This essay argues that gender roles and relations in peacebuilding in Igbo society are complementary against the background of some misconceptions about the social relationships and cultures of the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. Of note is the portrayal of Igbo women by some scholars as being subservient, inferior, voiceless, and mere appendages to men. According to G. T. Basden, Igbo “women have but few rights in any circumstances and can only hold such property as their lords permit. There is no grumbling against their lot; they accept the situation as their grandmother did before them taking affairs philosophically, they managed to live fairly contentedly.”1G.T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria (Gloucestershire: Nonsuch Publishing, Ltd., 1921), 88. His opinion about Igbo women has been critiqued by scholars such as Akachi Ezeigbo as misleading and based on a lack of knowledge of the sociopolitical system and power relations between Igbo men and women.2Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo, “Traditional Women’s Institutions in Igbo Society: Implications for the Igbo Female Writer,” African Languages and Cultures 3, no. 2 (January 1, 1990): 149–65. Barely eight years after Basden expressed his views on the place of women in Igbo society, women rose to challenge colonial policies during the popular anti-colonial Aba Women’s Riots of 1929. These same women, earlier on represented as powerless, could not have amassed such power, influence, and courage to challenge the colonial authorities within a short period of time, if they did not already possess such clout.
Ifi Amadiume captures the dynamics of gender construct among the Igbo people, stating that women can take up the gender roles of males during certain situations and contexts.3Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Zed Books, 1987), 15–16. She describes such gendered roles as conferring the status of “male daughters” and “female husbands.” The practice of making “male daughters” is resorted to when a man does not have a male child after marrying other women; one of his daughters may decide to “stay back” without being married out to produce male children that would bear and retain her father’s name. In most cases, her parents arrange for a lover who would impregnate her or allow her to choose one. A woman can also take up the role of “female husband” if she is childless or widowed and/or wants to produce male children who will bear her husband’s name for the continuity of his lineage by marrying wives to bear children in his name. This explains why some Igbo people bear names like Amaefuna/Amaechina (My compound will not go desolate) and Ahamefula (My name would not be forgotten/lost). The “female husband” status can also be acquired through amassing as much wealth as possible and taking up formal political power and authority like their male counterparts. In a society that expects adult women to be married, these “female husbands” were free to marry their own wives and “father” their children. Such women are seen as men by their communities. This is, however, different from same-sex marriage in the western sense. The relationship between the ‘female husband’ and her bride is not amorous or based on same-sex relationships.
The dynamics of complementarity and power relations between Igbo men and women are visible in two transgenerational institutions—Ụmụada and Ụmụnna groups—whose legacies are passed from one generation to another. The term Ụmụada is derived from two Igbo words, Ụmụ (children) and Ada (a generic name for all first daughters, though it may loosely be used to refer to every female child of Igbo ancestry). The Ụmụada is an association of daughters of the land from the same natal community.4→Ngozi Ugo Emeka-Nwobia, “Women’s Involvement in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution among the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria,” Kujenga Amani, Social Science Research Council, May 28, 2015, https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2015/05/28/womens-involvement-in-peacebuilding-and-conflict-resolution-among-the-igbo-of-southeastern-nigeria/.
→Ngozi Ugo Emeka-Nwobia, “The Silent Voices of Peace: Unveiling the Role of Ụmụada in Conflict Management and Peacebuilding in Igboland, Southeastern Nigeria,” 2021 (under review). They are ever-present forces in their natal homes, as opposed to in their matrimonial homes, where their powers are limited.5Dorothy Oluwagbemi-Jacob and Chima Eni Uduma, “Gender Equality, Gender Inequality, and Gender Complementary. Insights from Igbo Traditional Culture,” in Gender and Development in Africa and Its Diaspora, ed. Akinloyè Òjó, Ibigbolade S. Aderibigbe, and Felisters Jepchirchir Kiprono (Routledge, 2018). They assume juridical and peacemaking roles and regularly perform purification as well as funeral rites for deceased members of their lineage.6Nkiru Nzegwu, “Feminism and Africa: Impact and Limits of the Metaphysics of Gender.” In A Companion of African Philosophy, ed. Kwasi Wiredu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 563.
