Ikot Ekpene, also known as The Raffia City, is a historic town in south-southern state of Akwa Ibom. It is the political and cultural capital of the Annang ethnic group in Nigeria. The town is located on the A342 highway that parallels the coast, between Calabar to the south east and Aba to the west, with the state capital, Uyo, on this road just to the east. Umuahia is the next major town to the north.
Ikot Ekpene is known as a regional centre of commerce, with notable exports of palm products, especially palm oil, kernels, raffia products including raffia fibers and its sweet wine, and ground crops of yams, cassava, taro, and corn. The population is made up primarily of the Annang people with a small number of Igbo traders and Hausa Suya vendors. Significant exports also include basket weaving, sculpture, and, most notably, raffia cane furniture (hence the colloquial name of the town).
Though most inhabitants of the area did not have direct contact with European traders who they called Mbakara until early in the twentieth century, it is believed that European articles of trade reached the people since the 17th century. Sustained contact with the Europeans began during the Aro expedition when Ukpong Inokon, an Aro Blood Brotherhood leader escaped to Ifuho (Ette, in press). In November 1903, British troops arrived in the area from Calabar and the following year established a garrison there in January 1904, putting Umoren Eyenobong (known as swordwearer by the Europeans) from Ukana in charge of the immediate Annang people. From Ikot Ekpene the troops marched to Uyo and from there to Abak and Opobo (now Ikot Abasi). Between 1904 and 1910, Ikot Ekpene became part of the Eyong District. In 1914 Enyong District was broken up into two: Enyong and Ikot Ekpene Districts. The new Ikot Ekpene District included Uyo and Abak with the headquarters in Ikot Ekpene town (Akpan, 1967).
By 1919 trade with Europeans opened up as the town became an administrative center. The following companies had posts and stores in the town: John Holt Cooperative Wholesale Society Paterson Zochonos (PZ), G. B. Olivant and the Compagnie Francaise de L’Afrique Occidentals. The establishment of these companies resulted in an exodus from the surrounding areas and made Ikot Ekpene a vibrant metropolis. In 1937, the colonial administration built the main market and separated those who sold imported European goods from indigenous articles. A slaughter house was added to allow for the inspection of meat.
Under the British the town became the seat of both the (Annang), Division and (Ikot Ekpene) County Council. Today it is a municipal center in the state of Akwa Ibom.
Kannan Nair, the noted historian described the town as a cultural and political capital of the Annangs and the Ibibios. The Ibibios live to the east and most of the Annangs live to the south of the town. In 1903, the British sent in troops and a garrison was stationed there at the main entrance to the town known as Control Post. The town was so important to the British that when a proposed road linking Owerri and Calabar in the late 1920s was to bypass the town, the British administrators abandoned the idea in favor of one linking Eket and Owerri in order to bring the town into the loop (Nair, 1972). It became the site of the experiment in local self governance by the British in 1951. It was also the birthplace of the famous Ibibio Welfare Union when James Udo Eka teamed up with Udosen Obot at Methodist school in Ikot Obong Edong ( Noah, 1988).
Ikot Ekpene, probably more than any other town, was seriously impacted in the Biafrian civil war. It had strategic military and political importance to both the Biafrians and Nigerians. The town and the area changed hands at least 3 times in this bitter conflict. Following the war, the new reorganization and state structure led to policies that did not recognize the historic importance of the town as most of the Annang leaders were massacred during the war.
Like most Annang communities, Ikot Ekpene has a tradition of self-improvement from its sons and daughters, both near and far. Several groups are working together to recapture and rebuild what they fondly call “The Raffia City”. Ikot Ekpene has a long history of transforming the raffia fibre into cloth used in shoes, hats, handbags, mats and with distinctive cultural carvings made out of wood. These unique arts and crafts trades have continued alongside traditional agriculture.
Many foreign organizations and churches are present in the area. Four institutions of higher learning have added a richness to the town: the Akwa Ibom state polytechnic, Ikot Osurua, the School of Nursing, the St Joseph Major Theological Seminary and Ritman University.