|Regions with significant populations|
|Nigeria <15,000,000 |
|Christianity (Predominantly), Traditional Ijaw Religions|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Igbo, Ibibio, Isoko, Itsekiri, Efik, Urhobo|
Ijaw (also known by the subgroups "Ijo" or "Izon") are a collection of peoples indigenous mostly to the forest regions of the Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers States within the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Some are resident in Akwa-Ibom, Edo, and Ondo states also in Nigeria. Many are found as migrant fishermen in camps as far west as Sierra Leone and as far east as Gabon along the Western Africa coastline.
The Ijo people number about an estimated 15 million. They have long lived in locations near many sea trade routes, and they were well connected to other areas by trade as early as the 15th century. The current President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, is an Ijaw.
The Ijaw speak nine closely related Niger–Congo languages, all of which belong to the Ijoid branch of the Niger–Congo tree. The primary division between the Ijo languages is that between Eastern Ijo and Western Ijo, the most important of the former group of languages being Izon, which is spoken by about four million people.
There are two prominent groupings of the Izon language. The first, termed either Western or Central Izon (Ijaw) consists of Western Ijaw speakers: Ekeremor, Sagbama (Mein), Bassan, Apoi, Arogbo, Boma (Bumo), Kabo (Kabuowei), Ogboin, Tarakiri, and Kolokuma-Opokuma (Yenagoa). Nembe, Brass and Akassa (Akaha) dialects represent Southeast Ijo (Izon).. Buseni and Okordia dialects are considered Inland Ijo.
The other major Ijaw linguistic group is Kalabari. Kalabari is considered an Eastern Ijaw language but the term "Eastern Ijaw" is not the normal nomenclature. Kalabari is the name of one of the Ijaw clans that reside on the eastern side of the Niger-Delta (Abonnema, Buguma, Bakana, Degema etc.) who form a major group in Rivers State, hence their involvement in the fight for greater oil control. Other "Eastern" Ijaw clans are the Okrika, Ibani (the natives of Bonny, Finima and Opobo) and Nkoroo. They are neighbours to the Kalabari people in present day Rivers State, Nigeria.
Other related Ijaw subgroups which have distinct languages but very close kinship, cultural and territorial ties with the rest of the Ijaw are the Epie-Atissa, Engenni (also known as Ẹgẹnẹ), and Degema (also called Udekama or Udekaama). These groups speak Delta Edoid languages. The Ogbia clan, Andoni people, as well as residents of Bukuma and Abuloma (Obulom) speak Cross River languages.
It was discovered in the 1980s that a nearly extinct Berbice Creole Dutch, spoken in Guyana, is partly based on Ijo lexicon and grammar. Its nearest relative seems to be Eastern Ijo, most likely Kalabari (Kouwenberg 1994).
Their settlement in the delta was from the earliest of times. Unfortunately not much is known about this period, only that traditionally it is said that these early ancestors “dropped from the sky” (i.e. to say the Orus were of divine origin), and were devotees of a spiritual culture that made much use of the waters (hence the mermaid and water people legends “Beni-Otu”) They were later to be joined by other ancestors “Kumoni-Orus” from about 400 CE, and 650 CE (AD), who, after settling first in the Nupe and Borgu regions, then the Ile-Ife region, moved to the Benin region via Nupe, and Ife. In the Benin region they eventually settled and launched expeditions into the Niger Delta, where they came across remote settlements of the Orus, whom they termed “ancient people”. But because they were also ultimately Oru, from the beginning they established communities as one people. The Ijos were known by the two names of Kumoni or Oru up till the time of the 19th century. European visitors noted the name Oru as a distinct term for Ijaw. Likewise the compilers of the Izon/English dictionary noted that “to speak Kumoni is to speak pure Izon language”. The term Ijo (Ijaw) or Izon evolved as the name of the whole ethnic nationality through time, even though as a personal name it derived from one ancestor who was known as Ujo, whom as we have previously mentioned, represents the time when the Ijos evolved as a distinct separate people from their neighbours.
The Ijaw ethnic group consists of 50 loosely affiliated tribes. These clans are based along kinship lines and/or shared cultural and religious traditions.
