Mbaise is an amalgam of indigenous, autochthonous clans, connected by intermarriage, and situated in approximate area the heartland of Igboland. It occupies an area of 404 square kilometers. The quiddity of Mbaise is that this homogenous group of more than 1000 persons per square kilometer is the most densely populated area in West Africa. The population of Mbaise as at 2006 was estimated to be 611,204 people (Agulanna, 2008).
Until the advent of European adventurers into Nigeria, the main source of income in Mbaise was subsistent agriculture. In Igboland, no centralized political system existed. The system of government depended largely on kinship relations and shared custom. The village group was the highest level of socio-political organization with the “Amala” exercising all power (Njoku 2003). The weekly gathering of the male family members around the fresh palm wine keg (“awuru-awu” or “manya-orie”) constituted the forum for discussing matters. Recently, the “Aladinma” of the autonomous community exercise judicial, legislative, administrative and executive powers and functions. Typically, life at the pre-colonial time is better understood by reading “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe.
The Aro Expeditionary Force (British) moved through Owerri and Mbaise in 1902. When the British Colonial Administration was introduced in the Southern Protectorate of Nigeria, the government established a native court at Nkwogwu Nguru in 1905 and built a residence for the Whiteman there. Dr. Rogers Stewart who was trespassing Mbaise got killed and in 1906, the “Ahiara Punitive Expedition” led by Captains Brian Douglas and Harold Hastings started the reprisal punitive massacre of people in the area. In 1927, the Colonial Government introduced taxation using warrant chiefs and court messengers to collect the taxes. These colonial agents became corrupt and used taxes as tools of oppression and suppression. When the taxes were increased in 1929, it triggered the Women Uprising which resulted in the destruction of the native court at Nkwogwu and the sacking of the Whiteman’s residence. Subsequently, other courts were established at Itu for Ezinihitte; Afor Enyiogugu for Agbaja; Obohia for Ekwerazu; Orie-Ahiara for Ahiara; and Uvuru for Oke-Uvuru.
On June 12 1941, Mbaise became a federated unit of five clans, namely, Agbaja (Nguru, Okwuato, Enyiogugu, Obiangwu, and Umuohiagu), Ekwerazu, Ahiara, Ezinihitte, and Oke-Uvuru. A common treasury was opened in Enyiogugu in 1942 and it was later transferred to Aboh in 1948. Obiangwu and Umuohiagu which were constituent parts of Agbaja pulled out in 1957 and joined Ngor Okpala. Unfortunately Mbaise was currently reduced to three local governments, namely Ahiazu (result of a merger of Ahiara and Ekwerazu), Aboh-Mbaise (carving out a part of Ezinihitte West and added to Agbaja), and Ezinihitte.
Between 1955 and 1958, Mbaise County Council under the Chairmanship of Honorable N. D. Ukah initiated two landmark development projects namely Mbaise Secondary School and Mbaise Joint Hospital (now General Hospital) both in Aboh. In 1954, Dr. Aaron Ogbonna who studied abroad became the first qualified medical doctor, returned home, and established the first private hospital in Mbaise in 1956. Prior to this time, any sick person who needed western medical attention either went to Holy Rosary Hospital, Emekuku Owerri or Methodist Hospital, Amachara in Umuahia.
Mbaise people have always been very active in Nigerian politics. The sons and daughters have rendered services as Federal Ministers, State Commissioners, a Governor, Governorship candidates, a Federal Vice-Presidential candidate, and even a Presidential candidate. In 1946, long before Independence of Nigeria, Mr. Jamike Iwunna, who was credited for suggesting the name “Mbaise”, led an entourage of the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe to Mbaise before the 1947 London Constitutional Conference. Mbaise has produced four Federal Government Ministers in the persons of Dr. Sylvester Ugoh (PhD Harvard Economic), Chief I.D Nwoga (Oxford), Professor Fabian. N. C. Osuji (PhD Ibadan), and Mrs. Chinwe Obaji. Several sons and daughters have served as honorable commissioners in Imo State governments. Dr. Sylvester Ugoh was selected as Vice-Presidential Candidate while Prof F. N. C. Osuji and Dr. Alex Obi vied as the governorship candidates of Imo State, and currently Dr. (Mrs.) Ada Okwuonu is the Deputy Governor. Chief Chinedu Ezebuiro vied for the Presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria under the defunct Social Democratic Party. Air Commodore Luke Ochulor (Rtd.) was the first Military Governor of Delta State. Chris Anyanwu is the first female senator in Imo State. Late Gaius Anoka, who initiated the annual Pan-Igbo Ahiajoku Lecture series, was the Nigerian High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.
Mbaise people place a high premium on education. The earliest missionary and educational activities commenced in Mbaise about 1915. Today, there are several Catholic Priests and Clergymen of the Anglican Communion serving worldwide.
In 1934, an Irish nun established a convent in Ogbor Nguru that served Orlu, Ikeduru, Okigwe and Obowo. Mbaise daughters received early education at the Regina Caeli College, Ogbor Nguru and attracted suitors from all over the former Eastern Region of Nigeria and beyond. Despite the fact that western education arrived late relative to other parts of the country, Mbaise can boast of countless professors, PhDs, and different specialty graduates. These professionals are contributing to human development and progress all over the world. Some have served exceptionally well as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Governing council of the University of Nigeria Nsukka, as Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, the Madonna University, Okija, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the (Old) Imo State University, as Librarian FUTO, and as Registrar of the University of Nigeria Nsukka.
