…the nature of a typical Ìgbò person, by many standards, is the nature of Agụ the leopard
Despite the repeated enlightenment that what the Ìgbò people principally/originally refer to as “Agụ” is the leopard, some Ìgbò people disagree vehemently saying it is the lion.
One interesting yet an amusing feature of a substantial number of Ìgbò persons or groups (especially the young and middle-aged) today on the social media is their capacities and quickness to “disagree” with submissions on traditional Ìgbò affairs that counter their already formed conclusions—even when facts are presented against those conclusions. This is in itself not bad, given the highly democratic cultural background that moulded their minds and genes. Perhaps, they need to be consistently educated with tested facts, even if they—out of ego protection—refuse to take correction or learn. This evidently tells why the respected Ọmụ Ọkpanam Martha Dunkwu, in her wisdom, never fails to emphasize that “Ndị Ìgbò dị ọkịtịkpa rinne.”
Despite the repeated enlightenment that what the Ìgbò people principally/originally refer to as “Agụ” is the leopard, some Ìgbò people disagree vehemently saying it is the lion. This is not even the major problem. The major and nauseating problem is that some other Ìgbò persons defiantly say that “Agụ” is the tiger and that “Ọdụm” is the lion. Amazingly, they have nothing for the leopard, as they have deleted it from the Ìgbò environment and memory. You would think they are not many that hold this view, but they are. As such, it is important to quickly dispel the ignorance by removing aka enwe n’ofe tupuu ọ ghọọ aka mmadụ.
So, let us—from a position of current and updated research—deal factually with these contentions and other related concerns considering (and under) the following factors: the Ìgbò geography/environment, Ìgbò linguistics, Ìgbò spirituality/metaphysics/animal studies & symbolism/mythology, Ìgbò philosophy, Ìgbò history and modern politics. For the avoidance of doubts, I have—very recently—consulted and interviewed various sources and authorities/experts on the issue at hand based on each of these aforementioned areas of Ìgbò studies to obtain more valid information and facts, irrespective of my own knowledge. Now, let’s take off.
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The Ìgbò environment
What we have and know today as the territorial heritage of Ndị Ìgbò (i.e. land, air and waters) is bounded on the east and west by two major water bodies, i.e. the Cross River (on the east) and Niger River (on the west). However, on this western arm, the landmass stretches a little beyond the lordly Niger River where our kindred—the West Niger Ìgbò, known collectively today as “Ndị Anịọma”—occupy the present-day multiethnic Delta State of Nigeria. In general, the Ìgbò territory is bounded on the north by Igala, Tiv, and Idoma lands; on the south by Ịjọ, Urobo, and Isoko lands; on the east by Annang/Efik/Ibibio lands; and on the west by Edo land. The entire mass that exists between these boundaries is the Ìgbòland/Ìgbò territory or more specifically, Ìgbò environment.
Of course, the Ìgbò environment, as linguists and archaeologists have agreed, has lasted for a very long time. The late erudite Professor A. M. Ọnwụejeọgwụ of Ìgbò anthropological studies had asserted in his 1977 article “those initial settlements by present inhabitants of the forest zone of Ìgbòland exceed two millennia in age.” (Please, take note of the term “forest” in the quote). This Ìgbò environment has its vegetation which has long been observed and delineated into the following 4 major units by Dr. M. U. Ìgbòzurike (a foremost Ìgbò ecologist):
- The Rain Forest-Savanna Ecotone
- The Lowland RainForest
- The FreshWater Swamp Forest
- The Salt Water Swamp Forest
The word “Ecotone,” as in the first unit, refers to a transition area bestriding two ecological habitats, hence, the Rain Forest-Savanna Ecotone of the Ìgbò environment stretches from around Ágbọ (Delta State) on the west to Afikpo/Abankaleke (Ebọnyị State) on the east and rising upwards on both arms to the whole north of Ìgbòland where the Nsụka zone borders with the Igala, Tiv and Idoma. Going by the present-day Nigerian States, the zone includes small swaths of Anambra, Imo and Delta States and the whole of Enugwu and Ebọnyị States.