The Ijaw were one of the first of Nigeria's peoples to have contact with Westerners, and were active as go-betweens in the slave trade between visiting Europeans and the peoples of the interior, particularly in the era before the discovery of quinine, when West Africa was still known as the White Man's Graveyard because of the endemic presence of malaria. Some of the kin-based trading lineages that arose among the Ijaw developed into substantial corporations which were known as "Houses"; each house had an elected leader as well as a fleet of war canoes for use in protecting trade and fighting rivals. The other main occupation common among the Ijaw has traditionally been fishing and farming.
Being a maritime people, many Ijaws were employed in the merchant shipping sector in the early and mid-20th century (pre-Nigerian independence). With the advent of oil and gas exploration in their territory, some are employed in that sector. Other main occupation are in the civil service of the Nigerian States of Bayelsa and Rivers where they are predominant.
Extensive state-government sponsored overseas scholarship programs in the 1970s and 1980s have also led to a significant presence of Ijaw professionals in Europe and North America (so-called Ijaw Diaspora). Another contributing factor to this human capital flight is the abject poverty in their homeland of the Niger Delta resulting from decades of neglect by the Nigerian government and oil-companies in spite of continuous petroleum prospecting in this region since the 1950s.
The Ijaw people live by fishing supplemented by farming paddy-rice, plantains, yams, cocoyams, bananas and other vegetables as well as tropical fruits such as guava, mangoes and pineapples; and trading. Smoke-dried fish, timber, palm oil and palm kernels are processed for export. While some clans (those to the east- Akassa, Nembe, Kalabari, Okrika and Bonny) had powerful chiefs and a stratified society, other clans are believed not to have had any centralized confederacies until the arrival of the British. However, owing to influence of the neighbouring Kingdom of Benin individual communities even in the western Niger Delta also had chiefs and governments at the village level.
Marriages are completed by the payment of a bridal dowry, which increases in size if the bride is from another village (so as to make up for that village's loss of her children). Funeral ceremonies, particularly for those who have accumulated wealth and respect, are often very dramatic. Traditional religious practices center around "Water spirits" in the Niger river, and around tribute to ancestors.
Religion and cultural practices
Although the Ijaw are now primarily Christians (95% profess to be), with Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism being the varieties of Christianity most prevalent among them. The Ijaw also have elaborate traditional religious practices of their own. Veneration of ancestors plays a central role in Ijaw traditional religion, while water spirits, known as Owuamapu figure prominently in the Ijaw pantheon. In addition, the Ijaw practice a form of divination called Igbadai, in which recently deceased individuals are interrogated on the causes of their death.
Ijaw religious beliefs hold that water spirits are like humans in having personal strengths and shortcomings, and that humans dwell among the water spirits before being born. The role of prayer in the traditional Ijaw system of belief is to maintain the living in the good graces of the water spirits among whom they dwelt before being born into this world, and each year the Ijaw hold celebrations in honor the spirits lasting for several days. Central to the festivities is the role of masquerades, in which men wearing elaborate outfits and carved masks dance to the beat of drums and manifest the influence of the water spirits through the quality and intensity of their dancing. Particularly spectacular masqueraders are taken to actually be in the possession of the particular spirits on whose behalf they are dancing.
The Ijaw are also known to practice ritual acculturation (enculturation), whereby an individual from a different, unrelated group undergoes rites to become Ijaw. An example of this is Jaja of Opobo, the Igbo slave who rose to become a powerful Ibani (Bonny) chief in the 19th century.
Like many ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Ijaws have many local foods that are not widespread in Nigeria. Many of these foods involve fish and other seafoods such as clams, oysters and periwinkles; yams and plantains. Some of these foods are:
- Polofiyai — A very rich soup made with yams and palm oil
- Kekefiyai— A pottage made with chopped unripened (green) plantains, fish, other seafood or game meat ("bushmeat") and palm oil
- Fried or roasted fish and plantain — Fish fried in palm oil and served with fried plantains
- Gbe — The grub of the raffia-palm tree beetle that is eaten raw, dried, fried in groundnut oil or pickled in palm oil
- Kalabari "sea-harvest" fulo— A rich mixed seafood soup or stew that is eaten with foofoo, rice or yams
Formerly organized into several loose clusters of villages (confederacies) which cooperated to defend themselves against outsiders, the Ijaw increasingly view themselves as belonging to a single coherent nation, bound together by ties of language and culture. This tendency has been encouraged in large part by what are considered to be environmental degradations that have accompanied the exploitation of oil in the Niger delta region which the Ijaw call home, as well as by a revenue sharing formula with the Nigerian Federal government that is viewed by the Ijaw as manifestly unfair. The resulting sense of grievance has led to several high-profile clashes with the Nigerian Federal authorities, including kidnappings and in the course of which many lives have been lost.
