THE IMPARTIAL OBSERVER
of Yore Remembered
Sunday 13 March 2011
lived in Onitsha or grew up there, still harbor a lot of nostalgia for the town,
now a melancholic and dreaded ghost of its vibrant past.
of yore was a fun place to be. However, much has changed now. Onitsha has lost
its groove, verve and much of its history. Onitsha remains as ever, the sardonic
city of drudge and enterprise…That so much effort yields little in recompense
and quality of life only conveys the infinite mockery and paradox of this some
times feral city. Still Onitsha
remains untranslatable, untransplantable and un-replicateable.
You must visit to experience it.
of yore is a town of many fables. Besides its renown for a behemoth open market
and raunchy literature, Onitsha
remains a chirpy, unceasingly bustling, and overpopulated city on the eastern
bank of the great River Niger.
Unbeknown to many, Onitsha
led the Nigerian nation in the promotion of adult literacy and education.
Many well-heeled traders in the town acquiesced to adult education and
attended night school, in its five boroughs: Fegge, Odoapku, Otu, GRA, and
Onicha), just to learn how to read, write, and sign their checkbooks and
documents, instead of thumb printing them.
One fable had it that one such man, while being given a
pedicure by a mallam in front of his stall, in a bid to prove to his
market companions that his night school was paying off, grabbed a copy of the
local daily, The Mirror, and
exclaimed: “Zik ekwukwa ka o si ekwu”
– “Zik has spoken as he usually does.”
Unbeknown to him, he had the paper upside down, a taleteller that he did not
even know which way the alphabets ran, and if one read from right to left on the
other way round. The story, nonetheless, underpinned the value attached to
literacy in Onitsha.
who lived in Onitsha or grew up there still harbor a lot of
nostalgia for the town, now a melancholic and dreaded ghost of its vibrant past.
with its rot and degradation, is very different from the lively and bustling
city of the past. Truly, a mirror image of Milton’s Pandaemonium, Onitsha still beckons those lustful for sleaze
and turpitude, those in quest of wealth as well as nefarious spivs and itinerant
scoundrels looking to relieve the honest and unsuspecting of their cash and
also had another side: in the city, the world’s oldest profession also thrived
and it was undisputedly the eminent domain for bootlegging, regardless of the
prohibitions against violations of patent and intellectual property rights.
For many, a visit or drive now through the
Onitsha is vested with trepidation. Night fall reigns
with anxiety, yet Onitsha bustles as ever, having busted its infrastructural
seams, as evidenced by spewing sewage, open gutters and mountains of garbage,
the ever-present blot on its once sparkling landscape. The city, which had the
population of fewer than 100,000 in 1960, has a teaming population of 2 million
fifty years later. The evident decline of
city is a testimony to sustained absence of good governance. Formerly run by an
efficient Urban County Council, Onitsha
had merited a Mayor like Enugu
and Port-Harcourt, but it would have taken a bigger-than-life persona to run
this city of endless braggadocio and wealth-speaks (o
ji ego na-ekwu) mindset.
Today, Onitsha indigenes, as opposed to inhabitants,
feel sorely and decry the full brunt of their gradual alienation from the
affairs of their hometown. They hardly hold local political offices and even
their once off-limit suburbia homestead stand violated. Though they have fought
back, selecting a cosmopolitan, HRH Igwe Alfred Achebe, to oversee their
renaissance, their disenfranchisement concerns linger. However, they still find
succor in the saying, “Ife
eji abu, Onicha erika” – an allusion to the fact that
indigenes would never be divested of their heritage, no matter how hard the
wishful usurpers try. Indeed, those who once dreamt and vouched to move the
niche of Onitsha market to the
hinterland have since realized that they could not transplant the River Niger.
