The Political Organization of the Mbembe, Nigeria

by Rosemary Harris

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Chapter 1


The name "Mbembe" is given to a number of tribes who speak related dialects and who are found close to the banks of the middle Cross River and its northern tributary the Awayong Creek (see Map I). Most of the Mbembe people live in the Obubra Division of Ogoja Province. Traditionally these tribes had no common name, but the word Mbembe, which comes from their frequent use of the word "Mbe" (I say!) to start a sentence, was probably first used of them by African traders in the nineteenth century. Formerly the name seems to have been much disliked, [1] but as the people themselves have become increasingly conscious of the bonds between the different "Mbembe" tribes they have adopted the term in those contexts in which they wish to express a sense of unity with each other, [2] and it seems reasonable, therefore, to keep the word for them.

Altogether the Mbembe speaking peoples number about 40,000. Today they consist of four main tribes: Adun (12,100), Osopong (10,700), Okum (10,000) and Ofunbonga (3,200). [3] There is in addition, a further tribe called Okpodon which numbers about 2,000 people and is divided into two groups of villages. The smaller group is found within the areas known administratively a the Ofunbonga "Clan", and the Atam "Clan"; the Atam being eastern neighbours of the Mbembe who speak a different language. The larger group of Okpodon villages is, however, very isolated from the rest of the Mbembe because its ancestors moved in the nineteenth century northwards up the Okpauku river, a tributary of the Awayong, and settled on its eastern banks a few miles from the Northern Region boundary. The people of this group have now intermarried with the Ukelle peoples, among whom they live, to such an extent that they have adopted a great many Ukelle customs and in many cases their institutions today show marked differences from those of the other Mbembe tribes. I was able to spend only a few days in this area and my material on these people is so deficient that they have been excluded from this discussion.

I have also excluded the Ofunbonga because the villages belonging officially to this "Clan" [4] include diverse elements from various

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Mbembe tribes are from other peoples also. Similarly diverse elements have probably also gone to the make of Adun, Okum and Osopong, but whereas, among these tribes, the various elements have been so fused that within one tribe it is possible to see a common pattern among the villages, this is not so among the Ofunbonga for whom it would be necessary to describe each village independently. We shall, therefore, confine our attentions to the Okum, Osopong and Adun peoples.

The country of these three tribes is gently undulating with low ridges running east-west but, although the topography is very similar throughout this region, the ecological conditions vary very much, for in the neighbourhood of the Mbembe tribes the Cross River appears to mark a critical boundary between two main ecological zones. In the extreme south of these tribes, where the population is low, much of the country is still covered with dense, high forest. Nearer the river, although the density of population is much greater and there has been something approximating to ribbon development of settlements along the river banks (see Map 2), and although the high forest has been destroyed on all cultivable land, nevertheless the rainfall is still sufficient to allow fallow land to regenerate with trees, despite the comparatively short rest period of from three to five years which is all that is given to the most desirable farm lands. North of the Cross River, however, most fallow land regenerates as grass although it is rested for at least as long as the land on the southern side. On the northern side trees, except for fire-resistant species, are confined to the outskirts of villages where they have been allowed to grow undisturbed, to water courses, and to areas of land seasonally flooded to such a depth as to make them uncultivable. These differences in climate and vegetation give a different significance to the surface features of the land north and south of the river for, despite the similarity between them, the higher rainfall and the forest vegetation of the south mean that there the streams carry more water for longer periods than they do further north. In consequence the southern valleys tend to be marshy and can be crossed only with the aid of numerous tree-trunk and bamboo bridges, and canoes, and movement there is much more difficult.

The peoples of all three tribes live in compact settlements, which contain no garden land within them. The villages are sited in general either by the banks of the larger rivers or on the tops of ridges, and they vary very much in size from those with populations of about 100, to those with populations of nearly 3,000. The houses, made of mud and wattle, are gable ended and roofed mainly with raphia-palm frond mats, although north of the river a grass thatch is more common. (see Map 4).

All the people of these tribes are primarily yam farmers, for yams are both the staple food and the most important of the cash crops, but as the ecological conditions vary so also does the pattern of agriculture. North of the river there is no single crop which might be called the main subsidiary to the yam for in comparison with

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this all other crops are of relatively minor importance, although rice, newly introduced, is gaining in popularity as a cash crop on seasonally flooded land. In the high forest area of the south the most important subsidiary crop is the coco-yam which can stand shady conditions; and just south of the river in the most densely populated zone cassava is becoming increasingly popular as a cash crop since it can tolerate depleted soils. There is, nevertheless, as we shall see prejudice against it which restricts the amount of land devoted to it.

