You probably must have heard the stories of Eze Chima’s migration from Bini and the crossing of his entourage into present-day Onitsha across the Niger. You’ve heard of how they met the Igala fishermen at the banks and the relationships they had with the peoples of the Omambala (Anambra River). These were the stories of the indigenous Onitsha people.
The small town of Onitsha was founded on a very strategic site. The length of the River Niger ends just south of the town before fanning into the creeks of the Niger Delta. This flow of the Niger brings the inhabitants around it — Nupe, Igala, Western Igbos, etc — to Onitsha to trade on ivory with those at the confluence of the Omambala north of the town. The Nkisi Stream flowing westward would also bring traders from the hinterland to this same spot where it empties into the Niger. The area around this tri-confluence would be called “Otu Ọ̀kwụ̀-Ọ̀dụ̀” — The Riverbank for paddlers of Ivory. Otu Okwu-Odu would later be bastardized as “Ose Okwodu” and is today simply called “Ose Market” while “Otu” has become the nickname for Onitsha. The establishment of Otu Okwu-Odu heralded the beginning of a heterogeneous settlement in Onitsha.
OPENING TO EUROPE AND SIERRA LEONE
With the abolition of the slave trade, Europeans began engaging in legitimate trade. To understand the inland terrain and strengthen commerce with the West African natives, exploration expeditions were set out along the Niger with Mungo Park tracing the River from its source to a distance with the confluence with the Benue while the Lander Brothers carried out the remainder of the lower Niger down to the Delta noting Onitsha and it’s environs.
From 1854, the first Europeans docked at Onitsha carrying Scottish boat maker MacGregor Laird, Scottish botanist William Baikie, Sierra Leonean missionaries Samuel Crowther (a former Yoruba slave) and John Taylor (a former Igbo slave), an Igbo interpreter Simon Jonas and others. The Sierra Leoneans would stay back to establish the CMS for the Anglican Church in Onitsha.
With these, Onitsha had been opened up to the overseas and Otu Okwu-Odu saw an expansion as former Igbo slaves from Sierra Leone and traders from Europe began moving to the city to trade in palm oil and ivory. A new market was established near Otu Okwu-Odu and traded only on Nkwo day. The market was called Otu Nkwo and grew to become the largest market in West Africa — present-day Onitsha Main Market.
In the last half of the 19th Century, European companies had set up multiple trading posts in Onitsha and other trading towns in Africa. Conflicts of interest set in amongst these companies with regard to commodity prices and their individual country policy. The British companies in Onitsha had merged together under the United African Company while the Germans and French had multiple companies. To address the conflicts of interest, the Europeans had a conference in Berlin, Germany in 1884 and agreed to scramble Africa in such a way that each country’s company(s) had a monopoly of trade within particular regions. Britain got the territories around the lower Niger giving the United African Company monopoly to trade in the area. The UAC soon got a royal charter and became the Royal Niger Company with headquarters across Onitsha in Asaba. They opened another trading post between Abutshi and Atane (Obosi and Atani — I suspect the present-day Okpoko area).
ONITSHA TOWNSHIP: COLONIAL ADMINISTRATIVE TOWN
At the end of the century, Onitsha and the trade territories of the RNC came under the “protection” of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria as the Oil Rivers Protectorate (later renamed Niger Coast Protectorate and the Southern Nigeria Protectorate).
Southern Nigeria Protectorate was administered through three provinces: Western Province, Eastern Province, and Central Province. The Onitsha-Asaba district of the Central Province (Most of present-day Delta, Edo, Anambra States, and parts of Kogi State) was the most progressive. In 1907, the Governor of Southern Nigeria, Sir Walter Egerton stated a set of development agendas for the country which included the expansion of footpaths and grading of roads. One of the first roads built and graded in Onitsha was named after the governor — Egerton.
