Ernie Onwumere

As “an insider”, Ernie Onwumere revisits the story of the last Arochukwu king before the British invasion first as an epic movie script and subsequently as a prose. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Some stories just have to be told. Besides choosing their narrators, they even compel their way to some form of verbal expression or the other. Hence, before writing the novel, Kanu: The Last Eze Aro King, Ernie Onwumere, a CEO of a Lagos-based brand communication company, recalled being obsessed about the institution of monarchy in his native Arochukwu Kingdom.

His reflections specifically swirled around the kingdom’s last iconic monarch and its cultural peculiarities. This was at a time he was engrossed in a course at the National Institute for Cultural Orientation – often referred to in local cultural circles by its acronym NICO.

These reflections soon resulted in a bulky epic movie script and, not long afterwards, he found himself visiting possible locations with his proposed film director, Adim Williams. “I reasoned that for such a legendary kingdom that has been in existence for over 1100 years, the Arochukwu Kingdom continues to elicit awe and interest because of its unique culture and civilisation,” he recalled.

Onwumere, who preens himself on being “an insider”, affirmed that he was well placed to write about the significance of the “Awada Aro” (Aro Covenant Place), the kingdom’s history, cultural values and family ties linking the Arochukwu homeland to its over 350 diaspora communities. Also, his insider’s position afforded him the privilege of a first-hand observation of the mystical powers of the traditional “Abah” group, which regale the people with magical performances at the Ikeji Aro festival or during the burial of its members.

Leopards, he disclosed, are revered as totem animals among the Aro people, because they are believed to protect the kingdom from invaders. “I have heard many stories and, in some instances, seen the evidence of the presence of the animal around. We also know men, who have the capacity to transform themselves into leopards.”

Back to the movie script. Funding issues and limited time joined forces to frustrate its realisation into a film. Hence, Onwumere began to toy with the idea of adapting the script into a novel. Years after, the publication of the novel became a fait accompli.

The novel’s protagonist Kanu is none other than Mazi Kanu Okoro, the last sovereign Eze Aro, who was reigning at the time of the British invasion of Arochukwu in 1901/02. “The Eze Aro lost his sovereign power after that military invasion,” Onwumere explained. “Today, all traditional rulers in Nigeria get their recognition from the state governors.”

The novel, as a historical-fiction, re-enacts an actual period in the history of this kingdom, which currently exists in the south-eastern Nigerian state of Abia. Like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it tells the tragic story of the British intrusion in an organised community. Indeed, the consequent dismantling of this thriving pre-colonial-era kingdom effectively ended its fame as a regional power.

After the British military invasion of Arochukwu, some Aro village chiefs and leaders were hanged at the village square while others, including the Eze Aro, were incarcerated in a prison in Calabar. Indeed, the revered king eventually died in the Calabar prison.

There is also a brief account of the Scottish-born missionary Mary Slessor’s visit to Arochukwu in the novel. Relics of Slessor’s sojourn in the kingdom still exists today. Onwumere disclosed that at the centenary of the missionary’s death on January 13, 2015, her family members, the leadership of the Presbyterian Church in Nigeria and the Arochukwu community laid the foundation stone for the Mary Slessor International Women Centre at Amasu village in Arochukwu, where she started her missionary work. “Take a look at the Scottish ten pound note and you’ll see the map of the locations she visited while on her missionary work. These locations, including Amasu River and Arochukwu, are well highlighted,” he said.

After the British deposition of the reigning Eze Aro and his eventual death in prison, the Aro Kingdom crowned a teenage successor, Mazi Kanu Oji, in 1914. The latter, then aged 14, reigned until 1987 for 73 years. This made him one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs.

Thanks to the Aro royal family, the author was able to lay his hands on the minutes of the Aro Clan Council from 1928 to 1948. So, when the Aros supported the British World War II campaigns with funds, the British home office wrote a letter of appreciation.

It is obvious: the choice of the novel’s title was meant to elicit curiosity and attract potential readers. Among the readers, the author targets specifically the younger generation, who were recently denied their rights to studying history by a warped educational system. Among the babel of stories about the Aro Kingdom, slave trade and its famed “long juju”, the novel offers a more appealing alternative with its anecdotal approach.

The author also sets out to correct the impression that Ibini Ukpabi or the “long juju” was used for the recruitment of slaves and the manipulation of the religious credulity of other Nigerians. “I say this, because the geographical location of Arochukwu made it impossible for the oracle to serve as a conduit for large numbers of slaves sold at the coast.”

Nonetheless, the novel is clear about the fact that the iconic Aro oracle aided the people’s trade network spread out in south-eastern Nigeria and beyond. But, it also asserts the fact the services of the oracle were sought in settling disputes outside Arochukwu. Indeed, there was a documented case of an appeal made to the oracle in the 1850s over a succession dispute in Kalabari land in the present-day Rivers State. There were, in addition, reports of pilgrims from far and near visiting the oracle in search of help and relief.

As for the allegations by the British colonial authorities to the effect that the “long juju” was being manipulated for the procurement of slaves, the author dismissed it as a ploy by the former to discredit the Aros who were seen as obstacles to their colonial incursions of the south-eastern Nigerian hinterland. The fact that Ibini Ukpabi was popular among both Igbo and non-Igbo people attested to its widespread acceptance.

If indeed the narrative is meant to attract readership, it does little to keep them glued to the novel. This is no thanks to the cluttered anecdotes, which could pass for hastily penned-down thoughts. Besides, the reader is offered a lean, compact narrative of what could have been a literary delight. But then, the author seems rather more interested in imparting historical facts than impressing his readers with a literary tour de force. Already, he is halfway into his second book on the Aros, which he titles Inside Aro and described it as “an authentic book on the Aro kingdom with detailed and verifiable information that will be a guide for the new generation.”
Through this second book, he hopes to debunk the numerous criticisms of Aro history.