The term Ụmụnna is derived from two Igbo words, Ụmụ (children) and Nna (a generic name for all sons) is a group of men from the same family or sharing the same ancestry. Like in most African societies, the extended family includes parents, grandparents, children, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins, and even extends to their children.7John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Garden City: Anchor, 1970), 1. This has given birth to neologisms, like “cousin-sister” and “cousin-brother,” to buttress affinity and blood ties with a cousin. These are common terms used to describe kinship relations and show endearment and closeness. The duties of members of the family include education, training, and transmission of the family values, legacies, skills, and knowledge systems (like medicine, architecture, vocation, craft-making skills, apprenticeship, trades, etc.) to the younger members of the families, who in turn transfer them to their younger ones. Thus, the family unit in Igbo land is a transgenerational platform for the conveyance of values. The elders ensure that these transgenerational knowledge systems are effectively transferred and inculcated in the younger ones. That is why skills like traditional orthopedic, healing/medicine, craft-making, and artistry run in certain families. These skills are learned or transferred through participant observation and Igba boyi (apprenticeship).
The Ụmụnna kinship system is a strong sociocultural institution in Igboland. They maintain and ensure the effective transferring of cultural heritage, settle inter-/intracommunal disputes/conflicts, and preside over marriage ceremonies and funerals. They are the first point of call whenever anything happens before it is taken outside the community. The Ọkpara (Ọkpala) is the leader of the Ụmụnna and represents the Ụmụnna in the governing council of the village/community. His opinions are guided and validated by his Ụmụnna’s decisions, which are democratically sought. The office of Ọkpara is not hereditary, so if an Ọkpara dies, the status is passed on to the eldest relative within the group, who could be his brother or cousin but not to his son.
During Ụmụnna meetings, every member has the right to express his ideas/opinions/views on a matter being discussed, while the elders are given the right to make the final decision after due consultations and private deliberations (ḷgba izu) among themselves. The Ụmụnna exist from the kindred to the village levels. They spearhead the affairs of the kindred, and their membership cuts across the different sociopolitical and economic divides. The Ụmụnna’s role is both legislative and judicial; they make laws in line with local customs and traditions and ensure their enforcement. The verdicts of Ụmụnna are often upheld in the court of law.
The membership of Ụmụada is made up of both the married and unmarried females of a particular community, though some communities in Igboland do not welcome the unmarried Ụmụada into the group. The unmarried daughters (those that have reached marriageable age) are not as powerful or outspoken as the married ones, as they are sidelined or easily dismissed as “Nna ga-alụ” (literally meaning “father will marry”) or “Ọtọ n’aka Nne” (“abandoned in the hands of the mother”). Indeed, staying unmarried as a fully grown girl in Igbo traditional societies was a burden, and such unmarried ladies were largely treated as social outcasts. That is why, though they are daughters, their married counterparts are considered more respectable. One of the primary aims of the Ụmụada association is to enable women to sustain their matrilineal ties. This implies that every Igbo female at birth is socialized into automatic membership in the Ụmụada, while upon marriage she becomes a member of both Ụmụada and Ndi Inyom / Nwunye di (a group of married wives in a particular community). As a married woman, she performs a dual function as daughter (in her natal home) and wife (in her matrimonial home). The association of Ụmụada is a formidable sociocultural/political organization in Igbo communities.
Ụmụada, Ụmụnna, peacemaking, and peacebuilding in contemporary Igbo society
Igbo society is made up of decentralized communities living in autonomous villages that are headed by councils of nonformal and nonhereditary leaders. Traditional institutions perform executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Their responsibilities are determined by the age-grade (Otu Ọgbọ) to which they belong, sex (like the Ụmụada and Ụmụnna), social status (male and female title holders), and the ritualistic roles they play (e.g., priests and priestesses).
