Ndigbo In Contemporary Nigeria: A Social, Cultural, Political and Economic Reflection
A presentation by High Chief Obiora Okonkwo, Ph.D, at the 5th Annual Umunri Colloquium held at The Civic Center, Enugwu-Ukwu.
We are still in the month of December, end of the year, being the period of Christmas and so the mood is right as we are joyous not only in the material gifts, food and drinks that come with this festive season but also because of the spirituality, culture and essence of Christmas which inform the need for self-awareness, love for one another and our duties of obedience to God. That is why I want to begin by thanking the Igu Aro Commission and the Umunri Colloquium Committee for finding space within a very busy yuletide schedule, to hold this event.
It is also deeply instructive that this conversation is holding in Nri land. Nri holds a special place in the history of the Igbo people and so, for me, it is not a coincidence that we are holding this conversation here because it has been said that if a pilgrim does not know where he is going to, he must not forget where he is coming from. As Igbo people, we must never forget that our roots grew out of Nri and irrespective of where we establish our presence, our hearts will always be where our homeland originated. I guess that, in part, is why Igbo people observe the yearly pilgrimage home for New Yam and other such cultural festivals, as well as special observances like August Meetings, Easter and Christmas, among others. These periodic pilgrimages, bound us to our homeland making us remember that as a people, our lives are incomplete without our cultural roots making us retain and respect our union with our ancestors who are the progenitors of our culture and tradition.
At this juncture, permit me to thank, in a very special way, the Umunri Colloquium Commission for providing the platform for this narrative to continue. I also thank your Royal Majesties for sustaining this conversation with your presence today and abiding adherence to our cultures and traditions. I recognize that I am not the first to stand on this podium. I, therefore, want to thank all those who have pushed the narrative for a new understanding of the place of the Igbo in Nigeria from this platform. I hope that over time, the Umunri Colloquium Commission shall synthesize all the issues discussed here into a compendium that would be made available to all those interested in the Igbo people and their culture, including citadels of learning where the Igbo worldview is studied.
I am particularly happy with the topic of discourse here today. Ndigbo in contemporary Nigeria is itself, a topic for a doctoral dissertation. The social, political, cultural and economic place of the Igbo in contemporary Nigeria can actually be a compulsory subject in the faculty of social science of a university. So, to attempt to discuss it in about an hour is a massive task, but I can only try. I stand before you in humility acknowledging that I am not omniscient; only God is. Mindful of that, I will primarily try to raise questions, weighty ones at that, some of which we can collectively try to answer within our few hours here. And for the questions, we may not have immediate answers to, we will continue reflecting on as we ponder and negotiate the place of Igbos in the entity called Nigeria. To set the tone for our conversation, it is perhaps necessary to begin with trying to understand who the Igbos are.
Who are the Igbo?
The Encyclopedia Britannica writes of the Igbo as “people living chiefly in southeastern Nigeria who speaks Igbo, a language of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo language family. The Igbo may be grouped into the following main cultural divisions: northern, southern, western, eastern or Cross River, and northeastern. Before European colonization, the Igbo were not united as a single people but lived in autonomous local communities. By the mid-20th century, however, a sense of ethnic identity was strongly developed, and the Igbo-dominated Eastern region of Nigeria tried to unilaterally secede from Nigeria in 1967 as the independent nation of Biafra. By the turn of the 21st century, the Igbo numbered some 20 million.”
The Britannica also wrote of the Igbo as being “traditionally subsistence farmers, their staples being yams and cassava. The other crops they grow include corn (maize), melons, okra, pumpkins, and beans. Among those still engaged in agriculture, men are chiefly responsible for yam cultivation, women for other crops. The land is owned communally by kinship groups and is made available to individuals for farming and building. Some livestock, important as a source of prestige and for use in sacrifices, is kept. The principal exports are palm oil and palm kernels. Trading, local crafts, and wage labour also are important in the Igbo economy, and a high literacy rate has helped many Igbo to become civil servants and business entrepreneurs in the decades after Nigeria gained independence. It is notable that Igbo women engage in trade and are influential in local politics.”
“Before the advent of colonial administration, the largest political unit was the village group, a federation of villages averaging about 5,000 persons. Members of the group shared a common market and meeting place, a tutelary deity, and ancestral cults that supported a tradition of descent from a common ancestor or group of ancestors. Authority in the village group was vested in a council of lineage heads and influential and wealthy men. In the eastern regions these groups tended to form larger political units, including centralized kingdoms and states,” the Britannica stated further.
