Leadership they say is not for everyone and so is the Nze na Ozo traditional social institution of the Igbos. A practice prominent amongst the Igbos from Anambra State. For some people, the institution of Nze na Ozo is just another group of old men in some sort of social club enjoying the fruits of their collective labour. On the other hand, to the majority of the people, the Nze na Ozo social institution is a sacred representation of the ancestors in human form. This group of people happen to be the largest and hold the popular opinion. This is the reason the members of the Nze na Ozo institution are held as the conscience of the society and custodians of the truth in their various communities.
The beauty of culture is in its diversity, and for the Igbos, culture is best practiced when it is brought home. For this reason, the practice of the Nze na Ozo system in the various parts of Igbo land vary slightly. For instance, in some parts of Igbo land, with the exception of Onitsha and Delta Igbo, to become a full member of the social institution, you have to be seen as a full-grown man. This sometimes means that candidate must have buried his father. Also, in some parts in Anambra and Enugu state, any man can take the tittle if the father is still alive. However, there are limitations to the titles he can take. An example is the ‘ezeana’ title.
In other Igbo communities, especially those in the Awka-Nri axis, some exceptions are made where the candidate completes the initiation rites into Ozo, but is referred to as ‘Nze-agbala’ until the father dies. Such a person may however not be allowed to dance to Ufie music which is a sacred music danced by Ozo holders on special Igbo religious festivals such as the New Yam festival.
For an average Igbo girl growing up in the eastern part of Nigeria, the word or tittle ‘ozo’ was quite easy to hear especially if your childhood had to be spent in ‘Otu Onicha’. The white apparels adorned with red ornaments and the native anklet called ‘atali ozo’ worn by these men during ‘obi’s ofala’ and other events set them on a stool a bit higher than humans. Little wonder the curiosity to find out the reason for such institutions.
Some folklore tellers say that ‘ndi Nze na Ozo’ represents the ancestors on earth. However, as much as it is true that ‘onye Ozo’ is a representative of the Ancestor, the origin of that representation dates back to the time of Eri, the progenitor of Ozo Title in Igbo Land. This institution is known as Odoloma Eri. This is meant to be a system of government in Igbo land. The members of this group grew into becoming advisers to the rulers, peace and truth custodians in the lands and ambassadors of Eri. Let it also be known that women are not admitted into this institution.
From inception, the position of the Nze na Ozo can be said to be that of mediators and custodians of tradition. Borrowing from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the emissaries sent from Umuofia to mediate in the case of impending killing of Ikemefuna actually depict the real significant of these titled men in Igbo land. This is because an ordinary youth does not know the implications of prohibitions (Nso Ani) in Igbo cosmology. It is only the people that have attained the stage of gerontocracy status quo that knows it all as far tradition and customs are concerned.
The reason for this boil down to the introductory statement of this piece that leadership is not for everyone. The Ozo title taking procedure is a rigorous one full of rituals and procedures.
However, it is imperative to say here that for one to be bestowed with an Ozo title interpretatively it “implies a hierarchy of privilege and dependency” (Roberts, 1993:65) because there are so many obligations attached to it. One thing we should be mindful of is the fact once a person is initiated into the brotherhood, politically “he becomes a member of the traditional ruling group. Thus, he becomes a member of Ndi-nze, one of the state councils, and he is regarded as a man of upright character and integrity (Onwuejeogwu, 1981:85 & Idigo, 2001). Socially, the initiated person has the right to own, keep and use all Ozo paraphernalia – red cap, the white ankle threads, the double-headed spear, alo, the single-headed iron lance, nguegiliga, the ofo-ozo, the ozo bronze bell, he elephant tusk, okike and Oche-mgbo respectively. He can be called by any of his four names. He can have the shrine of Agbala, Anyanwu and Ebo (Onwuejeogwu, 1981:85 & Idigo, 2001:109).
All of these adornments and rituals are geared towards setting them on a plane to radiate spiritual and angelic potency. Jean During (1993:561) asserts that such paraphernalia given to members of Ozo society as a sacred institution symbolizes “the image of both the heavens and the assemble circle of mystics’’. The aim of all these is to set them ready to be the vessels of the ‘gods’ among the living.
Furthermore, joining this group of title holders makes the member a part of the traditional political class. A form of state council.
Interestingly, with all the mystic divinity associated with the ‘Ozo’ group in Igbo land generally, there has constantly been propositions, deliberations and accusations of the system being misogynist and biased in its dealings.
As gathered by institution and practice, this particular social group is in charge of instituting the Kings. As a matter of fact, the kings of the various communities where they exist have to be chosen from amongst the already initiated members.
The negative effect of this singular fact can be seen from the shared conspiracy and inefficiency amongst the members.
Not only are the financial and social stands required to attain this membership is outrageous for an average man who has real impact as intentions, the exclusion of certain people from the affairs of the community simply because they are not members of this group continually jeopardizes the quality of rulers and leaders the Igbos inherit with each passing season.
As a norm, there has been continuous reports of abuse of office by the people who are supposed to be the ‘eyes of the gods’. The members of this social group enjoy some sort of social immunity from the community and present day political leaders. This has further buttressed their insatiable quest for more and more resources by hook or crook. Seeking to exploit people with great communal intentions with exorbitant initiation requirements has become a norm in many communities, all in a bid to enrich themselves. This is at the expense of the good of the people and community.
Clearly as we have come to understand, everyone cannot be involved in the actual business of decision making, but the Igbo culture is one with a communal background, the beauty element of the Igbo culture. To protect this element and still have an efficient traditional government system, the Nze na Ozo group needs to start focusing their energy on enforcing the moral stance in place of affluence. There is no doubt that the moral requirements needed to attain a place in this group, over time, have been able to keep the ambitious society in track. That notwithstanding, the continuous emphasizing of this aspect of the institutions needs to be in place. There is need for a revisit to the drawing board to discover the real reasons for this Ozo social institution so as to keep a positive relevance.
Presumably, if the basic reasons this institution was created can be resurrected in its entirety, the Nze na Ozo system will retain its place as an amazing governing system for the Igbos.