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The Okija Shrine Phenomenon [A Must read]

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Over 70 dead bodies were  found in the busted Okija shrine[Over 70 bodies were  found in the busted Okija shrine]

Introduction – Igbo people, also referred to as the Ibos are ethnic group living chiefly in south-eastern and south Nigeria, speak Igbo, which includes various Igboid

languages and dialects; today, a majority of them speak English alongside Igbo as a result of British colonialism. Igbo people are among the largest and most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria. Due to the effects of migration and the Atlantic slave trade, there are Igbo populations in countries such as Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, as well as outside Africa. Their exact population outside Africa is unknown, but today many African-Americans and Afro Caribbeans are of Igbo descent. In rural areas in Africa, the Igbo are mostly farmers. Their most important crop is the yam; celebrations are held annually to celebrate its harvesting. 

Before the British colonialism, the Igbos were a politically fragmented group. There were variations in culture such as in art styles, attire and religious practices. Various subgroups were set according to clan, lineage, village affiliation and dialect. There weren’t many centralized chieftaincy, hereditary aristocracy, or kingship customs except in kingdoms like that of Nri, Arochukwu and Onitsha. This political system changed significantly under British colonialism in the 19th century; Eze (Kings) were introduced into most local communities by Frederick Lugard as ‘’Warrant Chiefs’’.  The Igbo became overwhelmingly Christians under colonization.

In the pre-colonial Igbo political system, the village assembly decided matters about village life generally. Disputes that could not be resolved between families were brought before the assembly for settlement.

During the assembly session, every male adult had a right to contribute to the discussion. Usually the most senior village elder acted as chairman during these meetings. A final distinction on an issue was not made by voting; instead respected persons arrived at a decision among themselves. Their discussions were normally not contested.

The Oracles were the highest judicial authority in Igbo land and people took their cases to them as a final resort. There were four major Oracles whose verdicts were final and indisputable. They were IGWKALA of Umunoha, the AMADIOHA of Ozuzu, the AGBALA of Awka and the CHUKWU or long Juju of Arochukwu. The Chukwu had armed soldiers that destroyed any village that disobeyed it. 


When the issue of Okija Shrine sparked up in the last quarter of 2004, the Igbos as one of the three major tribes in Nigeria were described as cannibal and a sect with huge questionable characters. With Okija Shrine in existence for ages, before it became an issue of discourse by some individuals thereby delimiting the dignified importance of Oracle among its worshippers. These individuals behind the travails of Okija Shrine believed to have gained unspeakable influence in the society, considered its summoning to appear  before it by, perhaps those whom they have stepped on their toes, as a ‘noise made in the night with loud echoes’.

With its similarities elsewhere as a native-regional and traditional judicial authority, Okija Shrine in a very reserved context, is undoubtedly a classic means to preserve and conserve traditional sacred which identifies and defines a particular traditional heritage of the Igbos; and provides worshipping to its believers. With the position of tradition in Nigeria, its uniqueness is characterized by a family relationship in which each member sees himself as bound up inextricably with the customs and practices of the tribe and his or her ancestors. Since this kind of affinity is the result of a blood tie, the fortunes of one family member automatically are regarded as the fortunes of other members, whether they live close by or far way. Conversely, the tragedies of the family are shared mutually by all members.

Looking at Okija Shrine as a traditional judicial authority, in Nigerian context, whose jurists are the famous ancestral spirits of the various deities worshipped in Igbo land in the likes of the IGWKALA OF UMUNOHA, THE AMADIOHA OF OZUZU, THE AGBALA OF AWKA and THE CHUKWU OF AROCHUKWU. It can be affirmed that these jurists are familiar with the environment within their jurisdiction to administer.

With customs, tribal or ethnic practices, and the regular observance rites and sacrifices handed down by the ancestral fathers, who not only kept them alive in their own days, but made sure the practices, the rites and sacrifices- were preserved and passed on to their children. They, in turn, were expected to pass them on to subsequent generations. For adequate observance as demanded by the tradition in correlation to traditional judicial authority in dispensing judgement upon cases brought to it by its loyalists, the litigants who is usually the eldest man from the most senior village with a wild range of knowledge and communication with the oracles, always stands on the line of truth in determining judgement, otherwise he toys with his own life.