It concludes by saying that “traditional Igbo religion includes belief in a creator god (Chukwu or Chineke), an earth goddess (Ala), and numerous other deities and spirits as well as a belief in ancestors who protect their living descendants. The revelation of the will of the deities is sought by divination and oracles. Many Igbo are now Christians; some practising a syncretic version of Christianity intermingled with indigenous beliefs”.
Beside the Britannica, an introductory remark in the open-source dictionary, Wikipedia, about the Igbo reads: “The Igbo people are an ethnic group native to the present-day south-central and southeastern Nigeria. There has been much speculation about the origins of the Igbo people, as it is unknown how exactly the group came to form. Geographically, the Igbo homeland is divided into two unequal sections by the Niger River– an eastern (which is the larger of the two) and a western section. Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. The Igbo language is a part of the Niger-Congo language family. It is divided into numerous regional dialects, and somewhat mutually intelligible with the larger “Igboid” cluster. The Igbo homeland straddles the lower Niger River, east and south of the Edoid and Idomoid groups, and west of the Ibibioid (Cross River) cluster.
The Wikipedia entry on Igbo reveals that “before British colonial rule in the 20th century, the Igbo were a politically fragmented group, with a number of centralized chiefdoms such as Nri, Aro Confederacy, Agbor and Onitsha. Frederick Lugard introduced the Eze system of “Warrant Chiefs”. Unaffected by the Fulani War and the resulting spread of Islam in Nigeria in the 19th century; they became overwhelmingly Christian under colonization. In the wake of decolonization, the Igbo developed a strong sense of ethnic identity. During the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–1970 the Igbo territories seceded as the short-lived Republic of Biafra.”
I want us to take special note of this line… “in the wake of decolonization, the Igbo developed a strong sense of ethnic identity”. We shall come back to it.
Suffice it to say that there is no agreement on the origin of the Igbo. Historians have actually proposed two major theories of Igbo origins. One claims the existence of a core area, or “nuclear Igboland.” The other claims that the Igbo are descended from waves of immigrants from the north and the west who arrived in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Three of these are the Nri, Nzam, and Anam.”
Beyond the origin debates, there are also historical commentaries about the distinct character of the Igbo people. Writing in 1865, James Africanus Beale Horton observed that “the Egboes (Igbos) cannot be driven to an act; they become most stubborn and bull-headed; but with the kindness they could be made to do anything, even to deny themselves of their comforts. They would not, as a rule, allow anyone to act the superior over them, or sway their conscience, by coercion, to the performance of any act, whether good or bad, when they have no inclination to do so; hence there is not that unity among them that is found among other tribes; in fact, everyone likes to be his own master.
Horton continues, “as a rule, they like to see every African prosper. Among their own tribe, be they ever so rich, they feel no ill-will toward them. A poor man or women of that tribe, if they meet with a rising young person of the same nationality, are ready to render him the most utmost service in their power. They give him gratuitous advice, and ‘embrace him as their child;’ but if he is arrogant and overbearing, they regard him with scorn and disdain wherever he is met. When half-educated, the young men are headstrong and very sensitive; they take offence at the least unmeaning phrase and become very impertinent.
Pre-eminent scholar of Igbo history, the late Prof. Adiele Afigbo (cited in newworldencyclopedia.com) observes that “the Igbo, and perhaps the Idoma and most likely the Ijaw (Ijo), would appear to be one of the only surviving coherent ethnic groups from the first set of proto-Kwa speakers to penetrate the forest areas of Southern Nigeria and who at one time occupied areas as far to the west as Ile-Ife in Yorubaland.”
This view found further expression recently in an August 2019 statement by the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, who while welcoming the leader of Lagos chapter of Ohanaeze, Chief Solomon Ogbonna, to his palace at Ile-Ife said “This is your root. I said it recently, some of our Yoruba kinsmen with ignorance of our history came out with nugatory bereavement of my position on the family ties between Yoruba and Igbo people. We have to say the truth and the truth must set us all free, we are blood brothers. We should be inseparable. Please feel at home in Yorubaland and respect your Yoruba brothers and sisters too. We still have House of Igbo right in this palace till date. We call it Ile Igbo up till now. Our ancestors are buried and transfigured there”.
I guess this is a matter for further investigation by historians even if there is an agreement on this between the Ooni and our revered Prof. Afigbo, widely regarded as the doyen of Igbo history.
