Uke - Igbo Age Group System
The Political Structure of the Age-Group System
Let us now look into the type of political system which the age-group system of communal labor generated for many areas of old Africa. Because the ownership of the land was communal, and because communal labor was employed to develop it through age groups, age-group consciousness came so intense that it formed the basis for running many African communities. The security of the community was organized on the basis of age groups. Age groups took their turns in keeping watch over the town against thieves and invaders and to ensure the safety of children, nursing mothers and old men and women, while all other members of the community went to work in the society where there was no police force. The defense of the community at times of wars was organized on the basis of age group. Since the community is owned by all, it became inherent in the system of communal ownership that the government of the society should be every man's business--everybody must take his turn and have the opportunity to rule the community--and the age-group system of government offered that chance. Call it communal democracy.
The age-group system of communal democracy operated in many areas of Nigeria before the white man came. The lbibios call the age-group system "Nka," and organized their society in Nka groups. It operated particularly in most areas of Umuahia Province. It operated in Asaba among West Niger or Ika lbos. It operated also in some parts of Okigwe Province and Afikpo Division of Abakaliki Province. Traditional government was as well organized on the age-group system among the Quas or the Ejaghams nicknamed "Ekois" by the Efiks. "Ekoi," in Ejagham language, is the name for powder of red cam wood which women used to rub on the skin for beauty in the olden days. The Ejaghams or the Qua people used to sell this "ekoi" or red cam wood to the Efiks and so the Efiks nicknamed the Ejaghams "Ekoi" people, after the popular trade commodity of the Quas. Thus, "Ekoi" is not anthropologically an ethnic group distinct from the Ejaghains who include the Obubra Division, and the Etung speaking people of Ikom Division in Ogoja Province. This however is by way of brief deviation into ethnology.
Back to their system of government: The Ejaghams call their age-group system "Ekan." From even the age of 12, Ejagham children are organized into various age groups to pre pare them in advance to take up in their turn the government of the community. At 12 the boy joins Nkpiri Nkanya age group. At 15 he climbs into Nkpiribbutong age group. At 18 he joins Uma Idem age group. The higher his age group, so his civic responsibility increases till at 50 he joins the Inua Ikang age group, and performs compulsorily, be he rich or poor, the Ejagham traditional ceremony of Mgbe Society to join the Ntoe's Council of Chiefs and Elders to make laws for the Ejagham Clan.
The clan was, as it still is, the largest unit of the extended family system and of traditional government, and a clan was, as today it still is, a collection of villages--five, eight, nine, ten, 27 or even 78 villages who trace to a common origin. Each clan has a clan head, and village heads.
Most traditional chieftaincy titles, as distinct from present day political chieftaincies, in these areas as in most parts of Nigeria, derived not from conquest. A man became the chief of a settlement or village or clan because he was the first to arrive and to settle there before other families immigrated to live with him there. In other words, because he was the founder of the new settlement--not because he was born with special blood for royalty which others did not possess; he could just have been as ordinary and as common as any other person in his former habitation before he emigrated to be founder of a new settlement and to acquire the new title, status and privilege of chief.
When he died, his children became entitled to inherit, from generation to generation, his credit as founder or first settler of the clan and to be the traditional chiefs and rulers of the clan. This source of derivation of chieftaincy title had a great psychological effect which made chieftaincy in most areas of old Africa not absolute in authority and rendered the political and social systems rather republican and egalitarian. One often hears the people of a village or clan in areas of Umuahia Province and Afikpo Division tell a chief who wants to assert his status as a chief by insisting that a decision goes his way, "We agree that your father founded this village and you are chief--but supposing we all pack away, will you live here alone? Over whom would you continue to remain chief? “This reduced the chief and the people to the same level of importance in society--useless, each without the other.
Any chief so addressed by his people usually gets deflated and pipes down to listen to the wishes of his people and to compromise.
Should the chief continue to be obdurate the people fine him and suspend him from acting as chief till he has paid the fine. Another member of the traditional ruling house is immediately appointed to act as chief. The psychology of this attitude in the relationship between the chief and his people--the attitude of equality of all the people which makes chieftaincy a mere deference to history--had evolved for the people of Umuahia Province and Afikpo Division in particular a political system in which everybody is given a chance to participate in the government of the clans.
The political structure in these areas is made up of the head chief or clan head, sub-chiefs or village heads, the elders and the age group. The age group constitutes the lower house of the village government. The clan head in council with the sub-, village or sectional chiefs and the elders constitute the upper house. Both the lower house and the upper house are in daily consultations in the day-to-day government of the clan. To paint a graphic picture of this system 6f government by age group for easy understanding and appreciation, we particularize the study with Nkporo, Abiriba, and Ohafia and Abam clans.