With indisputable verdicts dispensed at any given time, Okija Shrine and its impartiality which hinges on the basis of truth satisfies its loyalists, was lately conceptualized with prejudice by a handful sect of the society because of the blunt rejection instituted by some so called influential individuals who are supposed to appear before Okija Shrine to answer for themselves on cases brought against them; or the anxiety of being pronounced guilty. Meanwhile, a misinterpretation of the value and potentials of Nigerian traditional religions, moreover, prevents perceiving the spiritual, cultural and human energies which would be precious in the search of Nigeria modernity and for the Africa’s development if you like it.

In a nebulous sense, before Christianization, Nigerians were expected to participate in all the heathen rites of their families. For example, they had to eat a portion of the food sacrificed to the family god or the various gods that were the objects of worship by the members of their family. These included the gods of thunder, iron, fertility, the river. They also were required by custom and the wishes of the elders to carry out certain rites of passage associated with child naming, marriage and funeral ceremonies of departed members of the family. And still, among the traditionalists who are loyal members of the tribe, society and family did not see anything repugnant in these practices. They were part of the common rounds of everyday living and the religious dimensions of the community that he or she belonged to by birth. Sacrifices to idols were accepted in that society, and there was nothing to be ashamed of, about participating actively in such practices.

Upon a more in-depth analysis, there, it seems that the current interpretative approach to traditional worshipping and traditional judiciary authority with Okija Shrine in focus, and to all things traditional in general, is viewed deeply irrational, both as regards stratified common notion and erudite ones. This is because this particular approach is influenced and distorted in uncontrolled fashion by a series of covert assumption and judgements, which fashions, which are rarely critically assessed.


Meanwhile, the involvement of the ancestral spirit as a judicial making body in the traditional religion of Igbo land is in connection with the distinctive three entities in one as described of a community as stronghold or abode place for the dead, the living and the unborn. In view of this, the ancestral spirits of deities worshipped who had lived and are still living but in a more fortified form, possess the knowledge of their environment, therefore intervene when consulted on matters concerning the institutions (land, shelter etc.) they left to be manned by the living and possibly the unborn who shall be born tomorrow. On their vast knowledge with the truth as believed among its loyalists, demands for its preservation among the traditionalists in Igbo land as a catalyst for resolution and amicable interaction and transactions as well as its conservation as a useful traditional heritage with which a certain people are known with. The belief in ancestors is an important element of native-traditional religions. The belief occupies an important place in the understanding of the role of the traditional religion in inculcating the ideal of harmonious living among the people. One needs however, to know the content of the belief to be better able to appreciate how it helps the people to realize the community ideal of harmonious living.

The ancestors or the living-dead, as John Mbiti refers to them, are believed to be disembodied spirits of people who lived upright lives here on earth, died ‘good’ and natural death, that is at ripe old age, and received the acknowledge funerary rites. They could be men or women. But more over often than not, male ancestors are prominent since patrilineage is the dominant system of family and social integration in most traditional Nigerian societies.

Traditional Nigerians hold the ancestors as the closest link the physically living have with the spirit world. The living-dead are bilingual; they speak the language of men, with whom they lived until ‘recently’, and they speak the language of the spirits and of God…they are spirits with which many native people are most concerned: it is through the living-dead that the spirit world becomes personal to men. They are still part of their human families, and people and people have personal memories of them. They know and have interest in what is going on in their families.

This consequential institution of traditional judicial authority among the Igbos today, for example Okija Shrine, is a traditional dogma peculiar to its people as a viable option of establishing truth in any case brought before it. And its existence today as a useful traditional heritage can be linked with Chinua Achebe’s swift reaction in ‘Things Fall Apart’ against Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, where the latter projected the image of Africa as black, dark and unclean. He also ruled out Africa in terms of culture and tradition as he suggested that Africa was an ‘impenetrable forest riddle and infested with sickness and cannibals’. However this distorted picture of Africa as painted by Joseph Conrad, drew swift reaction from Chinua Achebe in his ‘thing Fall Apart’, and in a very truthful way tried to distance Africa from the prejudiced description and to inform the world that Africa has a peculiar culture and tradition, using Igbo land and its long-existing, distinctive and useful cultural-traditional settings which the Oracle as an institution of judiciary was obvious and clear, as a case study in Umuofia community.