Men and women that excel in society are recognized by the community reward system. Women, like their male counterparts, can take up the highest titles in their communities. For example, in Afikpo (Ehugbo), Ebonyi state of Nigeria, such women can take up the Omezue title and can participate in male-designated roles, rituals, and activities. Igbo society has produced well-educated and resourceful women whose voices are reckoned with in various fields of human endeavor. Some of these women are so empowered that they have silently taken over the so-called “male-designated” breadwinner roles in their homes, and sometimes finance their husbands to take traditional titles, marry younger wives, etc.
The powers of Ụmụada can be observed in their natal homes, where they exercise power and influence, as well as contribute to informal peacemaking and peacebuilding. Decisions reached by Ụmụada are considered final, even by the Ụmụnna, although their domains of operation are almost the same. Ụmụada deploy various strategies to ensure the preservation of their cultural heritage and peaceful coexistence within the community and with their neighbors. In traditional Igbo society, family and land disputes as well as inter-/intracommunal conflicts are resolved or adjudicated upon by traditional institutions like the Ụmụnna and Ụmụada. Their influence and power have survived in contemporary society, mainly because of the bias and lack of trust in inherited Western legal systems whose methods of adjudication are expensive, time-consuming, and tend to reward winners and punish losers without leaving space for reconciliation. Also, the courts mostly offered temporary relief, and conflicts tended to be reignited by any little provocation. Again, in the colonial era, it was common knowledge that the court clerks collected bribes to slant judgment in favor of erring parties. This led to a lack of trust in the colonial court system as the Igbo people preferred settling their cases through customary law and traditions. Okechukwu Ibeanu observed that the colonial legal processes were alien to local people and took a long time,8Okechukwu Ibeanu, “Aguleri-Umuleri Conflict in Anambra State.” In Civil Society and Ethnic Conflict Management in Nigeria, Ed. A. T. Imobighe (Ibadan: Spectrum Books Ltd, 2003). 167-222. contributing to the preference and reliance on indigenous institutions where people felt free to express themselves without fear of being misrepresented or misunderstood.
Every dispute is reported to the Ọkpara Ụmụnna, who, alongside the elders, ensure its timely resolution. Town meetings are attended by individual members of Ụmụnna groups. The members are allowed to voice their opinions and address the assembly on matters affecting the welfare and development of the community or as part of the process of resolving cases of conflict. This method ensures full representation and participation of all the Ụmụnna. Collective decisions taken are supported and upheld by members of the community. As such, questions like, “Ụmụnna ọkwa uche unu ka m kwuru?”—meaning, “My people, I hope I conveyed your thoughts?”—are commonplace. This is usually met by the response in unison, “Ọ bụ ya” (“Yes, it is”). Another example is, “Ụmụnna, Ọ kwa etu a ka ọdị?” (“Ụmụnna, I hope it is the true reflection of your views?”), which is followed by a chorused response, “Etu a ka ọdị!” (“That is exactly the way it is”). These questions and responses are constantly interjected during discussions to facilitate consensus and collective decision-making in ways that feed into conflict resolution and peacemaking. It is also a means for ensuring solidarity, support, and affirmation of accurately representing the people’s views, given that Igbo society is egalitarian and republican.
The Ụmụada do not wait for crises to be reported to them before they weigh in, because their ears are always on the ground to identify conflict situations, though in some situations they may be formally invited, especially in cases that have defied the efforts of Ụmụnna. Thus, they are always the last resort when men fail. A typical meeting of the Ụmụada starts with an opening prayer, then the generic greeting of, “Chee che che, Ụmụada ekelee m’ unu” (“Ụmụada, I greet you”), which is followed by the response, “Hia.” This is given by the oldest daughter, known as “Isi Ada,” who provides discourse right to whoever that wants to speak. The Isi Ada hails the daughter by calling her honorific name. This is to validate her right to speak and show solidarity. The daughters take turns speaking in a session usually moderated by the Isi Ada. From time to time, the owner of the floor calls on the listeners to validate her right to the floor and their support for her opinions. She calls out in the following words: “Ọọ m kwube?” (“Should I continue…?”). The women respond in affirmative, and then she goes on to speak.
