Published On: Mon, Jul 20th, 2015

Advent of Urhobo ‘Igbe’ as First Monotheistic Religion in Nigeria

Igbe worshippers dancing at Ogwa

Igbe worshippers dancing at Ogwa

By Mathias Iroro Orhero
The advent of judeo-christian monotheistic religious groups in Nigeria such as Christianity and Islam has done great damage to the knowledge of some of our indigenous religious systems. Some scholars in recent times have tried to revive and document these extant or obsolete religious movements in Africa. However, African indigenous religions have been known to be largely polythestic and at best, syncretic. This means that in African religions, the worship of many gods plays a vital role. Ancestral veneration is also found in our various indigenous religions. In the Yoruba religious system, the pantheon of gods include; Ogun, Eshu, Sango, etc. The Ibo pantheon is also similar in functions but different in names such as Amadioha which resonates with Sango.
However, little is known that Nigeria has its own monotheistic religion fashioned like judeo-christian religions but different in practises, cosmology, philosophy, beliefs, etc. Some people have called this religion a “syncretic” one. This means that it is a mixture of two religious systems. This indigenous religion is known as the IGBE RELIGION. Those people domiciled in Delta and Edo States may have come across this religion. The word “IGBE” is an Urhobo word meaning “Dance”. Thus, this is a religion of dance. Most people think this religion is paganistic and believe in many gods, as usual in traditional religions. Far from this, it believes in a single God known as “Oweya” and this God is worshipped through dancing and the consumption of native chalk.
The Igbe religion was founded by Ubiecha Etarakpo in 1858 and has its headquarters at 11, Egbo Street, Kokori Inland, Ethiope East Local Government Area, Delta State. Originating in Kokori, it gradually spread to all of Urhobo nation and austral Nigeria at large. As a matter of fact, it has gained international ground in London. The adherents of the Igbe religion are monotheists who believe in an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God called Oweya and that he rewards the good and evil alike, according to their deeds.
Dance is a core element of the Igbe. The adherents believe that by dancing, they draw on themselves the very hand of the one and only monotheistic God. The Igbe religious adherents usually meet in an “Ogwa”, a sort of temple, in which they meet to dance, welcome members, etc. As dancing is a core element of the Igbe, there is no worship session without dancing. They sing native Urhobo songs in place of hymns. At worship services, the Igbe priest(s), always dressed in white dress and white head gears, administer(s) native chalk on the worshippers for their protection and fortification. This protection is predicated on the belief that witches and wizards are extremely powerful and possess the powers to maim and kill people. The Igbe religion gained a popularity for its ability to render Witches and Wizards powerless and also null their powers, spells and charms in its “Ogwa”. The Igbe religion celebrates an annual feast -Ore Isi- for twelve days which takes place every May and thousands are in attendance from all over the world. The feast is held at Kokori in Agbon kingdom, Ethiope East LGA, Delta State.Â
Igbe was birthed in 1858 when Ubiecha Etarakpo of 11, Egbo Street in Kokori, on his way back home from the farm, allegedly saw an apparition of two divine beings who “anointed” him to preach against immorality and witchcraft. After the alleged apparition, Ubiecha became eccentric and acted insanely as no day passed without him dancing. The people assumed he was mad as he was seen dancing and feeding on nothing but native chalk, called “Orhen” in Urhobo language. This scared the people from coming close. Ubiecha was taken care of only by a lady known as Erukainure who believed he wasn’t mad and whom he later married. It was also alleged that after the alleged apparition, Ubiecha performed amazing miracles, accurately predicted the future, healed the sick and miraculously identified witches. He built a worship house called ‘ogwa’ in his compound and, from there, ministered to the people with native white chalk; and, allegedly prophesied with stunning accuracy. This brought people from across the Urhobo country to Kokori.