Yet Onitsha remains as ever,
the sardonic city of drudge and enterprise. That so much effort yields little in
recompense and quality of life, only conveys the infinite mockery and paradox of
this sometimes feral city.
who knew Onitsha of yore - circa 1960s - cannot forget
its hidden allure, mercantile exuberance, and unfeigned charm. Like Venice, Lagos,
Las Palmas, New
Orleans, or Mumbai, Onitsha had spirit and gravitas; it had
culture, just as it had its seamy side and historical niche. Indeed, Onitsha was foremost, a City
Kingdom, with nine clans (Ebo
Itenani). Unquestionably, Onitsha
had an eclectic citizenry. Among the indigenes, who placed high value on honor,
decency and amity, and were mostly public servants, there were the so-called “assimilados,”
descendants of Saro Creoles, notable for their English surnames. Historically, Onitsha was sufficiently enchanting for J. M.
G. Le Clézio, the 2008 Nobel Laureate, to highlight it in his book titled, “Onitsha.”
As the book’s translator Alison Anderson observed,
is remarkable for its “almost
mythological evocation of local history and beliefs.”
has a very rich heritage and history dating back to the reign of Eze Aroli.
Its earlier encounter with Western civilization was not without costs.
Already a well-established Kingdom that traced its ancestral roots through the
Ado n’ Idu genealogy all the way back
to Egypt, in the late 1700s, its women led by Omu Atagbusi resisted decreed
commodity prices and imposed merchandize by British-owned Royal Niger Company
(RNC). The conflict and strained relations that followed were made worse by a
local commerce interdiction effort against Onitsha women traders in
1777 that also collapsed.
Thereafter, Royal Niger Company relocated its operational base to the Asaba side
of the Niger, only to
return to Onitsha
in the 1857 after British merchant William Baikei negotiated a status of trade
agreement with the incumbent Obi.
If it was ever a dream from the time the Royal Niger Company
and Christian missionaries respectively set shop in the 1880s on this riverbank
has never had its transformative and defining moment, not even during the
Nigerian civil war. Nonetheless, Onitsha town has always
held out much hope, some even utopist, from the very outset when it doubled in
the early 1900s as the commercial, political, and educational headquarters of
the Eastern region of Nigeria.
Apropos commerce, its niche was unrivalled in West Africa
and remains so.
Onitsha was a town where blue collar merchants long ago
discovered that their commerce-induced wealth proved utterly insufficient to
gain them access by membership-only enclaves like the Recreation and Sports
Clubs, controlled by the white-collar and better-educated class of doctors,
lawyers, civil servants, and expatriates.
This latter lot, a mix of indigenes and non-indigenes, were unrepentant in
maintaining that divide and social stratification. Such denials led some piqued Onitsha traders into forming their own club –
the now ubiquitous People’s Club of Nigeria. Onitsha also had institutions that worked well
– in both the public and private sectors. It boasted of good hospitals, a huge
Cotton Mill Factory, various furniture, mattress, and tire-rethreading companies
and an efficient Public Works Department (PWD). Most of these painfully have
regressed or collapsed completely.
its socio-cultural vagaries and idiosyncrasies, Onitsha was also a town that sought and had
balance. Although predominantly an Igbo town, it had carved out portions of the
city populated by non-indigenes: Hausa, Yoruba, Ijaw, and even had an enclave
that was tagged "American Quarters." The essence was not to segregate, but to
afford the sojourners the space to live in normalcy as they would in their own
homes and culture. Naturally, Onitsha
indigenes lived mostly in the homestead in
Enu Onicha. Even those wealthy enough
to own homes in Otu and GRA (Governments Reserved Area), still maintained family
homes in the villages. But Onitsha was a market town
– it had the Main market, Ose Okwodu market and Ochanja market.
Four more have since been added. Hence, one woke up in
to several distinct sounds: the
call to prayers by both the Imams from the Mosques and the parochial Pastors who
preached the need for repentance. Departing luxurious buses and clamoring
early-rising traders added to the din.
Waking up in Onitsha
was always unique and remains so!
Another area of balance
was in education: denominational and vocational balance flourished. Catholic and Protestant schools counterbalanced each other;
competition and rivalry were so unbridled that it made the quest for excellence
in academics, sports, and extra-curricular activities imperative. Such rivalry
made elite and legacy schools like Dennis Memorial Grammar School (D.M.G.S) and
Christ the King College (C.K.C.) household names and fierce adversaries.
