Urhobo Historical Society

The Historical Perspective

By Professor E J Alagoa
University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Subject: [Ijaw_National_Congress] IZON HISTORY
Date: Sat, 14 Dec 2002 13:00:56 EST
From: incusa@aol.com
To: Ijaw_National_Congress@yahoogroups.com

The Ijo, Ijaw, Izon people are yet to develop a complete sense of their unity. This is not strange considering how widely they are dispersed along the Nigerian coastline and among the creeks and rivers of the Niger Delta.

The Apoi and Arogbo of Ondo state are merely outposts of unnumbered others working at different trades in the lagoons as far west as Lagos and beyond. The Nkoro and Defaka of Opobo-Nkoro local government area of Rivers state have lived so long in the eastern extremity of the Niger Delta, that their language is now believed to be the oldest living variety of Ijo. The Ibani of Opobo, of-course, moved into this corner of the Niger Delta only in the nineteenth century, strengthening and expanding the activities of the Ijo kingdoms of Bonny and Okrika from much earlier times eastwards through the waterways of the Nigerian coast into Ibibio and Efik country and beyond the Cross River. The Ijo people are, therefore, to be found, living as significant independent communities, or as isolated migrant units, throughout the length of the Nigerian coastal waters. Indeed, they are to be found in diaspora in virtually every coastal West African state along the Atlantic.

In geographical terms, however, the Ijo have been defined by the Niger Delta, as far back into the past as they can remember, and the earliest Portuguese explorers of the West African coast identified them with the Niger Delta as “Jos”.  The linguists have, indeed, recognized the Izon language to have been present in the Niger Delta region many millennia before the fifteenth century when the Portuguese visited the Nigerian coast. By current linguistic estimates, the Ijo language has been established in the Niger Delta from between seven to eight thousand years ago! The Ijo people therefore, belong to the Niger Delta in both their geographical spread, and in terms of the length of time over which they have lived within this geographical region.

In our study of the oral traditions of individual Ijo communities throughout the Niger Delta region, it became apparent that the people themselves believe the Niger Delta to be their home from virtually, “the beginning of time”. The oldest sites identified as places of origin from which community founders had migrated to their present locations are to be found in the central Niger Delta, mostly Bayelsa State. The region of the Apoi Creek was the home of many migrants into the western Niger Delta. Sites on Wilberforce Island have been identified as places of origin for communities in many parts of the Niger Delta, while the site of the ancient settlement of Obiama to the east was also an important center of outward migration. But places in the eastern Niger Delta, such as Ke, and the Defaka, and others, have also been identified or suggested as centers of migration in antiquity.

The oral traditions, therefore, suggest that the original homes of the Ijo people were deep inside the Niger Delta, and that communities moved outwards east, west and north into the rest of the Niger Delta. But the language studies, as well as a few old traditions, suggest very ancient movements from distant places or from the edges of the Niger Delta, before the times remembered in the community traditions. Thus, the Ijo/Izon language, is genetically related to other languages up the Niger beyond the borders of Nigeria towards the sources of the Niger River across West Africa. Therefore, we must begin to think of a history of the Ijo people before about seven or eight thousand years when they might have moved into the Niger Delta down the River Niger from yet unknown distant lands. Closer to home, the linguists suggest that some small minority languages such as Oruma, located on the northern edge of the Niger Delta, among the Ogbia, may provide evidence for earlier sites of Ijo origins prior to movements into more southerly settlement sites.

We note that although all these valid theories of Ijo origin imply relationship to other Nigerian languages and groups, none implies that the Ijo were derived from any other Nigerian ethnic group. Traditions which suggest such derivation from neighbouring groups refer to relatively recent or isolated movements. In other cases, such traditions are attempts to claim a relationship with a kingdom or place considered to confer prestige on the claimants. Such is the case of claims to Ijo origin from Ile-Ife. In the case of Benin, some migrations of small numbers of persons into the Niger Delta appears to have taken place in relatively recent times. And, from the period of the slave trade, large numbers of persons were moved into the Niger Delta, and mostly through it, across the Atlantic. Many such Ijo communities retained members of such groups, thus fueling suggestions of origin from outside the Niger Delta.

