To Get Personalised contents and be able to add items to your favourites, please Sign In or Sign Up          

History and culture of ogoni people

Encyclopedia » History

The true origin of the Ogoni people are not very well-known,research has it that they migrated into the area from across the Imo River while  other  research says that the Ogoni people came in boats from Ghana and settled in the southern part of the area. Believers in this theory point to the name by which most of the Ogoni peoples call themselves (Khana) as a pointer to the Ghana origins of the Ogoni people.

Ogoniland is situated in an area of about 100,000 sq km, east of Port Harcourt in Rivers State. Because of their agricultural economy and an increasing population, most of the rain forest that once covered the area has been cleared for farming. The area forms part of the coastal plains, featuring terraces with gentle slopes intersected by deep valleys that carry water intermittently.

The Ogoni are a distinct people numbering more than 500,000, who have lived in the Niger Delta for more than 500 years. The Ogoni are an agricultural and fishing society, living in close-knit rural communities in one of the most densely populated areas of Africa.


Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests the Ogoni have inhabited the Niger Delta for up to 500 years. They established an organized social system which worked under a monarchy and under which men and women of courage and ability enjoyed a special status. During the slave trade, Ogoniland lay on the slave route from the hinterland to the coastal slave markets. However, no Ogoni man or woman was taken as a slave. Marriage with a neighbor, except the Ibibio, was forbidden by Ogoni customs and tradition. This way, the Ogoni people were able to live in relative isolation during the era of the slave trade. When other forms of trade were introduced into the region in the second half of the 19th century, weapons were purchased and wars became the order of the day. After the Berlin Treaty of 1885, Nigeria came under British colonial rule, but it was not until 1901 that British forces arrived in Ogoniland. The cultural differences led to resistance on the side of the Ogoni people, but as they were not strong enough to resist the British patrols the Ogoni people were finally subjugated in 1914. The British saw Nigeria in terms of three major ethnic groups: the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo, thereby ignoring more than 250 smaller peoples, including the Ogoni. The Ogoni were regarded with contempt by all other groups in the Delta region and were often positioned at the bottom of the social ladder.


The Ogoni people obviously had elements of other tribes in their culture as a result of interaction and that does not change the fact that they migrated from Ghana.

Comparing the customs and ways of life in the Volta Region of Ghana to those of the Ogoni people, it has been discovered that:

The method of farming in the Volta Region of Ghana and that of the Ogoni people are almost the same. The Volta Region of Ghana farms cassava and yams as their chief crops and so does the Ogoni people. And these two crops are planted in the same ways in the Volta Region of Ghana and in Ogoniland.

There are several villages and communities, whose names are the same as common names, villages and communities in the Ogoniland e.g. (Eleme, Kpone and Bakpo)

The alphabets and pronunciation of some Volta peoples and those of the Ogoni people are the same.

The method and style of building native huts with mud and thatches are the same.

The first village that was formed by the Ogoni people is called Nama in Keh Khana Kingdom.


The Ogoni people occupy a geographical area measuring about 400 square miles and numbering about 500,000. The population density in Ogoniland as at 1993 was 1,250 persons per square mile, which is almost five times the Nigerian average number of persons per square mile. Hence, the Ogoni people are the smallest ethnic group in the Nigerian geo-political configuration, and the most condensed people living in Nigeria. The Ogoni people are already in short supply of land for both habitation and economic activity .It therefore behooves the Ogoni people to fight for the protection of their land against the mechanization by the government to completely dispossess the Ogonis of their heritage. It appears that the wars that were waged against the Ogoni people for their lands in those days is being re-enacted through modern methods, politics and globalization facilitated by Western nations and their Transnational companies.


Ogoniland consists of six kingdoms: Babbe, Eleme, Gokana, Ken-Khana, Nyo-Khana, and Tai. Within Ogoniland four main languages are spoken, which, although related, are mutually unintelligible. Linguistic experts classify the Ogoni languages of Khana, Gokana, and Eleme as a distinct group within the Beneu-Congo branch of African languages or, more particularly, as a branch in the New Beneu-Congo family.

Despite the introduction of Christianity, many aspects of the indigenous Ogoni culture and religion are still evident. The land on which they live and the rivers that surround them are very important to the Ogoni people. They not only provided enough food, they are also believed to be a god and are worshiped as such.

This explains why the Ogoni people have so many difficulties with the degradation of the environment as a result of oil pollution.


The fruit of the land, especially yams, are honored in festivals. The annual festival of the Ogoni people is held during the period of the yam harvest.









