The Igbo Staff of Justice
Photo source: LNC-USA.org
The Ọfọ is made from a tree known as Detarium elastica / Detarium senegalense / Detarium microcarpum). Among the Igbo of South-eastern Nigeria, it is the material and mystical symbol of truth, purity, justice and authority. The fundamental principle in the institution of Ọfọ is that right is might; right here is seen as justice; Ọfọ is thus the defender of the innocent. The weak can also be protected by this principle, but only if they are innocent, that is, if they have Ogu on their side. This gave rise, in Igbo cosmology, to the twin principle of Ọfọ-na-Ogu (justice and innocence) which is the foundation of all the basic moral principles in Igbo traditional ethics, such as truth, justice, innocence, uprightness and moral purity.
Ọfọ is made up of a carved stick about four to six inches long, and thick at one end. A bundle of Ọfọ twigs can also be wrapped together to make up the Ọfọ, thick at one end and usually black due to constantly being rubbed with the blood and feathers of sacrificial animals, including fowls and goats. The Ọfọ tree is believed, among the Igbo, to be a mystical tree specially designed by God for its special role. Once the carved stick or bundle of twigs is prepared as a symbol of Ọfọ, it is then consecrated and automatically becomes the central family cultural object which unites the living, the ancestors and the gods. It is the head of the family, the Okpara or the oldest man in the lineage, who is the recognized holder of Ọfọ in the family. With this position of ritual authority, the gods and the ancestral spirits endow the Ọfọ holder with special functions, rights and privileges, and it is the duty of the living to obey him.
Thus, whatever the Ọfọ holder decrees, condemns or approves is believed to be what the gods and the ancestors ordain, disapprove or approve. The presence of Ọfọ in any gathering fosters a sense of unity and conformity among all members of the group. This is because it is highly feared, given that it can kill or be used to ostracise any erring member of the society, igbu Ọfọ. The mystical aura, power, and influence which the Ọfọ holder exudes among the people implies that he must be transparent, impartial, upright and honest in all his dealings, otherwise he will be struck down by a series of calamities - including death - by the gods and the ancestors.
Though the advent of Christianity may slightly have affected the respect for this ‘holy stick’, nonetheless, it is still very active, a symbol of authority, effectively respected in Igbo tradition and culture. It is an age-long traditional stick which Igbo people use for justice, peace, fairness and equity.
The Ọfọ trees (Detarium senegalense, Detarium elastica and Detarium microcarpum) and its sticks or branchlets are said to be classified as the tangible Ọfọ. They are one of the material aspects of cultural practices in Igboland. All tangible Ọfọ trees are not found within a locality in Igboland. The Detarium elastica is located within Anam, a riverine zone in Anambra state. The Detarium senegalense/guiniensis is commonly found in Awka, Nsukka and Rivers State, while the Detarium Microcapum is also found in many Igboland examples are Ngor-Okpala, Afikpo, Abakiliki, Ezza etc. The Ọfọ trees and their branchlet are regarded as sacred. It is a taboo for the Ọfọ tree to be used as timber or firewood. In some localities, women are prevented from plucking its branches or picking up any fallen twigs for firewood.
There are Ọfọ made in bronze and iron in some parts of Igboland. This means that Ọfọ is not only made with wood as often believed and thought of by many individuals; but whatever medium and material used in the making, the most important thing is its consecration and ritualization.
On the other hand, intangible Ọfọ refers to the Igbo daily life activities and speech, that is, the power of spoken word. The Igbos would say: jide Ọfọ – have justice in doing whatever you undertake. Oji Ọfọ ga-ala – he/she who has truth and justice will be safe both in going and returning (Ifeseih, 1989).
The Igbo people value this intangible Ọfọ to the extent of naming it to their children. For example; names such as EjimỌfọ – I have justice; Ọfọma – justice begets its beholder; Ọfọka – justice is greatest; Ọfọkansi – justice is better than poison; Ọfọr-egbu – may justice never kill me; etc.
Types of Ọfọ
1. The personal Ọfọ (Ọfọ nke onwe) is an Ọfọ symbolic object that is owned and personal to an individual and may not be transferred at the death of the person. Every male child possess personal Ọfọ, and though the ritual objects grants the holder access to the territory of the spirits, it does not necessarily confer much power to and authority to the young male holder and the youth is not bound under any strict norms on the account of Ọfọ Okolo which he possesses.