Continuing in these considerations, traditional religion which is often debased is entitled to feature among the great world religions. It is the fact that traditional religion in Nigeria provides their own specific vision of life which is intimately connected with other areas of human experience and therefore directs substantially the intelligence, emotions and existence of individuals within their respective communities. It underpinned every facet of life of the people. It is particularly significant in inculcating and promoting the sense of community-living and certain key values associated with that.

In defiance of the Portuguese explorer who stated with certainty that ‘these people have no religion’, conversely , a deep religious feeling rooted in Nigerian culture; or rather, in a ‘black’ culture which not only is not an insolvent debtor towards history.

At one level, Nigerian traditional religiousness is expressed as  a spiritual background shared by Nigerian people; at another it is formalized as a real positive religion or religious; and there is a level at which it creates new forms of religious syncretism  by blending with elements from Christianity or Islam. In this respect, it seems important to stress the difference as proposed by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, which exists between the dimension of faith exclusively concerned with God and His relationship with man and that religion, which concerns the organisation of the forces which govern the life of a society according to a perspective of ultimate finality and the so-called transcendence of man’s physical being. In this sense, religion tends to overlap with culture, or better, with the various cultures in which same faith can be expressed, while remaining true to itself. If this is true, a faith, for example the Christian faith, will be compatible with ‘local’ rites which may even be at great variance with each other, no condition that it does not fail its essential core of faith.

Moreover, tradition must be distinguished; the importance of this cannot be overemphasized. For interest groups who have labelled Okija Shrine, an occultic have as Nigerians constantly challenged by western civilization, it is to our undoing to regard everything tradition as occultic. 


The Oracle as an institution of authority in the Igbo traditional settings upon which Okija Shrine emerged, is today confronted and tagged occultic fraternity by the society because it does not correlate with the principles of Christianity which is an institution in its own capacity and within its jurisdiction encourages and promotes the administration of judiciary through one of its concepts, ‘counselling’ in settling disputes and giving hope to the hopeless. The earlier missionaries who journeyed from the West to condemn in total dismay what Africa is known with in terms of worshipping, in their quest for the proliferation of Christianity, had negated ‘religion sovereignty’.

Our traditional institutions are still being recognised by the constitution. And our herbal medicine and traditional dance and music are promoted and exported beyond the shores of the country. All these are in line with provision in the constitution that protects right to worship, association and life. Basically, its enshrinement in the Nation’s constitution provides legal frame-work to worship.  This however, paints a true picture of the Oracle as a deity worshipped among the traditionalists in Igbo land, which Okija Shrine provides a platform for.

The legal frame-work which tradition and its components enjoy in the constitution legalises it for worship under religion in the present day Nigeria. But with prejudice to the Igbo tradition, worshipping of Oracle; when the matter of Okija Shrine took the centre stage due to myopic premonition about the activities practiced there, many Nigerians hurriedly forgot that tradition and its practicability should be exonerated from Christianity and Islam, because they are practiced in different dimensions as religions within their tenets.

On the other hand, the traditional rulers whom the Nigeria constitution describes as the custodians of the culture and tradition should then be seen and pronounced occultic, and also the constitution itself which harbours them should therefore be discarded for shouldering and abetting occultic kingdom, if the disgusting reactions of our particular society towards Okija Shrines were anything to support.

Nevertheless, it is precisely this combing capacity which has enabled Nigerian people to construct a spiritual dimension which is deeply in tune with their needs and able to respond to the challenges of a borderline where life has always been more difficult than elsewhere. The religious action of these particular people can therefore be considered to be the dynamic and innovative expression of a capacity for adaption, survival and growth which, given their starting conditions, possibly knows no equals in the history of human species. To restore not just the moral, but also the interpretative dignity of Nigerian traditional religions or in any case to the Nigerian expression of other religions, such as Christian or Muslim religious which, as mentioned above, have now also become part of the tradition, could be stereotypes which cloud their image.