The making of palm oil and the trading of palm-kernels is of little importance except in the villages of the extreme south and even in this area production is not comparable with that among the neighbouring Yakö [5]; it is perhaps indicative of this that among the Mbembe the making of palm-oil is wholly a task for women, not for men as it is among the Yakö. The apparent reason for the neglect by the Mbembe of the palm-oil trade is that when the Mbembe want palm-wine they fell the oil palm and tap it, whereas the Yakö climb and tap the growing tree. The Mbembe practice of felling the palm-tree has so far withstood fifty years of administrative attempts to alter it; and recent efforts of the "progressive" young men among the Mbembe themselves have met with little better success perhaps because rights over palm trees are held by the older men (see p.29).

Whatever the reason the practice of felling, combined with a high demand for wine, has led to the depletion of oil-palms in all areas of high population density, so that even those who would like to engage in the palm-oil trade are unable to do so. The consequence is that the Mbembe peoples are particularly dependent for cash on the sale of yams. This I believe to have been a most important factor limiting the extent of social change in this century. To explain this we may first look at those changes which have taken place; changes which are significant but which have not made profound alterations in the traditional systems.

The comparative lack of change has perhaps been partly due to the fact that the pressures exerted on the Mbembe by the British administration have not been thoroughly consistent in their effects. This is particularly true of chiefship itself which, of course, was one of the Mbembe institutions most influenced by the British.

Between 1900 and 1945 there was a general tendency to increase the power of those the Administration recognised as the leaders of their people. Warrants were given to certain office holders, particularly village head who bore the title Avat (sing. Ovat), making them to some extent instruments of Colonial Government. They were granted seats of tribal courts which gave them an influence over their people which could not be paralleled in the traditional system. Under this

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the Avat had had no unique power to hear cases but shared any judicial authority they had with various associations. Nevertheless the tendency towards increased chiefly power was not wholly unchecked. That administrators were, from the first, alive to the dangers of the abuse of chiefly authority is proved by any reading of early Court Record Books and by a most interesting account of life in this area in the 1900's recorded by Partridge, one of Obubra's first District Officers. [6] Obviously nothing could wholly prevent the Avat from turning their new judicial powers to their financial advantage but Administrative Officers strove to prevent them from exercising what were considered unjust powers over their people. Sometimes indeed the Administration intervened to prevent the Avat from exercising authority which had been theirs traditionally.

In particular so sensitive were the administrators between the wars to anything that savoured of "forced labour" that they refused repeatedly to back the Avat when they took action in court to punish those who failed to turn out on village orders for communal work. The consequence was that when in the post - 1945 era this same system, having been dignified by the term "community development", became a thing to be officially encouraged it was found in some respects to have broken down.

The attack on the Avat's position has, however, become much more marked since the last war; indeed any tendency towards increasing the Avat's power has in recent years been abruptly reversed. Although the Avat were traditionally never chosen by any strict hereditary principle but were selected only if they enjoyed wide general support, the mere fact that they had come to be called "chiefs" by the Administration, and wore distinctive regalia, meant that ipso facto they had to be regarded as "undemocratic". They, were, therefore, removed altogether from the courts and others, chosen in much the same way but minus the regalia and known as "Best Men" were appointed in their stead. The undemocratic Avat were also removed from tribal Councils which had been established by the Administration, and instead Local and District Councilors, literate, and therefore young men, chosen via the ballot box, replaced them. Recently therefore, the Avat have suffered something of a political eclipse from which they emerged only in 1959-60 when there were proposals that an Eastern Region House of Chiefs should be formed, chosen by and from electoral colleges of lower grade chiefs. Since my last visit this proposal has been abandoned and interest in the Avat as potential members of these organizations has, no doubt, died down again.

The position of the Mbembe Avat therefore, at the time this study was made, had come under considerable attack. The courts were refusing to support some aspects of their traditional authority and recently even the right of the Ovat to receive his customary tribute to meat and wine was beginning seriously to be called in question. Moreover

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certain of the Avat's traditional functions, especially important ones relating to homicide and warfare, had largely fallen into disuse. Nevertheless when I did my fieldwork much of the traditional pattern of the Avat's office still persisted. Moreover, despite the fact that for fifty years the area has been exposed to a common administration, there were marked differences between the tribes in the positions accorded to their Avat This fact seemed so remarkable that it aroused my interest in discovering the processes by which these differences had developed.