Some people might challenge the claim that the Ijo have lived for many millennia in the Niger Delta on the grounds that the evidence is speculative, in spite of its apparent scientific base.  Fortunately, we have other supporting evidence. Several archaeological excavations have been carried out in the central and eastern Niger Delta at Agagbabou and Isomabou on Wilberforce Island, Koroama in Taylor Creek, Saikiripogu near Okpoama, Onyoma near Nembe, Ke in the Kalabari area, and at Ogoloma and Okochiri in Okrika. Palynological research has also been done near Nembe. The cumulative evidence from all this research is, that the oral traditions of the Ijo communities relate to real historical activities going back between one and three thousand years.  Clearly, the linguistic estimates take us farther back into the past, but may not themselves have reached as far back as the prehistory of the speakers of what the linguists call proto-Ijo, the language out of which all the existing Ijo dialects came into being.

>From the nineteenth century through the twentieth century, British colonial rule and the struggles of Nigerian peoples for independence, and the subsequent recent history of independent Nigeria have seen the Ijo people move towards greater self awareness.  Colonial rule moved the economic power of the peoples of the Niger Delta out to regions in the hinterland.  The new colonial administrative and economic centers lay in Lagos, Warri, Port Harcourt, Enugu, and elsewhere further afield. In these new colonial urban centers, the Ijo peoples began to draw together for mutual support, first, in unions or associations.  The numbers and frequency of such expanding associations increased with the onset of political parties. The NPC of the north was rooted in Hausa-Fulani ethnic identity, the NCNC drew its being from Igbo ethnic solidarity and the Action Group from Yoruba affiliation.  The Ijo learnt the lesson quickly, along with many other groups. Ijo solidarity crystallized in political movements fighting for degrees of autonomy for Niger Delta peoples within the colonial and post-colonial period, leading to the creation of Rivers State in 1967 and Bayelsa State in 1996.  We note that the struggle continues in various directions.

In the course of the struggles for autonomy and recognition, the definition of Ijo has expanded somewhat from the strictly linguistic and cultural to the historical and political. Thus, communities speaking languages separated from Ijo by the linguists become united with the speakers of Ijo/Izon on the basis of common historical experiences or for political expediency. The Niger Delta environment hahs also tended to unify peoples living within it.

The study of the Ijo/Izon language was systematized as an academic activity only in about the last forty years. Before that, some early European visitors had written down numerals and words in the nineteenth century, and some simple grammars, studies, and translations of Christian literature had been done by amateurs in the early twentieth century. From the 1950s Professor Kay Willaimson has continued to put Ijo into the academic programmes of Nigerian universities and in international gatherings for the study of African languages. This work took a practical dimension when a project for the writing of Readers for the primary school system of the new Rivers State was adopted by the yet nascent state government while it was still located in Lagos in 1967.

My history of Izon has to terminate with Bayelsa State, the new hope of the Ijo people. The language policy of the Nigerian nation places Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba on top of the system. Other languages are admitted, but only if particular state governments take up the initiative to encourage their study and development. In the case of Ijo/Izon, the pioneer government of Rivers State accepted the challenge to begin its development, along with other languages of the state, for use in education.  Unfortunately, that initiative has been lost even in Rivers State. Bayelsa State must accept the challenge of leadership, and commit itself to the full development of Ijo/Izon for all levels of education from kindergarten, through adult, and secondary to the tertiary.

Select Bibliography

Alagoa, E J 1972. A history of the Niger Delta: an historical interpretation of Ijo oral Tradition.

Sowunmi, M A 1988. “Palynological studies in the Niger Delta” in E. J. Alagoa Et al (editors), The Early history of the Niger Delta,  Hamburg.

Williamson, Kay.  1988.  “Linguistic evidence for the prehistory of the Niger Delta”,  in
The Early History of the Niger Delta.