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The Lowland Rain Forest stretches from below Ágbọ on the west to below Afikpo on the east descending on both arms on nearly the whole of the south of Ìgbòland until Port-Harcourt.
The Fresh Water Swamp Forest is a small stretch/strip from Ọmambala riverine areas in the north descending and dividing the two major zones through Asaba, Ọgbarụ, Abọ, etc. and emptying into the Niger Delta while the Salt Water Swamp Forest is a small patch adjoining it (See image below).
Of all these 4 vegetation units, what is predominant is that they are all forest areas but with small swaths of savanna and swamp.
The lion—we call it “Ọdụm”—essentially exists in the savanna or grasslands or high shrubs. But the leopard—we commonly call it “Agụ”—exists essentially in the rain forests as a loner though can crisscross other zones. What this implies is that lions appeared in the Rain Forest-Savanna zone of Ìgbòland, especially at the northernmost fringes where the Ìgbò share boundaries with the Igala.
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As recent as 2008, an Igala hunter at the border between Ìgbò and Igala brought 2 cubs to the animal science department of the University of Nigeria, Nsụka for preservation and/or further sales. Such can hardly be heard of lions in recent times in any other part of Ìgbòland beyond the northernmost fringes. The leopard—Agụ—was regular, rampant, substantial in number, and well distributed in the entire Ìgbò environment; and hunters still see some in recent times, especially in the tall forest areas of Ńgwà, Ọkigwe and a few other areas where deforestation has been very minimal as against other lowland forest areas around Owere that have become urbanized and deforested.
In this entire Ìgbò environment, there was never and is never the existence of a tiger. The tiger was and is never seen in Africa to say nothing of Ìgbòland. Its habitat was and is still the rain forests of Asia not excluding Russia (the whole of Eurasia). If you are still in doubt about this, please, use your Google extensively and teach yourself that the tiger was never in the African environment or wild to say nothing of the Ìgbò environment.
The word “Agụ” can be linguistically examined from two perspectives: the root word and the animal type. The root of “Agụ” is “gụ” which principally implies holding firmly, getting a grip, grabbing, arrest, etc. Even the Ìgbò verb “ịgụ” (to read or to count) implies getting a grip (making sense) of what is written (ịgụ akwụkwọ) or what is numerous (ịgụ ọnụ). Also, very common expressions like “agụụ na-agụ m,” “agụụ agụgbugo m” or “agụụ ji m aka” imply one being badly gripped by hunger. Yet again, the word “agụụ” is spoken of by the Ìgbò as something alive/personified, hence, expressions like: “Kedụ ife bụ otii nwata n’iru nne ya? Agụụ!” (What/who is it that beats a child despite the mother’s presence? Hunger!) or “Agụụ abụrọ nwanne mmadụ” (Hunger is not any person’s beloved).
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This background offers insight into the evolution of the word “Agụ” as an animal type descriptor. And so, as an animal type, “Agụ,” in Ìgbò linguistics, generically refers to the feline/cat animals, famous for their extremely ferocious and firm ‘gripping’ of preys before devouring them. This is why, according to renowned Professor Boniface Mba of Ìgbò linguistics, these cats are delineated at the generic category with the “Agụ” prefix as in “Agụ-owulu” (the enigmatic leopard), “Agụ-Ọdụm” (the lion), “Agụ-ùfù” (the hyena/wild fox), etc. “These,” Professor Mba told me, “were mostly the biggest cats known in the Ìgbò environment.”