Inevitably, many prominent Igbo jurists, physicians, and public servants would
emerge from the halls of these two schools.
For eminent Onitsha families, and
there were many, the choice was either C.K.C. or D.M.G.S for their children. The
city’s other schools, mostly vocational, such as Zik’s Institute, Prince
Commercial School, St. Augustine’s, Etukokwu School of Commerce, New Bethel
College, and Washington Grammar
School, provided trade and clerical manpower, training a slew of bookkeepers,
typists, clerks and receptionists and low-level administrative staff for
also had its distinctive niche and contribution to the world. Architecturally, Onitsha had strict zoning
laws, favored Spanish and Brazilian type bungalows with bay windows. It also
boasted of the oldest colonial, all-wood one-storey building in Eastern Nigeria,
the Egbuna House that stood at the junction of Old Market Road and Court Road.
The Gothic Holy Trinity Cathedral and the more futuristic All Saints
Cathedral were attractive historical sites.
was the home and bastion of highlife music, second only perhaps to Lagos.
But it had cornered the market unapologetically, thanks to CTO Records on Niger Drive, owned by Chief C.T. Onyekwelu,
which gave primacy to promoting local musicians, and had in its family, masters
such as E.C. Arinze, Osita Osadebe, Stephen Amechi, Eddie Okonta, Zeal Onyia,
Joe Nez, and Emperor Eramus Jenewari, Celestine Ukwu, Rex Lawson, Eddy Okwuodi
and others. Most of these artists
played at sold-out joints like Dolphin Café on Venn Road South, Central Hotel at Ozomogala Street,
Plaza Hotel opposite the Government Field on Zik Avenue in Fegge and Top 21 on New Market Road.
Onitsha’s place as the incontrovertible home of Highlife became manifest,
when Prince Nico Mbarga, a little known musician, who led the resident band
Rockofil Jazz Band
at the Plaza Hotel
produced a seminal work titled "Sweet
Mother." The hit went
on to sell over 13 million copies and became Onitsha’s best export to the word and Africa’s best selling record ever.
Parallel to its
music industry, Onitsha had its "Onitsha Market Literature"
industry, which was widely acclaimed and remains a subject of board and intense
Interestingly, Onitsha music, literature and, lately, Nollywood movies
have as their home the famous and ever-kinetic commercial stretch of
Iweka Road, which begins at the point where the road intersects with Moore
Street and Venn Road and runs south through the Ochanja Market until it turns
into Owerri Road after the notorious Upper Iweka Roundabout.
Iweka Road, interestingly, was named after Dr. A.C.
Iweka, an Obosi indigene, and a prominent Igbo politician who had a thriving
private medical practice at the beginning of the road.
Relatedly, a seemingly forgotten history of
Onitsha is that the land area known now as Okpoko, part
of which includes where the Niger
and Head Bridge Market are located, was once subject to epic physical and court
battles between Onitsha
and Obosi indigenes. The resolution
of that battle in favor of Onitsha,
gave rise the often-heard admonishment, to always be mindful about what
“O said to O.”
A famous lore of the Onitsha market has remained in tandem with
supply-sides economics. As the
saying goes: “Those who visit
Onitsha and agree with the market dictates will go home soon enough; but those
who don’t and hang on to haggle for bargain prices will end up eating lunch in a
local hotel (buka).”
In this context, and despite lingering disputations and controversies,
the renown of the Onitsha Market Traders
has remained legendary resulting in several popular highlife songs – all in
With its fusion of people
and commerce, it is understandable why Onitsha attracted so many visitors, even
when those from the western parts of Nigeria could only get to Onitsha by
crossing with the ferry from Asaba, a process that warranted two-days wait
during rush periods. Such
pilgrimage had commercial, cultural, and religious bent. Indeed, it would be
tantamount to gross dereliction of educational and cultural obligation visit the
town during the annual Ofala Festival in
and not witness the festivities.
has not always been a filthy town and one averse to law and order.