The Igbe religion emphasises purity of mind, body and soul of all members. This is why members are seen wearing “white” always as a symbolism of their pure state. Igbe members also believe in the afterlife. They believe that once a person dies, his soul is reunited with God until a new body is created by God for the soul to enter and come back to hence. Hence, they believe in reincarnation as is normal in Urhobo cosmology. A prerequisite for priesthood in Igbe is the ability to see into the future. Hence all Igbe priests are presumed to be clairvoyant. The apex head of Igbe worldwide is the Chief Uku who is supported by his Ochuko Uku. The ‘Olori’ is like the evangelist and his work is to welcome new members and listen to confessions. Every Igbe temple has an “Oni-Igbe” who is the head priestess. They can dig out any secret and see the future. They also listen to confessions, especially from women members. The typical Igbe members’ day starts with the ritual of silence where the walk round the four corners of the “Ogwa” of their house and hum all through after which they eat the native chalk. This is also done at the end of the day. Their most sacred day of worship (just like Christians use Sunday and Muslims use Friday) is once every eight days. This day is known as “Edigbe” or “Ediruo” which means day of dance or day of work. The typical activities on this day include singing, dancing, praying, cleansing, confessions, intake of new members and other social/ritualistic functions. Their liturgy is not written but learnt by the “Uku” who initiates and oversees it. The “Uku” is like the walking bible of the Igbe religion. In Igbe, it is believed by adherents that the native chalk, “Orhen”, can cure ALL AILMENTS of the body, mind and spirit.
However, after gaining fame and wealth from a viable institution, Ubiecha kicked the bucket in 1920. After Ubiecha’s death and burial, his off springs became divided over succession. However, by tradition, his eldest son, Ibodje Ubiecha succeeded his father as chief priest and head prophet; but his half brother, Akpokovo Ubiecha, succeeded in establishing his own branch in Kokori. However, one of Ibodje’s daughters, Mary Ibodje, a priestess, also, broke away to establish her own branch before Ibodje Ubiecha’s death which occurred on 6 April 1986. Jackson Ibodje, his eldest son, succeeded him. Today there are various splinter groups of the Igbe religion. The one predominant in Edo state is known as “Sanughebe” and it was taken there by one of Ubiecha’s adherents. Others include Igbe Ame, Igbe Oghenuku, Igbe Emeni, etc. These splinter groups have incorporated other practises into the religion such as paganism or heathenism like the worship of water or land spirits, etc.
With the influx of Christianity into Kokori in the 20th century, the Igbe was corrupted by the presence and works of the Church’s full scale evangelism. Another powerful Igbe organisation founded by Chief Ogbevire Ogogo evolved. This Igbe brand had some elements of Christianity infused. They observed Christmas and New Year holidays coupled with the Igbe core festival. It gained recognition and spread to many places in Delta, Edo, Ondo, Rivers and Lagos states of Nigeria. And in the first half of the 21st century, gained a platform in the UK. Though the Igbe extends beyond Urhobo land, the bulk of adherents remain Urhobo people and the principal medium of communication is largely the Urhobo tongue. It has a population of over 50, 000 adherents.
The Igbe is replete with criticism. First, non-adherents find it less attractive because of the principal utilization of Urhobo language at worship sessions. Second, non-adherents perceive the religion as idol worship and avoid identification and participation. Third, the Igbe is criticized for the rejection of orthodox and herbal medicines for treatment of ailments. Rather the Igbe adherents believe and administer the native chalk for treatment of ailments. This, the non-adherents view as unsafe and taking chances even though some of the ill adherents allegedly confess to being healed after imbibing or externally applying the native chalk.
The Igbe religion has thrived for over a century and it has waxed stronger with members across the globe. However, it is largely understudied and barely known to Nigerians outside its endemic region. This has informed the reason for this post. I hope it has, at the least, been a subject of intellectual fascination to the reader. I would like to acknowledge the usage the Wikipedia, Wadoo and Professor M.Y. Nabofa’a article as source materials for this write up.

Mathias Iroro Orhero writes from Warri, Delta State (

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  1. Toby Otobor says:

    I am an Urhobo resident in London. Please give me a London contact number or address so I can experience this seemingly fascinating religion.
    Thanks in anticipation.

    Toby Otobor.

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