The ancient City State of Opobo stands as a founder’s delight. Chief Jack Annie Pepple and other pioneer Chiefs eluded their home in Grand Bonny the heartland of the Ibani people, to establish a new kingdom called “Opobo” (English for Opubo-ama, or the Kingdom of Opobo). It was derived from the name of legendary King Opubo (1738 – 1830) a celebrated Ibani monarch. Thanks to the strategic vision of Chief Jack Annie Pepple, the establishment of Opobo became an economic and political master stroke. It went far beyond its immediate cause, which was the 1869 war in Grand Bonny between Fubara Manilla group of Houses led by Chief Oko Jumbo and the Opubo Annie Pepple group led by Chief Jack Annie Pepple whose Ibani name of JuwoJuwo was rendered as Jaja by the British. The legend of Jaja was in the making, on the horn of danger and destruction that would have terrified lesser men. Not Jaja. For he turned the crisis of a civil war and defeat in Bonny into a great advantage for him and pioneer chiefs of Opobo, with the establishment of a new kingdom.
Jaja and his group secured a geographical location that reinforced their tactical and diplomatic vision as founding fathers. The land stood just about a day’s paddle away from their ancestral Ibani root. With it they were set to turn their new kingdom into a unique 19th century bridge for commerce. They crowned their leader Chief Jack Annie Pepple (Juwo Juwo) as King Jaja, the first Amanyanabo of Opobo Kingdom. They chose December 25, 1870 to establish Opobo. From its location, Opobo easily reached out to set up trading posts with land-based farmer communities. There spread out under thick foliages of fresh water forests to the left of the kingdom, along the one – way direction of a resolute Imo River. The run of the river covered hinterland sections of the Ogoni, Ndoki, Ibibio, Annang, Etche, Ngwa and Igbo people. And to its right, the new kingdom followed the tidal sweep of the Atlantic Ocean. Opobo traders went through winding rivers and creeks to build business interests linking different communities with deft socio-cultural ties that were largely viable. These took them into maritime coastal communities of Andoni, Ibibio, and Ibuno among others on the south eastern tip of the old Oil Rivers protectorate. This was before colonial Britain seized the Niger Delta. The region was later shaped into part of a new political entity called Nigeria, which Britain created.
King Jaja and the founding Chiefs demonstrated tenacity of purpose, statesmanship and commercial drive to bring Opobo to international prominence. The Kingdom quickly became one of the six leading City States of the Oil Rivers protectorate. Their strategic moves successfully engineered their local economy into prime relevance in the Palm Produce trade of 19th Century. Europe designed the trade to favour infant industries belonging to its urban merchant class, at the expense of rural West African communities.
Against this economic confrontation, King Jaja earned distinction as a leading entrepreneur and nationalist in the struggle against Europe’s business driven political agenda. Together with the pioneer Chiefs of Opobo Kingdom, King Jaja built a flourishing City – State that helped to shape trade, education and diplomatic relations between European countries and paramount Niger Delta Kingdoms. These endeavours helped to define and strengthen the economy of the Niger Delta.
Unfortunately the same endeavours sign-posted King Jaja as a symbol of potential indigenous control of the unfolding trade with Europe, an unyielding nationalist and first apostle of “resource control” in the Niger Delta. His position threatened the agenda of imperial Britain. He was subsequently abducted by Britain through ungentlemanly guile, tried under false charges and dispatched into exile like kings of other prominent communities, to clear the coast for the British. With Jaja and his fellow symbols of indigenous control of the Niger Delta out of the way, the British made rapid progress in imposing their empire on the region. They became the colonial master! To seek a new direction for the home of King Jaja, this narrative was revisited with holistic passion by His Majesty King Dandeson Douglas Jaja (Jeki V or King Jaja the Fifth) in his coronation address as Amanyanabo of Opobo Kingdom on January 3, 2004.
The communities of the kingdom sprawl out on a geographical canvass whose coordinates are latitude O4o34’N and longitude O7o12’E. The kingdom’s location on the interphase between Imo Rivers estuary and the Atlantic Ocean, has surrounded Opobo with more brackish than saline water. This derives from the volume of run off freshwater into Imo Rivers estuary from the hinterland and the large rainfall of over 3000mm per annum. The result is a more delicate ecosystem. It is mixed with the flora and fauna of both fresh water tolerant species such as the Nypa palm vegetation as well as a saline sensitive stock of shell fishes. There are also the flourish of rare mangrove forests of white and red varieties.
