Of the various institutions adapted by the Aro to promote their development and influence throughout the period their ascendance in territories east of the Niger, none was more important than Chukwu, the Ibiniukpabi oracle of Arochukwu. Ibiniukpabi, the Arochukwu oracle was known in the Eastern Delta as Tsuku ab yama which translates to “God resides there.” The colonial officials called it the “Long Juju” because of the distance and length of days it took supplicants to visit it for consultations as well as the extent and coverage of its influence in the then Eastern Nigeria and beyond. Among the Igbo it was referred to as Chukwu. When Christianity was introduced, the oracle’s name was adapted by the Igbo Catechism in reference to God Almighty, namely Chukwu-abiama. This oracle formed the basis for the attachment of the surfix ‘Chukwu’ to the name of Aro thereby converting it to Arochukwu (God’s Aro). Some Igbo communities knew the Aro as Umuchukwu, (the children of God). The Efik and Ibibio knew Aro as Mbot Abassi (the people of the Great Spirit).
The Source of Its Spiritism:
The oracle was famed as a judicial oracle and was also known for being a giver of human and land fertility and of health and wealth. Arochukwu tradition states that the oracle belonged to the original Ibibio dwellers of the present day Arochukwu. Under Ibibio kingdom, the oracle was known as Ibritam (ibit itam = giant drum). It was developed by the Idiong secret society about 300 AD.3 Idiong or sorcery is the art or science of foretelling the future by various natural, psychological, and other techniques. Barnhart defines sorcery as “The act of foreseeing the future or foretelling the unknown especially by signs and omens,” while Mbiti defines it as “the ability to consult the spirits and invisible things.”4 Idiong is connected with the belief in superhuman powers and is a method whereby man endeavors to obtain from these powers the knowledge of the future for assistance in the affairs of life. Its members serve as a link between their fellow human beings on the one hand and the gods, spirits and the ancestors on the other hand. Some practitioners of Idiong inherit the spirit of Idiong from their parents; while in some cases, some people feel a divine “call” to become practitioners. One who inherits or is called and refuses to practice Idiong gets afflicted with a kind of lunacy, Idiong Osop. The Ete Idiong (Divine Father) instructs the new members and hands over to a successor when he is about to die.
There are two types of Idiong. Idiong Ibok combines prophecy and divination with medicine. Its members are able to foretell the future, reveal the unknown, or tell who may have worked evil against the sick or the cause of poor harvest, sudden death, epidemic, or other tragedy, and at the same time prescribe the remedy, provide the medicine and the method of prevention against future occurrence. Idiong Ifa is superior to Idiong Ibok in that its members are also the decision making body of, and take part in deciding serious cases in the community. They are knowledgeable in revealing the unknown, foretelling the future, and finding out the causes of illnesses with the help of their various spells, incantations and charms.5
The oracles and prophecy under Aro control:
When Aro conquered the Ibibio in the 1634 Ibibio/Igbo war6 , they took over the oracle but retained its priests, with Loesin as the chief priest who was to initiate Aro indigenes into the cult as priests. Subsequently Aro took over the priesthood and full control of the oracle and renamed it Ibit Ukpabi (the drum of Ukpabi). The name Ukpabi being the Aro word for the Creator God derived from the Bantu roots for God on high.7 The oracle is therefore as old as Aro itself.8 This oracle had a great influence on the neighboring and far distant communities.
Ottenberg indicated that under the system of group leadership in many Igbo communities, it was sometimes difficult for families, lineages, clans, communities and other social groups to reach definite decisions in certain cases. These were chieftaincy and land disputes, property and inheritance disagreements, adultery, suspicious deaths, witchcraft, sorcery, poisoning, murder, and stealing. In such circumstances, the only recourse that could be agreed upon was to consult an outside agency such as the Aro oracle that would be adjudged to be impartial and reliable.9 Professor Okoro Ijoma stated that the oracle acted as a final court of appeal, a supernatural judicial body. Referring to this role played by the oracle, Elizabeth Isichei has rightly pointed out that the “possibility of an appeal to an impartial, external arbiter was of the greatest value, and undoubtedly prevented innumerable local wars”.10 Because of the distance of Arochukwu from these localities, and the balanced information given by the Aro agents to the priest of the oracle, the priests tended to give unbiased judgments. This, in turn, encouraged other disputants to make the expensive trip to Aro. The oracle was not therefore an instrument of unbridled exploitation and manipulation. It has, for instance, been canvassed that the majority of slaves that passed through the eastern Delta for the trans-Atlantic trade were procured through the agency of the oracle.11 Prof. Ijoma argues that the majority of slaves may have probably passed though the overall Aro trade network that permeated the entire south-eastern Nigeria, but the oracle by its nature and the position of Arochukwu was unsuited to supply slaves on the massive scale required by the trans-Atlantic traffic. First, only the wealthy could really afford the expenses which the appeals to Aro entailed. Secondly, if the people discovered that traveling to Arochukwu to seek advice or determine their cases meant the disappearance of entire families or villages, the influence of the oracle would not have endured12 .