When men in these clans grow up to the age of 40 years, they perform in group a traditional ceremony called by Nkporo and Abiriba clans "Igwa AIanwu." Ohafia and Abam people call this ceremony "Igba Uche." Having performed this traditional ceremony, the age group comes to be known as "Uke Ji Ogo"--that is to say, "the age group to which the village is handed to hold for order and good government." An age group in composition has a range of three years; that is, people of 40, 39, and 38 years of age constitute one age group and perform together the traditional ceremony of "Igwa Manwu." Among the Ika lbos the range is four years.
The age of 40 years was fixed by our ancestors for the performance of the traditional ceremony of "Igwa Manwu" which entitles an age group to take over the government of the community because in their wisdom our ancestors believed that at the age of 40 years a person would have exhibited all his capabilities. He would have married at that age and had children to make a successful family. If he is to be rich, poor, honest, a thief, a strong man, a coward, a success or failure in society - all the symptoms would have stood out to enable easy assessment Chiism and Communalism and classification of the individual. For a fool at forty is a fool for ever.
It is the "Uke Ji Ogo" or this age group entrusted with the care of the community that ensures the defense of the clan against invasion, leads the clan in war against enemies. They constitute the warlords and generals who lead the younger ones into battle either in home defense or invasion abroad. They make laws, enforce discipline, and initiate community development programs and activities. They do all these and more for the good of society with a big proviso--they must consult and obtain the consent of the clan head in council of sub-chiefs and elders in all they do. When they disagree with the Council of Chiefs and Elders, the issue is debated until a compromise is reached either to drop or modify or go ahead with the program.
The Council of Chiefs and Elders, on the other hand, has a right to initiate laws and programs of work and pass down to the lower house of Uke Jo Ogo or age group, for implementation. But the age-group may as well object to the hand-down from the upper house of the chiefs and elders. Then another debate and a compromise.
The matter gets referred for resolution to the generality of the population at the village or clan's square if the Council of Chiefs and Elders (upper house) and the Uke Ji Ogo or age group (lower house) cannot reach a compromise on any issue. But such situations rarely arise.
Each age group in power goes with their female counterpart. In fact they perform the traditional "Igwa Manwu" with the female members. The women participate actively in their age-group affairs, lending their support to ensure that the government of their age group is not a flop. They take care of the women's affairs in the society. It is needless to mention that before the age group performed the traditional ceremony of "Igwa Manwu" and became the "Uke Ji Ogo" or government of the clan, both their male and female wings had been in organized existence, with presidents, vice presidents, treasurers and other officers necessary for the execution of their assignments.
More often than not the age group has its patron, appointed by members of the age group for themselves--a patron who though not a member of their age group is considered by them as a wise old man from whom they can receive wise counsel on any issue before they present such issue to the Council of Chiefs and Elders or to the general public.
The traditional ceremony of "Igwa Manwu" is performed every seven years. For this, an age group remains "Uke Ji Ogo" or holds the government of the clan for seven years before another age group in its turn performs the traditional ceremony of "Igwa Manwu" and takes over the government of the clan as new "Uke Ji Ogo." The passing-out age group performs another traditional ceremony known as "Uche." "Uche" is "Igboto Nma" (laying down of the matchet) ceremony. At this time man is already aged about 50. The age group which performs this "Uche" ceremony passes into the clan's group of elders and gets entitled to membership of the Council of Chiefs and Elders or the upper house of the government of the clan. Upon this, the age group is no longer expected to participate in communal labor if, for instance, the clan wants to make roads, build bridges, etc. Members of the group would no longer go to war. They remain members of the Council of Elders, "Nde Ichie," with the chiefs and sub-chiefs, to advice, from the rich fund of their experience, the younger age in the government of the clan.
If, while "Uke Ji Ogo" or tile government of the clan, an age group is not doing well; it is pushed out of office by the Council of Chiefs and Elders with tile approval of tile population. The age group is not allowed to spend its full seven-year term of office. The Council of Chiefs and Elders takes over the age government of the clan for the balance of period--sort of interregnum--till another age group is ripe to perform the "Igwa Manwu" ceremony and qualify to succeed as new "Uke Ji Ogo."
Age-Group Psychology and Ethics
Remarkable among the features, ethics, virtues, blessings or advantages of the age-group system of government above described is the psychology of the age group. Inside an age group there is absolute feeling of equality among people of the same age. Be you ever so rich, be you ever so educated, members of your age group never regard you as superior to them, be they poorer or stark illiterate. Your wealth, your high education, never confers on you privileges among members of your age group. If the society gives an age group an assignment, for instance, to make a new road, neither wealth nor university education makes any member of the age group feel too big to do the "menial labor" of bush clearing for the new road with matchets. Every member of the age group is dragged to the road to cut grass.' Whoever fails to turn out is fined. Thus the age-group system gave our ancestors a classless society in which no one felt too big to work with his hands and matchet with other members of the society in the interest of the society--a society in which there was no privileged class--a republican society in which there was absolute equality among the people.
