Igbo people

The Igbo IPA] [Eeg•bo] (Igbo: Igbo, sometimes Nd'Igbo), sometimes referred to (usually formerly) as the Ibo, Eboe, Ebo or Heebo, are one of the larger ethnic groups in Africa, numbering in the tens of millions. Most Igbo live in southeastern Nigeria, where they are also one of the larger ethnic groups and are heavily fragmented into various subgroups. Igbo can also be found in significant numbers in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Lesser populations live in other African countries as well as in nations outside of Africa due to migration and also to the effects of the Atlantic slave trade. Their exact numbers out of Africa are unknown. Their language is the Igbo language (Igbo: Asusu Igbo) which includes hundreds of different dialects and Igboid languages.

The River Niger flowing through Igboland makes the home of the Igbo rich and fertile and densely forested. Consequently a vast majority of the Igbo are farmers. Igboland is also one of the more densely populated areas within all of Africa. Today a vast majority of the Igbo are Christians (one of the reasons behind this being that their traditional religions are very similar to Abrahamic religions and traditions).


The Igbo identity is hard to define as the Igbo are a heavily fragmented ethnic group. The Igbo were and are very independent and autonomous, living in localized communities. Before knowledge of Europeans and the full exposure to other ethnic groups neighbouring them, the Igbo had not had this strong Igbo identity, but instead each community was independent, usually governed by elders.

Alexander X. Byrd argues, upon engaging in a close textual reading of Olaudah Equiano's narrative (1789), that the Igbo identity has its origins in slavery, emerging in the "Holding patterns" of coastal towns of West Africa. Like almost every ethnic group in "sub-saharan Africa", the British and fellow Europeans have identified the Igbo as a tribe. Chinua Achebe, among other scholars, have challenged the idea of the Igbo being a tribe, suggesting it has negative connotations. The suggestion is that the Igbo should be considered a nation similar to the Cherokee or Japanese, although the Igbo do not have an official recognized state of their own.


There are several theories regarding the etymology of the word Igbo (wrongly spelled "Ibo" by colonialists). It is presumed that the word has Sudanic origin, derived from the verb gboo. Theorists have also suggested that the word may originate from the neighboring Igala, coming from the word onigbo (a word for slave), but the meaning and origin of the word is still generally unclear.



According to several sources, Igbo people evolved over a long period of 4000 BC to 500 AD in Igboland through waves of migrations. There is evidence that the ancestors of Igbo and most of their neighbors were the proto-Kwa group. This ancient group came from the African Great Lakes and Mountains of the moon of East/Central Africa and settled at the old Sahara grasslands. It was the desertification of the Sahara that forced some of the Kwa people to migrate further down to the north of the Niger Benue confluence and founded Nok. Elements of the Kwa people migrated South of the Niger Benue confluence and later became the Igala, Idoma, Yoruba, Igbo, and possibly the Tiv peoples. The Kwa people's first area of settlement in Igboland was the Nsukka-Afikpo-Awka-Orlu uplands over a 5000 year period. Elements from the Orlu area migrated south, east, and northeast while elements from the Awka area migrated westwards across the Niger river.

Alternative view of origin

Around a quarter of Igbo people also believe that the Igbo are one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, although the Igbo people have not been officially acknowledged by Israel or the Jewish community.

Nri Enweleana (the present Eze Nri) has said that the Igbo are descendant's of Jewish Egyptians who had fled Egypt to come to their present settlement, their head being the Nri Kingdom's progenitor, Eri. Eri's children had been said, by Nri Enweleana, to have met a group of people who they called Igbo bush people. The children of Eri had also been said to have come with their culture, language and monarchy, assimilating the Igbo to the fullest extent.

Traditional society

Traditional Igbo political organization was based on a quasi-democratic republican system of government that guaranteed equality of the citizenry as against a feudalist "dictator king" in tight knit communities as witnessed by the Portuguese who first arrived and met with the Igbo people in the 15th century. With the exception of a few Notable towns of the Igbo like Onitsha, which had kings called Obi, and places like the Nri Kingdom and Arochukwu, which had priest kings such as Eze Nri; Igbo communities and area governments were overwhelmingly ruled solely by a republican consultative assembly of the common people. Communities were usually governed and administered by a council of elders and the group's leader was determined by who was the eldest.

Although title holders were respected because of their accomplishments and capabilities, they were never revered as kings, but often performed special functions given to them by such assemblies. This way of governing was immensely different from most other communities of Western Africa, and only shared by the Ewe of Ghana. Igbo secret societies also had a ceremonial script called Nsibidi. The Igbo had and still have their indigenous ancient calendar in which a week has four days, a month consisted of seven weeks and thirteen months made a year. In the last month, an extra day was added. This calendar is still in use in villages and towns to determine the market days.

