The Omu of Anioma, Martha Dunkwu, is a revered traditional ruler of Anioma land, which covers nine local government areas in Delta State. Anioma people are the Igbo located in Delta, who are separated from the Igbo in the South-East by the River Niger. Dunkwu tells OCHEI MATTHEW about the historical background of the Omu, its spirituality and others
What has been the most interesting part of being the monarch?
The most interesting part is the fact that the throne is indigenous to Anioma people. The two titles of Omu: Omu queen mother and Eze Nwayi (queen). Our forefathers’ intention was for the Omu to be a queen in charge of women. So, you find out that when I go all over the country, people look at me as if I’m a TV screen or movie star because they had not seen such before. Our former governor, Chief James Ibori, wrote me a goodwill message when I celebrated my 50th birthday, 14 years ago. He said I brought feasibility to this ancient institution. As a media person, I brought that to this institution. So, it has been interesting going all over the world because they didn’t know there is a part of Africa where their forefathers had decided 700 years ago that a woman must occupy this throne and play her part for the community to move forward. So sometimes at events, I’m the only female at a setting dominated by men.
What were you doing before you became the Omu?
I was a media practitioner. I studied in England, the United States of America and returned 35 years ago. I was a media consultant for the late Oba of Benin, His Royal Majesty, Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa, of blessed memory and the late Orodje of Okpe. At some point, I consulted for the Asagba of Asaba and about seven traditional rulers. I was in the consultancy business but when I became the Deputy Omu, I decided that the best thing was to start working for traditional rulers. I was Deputy Omu for three years and became substantive Omu for 17 years, so I have done the work of Omu for 20 years now.
How much do you miss your old life?
No, I don’t miss my old life at all. I must confess that what I am doing is the physical manifestation of spiritual conclusion. So, once God has decided on a matter, you cannot miss anything because that’s the intention of God.
How did you feel when you got to know that you would become the traditional ruler?
Well, initially I was apprehensive because in the past, Omus were women in their early 80s and 90s and as you are aware, Omu doesn’t get married. And if you are married, once you become Omu, you must leave your marital home. However, I was not married so I didn’t have any issue with having to leave my husband. I wasn’t quite sure of how I would handle it but when I was convinced that it was the intention of God, I took it upon myself to do the right thing and I will continue to do to the right thing.
How has your life as a female monarch been?
Rosy…(laughs). Well, it’s challenging when you cannot marry, go into a relationship or attend a burial. There are so many things you cannot do as Omu. However, the work of Omu is 70 per cent spiritual, so I have to keep praying. I also have chiefs attached to my palace. There are spiritual and executive chiefs in the palace.
What experience do you think you have had that you think came as a result of your being a queen?
I am grateful to God and I remain grateful to the late Oba of Benin Kingdom. I learnt a lot from him. The Omu institution is very conservative and ancient. It is a dictatorship in the sense that no woman was consulted when few old wise men instituted the Omu institution. When many people see me and find out about the institution, they marvel. The challenges I have are even from our people.
So what have been your biggest challenges since you became the monarch?
One, I have tried to fuse the good of the old times with the good of the new period to have something brand new. I don’t have any challenge from the people of the North, West, South-East or Deltans. If there are any challenges I am facing, they are from my people and not necessarily from Anioma people. They are from my own home – Okpanam – and of course, it is understandable because even the best among us are despised in their homes. Anioma people own this institution; it is not a personal institution. So, one would not call what I experience as challenges in that sense. Even in Okpanam, the institution is for our forefathers and not for any individual. That’s why it is said that the Omu cannot abdicate the throne and people cannot put all manner of things in place to remove the Omu. So, in 700 years, no Omu has abdicated the throne and no Omu has been removed.
What is the history of Anioma?
Anioma people are generally known to come from various areas, some from Igala, some came from Benin and some from Nnri. So it is for us as Anioma people to determine who we are, not people telling us who we are. What we want is the Federal Government to grant us Anioma State and also recognise us as an ethnic nationality because, in Delta State, it is only Anioma that does not have its ethnic group recognised by the Federal Government. We want our state.
In terms of culture and tradition, what are some of the unique things about Anioma?
Omu institution is unique; another unique thing is our Akwa Ocha. Anywhere in the world where someone is sighted having on Akwa Ocha, the first thing people say is this an Anioma person. It doesn’t matter whether the person is Anioma or not. Anioma people are also peace-loving but if you bring war to us, we also know how to fight that war and win it. Our women are extraordinarily beautiful. During the military era, if you had not married from Anioma area, you had not started. Again, we have good and fertile land. That’s what the name Anioma means (good land).
