The area where the present-day city of Owerri is located had always been occupied since the 15th century, when the first accounts of migration to the area by the expanding Igbo populace of the region was recorded. The early occupants were Igbo farmers, who practised crop rotation and shifting cultivation as they sought to extract maximum benefits from the soil.
Starting from the mid-17th century, there is record of succession in the Owerri traditional rulership up to the present day. With the advent of colonial rule, British presence in the area began to be felt around 1901. They built the first hospital in Owerri soon after that (which after many evolutions is today the Federal Medical Centre) and in 1906 built Government College, Owerri, setting what was then a rural town on its path to becoming a modern city.
From being a divisional headquarters, Owerri was made into a provincial capital serving the Old Owerri Province, that included places as widespread as current parts of Imo, Ebonyi, Abia and Rivers states. After a seaport was built in Port Harcourt and linked by rail to Enugu’s coal fields, the Delta province was created out of the Owerri province. Port Harcourt became the capital of the new province.
Topography and Climate
Owerri, which is located in the southeastern Nigeria rainforest belt, is located in between two rivers, the Otamiri and Nworie, which played significant roles in the life of the people. While the Nworie River was deified and spared of fishing, the opposite was the case for the Otamiri River. The city and surrounding areas experience rainfall for about nine months in a year, leaving a short dry spell between December and March, when dry north-southerly winds prevail. Average temperatures range from about 20 degrees celsius at the peak of the rains in June-July to about 34 degrees in February-March.
Due to geological characteristics suggesting the presence of hydrocarbons, Owerri was the first place Shell oil company set up its headquarters in Nigeria and commenced oil prospecting in the late 1930s. Owerri was to remain Shell’s headquarters in the country until the 1960s, a fact that accounts for the existence of a part of the city still referred to as Shell Camp today, where the company had its residential quarters.
The present-day Owerri Municipal area is made up of Owerri, Owerri North and Owerri south, with a population of 401,000 in 2006, projected to have increased to about 700, 000 people since then. Imo state, of which it is the capital, is known as the Heartland State for being in the centre of Igboland, with Owerri known as the Heartland City.
Culture and Festivals
Owerri falls within the Igbo cultural area, which follows the traditional four-day week and regards yam as the king of crops in a life cycle that moves from the season of farming in the early part of the year, to a period of harvest and festivities in the latter part. The Owerri area was in the fore in projecting the Mbari art form, popular in many Igbo areas, which saw art as a celebration of life, and gave free reign to an eclecticism that was always keen to incorporate new ideas, events and trends in the expression of that art. With a majority of the people now professing Christianity, these practices have taken new, modern forms, with the Christmas and New Year period now used to stage forms of communal theater and festivals that were previously closely tied to traditional religious beliefs.
Today Owerri retains the reputation of being a city of fun, where people go to for enjoyment. This is evident in the array of hotels that dot the city acclaimed to have the highest density of hotels per square kilometer in Nigeria. It has an airport located about 25 kilometers outside the city and has flights to and from the country’s major cities such as Lagos, Abuja, Enugu and Port Harcourt.