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The chilling report about the police findings at Ogwugwu Okija shrine is only a premonition of the confusion and disorientation that has permeated the psyche of the contemporary African. No doubt, the CNN, BBC, AP, Reuters, UPI and a host of other foreign media groups are already making their way to Okija, Ihiala Local Government of Anambra state, to record this gruesome site for their worldwide audience. Exposure of the worst about us gives great pleasure and a sense of relevance to many who would seize upon any opportunity to showcase the African, and in this case the Igbo, as someone entrapped in a psychological abyss from which he cannot rescue himself. But before anyone of us hops on the bandwagon of those who have always longed to civilize us, we must first pause, take a deep breath and exhale slowly.

It is sacrilegious for a genuine Igbo oracle to claim one's head because one is presumed culpable in a business dispute or social crime. What we presently behold in the Okija shrine is a blatant abuse of people's trust in the deity’s high priest; an act which, by itself, ought to be seen as an abomination. In the indigenous Igbo belief system, Ogwugwu Okija and its high priest are subject to reproach by superior deities and the society at large. Where the extent of violations is deemed to be extremely damaging, the deity could be obliterated as a minimum price to cleanse Alaigbo of such a heinous abomination.

Yes, indeed, the reported account of police raid in Ogwugwu Okija is real and unfortunately, not new in Alaigbo. Acts like the one reported is not confined to Okija shrine nor is it a fetish practice that is confined to non-believers in Christ, rural folks or impoverished kith and kin. Sites similar to the Okija shrine can be found in, at least, two locations in Enugu state, for example and also in many other states in Nigeria. During the abortive Third Republic electioneering politics of the early 90s, political operatives in a faction of National Republican Convention (NRC) in the Old Anambra State were routinely sent to one of such shrines in Oji River local government area to swear allegiance to one of the party's financiers of the time. The incumbent governor of Anambra state was alleged to have been a guest of the Okija shrine priests before he was sanctioned as PDP gubernatorial candidate in 2003 elections. Another news account of the police raid at Okija shrine suggested that one of the decomposing bodies found there was that of a wealthy Igbo Lagos-based businessman named Chief Okafor. It is no secret that the preponderance of sponsors of the likes of Okija shrines in Alaigbo and elsewhere in the country are mostly professed and practicing Christians.

What has gone wrong, one would ask? Many things have indeed gone awry. The masses of our people are trapped between two worlds; the new one that they haven't fully understood and thus unable to appreciate and the old one which they have been persuaded to abandon and disdain. When superimposed upon uncertainty about future prospects in our decrepit environment and widespread economic decline, many regular folks have incrementally lost faith in the so-called new way to modernity and are willing to give the past methods a try. If the police cannot successfully investigate and prosecute crimes with punitive sanctions meted to well known offenders, the hapless villager would not mind to resort the likes of Ogwugwu Okija oracle to seek retribution. Furthermore, since swearing by the Holy Bible has not been shown to elicit compliance in a predictable manner nowadays, the firm hand of Ogwugwu Okija priest has become a better choice for parties that are intent on entering into solemn undertaking that must not be broken. Nature allows no vacuum to exist under normal circumstances. That the likes of Ogwugwu Okija are thriving and doing hectic business today is an admission and clear evidence that those charged with leading us in the new way, after we have been de-linked from our past, have failed woefully in delivering expected results.

Without belaboring the issue, shrine priests have unwittingly been given de facto judicial powers that should otherwise belong with the police and our courts of law. Is justice then better served by going this route? Certainly, not. As further investigation on this matter shall uncover before too long, we shall learn how lethal potions are routinely administered to oath takers who flock to that shrine, sometimes based on underhand information provided beforehand regarding potential suspects or just by random pickings. Savage and horrifying, isn't it? I had a close-up view of an incident decades ago which began to make more sense to me since acquiring my medical education. A typical oath was given to prove one's innocence or guilt in a given case, for example, stealing or surreptitious ill will to neighbors, relatives and friends popularly termed witchcraft. Adult members of an entire village often volunteer en masse to visit the shrine to eat the Okija shrine's "chalk" as means of self-exculpation. The wily priests of Ogwugwu Okija usually prepare parcels of powdery stuff for each person to chew and swallow completely. The gullible oath takers never suspect that these priests selectively spike some parcels with potentially lethal concoctions while leaving the rest to function as placebo. The unlucky ones who get the spiked powder usually begin to hallucinate shortly afterward thereby publicly demonstrate their "guilt" for all to see.

