Ohanaeze and Igbo Leadership Question in Contemporary Nigeria

For the Igbo nation, leadership, or rather lack of it, has been largely responsible for its poor organization and participation in the Nigerian nation state. An interesting insight into the meaning of the concept – leadership – is that the very essence of leadership is its purpose and the purpose of leadership is to accomplish a task. Since that is what leadership does it also means that what it does is more important than what it is or how it works.

Ohanaeze and Igbo Leadership Question in Contemporary Nigeria  By Law Mefor 


“The future is taking shape now in our own beliefs and in the courage of our leaders. Ideas and leadership – not natural or social ‘forces’ – are the prime movers in human affairs”.

              George Roche, in his famous work, A World Without Heroes


A typical leadership symbols.


In human organization, ranging from family, society and nations, leadership is everything. It is the main architect of vision and development accounting for progress in human existence.


For the Igbo nation, leadership, or rather lack of it, has been largely responsible for its poor organization and participation in the Nigerian nation state. An interesting insight into the meaning of the concept – leadership – is that the very essence of leadership is its purpose and the purpose of leadership is to accomplish a task. Since that is what leadership does it also means that what it does is more important than what it is or how it works.


Leadership is a very slippery, imprecise concept. The desire to understand, define and explain the essence of leadership has interested researchers and scholars for most of the twentieth century. Interest in Igbo leadership is no less intense. In their efforts to find an “accurate and precise” definition of leadership, thousands of studies have been published in the last several decades alone. Most of these explanations have focused on a single person and his or her personal qualities and skills. Social scientists, especially psychologists have tried to identify what abilities, traits, behaviours, sources of power or aspects of the situation determine how effective a leader will be able to influence others.


Contrary to popular thinking, the term “leadership” is a recent addition to the English language. In fact, the word did not come into usage until the late 19th Century. Although the words “lead” and “leader” have a much longer history, they usually referred only to authority figures. The birth and evolution of the idea of ‘leadership’ focuses on a much more complex concept that reaches beyond the single leader.

Photo: Ojukwu, Icon and Igbo leader.


In fact, contemporary definitions most often reject the idea that leadership revolves around the leader’s ability, behaviours, styles or charisma. Today, scholars discuss the basic nature of leadership in terms of the interaction among the people involved in the process: both leaders and followers. Thus, leadership is not the work of a single person; rather, it can be explained and defined as a collaborative endeavor among group members. Therefore, the essence of leadership is not the leader, but the relationship between him/her and the followers (Rost, 1993).

What this also means is that there is a clear absence of leadership in Igbo land, since there is absence of such defined relationships. For example, how Ohanaeze derives from the Igbo society structures is not seen. Going by their republican nature, if Igbo towns are all unionized with the unions forming the political units of Igbo land social organization, any apex Igbo assembly purporting to lead them that does spring from and rest on the unions (representatives) is a facade and cannot claim to represent the Igbo people.


What we have is, at best, patriarchal in nature and those in leadership positions are overlords and see the followers as nothing but statistics. Indeed, in Igbo land everybody is essentially ‘on his own’. This may be what we mean by Igbo Enwe Eze – a concept unfortunately antithetical to modern existence. For Igbo Enwe Eze simply means Ndigbo have no king. But more appropriately, it means Ndigbo have no central leader. Igbos pride themselves with this acephalous lifestyle where they ought to be ashamed of it and need to take steps to correct it because there is not one great race that has not enjoyed some form of quality leadership or the other.


Igbos are republicans, no doubt. Yet, republicanism does not in any way suggest absence of leadership. Republicanism simply means shared or collegiate leadership. This once more brings to the fore the validity and usefulness of the leadership offered by a body like Ohanaeze when town unions’ representatives do not form its congress on that basis. In fact, for true Igbo leadership to be enacted the leaders of town unions and the Ezes (traditional rulers of the various Igbo towns) should solely constitute Ohanaeze and elect their leaders from that college, the ultimate being the president general of Igbo Union or Ohanaeze as it is now called. But for now, what we have is an assembly of politicians who represent nobody but themselves. In fact, the town unions are not aware of the existence of Ohanaeze nor its relevance since there is no form of connection between them.