What kind of life did you have while growing up as a princess or someone who would one day become a queen?
I was in the North when the war started. I had my primary school education in Plateau State. It was the war that made us return. Then I went to a secondary school here and worked for some time in Benin before I went to England and the US. Just like any other child, I had ups and downs but I love challenges because that’s what life is about. If life were dull, you would see people getting depressed.
We often hear that the traditional rites for new kings involve a lot of rituals, what was your experience in that regard?
The crowning of Omu is done over a period of time which I cannot tell you. The elders pray to God and God chooses who the Omu will be. And God also directs how the rite will be done. These are not things to be said. All I can say is that the ritual is done between 12 am and 4 am. It must not start before midnight and cannot go beyond 4 am for the duration of the period. The actual rites and rituals are things I cannot say. And when you finish the rites, you are given Nze Omu (staff of office). It passes from one Omu to another.
What festivals are celebrated in Anioma and what is their significance?
We have Iwaji (New Yam Festival). It differs from community to community, and it is usually celebrated towards the end of the years – between September and November, depending on the community. One good thing about Okpanam is that we have had to do away with so many harmful aspects of our culture.
What are the things considered as taboo in your community?
Fortunately, one good thing about Okpanam is that we have done away with many things like harmful burial rites and other things that could be considered as harmful. We have got rid of 95 per cent of them. But if an Omu steps down or resigns and returns her staff of office, she will have to leave the community. She can’t come back. It’s taboo to come back because Omu throne cannot be abdicated. Our forefathers put the conditions there; should you want to leave, you cannot be forced to stay but that is the condition. So for example, if you leave and return the staff of office, you are leaving the community for good. And you cannot return to that community until after you pass on and your corpse is brought back. Even when you pass on, your family will have to perform some rites before your body can return to the community. However, the community cannot have another Omu until the one that left ends her mission on earth (dies). It’s taboo.
As a queen, how do you feel not having a husband and children?
Once you are pronounced as Omu, and you had married, you must leave your marital home and return to your father’s house. You are now a man. A palace will be built for you in your father’s place. You stop contacting your husband but that is not to say he cannot come and say hello; however, he cannot stay with you for hours. He cannot come and sleep with you so you have no responsibility to the man whatsoever. If you had children before you became Omu, the children would still be yours. And if you had one child before you became Omu and now wish to have more children, you can marry a woman, who will give you more children. This is because you cannot live with a man again. And in such a situation, the child you previously had and the one the woman had will have the same rights. That is, your two sets of children will have the same rights – the child or children you had before you became Omu and those you had in the institute. But for me, I have one son and I never married. I used to say that marriage is by choice but for the past couple of years, I have seen it as providential. I have one son who is married with a son now and is a lecturer in the university. I am man and woman put together. I’m not under a man, rather a different spiritual person. During my coronation, male rights were bestowed on me.
What are the things you cannot do as a queen?
I cannot marry. I cannot attend a burial. I can’t stand holding a man’s hand publicly; I can’t do that because I’m now a man.
What are the things you used to enjoy doing but now miss doing because you became a traditional ruler and can no longer do them?
I must tell you that I am very contented being the Omu. I am not missing anything; if you want to know why, it is because I have explored before I became the Omu. I explored in Nigeria, England, America and when I returned home, I continued the exploration. I’m a traditionalist but like it is for those who are Christians when they talk about a calling, it is so here. When the name of Saul was changed to Paul, did he say he was missing something? I cannot say I am missing anything; the work of Omu is 10 per cent about looking after women, 10 per cent about looking after the market, 10 per cent is dedicated to other things, while 70 per cent has to do with the spiritual realm – to be prayerful.
Since traditional rulers are restrained from doing many things, how do you relax?
I relax by praying in my three temples; it gives me joy because I am a queen of water. I will show you my water temple. I pray there; I also have Ani (land) temple. The most important spot in the traditional region is the Ani temple and I have another in my office that connects me with God Almighty and my ancestors; that gives me great joy. So they can show me the direction I’m going. That’s why a lot of people say I am too traditional. If God wants me to follow a certain direction and human beings want me to follow another direction, whose view should I respect? That’s the duty of Omu. So you cannot bring your human interpretation into Omu institution. So, I am very happy and contented being in my three temples.