With concern that in Nigeria, religion is literally life and life is religion shows that the followers of traditional religion are more preoccupied with its practice than with its theory. The understanding of traditional religion as part of the societal ethos will go hand in hand with Christian evangelization and Muslim propagation.

Unfortunately, the deity of Okija Shrine under traditional religion which should be employed for its potentially salutary effect has been misunderstood and is still misrepresented. The misconception is amply evident from the many wrong names by which traditional religion has been described. It is difficult to understand the tenacity with which Okija Shrine has been termed a primal practice. Evidently the use of the term is to distinguish tradition from the so-called great or world religions. A primal religion is supposed to have no founders. It is without a literary source. One cannot but wonder whether it is the written word and an identifiable founder that make a religion a religion. In any case, it is an assumption of dubious validity that one cannot at least point to a dominant historical figure in the past in relation to traditional religion.

Without trying to sound too simplistic, it can be argued that all religions are built on three major pillars: faith, morality and worship. With Okija Shrine deity in focus, religion deals with belief in some higher power or being that is accepted as having some influence on devotees. This conviction enables or even compels the adherents to comport themselves in their socio-cultural life in a manner their belief will please the object of their worship. Here we have moral or ethical behaviour. This, in turn, leads to the believers meeting from time to time express in public their faith in, and dependence on, their spiritual overlord. This is worship or liturgy.

With controversies besieging the existence of Okija Shrine, which is believed to have been triggered by some ‘religious extremists’ in our society who question to know the basis of traditional religion, they should look for and find traditional religion in: rituals, ceremonies and festivals; shrines, sacred places and religious objects; arts and symbols; music and dance; proverbs, riddles and wise sayings; names of people and places; myths and legends; beliefs and customs. Traditional religion has a message for us here. Its lack of scripture has not, in any way, meant lack of effectiveness. Religion is to be practiced not to be talked about. This, of course, does not mean that doctrine and ideology are useless. But doctrine need not be doctrine because it is written, and doctrine devoid of practice is meaningless.

For those who have vehemently labelled Okija Shrine as paganism, heathenism and fetishism, they should be made to realize one thing here: that if because of the sacred objects found in traditional religion that spurred the terming of Okija Shrine deity, fetish, and then we find ourselves in deep waters. There is no religion in which such objects are not found. In Christianity we respect status and crucifixes, medals and rosaries. They, too, are objects. But we understand that these are a secondary aspect of the Christian religion. Do they not also use prayer-beads? Do the Muslims not venerate the Kaaba?

Religion is the belief in a superhuman controlling power and Nigerian traditional religion has been in conflict with Christianity perhaps largely because people do not understand the common grounds that traditional religion and Christianity have. It is against the backdrop of this misunderstanding that often times, traditional religion is being erroneously described as heathen, demonic or incompatible with Christianity.

The common grounds that traditional religion has with Catholicism include belief in a Supreme Being, (Chukwu, Allah, Olodumare) symbolism and imagery (archetypes), ritual, worship and sacrifice. Symbolism and imagery in traditional religion include the carved status housed in shrines, the veves traced on the ground in voodoo religion. In the Catholic Church, it includes the crucifix, images of saints, statues of saints and angels. 

Do adherents of traditional religion and Catholics worship the images and statues? No. the purpose of these symbols is to raise the consciousness of the practitioner to a higher level where they may attune with energy or deity. So more or less the images are like aid to assist the practitioner. Ritual means a prescribed order of performing rites, e.g.: baptism, marriage, church service, and the proceedings at a traditional shrine.

What then is a Shrine? It’s an altar, a temple, a place sacred to a deity or saint. For example we have the dedicated to Madonna, etc. and other shrines in the church. Hence Christians and traditionalists engage in worship at their respective shrines.

An important aspect of Christianity is sacrifice. Jesus Christ gave his life so that humanity may be saved. In the church, this sacrifice is commemorated by the celebration of the Eucharist by using the Bread and Wine to symbolize the body and blood of Christ. Human blood is not used in Christian shrines or ceremonies although in some white garment churches which practice a mixture of occultism and sacrifice of blood of animals. The sacrifice of human being is in the realm of black magic and criminal, which requires the attention of the Police.

