Onitsha (Igbo: Ọ̀nị̀chà Mmílí or just Ọ̀nị̀chà) is a city located on the eastern bank of the Niger River, in Nigeria’s Anambra State. A metropolitan city, Onitsha, is known for its river port, and as an economic hub for commerce, industry, and education.
In the 2006 Nigerian census, Onitsha city had an estimated resident population of over half a million people, and, as of 2016, has an estimated metropolitan population of 7,425,000. The indigenous people of Onitsha are Igbo and speak the Igbo language. The Onitsha people like to be referred to as Ndi Onicha.
Onitsha Mmili was known as Ado N’Idu by migrants who departed from the vicinity of the Kingdom of Benin near the far western portion of Igboland (near what is now Agbor), after a violent dispute with the Oba of Benin that can be tentatively dated to the early 1500s.These migrants traveled eastward through what is now Western Igboland and various towns also called “Onitsha”, for example Onicha-Ugbo, “farmland-Onitsha”. Folklore has it that, Onitsha was founded by one of the sons of Chima, the founder of Issele-Uku kingdom in western Igboland. Chima, a prince of the ancient Benin kingdom emigrated, settled and founded what is now known as Issele-Uku in Aniocha North Local Government Area. The eldest son of Chima eventually emigrated across the Niger River to establish the Onitsha community.
After their arrival on the east bank (Onicha-mmili, “Onitsha-on-water”, see above), the community gradually became a unitary kingdom, evolving from a loosely organized group of “royal” villages to encompass “non-royal” villages comprising Igala settlers, and the native Igbos to form a more centralized entity. Eze Aroli was apparently the first genuinely powerful Obi of Onitsha, the ruler of the city.
Some theories on the word ‘Onicha’ point to the meanings “despiser” or “arrogant”; apparently the people of Onitsha were prone to “look down” upon the people of the towns adjacent to them. ‘Onicha’ may be a contraction of either ‘Ọnịsịlị-ncha’, meaning ‘too headstrong [to be disciplined]’; Ọnyịsịlị-ncha, ‘too headstrong [for everyone]’; or ‘Ani-Ocha’, ‘the fair or white land’.
Some claim that ‘Onicha’ is a contraction of Igbo and Edo words, and perhaps from the word ‘Orisha’. Therefore, as a matter of verifiable fact, there are as well other communities east of the Niger River kwown as Onicha with differing appendages. The communities are as follows: Onicha Uburu (Ebonyi state), Onicha Uboma (Imo state), Onicha Agu (Enugu state), Onicha Nwenkwo (Imo state), Onicha Ngwa (Abia state), Onicha Amagunze (Enugu state), etc
Onitsha slowly grew to become an important trading port for the Royal Niger Company in the mid-1850s following the abolition of slavery and with the development of the steam engine when Europeans were able to move into the hinterland.
Trade in palm kernels, palm oil, and other cash crops on the coast of Bight of Biafra increased around this river port in the 19th century.
In 1857 British palm oil traders established a permanent station in the city with Christian missionaries joining them, headed by the liberated African bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (a Yoruba recaptive) and Reverend John Taylor (an Igbo Recaptive).
In 1900 Onitsha became part of a British protectorate. The British colonial government and Christian missionaries penetrated most of Igboland to set up their administration, schools and churches through the river port at Onitsha.
More immigrants from the hinterland of Igboland were drawn to the emerging boom town as did the British traders who settled there in Onitsha, and coordinated the palm oil and cash crops trade.
In 1965, the Niger River Bridge was built across the Niger River to replace the ferry crossing. This has helped to grow trade routes with western Nigeria and created significant economic linkages between Onitsha and Benin City and Lagos particularly.
The Nigerian-Biafran war brought devastation to Onitsha as the city was a major theatre of war for forces entering Biafra from the western front. The subsequent oil boom years of the 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a huge influx of immigrants into the city. The result has been hastily constructed and haphazard building which has created a huge number of slums.
Traditional Onitsha consists of nine villages, otherwise known as Ebo Itenani. These are descendants of the progenitor Umuezechima comprising Isiokwe, Olosi, Umuezearoli, Okebunabo, Obikporo and Ogbeotu which claim origin from Igala in Kogi state, Awada (Ogbeozoma), Obamkpa comprising Umuasele, Iyiawu and Odoje Ndugbe and Odumegwu Gbuagu, Ubulu na Ikem, Ulutu, Ubene, Ogboli Eke, Obior and Ogbeotu. Within these groupings there are six administrative wards namely Okebunabo, Umuezearoli, Ogbeolu, Isiokwe na Ogboli Olosi, Obamkpa and Eke na Ubene.
Onitsha operates a traditional government headed by the Obi, the titular head of the town who is assisted by Ndi Ichie, titled red cap elders or chiefs. Among these are Ndi Ichie Ume, who are the First Class Chiefs. The Ndi Ichie are classified into six, namely: Onowu Iyasele, Ajie Ukadiugwu, Odu Osodi, Onya Ozoma, Ogene Onira and Owelle Osowa, with Onowu Iyasele as the traditional Prime Minister. There are also other Ndi Ichie, who are ranked second class, known as Ndi Okwa and third class, known as Ndi Ichie Okwareze. The Ndi Ichie serve as Council of Advisers to the Obi who solicits their advice in major decisions he takes in the Kingdom.
