Eze (pronounced [ézè]) is an Igbo word which means King, with further implied meaning of "chieftain" of the tribe or kingdom. Such words as Igwe and Obi plus others are used by Igbo people as titles of respect and homage to the Eze. Igwe is derived from the Igbo word Igwekala or Eluigwekala, "the sky or heaven above the sky is higher or bigger than land", implying that the Eze is a higher servant of the people. Obi is normally the centre building for receiving visitors in an Igbo leader's or man's homestead; and when used as a title of respect for the Eze, Obi implies: "the one who sits in the throne house or heart of the Kingdom."
In Igbo tradition and culture, the Eze is normally an absolute Monarch advised by a council of chiefs or elders whom he appoints based on their good standing within the community. A popular saying in Igbo is "Igbo enwe eze", which translates to "the Igbo have no king." This popular saying does not, however, capture the complexity of Igbo societies as portrayed in many centuries of anthropological, sociological and political research.
The Igbo people had and still have ruling bodies of royal and political leaders where an individual can be recognized by the entire society as primus inter pares, i.e., first among equals. This status is usually hereditary and among the male line since Igbo culture is patrilineal. Women in Igbo cultures were known to develop parallel social hierarchies through which they both competed and collaborated with their counterpart male kingship and governing hierarchies.
Kingship in Igboland
Scholars generally believe that Igbo kingship institutions originated from three sources. The first source is indigenous and ancient priesthood, which traditionally combined clerical and political duties in the village-based republics. This is the case in several places, notably in Ngwa - where Josaiah Ndubuisi Wachuku was Eze and paramount chief during British colonial times, Arochukwu, Nri-Igbo, Awka, and Northern Nsukka, which are home to the Igbo-Eze communities of Enugu-Ezike, Ovoko, and Iheakpu-Awka. The king is variously referred to as Eze or Ezedike, depending on lineage.
The second source is the colonial imposition on Igbo communities by the neighboring Benin Empire. There is, however, an opposite view wherein the Eze of Nri imposed or influenced the constitution of the Benin Oba's status. The differing points of view are particularly focused on the communities of Asaba, Onitsha, and Oguta. According to some scholars who argue against what is known as the Afigbo and Omenka Thesis on Origin, Igbo kings of these places trace the historical roots of their investiture immediately to the Oba of Benin. They tend to be called Obi.
The third source of origin of Igbo kingship is believed to be 19th and 20th century colonial impositions by the British Empire. Under an indirect rule policy, Warrant chiefs (recognised noblemen who served as tax collectors) were created by the colonial administration. Though native to the communities, the Warrant Chiefs were usually selected from among those most cooperative with the foreign rulers. For this and a number of other reasons, the Igbo populations usually resented and often overtly resisted the authority of the warrant chiefs. An example of such resistance is the Igbo Women's War of 1929. After Nigeria gained its constitutional independence from Britain, many of the Warrant Chiefs tried to maintain their power by seeking to transform their identities. Those with residual political influence and new-found wealth bought honorary Eze-sounding titles, and clamored to be retained as 'traditional rulers' by the government of independent Nigeria.
- Nicholas Omenka (August 31, 2001). "Pope's Rhinoceros: reply". Humanities and Social Sciences Online H-Net Humanities and Social Sciences Online. Web link. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
- Echeruo, Michael J.C. (1998), Igbo-English Dictionary
- Uchendu, Victor C. (1965). The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria
- Agbasiere, J. (2000). Women in Igbo Life and Thought
- Ottenberg, Simon (2005). Igbo Life and Thought and Other Essays.
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- Igboland’s Culture on Igbo Village, Igboguide.org