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British Influence

The failure of the Igbo to successfully resist British encroachment and colonization can be attributed to the lack of unity and political hegemony that characterized the independent microstates of the lower Niger in the late 19th century. Most communities existed independently of one another, and in this region, as in most, interethnic warfare was rampant, as republics and chiefdoms that belonged to the same ethnic stock would often wage war against each other, each seeking to gain an advantage over the other.

By the late 19th century, with the emergence of the Aro Confederacy as the principal trading power of the area, the dynamics of the region had somehow changed. The Aro Confederacy, a political union of the 19 villages of Arochukwu (a town in modern-day Abia) and their Abam, Ohafia and Abiriba mercenaries, held a monopoly on trade in eastern Nigeria and had established colonies in numerous areas to promote their economic and political interests. Communities that granted it trade rights were regarded as allies, while those that refused to open up their markets were raided by its head-hunters and mercenaries (who were notorious throughout the region for their viciousness) and either killed off or sold into slavery.

By the late 1890s, the advent of the British—with their strange, new religion and their anti-slavery attitude, which threatened to topple Aro dominance—had caused the emergence of strong tensions in the region, as there had evolved a complex network of communities that were either pro-Aro or anti-Aro and pro-British. In 1895, the Eze Ala (chief religious authority) of Obegu, an Ngwa market-town (in what is now southern Abia), broke his ties with the Aro—to whom he owed a large debt—and signed a treaty with the British. His actions angered the Aro, as they lost their trading privileges in his town and were cut off from the more prosperous coastal markets.

Tensions exploded in 1901, when the Aro and their allies descended upon Obegu with over a thousand warriors and sacked the town, burning its market as well as the British government building to the ground, and massacring over half a thousand people.

The Aro coalition intended to continue the assault as far as the Atlantic coast, ridding the soil of the British and their sympathizers, but were deterred the arrival of fresh British reinforcements into the area. This action would unleash a chain of wars that would last for nearly twenty years, as the British, under the guise of “liberation” and evangelization would march throughout southeastern Nigeria in pursuit of colonial subjects.

Note: The illustration above depicts pro-British forces ferrying British cannons and troops down a river.



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