The planting season is not just a period of agricultural activity, but it is a spiritual, religious and social occasion. 'Tradition' in Ogoni means in the local tongue (doonu kuneke) the honoring of the land. The Ogoni people believe that the soul of every human being has the ability to leave its human form and enter into that of an animal, taking on the shape of that animal. These characteristics show that nature is very important for the Ogoni people.

The Ogoni are an agricultural and fishing society. Yam and cassava farming are important ways of making a living, although the revenues of these products are not very high. The most important export product of Nigeria is oil, but the Ogoni people have never profited from these exports. Once the 'food basket' for the Niger Delta and beyond, Ogoniland's agricultural production has now been severely reduced. This is partly due to loss of farmlands through oil polution and partly to soil fertility problems arising from acid/alkaline rain caused by gas flaring. Large areas of fresh and salt water resources as fishing grounds have also been rendered useless by oil spills. Food is becoming increasingly expensive and potential farmers are too poor to pay for seeds and labor. Poverty has worsened in the Ogoni areas during the last years. Nearly all oil workers are people coming from outside the area that the local people have had to compete with for basic commodities. Besides the oil installations and refineries there are no manufacturing industries in Ogoni to reduce unemployment. This situation increasingly results in psycho-social degradation.

There are no government projects to address the problems of development in Ogoni-land. Health facilities are almost non-existent and school buildings are collapsing with the classrooms and laboratories empty. Attracting foreign aid to Ogoni-land has been difficult and a couple of community self-help initiatives by the people were branded 'MOSOP-inspired' and stopped.


Ogoni-land is in total economic isolation by the government and most roads have been left to wear, making transportation extremely difficult.
The environmental costs of the oil exploration have been and still are, very high. The agricultural and fishing communities experienced huge oil spills and pollution of drinking water, fishing grounds and farmlands. Large flares burnt gas from the oil extraction process, illuminating the sky day and night and polluting the air. The 1970's brought increasing activity from the oil companies, claiming more space in an already crowded territory, and resulting in a deteriorating environment and in decreasing crop yields and fish catches.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People has struggled against the degradation of their lands by Shell in Nigeria. MOSOP was an offshoot of another Ogoni organization and only metamorphosed into MOSOP based upon a study of the republican struggle in Northern Ireland. Reference is made to this in a speech by Goodluck Diigbo, Ken Saro-Wiwa's confidant. Goodluck Diigbo, a journalist, was the National President of the National Youth Council of Ogoni People, NYCOP. Saro-Wiwa had charged him with the responsibility of establishing seven of the ten affiliates that made up MOSOP. Before the affiliates came into being, Ken Saro-Wiwa who initiated the idea of MOSOP had attracted a mix of educated Ogoni elites and chiefs, including its first presidentDr. Garrick Barile Leton, Chief E. N. Kobani became vice president of MOSOP.

MOSOP initiated its efforts with the 1990 Ogoni Bill of Rights, addressed to the federal government. The Bill reads like a model statement before a mediator. It lists their concerns: oil-related suffering of their people, governmental neglect, lack of social services, and political marginalization. These concerns were placed in the context of a self-definition: the Ogonis as "a separate and distinct ethnic nationality." On this basis they sought autonomy, environmental protection, control of a fair share of the revenues from their resources, and cultural rights, such as the use of their local languages.

Beginning December 1992, the conflict escalated to a level of greater seriousness and intensity on both sides. It was in this phase of the conflict that overt violence was applied on the large scale by the Nigerian government. Diigbo, who had survived seven attempts on his life as he administered day to day affairs of MOSOP said in February 2002 at the Indigenous Peoples Global Conference, IPGC held at the United Nations, New York that: "Ogoni was boxed in, stuck with nonviolence and had no resources to weather the violent storm instigated by Shell and the government. We risked instant extermination, if we, the Ogoni people had dared to resort to violence. We were barricaded by excessive violence. Violence tempted us to respond and watched over us to dare. Let me admit that we were incapable of violent self-defense, so we dared, but without recourse to violence." The collision course between the two parties was set with an ultimatum to the oil companies (Shell, Chevron, and the Nigerian National Petroleum Company) which demanded some $10 billion in accumulated royalties, damages and compensation, and "immediate stoppage of environmental degradation," and negotiations for mutual agreement on all future drilling. If the companies failed to comply, the Ogonis threatened to embark on mass action to disrupt their operations. By this act, the Ogonis shifted the focus of their actions from an unresponsive federal government to oil companies actively engaged in their own region. The bases for this assignment of responsibility were the vast profits accrued by the oil companies from extracting the natural wealth of the Ogoni homeland, none of which were trickling down to the Ogoni.

