Igbo Aphorisms As Guide & Metaphors That Presage Igbo Renaissance — Obaze
I thank our host and celebrant, Fr. Prof. Bonachristus Umeogu, for his kind invitation to this colloquium. I salute our esteemed Chairman and all the speakers, invitees and attendees.
I feel slightly uneasy speaking here today. This is simply, because in the midst of the intellectuals gathered here, and those who have invested their time, energy and career promoting the Igbo cause, I am the least qualified to speak.
But since our Igbo culture and language has thrived on aphorisms, I make bold to claim the privilege conferred and the space assigned to me and so, without any apologies. In so doing, I seek shelter in the saying, nwata kwocha aka, osolu ogalanya lie nni.
The title of my remarks may be apt, but are certainly inelegant. It is Igbo Aphorisms As Guide And Metaphors That Presage Igbo Renaissance.
Permit me once again to resort to the native tongue to preface my remarks, and thus place them in their proper context. Our people have a saying, na ife Chukwu melu Igbo di ofu; ife Igbo melu onwefa di itenani! Translated – what fate or ills Almighty God foisted on the Igbo is just one; the ills the Igbo foisted on themselves are nine! Perhaps legion!
We Ndigbo live in Nigeria and are by fate, design, choice or force, Nigerians, until that circumstance is changed. Hence, what we make of our circumstances is not accidental. Even if the choice to be Nigerian, is still in debate and under consideration; the choice to make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves, simple means grasping and grappling with our existential realities and making the best of it.
A legendary son of Igboland, whom I had the privilege of knowing and being considered a friend, that inestimable literary jewel, Chinua Achebe, once said, that if Chukwu Osebuluwa, in His Infitine wisdom made him an Igbo man from Africa, Nigeria, Igboland, and Ikenga Ogidi, he had no intention whatsoever of altering that fate. Achebe’s impenitent attachment to his origin and ancestral lineages till the very end, might explain in part, why arduous efforts were made to ensure that his final resting place, was his homestead in Ogidi. I wonder how many of us have since visited his Ogidi mausoleum, in honour or in promotion of his acclaim and legendary status, even in death. After all, his is our own – onye nke anyi!
I do realize that his family and we his admirers and friends may have opted for convenience and taken the easy way out of burying him in America. After all, he was a recognized global citizen. But no way! Our ancestors decreed from ancient times, that head of a freeborn Igbo son must not rest in a foreign land – isi nwa afo Igbo ada to n’uzo.
As a peripatetic mandarin, given my career of choice, and the privileges deriving there from, I have been blessed to have visited sixty-five countries – each beautiful and rich in its own rights. Often, in my attentive moment and in my reverie, I have wondered what it would feel like to sojourn for a brief or extended duration in some exotic, alluring and naturally beautiful countries. I have, however, come away with the selfish notion, that no country in the world deserves my attention, residency and service as does Nigeria, where God in His infinite wisdom placed me, just as He placed Chinua Achebe and the rest of us here. Great nations and empires are built by men and women who believe in making lives for their posterity better and indeed, in bequeathing a worthy legacy.
So, there is after all a purpose for our being Ndi Igbo and for our being vested in and invested on Nigeria. It is not of our own doing; which means that we must make the best of our attendant situation. As a person, I have no apologies for who I am or who I have become. Certainly, I have no apologies whatsoever for being an Igbo man. Indeed, I have written my will to posterity in that regard, having attested thus in my poem, An Ode to My Igbo Origin, from which I will now recite the third and last stanza:
I am that, which I am,
Onye Igbo Chukwu kelu,
A true son-of-the-soil, left and right
The burdens of my origin like my negritude
I must endure, and its joys and grace cherish.
For all said and done, for good or bad
I am proud, that I am which I am,
I am an Igbo man.