British administration has, of course, influenced far more than the institution of chiefship. We have already seen that the Administration exerted an influence by its attitude to communal labour, but its attitude towards "secret societies" had greater general influence. It was on these that much of the indigenous political system was based yet, from the beginning, Administrative Officers viewed them with disfavour. Actions taken by the associations against individuals were commonly viewed either as being "contrary to natural justice" or as undermining the authority of newly established courts. In particular the Administration attacked the authority of an association called Okwa, which was the keystone of the Mbembe political organization (see pp. 45-47). Yet even so, when I was in the area, the members of Okwa were still invariably important men whose position as Okwa officials had to be taken into account if the political organization of their villages was to be understood; and associations generally still had some significance.

The third major way in which Mbembe political development has been influenced has been through the development by the British of supra-village organizations. Although administrative influence has not been wholly uniform in promoting the emergence of larger units, since its suppression of inter-tribal wars has to some extent weakened tribal solidarity, its general effect has been to promote the development of the tribe as a much more organized administrative unit than it had been previously. Traditionally the villages of a tribe were relatively independent of each other and as we shall see, real organization at the tribal level was something of a rarity. Today, however, the tribes have been forced to act as units, because the administration established "Native Courts" and "Local Council" which were, in fact, tribal courts and tribal councils. Moreover encouragement has been given to the development of contracts between all the Mbembe peoples and tribes traditionally hostile to each other have come to feel a certain unity vis-a-vis the non-Mbembe peoples of Obubra District.

Yet in this context also, despite the uniformities which have been imposed on the tribes from above, it is the differences between the tribes which are of interest. There are still remarkably great differences between them in the degree of real tribal unity which has been reached, and these differences can be very closely correlated with their pre-colonial political systems. This fact is understandable since there are considerable environmental differences between the tribes. These differences, and differences in their historical experiences have been, as it were, precipitated out into markedly different

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patterns of settlement which have exerted a continuing influence on the political organization of the tribes. Once again, however, the fact remains that old differences have not been masked by the new tendencies to uniformity and it is to the process of the development of these differences that attention is directed.

Just as the widespread political changes in this century have not yet obscured vigorous indications of the older system so, despite other changes, the form of the indigenous kinship system is still plainly discernible. The Mbembe have a double unilineal kinship system, land being inherited patrilineally and other goods matrilineally. Here, as in most other societies in which moveable property is inherited in the matrilineal line, an increase in material possessions in this century has led to dissatisfaction with the system [7] and a desire that such goods should be inherited patrilineally. This was a constant topic of conversation among the people, and in discussions of general principle most backed the idea that there should be a change in the inheritance rules. Although almost every individual agreed to this in theory, however, and was willing to follow the idea in practice when his own father died, I met no one willing voluntarily to forgo his claims at his mother's brother's funeral. At each death, therefore, there are numerous persons with a vested interest in the traditional system and it has not yet been radically altered. [8]

That there has been so little real alteration in Mbembe society is probably to be explained partly by the fact that the area has, until recently, remained comfortably remote from much direct European influence. It was only in the late 1950's, with the opening of a new road and the introduction of a powered ferry for cars and lorries at the Mbembe end of Obubra Division, that road communication with the Eastern Region capital of Enugu became relatively easy. Some direct European influence, other than administrative influence, of course there has been. In particular Missions and Mission schools have been introduced since the 1930's and have made such progress that the bulk of the younger people and many of the older ones can officially be counted as Christian. Nevertheless it was noticeable that as yet very few of the converts feel any incompatibility between attending Church and believing in the traditional Mbembe cosmology. This was neatly exemplified by a sincere convert, also a part-time diviner, who told me that he did not conduct seances on Sundays because he was a Christian, or on market days because then the Dead were too busy going to market to have the time to stop and commune with him!

In part, however, the reason for the limited extent of social change in this century has undoubtedly been that economic changes have in some respects been limited. It would be quite wrong to suggest that the Mbembe are simple subsistence farmers untouched by the outside world. On the contrary it is one of the main arguments of the historical section of this study that "cash" farming was being intro-

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duced in the riverain area as early as the nineteenth century. Moreover not only are crops grown today for cash but it is very striking that most help in farm work is given strictly on a commercial basis. Each year there is a large scale employment of migrant North-eastern Ibo labourers on Mbembe farms. These men work primarily for money; and even local assistance must be paid for either in cash or in very carefully reckoned kind. Indeed one of the most surprising things that struck me when I first began my fieldwork here after having done research in an Ulster community was that the Irish farmer co-operated much more freely with this neighbour and got more free assistance from his kin than did the Mbembe farmer.