2. The lineage Ọfọ such as Ọfọ-Ebo or Ọfọ-Ndichie could be differentiated from the personal Ọfọ because it represents the entire family or kindred. It is a symbol of unity for the kindred. The head of the kindred at every level of the social organization e.g. family, village, or clan possesses the lineage Ọfọ. The lineage Ọfọ represents the kindred or village gods and ancestors. The head of the lineage, family or community could offer sacrifices to the ancestors with the lineage Ọfọ and is inherited by the eldest son (family Ọfọ) or the eldest man of the community.
3. Titular Ọfọ (Ọfọ echichi) is giving to men of affluence or wealth in Igbo societies and is not directly associated with ancestral authority. Titular Ọfọ discriminates men of achievement who could pay for usually expensive titles from the rest of the population and is achieved through effort and personal enterprise. It may be divided into Ozo-Oha and Ozo-Agbara. Ozo-Oha could be given to any person and serves as paraphernalia of Ozo holders, while Ozo-Agbara is associated with the numerous notable deities. The deity decides who takes the next Ozo title in the southern part of Igbo land.
4. Institutional Ọfọ is the oldest form of Ọfọ in Igbo society. There are some deities that perform certain functions in Igbo society and have a peculiar Ọfọ that symbolizes its functions for the Igbo people. Only death can destroy the union between the bearers of institutional Ọfọ and the deity e.g. Ọfọ Edo, Ọfọ Igwe, Ọfọ Ulasi, Ọfọ Ani, Ọfọ Arusi and Ọfọ Njaba.
5. Professional Ọfọ is given to some people to symbolize their profession. The holder of professional Ọfọ uses it to pray or offer sacrifices to the gods and ancestors. Examples are traditional medicine men, diviners, rain-makers, black-smiths, wood-carvers, and teeth-fillers keep Ọfọ symbols which go by the names of their respective professions.
Uses of Ọfọ
1. It is the means of prayer to both gods and God. In the normal Igbo society, a man begins his day by sticking his Ọfọ on the ground. The sticking of Ọfọ to the ground is also accompanied by other items of prayer like kola-nut, alligator pepper, nzu and palm wine. Communications start immediately between the man in-question his invisible beings and after a chant, Ọfọ would be ordered to continue interceding while he goes out for daily bread. Ọfọ as a symbol of sacred stick of prayer among the traditional Igbo.
2. Ọfọ is also used for swearing in all grave cases. Oath-taking is initiated to both the accused and plaintiff. Each person taking the oath either for or against, carrying the Ọfọ in their right hand and swear according to the tradition. Ikpo Ọfọ is the two greatest form of oath-taking in many parts of Igboland. He further observes that when Ozo title holder speaks and kisses his Ọfọ, it is a sign of a solemn protestation as to the gravity or the truthfulness of what he (Ozo title holder) says.
3. The Ọfọ could be used to settle disputes. During the olden days, settlement of disputes either for minor or major family quarrel and disputes requires Ọfọ sticks. Here, Ọfọ is seen as insurance, insuring truth. Ejizu (1986) sees Ọfọ as the highest guarantors of truth. The settlement is done when all the members of the disputing families gather. In the final analysis, everyone goes home happily.
4. Ọfọ is used in sealing covenants that is Igba ndu (to bond life) etc. The sealing of both lives is normally done with the aid of Ọfọ popularly called ‘Ọfọ-Ukwu’. When done, life is at stake. No one would dare dream of violating the seal or when mistaken either by omission or commission, the offender listens and dances to the music. In most cases, in Igbo culture area, the breaker normally runs mad.
5. Decision Making is another noble use of Ọfọ in the traditional Igboland. It is used to reach vital family kindred and lineage decisions, hence, its authoritative role in the lineage ancestors. It is used to seal all the vital decisions of family, kindred and lineage members which are aimed at fostering the peace and harmony of the community.
6. Ọfọ could be put to use for Magico-religious purposes. Some specific Ọfọ like Ọfọ-Anunu_Ebe in Nnewi, Ọfọ-Atu in Enugu-Ukwu, Oke-Ọfọ in Ideato and Muo-Ọfọ held by some dubious masquerades are designed to cause havoc. Ọfọ and its Magico-religious use bring negativism to the people targeted.
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Ifesieh, E.I (1989). Religion at the Grass Root (Studies in Igbo Religion). Enugu: Snaap
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Ọfọrchukwu, J. I. (2011). A theological and biblical appraisal of Ozo title taking and its
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