In her work titled ‘Igbo cultural and religious worldview: An insider’s Perspective’, published in the International Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, Chinwe Nwoye, writes that “although it can easily be contended that there is no dearth of ethnographic reports and writings on the Igbo people of Nigeria, yet it can equally be argued that most of such reports, particularly those arising from the works of Christian missionaries and British colonial ethnographers had largely been concerned with giving a general picture of the mores, customs and traditions of the Igbo. The core of such writings often presents the Igbo as primitive people given to some unchanging cultural traits/habits, rather than as agentic people (products of social systems), known for their well-articulated cultural and religious worldview.”
However, as Nwoye contends the Igbo are born into a society governed by norms and customs. These cultural norms have become the way of life of the Igbo which distinguishes them from others. The Igbo celebrate and reverence their customs. Before the advent of the colonialists, Igbo societies governed themselves using some customs which guarded against murder, robbery, land grabbing, rape, arson and other such social vices. As my kinsman, our most illustrious brother, the world acclaimed novelist Chinua Achebe observed, the Igbo past was not one long night of savagery until the first white people brought us the good news of Christianity as the Igbo long before colonial rule had developed a vast array of cultures and value systems that underpin its traditional governance structures.
From the above views, I believe we now have some understanding of how the Igbo have evolved. Indeed, such threads like farmers and traders commonly used to describe the Igbo people are no fluke as traditional Igbo societies were built by farmers and traders. Trading brought the Igbo in contact with civilization. Igbo people who moved beyond their own borders brought back with them new ideas that improved Igbo architecture, farming, trading organization, leadership, among other human endeavours.
Igbo as Social and Cultural Beings
The identification of the Igbo as “farmers” and “traders” is a positive ascription of industriousness. The Igbo is noted for his industry. It is through this that he has been able to re-create his society and enhanced his lifestyle. The legendary industry of the Igbo makes reference to his ability to, as it were, squeeze water out of stone. In his book, ‘The Igbo People: Culture and Character’, Mazi Okoro Ojiaku observes that the intense drive for success by the Igbo “is rooted in the Igbo traditional religious belief, and worldview: the belief that each individual is a unique creation and the work of a separate and unique creator (chi); the worldview that life is a struggle for existence”.
These attributes have become necessary to enable us to understand the current trajectory of the Igbo in their complex engagement with the Nigerian project. It is, therefore, a thing of pride to see the Igbo create their own world irrespective of what the world outside thinks. It is, however, disheartening that Igbo societies are gradually losing those values that made them distinct. One particular example is the Igbo value of respect for elders. We now witness a gradual erosion of those cherished cultural practices by westernization. While I agree that civilization should expose us to more values, I do not, however, agree that respect for the aged and communalism should be replaced by disrespect, disinterest and destructive individualism.
Traditional Igbo communities were built on deep appreciation and respect for age and accomplishments; what the late literary scholar, Prof. Donatus Nwoga in his Ahajouku lecture called ‘nka na nzere’. As Chinua Achebe also noted in his famous novel Things Fall Apart, ‘among the Igbo, age is respected and achievement revered’. Thus, if a child washes his hands clean, he would eat with elders.
The Igbo society has also always had respect for traditional institutions which include traditional rulers, Ndi Ichie, Nze na Ozo and other cultural agencies that help uphold order and justice in society. When they held sway, crime and other vices were at their lowest. Then, people needed not to raise high walls to guard their homes. Safety was at its highest as everyone became everyone’s keeper as encapsulated in the maxim ‘Onye aghana nwanne ya’. Disputes were amicably settled within the Igwe’s court, village square and in most instances, within the family units (Umunna). Age grades worked hard to secure our communities and even ensured that public places like market squares were kept clean. Those who derailed were even, first dealt with by their age-grades, before they were reported to the relevant traditional institutions.
In that society, marriage was a very sacred thing. In fact, to be an adult was to be married. It wasn’t just a relationship between a man and a woman. No, it was a sacred institution for procreation of the lineage. As Mazi Ojiaku wrote: “marriage is more than just an affair between two partners… marriage is an alliance between more than two families, hence a matter of great interest to the relations, and even, the communities of the couple. It is so important that it is rarely left to the two partners, or their families, alone. Instead, the kin group is always involved, in the belief that its success will impact positively on its members, generally”.
