Ukwuani as Distinct Ethnicity and Language:
The Ndokwa nation emerged from the colonial era worse off than it entered into it. Where it found itself was hardly a carry-over from the pre-colonial era. In fact, it was also not the making of the colonialists. So that it could not be said that the Ndokwa nation emerged from the colonial era unsure of they are. It emerged from colonial rule like every other ethnic nationality conscious of its culture and linguistic identity. If anything, it was creation of the Ndokwa psyche, weak cultural balance of the people and the encounter it had with the superior neighbouring ethnic groups.
Ukwuani is a distinct tribe in South-South Nigeria. It is not a sub-tribe. Its status as an independent tribe is affirmed by the physical variables or demographic attributes described in chapter one as well as the fact of Ukwuani language being accorded official recognition as a distinct language for language test in the Nigerian Civil Service, this being written in the old General Orders. Writing on this subject, Tecola Ojie Okoro noted:
“Researches made on languages of the Niger-Delta based on history, traditional and sociological norms have confirmed conclusively the separate identity of the Ukwuani people.”
Ukwuani is broadly classified as belonging to the Kwa language group and of igboid subset. Like most languages of the South-South, Ukwuani can easily be learnt and spoken by new settlers because of its light accent. It generally shares limited characteristics in ‘forms and meaning’ with the Aniocha, Ika, and Igbo languages north and east of her boarders, and that is the much that can be said. In reality, more differences can be found in these languages than the common features to warrant their classification as similar or indeed one language.
In spite of the obvious status of the Ukwuani people however, they are occasionally embarrassed with comments that refer to them as ‘Igbo or Ibo speaking’. The question is: how can a nation be ‘other-tongue speaking’? Truly, Ukwuani is as far flung, linguistically speaking from Igbo just as it is from Ika and Aniocha.
Miffed by the spate of such misguided, wrongful references and classification Prof. Okecha in his book, Waiting For the Coconut to Fall, referred to a report that quoted Chief W.O. Eboagu to have said that in 1975,
‘the accredited representatives from the clans of Ukwuani and Ndosumili Districts of Aboh Division at the meeting on ethnicity held in Kwale on 25th July, 1974 TOTALLY REJECTED being styled Ibo-speaking because they are not and the idea was never handed down to them. The word ‘Igbo’ which is anglicized to Ibo has specific and restricted meaning in Ukwuani speaking society, apart from being a tribal name in Nigeria.’
As Mr. D. A. Otuata also observed in an interview with Dr. Okolugbo on the differences between Ukwuani and the Igbo language,
Although almost all the alphabets of the Union Igbo are found in Ukwuani, there are so many sharp dialectical differences in lexicon, syntax and pronunciation that one can hardly absorb the other. Union Igbo has certain words and phrases in common with Ukwuani but such words and phrases are pronounced differently. Sometimes, they have different meanings. In fact, apart from a few educated Ukwuani who learned Union Igbo at school and those who understood the Igbo language while abroad, a vast majority of the Ukwuani do not understand the Igbo language.
This is one reason the Ukwuani people do not like to be regarded as Igbo speaking as some other tribes erroneously try to tag them.
Professor Otite, writing on a similar issue but this time on the peculiarities of Okpe language stated:
Although the Okpe is part of a common Urhobo language, there are certain characteristics and peculiarities of the dialect which make it incomprehensible to other Urhobo and which is, therefore, sometimes used to justify its separateness and exclusiveness.
Statistically speaking also, it is safe to hazard a linguistic content of far less than 70 percent of Igbo, Ika, and Aniocha languages in Ukwuani. The implication is that Ukwuani stands separate as a language, characteristically and categorically, considering afore-mentioned observations on the subject.
In a paper, ‘The Urhobo Language(s) Question’ presented at Ibadan in November 1992, Augusta Phil Omamor, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ibadan, did a careful comparative study of the lexico-statistical percentages for ‘Isoko in relation to Agbarho (74) and Ughienvben (72) as well as for Okpe in relation to both Agbarho and Ughienvben (70)’. Agbarho was used as the standard Urhobo benchmark in the exercise and based on Williamson’s criterion, which established that lexico-statistical percentages below 80% indicate that the language group so compared belongs to different languages; she reached the conclusion that Ugheinvben language is a different language from Urhobo.
Dr. Charles Osume in his recent book, The Okpe People also used this same findings of Omamor to argue the separate reclassification of the Okpe as a distinct ethnic group. He observed that the lexico-statistical percentage of 74% of Isoko in relation to Agbarho, and of 72%, in relation to Ughienvben implied that Isoko is a different language and that by that same token,
‘it is decidedly erroneous to continue to classify Okpe as a dialect of Urhobo when the lexico-statistical percentage of Okpe in relation to Agbarho is 70%; a little lower than even those of Isoko that have successfully achieved a reclassification. He rhetorically asked why not so for the Okpe?’
Although in the case of Ukwuani there has not been specific research finding that clearly established the ratio of Igbo, Ika or Aniocha language content in Ukwuani for instance, and I believe this offers the challenge to do so among linguistics, Ukwuani indigenes however really do not need any scientific research to establish if they, in fact, can discern or clearly understand another language (Ika or Igbo, for instance) as Ukwuani people. What is true is that there exists the tendency of languages being ‘coloured’ by those of its closest neighbours. It is a factor to note when considering what made Ukwuani language this unique and it is understandable why this is so.
According to Chief Christopher Enuenwosu, ‘…the people of Ndokwa have diverse origin, these include Benin, Isoko, Asaba, Ijaw, Ibo across the Niger, as well as Igala, etc’. Ukwuani has undergone some historical processing going by the people’s early sojourn within the closer Bini kingdom setting and now share common boundary with the Aniocha, Ika, Ijaw, Isoko and Urhobo and of course with the Igbo just across the neighbouring River Niger. So far, a lot of water has passed under the bridge and this is also true with every other language with time. The Ukwuani language has undergone development and still will require constant development to enable it meet current need and use. This is the point being made here. That is the case with every language.
What these conclusions point to is the need for the Ndokwa nation to accept the fact of her existence, uniqueness and distinctiveness as a people in the Niger-Delta, not a sub-tribe or ethnic group. She is therefore entitled to all the rights, privileges accorded any bona fide ethnic group in Delta State and indeed the South-south Nigeria. While discussing culture in a later section of this book, the point was made about the fact that dressing, language and tribal marks are direct flashes that mark out a people’s ethnicity. This is why the point must be made about the uniqueness of Ukwuani language, which does not in any way warrant any mix-up with other languages no matter how close, talk more of confusing the people.
*Excepts from The Ndokwa Nation by Ween Chukusa (to be published). Copyrights reserved.