Dr. Ikedife, Past President-General, Ohanaeze Ndigbo


Indeed, leadership is held as the single most critical factor accounting for a group’s or society’s survival and advancement. Many examples of incoherent participation by Ndigbo in Nigerian political life abound. Ndigbo’s political efforts are disarticulated and unarticulated, and at best atomized and haven’t done more than create a few millionaires at the expense of the race. It is a well-known fact that even the Igbo leaders at Ohanaeze level pursue divergent interests and do nothing to forge a common front. At the moment, the two factions of Ohaneze that laid claim to legitimacy can still be visibly seen. It is a clear sign of failed leadership or absence of it. You do not find such wanton demonstration of selfishness in Arewa Consultative Forum or in Yoruba’s Afenifere. The facts available also point out that Igbo leaders just pursue their personal goals and do not mind tramping on the common good to get what they aim for. In fact, there is no common goal for Ndigbo at state, regional or national level.


The politics of attrition in the South East remains the most absurd in the Nigerian national life. We witnessed the burial of Anyim Pius Anyim when he was Senate President by his political opponents in Ebonyi State who displayed the coffin on the NTA Network. Ken Nnamani did not fare any better with Igbo support during his own term and Enugu opponents kept going for his jugular. All the Senate Presidents the Igbos have produced in the last Senate dispensation have their own tales of woe – all from their own people. Anambra State was burnt down in 2004 all for related reasons of lack of leadership and sense of collectivism.


Facts are also emerging that Professor Chukwuma Soludo’s governorship bid suffered its death in the hands of some Igbo leaders (governors inclusive) entrusted with it for fear of his rising profile getting in the way of their own ambitions.


Ndigbo must enact leadership, relying on the town unions as the only authentic structure directly connected to the various Igbo communities. When this is done, it becomes possible to regard the town unions as a fourth tier of government, with its own budgets met by the southeast state governments, without prejudice to the local government. Ndigbo need organized and legitimate leadership to deal with tomorrow, and as they do so, their task is not to try to make perfect but realistic plans about it. This is because preoccupation with perfection could be an exercise in futility, given that several critical elements that interplay are unknown, and waiting for them to become plain and crystallize can only delay action, with the possible dire consequence of truncating and subverting the process. Yet, leadership is no shots in the dark. The task of leadership is to create a society that is sufficiently flexible and versatile, and positioned to benefit from modernity. That is the essential character of the leadership required by Ndigbo at the moment, which they clearly lack.


One can govern oneself, or one can govern the whole earth. Emperors and empires proved this.


Leadership is also not to be confused with eldership, as encouraged by gerontocracy, which Ndigbo pay only lip service to. Igbos have no respect for age that is not backed with wealth (and it doesn’t matter how tainted) and position. In fact, it a curse to be old without means in Igbo land. Even the man’s children can lead upbraid against the poor old one.


Photo: Gov. Chime, Enugu State Governor


Leadership is a collective behavioural action that finds full expression and essence when all concerned (leaders and followers alike), play their respective roles adequately. People can choose to become leaders. People can learn leadership skills. Some people have been leaders by default or by what many would call ‘by accident’; they found themselves in leadership positions simply because nature abhors a vacuum. As such, many have come into very critical leadership positions unprepared and without any idea of what to do with their exulted offices. This laggardness is even a positive score of such indolent leadership, compared to when they invariably set the people back by decades. For example, Governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju’s term in office (1999-2003) in Anambra State saw to schools closing down for one whole year and pension arrears also running for longer periods. Anambra State will never recover that loss caused by its own leader. Leadership has

caused holocausts, genocides, political tsunamis and all forms of disasters comparable to only uncharted floods in the countryside. In short, in Igbo land, leadership is not about service; Igbo leaders are overlords who assume control of the common resources and ‘donate’ to the masses what they can spare. It also explains why the quests for getting there is now a do or die affair.


Arrogance has also been mistaken for principle by the Igbo leaders. This has robbed the Igbo nation great opportunities of linking up with modernity and the rest of the country/world. Many of these leaders failed because of their incapacity to think globally while acting locally. The fact is that they think locally and act globally. In fact, if the task for the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been, it means that leaders that cannot think beyond themselves have nothing new to offer their people and have no business in leadership positions.


Research recommends that a leader, in matters of style, should swim with the current; and in matters of principle, should stand like the Rock of Gibraltar! Leaders are there to dream dreams. In fact, one important definition of a leader is Arieu’s, who defines a leader as “someone able to inspire another associate with a dream.” The synonym for dream is vision, and the Bible tells us: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). But it has to be practical dreams and not the type that flows from delusional disorders, which is also known to be common among our leaders.


From this gamut of the essence of leadership, it is clear that the Igbos are in a precarious position. To put it squarely, if leadership is indeed the vision of the leaders and their sense of mission for collective survival and advancement of the group, then, Ndigbo may be the most un-led people in the world!

(To be continued).


*Culled from Odinala Bilingual magazine, a publication of Center for Igbo Arts and Culutre, Abuja.