Ibo Social Structure


Ibo Social Structure

(Same as the Government)

Details of traditional Igbo government and social structure varied from place to place throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but its characteristic nature remained the same. The basic unit of Igbo life was the village group, and the most universal institution was the role of the family head. This was usually the oldest man of the oldest surviving generation. His role primarily involved settling family disputes, and because he controlled the channel of communication with the all-important ancestors, he commanded great respect and reverence. In some areas the government of chiefs and elders was composed of a governing age grade, in others the council of elders was made up of the oldest members of particular families.

Titles played a major part in this society. There was a hierarchy of ascending titles that were to be taken in order, accompanied by an ascending scale of payments. The system acted as a simple form of social security, in that those who acquired titles paid a particular fee, and then were entitled to share in the payments of those who later acquired titles. A series of intense rituals were to be undertaken before acquiring a title, which was considered a symbol of character as well as of success. A titled man’s life was dominated by numerous religious restrictions, and it was expected that these would be strictly adhered to. A few Igbo states, such as Aboh and Onitsha, which had a tradition of origin from elsewhere, were ruled by kings, which were regarded as sacred and lived in ritual seclusion. However, the decisions taken by these kings were by no means final, they were often challenged and overruled by other titled men with whom they were required to consult. In general, however, kingship was an unfamiliar concept to the majority of Igbos.

A political institution that was widespread but not universal was that of the age-grade. Each age-grade was responsible for specific areas of community service, and this often promoted rivalry between the groups. This was actually a valuable instrument of social control, in that in order to preserve the good name of their age-group, its members became involved in disciplining and restraining those who tended to cause trouble within the community. Secret societies were also an instrument of social control. Their members would appear at night, masked, in the guise of supernatural beings. Any offenders in the community would be denounced. The anonymity of the members and their supernatural aura meant that this whole performance was taken with great seriousness.

Usually, the kinds of decisions that had to be made in traditional Igbo societies were either judicial or connected with relations with other groups. In a judicial case, it was the responsibility of the lineage head to try to settle the matter before bringing it to the elders, who would hear the case in public. A decision that affected the whole town, such as the declaration of war, would generally be put to all the free adult males of the town. The nature of these institutions was extremely flexible - for example, a man who had proven his skills at war in the past might be selected to lead the people through this time of crisis, yet would be expected to relinquish this leadership once the time of crisis was past. If the facts of a case were unclear, then in some instances the Igbo would turn to an oracle or to divination. Igboland possessed a regional network of oracles, such as the Agbala of Awku, or the Ibibi Ukpabe at Arochukwu. These oracles claimed to ascertain the truth of every matter, and were dependent on visitors from every part of Igboland. They rested on deliberate deception and were extremely expensive, far beyond the reach of the poor. However, their good reputation did depend on the fairness of their judgements, which kept their tendency for exploitation in check.

Perhaps it was the small scale of their political institutions that made Igboland such a good example of what a democracy should be. Some of the first European visitors to this region were struck by the extent to which democracy was truly practised. A combination of popular participation and real respect for those with ability and experience, led to the smooth running of political institutions.

On a smaller scale, Igbo families generally lived in compounds, each a small segment of the village group. The head of the compound was usually the oldest male and within each compound were clusters of huts belonging to different domestic groups. The head of each domestic group is responsible for its members. In Igbo society, seniority by age regulated social placement. Married life was the normal condition for adults, and polygamy for the men was the ideal - in fact it acted as an important indication of status. Wives were ranked according to the order in which they married the common husband. Another important feature of Igbo kinship apart from the precedence given to the male, is the idea of seniority by birth. The first male and female children of the domestic group, irrespective of the ranking of their mothers, were given special status, and occupied very important and responsible social positions in the family.

One of the most important distinctions the Igbo make in their status system is that between Diala and non-Diala. The Diala is a freeborn, a full citizen, whose status at birth is symbolized by the burial of his umbilical cord, preferably at the foot of an oil palm tree. A Diala is free to attempt to gain a title, the only barrier to social climbing being the membership fees that these institutions demand. In contrast, the Ohu was a slave who had very few rights. However, these slaves were more often as not absorbed into the lineage of the master they served, becoming their companions and often marrying their daughters. An Osu was a cult-slave; they were a people hated and despised , and to refer to a Diala or an Ohu as an Osu was the gravest of insults. The Osu system of slavery originated from the Owerri-Okigwi region. The Diala belief is that the Osu are descended from a people who, at the recommendation of a diviner, were dedicated to a deity, in order that they may become his servitor. A particular village, lineage or individual that had been experiencing illness or misfortune would “dedicate” this slave to the deity, in the belief that the slave would then carry out the sins of the dedicator. The Osu were feared and hated because they reminded the Diala of their guilt. Unlike slaves, they could not be absorbed into their master’s lineage; on the other hand, they were protected by their deity from being sold or killed. The cult-slave status of the Osu was legally abolished by the Eastern Nigerian Government in 1956.


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