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But one may want to wonder why the pussycat itself is called “buusu” in the contemporary Ìgbò language and isn’t commonly known as “Agụ.” The fact is that “buusu” is assumed to be the local rendering (Ìgbònization) of the “pussy” in “pussycat.” The pussycat’s real Ìgbò name is “Nwamba/Nwologbo” or “Nwaobushi” (as called in parts of Nsụka). But then, one may ask: How isn’t the cat an “Agụ” by name since it is the foundation of the bigger Agụ? On this, a very knowledgeable and educated Dibịa (Ijelenze n’Ụmụnze), in our conversation recently, told me that in the older Ìgbò language, “cat was alternatively called ‘obele-agụ’ (small agụ) and some Ìgbò people still call it so till today.” This quickly made me remember that many Ìgbò persons commonly answered “Obeleagụ” as in the last century but the name has almost disappeared these days. For example, one of the early Ìgbò catholic priests from Ọnịcha was, by name, late Msgr. William Obeleagụ. The street/road behind St Mary’s Catholic Church in Ọnịcha today called “Obeleagụ,” as Ike Lord Aligo informed me recently, is named after the priest who ministered in the church many decades ago. Also, the fuller version of “Nwamba” appears to be “Nwamba-agụ” just as some parts of Nsụka would refer to a non-domestic cat as “Nwaobushi-agụ.”
On another hand, “Agụ” goes beyond the cats/felines to even birds and reptiles, which is why we have, for example, Agụ-Nkwọ (the hawk), Agụ-Íyí (the crocs), Agụ-Ụnọ (the geckos), among others. It is sometimes speculated that these ones represent “Agụ” based on their outer body designs that range from scales to spots, and to strokes (tiny or big). But this seems to contradict the nature of lions that may have existed in the Ìgbò environment, especially the regular ones that have no designs on their bodies. Lastly in Ìgbò linguistics, “Agụ” refers to the wild, uninhabited, communally owned land space—suggesting an entrapment for a normal person, following what the root word “gụ” entails in the sense of ‘gripping’ or ‘trapping’.
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Ìgbò metaphysics/mythology/animal studies & symbolism
Having explored the environmental and linguistic aspects of the issue, let us pay attention to the significance/meaning of “Agụ” beyond the physical engagement, considering that the Ìgbò ascribed and derived deep spiritual and mythological meanings from certain animals in their environment.
An attention-worthy post was recently made on Facebook by Mr. Celestine Ebubeọgụ on 30 April 2022 on this contentious issue. The post got some good circulation and many reactions, earning it attention. While some of the arguments in the said post are sound, some others that prioritized and valorized the lion over the leopard are erroneous and could be misleading, going by Ìgbò cosmological thoughts and narratives. According to Mr. Ebubeọgụ:
“When you attempt to limit the name “agụ” to just leopard in Igbo settings you are insulting the Lion that ruled our jungles.”
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This is, in part, disturbingly erroneous. From the basics, jungles such as the Ìgbò’s were mostly thick forests and lions did not “rule” there because they were not their best of terrains. The pre-contact (pre-Christian and precolonial) Ìgbò environment was predominantly a forest zone even with the small savanna in it, and so, the foremost big cat that traversed it was Agụ the leopard not Ọdụm the lion. Because of the leopard’s regularity in the Ìgbò environment which also registered its presence so profoundly in Ìgbò spirituality, sensibilities and mythology more than any other big cat, it became the only animal that won the standalone “Agụ” descriptor of the Ìgbò. In lending his eminent voice to this in an interview with me, Professor Ọnwụka Njọkụ of Ìgbò economic history remarked thus:
“The savanna part of Ìgbòland emerged as a result of human activities. The forested vegetation preceded the savanna by centuries when it (the forested vegetation) overwhelmed the Ìgbò environment. So, lions could not have dominated, been established and distributed in the Ìgbò environment as the leopards.”
Going further in Mr. Ebubeọgụ’s thesis, it is concluded that “the lion is the main Agụ in Igbo language.” Again, this is erroneous. The lion is not the “main Agụ.” The main Agụ—as seen so far in Ìgbò linguistics and as would be seen further here—is the leopard. This is partly why many enlightened Ìgbò have appropriately insisted that the present-day Ìgbò-identifying fabric with a lion head cannot be rightly called “Ákwà Isi Agụ” except it is of a leopard head. They also recommend that similar fabrics with other animal images be identified with the animal in question and not all lumped as Isi Agụ.