According to Ojiaku, in the Igbo worldview, marriage forms, as Ojiaku said, the “core of the social structure” and premium is placed on fertility because of the need for the continuation of the family lineage. This is in total contrast with the western traditions where it is seen as an expression of carnal love. Though the Igbo think longevity, fertility and lineage procreation in marriage, they, however, do not overlook such essentials as the character. Thus, we say agwa bu mma nwanyi. The reality today is sadly different. Our youths no longer think of this very important social structure as our parents did. But that’s not the real issue. The issue, as they appear to me, is that parents no longer seem to bother about this either. They seem to prefer to see their children display wealth even when such wealth is at variance with the cherished values of hard work and industry. In some places, such newly rich have used their wealth to encroach into the traditional institution and hijacked the traditional rulership of their towns by thoroughly abusing and desecrating the leadership selection process. But you do not become the traditional ruler because you are the richest. This, to my mind, is a new challenge the Igbo leadership, beginning with the traditional institution, must find a way to resolve. In saying this, I am not condemning wealth. I am rather advocating that we seek wealth that enables us to enjoy the rest of our life with peace of mind; wealth that distinguishes as a source for good, that enables us to make positive and enduring contributions to our communities.
Therefore, for Igbo communities to re-establish themselves along the lines of moral rectitude and proper behaviour, the Igbo people must return to their cherished social and cultural values, the same values with which they built their towns and communities; the values of respect for traditional institution and elders, the values of hard work and industry; the values of being your brother’s keeper, the values of communal effort with which Igbo towns built town halls, schools, roads, markets, churches and even funded the education of their children and extended families; above all the values of justice, fairness and the fear of God. We must come back to the understanding that Igbo societies fared better when we lived as a community of people who believe in one Supreme God than now where we live as individuals minding just our lives and sometimes, going out of our way to foment trouble for others.
A Political Reflection
I am aware that this meeting focuses on the socio-political and economic reflection of the Igbo in present-day Nigeria. Before I share my personal thoughts on this, let me take us back in time.
In the political history of Nigeria, we learn that Nigeria’s first president was Owelle (Dr.) Nnamdi Azikiwe, now of blessed memory. His remains lie at Iba Zik in Onitsha and I am sure many of us drove past his resting place. I only wonder what went through our minds as we cast a glance at the place where his bones are resting. Does a look at Iba Zik strike us in any way? Does it make us ask questions about how a people who once occupied the leadership of their country now cry marginalization at every turn?
Beside Dr. Azikiwe, history also records that for 92 days, Prince Akweke Abyssinia Nwafor Orizu was Nigeria’s Acting President. Though he did not become substantive president, he sat in that office for 92 days. Before that, he was President of the Senate. On November 4, 1966, Acting President Orizu laid a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On that day, he had his Minister of Defence, Alhaji Shettima Ali Monguno, General Officer Commanding, Nigerian Army, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, then Oba of Lagos, Oba Adeyinka Oyekan II, Officer Commanding, Nigerian Navy, Admiral Akinwale Wey and Inspector General of Police, Mr. Louis Orok Edet all standing by his side. Today, almost all those other names have national monuments to their memory except Dr. Orizu.
In 1979, nine years after the war against Biafra ended, an Igbo son and an architect of great repute, Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme, became Vice President while another great Igbo son, Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke, was elected Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have deliberately omitted the fact that all these four, Azikiwe, Orizu, Ekwueme and Ume-Ezeoke are Anambra sons. They did Ndi Anambra and Ndigbo generally, proud. But where are we now? It is said that if you do not know where you are going, don’t forget where you are coming from. Have we been able to build on the political successes of these great sons of ours? I will invite all of us to reflect deeply on this before volunteering answers.
Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999. What has Ndigbo made of it for the good of their homelands since then? It is on record that no non-Igbo person has been governor over any of the five Igbo states since 1999. In other words, we have had our own people leading us in Igboland since 1999. Look around you and show us the pointers that we invested wisely in our own people since 1999. What are Igbo people taking home as dividends of their investments in their own sons and daughters as political leaders? If governance is about ensuring equitable share and management of public wealth, how well have we fared in that? How come that since 1999 no Igbo son, elected to govern a state, has been able to build at least, a world-class hospital in his state such that the regular medical pilgrimage to Asia, America and Europe will be curtailed and the money spent there is re-invested at home? And such a facility must not be solely government-owned given governments embarrassing track record at managing things, but probably better off a public-private initiative.
