The Ijaw people, also recognized by their subgroups "Ijo" or "Izon," predominantly inhabit the forested regions of Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers States within Nigeria's Niger Delta. They also have native populations in Akwa-Ibom, Edo, and Ondo states. Historically, their presence extends along the Western African coastline, from Sierra Leone to Gabon, primarily as migrant fishermen. While the exact origins of the Ijaws remain uncertain, they are considered among the earliest inhabitants of southern Nigeria.
The Ijaw community, estimated at 15 million, has historically been situated near prominent sea trade routes. By the 15th century, they had established trade connections with various regions. Their early ancestors, traditionally believed to have a divine origin, were known to have a deep spiritual connection with the waters. This connection is evident in legends such as "Beni-Otu." Later, around 400 CE and 650 CE, they were joined by the "Kumoni-Orus" ancestors who, after initial settlements in Nupe, Borgu, Ile-Ife, and Benin regions, ventured into the Niger Delta. Here, they encountered the Orus, referring to them as the "ancient people." Despite their differences, they integrated and established communities together. The term "Ijo" or "Izon" evolved over time to represent the entire ethnic group.
European records from the 19th century identify the Ijaws by the names Kumoni or Oru. The phrase "to speak Kumoni is to speak pure Izon language" highlights the significance of their linguistic heritage. The name "Ijo" or "Ijaw" is believed to have been derived from an ancestor named Ujo.
Historical records suggest that the Binis migrated through various regions before settling in their current location. Upon their arrival, they encountered the Ijaws, who played a pivotal role in their settlement by assisting them across the Ovia River. This relationship continued for decades until the construction of bridges over the river.
Historical accounts from the 1920s, such as those by Dr. P.A. Talbot, emphasize the Ijaws' dominance along the coastal belt, especially during the slave trade era. The Ijaws' interactions with the Portuguese traders predate the latter's contact with the Binis. It wasn't until 1483 that the Portuguese established contact with Benin.
The Ijaws' historical significance in the region is further highlighted by their establishment of various chieftaincies and courts, such as the Pere of Olodiama and the Agadagba of Egbema. These institutions have legal recognition and play a crucial role in the governance of their communities.
However, in recent times, there have been concerns about the representation and welfare of the Ijaws in Edo state. Despite their significant population and historical contributions, they face challenges such as inadequate infrastructure and lack of basic amenities. Advocacy groups like the Movement for the Survival of Ijaws in Edo State (MOSIES) have been vocal about these issues, emphasizing the need for better recognition and support for the Ijaw community.