Unveiling of The Divine King, legendary Eze Nri Obalike’s statue

By Titus Maduako Eleweke

It was a moment of thinking and flashing back  on Saturday, when the people of Nri kingdom in Anaocha local government council of Anambra State unveiled the statue  of legendary Eze Nri, Obalike.

The unveiling which was beehives of activities reminiscent on the Divine kingship of Obalike, the first Nri man to have a handshake with the white man.The unvieling  of the statue  recreated nostalgia of man who despites his Divine powers and authorities allowed the whiteman to take him to a court in Awka against the prohibitions of him travelling out of Nri, this he did to avoid bloodshed and violence in the community.

Eze Nri Obalike, according to report found in British archive was striped off his authorities and destroyed the Nri traditions of political assendency to power by an extension Igbo culture and traditions. Eze Nri Obalike pictures  taken by a  British Anthropologist Nortthcote Whiteridge Thomas,  achived  in the British Anthropological institute London reports  how Thomas visited Nri  between 1910 -1911 during which he interacted with the king and took  several of his pictures and that of his  palace.

During the Grand Unvieling Ceremony of the Statue of  Eze Nri Obalike,  christened: “The  Grand Unvieling Ceremony of The Statue  Eze Nri Obalike the Legend; The 14th Eze Nri of the ancient Nri kingdom and Hegemony,  Nri Obalike 1 of Umu- Nri Omalo Royal Lineages Reigned AD 1889-1936,saw the true testimony of a British Anthropologist about the Divine kingship of Obalike.

In a Goodwill message sent in by a British Anthropologist , Prof Paul Basu who discovered the picture in the British Institute and reported to the family in Nri, said  he  was thrilled to learn of Nri’s unique history and its cultural and ritual importance.

According to Paul Basu, his report is based on the work of British government Anthropologist, Northcote Whitebridge Thomas on Eze- Nri Obalike.

My journey to Nri in the dusty archive of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, where the photograph register book of British government Anthropologist Northcote Whitebridge Thomas have been stored for decades. Here, among  thousands of old  photographs, there is one, which bears the number 2227, of an imposing individual, seated on three legged stool, gazing directly to the camera (and therefor to us).

Upon his head is a crown of Eagle feathers, around his ankles, decorated brass anklets, his forehead bears the distinguished Ichi marks. In the Thomas’s photo register, photograph number 2227 is captioned simply: King of Nri.

Thomas was not a colonial administrator, but was engaged by the colonial government of what was then the British Protectorate of Southern Nigeria to conduct a series of Anthropological survey on the people of the region. His second tour between November 1910 -December 1911, focused on the area of Awka district, corresponding approximately with present day Anambra State.

While  Thomas travelled widely through out the district, visiting many neighbouring towns,it is clear that he spent a great deal of time in Agukwu-Nri ( written as  ‘Aguku’ in his notes and publications). A whole chapter of his Anthropological report on Ibo speaking people of Nigeria (1913)which ranges over many subjects such as religion, kingship and law was devoted to Nri ‘Priestly king’.

It appears that Thomas became well acquainted with Eze Nri Obalike as well as with other prominent individuals of the time including  Chief Onyeso, the son of Eze Nri Enweleana. Thomas describes many of the functions performed by the king and the  many ritual prohibitions he is subject to.

His chapter include a list of the kings of Nri discussions of origin of kingship in Nri and account given by  Obalike himself concerning how he came to occupy the position.
Thomas’s published report include a photograph of Obalike’s palace.

The Eze Nri and other elders and attendants are ranged in front of the palace,but the photograph is not very clear. It has therefore been especially  very gratifying to be able return the many unpublished photographs of Nri taken by Thomas in 1911 to the town and  to present copies of Obalike and Onyeso’s portraits to their descendants, including, of course,to Prince Ben Egwuatu Okolo, Obalike grandson and the sponsor of the memorial and to the Regent Prince Ikenna Onyeso,who will lead the unveiling ceremony.

While trust seems to have existed between Eze Nri Obalike and the government Anthropologist,the period in which Thomas was conducting his research was a difficult time for  Nri. The British were imposing new forms of colonial governance across Igboland and had little respect for customary practices.

In 1911, District Commissioner S.W Sproston demanded that Eze Nri Obalike attend the newly established ” native court’ in Awka, forcing Obalike to break an ancient prohibitions that the Eze Nri should never leave Nri.

Correspondence in the archive shows that Thomas impressed upon the colonial authorities the need to respect Obalike spiritually ordained authority as a Divine King,they had no interest in doing so. Instead,the authorities required that a  special meeting be held in Nri on 5 August 1911 at which ritual prohibitions ( nso Ana) that were considered repugnant to colonial laws were to be removed.

Chiefs from many surrounding towns were invited to attend,and according to Angulu Onwuejeogwu ( the Anthropologist, historian and inaugural curator of Nri’s Odinani museum) Sproston instructed the assembled chiefs that they should henceforth obey the white man and not the Eze. Onwuejeogwu concludes, “Thus ended Nri ritual and political ascendency in Igbo land”

Eze Nri Obalike was therefore witness to greate cataclysm brought upon Nri and the Igbo people by violence of colonialism.
The fact that the high office of Eze Nri continues, however, and that Nri remembers and remains proud of its remarkable history, tells us that ultimately the colonial destruction of a civilization was not successful.