Do we really know how much we export out of Igboland when we invest in medical tourism abroad? With a world-class hospital here, Igboland will reap the benefit of having Igbo money, and other peoples, re-bound in Igboland for as many times as possible before it goes out. That way, we are sure to keep building our economy for the good. Part of the reason the Jews in America are seen as very strong, economically, is because Jewish money rebounds in the Jewish community several times before it goes out. By rebounding, I mean, that Jewish money supports Jewish businesses before it goes to others. A world-class hospital in Igboland will no doubt cause a major growth in the Pharmaceutical industry which is also led by Igbo people. Statistics show that Igbo pharmacists control the pharmaceutical sector of the economy, but what do they produce and how much is their total output? A hospital in Igboland, that will rival the best medical center in the USA, will ensure standardization and upgrade to produce non-OTC (over the counter) drugs too.
Beyond that, I am not aware that any federal government, since 1999, has refused to pay any state in ala-Igbo, its share of allocation from the federation account. So, how come not just one of the universities in our homeland is ranked among the first 100 in the world? How come, despite financial and human capital available to our states, none of the five states in Igboland can boast of a functional primary healthcare system or something as basic as a potable water supply for the people? Are these things eternally impossible? How come Igbo states cannot hit national consciousness as having the best rural road network in the country despite having a smaller landmass? Why are our political leaders not investing in human capital development? Is coming tops at WAEC all there is to education? What happens after WAEC? Why do we still emphasize on producing children who would leave secondary school without the capacity for anything productive or producing Masters degree holders who can’t master anything? Do we actually realize that the world of the future is about skill capabilities? What exactly will our states lose developing skilled human capital and building on the political attainments of Azikiwe, Orizu, Ekwueme, Ume-Ezeoke etc.?
We need to constantly interrogate ourselves in order for us to build a future that will work for the Igbo people. I believe that the sort of individualism that has replaced communalism in Igboland has left us at the mercy of development. This individualism has left us thinking more about the self than our communities. Note, that mansion you build today with your children in mind may be abandoned or sold by them at half the actual value when the time comes because they may not need them. Their consumption appetites will change with the realities of their own time.
Between 1999 and 2015, the Igbo people had four Presidents of the Senate (Evan Enwere, Chuba Okadigbo, Pius Anyim and Ken Nnamani). We had one Secretary to the Government of the Federation. We had a Chief of Army Staff and also a Chief of the Air Staff. We have had a Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. We also had four persons at the helm of affairs in the Aviation Ministry at different times during this period. Many others headed other ministries and departments of government including the Ministries of Finance, Transport, Commerce and Industry, Tourism and Culture, Information, Education etc.
Specifically, and as recently as in the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, Igbos were Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Minister of Finance, Director General of Bureau for Public Procurement and Bureau for Public Enterprises, Deputy Senate President, Deputy Speaker of the House, Chairman of Senate and House Committees on Works. But where did that leave the development of those sectors as they concern Igboland? How have Igbo people taken advantage of opportunities created for them at the centre to enhance development of Igboland? Today, we see the trajectory of development as they affect other parts of the country. We have new universities for the Army, Air Force, Navy and an institute for the Immigration Service being built in the home states of those leading the organizations. We also have a transportation university being developed as a corporate social responsibility project of a Chinese firm in Daura, Katsina state. Are there any lessons for Ndigbo here?
Note this! I am not advocating that Igbo sons and daughters appointed to federal positions should abuse their offices in order to be seen to serve Igbo interest. However, it is not a sweet story when you sit at a place where cow meat is being shared and you couldn’t secure the share of your family. If we have had these opportunities but failed to utilize them for our own good, who do we blame? O bu na ife n’eme anyi e siro anyi n’aka?
Ladies and gentlemen, the Igbo agenda in corporate Nigeria haven’t changed. It is however for us to restrategize on how to achieve it within the circumstance we now find ourselves. Therefore, for the Igbo people to address their place in contemporary Nigeria, they must return to their own table, sit down with themselves alone and re-draw the map on their leadership recruitment process. That should be the beginning. I agree that we are in a democracy and democracy tells us of leadership by majority vote. However, it leaves us with a loophole which we need to exploit to better our homeland. This is where a leadership council becomes necessary. Such a council should be able to sieve from the crowd and narrow choices to the best qualified, who are contented with whatever God had blessed them with. So doing, the majority still get their day with the best of the best. We have the capacity to think our way out of the woods.
