Onitsha, Nigeria’s City of Possibilities

Early history

Onitsha, a city on the eastern bank of the lower Niger River in Nigeria, is famous as a trading town that embodies the entrepreneurial energy generally associated with the Igbo. Yet, it played a significant role in the evolution of modern Nigeria.

The origins of Onitsha, that is today a teeming, if chaotic, city of more than 2 million people, go back to the Oze, the oldest known Igbo people to settle on  the dry plain on that east bank of the Orinmili, the Great river. The area was given new impetus by the arrival of the Ezechima clan, a group of Igbo sojourners that left Benin over some schism in the 17th century. They founded several communities on their return journey such as Onicha Ugbo, Onicha Olona and Ogwasi-Uku, among others. They also adopted some of the monarchical ways of their former hosts. 

While some accounts ascribe Benin origins to them, available evidence indicates that the Ezechima sojourners were already Igbo when they left the ancient kingdom for Onitsha. There they met and subsequently largely displaced the older settlers, the Oze. There have been suggestions that the Ezechima group was of Arochukwu origin and had gone to Benin as trade emissaries.

What is undeniable is that Onitsha and the area of the Niger River where it is located, were important meeting points for various pre-colonial cultures that included the Benin, the Igbo and the Igala among others. The influence of the Benin on Onitsha culture is undoubted, leaving it as one of the few monarchies that existed among the largely republican Igbo. Igala presence remains detectable in Onitsha till the present day; yet in substance, it was overwhelmingly Igbo.

A key factor in the town’s founding must have been its location on a well-drained portion of the Niger River bank that was devoid of marshes. It must have influenced the choice of the site made by the Oze and that of all subsequent comers who stayed. 

A welcome billboard in Onitsha

When Samuel Ajayi-Crowther, the Yoruba freed slave of Abeokuta origin, who became an Anglican missionary clergyman, visited Onitsha with a group from the U.K. that included the trader William Balfour Baikie in 1857, they met a place that is a sharp contrast to today’s sprawling city. The original Onitsha was at least four kilometers inland from the Niger River, with a population of about 13,000, according to historian Kenneth Dike, citing Ajayi-Crowther in an article published in 1957. The entire length of the inhabited portion was about two kilometers, with one wide road running through the town, covered on either side with lush farms that spoke to its relative prosperity at the time. Ajayi-Crowther noted that cotton was among the crops grown in the town and the people produced their own clothes, with cowries used to exchange goods.

It was during the reign of Obi Akazua. Following negotiations, in which ex-Igbo slaves from Sierra Leone acted as interpreters, Baikie was allowed to set up a British trading post in the town. Ajayi-Crowther also secured land to build his Christian mission station on behalf of the Church Missionary Society, which was manned by J.C. Taylor, a Sierra Leonean freed slave of Igbo origin. 

That 1857 visit was also remarkable for the trade goods exchanged with Onitsha people by Baikie’s party for palm oil and kernels. They included textiles, matchetes, liquor, tobacco and gunpowder. That encounter in many ways ordained Onitsha’s future as a commercial centre and the educational and church headquarters of Igboland. In 1889, the Roman Catholic Church set up its Apostolic Prefecture of Lower Niger in Onitsha as well. Perhaps, it wasn’t altogether an accident that the man who would be in the forefront of the campaign for Nigeria’s independence, Nnamdi Azikiwe, hailed from the town.

A Modern City Emerges

By 1911, when the British Resident Administrator Bedwell began marking out the town’s urban layout, it was still trading according to the Igbo market calendar once every four days, on Nkwo days (the alternate days being Eke, Orie and Afor). Daily trading commenced in 1917 as it’s importance grew as a node for shipping palm oil and kernels while bringing in imported goods from the British steamers that now called frequently. When Nigeria held the 1953 census under British colonial rule, its character was already set, with a population of 176,000, of which 70 percent were traders and 73 percent were non-Onitsha Igbos. As its scale of business expanded, the driving principle became low prices for low margins sustained by a quick turnover of goods. It has persisted to the present day.

The town expanded rapidly, not just as a centre of commerce but also as a leader in education and Christian missionary activities. Dennis Memorial Grammar School was established in Onitsha by the Anglican Church in 1925 to become its oldest secondary school, while the Catholic Church followed with St Charles Teacher Training College in 1928 and Christ the King College in 1935. The top church buildings in the town are the Holy Trinity Cathedral, built by the Catholics in 1935 and the All Saints Cathedral, built by the Anglicans in 1952.

Consequently, Onitsha became the first point of contact with European modernity for many in the Igbo hinterland. In addition to the initial river transport, roads were built connecting Onitsha to Benin to the west and Awka and Enugu to the east, while a southward route led to Owerri and Port Harcourt. In 1965 a 1.4 kilometer bridge was completed over the Niger River, connecting Onitsha and Asaba, and improving movement between Nigeria’s east and west.