They also had mathematics called Mkpisi and Okwe used for counting, measurements and a form of an ancient strategic Igbo game also called "Okew". The Igbo have had a banking system for saving and loans called Isusu which is still in use today. They settled law matters via mediators.

Traditional Igbo life is perhaps best known for being depicted in the internationally acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It is also known for the bronzes it has produced from as early as the 9th century. Some of these bronzes have been found at the town of Igbo Ukwu, Anambra state.

Colonial period

The arrival of the British in the 1870s and increased encounters between the Igbo and other Nigerians led to a deepening sense of a distinct Igbo ethnic identity. The Igbo also proved remarkably decisive and enthusiastic in their embrace of Christianity and Western education. Due to the incompatibility of the Igbo decentralized style of government and the centralized system required for British indirect rule, British colonial rulership was marked with few conflicts and much tension. Under British colonial rule, the diversity within each of Nigeria's major ethnic groups slowly decreased and distinctions between the Igbo and other large ethnic groups, such as the Hausa and the Yoruba became sharper.

Colonial rule drastically transformed Igbo society as seen in Things Fall Apart. British rule also brought about changes in culture, such as the introduction of Warrant chiefs as Eze (traditional rulers) where there had been no such monarchies. Christianity had also played a great part in the infiltration of foreign ideology into Igbo society and culture, sometimes shunning parts of the culture, such as worshiping Alusi.

Nigerian-Biafran War

A campaign of genocide against the Igbo and other peoples of Eastern and Central Nigeria living in other parts of the country took place between 1966 and 1967. There had also been the assassination of the Nigerian military head of state General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi by Northern Nigerian elements in the army followed by the failure of peace talks between the military government that deposed Ironsi and the regional government of Eastern Nigeria at the Aburi Talks in Ghana in 1967. These events led to a regional council of the peoples of Eastern Nigeria deciding that the region should secede and proclaim the Republic of Biafra. A war, after which the federal government reabsorbed Biafra into Nigeria, stretched from July 6, 1967 until January 14, 1970. Several million Eastern Nigerians, especially Igbo, are believed to have died between the pogroms and the end of the civil war. In their brief struggle for self-determination, the people of Biafra earned the respect of figures such as Jean Paul Sartre and John Lennon, who returned his British honour, MBE, in protest against British collusion in the Nigeria-Biafra war.
In July 2007, former Biafra leader General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu renewed calls for the secession of the Biafran state as a sovereign entity. He reaffirmed that "the only alternative is a separate existence" and went further to say that "what upsets the Igbo population is we are not equally Nigerian as the others".

Modern Igbo society

After the Nigerian-Biafran War, Igboland was devastated. Many hospitals, schools, and homes had been completely destroyed in the brutal war. In addition to the loss of their savings, many Igbo people found themselves discriminated against by other ethnic groups and the new non-Igbo federal government. They were even (and somewhat still are) discriminated against by closely related ethnic groups and Igboid groups such as the Ika. This is partly because of the stigma that came with either being or associating with Igbo people.

Due to the discrimination, many Igbo had trouble finding employment, and the Igbo became one of the poorest ethnic groups in Nigeria during the early 1970s. Igboland was gradually rebuilt over a period of twenty years and the economy was again prospering due to the rise of the petroleum industry in the adjacent Niger Delta region. This led to new factories being set up in southern Nigeria. Many Igbo people eventually took government positions. Even though this happened, a vast majority were engaged in private business and constituted and still constitute the bulk of Nigerian informal economy. Recently, there has also been a wave of Igbo immigration to other African countries, Europe, and the Americas.


Igbo culture includes the various customs, practices and traditions of the Igbo people. It comprises archaic practices as well as new concepts added into the Igbo culture either by evolution or by outside influence. These customs and traditions include the Igbo people's visual art, music and dance forms, as well as their attire, cuisine and language dialects. Because of their various subgroups, the variety of their culture is heightened further.


The Igbo people have a melodic and symphonic musical style, into which they incorporate various percussion instruments: the udu, which is essentially designed from a clay jug; an ekwe, which is formed from a hollowed log; and the ogene, a hand bell designed from forged iron. Other instruments include opi, a wind instrument similar to the flute, igba, and ichaka.

Another popular musical form among the Igbo is Highlife, which is a fusion of jazz and traditional music and widely popular in West Africa. The modern Igbo Highlife is seen in the works of Dr Sir Warrior, Oliver De Coque, Bright Chimezie, and Chief Osita Osadebe, who are the four greatest Igbo Highlife Musicians of the twentieth century.