One manifestation of ethnic violence on the part of the Ijaw has been an increase in the number and severity of clashes between Ijaw militants and those of Itsekiri origin, particularly in the town of Warri.
The December 1998 All Ijaw Youths Conference crystallized the struggle with the formation of the Ijaw Youth Movement (IYM) and the issuing of the Kaiama Declaration. In it, long-held Ijaw concerns about the loss of control of their homeland and their own lives to the oil companies were joined with a commitment to direct action. In the declaration, and in a letter to the companies, the Ijaws called for oil companies to suspend operations and withdraw from Ijaw territory. The IYM pledged “to struggle peacefully for freedom, self-determination and ecological justice,” and prepared a campaign of celebration, prayer, and direct action 'Operation Climate Change' beginning December 28.
In December 1998, two warships and 10-15,000 Nigerian troops occupied Bayelsa and Delta states as the Ijaw Youth Movement (IYM) mobilized for Operation Climate Change. Soldiers entering the Bayelsa state capital of Yenagoa announced they had come to attack the youths trying to stop the oil companies. On the morning of December 30, two thousand young people processed through Yenagoa, dressed in black, singing and dancing. Soldiers opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and tear gas, killing at least three protesters and arresting twenty-five more. After a march demanding the release of those detained was turned back by soldiers, three more protesters were shot dead including Nwashuku Okeri, Ghadafi Ezeifile and Onwinkron Ibe. The head of Yenagoa rebels- Chief Onwinkron Ibe- was burned alive in his mansion on December 28, 1998. Amongst his family members to flee the premises before complete ruins was his only son, Desmond Ibe. The military declared a state of emergency throughout Bayelsa state, imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and banned meetings. At military roadblocks, local residents were severely beaten or detained. At night, soldiers invaded private homes, terrorizing residents with beatings and women and girls with rape.
On January 4, 1999 about one hundred soldiers from the military base at Chevron’s Escravos facility attacked Opia and Ikiyan, two Ijaw communities in Delta State. Bright Pablogba, the traditional leader of Ikiyan, who came to the river to negotiate with the soldiers, was shot along with a seven-year-old girl and possibly dozens of others. Of the approximately 1,000 people living in the two villages, four people were found dead and sixty-two were still missing months after the attack. The same soldiers set the villages ablaze, destroyed canoes and fishing equipment, killed livestock, and destroyed churches and religious shrines.
Nonetheless, Operation Climate Change continued, and disrupted Nigerian oil supplies through much of 1999 by turning off valves through Ijaw territory. In the context of high conflict between the Ijaw and the Nigerian Federal Government (and its police and army), the military carried out the Odi massacre, killing scores if not hundreds of Ijaws.
Recent actions by Ijaws against the oil industry have included both renewed efforts at nonviolent action and militarized attacks on oil installations but with no human casualties to foreign oil workers despite hostage-takings. These attacks are usually in response to non-fulfilment by oil companies of memoranda of understanding with their host communities.
- Ijw Youth Council
- Ijaw National Congress
- Ijaw Elders Forum
- Ijaw Youth Congress
- Congress of Niger Delta Youths
- National Union of Izon-Ebe Students
- Sagbama Youth Movement
- Human Rights Watch, “Delta Crackdown,” May 1999
- Ijaw Youth Movement, letter to “All Managing Directors and Chief Executives of transnational oil companies operating in Ijawland,” December 18, 1998
- Project Underground, "Visit the World of Chevron: Niger Delta", 1999
- Kari, Ethelbert Emmanuel. 2004. A reference grammar of Degema. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
- The Ijaw Language Dictionary
- The Ijaw Language Dictionary Online
- Ethnologue: Ijaw Linguistic Tree
- Ijo People
- American Museum of Natural History: The Art of the Kalabari Masquerade
- The Warri Crisis: Fueling Violence - Human Rights Watch Report, November 2003
- The Adaka Boro Centre
- "Blood Oil" by Sebastian Junger in Vanity Fair, February 2007 (accessed 28/1/2007), deals partly with the Ijaw