Meanwhile, what the Ìgbò revere, admire and imitate—even in fear—is Agụ the leopard. The lion is only feared—and maybe praised—by the Ìgbò just for its merciless and ruthless capacity for violence. As such, there is hardly any known Ìgbò proverb or lore that entertains the lion but there are for Agụ the leopard, even in music (such as in the song titled “Ife Onye Metalụ” by the legendary Osita Ọsadebe). Also, Cardinal Francis Arinze is reported (by some Ọzọ men of Ògídí in Anambra State) to have said that his father taught him how to interpret the sounds of Ògídí’s Ekwe Érùlù (Ikolo) in the early 1940s when the instrumentalist plays it to send the danger signal that Agụ has invaded the community, so that people may quickly run to safety. A few rhetorical and proverbial expressions based on Agụ include:
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- A na-abalụ agụ mba? Adịrọ abalụ agụ mba (Can a leopard be scolded? No one dares scold a leopard)
- Ukwu jie agu, mgbada abialụ ya ụgwọ (When a leopard lames, it becomes the duiker’s debtor)
- Nwa agụ isi ya-aka aka, a na-afụ ya mbọsị amụlụ ya (A young leopard that will live old is known from the day it is born)
Also, titles/names of persons and places among the Ìgbò abound with Agụ either as a prefix (Agụnwa, Agụnze, Agụegbo, Agụnecheibe, Agụobuowa—a community in Ezeagụ, Enugwu State, etc) or suffix (Ebubeagụ, Ikeagụ, Akagụ, Obiagụ in Enugwu city, Nwagụ in Agụlụ, Anambra State, Ụmụmba-Ndịagụ in Ezeagụ, Enugwu State, and so on). The litany of Agụ-based expressions and names among the Ìgbò, by far, pales Ọdụm-based ones (such as “Ọdụm-gburu-agụ/Ọdụm-na-egbu-agụ” for titles, “Ọdụmagụ” or “Ọdụm” as surnames).
In the metaphysical practices of Ìgbò shapeshifting, Agụ was the principal animal many of the shapeshifters adopted. Narratives that support this abound in many Ìgbò communities such as in Ụmụnnamehi, a village in Ihiala, Anambra State where it is called “Íhì Agụ.” It is very rare to hear, on the contrary, “Íhì Ọdụm.” However, Anselm Ọnyịmọnyị, a professor of Ìgbò animal science/studies told me recently when I interviewed him that shapeshifting to Ọdụm the lion was limited to a few areas in the north of Ìgbòland like in Ọkpatụ in Udi LGA of Enugwu State where in his words:
“Whenever any prominent man died, some persons get to see a lion but the lion would never hurt any member of the community. It is believed that the departed prominent man had appeared [in form of a lion] to show himself for the final time before joining the ancestors.”
Yet from the metaphysical perspective, it is worth mentioning that Dr. Christie Chinwe Achebe (the wife of late Chinua Achebe) who did the earliest detailed academic study of Ọgbanje in her book, The World of the Ogbanje, emphasized that in treating “Ara Ọgbanje” (the Ọgbanje that suddenly got mad), “the diviners would not reveal the details of the medicine… which involves the use of a mixture.” (p.54) But, Professor Ọnwụka Njọkụ of Ìgbò economic history seemed to have given out some clue in his book, Economic History of Nigeria, 19th–21st Centuries, on what this mixture could possibly be made of. “The whiskers, fangs and claws of the leopard [agụ-owulu] and crocodile [agụ-íyí],” Njọkụ revealed, “were used also by medicine-men to prepare charms…to cure Ọgbanje.” (p.50) Also, leopard skins were very commonly demanded and used by craftsmen to make machete sheaths, skin bags, amulets and so on. This still happens in some of the interior parts of Ìgbòland today. Though the lion’s skin was also used—such as in Ọkpatụ in Udi LGA of Enugwu State where the biggest Mmọnwụ (name withheld) that appeared once in 4 years used a real lion’s skin and mane for bracelets—it was nothing to be compared to the leopard’s many body parts that were sought after like precious golds. Professor Ọnyịmọnyị’s profoundly intelligent submission caps the argument on how the Ìgbò prioritized Agụ the leopard over Ọdụm the lion based on ecology:
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“While the Igbos in the hinterland – the forest area – who were major in number knew the leopard more, the ones in the dry savanna who were in minority were familiar with the lion—I mean in the recent past. But because the Igbos have a [cultural] meeting point, they all adopted the leopard as the predominant big cat of the Igbo environment, which is why it featured more in the Igbo narratives.”