Yester years, it was not uncommon to see Health Inspectors decked out in
helmets, khaki shirts and tunics seal off a premise, no questions asked. Neither
was it a surprise to see a VIO (Vehicle Inspection Officer) on a motorbike cut
off a vehicle that lacked roadworthiness and with a sticker slapped on its
windshield, declaring it “off the road.”
Equally, while there was petty crime, Onitsha was relatively a
safe place to live in, thanks to effective community policing and a code of
conduct maintained by Onitsha Market Traders Association (OMATA), which decreed
instant justice, including death, for anyone caught stealing in the market area.
OMATA was also a force in collective bargaining and keeping social order.
However, those were years past and long gone.
Many other noteworthy events and factors still induce
nostalgia in one about Onitsha. Quite in contrast
to the broken concrete pavements, potholes, debris, and
potopoto jungle Onitsha has now, trees lined the streets of
the well-designed Fegge Layout, the GRA, and America Quarters.
Even in the heart of the town, Oguta Road, Iboku Street, New
and Old Market Roads as well as Edgerton, Court, and Okosi Roads were also lined
with shady trees and even trimmed hedges. The marine roads that ran along the
bank of the River Niger, Nkisi Road
and Sokoto Road southward
to Niger Drive were favorites for evening
strollers and pleasure drivers, especially for those who wanted the best choice
of suya (kebab). Bida Road was likewise renowned for its
local brews of pito and burukutu
and fresh fish pepper soup joints
referred to as “St. Bottles.”
aside, Onitsha had its other local delicacies too.
Nni oka was a Sunday favorite
for the indigenes. But for the occasional visitor, you could not leave town
without a loaf of Saniez or Silas Ejidike bread. For the resilient and strong
stomached, Ngwo-ngwo at any of the
Amobi Street joints or isi-ewu and
Congo-meat at Willie Opalagada’s was must.
Walking down the streets of Onitsha is to understand
the full impact of noise pollution and cacophony.
Music blared unrestrained; likewise, car
horns and the inevitable scream of “Uzo!
Uzo!” by truck pushers, who have since been replaced by wheelbarrow pushers,
rented the air. The troubled and loonies had their place in the sun too: “Meko,”
Zikodor, “Okpole,” and “Mathew Nwa Fada” were well-known local messhugas.
In Onitsha, locomotion was varied, ever-present,
and unapologetic. Just as the black
Morris Minor cabs and Kia-Kia ("ka
o banye") buses dominated the earlier landscape, today, it is the Okada
riders that hold sway. Onitsha was a traders’ town just as it was a
transporter's dream. Four limited liability companies, Okoli & Sons Transport,
Njikoka Transport, Tabansi Motors, and Armels Transport, dominated the field of
heavy haulage; whilst Okogba Transport led in the field of luxurious busses,
competing with the Umuahia-based Chi di Ebere Transport, well before Ekene Dili
Chukwu joined the fray.
One essence of Onitsha that has gone completely missing, and
painfully so, was the social-cum-commerce introspective center called the APZ
or APZ Square.
Memory fails me in recalling what exactly the acronym stood for. But to
in the fifties and sixties and not go to APZ would be like visiting New York and not going to
Time Square. APZ was the vibrant soul of the city, if ever there was one. It was
the inimitable confluence of affluence, plebianism, unfettered local rustiness
and bonhomie. The plaza was
situated at the juncture where Zik
Avenue meshed with Port Harcourt Road and the sanguine
underground spring that emptied into the lethargic canal, which fed the locally
revered Otumoye Lake. Not too distant, was the beginning
of Creek Road
and tangential Bida Road.
APZ was akin to a symphonic seven-point square, and in that sense and intensity,
comparable only to Ojuelegba Junction in Lagos.
APZ was the envied commercial business address – the place to
own a stall. Straddled from all corners by huge billboards purveying Star Beer,
Fanta, Mirinda, Bata shoes, SCAO Motors, Bounvita, Milo and Tomapep (which
made master lick bottom pot), it was also there that the Silas Ejidike Bread
factory was located. Local
merchants and apprentices gravitated reflexively to the brightly lit APZ at the
close of each day, just as the sweet aroma of freshly wood oven-baked bread
wafted into the air and mingled with the smell of deep frying oil from
akara vendors, and smoke from
charcoal fire used corn roasters and
mallams who sold “Kettle Tea” and three-pence loafs to passersby.
