The Niger Delta can be divided into sections; these are the Western Delta and the Eastern Delta.
The Western Delta
The groups within the Western Delta include the Ijo, Itsekiri and Aboh who dwell in the lower Delta and the Isoko, Urhobo and Ukwani who live in the upper Delta. Both sections had different vegetations; the upper Delta was characterised by evergreen forest dominated by the oil palm while the lower was located within the dense mangrove. Vegetation determined the occupation of both sections: thus, the upper Delta groups were engaged mainly in farming and fishing on one side, while those of the lower were engaged in fishing and salt making as well as middlemen traders between Europeans and the Delta hinterland.
The Eastern Delta
The people of the Eastern Delta are located within small vegetation and all have similar traditions of origin that point to the central Delta as the heart land from which the various groups migrated to the outlying regions of the Delta. Such places as Ogobiri, Ikibiri, Opororo, the Apo Creeks and Obiama are major centres of outwards migration. The foundation of the Delta states have been dated by Professor Alagoa at about 1200AD and the reign of the first King at about1 400AD. The Eastern Delta states include the Kingdoms of Bonny, Kalabari, Okiri and Nembe, Ekoi and Ibibio. The Ibibio were credited to have developed the INSIBIDI writing.
The groups of the Eastern Delta also shared identical political, economic and social institutions. The basic ljo grouping in the area were the Ibe. The main instrument of control over the overview components of the clan was the cult of the national god. The high priest with the title Pere was the only person whose authority extended over the whole clan. There was therefore no central authority outside those of the Pere or priest.
Political organisation (Western Central) Ijo
The main political authority was the village assembly which was called Amajula while the Amokosowei acted as the president of the village. He was the oldest man, but there was a younger person who acted as the spokesman called Ojulabowei. There were also the town crier, messenger, the hangman and the village priest. Each village was divided into districts called Polo which were further divided into Wari or smaller family units (household).
Though the Eastern Delta states derived their origin from a common heartland, that is, the central Delta, they do not have any common tradition of descent. Their sense of togetherness has its basis on the common language and cultural institution. This was based on spiritual kingship of the village gods to the national gods whose shrines would be sited at the metropolis or capital city.
Changes in the Niger Delta
The village organisation in Eastern Delta prior to the development of state institution was also similar to those of the Central and Western Delta. It was based on the Wari or wards and Polo which were districts. The president of the village assembly was not the oldest male but the Amanyanabo who was appointed not by virtue of age, but because of his descent from Wari whose ancestors claim discovery of the village site.
In this position, he acted as a Priest and intermediary between the people and the national deity. With the development and expansion of the trade with Europeans, the powers of the Amanyanabo began to increase; the exigencies of the Trans-Atlantic trade transformed him intoa representative of the people in the relations with European traders who paid him certain duties for protection. He also introduced House Heads within the community to the European and acted as a guarantor for credits which was called “trust”. This further enhanced the authority of the Amanayanabo te an extent that he moved beyond spiritual function to that of a more secular authority.
Closely related to this change were the adaptation of the Wari institutions to serve new ends. Merchants began to build up their own sub-wards of household through marriage, by acting as protectors and the acquisition of slaves. Through these methods, traders increased their labour force and wealth. He then equipped a war canoe and presented himself to the Amanayanbo as a political leader. He was subsequently appointed member of the King’s council which at this time had come to replace the village assembly. Ascension to leadership of the house was not hereditary, but by achievement and support of all adult males.
Apart from the political changes that took place in the Eastern Niger Delta during the period, there were also social changes brought about by the importation of large number of slaves. These new elements posed questions of integration. To cope with the situation, the Eastern Delta societies evolved certain institutionalised procedures aimed at integrating them into society. The first was the ritual ceremonies which transformed them out of slave status. There were other social and economic forces that helped slaves acculturise within the Delta, one of which was the possibility for upward mobility within society which was determined by hard work. There were also societies whose activities encouraged acculturation; one of such was the Ekine Sekiapu or Masquerade society. Advancement in the society was based on the ability to sing, drum and understand the language of the society. Success within the society was a sign of full citizenship and a qualification for political office.
In addition, there was the association of successful warriors called PeriOgbo. It offered opportunities for the exhibition of abilities as well as for punishment of slaves who fail to acculturate quickly.
The houses within the Niger Delta were also fighting units in external wars of the state. There were a number of reasons for these wars namely, piracy, head hunting and slave trade. This situation of turbulence forced weak communities to seek protection from better organisation and established city-states. Similarly, families and individuals made affiliation with more powerful house heads. Preparedness for war on the part of the state was a defensive technique in preventing attacks from other states.
Disputes were settled through conventions by neutral neighbourhood community. In some cases, neighbours’ sanctions were imposed to ensure that warring parties agreed to conditions of peace.
The economic development of the Eastern Delta states was in stages. Three stages can be identified. The first was the early stage which involved fishing, hunting and gathering of natural products of the area. This was supplemented by exchange of agricultural products with people of the fresh water region.
The second stage was that of the long distance trade with people of the Western Delta and the Delta hinterland. This trade was well developed before the advent of the Portuguese in the 16″ century. They traded for clay-pottery from the Itsekiri, cassava meal which was known as Farina from Benin up to gold; the Ijo traded for beads, gold and bronze and acted as major transport agents along the coast.
The third stage commenced with the Atlantic slave trade. This transformed the Delta states into redistribution centres in which European manufactured goods were assembled for sale in the hinterland and agricultural goods were also assembled for export.
The Western Delta states
The group within the Western Delta include the Itsekiri, Urhobo, Ukwaani, Aboh and Isoko as well as the Ijo. The Ijo however also spread to the entire central and most of the Eastern Delta.