Some folks end up dying acutely from complications of these potions while others could die slowly over weeks and months as their organ system functions sequentially shut down. In recent years, Ogwugwu Okija oracle has extended its claim to include the remains of its dead “guilty” clients as well as all their lifetime belongings. The majority of human remains found during police raid of the Okija shrine sites could belong to the deity’s victims whose corpses were taken to the oracle out of fear of possible retribution to rest of the household and extended family. Those who manage to recover from the ordeal usually live out their lives tainted in the eyes of even their loved ones. Maintaining a regular stream of casualties amongst those who throng the shrine for oath taking is a sure way of sustaining the fear and deep reverence which the populace has for such shrines. Before delving into possible solutions to this shameful and dehumanizing scourge inflicted on our people in this day and age, it is important to first obtain greater insight into what's actually happening. A better and fuller understanding of this phenomenon is a crucial first step in finding lasting solutions.

The average Igbo lives concurrently in two spiritual worlds that are anchored in both the authentic indigenous and the imported religious belief systems. If the assertion quoted above is true, then it is easier to comprehend why the revelations from Ogwugwu Okija shrine should be seen as a realistic depiction of the dichotomous spiritual world of the average contemporary Igbo. As many have now corroborated, the Okija shrine is but only one of many of its kind that exist today in Alaigbo. The greed and excesses shown by the oracle of Ogwugwu Okija have drawn public attention to that particular shrine but other deities in Alaigbo operate in ways that are not remarkably different. Quite often during my extended period of medical practice in Nigeria, some of my sick patients' relatives would plead with me to permit them to consult with oracles about the patients' illnesses so as to facilitate the healing process. The most popular destinations in most parts of Alaigbo are the "nail removers" who are usually renowned traditional healers or oracles. On occasions, I had to reschedule surgery because patients' relatives were extremely reluctant to cooperate until the "nail removers" have had their input. Some of them firmly believed that operative intervention for diagnosed intestinal blockage, for example, could turn out badly unless the sorcerers first neutralized the "poison" willed into the patients' body by imagined enemies.

The osu issue lingers in Alaigbo because the overwhelming majority of Ndiigbo still fear that meddling with rights of people whose ancestors were dedicated to the service of deities was simply a potentially dangerous act. The Igbo ruling elite and intelligentsia have instead preferred to adopt a see-nothing hear-nothing attitude toward the most important human rights issue that confronts Alaigbo today. The common excuses proffered are that such issues should die a natural death with passage of time and that the combination of Christianity and modernity through Western education are well on course to obliterating the last vestiges of an antiquated practice that only meant anything in a bygone era. These lame excuses provide essential comfort zones for contemporary Igbo elite, the cream of who have since gone into voluntary exile overseas in search of greener pastures. Ndiigbo talk so emotionally about advancement of the lot of our kith and kin but, as we speak, this generation of Igbo elite and intelligentsia have no coherent means of re-investing their intellect, skills and financial resources into enhancing a cultural heritage that we profess to love very much. Just like partisan politics, commerce and entrepreneurship in Alaigbo have virtually been abandoned to the Igbo 2nd-eleven personnel, spiritual life of the average Igbo, both ancient and modern, is now also in the hands of the less endowed amongst us. Those who are keen on apportioning blames should first spend a few moments in front of the mirror.

Foreign conquest has made a zombie of the authentic Igbo value system, particularly indigenous religious belief and practices. Our mindset has been reprogrammed, through our upbringing, to feel that Western education and profound understanding of our indigenous value system are mortally opposed to each other. This has led to a scenario where little or none of the best minds that the Igbo can produce for the past several decades are engaged in any meaningful intellectual foray into the Igbo value system, particularly in realms of religious belief and cultural practices. Alaigbo has ample numbers of seminaries that undertake profound studies in many aspects of Christian faith, for example, but our indigenous Igbo religion and cultural practices are left to the whims and caprices of village upstarts who, because of illiteracy and immobility, have little or no knowledge of the world that exists outside their places of birth. Something as important as the belief system that inspired Igbo culture for thousands of years has now been abandoned in the hands of the likes of the notorious oracle of Ogwugwu Okija. What do we expect when we are not willing to re-invest our talents and resources in pursuit of enlightened study and understanding of a belief system and practices that have defined Igbo cultural heritage as we know it today?

There have been a lot of reactions to the Ogwugwu Okija revelations. Most are outraged and would like to see precipitous action to cleanse the mess while some assume a defensive mode in what they see as a deliberate orchestration to demean the Igbo culture by those who have no business meddling in indigenous religious belief and practices of Ndiigbo. But up till now, little more new information has been provided beyond the breaking news that reported the initial police raid at the Okija shrine sites. These reactions or lack of them, have helped to further shed some light on the quandary that Ndiigbo face in this era. Some have correctly pointed out that the Igbo are not the only group in Nigeria that have ever engaged in ritualizing death of fellow humans. This fact notwithstanding, it is extremely difficult for one to find a rational basis for mitigating the widespread revulsion that many have shown since the report that indigenous religious shrines of Alaigbo are now being converted into warehouses for unburied human remains.