Igbo art is any body of visual art originating from the people of the Igbo. Igbo Art is generally known for various types of masquerade, masks and outfits symbolising people animals or abstract conceptions. Igbo art is also known for it's bronze castings found in the town of Igbo Ukwu from the 9th century. It is near impossible to describe a general Igbo art style as the Igbo are a heavily fragmented group.


While today many Igbo people are Christian, the traditional ancient Igbo religion is known as Odinani. In the Igbo mythology, which is part of their ancient religion, the supreme God is called Chukwu ("great spirit"); Chukwu created the world and everything in it and is associated with all things on Earth. Chukwu is also a solar deity. To the ancient Igbo, the Cosmos is divided into four complex parts:

  • Okike (Creation)
  • Alusi (Supernatural Forces or Deities)
  • Mmuo (Spirits)
  • Uwa (The World)

Although the majority of Igbo are Christian, the Igbo culture is still relevant and upheld by all faiths in Igboland. An example of how this is how the Osu caste system is still upheld by a number of Igbo people of all faiths.


The yam is very important to the Igbo as it is their staple crop. There are celebrations such as the New yam festival (Igbo: Iwaji) which are held for the harvesting of the yam.

Traditional attire

Traditionally, the attire of the Igbo generally consisted of little clothing as the purpose of clothing then was to conceal private parts, although elders were fully clothed. Children were usually nude from birth till their adolescence (the time when they were considered to have something to hide) but sometimes ornaments such as beads were worn around the waist for medical reasons. Uli body art was also used to decorate both men and women in the form of lines forming patterns and shapes on the body.

With colonialism and the Westernization of Igbo culture, Western styled clothes such as shirts and trousers over took traditional clothing.

Women carried their babies on their backs with a strip of clothing binding the two with a knot at her chest. This baby carrying technique was and still is practiced by many people groups across Africa along with the Igbo who still carry their babies this way. This method has been modernized in the form of the child carrier. In most cases Igbo women did not cover their breast areas. Maidens usually wore a short rapper with beads around their waist with other ornaments such as necklaces and beads. Both men and women wore wrappers.
Men would wear loin cloths that wrapped round their waist and between their legs to be fastened at their back, the type of clothing appropriate for the intense heat as well as jobs such as farming. Men could also tie a wrapper over their loin cloth.

Modern traditional attire

Modern Igbo traditional attire is generally made up, for men, of the Isiagu top which resembles the African Dashiki. Isiagu (or Ishi agu) is usually patterned with lions heads embroidered over the clothing, It can also be plain, (usually black). It is worn with trousers and can be worn with either a traditional title holders hat (a fez named okpu agu or agwu), or with the traditional Igbo stripped men's hat (which resembles the Santa usairforce.jpg).

For women, an embodied puffed sleeve blouse (influenced by European attire) along with two rappers (usually modern Hollandis material) and a head tie are worn.


The Igbo language is the language spoken by the Igbo. The language was used by John Goldsmith as an example to justify deviating from the classical linear model of phonology as laid out in The Sound Pattern of English. It is written in the Roman script. There is also the Nsibidi alphabet which is used by the Ekpe society. Igbo is a tonal language, like Yoruba and Chinese. There are hundreds of different dialects and Igboid languages that the Igbo language is comprised of such as Ikwerre and Ekpeye dialects.


The Igbo in Nigeria are found in Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo, as well as in Delta and Rivers State. The Igbo language is predominant throughout these areas, although English (the national language) is also spoken. Prominent towns in the Igboland include Ahiara, Aba, Aguleri, Aboh, Anam, Abiriba, Nbawsi, Oguta, Awka, Igwe Ocha, Akpo (Umuachara-Elemmadu dynasty), Agbor, Awkuzu, Abagana, Abba, Egbuoma, Omor, Owerri, Orlu, Nnewi, Oraukwu, Mbaise, Mbaitoli, Nsukka, Nawgu, Enugu, Onitsha, Abakaliki, Afikpo, Okigwe, Udi, Umuahia, Asaba, Ohafia, Okigwe, Okija, Arochukwu, Igbuzo, Ihiala, Ndoni, Ngwo, Nteje, Mbaitoli, Ikeduru and Agulu Ihiala amongst others.

There are also a significant amount of Igbo people found in other parts of Nigeria in such places as the cities of Abuja and Lagos.

Percentage of Igbo people in various states of Nigeria:

The official population count of the Igbo in Nigeria has remained controversial as a majority of Igbo people in Nigeria think the government deliberately deflates the official population of the Igbo people to give other ethnic groups numerical superiority. The CIA World Factbook put's the igbo population at roughly between 24 and 25 million.