The national government responded by banning public gatherings and declaring that disturbances of oil production were acts of treason. In spite of the ban, MOSOP went ahead with a massive public mobilization on January 4, 1993. The event, called the first Ogoni Day, attracted about 300,000 people in massive festivities, the largest mobilization of the Ogoni ever conducted. Over the next month as the mobilization continued, one Shell employee (out of thousands) was beaten by an Ogoni mob. As a security measure, Shell Petroleum Development Company withdrew its employees from Ogoniland. This action had very mixed consequences. Oil extraction from the territory has slowed to a trickle of 10,000 barrels per day (1,600 m3/d) (.5% of the national total). However, because the withdrawal was a temporary security measure, it provided the government with a compelling reason to "restore order": resume the flows of oil from Ogoniland and of oil money to national coffers.

On May 21, 1994, four Ogoni chiefs (all on the conservative side of a schism within MOSOP over strategy) were murdered. Saro-Wiwa, head of the opposing faction, had been denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of the murders, but was then detained in connection with the killings. Rivers State Military Administrator Lt. Col. Dauda Komo did not wait for a judicial investigation to blame the killings on "irresponsible and reckless thuggery of the MOSOP element

The occupying forces, led by Major Paul Okuntimo of  Rivers State Internal Security, claimed to be "searching for those directly responsible for the killings of the four Ogonis." However, witnesses say that they engaged in terror operations against the general Ogoni population. Amnesty International characterized the policy as deliberate terrorism. By mid-June, 30 villages had been completely destroyed, 600 people had been detained, and at least 40 had been killed. An eventual total of around 100,000 internal refugees and an estimated 2,000 civilian deaths were recorded.

On 10 November 1995 nine activists from the movement, among them the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, were hanged by the Nigerian government on charges of "incitement to murder". The Commonwealth, which had pled for clemency, suspended Nigeria's membership in response.

The Human Rights Watch published report: The Ogoni Crisis: A Case-Study of Military Repression in Southeastern Nigeria, 1 July 1995, contains further details of the repression against Ogoni People and MOSOP in the early nineties.

Ogoni Day observances and protests were held under military occupation on January 4, 1996. Five or six protesters were killed in the town of  Bori.


The population density in Ogoniland as at 1993 was 1,250 persons per square mile, which is almost five times the Nigerian average number of persons per square mile. Hence, the Ogoni people are the smallest ethnic group in the Nigerian geo-political configuration, and the most condensed people living in Nigeria. The Ogoni people are already in short supply of land for both habitation and economic activity .It therefore behooves the Ogoni people to fight for the protection of their land against the mechanization by the government to completely dispossess the Ogonis of their heritage. It appears that the wars that were waged against the Ogoni people for their lands in those days is being re-enacted through modern methods, politics and globalization facilitated by Western nations and their Transnational companies. 









THE Ogoni occupy an alluvial plain bounded on the north by the Imo River and their Igbo neighbours, on the South, by the littoral flats inhabited by the Obolo (Andoni), on the east, by the Opobo River and the Ibibio, and on the west by the Ikwere which stretches into the large city of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Their occupation consists mainly of farming and fishing.


Socially, the Ogoni is endowed with a large variety of cultural practices. These include masks and masquerades, human figure representation of the ancestors, as maybe used in Ka-elu performances and the puppet shows which are performed exclusively by the Amanikpo Society. Majority of these cultural performances in this relatively small region are extraordinarily varied. Most if not all, Ogoni villages have their own festivals, some of long standing, others introduced within living memory. The festivals are mainly held to commemorate the founding of the villages, to pay allegiance to particular ancestral land or water spirits, to mark the planting and harvesting seasons, for the fertility deity, to recognize the taking of titles, to restore peace in troubled community, to maintain cohesion within social groupings and for general entertainment.

The Karikpo Mask/Masquerade









Of all their known festivals and masquerades, the mask style for which the Ogoni are probably most renowned is the one called Karikpo. The Marikpo mask represents animals and is worn on the front of the face by men and boys. It is used for vigorous acrobatic play, performed originally during planting and harvesting seasons for fertility, new yam festivals, and burial ceremonies of members and recently for Christmas and New year celebrations, including reception for a distinguished guest or an illustrious son. The masquerade

Performance is believed, especially in Khana to have originated in a certain community known as Bien-Gwara. Although there may not be substantial proof to this, but it is believed the community’s interaction with the Ibibios of Akwa Ibom State, where Ekpo mask has its provenance, may have influenced its adaptation and modification hence its name Kari (Carved) Kpo (Ekpo). Membership into the Karikpo Society does not require an elaborate ritual or initiation, but an intending member is made to provide items like a bottle of gin, palm wine, a plate of oiled fish.

Article Credit:

Updated 7 Years ago

Find Us On Facebook

Tags:     History and culture of ogoni people