When the ruling Obi joins his ancestors, the Onowu Iyasele takes charge until a new Obi is enthroned.
Once a year in October the kingdom of Onitsha holds the Ofala Festival which coincides with the traditional New Yam festival held in many parts of Igboland. It is a way for the people of Onitsha to keep their culture alive and it has become a major event that draws visitors from far and wide to the city.
Onitsha lies at a major east-west crossing point of the Niger River, and occupies the northernmost point of the river regularly navigable by large vessels. These factors have historically made Onitsha a major center for trade between the coastal regions and the north, as well as between eastern and western Nigeria. Onitsha possesses one of the very few road bridge crossings of the mile-wide Niger River and plans are in place to add a second bridge near it. Today, Onitsha is a textbook example of the perils of urbanization without planning or public services.
In the early 1960s, before the Nigerian Civil War (see also Biafra), the population was officially recorded as 76,000, and the town was distinctive in a number of dimensions; the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (born and raised in the contiguous town of Ogidi) characterized it as harboring an “esoteric region from which creativity sallies forth at will to manifest itself,” “a zone of occult instability” (see “Onitsha Matters”).
Indeed, Onitsha has played a creative role in the transformation to urban life in Eastern Nigeria famous as the setting for Onitsha Market Literature and as one of the hubs for the financing and distribution of Nollywood films.
However, infrastructure has not kept pace with urbanization and haphazard building practices without zoning regulations has left in its wake a chaotic and congested city rife with lawlessness. The World Health Organization Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution database’s 2016 update indicates that Onitsha is the most polluted city in the world.
However, as Onitsha has been a symbol of urban blight, it is also becoming a poster child of modern-day urban renewal.
Significant efforts have been made by the Government of Anambra State to clean up the city and improve security. The transformation of the formerly lawless Upper Iweka business district and expansion and fixing of the collapsed federal expressway through Onitsha highlights the success of the administrations of both Governor Peter Obi and Willie Obiano.
Today, Onitsha has grown into a modern-day urban city in Anambra State with a population approaching a million.
In recent times with its expansion into neighboring communities, the Onitsha people have been involved in disputes over land ownership in the surrounding area with the people of Obosi and Nkwelle ezunka. Fegge, Woliwo, Odoakpu, Awada and 3-3 are Onitsha metropolitan areas being disputed by the communities of Obosi and Nkwelle Ezunanka, respectively.
Lying at the bridge between Eastern Nigeria and Western Nigeria, and between the densely settled Igbo hinterland and the oil-rich creeks of the Niger Delta, Onitsha is strategically positioned as a regional hub for trade and logistics in Eastern Nigeria.
As the Nigerian economy has expanded, so too has Onitsha played a central role in the trade and distribution of manufactured goods from Lagos and food produce from various northern towns to buyers from all over Eastern Nigeria and across the West African region.
Consequently, Onitsha has grown to become one of Nigeria’s most significant market towns and its Main Market, one of the largest markets in West Africa, a center point where billions of naira are transacted every day.
Onitsha’s role as a strategic gateway for trade and commerce continues to expand and deepen and the Anambra State government has made a conscious effort to encourage industrialization over the past few years through infrastructure renewal and directed investment.
In 2012 the state government, through a joint venture, attracted SAB Miller to invest in Onitsha Brewery, which started production in August. It was the first large-scale investment in Onitsha since Premier breweries, makers of the Premier Beer, established production in Onitsha in the early part of 1980’s. In January it was announced that upgrades to the value of $110 million would triple the output of beer and malt drinks.
Other factories have sprung up in the popular Harbor Industrial Layout including Orange Drugs, a soap-making factory; Krisoral, a bottle cap manufacturing company; and PZ Cussons.
The Nigerian federal government’s initiative to expand transportation on inland waterways is expected to benefit Onitsha. Already, a small port has been constructed on the Banks of the River Niger.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha. The Church Of Nigeria Anglican Communion Anglican Church has All Saints’ Cathedral, the Headquarters of the Diocese on the Niger with Rt. Rev Owen Chiedozie Nwokolo the Bishop on the Niger. The Anglicans were the first missionaries in Onitsha in 1857. Later came the Catholics in 1884. It is the residence of the traditional ruler of Onitsha, the Obi of Onitsha. There is also a teacher training college for women and a famous lepercolony.
Islam is practiced in the city by people from Northern and Western Nigeria. In February 2006, armed militants killed at least 24 ethnic Hausa Fulani (Muslims) and burned a few Muslim sites, including two mosques. The riots were in response to riots by Muslims in the city of Maiduguri days earlier, where at least 18 Christians were killed, sparked by the cartoon controversy in Denmark.
The Onitsha people were among the first Igbos to embrace western education, producing notable people like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Owele of Onicha, Zik of Africa, and the first president of the post independent Nigeria.