I have adopted this speech delivery trajectory for a singular purpose. My point is that I had no choice in being made a black man and an Igbo man. But someone else made a choice for me, to belong to a country called Nigeria, and to be for some exhilarating but anguishing 30 months, a citizen of a country called Biafra. Likewise, someone unbeknown to me, but with the tacit complicity of my parents made me a Christian, and specifically, Roman Catholic. Yes, that I am, and as much I accept it and adhere to the tenets and dogmas of Catholicism, I am certainly not Roman. I am a Nigerian. And proudly, Igbo!
Though Nigeria is a democracy, we find ourselves living in an era of “Unfreedom,” with due apologies to Prof. Tim Snyder of Yale University. So like most Igbo men and women, who are Nigerians, I find myself in a quandary. Does Nigeria represent the best domicile for the Igbo man, affording him truly, the inalienable rights and dignity, which God has granted him? Can I as a person and my ilk, rest assured that our rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness under a democratic dispensation are truly guaranteed and protected by the Nigerian Constitution and by all those who govern us?
As you may already notice, I am asking more questions than providing answers. That is our dilemma. The debate about the fate of the Igbo nation within the context of present day Nigeria is unceasing. Interestingly, it is up to us to define ourselves. As a nation, we the Igbo nation are what we say that we are. In the event that we allow others to define us, then we can neither blame our Chi nor can we blame our akala aka.
Quo Vadis Igbo Nation?
Our people say that onye kpo ugbu ya nkpokolor elewu ya kpowa nku. (If you discard your canoe others will use it for a bonfire). If today we find ourselves entrapped in a defining and definite quagmire, it is a malaise that is self-inflicted. I do acknowledge, however, that there exist other considerations and circumstances that continue to bedevil our collective advancement, and our realization of our renaissance as a nation-within-a-nation and as one of the three predominant ethnicities in the nation or the political expression called Nigeria. But really, where is the Igbo nation going and on what trajectory?
It remains a cliché that history belongs to the victor. Yet no nation big or small is bereft of history. But we are confronted in our lifetime with persistent historical revisionism of Nigeria, her people and her fate. To that extent, Nigerian leaders redacted history from our academic curriculum, only to reinstate it in 2016. Those who seek to rewrite Nigerian history for expediency sake will succeed, if we, who are most affected, stop telling our side of the story and stop writing and updating our history. The Nigerian-Biafra narrative and history will remain controversial till the end of times. Yet as Chief Emeka Anyaoku surmised, “the existing controversies on the interpretation/representation of those events should be allowed to stand as they too are part of our history.”
Unquestionably, the Igbo have, thanks to a minority fringe, inherited some dubious characteristics, foibles and disconcerting attitude, which makes it frustrating and awfully difficult to take the Igbo man for his words and seriously. Given our Republican bent, presumptive Igbo leaders seek to speak for a collectivized Igbo nation, and even use the plural “we” reserved for royalty, when in actuality, they are merely expressing rent-seeking, self-interest and self-centered-views aimed at collecting what is due to our people from the commonweal, for their keeps and for themselves. This unedifying identity, which is quite self-defeating, I might add, has allowed others and our interlocutors to consider Ndiigbo unworthy, not to be trusted, malleable and buyable.
Contextually, the Igbo challenge is further compounded by a defining existential reality; a beguiling characteristic that afflicts us all as Nigerian citizens. This is more so, in discussing Nigeria, debating the Constitution, the central issues of national interest and indeed, the place and fate of the Igbo nation and the indivisibility of Nigeria as a nation state.
What am I saying? The Igbo nation long ceased to speak with one voice. Secondly, our folks wake up in the morning and decide as individuals or a clique of cohorts, that it is up to them to speak for the Igbo nation. Hence, formed bodies and organs coveting leadership and representational duties on behalf but not at the behest of Ndigbo continue to proliferate.