THE RISE OF ONITSHA CITY:
A CITY WITH A PLAN
By this period, Onitsha began having an urban feel with urban quarters building up: Sierra Leonean Quarters (Present-day Ogbe Umu-Onicha/Areas flanking Egerton Road); European Quarters (Formerly the Ozalla evil forest and Present-day GRA); American Quarters; Areas around Old Market Road, New Market Road, and Francis Street; businesses along Marina Road; Christ Church (CMS) and Holy Trinity (RCM) and associated schools and hospitals; courts, etc. Rich indigenous Onitsha men including Modebe (namesake of Modebe Avenue), Oranye (namesake of Oranye Street), Ekwerekwu, Nzekwu, Onwuli were some of the first landowners around urban Onitsha. Modebe’s son Joseph would go on to establish one of the largest Estates in Nigeria around the former cassava “colony” (ọdọ akpụ/Odoakpu) with Modebe Avenue as the major access. The Muslim Nupe people established their own settlement in present-day Fegge around the Bida Road — named after the main Nupe town “Bida” — axis (Ama Nupe/Nupe Square/Nupe Quarters). Near Ama Nupe was Ama Awusa (Hausa Quarters) and further south was Ogbe Ukwu (“Great Quarters”: a settlement for the Aboh people).
Other Non-indigenous people would start coming in to own lands around Onitsha. One of such people was an Obosi man, Iweka. Iweka’s sons Jonas and Isaac would also play a part in the development of Onitsha. Doctor Jonas Iweka established one of the first private hospitals in Onitsha (said to be located at Present-day Iweka Road) while Engineer Isaac Iweka worked with the PWD and saw some of the road constructions in Onitsha. People from around the Nnewi area were among the major migrants to the city.
Just before World War II, plans began for the creation of a planned settlement for the growing population of Onitsha. This brought about the creation of the well-gridded Fegge residential Layout around Ama Nupe (Present-day Fegge Stadium) in 1936 and the upgrading of Otu Nkwo market from an open-air market into having stalls and becoming the Onitsha Main Market.
As the Riverside Onitsha developed, the Inland Town held on to its rural lifestyle until the innovator and then high official of the PWD, Peter Achukwu (A.K.A “Ochanja”) began to implement new plans of demolishing and for the Inland Town. The Ochanja market is named after Peter Achukwu.
With Onitsha expanding so did the enmity with her neighbors especially Obosi. From the end of World War II, a disputed territory lay between Onitsha and Obosi. The area was known as “Ugbo Orimili” (lit. River Farmland) by the Onitsha people and “Otu Obosi” (lit. Riverbank of Obosi). Even after the dispute was settled by the colonial government in favour of Onitsha, the dispute continued (even more brutally) into Independence.
THE FALL OF ONITSHA CITY:
GROWING WITHOUT DIRECTION
By Independence, Onitsha had grown into one of the biggest urban areas in West Africa. It would have been the most important in the Eastern Region of the then independent Nigeria if not for the 1906 discovery of coal in Enugu and the establishment of Port Harcourt to ship coal to Britain.
Onitsha began losing its administrative powers after the division of Southern Nigeria into Eastern and Western Regions with the regional capital of the East moving to Enugu. By 1967, Onitsha became a part of breakaway Biafra and suffered the most damage from the Biafran-Nigerian war: the new Niger bridge fell, Main Market burnt down, residential houses were riddled with bullets while the people fled.
The war ended and plans for reconstruction and reconciliation were implemented but the former elites of the city did not return since the city couldn’t serve administrative and educational functions. The city could only serve commercial functions and would become a transportation hub for the itinerant population of the East Central State. Opportunities in the city got limited to these two industries with a few manufacturing companies (major ones like breweries have continued to close down to date while petty manufacturers are still around).
From Enugu to Awka, Onitsha would no longer have the taste of being an elitist city. The population of rural migrants would over the years drown those from other urban settlements.
By 1991, plans came for the development of Omagba as a residential Layout and Awada as an industrial Layout but implementation became a problem. The creation of Omagba was successful but Awada grew away from the plan with unsupervised multi-storey buildings sprouting up indiscriminately. The areas around the already-established industrial layout at Okpoko would turn into a slum and the once planned Fegge and environs could no more contain the rising population — old houses were left ramshackle, more houses sprouted, drainages failed while domestic and industrial waters washed away the roads ladened with waste piles.
The government could not administer the city from far away Awka. And thanks to the 1999 constitution, the local government councils are not too effective. Even if they were, the sprawling city of Onitsha would be answerable to five masters — Onitsha North, Onitsha South, Idemili North, Ogbaru, and Oyi Local Government Councils.