Modern Opobo Kingdom is renewing the vision of relevance of its economy. King Dandeson Douglas Jaja JP, Jeki V Amanyanabo of Opobo, began succession rites in 1980, when his illustrious father King Douglas Jaja (Jaja IV), joined his ancestors. The coronation ceremony on January 3, 2004 has ushered in a systematic process of structures to enhance consultations and participation by the citizenry. They are to harness and redirect the human, cultural and social resources of the kingdom to fit into a productive local economy in a dynamic world. Appropriate committees have been set up by 2005 on the first anniversary of the coronation. A plan of action with innovations to inspire the kingdom, is being concretized under the leadership of the Council of Alapu (Chiefs) and the Amanyanabo of Opobo Kingdom.
Opobo Town is the headquarters of Opobo/Nkoro Local Government Area created in 1996.The Kingdom is made up of satellite towns namely: Kalaibiama, Queens Town, Minima, Illoma and Epellema, Ekereborikiri, Down-Below, Abazibie and Opukalama. There are also settlements and villages or fishing ports belonging to various Wari (War Canoe Houses) and Polo (Group of Houses or Section) of Opobo Kingdom.
STRUCTURE AND SYMBOLS
Opobo Kingdom has 67 Wari (War Canoe Houses or Chieftaincy Compounds) each of which is headed by an Alabo (Chief).The 67 Wari belong to the 14 Polo whose pioneer chiefs established Opobo Kingdom as the founding fathers. It was their success and those of their descendants as competitive entrepreneurs in the Palm Produce economy that led to the flourish of the number of Wari in each Polo. At the head of the kingdom is the Amanyanabo who is the Paramount Ruler and the King. The 14 Polo inaugurated by the founding Chiefs and their 67 Wari are as follows in order of size: King Jaja Polo (14 War Canoe Houses or Wari), Datoo Polo (8), Dappaye Amakiri Polo (7), Diepiri Polo (6), Kalaomuso Polo (5), Ukonu Polo (5), Kieprima Polo (4), Iruanya Polo (4) Epelle Polo ( 3), Tolofari Polo ( 3), Fubarakuro Polo (2), Owujie Polo (2), Biriye Polo(2), Adibie Polo (2).
MEMBERS OF COUNCIL OF ALAPU:
At present there are 26 Members of the Council of Alapu in Opobo Kingdom. The number changes as War Canoe Houses in each Polo come forward to fill their vacant chieftaincy stools. The Council sits regularly with the Amanyanabo as chairman, to deliberate on issues affecting the kingdom. The council is backed by two types of committees, created by the Amanyanabo since the inauguration of January 3, 2004. The first includes a number of strategic committees to deal with innovative ideas or issues that have tactical or strategic implications. The Awards Programme Committee (with Alabo Prof DMJ Fubara as its chairman) and The Blueprint Committee (under Prof Winston BellGam) are good examples. The second group of committees are administrative, to facilitate decision making or detailed implementation. Good examples include The Cultural Matters committee under Alabo I.C. Ogolo Fubara, the Tourism And Culture committee to be reconstituted and The Publicity Committee led by Alabo G.O.N. Bupo. Both sets of committees report to the full council, thus contributing to the effective management of the kingdom by the Amanyanabo and the Council of Alapu.
The members are:
i) His Majesty King Dandeson D. Jaja JP, Jeki V;
ii) Alabo (Rtd Col) J.J.Brown (Vice Chairman of Council)
iii) Alabo C.J. Owujie (Principal Secretary)
iv) Alabo C.B.D Annie Stewart (Secretary)
v) Alabo (Sir) S.A.G. Epelle (Treasurer)
vi) Alabo ( Dr ) M.C.A. Peterside.
vii) Alabo I.C. Ogolo Fubara
viii) Alabo A. T. Strongface
ix) Alabo (Prof) D.M.J Fubara JP
x) Alabo G.A. Cookey-Gam JP
xi) Alabo E.A.Jim Jaja
xii) Alabo A.D.S.Toby JP
xiii) Alabo M.Captain Uranta
xiv) Alabo D.J. Manilla
xv) Alabo Sir (Dr) S.O.Sunday Jaja
xvi) Alabo F.S.K. Fubara
xvii) Alabo G.O.N.Bupo
xviii) Alabo E.D.Mac Pepple
xix) Alabo N.F.Diri
xx) Alabo E.G.Patesi-Oko Jaja
xxi) Alabo T.T. Ikpo Diri
xxii) Alabo (Engr.) R George Cookey-Gam JP
xxiii) Alabo Biekpo Erasmus Jack Tolofari
xxiv) Alabo Manasseh Ogbulu Accra Jaja
xxv) Alabo Princewill N Wogu Dappa
xxvi) Alabo (Senator) Adawari M. Pepple.