The contributions of Ụmụada toward resolving domestic and communal conflicts in Igboland are noteworthy. To give a few examples, their interventions were significant in the peace processes that culminated in the resolution of the Aguleri/Umuleri conflict in Anambra state, the Umuode/Oruku conflict in Enugu state, and many others. In the Aguleri/Umuleri conflict, the Ụmụada utilized the following strategies to ensure peace: questioning/information gathering (Igba Njụ), dialogue, one-on-one conversations, and reconciliation meetings with the conflicting parties. In Mbaise and other parts of Igboland, they may go as far as staging nude protests to ensure compliance with their verdict. People are afraid of incurring the wrath of Ụmụada; as such, they are the final arbiters in traditional conflict resolution in Igboland. Conflicts resolved under this platform are binding on every member of the communities and are usually sealed by oath-taking (iyi) or blood covenant (iko mme), which are performed/overseen by the Ụmụnna.
Erring community members are customarily expected to comply with such decisions or face stiff punishment. Such punishment varies in severity depending on the nature of the misdeed or offense. In cases where an individual or group does not accept the verdict of the Ụmụnna, they can appeal to the village assembly—which is the next level—or resort to involving other families (Ụmụnna) in seeking further adjudication of the dispute. In as much as these institutions and practices still exist in contemporary Igbo society, strict adherence and compliance to their procedures as part of peacemaking and peacebuilding practices have dwindled over time in some parts of Igboland, especially in relation to the activities of the Ụmụnna. This is because people are increasingly becoming more individualistic and influenced by globalization, migration, and cultural hybridization. This essay therefore draws attention to the potential benefits of some of the practices of the Ụmụnna and Ụmụada, and advocates for their integration into contemporary community-based peacebuilding mechanisms as a strategy for ensuring sustainable and lasting peace.
- 1G.T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria (Gloucestershire: Nonsuch Publishing, Ltd., 1921), 88.
- 2Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo, “Traditional Women’s Institutions in Igbo Society: Implications for the Igbo Female Writer,” African Languages and Cultures 3, no. 2 (January 1, 1990): 149–65.
- 3Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Zed Books, 1987), 15–16.
- 4→Ngozi Ugo Emeka-Nwobia, “Women’s Involvement in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution among the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria,” Kujenga Amani, Social Science Research Council, May 28, 2015, https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2015/05/28/womens-involvement-in-peacebuilding-and-conflict-resolution-among-the-igbo-of-southeastern-nigeria/.
→Ngozi Ugo Emeka-Nwobia, “The Silent Voices of Peace: Unveiling the Role of Ụmụada in Conflict Management and Peacebuilding in Igboland, Southeastern Nigeria,” 2021 (under review).
- 5Dorothy Oluwagbemi-Jacob and Chima Eni Uduma, “Gender Equality, Gender Inequality, and Gender Complementary. Insights from Igbo Traditional Culture,” in Gender and Development in Africa and Its Diaspora, ed. Akinloyè Òjó, Ibigbolade S. Aderibigbe, and Felisters Jepchirchir Kiprono (Routledge, 2018).
- 6Nkiru Nzegwu, “Feminism and Africa: Impact and Limits of the Metaphysics of Gender.” In A Companion of African Philosophy, ed. Kwasi Wiredu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 563.
- 7John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Garden City: Anchor, 1970), 1.
- 8Okechukwu Ibeanu, “Aguleri-Umuleri Conflict in Anambra State.” In Civil Society and Ethnic Conflict Management in Nigeria, Ed. A. T. Imobighe (Ibadan: Spectrum Books Ltd, 2003). 167-222.