Umuahia, currently the capital of southeastern Abia State, started its existence as a railway town. A key stop on the rail line that linked coastal Port Harcourt to the coal fields of Enugu before heading north toward Makurdi and Kafanchan enroute to Maiduguri, it was created out of land owned by the Ibeku, Ohuhu and Olokoro communities.
It’s location made it a centre for the trade in agricultural commodities such as palm oil, palm kernels, cocoa, bananas and citrus fruits, moved by train either to Port Harcourt for export or further north to Inland consumers. It also became a major depot for the cattle trade in Nigeria, thanks to the railway, bringing a sizable population of northern Hausa speakers to that have become a permanent feature of the city.
Under the regional system of government that obtained in Nigeria’s early days, Umuahia was the capital of a province named after it. Then as civil war ensued and Enugu, the first capital of the breakaway Republic of Biafra, fell to federal forces, Umuahia became the new and, subsequently, longest-serving capital of the secessionist enclave until it in turn fell to the federal authorities in 1969.
The major foundations for the city were laid by the Eastern Region government of Michael Okpara, who hailed from Ohuhu,Umuahia. Adding to the developments brought by the rail, Okpara built road links to Enugu, Owerri, Aba and Ikot Ekpene. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the School of Agriculture Umudike, the Golden Guinea Brewery, the Ceramics Factory and the iconic Umuahia Library were all built in those early days to give Umuahia it’s character that has endured until today.
What was started by Okpara was further advanced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Sam Mbakwe as governor of Imo State, which then included Umuahia, revamped and extended its roads network with the complement of good drainage that made one of the cleanest cities in Nigeria. Flooding was unheard of As a result and the streets were dry again no sooner than the rain stopped.
The city today has a population of under one million people, based on growth projections from the more than 350,000 people recorded in the city during the last census in 2006. It is mainly populated by traders and civil servants, with the latter growing considerably in number after it became the capital of Abia State in 1991.
Umuahia is the favourite urban centre of people in the colonial era Bende division such Bende town, Igbere, Ohafia, Item and Arochukwu, to name a few. With close interactions with the Efik and the Ejegam ethnic groups of the Cross River area, they were major middlemen in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and part of the Arochukwu Confederacy whose impact was felt all over Igboland and beyond.
Though still Igbo in content and character, the Umuahia area was heavily influenced by their Cross River neighbours. Hence there is a widespread presence of the Ekpe masquerade cult, as distinct from the Mmanwu cults of the central and northern Igbo areas. Joining the Ekpe cult is still the prime coming-of-age ceremony for young men in the Umuahia-Bende Arochukwu axis. The Ekpe cult is closely linked to the Nsibidi script, a form of writing developed by the Ejegam and taught only to Ekpe initiates.
The economy of Umuahia suffered severely with the decline of the rail under a succession of military rulers starting from the 1980s, leading to its subsequent abandonment. This left regional economic linkages broken and forcing dealers in agricultural produce and cattle to rely on road transportation, with the reduced economy of scale. The city’s growth afterwards has been haphazard at best as a succession of governors, who lacked the vision of the pioneers took over. Though physically more built up, the city hasn’t lived up to its earlier promises as a place where the commercial, educational and the cultural found seamless convergence.
Festivals and places to visit
Nowadays, the Christmas and New Year season often coincide with Igba Ekpe (Ekpe celebration) activities, celebrated by one village after another. These offer a lot of sightseeing entertainment featuring colourful and fearful masquerades, with many traditional dances and usually a lot to eat and drink.
Umuahia is also the location of important civil war memorials. One is the Ojukwu Bunker, the wartime residence of the rebel Biafran leader, burrowed deep into the earth, with an escape manhole located far into the forest. Another is the National War Museum, where images and articles, including guns, tanks, artillery guns and aircraft used in the war are on display.