Before The Naira by Flora Kanu
CURRENCIES OF ANCIENT NIGERIAN TRIBES
Before there was Nigeria, this area of land was a simply a collection of many tribes, kingdoms and empires each with its own independent socio-political and economic system. Thus before the Naira, these tribes had established a system of exchanging goods and services for something with an equivalent worth. History has established that these tribes had their own currencies and exchange methods that allowed for organized local regional trade that stretched beyond the West Coast of Africa. What were these currencies like? What purchasing power did they have at the time?
The area that is present day Nigeria first had contact with the “white man” in the beginning of the 15th century. Trading was mostly done by barter. Various traded goods or items like cloth and gin were used as means of exchange in various areas of Nigerian territories especially in the riverside areas like Calabar, Bonny and Brass. Besides cloth and gin, barter trade was also carried out in various areas of Nigeria through the media of tobacco heads, beads, salt, palm oil and dry fish. Certain standard currencies were already in existence at the time but because the currency system was alien to the white man it was difficult to business with them using these currencies as a medium. Nonetheless the increased trade activities and the need for a generally acceptable exchange medium in later years called for the use these already existing systems.
In the olden days, iron was a material of high value for fashioning implements which maintained the use of the iron bars local currency in the coastal areas. Among the iron currency were bars, rings, hoes, spears and axes commonly used in 11th century.Different forms of iron currency item were used in different areas, bearing different names, depending on their uses in those areas. For instance a Y-shaped iron currency, popularly known as “Ogoja Penny” was found in the Ogoja area of Cross River State.It is Y-shaped, and was equivalent to a penny used for payment of bride price in Ogoja. About forty pieces of the Y-shaped iron currency are paid as a bride price. The Y-shaped iron currency was also known by several names among peoples of various areas and communities of Cross River State. In Nkala or Nkum area of Cross River State, it was known as “Efugu” while in Akuji, it was called “Iyawa”.
There was also Ikika iron currency used among the Jukuns and the Kdhore Kpalange iron currency used among the Lala (Yugur) people of Old Adamawa Province. There was the Ogu iron currency, a small hoe iron item mostly used in cultivating yams, cocoyam and cassava in various areas of Igbo-land.There were also other forms of currencies like bead currency, manila and cowries. Bead currencies were highly cherished, and in fact, demanded highly as a medium of trade because of its use as a measure of wealth and for body adornment as well as ritual sacrifices.Manilla currency, a Portuguese name for the various metal bracelets and rings was used mostly in the coastal trade. It was originally used as ornaments but later adopted as local trade currency item in the 16th century as exchange for ivory, pepper and palm oil by the Europeans in Nigeria.Varieties of locally fashioned manilla were the Jaja Manilla used in Opobo, Peri-akula used in Bonny, Nkobkbo used among the Efik and Ibibio and Ejemo used by the Bende people. Other local fashioned manilas used in Niger Delta areas include, Okpoho (which is small horse-shoe manilla), Okombo, Okpochi, Aka, King Manilla, Queen Manilla and Prince Manilla.
Cowry shells were another popular system in during this time. It is believed to be most-widely known pre-coinage currency. There are of course two species of Cowry shell that were used as currency, and their acceptability varied from one area of the country to another. A species of the large type called “Cypraea annulus” was preferred in the West of Niger whereas in the East of Niger the smaller type “Cypraea moneta” was in common use.Cowrie is known by different names in Nigeria. In Igbo-land, the large Cowry shells are known among the people as “Mbudambu” or “Nwefe” or “Okpokpo” which cost one-third of the small ones known as “Ayola”. Besides the Igbo people, Cowry shell is also known by different names among people of other ethnic groups of Nigeria: Among the Fulani, it is known as Sedere, owoeye in Yoruba and Igvo or Bosjes or “Bossies in Bini.
The existence and recognition of these currency systems by historians and other academics is proof that long before the coming of the “white man” our people had a social, political and economic structure that was thriving. We had knowledge of fundamental economics and practiced it for centuries before our colonization. Next time you come across a cowrie or an ancient iron bar, remember that we are people whose history dates back centuries before the coming of the white man, a history that we should be proud of and a history that we should strive to preserve for the future generation.