As well as  honouring a king who served in troubled times,it strikes me that it is this resillience in the face of adversity that the statue is commemorates. The chairman of the  unvieling ceremony, Prof Peter Umeadi said Nri people will ever remain grateful to Prof Angulu Onwuejeogwu of University of Benin, Nigeria for collating many previous works on Nri kingdom and hegemony.

According to him, words are not enough to thank Prof Paul Basu of the University of Oxford, United kingdom who unearthed the pioneering Anthropological works by the British government Anthropologist, Northcote Whitebridge Thomas made during his second tour between November 1910 to December 1911 on Eze Nri Obalike.

He stated that it was Paul Basu who gave the pictures of Obalike and materials to Prince Ben Egwuatu Okolo,the Grand son of Obalike.
Umeadi who was the presidential candidate of All Progressive Grand Alliance APGA in 2023 presidential election commended Northcote White bridge Thomas the British Anthropologist for his research on Nri kingdom, photograph and writing on king of Nri, Eze Nri Obalike whose statue was unvieled .

“We learnt of the charity and courage of Northcote Whitebridge Thomas that correspondence in the archive shows that Thomas impressed upon the colonial authorities the need  to respect the Eze Nri Obalike spiritually ordained authority as a Divine King, but the Commissioner S.W Sproston on 14th of August 1911 at Nri invited chiefs from many towns and at a gunpoint asked the king of Nri to abrogate  the nso ana which the colonial adminstration figured was his hold on the people.

They also instructed the assembled chiefs that they should henceforth obey the white men and not Eze Nri. Eze Nri in his wisdom obeyed the White man because he did not want harm to befall his people. He also narrated how, when Eze Nri Obalike was forced to appear in a court and his appearance was remarkable because when the assembly saw him “the whole assembly rose and prepared to flee… So great was the awe which he inspired.

Eze Nri Obalike considered it degradation of his authority, dignity, reputation, or personality and sacredness, prompting him to turn down warrant chieftaincy title as he was not ready to sit and argue with his Ozo in Nri,let  alone  Ozo and non Ozo of other towns. This was the last British political appointment for any Eze Nri”

Umeadi who was the former  Chief judge of Anambra State said the present generation of Nri are grateful for such a remarkable event.
According to him, the unvieling of Eze Nri Obalike was to re-establish Nri political fabric of the country as a major player. The 98 years grandson of  Eze Nri Obalike, Prince Ben Egwuatu Okolo,said they were unvieling his statue to imortslise his name in Nri kingdom.

According to him, the statue will serve as an hounour to our great grandfather. He narrated how the journey to building of the statue started. In 2018, they  were doing something in the school of Oriental and African studies in United  kingdom and one of the  Anthropologists  came across the picture of Eze Nri Obalike and contacted us, he came down and gave us the album. I also went to London because of the pictures.

It was after my visit to London, we started the project of building museum where all the pictures will be placed. The museum was my brain child. I never knew the existence of such. He also narrated how the then missionaries tried to convert Obalike to Christian but he refused, saying that he cannot be  but his children can.

According to Prince Ben Egwuatu Okolo, Obalike also warned the British not to tamper with the tradition of Nri kingdom and because of his insistence on town’s culture, the Nri culture and traditions are still surviving till today.

According to him, the British were not happy with him for refusing to be Christian and invited him to Awka, Eze Nri as Divine King does not leave  Nri for other town.  However, when he got to Awka the men there ran away because they were afraid.

He also narrated how they forced him to abrogate all the taboo and he agreed to do so in order to save the lives of his people. The Regent Nri Prince Ikenna Onyeso, said that having the statue of Obalike up, brings everybody back to history. Obalike fought a lot adversities with the colonial masters but with patience, perseverance he won.

According to him, Obalike did not use his power to fight because that may cause harm to his people and he tactically decided to play along, that was an act of wisdom.

“It very gratifying that his grandson many  years ago ,he joined his ancestors  is honoring him. Where ever he is ,he would be happy about them” he stated.

“Eze Nri Obalike Instituted the spirit of love and peace in Nri and every Nri person  hates violence and does not shed blood because we know the importance.

“Mind  you, it was in Nri that women first came out enmasse to fight against the killings of twins. We are peaceful people” he said.
Also one of chiefs ,A.D Nwaeri described Obalike as a great man who brought honour to Nri kingdom. According to him, the event of the day should be an eye opener to Ndi Igbo to conduct more Anthropological researches on Igbo traditional Institutions.

“We need more Anthropologists to do more works on Igbo history. This will help to drive  our culture and traditions” he said .
He commended the grandson of Eze Nri Obalike, Prince Ben Egwuatu Okolo for having interest in Igbo culture and traditions and above for erecting the  befitting statue of Eze Nri Obalike in the town, noting that it is a mark of honour and respect for the great the  Eze Nri.

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