As late as 1939, long after the British had claimed that they had smashed the oracle, Jones reported that “people still continue to consult it, though mainly nowadays as a fertility juju, since the village councils today find it more profitable to keep expensive litigations for their native courts.”13 In another recent instance, Chief Inokun Eyo of Uyo deposited in an inquiry as follows:- “I went to Ibritam, (Ibiniukpabi) for though I had several wives, I had no sons, only daughters. I was told by Ibiritam to make a certain sacrifce in m y town and sons would come. I was taken to a place where there were big rocks and trees and water. I stayed up to my knees in water and Ibiritam spoke to me. I came back and perforemed the sacrifice through an Aro man. I had a son born to me within a year as the Ibiritam predicted. I now have forty sons. I called one of them Inokun (Ibibio name for the Aro) and the other Ibiritam. I have only had eight daughter since then14 .”
A non-Aro indigene talking about the evils of the Long Juju oracle fails to appreciate and acknowledge the religious and judicial functions that it performed. Several unbiased reports of its usefulness account for its popularity among the diverse Igbo and non-Igbo communities that relied on its medical prowess, prophecy and judgment. These problems included poor harvest, draught, illness, epidemics, barrenness, unexplained deaths and events, births of twins and deformed infants, land and chieftaincy disputes.15 These communities traveled the great distances on foot from their diverse homes in the mainland Igbo, Niger Delta, Idoma, Igala and Ika Igbo kingdoms to consult Ibiniukpabi for problems that could not be solved by their local gods, oracles, and healers (dibia-afa, dibia-ogwu, dibia-aja). Some of these journeys required over twenty eight days of traveling time.
It must be admitted that in some instances, the original picture of the oracle was probably distorted. In the 19th century, the consultation of the oracle in the delta states was used as a political weapon. Prominent men were accused of treason and sorcery and challenged to prove their innocence by appeal to Ibiniukpabi. The accused persons and their people sustained heavy financial losses in trying to clear their names. The fees, too, which the priests charged were increasingly paid in slaves. But it does appear that the number involved in the traffic has been unduly exaggerated in most recent reports on Aro. Generally, any adult male freeborn, could act as an agent. A fee was paid; it could be in slaves, cash, or other goods and commodities of worth. Some of the agents were also traders. Those who went to consult the oracle usually traveled in safety over Aro protected routes. They were quartered in the compounds of the agents who brought them. These agents were therefore rich, feared and respected wherever they lived or went.16
These agents lived within the non-Aro clients of the Ibiniukpabi. They knew the details of all problems referred to the oracle, the names and life histories of the principal persons involved, and the nature of individual or group interests in the disputes as well as the names and titles of their gods and shrines. With this information, Ibiniukpabi proclamations were amazing and its decisions were always seen to be just and equitable as from the Supreme God himself. The fame of the oracle was therefore very much dependent on an ingenious and well organized intelligence network of all Aro resident or passing through the community from where the clients came to consult the oracle. It became so powerful and popular that all other deities were subservient to it. The Igbo saying was that “igwe bu anya ya, ala nti ya, oji elu nogide onodu, were ala zogide okpa” (From heaven it surveys the earth; the earth is its ears, the sky its eyes, it sits up in the sky and rests its feet upon the earth).17
Ibiniukpabi was also reputed for granting barren women the fruit of the womb. The children from such consultations were named Ukpabi, Chukwu, Arodiogbu, Uzoaru and other related names. The Aro themselves had their local deities as indicated earlier, which they consulted to meet their religious needs. If an Aro had some unresolved problem, he went to Inyamavia or Alaezi, not to Ibiniukpabi. In fact, the Aro have a saying that “an Aro can not say to a fellow Aro that Ibiniukpabi salutes him.” (Nw’Aro anagbi asi nw’Aro ibe ya, na Ibiniukpabi si ya kene ya.) If an Aro were to have said this to a non-Aro, the person would in trepidation, quickly bring him drinks and gifts, and ask for the Aro man to plead with Ibiniukpabi on his behalf.
