Although most studies on Ndigbo claim that before the British colonial enterprise, Igbo societies existed as fragmented Village Republics. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, Ndigbo had developed a strong sense of national identity and there is also some evidence of ancient Igbo Empires. Two of such Empires identified by B. O. N. Eluwa, one-time Secretary General of Igbo Federal Union, were the Ado-Na-Idu and Nri Empires.
Indeed, before the 20th century there were numerous pan-Igbo unions and organizations existing around the world.
There was the Igbo Union in Bathurst, Gambia in 1842, founded by a prominent Igbo trader and ex-slave named Thomas Refell. Another was the Igbo Union founded by the Igbo Community in Freetown, Sierra Leone by 1860. The renowned Igbo anti-colonialist leader, Africanus Horton, a surgeon, scientist and soldier, was an active member of the Igbo Community in Freetown.”
Olaudah Equiano, the famous 18th century ex-Igbo slave, carried with him his Igbo national consciousness into Europe. This was obvious in his 1789 Narrative, where he described his Igbo nation as
“A land of Happy Clean people, without drunkards, without unemployment, without beggars and without prostitution”.
There is no doubt that Equiano made these remarks as a comparism of life in his native Igboland with the social predicament of the early European industrial society.
2. Rise of Pan-Igbo Organization in the 20th Century.
Back home, “the 1930s saw the rise of Igbo unions as organizations of indigenes of various Igbo towns, clans and divisions in the cities of Lagos and Port Harcourt”. One of the most popular appellations to those unions was “improvement unions”, evidence of the philosophy that motivated their formation. The original impetus for the formation of the various town, clan and divisional unions was the collective welfare of their members as well as for the social, cultural, economic and educational improvement and advancement of both their respective communities and the communities in which they were resident.
One of the greatest achievements of these pan-Igbo organizations was the promotion of Igbo identity, which initially flowed from the fact of a common language, common culture and shared values, all of which eventually led to search for common ancestral origins of the Ndigbo as well as discovering the link between Ndigbo and other ethnic groups in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular.
Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was one of the early searchers in this direction. According to Rt. The Hon. Chief Dennis Osadebay, the first Secretary-General of the Igbo Federal Union in 1943, In those days we all longed for a greater knowledge of our Igbo historical past and identity beyond our common heritage of the Igbo language (Eluwa, 2008, p. xiv).
3. Igbo Federal Union
In the thirties, Igbo Unions were formed in the urban townships of Lagos and Port Harcourt. The Lagos Igbo Union was formed in 1934 to unite all town, clan and district unions in Lagos into one national body.
According to c. De Aguomba, The history of the pan-Igbo organization goes back to the early 193o’s when some Igbo in Lagos formed the Lagos Igbo Union in order to organize a reception for Dr Akanu Ibiam, the second Igbo medical doctor who had returned from Britain where he had qualified. The Union brought together several towns, clans and divisional organizations and became a voice for Igbo and its objectives were mainly for the welfare of the Igbo in Lagos.
The first actual Pan-Igbo organization uniting these various town, clan and divisional or district unions in various cities in Nigeria was Igbo Federal Union, whose formation was spearheaded by the Igbo Union, Lagos, in 1943.
The weakness of the Igbo Federal Union was due to the fact that it was merely an association of town, clan and divisional unions in cities. Its influence was therefore limited; as it was unable to mobilize people in towns, clans or divisions in Igboland.
4. Igbo State Union
In December 1948, a pan-Igbo Conference was held at Port Harcourt attended by Igbo Unions in the various cities in Nigeria, including representations of home-based unions in Igboland. The aim was “to organize the Ibo linguistic group into a political unit in accordance with the NCNC Freedom Charter” The Conference led to the formation of a new association, the Ibo State Union. Its membership was open to the clans and towns of Ibo-land as well as those in various non-Igbo cities throughout Nigeria. This development was also influenced by the dynamics of the anti-colonial struggle and the early signals of the nature of political struggle in a multi-ethnic society.
According to c. De Aguomba, The founders of the new union had anticipated that Nigeria would be re-arranged into states based on cultural and linguistic affinity, and Igbo State would be a member of the Commonwealth of Nigeria… This certainly was the idea Nnamdi Azikiwe advocated in his book, Political Blueprint for Nigeria published in 1943.
The idea of forming ethnic-based socio-cultural and political organizations was already gaining grounds in Nigeria, the first such ethnic-based organization was the Ibibio State Union which was formed in the early thirties. Such developments stemmed from the increasing realization that the most decisive forces in the power struggle in a multi-ethnic society are the ethnic groups and not individuals. And as such there must be some organizational instrument to defend and promote the interest of each ethnic group. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe understood this fact when he inspired the formation of the new Igbo State Union and became its pioneer President. However, Zik’s weakness as an organizer led to his failure to sustain the needed political equilibrium between the National Council of Nigerian and the Cameroons (NCNC) of which he was President and the Igbo state Union. According Richard L. Sklar, > The founders of the Ibo State union were no less politically motivated than were the organizers Of the Egbe Omo ODUDUWA; at least nine of the thirteen inaugural members of the unions provisional committee rose to high office in the NCNC, and seven of them have attained ministerial rank in the Eastern, Central and Federal Governments. (Sklar 1963, p. 70)