Anọzie Awambu has already done an excellent work here on establishing the symbolic prioritization of the Ìgbò have wisely and most reasonably placed on Agụ the leopard over and far above Ọdụm the lion. This needs no repeating. There is no question that the nature of a typical Ìgbò person, by many standards, is the nature of Agụ the leopard and barely Ọdụm the lion. In fact, as the consummate Ìgbò architect, thinker and founder of Orange Skin, Obiọra Nwazọta has remarkably stated in our conversation recently:
The ideas of ‘lion share,’ ‘lion king,’ ‘lion the king of the jungle,’ and so on are all propaganda built by the English – the British – who never saw lions around them until their contact with Africa. They created the lionization narrative that has become globally accepted and which also favours their monarchical system/background. Of course, that is opposed to the democratic republicanism of the Ìgbò. In curiosity, the lion is one of the laziest animals on earth and has an entitlement mentality. That is so un-Ìgbò! If you actually put Agụ and Ọdụm, for their strengths and everything, pound for pound, Agụ will outlast Ọdụm any day. It’s just that physically, Ọdụm is 3 times bigger than Agụ which is why it can defeat it based on raw violence.
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It must be emphasized, at this juncture, that Ìgbò ancestors who have lived and died over a century ago possessed a far higher faculty than the present generations alive based on hands-on experiences that gave them a profound mastery of their environment and also motivated them to prioritize certain animals over others. As Nwazọta keenly analyzed: “We, the present generations, can’t even scratch up to number 2 of the level of their intellect and inventiveness if it were to be on the scale of 1 to 10.”
For example, the phenomenal Ikenga which they conceived is physically a ram-headed figurine but one which embodies partly and abstractly an unpopular but important trait of the ram which is: enduring resilience. They could have prioritized another animal, say, Nwamba the cat or Nkịta the dog over Ebune the ram in Ikenga, but they did not. If—for them—the idea of hard work (the strength of the right arm) and success (results of hard work) against all odds is what the Ikenga represents, then the virtue of enduring resilience must follow it, and the ram spoke effectively to them on that. Unsurprisingly, they left this lesson in the powerful proverb: “Ebune na-eli n’ude” which can be loosely translated as “the ram benefits in endurance.” This philosophical principle guided their choice of Agụ over Ọdụm too. Their idea of a big cat was not just about its sheer strength, raw violence and kingliness. No! The Ìgbò ancestors admired and pursued versatility, adaptability, individuality, creative use of strength, competition, knowing when to quit, and earned pride against entitlement mentality, among other qualities possessed by a leopard.
Mr. Idoko, a 70-year old grandson of a very famous hunter at the northern boundary community of Ìchì/Ụnadụ between the Nsụka Ìgbò and Igala people in Kogi State at mid-20th century, told me in an interview recently that though his grandfather hunted lions, he spoke more reverently of the leopard. According to him, his grandfather was often called upon when it appeared the leopard was dangerously lurking around in the community looking for prey. The hunter, he said, could command a leopard to let go of someone’s goat if he saw it grabbing the goat, and the leopard would peacefully oblige. Mr. Idoko also mentioned that his grandfather taught them that the leopard’s greatest strength was on his left arm and that if one was about to be attacked by a leopard, he should aim to grab the left arm firmly to mutilate it because the leopard would not bite until it has destroyed the prey with its claws. He additionally spoke of how the leopard would never allow its ill-fated prey to fall on dirt when thrown overboard. The leopard would rather carry it midair than let it yield to gravity. These traits of a leopard made it more appealing than a lion to the people of that generation who hunted their rainforest-savanna zone for many years.
