, from the roads that are no more than chains of intermittent pools for half the year, through the near-total absence of pipe borne water and electricity, to the insecurity that has given the Owerri/Aba stretch of federal road the unenviable record of being, perhaps, the most armed-robber-infested road in Eastern Nigeria. If we were to search seriously for the reasons for this perennial backwardness, we will no doubt have to concede that the area has consistently suffered from administrative neglect. We will also have to concede some other major fault-line. Unlike Mbaise for instance, Ngor-Okpala people have lacked sustained cohesion, the type that would oblige them to feel and see themselves always as one people. The sparse population was isolated in pockets scattered over a vast, sprawling territory, linked by a poor road network and surrounded on all sides by significant centrifugal forces attracting people away from their center. Eziama interacted and intermarried rather with Ngwa, the Westerners with Etche, the Easterners with Mbaise.
Also, caught within the triangle described by the modern towns of Owerri, Aba and Port-Harcourt, Ngor-Okpala has continued to lose its youth and energy and potentials to these towns. Moreover, Church-based divisions, denominations, parishes, and schools early helped to split Ngor-Okpala cohesion. While the majority of the Catholics in the South congregate around Mbutu Okohia, the “Northerners” had their own Mecca at Emekuku, and the Anglicans met at Egbu. Thus, the galvanizing, unifying influence of shared Church and School did not quite play in favor of Ngor/Okpala unity and cohesion. Despite the frequent shifts in its composition, the many alliances, allegiances, and centrifugal forces surrounding it, Ngor-Okpala never completely disintegrated but in fact has shown a remarkable resilience. Some of this resilience if of course due to the already mentioned cultural homogeneity of the group, the same farmers farming the same crop or frequenting the same market. But there is also a sense of shared recent history—politically fighting off marginalization by hegemony of its stronger neighbors—rallying around its own sons as they fight for political power in the central or regional governments—Biafran war.
Finally, the experience of being left out in the recent political schema and of remaining relatively underdeveloped amidst thriving neighbors has helped to reinforce a consciousness of identity and togetherness even if it is borne out of a sense of victimhood. This is Ngor-Okpala, a people as ancient as its fertile forests and religious shrines and markets but eagerly awaiting its change into modernity.