Though in an age group people feel equal, yet they appreciate the achievements of their members and feel proud of the achievements. Thus if a member of an age group happens to be the richest man or the best wrestler in a village, you will see other members of his age boast of him in arguments with members of other age groups of the village. You will hear them challenge others, and boastfully saying, "What has your age group done? Don't you see that our age group is the richest in this village? Don't you see Kalu, the richest man, is a member of our age group? Now, in what respect is your age group better than ours?" The people making this boast and issuing the challenge may themselves be individually poor persons. Thus under the age-group system the success of a man does not generate envy in his fellow men but inspires pride and admiration in others to create more and more hard-working and successful men. No man likes to lag behind other members of 'his age group in anything. Every one struggles to catch up. And so under the age group system competition is high--but without bitterness.
On the other hand, if one or two members of an age group are thieves, other members of the age group, be they ever so honest, strong and rich, suffer the shame. In arguments in the town square, a member of an age group, though himself very honest and rich, would be told by his adversaryof another age group, "Shut up, you! What money have you? Is stealing not the badge of your age group? Just don't talk when we talk!!" The rich man simply gets crestfallen. These facts imbue an age group with group consciousness.
Group image overshadows and eliminates egocentricism; group interest overshadows self-interest. The age group engages in everlasting struggle to present a good group image and clean reputation in society--engages in everlasting struggle to outclass other age groups, to leave a stamp of itself upon society which would never be forgotten and to which members of the age group, in their grey old age, would look back and say with pride, "In our time we did that and that!"
To present that impeccable group image members of an age group are meticulous in the selection of their leaders and those to represent them in public matters. They look for character, talent and patriotism, not just for the man who is rich or who is a wrestler or just a he-man. While in government as "Uke Ji Ogo" they want to make concrete achievements and to please the people so as to leave a footprint of good name and success on the sands of time. In fact, age groups have been known to make laws to bind their members against stealing, adultery and other immoral and anti-social behaviors. Those who commit these moral offences get excommunicated from the group to ensure that the reputation of the group never tarnishes.
Age groups encourage their members to work hard; they help the members, one after the other, in their farms; they even float internal loan schemes to encourage members to trade, in the struggle to see that every member is well-to-do so that at the village square they can boast to all, "In our age group, none is poor, we don't steal, we don't commit adultery." And the age group becomes a brotherhood governed by morality, patriotism and hard work, and suffused with love.
Loyalty to age group is usually so high, in fact often transcends family loyalty, that parents report bad boys to their age group for discipline and corrections. And no boy drilled through the hard discipline of his age group continued to be stubborn to his parents. It used to scare boys to be told by their parents that they would be reported to their age groups if they continued to be naughty.
Under the age-group system of government, who would be the next government--that is, which age group will form the next government--is settled and known in advance. The age group that would be the next to perform the traditional ceremony of "Igwa Manwu" and to become the "Uke Ji Ogo" (the next government of the clan) begins to make preparations for the assumption of its responsibilities well in advance. As had been said earlier, the traditional ceremony of "Igwa Manwu" is once in seven years. It therefore gives the next age group enough time--seven long years--to prepare its program for its government in its turn.
Each age group wants to beat its predecessor, and so takes seven years to watch its predecessor, note its success or failures and the reactions of society to their activities, and to make its own plans in the light of the experience of the predecessor. Thus by the time an age group steps into office as"Uke Ji Ogo," it already has a neat program tinder its armpit, and proceeds from the very day it takes over to roll into action the programme it had taken seven years to draw up, debate, amend, mature and perfect.
The settled successions of governments under the age group system of the communal democracy of old Africa made electioneering campaigns, the ballot box and voting, unnecessary, and so eliminated completely from the politics of our fathers the bitterness, hate, the thuggery, the assassinations, the bribery, corruptions, the fraudulence and the riggings which the electioneering campaigns and voting through ballot boxes of the party politics of our recent experiences, had engendered. It eliminated the existence of professional fault-finders and rascals who made it their full time and daily job to find faults in the party in power so as to pull it down and get themselves into power.
Under the system of party politics of western civilization, no party was sure in advance, like in the age-group system, that it would form the next government, and so political parties spend their time in preaching propaganda and sermons of hate to prejudice the electorate against the opposing political party instead of settling down to plan in coolness of mind what it could do when it comes to its turn to rule. Election manifestos were usually drawn up on the eve of elections just before election campaigns. No hurried program was ever well digested, which gave us the greatest defect in the politics of our recent experience. When a political party got into power, it abandoned its manifesto, and groped and fumbled in the management of the country's affairs.