Incidentally, we all miss a defining and critical reality that is commonplace in contemporary Nigeria. If there is any ongoing debate in Nigeria, about the fate of the nation, about its structure and composition and about what constitutes its federating units, such debate is consistently truncated. We speak at each other, not to each other. This is so even within Igbo entities and States. We behave as a people without history, or a people bereft of the ability to grasp the essence of history and or able to use it for decision-making. The crux of the matter as empirically observed, is that “the Nigerian citizen, as a commentator, appeared to lack a sense of continuity over crucial issues – what had been done, what said, what responses etc., as a basis of what is now being said , even if in contradiction.” This is a disposition of choice. But our choice or forced option seems to rest on the dictum of “forget the past and concentrate on the present,” regardless of its relevance and validity.
Regrettably, Igbo republicanism has gone westward and determinately opposite to our collectivism and communalism; it now trends toward rebelliousness. Such attitude flies in the face of another Igbo aphorism or indeed, validates it. As our people say, onye ji is kuwa aku oyibo, ama di ndu solu ta ya (a rebel who uses his head to butt open a coconut, shall surely not be alive to partake in its sharing.”
Lest we consign all the blames to ourselves, we must admit that the premise of our nationhood is faulty; and has been since the return to democratic rule in 1999. The reality remains as Ray Ekpu correctly observed, that in “19 years, our democracy has suffered at the hands of vulgarians in the states and in the centre.” It is worth recalling that The Patriots in their 24 December, 2013, letter to President Goodluck Jonathan stated that “Nigeria is a wobbly state in part because it stands on a very weak foundation, which creates a necessity to transform it.”
The Guardian newspaper re-echoed the views of The Patriots in its editorial of 30 May, 2018, which evaluated the state of our democracy. Unapologetically, the editorial called the Nigerian 1999 Constitution “a lie”, noting further that “it is fraudulent. And that fraud must end now! Having been established on a fraudulent premise, its practitioners have lived in the spirit of the pretensions, of course to their own advantage. When a nation deceives itself and lives in illusion, it is bound to crawl in the cesspit of moral turpitude.”
This brings us to a critical juncture. If a premise is faulty as we are told, if the foundation is weak, can the structure in the main, stand? Our people often ask: nwa mbu ejero ije, nke ibuo oga agba oso? (If the first child does not walk, will the second child run?) This is more of a rhetorical question, hence requires no further elucidation by way of an answer.
There has been and there remain glaring evidence of dysfunction in Igbo politics. Such dysfunctionalism has intruded into our collective mindset and indeed, affected deleteriously how the Igbo intelligentsia grapples with past, present and future Biafra narratives in the context of the Nigerian federation. Our debate and discourse of the issue is now patchy, lukewarm and no longer robust, even as writers like Chudi Offodile insist that “we must have a robust debate on the subject of Biafra.”
Naturally, Ndiigbo cannot expect their fellow Nigerians, who never experienced Biafra — its anguish, resiliency, gravitas and its scarce-resource, needs-based and research-and-development focus — to lead the Igbo renaissance debate. If we must be honest, we must accept that most Igbo elite have largely joined the self-indulgent fray and as “leaders and practitioners of democracy in Nigeria pay less attention to democratic institutions and their values and instead, focus more on the instant gratifications accruing to the national elite from the democratic process, even if such doles are devoid of content and context.” As our people say, ya bu oke, si na isi we’luba. The fish rots first from the head!
This brings me to the crux of these remarks. Again, I will borrow a line from Chudi Offodile; “Should the Igbo respond to the challenges of today with the strategy of yesterday.” What was yesterday’s strategy one may ask; and does it still confer on the Igbo nation any comparative advantage? The answer is yes and the strategy is self-help and unfettered focus on entrepreneurship. As I see it, Igbo emancipation and renaissance, if that is the ultimate goal, and regardless of whether Ndiigbo remain within or outside Nigeria, is an ongoing process rather than a one-off event. Indeed, we can draw an insightful and validating answer from Prof. Emeka Aniagolu. His view: “The challenge we face in Nigeria, among others, is not only to make government and governance more effective, but how to make it less profitable as a business; and on the other hand, how to make business more profitable as well as insulated from rent seeking public servants, politicians and civil servants.”