Each War Canoe house has its own “badge”, a traditional flag on which is written in bold relief the name and symbol of the original founder of each Chieftaincy or War Canoe House. The flags are as many as the number of Houses that have come to comprise the Kingdom. These stood at 67 by the end of the 1940s when the last chieftaincy Houses were created. These traditional flags are usually hoisted with due ceremonies on the 24th December (Christmas Eve) every year, to commemorate the founding of Opobo Kingdom and to herald a month-long season of festivals. The flags are rolled up on the last day of January of the New Year to close the festive season.
Apart from traditional flags, there are other historical artifacts with which every war canoe house is identified. These include wooden gongs (“Ekere”), Wooden Xylophone-(“Ngelenge”), Boat Shed (“Aruwari”), family shrine (“Duobie”), and community shrines (“Luko”).
The Omu Aru (War Canoe) is the gun boat. It was perhaps the defining symbol, representing political authority and power of the War Canoe House. It was also a statement of the collective capacity for self defense in men and material by the kingdom. Even more, it was the instrument for maintaining territorial integrity and business interests: either securing access or protecting markets of the kingdom, as in settlements/trading posts belonging to the Wari or Polo. Usually equipped with four canons, the War Canoe displayed massive firepower and long range capability: with one canon each to the fore, rear and to both sides at the middle of a long dug-out canoe, it had capacity for an average of 50 persons. Drummers in each party sat on a pre-fabricated loose wooden platform at the centre, in the bowel of the boat. This gave them some security. Theirs was the arduous task to whip the blood of the warriors into battle frenzy. Their wooden gongs or Ekere arranged in a definite tonal order, provided the hard-ware to pump a steady dose of music-like adrenalin into the blood stream of the warriors. The rest of the men had a dual role. They sat two in a row on the wooden crossings (nduru) in the boat. Their paddles flowed in unison, to power the War Canoe as fast as necessary to destination. They also served as warriors, armed with weapons of war to engage the enemy on contact or as their commander directed.
GIGI (REGATTA BOAT)
It is a long canoe fully decorated with flags and buntings as well as drummers, to serve on relevant ceremonial occasions. One of such occasions is when the Alabo (Chief) of each Wari is required to display during his chieftaincy installation or join other Wari in a collective display during appropriate festive occasions. The drummers embedded in the “gigi” work their instruments of xylophone (Ngelenge), bass drum (Akusa) and assorted wooden gongs (Ekere) to provide a rhythm which 32 or more paddlers follow.
The annual Nwotam regatta display on December 31, has given the event an added dimension. Colorful troupes (called Uke) in various categories (senior, intermediate and minor) are produced by the 5 main groups currently in the centre of Nwotam activities of the kingdom. Unlike the Gigi display by Wari or Polo on chieftaincy related occasions, the Nwotam regatta is an annual event. It is not tied to any House or Polo. In fact their membership is drawn from across different Polo and different professional specializations. Sometimes it is drawn from communities even outside Opobo Kingdom. The Nwotam groups are each autonomous but are coordinated under a central body, with Uke Mkpa as the apex organization. Uke Mkpa has the custody of the Nwotam masquerade regalia and regulates the dance. The Amanyanabo is usually the Grand Patron of Uke Mkpa. In random order, the Nwotam groups or Uke as each one is called, are as follows:
i) Ejesilem Movement of Nigeria
ii) Ugele Mkpa Society
iii) Ofo-Na-Ogu Society
iv) Amatemeso Movement
v) Iyi-Eke Society
The gigi of each Uke parades the Opobo river to entertain thousands of spectators that gather at the waterfronts every December 31. It is a colourful outburst of decorations, drummers and dancers that ignite the kingdom with pulsating rhythm. They continue to dance, from the landing of the regatta boats in the evening of December 31, until the Nwotam cultural explosion on January 1st. This has become a regular slot on the Opobo cultural calendar. Such displays have enhanced the backbone of the regatta culture in Opobo and added to the kingdom’s enthusiasm to utilize its unqualified advantage in this water sport.