Written by CHIJIOKE OKORONKWO
It has become a common sight nowadays, especially in cities within and outside the Igbo land, to see men without traditional titles wearing “red caps” meant for chiefs.
While some of these men wear the “red cap” out of sheer ignorance; others wear the cap out of utter mischief, deceptively parading themselves as chiefs.
Nevertheless, a handful of the cap wearers, indeed, deserve to wear “red caps”, as they are titled men and chiefs who are recognised in their various communities as ‘Ozos’, ‘Nzes’, ‘Ichies’, ‘Ogbuefis’ and so on.
By most accounts, the “red cap” in Igbo land is a symbol of authority, culture and tradition; and it represents the chieftaincy institution, its power, and authority.
The categories of chiefs who are permitted to wear this sacred cap must have met certain standards which they still maintain in their respective communities.
For instance, they are not expected to lie, swindle or engage in any activity that can bring the traditional institution into disrepute.
The number of eagle feathers on the “red cap”, as the case may be, illustrates the status of the cap wearer.
However, an Ozo title holder, whose father is still living, cannot wear the “red cap”.
Against this backdrop, custodians of the tradition and stakeholders are bemoaning the deliberate and sustained abuse of the “red cap” and the Igbo chieftaincy institution in general.
The Ezendigbo of Abuja, Nwosu Ibe, said that the “red cap” could not be worn by everyone, insisting that it should only be worn by those who were permitted by the society to wear it.
He stressed that the right to wear the “red cap” was usually granted in recognition of one’s contribution to the socio-economic development of a community.
“In Igbo land, there are certain achievements or deeds that will qualify one to wear the ‘red cap’; it is not for everybody,” Mr. Ibe said.
“We have traditional rulers in Igbo land and traditional rulers in the Diaspora. Wherever you reside, if you are doing things that impact on the people’s lives or living an exemplary life, you will recognised with a title and the ‘red cap’ will be given to you.”
Mr. Ibe, however, frowned at a situation where people of questionable character now wore the “red cap” and paraded themselves as chiefs or even got chieftaincy titles through fraudulent means.
He said that Igbos, who were not living in Igbo land, were also monitored by the Igbo traditional institutions that were represented in the communities where they resided. He added that the monitoring exercise was carried out, with a view to making recommendations on those who deserved to wear the “red cap”.
Mr. Ibe reiterated that it was abominable for people to wear the “red cap” indiscriminately, describing those who flouted the cultural norms as people with no sense of value.
“It is regrettable that these days, many fraudulent people get ‘red cap’ titles through the back door and some even wear the cap without receiving it traditionally from anybody. And such people parade themselves as chiefs and titled men.
“Even those who are not recognised in the Igbo land or by the communities where they reside still wear the cap on their own volition and this is a taboo.
“We regard such people as worthless. We have people in every community where Igbo people reside who monitor their activities and make recommendations on who deserves chieftaincy titles,” he said.
Mr. Ibe said that through efficient monitoring mechanisms; his council of chiefs had been able to identify all recognised Igbo chiefs residing in the FCT.
He, nonetheless, conceded that non-Igbos, who never received Igbo titles but were wearing the “red cap”, were doing that out of sheer ignorance.
He added that such people should not be criticised unless they impersonated Igbo chiefs.
“We have a list of all those who are traditionally and formally recognised as chiefs and titled men in the FCT.
“For those non-Igbos wearing the cap out of ignorance, it is their business. Such people are not representing the Igbo culture; that is no problem unless they begin to parade themselves as Igbo chiefs,” he added.
A former member of Abia State Council of Traditional Rulers, Barnabas Okoronkwo, of Oguduasaa autonomous community, however, said that such aberrations should not be allowed to continue.
He said that such anomaly was tantamount to an erosion of the Igbo culture, even as other ethnic nationalities tended to hold every aspect of their culture high.
He underscored the need to enact legislation that criminalised such behaviours, as part of efforts to apprehend and prosecute impersonators of titled men and chiefs.
“More efforts should be made to check the abuse of the ‘red cap’; it is strictly for chiefs and other titled men.
“I think a taskforce, drawn from all Igbo states, should be set up to check this trend, especially in the cities,” he added.
Mr. Okoronkwo said that indiscriminate wearing of the “red cap” has led to untimely deaths in some places, as some of the impostors were attacked by some metaphysical forces.
On his part, Emeka Okolo, a Lagos-based businessman, said that chieftaincy titles, which were hitherto difficult to acquire, had become easily accessible to all and sundry.
“This explains why we have many undeserving chiefs nowadays,” he said.
Mr. Okolo noted that people now gathered in meetings in big cities to choose whatever titles they wished to acquire if they had the wherewithal to buy drinks regularly.
He stressed that such acts were prevalent among wealthy Igbo traders who wanted to further flaunt their opulence by wearing “red caps”.
“The ‘red cap’ is gradually losing its significance because many city dwellers feel that by being philanthropic; they deserve to be called chiefs.
“Some of them are of questionable character; therefore, they cannot seek such titles from their villages. They assume the titles in the cities since they have the money to throw around.
“They attend launching activities and donate big money; they go to the church; donate big money and buy a car for the priest; they sink one or two boreholes in their neighbourhood and before you know it, they appropriate a title.
“But go their villages and inquire where the titles came from and you will be shocked at what you will discover,” he added.
He urged the Igbos everywhere to always insist on knowing the source of a man’s title vis a vis his “red cap” before identifying with such a person.
Cultural experts stressed the need to preserve the sanctity of the “red cap” in Igbo morals and ethos, saying that the cap has been a symbolic feature of the Igbo culture over the years.