All of these developments in the early decades of the 20th century made Onitsha not only the leader in commerce, education and Christian missionary activities, but also placed it in the avant garde of a new emerging culture, where people experienced the culture clash with Europe and learnt the ropes of how to navigate a burgeoning urban society. Some of this manifested in what came to be famously known as the Onitsha Market Literature, a genre that flourished between the 1940s and the 1960s. Mostly written as pamphlets, they were either how-to-do-it books, short stories, short plays or political commentaries, issued by small-time publishers that sought to make saleable products out of available writing skills.

Some of them bore titles such as: How to Speak to a Woman and Win Her Love, No Money No Friend. It also included fictional works, such as Veronica My Daughter by Ogali O. Ogali as well speeches by top politicians from Nigeria and across Africa. A lot of the works were also trying to deal with the moral complexities of living in a carefree urban town by previously tradition-bound or pious new comers. The Old Onitsha, at its peak in the 1950s and1960s was a cosmopolitan city that attracted buyers from all over Nigeria as well as other West African countries, with a social life that was accommodating, tolerant and dignified. Some of the best known Nigerian musicians and bands, such as those led by Osita Osadebe, Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu and Prince Nico Mbarga either evolved in Onitsha or spent a significant period there. The city had clean, well laid out streets and major recreation centres and reflected its colonial influence in its street names that included those of British administrators and some of the Sierra Leoneans freed slaves that settled there. However, the city was to turn a different leaf after the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70.

The War Years

Perhaps, for reasons of its strategic location, Onitsha was one of the major theatres of the civil war. The bridge over the Niger was quickly blown up as the war started by Biafran troops that sought to slow the advance of the federal forces. Many pitched battles were fought as the federal forces repeatedly attempted amphibious crossings but were each time forced to pull back. By the time the federal troops took the city in 1968, it had suffered considerable damage from repeated shellings. Whatever was left was visited with the anger of the troops who destroyed the city’s main market, that had housed the largest business emporium in West Africa.

After the war ended in 1970, Onitsha was quick to recover its pace and energy. The traders returned, the markets were rebuilt and the city added a no-nonsense frenzy to its pace. It was all in service of a capitalism that looked down on anything that didn’t amount to a profit. Over the next five decades the city’s trade expanded, with its ripples reaching the twin town of Asaba on the west bank of the Niger and stretching as far east as Nkpor and Ogidi and other surrounding towns. 

The growth has been mostly uncontrolled,neglected by a succession of governments that failed to allocate resources to fixing decaying roads and building new infrastructure. The result was that though the city continued to expand through private estate development, it lost its old culture, as education became scorned as long years of misrule decimated its old working and middle classes, and money was now celebrated as the king, irrespective of how it was acquired. The result was that Onitsha, while affluent, became uncouth and ugly. 

Redemption came during the governorship of Peter Obi, who rebuilt many of the old roads and tried to instill a sense of order in the city. After decades of neglect, a new bridge is under construction across the river from Asaba, the decongest the old bridge that suffers perennial traffic jams. The bustling commercial city remains a centre of opportunity, where a rookie from the village could start small and grow big through sheer persistence, even if tinged with ruthlessness.

Places of interest:

As already noted, Onitsha is essentially a city of commerce. While the whole city might seem like a market, a place to witness the city in its full essence is the Main Market. And it always pays if there’s something one has in mind to buy but was never sure where to find it; it would be found in Onitsha, or no where else in Nigeria, west and central Africa, and at the best possible price. Always good to keep one’s wits about though, as it’s easy to be sold a dummy as well.

Perhaps the next place of interest would be the palace of the Obi of Onitsha, the traditional ruler and the prime custodian of its traditions. The current Obi is Alfred Achebe, a former senior executive of Shell in Nigeria and the U.K., and member of the Onitsha royal lineage, who was appointed to the position upon his retirement. While the palace is considerably modernised, it retains much of its original spatial arrangements and architecture.

Equally an interesting place to visit is the spectacular Niger Bridge, from where fishermen could be seen bringing in their haul. The intrepid may choose to take a walk across the long steel bridge that links the west bank to the city of Asaba, the capital of Delta state. Inside the city are some of those early landmarks that came in the early days of the city’s development such as the All Saints Anglican Cathedral, the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Catholic), the Dennis Memorial Grammar School and Christ the King’s College. There’s also the mausoleum in honor of the famous African nationalist leader and Nigeria’s first president Nnamdi Azikiwe at his residence. 

Onitsha is also a place to experience the full range of the best and contemporary Igbo cuisine. Be it ofe onugbu, ora, egusi or nsala combined with pounded yam, foofoo, garri or semo for a fulfilling lunch. For evening snacking one could also find varieties of nkwobi, isi ewu, ugba, abacha, snails and more. All of these can be washed down with one’s choice of beer, wine, spirits or water.

The city is also a base from which to make excursions into the interior to visit places such as the nearby Ogbunike Cave or the Rojenny Tourist Village in Oba.