In the shrine of Catholics it is common to find sacrifice made to the saints urging them to intercede on their behalf to the Supreme, or urging them to do some favours for them much the same way the traditionalists ask the arusi or orisha for help. 

An arusi could be an elemental spirit created by thought forms generated by human beings and established firmly on the spiritual planes and fed constantly through ritual and sacrifice. An arusi could also be a representation of a being on the celestial hierarchy.


The involvement of ancestors in traditional judicial authority is because ancestors do form part of the religious thought of the African. But the existence and the veneration of saints too form part of the thinking of Christians, of whatever denomination. 

No Christian would accept it if Christianity were termed ‘Saint Worship’. Christians would rightly protest. The reason would not simply be that there are much more important aspects to Christianity that the saints. The protestation would be justified on the grounds that indeed saints are not worshipped, saints are not deified, and saints are not the ultimate object of our petition and praise or adoration. We honour saints as having lived our lives and being worthy of emulation and we pass our petition through them to the Almighty God. We impose their names on ourselves to remind us of their lives which we would then be urged to imitate.

This is exactly the same idea in the veneration of ancestors to determine the position of truth in judicial process involving traditional religion. Ancestors are not divinized but are consulted. By reason of the radical change of mode of existence, it is believed that ancestors have acquired a power that is higher than human. And that is why they are approached in a human pragmatic way with problems possibly to assist the living to observe faithfully the injunctions that they have left them as lasting legacy.

The situation has changed radically today. The experience of colonialism, Christian missionary actively and Islamic religious campaign have given rise to a radically different socio-political and religious background in Nigeria. Colonialism created a new social and political order in sub-Saharan Africa. It created modern nations by pulling together traditional group with diverse language and cultural identities. A wedge has been driven between the sacred and the so-called secular aspects of life. Certain traditional Nigeria beliefs, customs and practices associated with the idea and promotion of community living among many Nigerian ethnic groups have been to the outlawed. They were considered either too cruel, or simply opposed to the aims of modernity and/or Christian missionaries.

The traditional belief in ancestors and other spiritual patrons, as well as the vital role they were believe to play in fostering community living, have been seriously relativised in most contemporary societies.

The destabilisation of the traditional religions has clearly left wide gaps in the social structure, particularly in the bonds of interpersonal inter-group relationships.

The advent and spread of Islam and Christianity precipitated a different kind of religious situation in contemporary Nigeria. The phenomenal religious conversion that has taken place under this condition is certainly the direct result of complex interplay of diverse impulses, and historical circumstances. Most Nigerians no longer live in small communities, in symbiosis with their local gods for a considerable period of time, certain terms with clear negative and degrading connotations were employed by adherents of other faiths to refer to Nigerian religious elements, ethnocentric words like primitive, savage, native, and tribe. Other expressions are paganism, heathenism, idolatry, animism, fetishism and totemism. The use of these expressions mainly by writers, forms part of the background of the serious religious bigotry, prejudice and discrimination against traditional religion; the situation where one set of biased, obnoxious and discriminatory expressions are reserved for traditional religion, and a different set  reserved for other religions.

In the words of E. Isichei, traditional religion and its worship is closely tied to local shrine and oracles. This is an aspect of the segmentry and largely small-scale autonomous communities that make up much of traditional Nigeria socio-political societies. There are similarities in cultural experiences particularly within individual language groups.

Among the Ibos, religion and law are so closely interwoven that many of the most powerful legal sanctions are derived directly from the gods.

The Ibos have an unsentimental, calculating relationship with their gods. They entered into covenants with individual deities and invited them into their midst in order to benefit from their spiritual powers. 