Plaza was the
melting point for travelers, revelers and for spivs who played craps or used
glib talk, looped belts and legerdemain to swindle naive onlookers.
However, the most memorable recall anyone can have of APZ is what it
looked and felt like during festivities— Easter, Igbo Day, Independence Day,
Christmas or New Year. It was the place to be, yet, a no go area for children
and the weak. Parents warned their children and especially guests from out of
town: “don’t go near APZ”! On any of
those days, APZ became the hub of festivities, as would New York Time Square of
New Year’s Eve.
Those bold enough to visit APZ had tales to tell, of the smoke
haze that hung permanently in the air from a surfeit of pyrotechnics, named
“Bandit”, “Knockout” and “Mohawk”, which detonated in uncoordinated clatter and
rapid ear-shattering bangs that rented the air. There were also stories of
unruly jostles, clinically picked pockets and lost children tossed in the air by
strangers until a relative claimed them. APZ was not for the feint hearted. It
was carnival and place to see masquerades of all shapes, sizes and colors; from
the nimble Eji Onu,
Biggy Belle, to the gargantuan smoke
spewing masquerade named Ochie Dike,
and the tall one called “Ezeafulukwe”
that banged its bushy head on hard concretes surfaces.
Of all these, only the strongest masquerades survived a foray into APZ –
some, the so-called “Muo ana akwa aka”
were disrobed and sent on their way.
In geophysical terms, APZ was the bridged between the Ochanja
Market mentality, cacophony, lawlessness, and city planning disorder and the
beginning of civility and orderliness of urban planning that the colonial
masters had put in place when they conceptualized the Fegge Layout. In that
context, it was the critical juncture where the old and the new intersected.
Nevertheless, APZ was more. Day and night, at its various corners, merchants on
soapboxes with bullhorns and hawkers with shrill voices plied their wares.
Their counterparts sold Ikan Power, Alabokun Baby Powder, ASPRO,
Ogbu Nnu Oria, and other medicaments
from the back of their vans, as the latest highlife music blared, and Ajasco
dancers named “Skido”, “Ringo”,
“King Pago” or “Methuselah”
performed foot works that would shame Usher and Michael Jackson. On some days,
crowds would gather to watch superman, Killiwe Nwachukwu perform his feat or
listen to folk music by Twin Seven-Seven.
There were preachers and doomsayers, and blind beggars singing “Babi
Allah” too. APZ was a center for unceasing public display of crafts and
artistic excellence. Every artist went there to show off.
As they did so, pickpockets also had their field day.
On the other side of
Plaza, it was common to
see members of the free readers association huddle around news stands to glean
headline news from
The Nigerian Outlook and other
displayed papers, without being charged for it. At the far end were two stalls,
one belonging to Sule the bike renter, who leased mini bikes popularly, called “orente”
or “kekere” to those who needed to
run hurried errands, while fixing flats or making repairs for those who could
afford to own a bike. Next to him was “Nne
‘Biyi”, the ever-smiling and energetic mama-put food vendor, whose cuisine
was as renowned as that of her up-town competitor, “Aunty
Yor Yor”. Local eateries such
as theirs were the salve that soothed many hungry
merchants and laborers.
was a city of sounds, of sights, and of smells, the latter having become more
pungent in recent times. But Onitsha remains untranslatable,
untransplantable and un-replicateable. You must visit to experience it.
Without schmaltz, Onitsha of yore was a fun place to be.
However, much has changed now. Onitsha
has lost its groove, verve and much of its history. Regrettably, one does not
even find historical accounts of
of yore, that would inform readers that what is now an eyesore of Anambra State were once a vibrant, well run and
bustling commercial city, that was full of live and potentialities. Even though
cherished memories abound, Onitsha
has lost its soul.
With neither anger
nor partiality, until next time, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe
is a columnist for
His observations on Nigerian, African and global politics and related issues,
has appeared in various print media, journals and internet-based sites.
© Hank Eso, 13 March 2011.