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Ethnic Groups in Nigeria- The Ijaw People

The term Ijaw is said to be the anglicised version of Ijo or Ejo, a variation of Ujo or Ojo, the ancestor who gave the Ijo people their name. The Ijaw people are considered to be the first to find a settlement in the Lower Niger and Niger Delta. The oral tradition dates them as inhabitants of this region as far back as 500 BC.

Historically, it is almost impossible to give a precise account as to whence the Ijaws originated. Different accounts have been given by different historians. But what is certain is that the Ijaws are one of the world’s most ancient people. Some have stated that they are descendants of the autochthonous people or ancient tribe of Africa known as the (H) ORU, given that the Ijaws were originally known by this name (ORU). At least it was what their immediate neighbours deemed them. This is also in addition to the fact that the Ijaws have kept the ancient language and culture of the ORUs.


The Ijaw language consists of two prominent groupings;

The first, which is termed as either Western or Central Izon (Ijaw) consists of Western Ijaw speakers: Ekeremor, Sagbama (Mein), Bassan, Apoi, Arogbo, Boma (Bumo), Kabo (Kabuowei), Ogboin, Tarakiri, and Kolokuma-Opokuma (Yenagoa). Nembe, Brass, and Akassa (Akaha) dialects represent Southeast Ijo (Izon). Buseni and Okordia dialects are considered Inland Ijo.

The second major Ijaw linguistic group is Kalabari. Although the term Eastern Ijaw is not the right term, which is what Kalabari is considered as. Kalabari is the name of one of the Ijaw clans that reside on the eastern side of the Niger-Delta (Abonnema, Buguma, Bakana, Degema etc.) who form a major group in Rivers State.

Other “Eastern” Ijaw clans are the Okrika, Ibani (the natives of Bonny, Finima, and Opobo) and Nkoroo. They are neighbours to the Kalabari people in present-day Rivers State, Nigeria.


The Ijaws have two forms of marriage. The first which is a small-dowry marriage, the groom is traditionally obliged to offer a payment to the wife’s family, which is typically cash. In this type of marriage, the children trace their line of inheritance through their mother to her family. In other words, it affords them the opportunity to choose between their patrilineal or matrilineal lineages.

In contrast to the first type, the second type of marriage is a large-dowry marriage. And here the children belong to the father’s family. In other words, ancestry is basically patrilineal.

Beliefs and other interesting Facts

With the coming of Western civilization, the present-day Ijaw seems to have changed from traditional worshipers to Christianity. But as usually found in African communities, there is still a huge practice of the African traditional religion. This traditional religion of the Ijaws typically the veneration of ancestors. Marine or water spirits, known as Owuamapu, also figure prominently in the Ijaw pantheon. They also believe that water spirits are like humans in having personal strengths and shortcomings and that humans dwell among the water spirits before being born.

In addition, the Ijaw practice a form of divination called Igbadai, in which recently deceased individuals are interrogated on the causes of their death. Traditionally, the Ijaws hold celebrations to honour the spirits, lasting for several days. And the highlight the festival is the role of masquerades. Here, men wearing elaborate outfits and carved masks dance to the beat of drums and manifest the influence of the water spirits through the quality and intensity of their dancing.

Particularly, spectacular masqueraders are taken to actually be in the possession of the particular spirits on whose behalf they are dancing. Interestingly, the Ijaws are one of the few peoples in the world known to practice ritual acculturation (enculturation). In this practice, it is possible for an individual, who hails from an entirely different tribe or group, to become an Ijaw after undergoing some certain rites. It is said that King Jaja of Opobo, the Igbo slave who rose to become a powerful Ibani (Bonny) chief in the 19th century, is an example.


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Jeremiah Aluwong

Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

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