Visible operations of the oracle and prophecy:
The oracle is situated in sandstone cave in Ovia Chukwu (god’s forest) which extends from the bed of a river (Iyi Ukwu), through a waterfall (Osu gwom gwom), up its valley to the adjoining highland. The waterfall echoes through the cave producing an awe-inspiring sound along the valley. Access was circuitous with the last part concentrated on wading in the shallow waters of the river up to the cave from which distance the voice of the oracle becomes distinct within the thundering waterfall. As the oracle spoke in Nsibidi language18 , the priests and their attendants translated them to the supplicants. After the consultation in this groove of god, the supplicants stay seven days to be restored to human status before they can associate with their relations. Having waded through and stood in the waters of the cave for days, their usually dusty feet are bleached white, thereby confirming a transformation. At the end of this period they are given symbolic gifts that consist of one or more of ofo Ibiniukpabi (a twig from the sacred ofo tree), some water from the groove, an eagle feather, a parrot feather and nzu (kaolin) signifying their innocence, that judgment has been granted in their favor or a token from God that their prayer has been heard.
In closing the past, it may be necessary to observe the impact of Ibiniukpabi in Christian times. In 1921, defendants to a murder case pleaded innocent on account of their assertion that it as Ibiniukpabi who ordered the execution of the deceased. He stated among others that:- “The journey took us about 8 days. We slept at Aro for twenty nights. Then Ugoji took us to the juju place. When we arrived we called the juju and said. “The people of Akpanwudele (in Ogoja Province) have been in trouble and are infested with smallpox. People are dying, their women abort, their corps are bad and their cattle do not breed well. Can you tell us what to do to stop this? We stood waist deep in a stream with our back to the juju. Then we heard a voice say “Ongele and Alowa are witches. They are the cause of all this trouble. You must kill them but do it quietly otherwise there will be trouble. Then Egeede said to the juju, “I have been accused of witchcraft. If I am possessed of a witch, I want the juju to kill me. The juju said, “You have not got a witch.19 ”
In 1902, the British army blasted the cave where Ibiniukpabi was located in response to the belief that it encouraged slave trade. Its priest were exiled. Christianity was introduced by the British army Chaplain and propagated by the Presbyterian mission with Mary Slessor undertaking the training of women and providing home for twins who escaped being killed according to the prevailing custom. Prophesies took a new dimension all based on the African brand of Christianity. The first African missions that took root in Arochukwu were the Abosso Apostolic and the Eternal Order of the Cherubim and Seraphim. The former practiced Holy Spirit possession during which time the adherent goes into an unconscious fit. He later settles down to narrate his vision. The later believes in visions and dreams as a means of gaining insight into the future.
Since the end of the Nigeria/Biafra war, other Christian churches have adopted the practice of prophecies within their charismatic renewal. Some like the Jehovah Witnesses, predicted the end of the world in 1984. The Catholics predicted a day of darkness during which only candles blessed by a priest would give light. Apparition grounds are crowded by worshipers longing to hear prophecies as well as receive healings of body soul and bank accounts. The other sects talk about the impending end of times based on the incidence of wars and rumors of wars, earth quakes, famine, increased incidence of murder, the prevalence of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome and other devastating diseases. The traditional religionists still adhere to the old system of Alaezi and Iyamavia. Aro indigenes residing overseas even send in money for the annual ikeji sacrifices on Orie Egbugbu day. Those of them who receive blessings or are plagued with one problem or the other, also send in funds for sacrifices at their compound’s Iyamavia. They all believe that compliance with these ancient rituals will grant them blessings from and protections by God through the intervention of their ancestors. One typical protection the young married men seek is that which facilitates their wives fidelity in marriage.
Very recently, the Christian trend has been towards making sacrifices under the term of “sowing seeds” for success in material things. Believers are encouraged to donate generously to the church in the assurance that they will receive a return from God in very abundant measures in wealth as in health. Persons undertaking any adventure, including students about to sit examinations request for prayers from proclaimed men of God and return when the results are out to pay their vows of donations to the church.
From the above discussions, it is evident that the hopes of man is still the same. The only thing that changed is the acceptable approaches to such goals. In the past, before the introduction of Christianity, the trend was to approach the oracles for prophecies. In recent times, the oracles have been cast away and substituted with Christian concepts variously derived from the bible. The Igbo proverb states that “nku di na mba, na ehere mba nri”, which means that each culture provides adequately for its adherents. All through history, man has engaged itself consistently in rationalizing its present from its past and trying to forecast the future in an attempt to ease off the problems of existence. Our ancestors had satisfaction from the modality of seeking solutions to their problems that were related or associated with predicting the future. The modern Aro has also adapted to the prevailing belief system which is centered in Christianity by the workings of the Holy Spirit through the merits of Jesus Christ. These can be availed at Adoration Grounds and Crusades. In the end the purpose is the same, namely to procure happiness through the use of spiritual forces not amenable to scientific analysis, but purely based on faith.
James N. Ike, an undergraduate from Arochukwu submitted this to the university as part of the requirements for successful completion of a term paper. He relied heavily on previous editions of Aro News for materials, thus sent in this for publication as his contribution to the growth of the journal.