Just as the modern ways and methods are open to abuse, indigenous practices are equally vulnerable. This is a situation where the belief system of traditional Igbo society has been corrupted and exploited for purposes that are irreligious and immoral, to say the least. Before the arrival of European colonialism in Nigeria, the indigenous Igbo society was defined by strong religious belief system and practices that bind the individual in a dynamic relationship with the land, ancestral spirits and the Supreme Being, Chukwu/Chineke. Deities, which could be in the forms of animate and inanimate things, including rivers, lakes, streams, hills, caves, creatures and even renowned ancestors, functioned as intermediaries between the mundane realm inhabited by mortal humans and the spirit world of our ancestors and the Supreme Being. There is hierarchical order amongst deities which is determined mostly by their scope of influence in the society. Priests are mere messengers who assist individuals and society, at large, to better utilize the intercessory functions of their respective deities. The high priest also functions as an oracle who sometimes becomes the mouthpiece and chief executive officer of the deity's shrine.

In indigenous Igbo religion, the individual has no reason to fear the powers of any deity unless one has clearly committed an abomination. Even after committing an obvious abomination, the individual can still negotiate to have his deeds cleansed by undergoing well delineated rituals that are usually overseen by a deity's high priest. A mere disagreement between two individuals has never been regarded as an abomination in Alaigbo. The Umunna, which is the paternal extended family, deliberate upon and resolve most of such disputes. In complex cases, the wider community could be involved. That the oracle of Ogwugwu Okija was converted into the police and court of law for handling sundry cases, both civil and criminal, is a gross bastardization of the role of deities in an authentic Igbo society. It is sacrilegious for a genuine Igbo oracle to claim one's head because one is presumed culpable in a business dispute or social crime. What we presently behold in the Okija shrine is a blatant abuse of people's trust in the deity’s high priest; an act which, by itself, ought to be seen as an abomination. In the indigenous Igbo belief system, Ogwugwu Okija and its high priest are subject to reproach by superior deities and the society at large. Where the extent of violations is deemed to be extremely damaging, the deity could be obliterated as a minimum price to cleanse Alaigbo of such a heinous abomination.

Unfortunately, Igbo indigenous religious practices have been in relative decline even though the belief system still thrives in the heart and mind of the average Igbo. Furthermore, the Igbo lost their sovereign authority over Alaigbo with colonial conquest. The British eventually transferred this authority to the Federal Government of Nigeria at Independence. The federal government thus has a legitimate right to play a leading role in dealing with reported findings at the Okija shrine according to the laws of Nigeria since it is likely that capital crimes could have been committed by those involved. I have strong doubt that the law-enforcement and legal system, as presently operated in Nigeria, shall alone be capable of providing satisfactory answers to all aspects of this conundrum. There is a clear role for Ndiigbo to play in this, starting with indigenes of Okija community and surrounding area. There is a great temptation to politicize this matter as shown by reported pronouncements by the Ohanaeze chief scribe. The Ohanaeze, even though it was originally designed to function as an apex Igbo sociocultural organization, has since charted a course that portrays it as a quasi-political outfit. This fact should disqualify it from playing any leading role in resolving this intricate matter. I support the view that Ohanaeze scribe's approach to this unfolding case is wrong and any statements made by him so far on behalf of this apex body on this matter ought to be rescinded.

There are no easy answers to the dilemma posed by discoveries at the Ogwugwu Okija shrine. Even after the potential criminal aspect of this bizarre matter must have been disposed of in coming weeks and months, Ndiigbo and rest of their compatriots must come to terms with stark reality of the conflicting belief systems that compete for the heart and mind of the average 21st Century Nigerian. Foreign religions, including Islam that arrived centuries ago, have yet to fully penetrate the superficial layers of the typical African mindset. As the legendary reggae superstar, Bob Marley, sang in one of his hit songs, “the rain a fall but a touch the top”. Paraphrased; the rain many have fallen but only superficial layer of the topsoil is barely soaked. Nigerian political and intellectual elite are presently consumed with the illusion that the average compatriot is constrained to evolve into the models predetermined by our conquerors from Arabian peninsular or Western Europe. This generation of Nigerian elite have failed in their responsibility to usher our society into modernity through layering of the new way to dovetail with our indigenous African value system. The average African is presently launched on an evolutionary trajectory in which alien value systems are expected to completely obliterate the indigenous one.

Contemporary African elite have become willing accomplices in this grand scheme to remake the African in other people’s image. Perhaps, just as willed by our proselytizers, we are all holding our breath waiting anxiously for the day when our indigenous value system must have died completely, never to rise anymore. But based on the reality in Alaigbo today, such a day shall not come anytime soon.

Osondu
The Survival Struggle for Ndiigbo

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