Is Onitsha the extravagance capital of Nigeria?, By Dom Ikeogu

On average, three people take traditional chieftaincy titles each week in Onitsha, Anambra State, Nigeria. That’s approximately 156 men and women every year rolling out the drums. Each of those ceremonies cost at least N20m or over $13,000 at an estimated exchange rate of N1500 per Dollar. This is a scandalous level of ostentation in a country where an estimated 150 million people live in multi-dimensional poverty.


A large chunk of the money spent on title-taking goes into a slew of levies and dues as well as an entire week of feasting and merriment. The levies and dues go into the coffers of either the Agbalanze (for men) or Otu Odu Society (for women). Some of it is redistributed as mandatory tokens to already enlisted members who are physically present during the induction ceremonies of new members. Numbering in their hundreds, each old member is said to sometimes take home up to N20,000 from each new inductee.


So, title taking is a powerful pension scheme from which members, especially those resident in and around Onitsha, draw handsomely for the rest of their lives. This is one of the good things about the ancient institution.


In addition, members are entitled to certain paraphernalia of office as people of stature. For instance, men wear their hats with an eagle’s feather stuck at the back and also carry a wide, ceremonial hand fan. The women wear elephant tusks on their ankles and wrists, in addition to elegant white uniforms and headgear. Both men and women enjoy special privileges and recognition during outings and social gatherings. All of which puts a spring in their steps.


This is the force driving a new craze for titles among the Onitsha-Igbo, especially those living abroad. It is spreading to other Igbo communities.


My friend who recently joined the Agbalanze Society (along with his two sons) tells me that he feels a deep sense of satisfaction and pride for his recent accomplishments. “For so long”, he said, “I had been intimidated by men, sometimes younger and less accomplished, who commanded more respect at social gatherings. They got invited to high tables, to break kola nuts and to say prayers while the rest of us were anonymous in the crowds.”


To get a glimpse of the sheer ostentation and merriment associated with each event, you may wish to know that about two dozen live goats are slaughtered and shared among Agbalanze members on the night of Ibu Ego (literally, “carrying the money”). This goes with an endless flow of kola nuts and expensive drinks, mostly spirits, which must go round every member present, as initiation rituals proceed.


On the day of Mmacha (public presentation), invited guests (numbering in thousands), countless stakeholder groups and musical troupes join the celebrant and his family for a colorful display and lavish feast that goes on well into the night. Highlife bands are usually in attendance. Expensive uniforms are worn by dozens of stakeholder groups, all related to the celebrant. Cows are killed to supply meat. Drinks flow like water. All at the expense of the celebrant. It is like a test of the financial muscles and economic endurance limits of new initiates.


These events have not slowed down even with the prevailing economic hardship in Nigeria. And I’ve not mentioned the lavish wedding and burial ceremonies which go on literally every day.


As an Onitsha indigene myself, I am often baffled and sometimes shamed by this excessive indulgence and self glorification in our culture. On Facebook and other social media platforms, it is splashed daily for the world to see. As if the world really cares about a culture of wastefulness and zero commitment to innovation and sustainable development.


A society that does not pay attention to the technological advancement of the human race and the empowerment of its people to become self-reliant will ultimately die a slow death.


I worry that excessive consumption and celebration is detrimental to the lives of resident young men and women, especially without equal emphasis on hard work. They see no examples of diligence, thrift and capital accumulation which are necessary for useful citizenship. Since there is a constant supply of food and drink, they see no need for work. Many succumb to a life of drunkenness and substance addiction. They raise dysfunctional families and eventually die prematurely from organ damage. The cycle continues with their poorly raised children for generations.


In more progressive societies, persons who have the privilege of good education and opportunity to travel the world, come home with innovative ideas which slowly transform their own communities for good. In Onitsha today, I fear that the city’s large Diaspora population has allowed itself to be intimidated by their brethren living at home. In exchange, they are permitted to indulge their obsession for clout, social status and recognition.


Enough! This lack of decency must stop. What need has a little child or teenager for high social title when he has achieved nothing by himself? What motivation has he to strive, when he has received something highly valuable without merit? Are we not raising a spoilt generation?


Before the Nigerian Civil War, the Ozo and Odu titles were reserved for those who had excelled in their chosen professions and made tangible contributions to the growth of their communities. Those men and women were considered upright, and wise, virtues which they were expected to put to further use for society upon their initiation and elevation.


Today, anyone with money, especially folks living in the USA with a strong dollar exchange rate, can take those titles without contributing anything to society. They demand respect simply because their money has bought them titles.


When I asked my friend why he decided to sponsor his two teenage children to take titles also, he said, “I don’t want them to suffer the humiliation I suffered.” I shook my head in amazement.


There is no doubt that some of our noble traditional institutions need urgent recalibration.


How about making it mandatory for new members to contribute a certain amount towards building a new ultra modern library, a modern sports facility, a shelter for the homeless, a modern community hospital or public water supply for indigents? How about scaling down the wasteful merriment to accommodate this? How about encouraging initiates to build factories which will create jobs and build sustainable wealth? How about putting a lower age limit to ensure that underaged persons with no accomplishments to their names are made to wait, mature and truly earn their titles?


Perhaps then, people like us can look forward to being part of a truly prestigious club of highly respectable men. Not one dominated by wannabes and money bags. Perhaps then, we can begin to make Onitsha a truly progressive society that it once was. For now, Onitsha is probably the Extravagance Capital of a poor, struggling country called Nigeria.


*Dominic Ikeogu writes from Minnesota, USA





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  1. “If the truth shall kill them, let them die.”Immanuel Kent

    There are only two ways to respond to truth: accept it or deny it. You either accept the truth as it is and learn how to handle what it throws at you or add some lies to it. Though, honestly, denial can lead to hurting yourself more than you intended.

    Umu Onicha Eziokwu Dimma
    Let us Repent

  2. Whilst the young people of onitsha are either in robbery, scam or crime, remains largely uneducated and no hope for the future, many are alcoholics thanks to the incessant titles and burial ceremonies at least 3times weekly like the author said, many of these young ones are dying untimely. Seems more like a cursed town rather than progressive. We would think that these men and women largely in diaspora would be better exposed to invest in the young rather than in titles.

    1. There is nothing bad in omenani. The cost should be sliced down. You don’t need to sell your land to take the chieftaincy title. The cost should be made affordable for all who are interested. The title ought to be conferred on men and women of proven character who have contributed immensely to the society. Men and women of intergrity.

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