Generally speaking, Nigerian religions hold that there is one creator God, the maker of a dynamic universe. After setting the world the world in motion, this Supreme Being could only be approached through the deities and divinities, as a result, people do not ordinarily offer sacrifices or organize a cult around this high god. Instead, they turn to secondary divinities that serve the Supreme Being as messengers or go-betweens. These secondary divinities are sometimes portrayed as children of the Supreme god, but religious teachings also regard them as refractions of a divine being. Finding no outward indications of the worship of a Supreme Being, early European travellers, missionaries and explorers dismissed Nigerian and African religions in general as superstition, animism (attributing a soul to non-living things such as trees or rocks) or ancestor worship. However, Nigerian religions do recognise one supreme creator. Nigerian religions do not demand adherence to any single doctrine. Their focus is primarily practical, religious rituals serve as strategies for reinforcing life, fertility and power. The principal vision shared by Nigerian religions is that human beings must vigilantly maintain a harmonious relationship with the divine powers in order to prosper. Nigerian religions aim at harnessing these powers and channelling them for the good of the community and ritual is the way to do so. Ritual helps ensure a community’s responsible relationship with ancestors who are guardians of the moral order with spiritual forces within nature and with the gods. The many shrines evidence the worship of secondary divinities and altars dedicated to them. Worshippers maintain contact and correct relations with these divinities through prayer offerings and sacrifices and other rituals. If people neglect ritual duties, it is expected that the divinity will call them to attention by causing illness or misfortune. Blood sacrifice – the offering of a sacrificial animal is the most important ritual expressing the reciprocal bond between divinity and devotee.

Shrines and altars to the divinities are generally not imposing or even permanent structures. The most dramatic and intimate contact between human being and divinity occurs in the ritual of trance during which a divine spirit is believed to take possession of the worshipper. In most cases, rhythmic chanting, drumming, dancing and other techniques are used to facilitate an altered state of consciousness. Sometimes, only the priest is susceptible to possession but in other cases as in the Vodun religion of Benin, others also serve as receptacles. Under the direction of a specialist in the ritual, the possessing spirits enter participants who submit to the spirits’ control. The presiding god engages the congregation in dialogue and delivers messages to devotees. Come to think of it, during the bid for the right to the host of 2014 Commonwealth Games which Nigerian lost to Glasgow, Scotland when the draw was made in far-away Sri-Lanka, if you have asked the chairman biding-right-committee, Gen, Yakubu Gowon, he would have eloquently answered, Nigeria bided not to win all the games but to use such a panoramic platform to showcase her richness in ‘culture and tradition’ for the world to acknowledge and appreciate its diversified beauties. This would have exported what some quarters here in Nigeria labelled as barbaric and occultic beyond the world. The same thing could be said with regards to the FESTAC’ 77 which Nigeria hosted in Lagos because such a cultural and traditional fiesta truly exposed Nigeria’s heritage as it remains indelible in the hearts of on-hand participants and via cable viewers’ participants.

Therefore, in my own disposition, would it be justifiable for the country Nigeria to continue supporting and exporting an idea considered by a handful of her citizens as barbaric and occultic? That means that the quest for cultural and traditional related symposia such as ‘’Abuja Carnival’’ and its alike in which masquerades that belong to and act as the legion to the traditionally instituted establishment, in order words shows the level of cultural beauty of a particular society; should therefore be made to have a second thought about it.

Nnaemeka Nwankwo Okere wrote in from Abuja; Snowboy_y@yahoo.com, 08036864820


1. F.A Arinze (1970): Sacrifice in Ibo Religion, Oxford University Press, Ibadan

2. N. S both (1977): African Religions, a Symposium, New York, NOK Publishers (Ed)

3. C. I Ejizu (1986): Igbo Ritual Symbol, Enugu Fourth Dimension Publishers LTD

4. A. Ekwunife (1990): Consecration in Igbo Traditional Religion, Enugu; SNAAP Press

5. E. Ikenga-Metuh (1981): God and Man in African Traditional Religion, London; Geoffrey Chapman

6. (1987): Comparative Studies of African Traditional Religion, Onitsha; Imico Publishers

7. J. S Mbiti (1990): African Religions and Philosophy, London; Heinemann (Ed)

8. (1975): The Prayers of African Religion, New York; Orbis Books

9. C. Gaba (1973): Scriptures of an African People; the Sacred Utterances of the Anlo, New York

10. M. A Onwuejeogwu (1981): An Igbo Civilisation, Nri Kingdom and hegemony, London

11. A. G Leonard (1968): the Lower Niger and Its Tribes, London

12. B. Ray (1976): African Religions, Symbol, Ritual and Community, New Jersey; Prentice-Hall

13. A. Shorter (1975): African Christian Theology, London; Geoffrey Chapman

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