All hail the last king of Ireland?
Nigeria's Igbo tribe numbers tens of thousands in Ireland, but many refuse to accept the status of the man who was crowned their king in 2008, Matthew Emeka Ezeani
A STRIKING photographic portrait greets visitors to Matthew Emeka Ezeani’s office in Dublin. Dressed in wig and gown, his hands neatly clasped, the Nigerian looks a picture of gravitas on the day of his admission to the roll of solicitors in England and Wales. What really grabs the attention, however, is a framed certificate on a cabinet underneath, proclaiming him king Igbo of Ireland. Welcome to the office of Matthew Emeka Ezeani, solicitor and monarch.
The present-day Ezeani doesn’t quite seem like royalty, dressed in shirt and trousers and sitting at a paper-heavy desk. Outside court hearings and client meetings, the 47-year-old indeed acts as king of Ireland’s Igbos, a major Nigerian tribe numbering tens of thousands here. Not all acknowledge Ezeani’s appointment, however.
Hailing from southeast Nigeria, or Igboland, the Igbos are one of the largest Nigerian tribes and are noted for their business endeavours. In Ireland people may best remember them as the tribe of the “black babies” threatened by starvation during the Nigerian-Biafran war in the late 1960s, or from Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart,set in Igboland, which has been on the Leaving Certificate English syllabus.
That book’s title comes from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, but the story behind the latest Igbo-Irish connection reads more like a drama.
A function room in a west Dublin hotel was the scene of this tale’s dramatic apex: Ezeani’s so-called coronation in December 2008, sanctioned by the then secretary general of the umbrella Igbo organisation Ohanaeze Ndigbo and carried out by a visiting king. About 300 Ireland-based Igbos and friends saw Ezeani crowned as his royal highness eze Igbo of Ireland (eze means king in Igbo), but many boycotted the event for personal, political or cultural reasons.
Ezeani, a well-spoken man who projects confidence, now heads a council of about 20 “chiefs”, promoting Igbo culture and mediating disputes, including those between man and wife. Fellow solicitors and associates at the Bar are bemused, he admits. “Some of them have said to me, ‘Oh, your royal highness’,” says Ezeani with an accepting laugh. “They’ve asked if it means I have more money now, or do I have servants or attendants and all that. I said no.”
NIGERIA IS A developing democracy with elected representatives, but most of its communities have officially recognised traditional rulers. In Igboland kings are selected within localities and generally act as mediators on community issues. The power of traditional rulers to award titles has promoted corruption, however, and Nigerians now refer often to the “bastardisation” of traditional titles.
“Absolutely. People are using their wealth to acquire positions that they are not entitled to,” says Ezeani, who notes that some Igbos in Ireland attend events wearing the red hats worn by Igbo chiefs, even when it is known that they hold no such position.
“We are doing our best to discourage that kind of attitude. In Nigeria you dare not step into Igboland like that – the sanctions are quite massive. If I wasn’t a chief and stepped into my home town with a red cap, oh gosh, the whole town would revolt against me.”
Yet Ezeani’s own appointment has been a controversial occurrence among the Igbo community in Ireland. There are various reasons for this. An overarching issue is a long-standing wrangle among Igbos about the appropriateness of having traditional rulers for the populations of the diaspora. In Ezeani’s case, some Igbos further claim that the tenure of Joe Achuzie as secretary general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo had expired by the time he appointed Ezeani. “That’s not correct,” says Achuzie, a famous Biafran army colonel from the 1960s war, adding pointedly that “several individuals wanted the position” in Ireland.
There have also been complaints about the lack of consultation, and allegations that the king who officiated at Ezeani’s coronation was unqualified, as he was not based in Igboland. This is sour grapes, says Ezeani, who claims that many critics have since “come on board”.
Chinedu Onyejelem, an Igbo who edits the multicultural newspaper Metro Éireann,says the situation is complex, with a background of competing interests. “Before Emeka became king, it was controversial,” he says of the prospect of an Igbo king here. “People were saying, ‘Look, we don’t need it in Ireland.’ Others were saying that if it’s going to promote our Igbo culture, it’s absolutely needed.”
When Ezeani entered the equation, opposition intensified. “He’s a nice man but also a divisive figure, in the sense that, in Igboland, if they see you as someone who is well educated and if you have a lot of influence too, people begrudge you, just like in Ireland.”
Ezeani has both followers and detractors, says Onyejelem, who doesn’t much care for the institution of kingship because of issues of egocentricity and status in his own community in Igboland. “It has devastated my people and ensured that conflict continues to reign.”
Staunch republicans such as the Dundalk resident George Enyaozu, a Green Party local-election candidate in 2009, see the monarchical idea as a vestige of British colonialism. “The British saw that we had no kings and they decided to create some for us. They called them the warrant chiefs, and the Igbos fought against those people,” he says.
Enyaozu acknowledges the existence of some precolonial Igbo kings but argues that their proliferation was linked to British interference. He also believes that Ezeani’s selection was disproportionately linked to his involvement in a legal challenge that led the then minister for justice, Michael McDowell, to reopen temporarily the Irish Born Child Scheme in 2005, a decision that resulted in thousands of immigrants, including many Nigerians, attaining legal residency.
According to Ezeani, his professional background was a factor in his selection, but only because it was allied to his cultural pedigree, including being made a chief in his home town of Ihembosi, in Anambra state, more than a decade ago. Reflecting on the dissent since his coronation, he describes an alleged incident just after the ceremony that could have graced a Sopranosplotline. It involved an individual approaching the officiating king at his hotel and offering him thousands of euro to annul Ezeani’s appointment.
Ezeani says that he never actively sought the position of king and that the Ohanaeze Ndigbo organisation, which mandates many Igbo leaders in the diaspora, considered him the strongest option after consulting community members.
BACK IN IGBOLAND, the issue of kings overseas has remained controversial. In March 2010 Ohanaeze Ndigbo issued guidelines stating that Igbo leaders abroad should be known as onyeisi ndigbo(head or chairman of Igbos) rather than as eze. These guidelines “never went anywhere at all”, says Ezeani, who has since used his title officially when attending the organisation’s conferences in Nigeria. He stresses that a king in the diaspora is not the same as a king in Igboland and that “we’re not claiming to be equals”.
On a practical level his unpaid role has been “24/7”. As well as organising cultural programmes, including the New Yam Festival, which takes place in Dublin today, there are phone calls to field and usually one or two disputes to mediate each month.
But does this traditional African mediation mean that some issues are not dealt with as required by the Garda or legal professionals? “No, absolutely not at all,” says Ezeani. “Where the law has to take its course, we allow it to take its course. There are some matters, clearly, where mediation is advisable. You find, in many areas of law, that the judiciary in Ireland is encouraging mediation as an alternative.”
If a woman, for example, wants to report a violent incident to the Garda concerning her husband, “it’s her prerogative to do that, but of course if we can resolve that, and it never happens again, the family stays together”.
He adds that people must approach the king for mediation, not the other way around. This costs four kola nuts and a bottle of local gin in his part of Igboland, but just the kola nuts are requested here. Ezeani says his advice is not binding and that Igbos must obey Ireland’s laws.
He says his role is ultimately about ensuring that Igbos thrive here. “I hope that either in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime, we will have an Igbo taoiseach . . . You never know.”