Mbaise indigenes have contributed in numerous areas of economic, educational, and social development of their country. Dr. Sylvester Ugoh was the first and only Governor of the Central Bank of the defunct Bank of Biafra. Dr. (Mrs.) Agatha Ndugbu (PhD, OON) a lawyer, statistician, and economist served as Imo State Head of Service. Famous legal luminaries Sir Mike Ahamba, Sir Bon Nwakamma, and Lucius Nwosu are among the first Senior Advocates of Nigeria in Imo State. Several others are serving as High Court Judges in Nigeria. The first lawyer from Mbaise Chief B. S. Nzenwa was called to the bar in 1959. From the military to the police forces, you will find at the top echelon, men and women from Mbaise in command positions.
During the 1967-1970 Nigeria – Biafra civil war, Mbaise played very strategic roles. A unit of the “Research and Production” (RAP) that improvised and manufactured various scarce commodities during the blockade was positioned in Mbaise. The Head of State of the breakaway Biafra, General Odumegwu Ojukwu launched the Ahiara Declaration, a blueprint for the political and economic development of the beleaguered Biafra at Ahiara. When Mbaise, where most Igbo people had taken refuge, was overrun by the Federal Armed Forces, the civil war came to an abrupt end.
Some cultural and traditional ceremonies have survived Western influence. The Ahianjoku festival dedicated to the yam deity lasted eight days. The New Yam Festival (Iriji Mbaise) introduced in 1946 is the Christianized modification of the Ahianjoku and it is fixed on 15th August every year. “Oji Ezinihitte” which celebrates the unity of the people of Ezinihitte clan rotates from the oldest community (Oboama na Umunama) to the youngest (Onicha). It is fixed on the first of January every year. Anecdotal evidence shows that the clan revers Oriukwu in Umunama, the market square where they believe the world was created. “Itu Aka” Nguru is also an annual event before the farming season which according to late Ambassador Gaius Anoka takes place to enable the people to better weather the new environment, new times and new challenges.
One unique feature of Mbaise is the high fecundity among their women called “eghu ukwu”. To qualify to be a member of this club, a woman must have a minimum of ten children. There is no maximum and some women were known to have given birth to as many as 15 children (Agulanna 2008). You can tell the gender of a newborn from the song of joy summoning “onye ji ego gba ngaa oo” meaning “whoever has money hurry down here” for a girl. The jubilant chant “onye ji egbe gba ngaa oo” meaning “whoever has gun hurry down here” heralds the birth of a boy.
The local salad called “ugba” prepared in Mbaise has a special appeal when sold in the cities because of its special taste and aroma. Similarly, the local raffia palm wine tapped in Mbaise is sold out before others because of its uniqueness. In a traditional setting, these two go together like bread and butter.
Mbaise culture is rich in music and dance appropriate for each social occasion. According to Professor Nwoga (1978), the peak of Mbaise cultural achievements is in its music and dance, in its song and literary skills. Every form of native Igbo dance ensemble is to be found in Mbaise; whether it has its base in the wood xylophone, hand piano, long drum, short drum, slit drum, pot, gong, bamboo horn or calabash horn. There are dances for childbirth, marriage, funerals of old men, funerals of old women, age group celebrations, communal labor, and other forms of group or social occasion (Nwoga 1978). “Agbacha ekurunwa” dance is performed at childbirth functions, while “Alija” and “Ogbongelenge” feature during marriage. “Eseike”, “Esse”, Ekwerikwe mgba” and “Nkwa Ike” are for death of old men. On the other hand “Uko” and “Ekereavu” are exclusive for death of old women. The “Ekpe” and “Nkwa udu” feature during the “Iriji” Mbaise and “Itu Aka” Nguru. A special mention must be made about “Abigbo”. According to Professor Nwoga who took one of the “Abigbo” groups to the USA in the 1980s, the music and dancers philosophize, criticize, admonish or praise in language expression which not only makes its point but also pleases while it hurts (Nwoga 1978). “Abigbo”, “Agborogwu” and “Ogbongelenge” are performed at the reception of dignitaries. Mbaise has produced many music legends but only few can be mentioned. Joseph Onyenegecha Iwuchukwu (popularly known as JONEZ) and Chief Chrisogonus Ezebuiro Obinna, aka (Dr. Sir Warrior) of Oriental Brothers International Band brought style and zeal into highlife music.
Many Mbaise sons and daughters are among the celebrities in drama, theatre and sports.
Before the advent of Nollywood, Jegede, the husband of Akpeno in the popular play “Zebrudaya” made his mark. Today, there are brand names such as Kanayo O. Kanayo, Genevieve Nnaji, and Rita Dominic Nwaturuocha. Others are Okey Bakassi, Eucharia Anunobi, Ben Nwosu (aka Papa Andy), Chidi Chikere and Ms. Phina Peters and many more celebrity actors and actresses of Nigerian movies. In sports, the first ever female Olympic gold medalist in Nigeria is Chioma Ajunwa. Several sons and daughters have played in the national football team – the Green Eagles and the female football team – The Falcons.