Deliberate underestimation of African population has begun since the days of British colonialism in Nigeria where the Igbo population was put at 6 - 8 thousand people. Some recent sources have even put the Igbo population at 5.5 million.

Largest sub-groups of the Igbo people

Group Population
Aro 1,000,000
Ekpeye 130,000
Ezaa 433,000
Ika 240,000
Ikwerre 980,000
Ikwo 359,000
Izzi 478,000
Mgbo 149,000
Ogba 241,000
Ukwuani-Aboh 228,000

The Igbo abroad

After the Nigerian-Biafran War, many Igbo people emigrated out of the traditional Igbo homeland in southeastern Nigeria due to an absence of federal presence, lack of jobs, and poor infrastructure. In recent decades the Igbo region of Nigeria has suffered from frequent environmental damage mainly related to the oil industry. Not only have the Igbo people moved to such Nigerian cities as Lagos and Abuja, but have also moved to other countries such as Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Togo, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Prominent Igbo communities outside Africa include those of London in the United Kingdom and Houston, California, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. in the United States.

Transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade which took place between the 16th and late 19th century affected the Igbo heavily. The Bight of Biafra (also known as the Bight of Bonny) was the area where most Igbo were taken from. Major trade ports for goods and slaves in the area included Bonny and Calabar town. The Bight of Biafra included modern day southeastern Nigeria, Western Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and parts of Northern Gabon, but a large amount of slaves from the Bight of Biafra would have been Igbo. Slaves were usually stolen from the shore or were sold by fellow Africans to European slave traders to be taken to the Americas and Europe. African slave traders were more experienced with the areas and would be used by Europeans to obtain people from the mainland. The Aro Confederacy was born out of the Atlantic slave trade. The Bight of Biafra was the third area where the most slaves where gotten from with 14.6% from the year 1650 to 1900.

Contrary to belief, European slave traders were fairly informed about various African ethnic groups, this led to slavers targeting certain ethnic groups which plantation owners preferred. Ethnic groups consequently became fairly saturated in certain parts of the Americas. The Igbo where dispersed to colonies such as Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, United States, Brazil, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago among others. Elements of Igbo culture can still be found in these places. For example, in Jamaican Patois the Igbo word 'unu', meaning 'you' plural, is still used as well as the term 'red Ibo' which describes a fair skinned black person, because of the prevalence of fair skin among the Igbo. The word Bim, a name for Barbados, was commonly used by enslaved Barbadians (Bajans). This word is said to also derive from the Igbo language, derived from bi mu (or either "bem", "Ndi bem", "Nwanyi ibem" or "Nwoke ibem")(English: My people), but it may have other origins (see: Barbados etymology).

In the United Sates the Igbo were found common in the state of Maryland (ironically, recent immigrants still are) and Virginia, with a total of 37,000 Africans that arrived in Virginia from Calabar in the 1700s, 30,000 were Igbo.

In the 2003 PBS program African American Lives, Bishop T.D. Jakes had his DNA analyzed; his Y chromosome showed that he is descended from the Igbo, Bishop Jakes is from the state of West Virginia. American actors Forest Whitaker and Blair Underwood have also traced their genealogy back to the Igbo people.

See also

Further reading

  • Afigbo, Adiele (1972). "Ropes of Sand. Studies in Igbo History and Culture". Longman, London, ISBN 0-19575-528-6
  • Agawu, Kofi (2003). African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. Routledge.
  • Forde, Cyril Daryll and Jones, G. I. (1950) The Ibo and Ibibio-Speaking Peoples of South-Eastern Nigeria International African Institute by Oxford University Press, London.
  • Mushanga, Tibamanya mwene (2001). "Social and Political Aspects of Violence in Africa". Social Problems in Africa: New Visions. Praeger/Greenwood.
  • Njoku, John Eberegbulam (1990) The Igbos of Nigeria: Ancient Rites, Changes, and Survival E. Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY, ISBN 0-88946-173-2.
  • Okafor, Clement (2004). "Igbo Cosmology and the Parameters of Individual Accomplishments in Things Fall Apart". Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Volume 1: Omenka the Master Artist: Critical Perspectives on Achebe's Fiction.
  • Okpala, Benneth (2003). Toasting the Bride: Memoirs of Milestones to Manhood, 2nd ed. Trafford Publishing.
  • Smith, David Jordan (2004). "Igbo". Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World's Cultures. Volume I: Topics and Cultures A–K. Springer.
  • Smock, Audrey C. (1971) Ibo Politics: The Role Of Ethnic Unions In Eastern Nigeria Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, ISBN 0-674-44025-0.
  • Uchendu, Victor Chikezie (1965) The Igbo Of Southeast Nigeria Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.


External links

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