The Idoma people, inhabitants of the lower western areas of Benue State in Nigeria, possess a rich and diverse cultural heritage that has remained relatively unknown to the West until the 1920s. With an estimated population of 3.5 million, the Idomas are known as warriors and hunters, embodying strength and courage while embracing hospitality and peace.
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The Idoma language belongs to the Akweya subgroup of the Idomoid languages, which includes several other languages spoken across different states in Nigeria. Their territory lies inland, south of the Benue River, a significant geographical feature shaping their history and way of life.
One remarkable aspect of the Idoma culture is its traditional system of governance. They have a traditional ruler, the Och’Idoma, who heads the Idoma Area Traditional Council. Introduced during the British colonial era, this system provides a sense of unity and leadership among the Idoma communities. The current Och’Idoma, HRM Elaigwu Odogbo John, was installed in 2022, following the passing of his predecessor HRH Agabaidu Elias Ikoyi Obekpa.
The modern election process for the Och’idoma, the traditional ruler of the Idoma Kingdom in Benue State, follows the guidelines outlined in the Benue State Council of Chiefs and Traditional Councils Law 2016. When the position becomes vacant, as it did in October 2021 following the death of Och’idoma Elias Ikoyi Obekpa, a first-class chief is appointed to hold the throne for three months temporarily. During this period, a selection committee is formed, headed by Chief Ekpe Ogbu, Commissioner for Housing and Urban Development, to conduct the election.
Delving into their historical origins, the Idoma people trace their roots back to their legendary ancestor, Iduh, often called the “father of Idoma.” According to traditional history, Iduh had several children who established different areas, giving rise to distinct Idoma groups. However, scholars have found genetic evidence suggesting that the Idoma’s origins are more complex, with genealogical data pointing to multiple ethnic groups and multiple lineages contributing to their ancestry.
Historical ties between the Idoma and neighbouring ethnic groups have also shaped their identity. Some evidence suggests a connection with the Igala people, while others believe that certain Idoma groups have migrated from the northern fringes of Igboland. These interactions, coupled with trade, intermarriage, and shared language, have fostered a sense of unity among the Idoma people while maintaining their unique cultural traditions.
Beyond Benue State, the Idoma people have settlements in other parts of Nigeria, including Taraba, Nasarawa, Kogi, Enugu, and Cross River states. This diaspora has contributed to their cultural diversity and interaction with different ethnic groups.
The Idoma are renowned for their vibrant cultural practices. They have a distinctive traditional attire featuring red and black stripes, adopted in the 1980s to foster a distinct Idoma identity. The Ogirinya dance, characterized by energetic jumps on the toes, is one of their most famous traditional dances, captivating spectators with its dynamism and rhythm.
Food holds a special place in Idoma culture, and they celebrate it through an annual food festival. One of their most popular delicacies is Okoho soup, made with the unique Okoho plant, bush meat, and various flavorful ingredients.
While the influence of foreign religions is evident in Nigeria, many Idoma people strongly believe in their traditional faith. The Alekwu, regarded as ancestral spirits, acts as a link between the living and the dead. The Idoma community gathers annually for the “Aje Alekwu” festival, where they pay homage to their ancestors through traditional rituals and sacrifices.
Marriage customs among the Idoma people share similarities with other southeastern Nigerian cultures, with specific nuances. In some subcultures, the groom presents the bride with a rooster and money on the wedding day after they pay the bride price. The acceptance or rejection of the rooster signifies approval or disinterest, adding an intriguing element to the ceremony.
The Idoma people’s history, traditions, and cultural diversity continue to shape their identity and preserve their unique heritage.