Ìgbò history and postwar politics
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Historically, as Anọzie Awambu, has noted in his article, the first-generation of Ìgbò people who received Western education just as the present-day Ìgbò, had no confusion about the prioritization of Agụ over Ọdụm in the Ìgbò environment, thought and culture. It abounded in the modern literature they crafted, in regular social interactions and in the symbolic values of governmental institutions. The Eastern Region Government of Nigeria, for instance, had a full representation of Agụ the leopard in its coat of arms which was later used for the Republic of Biafra.
The confusion came with the postwar jostling and tussles for some ridiculous Ígwēship, chieftaincy and delusional monarchical positions encouraged by the 1976 Chieftaincy Edict of the military government of Nigeria. The men who engaged in these chaotic and un-Ìgbò pursuits fueled the proliferation of the so-called lion-head-branded Ákwà Isi Agụ which fitted their fanciful and groundless imitation of the British-styled monarchy that adored the lion as well as propagated lionization.
Of course, the businessmen at the time jumped at the opportunity and helped to mass-produce the fabric as a symbol of the new but philosophically misguided “royal” prestige — one which littered the Ìgbò sociocultural and psychosocial landscape and lexicon with such British-modeled, laughably bogus and un-Ìgbò titles as “His Royal Highness (HRH), His Royal Majesty (HRM), High Chief, Ogbuefi I, Omego I,” and so on. All these were and are of no use if the leaders at the time paid attention to what the true Ìgbò cultural foundations were and should be. The late great Chinua Achebe, of course, decried these developments at the time they were maturing in his 1983 seminal work, The Trouble with Nigeria. His words, after nearly 40 years, are still as new and historically relevant, and urgently need quoting at length:
“The bankrupt state of Igbo leadership is best illustrated in the alacrity with which they have jettisoned their traditional republicanism in favour of mushroom kingships. From having no kings in their recent past the Igbo swung round to set an all-time record of four hundred “kings” in Imo and four hundred in Anambra! And most of them are traders in their stall by day and monarchs at night; city dwellers five days a week and traditional village rulers on Saturdays and Sundays! They adopt “traditional” robes from every land, including, I am told, the ceremonial regalia of the Lord Mayor of London!
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“The degree of a travesty to which the Igbo man is apparently ready to reduce his institutions in his eagerness “to get up” can be truly amazing. At first sight, this weakness might appear only as a private problem for the Igbo themselves. But indifference to non-material values which it portrays might easily spill over into carelessness and a disregard for the feelings of sacredness which others might hold for their own institutions. And there is great danger of social friction in this.” (p.48)
Indeed, Ìgbò people are currently stewing in that “social friction” as predicted by the sage. And one of its degrading manifestations is the self-imposed cultural-mental confusion and imported entanglements that have necessitated a discourse like this. Ndị Ìgbò must make haste to return to the original consciousness and foundations of the things that made profound meaning to their ancestors as well as brought them thus far, such as discussed so far.
Even as some of the importers/businessmen are beginning to amend the postwar misadventure of prioritizing Ọdụm over Agụ (which has now lasted for nearly half a century) by making available in the market more of the leopard head fabrics, there is the need—as Obiọra Nwazọta has eloquently advised—to improve on the entire Isi Agụ design as to give it deeper meaning and significance strongly rooted in the indigenous Ìgbò cultural-philosophical thoughts and cosmological foundations. And, the greatest of all would be: To improve from making the fabrics in China or elsewhere to making them at home and supplying them to other Ìgbò and interested buyers in the diaspora and around the world.
As Ụmụ Obiligbo the duo musician penetratingly sang and instructed: “Ọdịbendị na-alusị ọlụ ike!” (That which is of/in the land is the most powerful for its people!).
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Chijioke Ngobili is a family and music historian.