For a political society, the starting point to greatness is leadership. Once you get your leadership wrong, your failure cannot be anything but guaranteed.
Igbo In Economy
Today, we see a new wave of Igbo entrepreneurship. This is nothing new. It is a growth from what the Igbo had been known for -innovation, ingenuity and risk-taking- all core requirements for success in business. What however has happened is that we have transformed from mere trading in goods to developing and managing big businesses across various sectors. The Nnewi-Onitsha axis is a story in the entrepreneurial spirit of the Igbo. Aba in Abia state and Abakaliki in Ebonyi state are all stories of the reality of Igbo entrepreneurship in the different sectors. Owerri in Imo state leaves us with a story of the growth of the hospitality industry in Igboland. All these add up to show that Igbo people are keeping up the tradition of our forebears as business leaders.
However, as I asked in my lecture titled ‘Managing Business in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects’ which I delivered at the maiden convocation dinner of Executive MBA graduates of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Business School, Awka, last May, why don’t Igbo businesses grow beyond the first generation? Let me quote a paragraph from that lecture.
I said: “I don’t intend to run anyone down. But for the reason we are here, please permit me to recall the great business exploits of the likes of Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, and use same as a reference point in our discourse tonight. Information gleaned from online sources reference him as “Nigeria’s first recorded millionaire, and was the founder of Ojukwu Transport, Ojukwu Stores and Ojukwu Textiles.” When you read further about him on Wikipedia, you find such sweet references of him as “the first and founding president of The Nigerian Stock Exchange as well as president of The African Continental Bank. He was also either chairman or on the board of directors of some of Nigeria’s most profitable companies such as Shell Oil Nigeria Limited, Guinness Nig. Ltd, Nigerian National Shipping Lines, Nigerian Cement Factory, Nigerian Coal Corporation, Costain West Africa Ltd, John Holt, Nigerian Marketing Board amongst others.” He was also said to have “diversified his interest, bought some industries invested heavily in the real estate sector and became a director in numerous major corporations including the state-owned Nigerian National Shipping Line.”
Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, from Umudim, Nnewi, here in Anambra state, died in September of 1966. Not many Nigerians remember anything of business linked to the Ojukwu family. This is different from what we have from other countries. Porsche, Tata, Rolls Royce, Mercedes Benz, Guinness and many more are businesses started by an individual or two but have outlived them to become global brands. “So, the question comes back to you and me: Why did businesses established by Sir Odumegwu-Ojukwu end with his demise? This should be a matter for deep reflection because you and I stand here as persons of history. We live to make our marks and build legacies the future will remember”.
Today, we see the growth of Dangote Group with the right mix of government support. Ladies and gentlemen, before Dangote Group, there was Ibeto Group. There was Hardel and Enic Group housing about 15 companies. Before Wema Bank, there was an African Continental Bank (ACB). Before Dubai, ASPAMDA, Alaba International, Balogun, Ladipo etc., were built, there was Onitsha Main Market which was the springboard for many billionaires of Igboland today. There was also Ariaria in Aba. Before Maroko in Lagos became Lekki, there were Awada and Woliwo Layouts in Onitsha. So, why are Igbo businesses not winning? Why has Awada layout remained desolate and abandoned without good roads, potable water, electricity and sanitation despite the efforts of traders in developing it? How come that Onitsha, which was well planned, has become so disorganized and difficult to live in? The sad reality of Onitsha today is that our people now go across the Niger and into Asaba for leisure. Before 1990, people came from Asaba to Onitsha for business and leisure.
Today, there are about 30 banks in all, in Nigeria. How many are owned by the Igbo? Besides, what is the level of banking between those Igbo-owned banks and Igbo businesses? So, how does the Igbo wealth rebound in the Igbo community when you have to bank with others? Of all the media houses in Nigeria, how many belong to Igbo people? Apart from The Sun Newspapers, which other newspaper tells the Igbo story? The Igbo do not own any television station that broadcast nationally and internationally. So, how do the Igbo intend to tell their own story and influence public opinion to their favour? How does anyone go to battle without guns and bullets?
The Igbo must quit lamenting and begin to see the opportunities we have missed as new opportunities for growth. That was why I instituted a study into the Onitsha Main market as the entrepreneurial hub of Igbo business. I believe that if we re-draw our map and change our projections, we will be able, as Ndigbo, to see the opportunities available to us and use the same to change our own narrative by ourselves.
