The Igboland had been fortunate enough to escape British Imperialism for several years after other parts of Nigeria had been conquered. The Igbo existed in the stretch of land that lay between the Edo and the Efik. The British had made several attempts to advance into the Igbo country but they were rebuffed by the Aro confederacy and its allies to the south and the Aniocha communities to the West. Originally, the British traded palm oil, slaves, wine, fabrics and firearms with many Igbo groups but they grew anxious to tap into the vast wealth of the hinterland and destroy the Aro Ibini Ukpabi shrine which held a monopoly on the slave trade. In the late 1890s, after several failed attempts to end the slave trade, the British used it as an excuse and formally invaded the Igbo country.
In the southern areas of what is now Rivers state, they had success and captured a few trading posts. The Aros, seeing this as a threat to their prosperity launched a series of attacks aimed at halting the British advance. The British themselves responded by launching an all-out assault on Igbo communities allied with the Aros which ended in 1902 after a hundreds of British soldiers and their allies defeated tens of thousands of Aro troops. The capture of Arochukwu signaled the opening of eastern Igboland to the British, however, the Western part still lay closed.
In the West, the Igbo had been engaged in warfare with the British since 1884. The Ekumeku movement, as it came to be called, was an attempt by several Igbo groups namely, Ukwunzu, Aniocha and others to dislodge the British from the area. However the war ended on 1914 after Asaba and other key cities were captured. By the end of 1915, the road into the Igbo heartland and the east were open. However it was not until 1920, after the Aba women’s riot that the Igbo were firmly under Imperial British control.
The conquest Eastern Igboland
The Eastern Province of Nigeria was conquered, in its entirety, in 1914. The battle for Igbo-lands, Ibibio and by extension Ogoja land raged on for thirteen years. The war in Igbo land was frosted in cunning tactic on the part of the Igbo. It was complicated by the fact that Igbo towns were small and independent of a centralized political authority.
The British had to fight a town once at a time, and had to return to re-fight a conquered town. By 1899, the British had thought defeating the Aro people of Arochukwu was enough to achieve military and political control of the hinterland. The Aro people actually mobilized resistances before the invading British began the “Aro Expedition” in late November 1901. Although the Aro people were defeated December 1901, the Aro War actually ended in March 1902.
The first trait of a prolong war in Eastern Nigeria was observed after the fall of the Aro people. Two groups that were supposed to go down with the Aro people began staging independent resistances. The British mounted an expedition against the first group Olokoro clan of Umuahia, and later against the second group, Uzuakoli village-group in Bende. Then came series of military actions against Igbo towns and villages.
In 1904, the British initiated the Akwete Patrol, and in the same year, prosecuted the Onitsha Expedition.
In 1905, military actions were taken. Ezza, Ovoro, Nonya, Onicha and Ahiara were defeated.
In 1907, Isuikwuato, Urualla, Etche, Ntarakpu and Isiagu were conquered.
The British entered into large-scale war, sending scores of military units to several villages in 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912 and 1914. Eleven expeditions were launched after the 1914 Amalgamation of Nigeria. In spite of the successful takeover of the area in 1914, British troops continued marching to and fro Igbo-land confronting violence and resistances up till 1917.
The antidote that cured the resistance for good was the arrest and molestation of elders by the British. Before then, people in conquered communities would gather to welcome British troops, giving them water, fruits and food. But they would soon stage a resistance once the British forces have marched down to the next village.
The Ekumeku war in Western Igboland
The resistance was also strong in western Igboland where a series of wars were waged against the British. The Ekumeku, who were well organized and whose leaders were joined in secrecy oaths, effectively utilized guerrilla tactics to attack the British. Their forces, which were drawn from hundreds of Igbo youth from all parts of the region, created many problems for the British, but the British used forceful tactics and heavy armaments (destroying homes, farms, and roads) to prevail. The Ekumeku, however, became a great source of Igbo nationalism.