Because succession to power was settled in advance under the age-group system, you would not get into power unless your group has performed the traditional ceremony, nor would you come back to power after your age group has had its turn. Above all, succession was by group, not by individual. Every citizen adopted an objective attitude to the "Uke Ji Ogo"--the age group in government. Criticisms were constructive, because none criticized with the ulterior intention of making the age group in government unpopular so as to pull it out of office and step in to form a new government. Constructive criticism and objectivity were the fashion under the age-group system of government.
The greatest blessing of the age-group system of government was that every citizen had the opportunity to serve or to be in power through his age group. Every citizen expected his turn would come and people often said, "When it shall be our turn--when it shall reach our age group--we shall do this and that." Since everybody expected that the turn of his age group would one day come, no one envied the age group in power. The age-group system did not allow the creation of a permanent ruling class, and so the need to topple or change a government by coup did not arise.
Under the political party system, the temptation to remain in power forever is always there. Those voted into power by one election abuse their power to amend electoral laws and manipulate electoral regulations in such a way as to ensure that they return to power the next election. They exploit their offices in government to corrupt, influence and intimidate the electoral officers, and the returning officers, to rig election results in their favor. Other political parties, itching as well to get into power or the general public seeking to change*a clique of politicians who have become corrupt and oppressive in government, but finding themselves no longer able to do so through the ballot box, resort to violence, rioting, strike, and coup d'etat.
Whereas, were the public to feel that the party in power would soon spend its time and automatically clear out, as in the case under the age-group system, they could afford to suffer them through their short tenure of office without recourse to violence and coup d'etat. For, under the age-group system, our fathers reclined and gnashed their teeth against the injustices of the present in the hope that the coming age would be better to clear the mess. And the coming age was usually much better.
Competition under the age-group system is, as has been said above, very high. Each age group wants to outclass the other. In the areas of Eastern Nigeria like Umuahia Province and Afikpo Division where the traditional age-group system is still in vogue, community development without aid from government is high. One age group builds a town hall and presents it to the community. The other wants to do better and builds a hospital. The third won't be outclassed--it builds a college for boys, a post office or a college for girls. Go to Ohafia Division of Eastern Nigeria and see how the age-group system ticks progress fast in a community. Such as well would be the spirit of governments under the age-group system.
Responsible citizenship is cultivated all through the age strata of society. For, aware that they would one day take their turn to govern the clan, members of age groups in villages start to organize themselves from as early as twelve or fifteen years of age; they elect their officers, collect money to create funds with which they would work in their turn, and take active interest in the affairs, troubles and needs of their village to enable them make their plan to give their village in their turn just what it needs.
Under the age-group system, the societies of our ancestors were not politically over-organized. Only age groups existed for men and women together. That is society fell into natural formations under the age-group system. But today under the political party system our society is over-organized into political parties, trade unions, and youth congresses. Anybody who wants to get into power--anybody who just wants his name heard somehow -- forms a political party or an organization of his own and declares himself the leader. If an election of officers pushes him out of the leadership of the party or the organization he had just formed, he abandons it and forms a new one - seeking where he would be president. And the mushroom parties and groups --what are they employed to do? To curry the favor of the major political parties or persons in power and through affiliations obtain money to line the pockets of the individuals during the elections!
What recommends the age-group system more is that the leadership of the age group does not inspire awe and fear among members of the age group. Floor members of an age group regard the leader they appointed for the group as just their equal--as primus inter pares. They feel free of victimization to criticize the leader or president if he is not representing the image of the age group well. Age groups change their leaders as they change their buttons--to ensure that their group government presents the best possible image to the society at all times.
The undoing of political parties is that leaders of political parties are feared by the 'Members of the political parties. If a party member is too critical of the party leadership, he is either expelled, or denied party nomination for elections and refused all sorts of party patronage. His business may be ruined. Thugs are employed to molest and silence him forever--even after lie had quit the party. And so, for fear of victimization, leaders of political parties get surrounded by favor-seeking adulators, who flatter and flatter the party leader till he gets power-drunk and downright corrupt and callous, and till assassination or coup d'etat removes him.
Unless on acts of immorality and dishonesty which give an age group a bad public image, no member of the age group can be expelled from the group or victimized directly or indirectly for being too critical of the leadership of the age group, be- cause he belongs to the age group by the grace of the Creator and birth. It is upon this fact that leadership in an age group never degenerates into tyranny. In an age group, personality cult and hero-worship never develop.
Thus this age-group system of old Africa's communal democracy is a system which, while avoiding party politics and corrupt elections, and while remaining a one-party system of government is, nevertheless, not a dictatorship but very much a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, in which everybody takes his turn to rule.