Nevertheless cash cropping, although very important, is of a special kind that has so far not led to any greatly increased demand for land. The two main cash crops are yams and cassava, yams being by far the more important, and the demand of each crop for land is restricted, although in different ways. For the farmer the limiting factor influencing the size of his yam crop is not the amount of land he can claim but the number of seed yams he can acquire. Yams, at least as grown by the Mbembe, do not yield well, and a very high proportion of the crop grown must be reserved for seed. Disease or poor weather frequently make it quite impossible for a man to extend his crop acreage no matter what the land at his disposal or what the demand for yams. It is possible to buy seed yams from other areas, but a man's income depends almost solely on the yams he has managed to sell, so that after a bad season it is very difficult for him to increase his seed by purchase. Thus, however conscious of the market the farmers are, the crop they grow is self-limiting.

No such restriction governs the planting of cassava, which can be grown from slips, but social factors limit the spread of this crop. There is some prejudice against it because it is a two year crop, not a one year crop like the yam, and it therefore disrupts the traditional farming pattern which was based on one year's cultivation, followed by a fallow period. Perhaps even more important, however, is the fact that cassava is regarded as essentially a woman's crop; most costs incurred in the growing of the crop, and the burden of the work involved are borne by the wife and all the profits on its sale normally go to her. Because cassava is a woman's crop, however, the land made available for it is limited. This is because in the traditional pattern of the division of farm work and responsibility between the sexes, a pattern which has not so far been subject to any basic alteration, it is not the woman's but the man's task to clear bush for a farm. Today, when much farm work is done by paid labour it is not the woman's but the man's responsibility to pay labourers to do this work. Understandably, therefore, the men will not pay out money to clear extra land specifically for cassava from which not they but their wives will derive profit. Women therefore plant cassava only in land that has been previously cleared and used for yams by their husbands; even if they might wish to do so the women have no right to take and clear their husbands' patrilineal land. Thus this limits the land devoted to cassava to the area of former yam farms, despite the fact that the acreage of cassava could easily be increased

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Labour costs also limit the demand for land. Labour, we have seen, has become very commercialized and this has made the preparation of farms a costly business, which in turn cuts down the amount of money a man can afford to spend on increasing his farm by buying seed yams. Thus use by the Mbembe of migrant Ibo labourers is understandable in view of the fact that in this area the preparation of yam farms is a heavy task which for a short time undoubtedly demands more labour than the people themselves can readily supply. The cost, however, is made even greater by social factors for, although a man is expected to work hard and long on his crop once it has been planted, it is for many Mbembe farmers "not done" to be seen hoeing up their own yam hills. If a man today wishes to retain the respect of his neighbours he must employ Ibo labourers for the job. Thus the desire for prestige places an added emphasis on the employment of labour (see plate 3).

All these factors combined mean that the old patterns of rights over land, and the social relationships associated with these rights, persist. There is competition for land but, so far, this competition is comparatively slight and has, in general, influenced the relationships of large groups only. Villages today often clash over rights to clear unfarmed land on their borders; nevertheless within these same villages there is little friction over land. There has been virtually no individuation of holdings and it is still the firmly held theory that a man's farm is limited only by the number of his seed yams and not by the area of land to which he has a claim. Moreover it must be emphasized that this theory is supported by practice for, by the standards of many West African peoples, land among the Mbembe still has virtually no market price. For the local farmer labour costs are high but costs for hiring land are very low. This was shown clearly by a case in one of the largest villages of the Adun tribe where population density is very high. In this case, because of an inter-village quarrel, a wealthy farmer was temporarily prevented by a court injunction from working his patrilineal land which lay on the village borders. For a year, therefore, he had to "rent" all his land from others not his close patrikin, yet although his combined costs for seed yams and labour came to over £45, he paid a mere 35/0d. and palm wine for the land. Nothing could show more clearly that until the late 1950's, at any rate, the Mbembe did not really think of themselves as being short of land. In some districts I believe that the situation might change almost overnight were the men to adopt cassava, for example, or a tree cash crop; but at the time this research was conducted the old social patterns based on land holding had not bee disrupted.

Therefore while it is fully admitted that the society is changing and has been changing over a considerable period of time, and despite the many changes that have taken place in their material equipment, it is nevertheless contended that Mbembe society has not altered so radically from what it was at the beginning of this century that it was to difficult to see what the former patterns were. This account is therefore both about the present and about the recent past of three of the tribes which go to make up the Mbembe people.

[1] Weir, 1929, recorded that the term "Mbembe" was then considered derisive.

[2] There is today an "Mbembe Improvement Union" founded by local people.

[3] Figures based on the 1953 Census.

[4] Those groups I call tribes are known administratively as "Clans".

[5] For a discussion of the Yakö in relation to the Mbembe see Chapter II.

[6] Partridge 1905.

[7] This is a generally recognized tendency see e.g. Colson (1961) p.73.

[8] See Harris "Intestate succession among the Mbembe" (in press).

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