If the Igbo political landscape must be re-worked, the Igbo must ensure that Igbo business leads. Igbo business leads simply by the Igbo supporting their own. Imagine the impact an Igbo business will make if governors of the region spend part of their budget to support Igbo business which service they need. In Germany, German politicians drive German brands. In China, Chinese politicians drive Chinese brands. In India, Indian politicians drive Indian brands. So doing, their national brands are improved and their capacities for additional jobs and expertise are expanded. Therefore, it is only when Igbo businesses lead that the Igbo will regain the economic power that once made them the darling of all.
When we achieve that, then, we can use that to swing political power to our advantage. There is no race that is politically naïve or unimportant. However, you are treated as such if you are seen not to have any economic power. In the United States, black are regularly shot on the streets by the Police unlike they do Hispanics, Jews, Asians because they do not command the same economic powers that Jews, Hispanics, Asians command. So, the Police know it can kill a black and all that would happen is street protest. If they do the same to Jews, the economy will feel the impact.
Also, when other groups negotiate with you politically, they do not do so because it is you. They do so because of the economic powers that you wield. God has blessed the Igbo with the power of business vision through which we have become individually rich. However, Igbo communities have remained poor and without basic amenities, in spite of individual contributions as give-backs, because our economic and business acumen have only been able to translate into individual attainments, not real political power. And this is principally because we have not been able to fashion out a system through which our businesses will lead our quest for political power.
For the Igbo to achieve that therefore, Igbo business must support and grow Igbo business so as to expand the economic power that would enable the Igbo to regain political power. It is simply about using economic power to negotiate political power to your favour even if when you are not the one sitting in the office. The Jews constitute about 3 per cent of the American population, but you cannot be the President of the United States of America without the support of powerful Jewish entrepreneurs who control the media and other businesses.
Igbo was very well respected in the first republic, somehow, because of the exploits of Sir Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who history records as lending Nigeria his personal Rolls Royce, in which Queen Elizabeth was driven during her maiden trip to Nigeria in 1956. That event ought to show us the linkage between economic power and political power. Nigeria’s political leaders of the time went to Sir Odumegwu-Ojukwu because he had the capacity to provide the sort of car the queen was to be driven in. Nigeria did not go to Sir Ojukwu because he was an Igbo man.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I conclude by telling us all that the narrative on Igboland will begin to change as soon as the Igbo realize that no one will develop Igboland except the Igbo people. Therefore, we must take advantage of our place in business to create political opportunities that advance the progress and growth of our homeland. Igbo business and Igbo politics must create the right mix to develop a leadership recruitment system that will work for the good of the Igbo.
This is what the Chinese did. In Democracy and Development: A Prolegomena For Growth a paper I authored in commemoration of the 80th birthday of Okwadike Chukwuemeka Ezeife, I discussed the reality which has helped propel China to the top of world economic and political ladder. “China is a democracy”, I argued adding that “its people sat back and fashioned out a democratic system that works for them. Several years back, we heard of China only in negatives. The West was at the forefront of attempting to export its own brand of democracy to China. But China closed its gates and while the west bamboozled it with negative media, it worked behind the curtain to push its development. When eventually China opened its doors to the world, the west started a new kind of diplomacy -to ask China to slow its growth. Today, China is the largest economy in the world. It did not achieve that depending on models exported to it by others. It designed its own system”.
In that paper, I quoted Zhang Weiwei, Director of China Institute at Fudan University where he explained that “China’s rise has attracted global attention and many have focused on China’s economic model behind its rise, which is of course important. But China’s evolving political change has somehow been ignored by many. In fact, without much fanfare, China has established a system of meritocracy or what can be described as ‘selection plus election’, where competent leaders are selected on the basis of performance and broad support through a vigorous process of screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and various types of election”. Weiwei said what Chinese leaders did to put their system right “is much in line with the Confucian tradition of meritocracy”.
What China has been able to do, is to develop a leadership recruitment system that promotes merit across the entire political stratum. This leadership by merit is what now drives China’s super-fast economic growth. Therefore, while economic and political developments come down to leadership, it is also very important that the Igbo people develop a leadership recruitment process that leaves the voting public with the option of choosing the best among the best. The best here should be persons that have overcome personal want; persons who would not see leadership as an avenue to satisfy the personal desire for outlandish lifestyles and previous deprivations; persons who hit society with new visions and bigger ideas. This ought to be the starting point.