Ekumeku: How this Igbo group resisted British domination for 30 years

The Ekumeku Movement Explained

During Britain’s colonisation of Nigeria, one of the most prolonged and drawn-out conflicts was against the Ekumeku. A movement fought by the Anioma, an Igbo subgroup, and their neighbouring Igbo allies.

So, what sparked the beginning of the movement? 

As the British looked to expand their colonial domination of Nigeria, they turned North of the Niger Delta. However, inside Western Igboland, they encountered strong pushback which took them by surprise.

In the late 1880s, colonial control in the form of the Royal Niger Company brought about hostilities, especially amongst Anioma groups like the Ika. Fearing foreign rule, they grew in hatred and aversion after the company’s attempts to dominate the inhabitants.

To protect themselves from foreign invaders, groups of young men known as ‘otu okorobia’ from various villages joined together to establish the Ekumeku secret organisation, an underground resistance movement against British domination.

How did the conflict play out?

The more the British sought to entrench themselves around Asaba and Western Igboland, the more they destroyed the Igbos’ freedom and culture. Techniques the British used to gain control included:

  1. Establishing Native Courts, which took power away from the traditional council of elders
  2. Selecting local chiefs and forcing them to carry out their will
  3. Building mission stations and pushing Christian missionaries to preach a new faith, condemning the native people’s ancient religion.

All of these events irritated people so much that the Ekumeku movement gained popularity. 

Those who worked for the British administration, missionaries, and European commerce were among the most despised. Several Native Courts and mission buildings were looted and torched.

One of Britain’s major military blunders occurred in Ogwashi-Ukwu, where they had to retreat and call on reinforcements from Lagos. At the height of their influence, the Ekumeku were dreaded like the Abam warriors of the East. As both became known for wreaking and devastating the areas they invaded. (Ref 2)

The Ekumeku were so successful in obstructing the British Niger Company’s agents in the region beyond Asaba that the company was obliged to confront them in 1898. The company was released from all political and administrative tasks in Nigeria as part of a peace deal, which lasted until 1900.

What made the Ekumeku so resistant to British rule? 

In English, the term “Ekumeku” is untranslatable. Nonetheless, it evokes images of words such as “invisible,” “whirlwind,” “devastating,” and “uncontrollable,” among others. (Ref 1)

The Ekumeku were able to resist for so long in part because the British misunderstood the movement’s origins and nature. As a result, they could not effectively communicate with them and facilitate negotiations between the Ekumeku and the Southern Nigerian Protectorate. 

Unfortunately, after 30 years of resistance (1883-1914), the Ekumeku were eventually defeated by successive military setbacks, trials, and incarceration by Native Courts. 

Reference 1: Adiele Afigbo Essays Edited by Falola, Toyin. Igbo History and Society, 2005. Pages 341 – 343

Reference 2: Oriji, John N. Political Organization in Nigeria Since the Late Stone Age: A History of the Igbo People , 2010.


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