A year ago, to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Igbo secession attempt and the founding of Biafra, I wrote an op-ed titled, “Nigeria-Biafra New-Fangled Narrative.” That piece was a postscript to the massive and crippling IPOB sit-at-home order that achieved a near 100% compliance in the south-east zone. Two points from that essay remain pertinent. First, “The Biafra spirit and conviction subsist” even if Biafran nationalism is in hiatus or dead. Second, I observed that the Igbo question in Nigeria, which is synonymously the Biafra question persist for one reason: “By refusing to draw lessons from history, Nigerian government policymakers by sheer indifference and at times, bluster bordering on arrogance, gave Biafran recidivism a boast; a cult-like hero and a rallying point in Nnamdi Kanu.” Indeed, Kanu’s emergence speaks to our confounding circumstances. Because nature abhors vacuum, Nnamdi Kanu emerged to speak on behalf or Igbo elders and sundry, when the designated speakers demurred. As we await a redefined Nigeria or the emergence of a new Igbo Nation, our wait and see attitude has become akin to ije nwa mgbda na ukwu ugiri; ugiri adaigi ada, nwa mgbada anaana.
The Way Forward
Our people say that ife onye lulu ogo ya aburo usa. Claiming one’s rightful entitlement does not amount to greed or gluttony. And so it is with the Igbo in Nigeria. There is nothing like a half pregnancy. You are either pregnant or not. So it begs the questions why the Igbo in Nigeria are expected to act and serve as diligent citizens, yet foreclose on their entitlements, or be recused from same via executive fiats and political legerdemain. Prof. Obi Nwakanma was right in postulating that “the Igbo feel discontented” and that “Their sense of discontent has been incremental.” Time alone will tell if Nigeria will survive as a corporate entity, and if Ndigbo will be part of that equation.
So what should the Igbo agenda be, one may ask? While it’s desirable to assuage Igbo discontent, the Igbo should in the true Biafran spirit take hold of their own destiny – not necessarily via politics or violent secession, but via development, economics and smart power enterprises. While a decoupling referendum remains a long term option for Ndiigbo, a change in strategy will require a shift away from the erstwhile dogma that exhorted all to “seek first the political kingdom and all else will follow”.
Now I believe Ndiigbo should seek first the economic kingdom, exercising as it were, their acumen and already acknowledged comparative advantage as entrepreneurs. We must not, however, assume that there will be no pushback. The fate suffered by notable Igbo entrepreneurs, namely Cletus Ibeto, Ifeanyi Ubah and of late, Innocent Chukwumah, Kanu Nwankwo and other lesser known Igbo businessmen in the hands of government establishments and agents, should give us pause. If it can happen to them, visible and reputable as they are, it can happen to any of us, bar none.
Still Ndiigbo must be introspective and understand their inbuilt shortcomings. Since 1999, there has been no non-Igbo leader governing the five Igbo States. So any progress in these states or lack thereof, are direct results of our own making and the direct consequences and limitations of those we elected to rule us. As I’ve written in my new book Prime Witness, “Nigeria’s arrested development reflects its stunted good governance accomplishments at the grassroots level.” It is inconceivable and indeed mindboggling that “Nigeria’s 36 States” – the Igbo states included—“continue to seek foreign and domestic investors for their enterprise and development needs, while shirking inter-state joint ventures.” Igbo states no longer collaborate, even as they pretend to do so politically.
Let me add that despite the huge challenges, not all hope is lost. And this brings me back to Chudi Offodile’s question: What should be the Igbo Strategy? Clearly, I am of the view that it should be a strategy mapped out with the short, medium and long term impact and benefits taken into account fully. The Igbo retains some clear leverage. Igbo investments in Nigeria are vast, diverse and domiciled mostly outside Igbo land. We can reverse that trend incrementally, under the concept of aku lue uno amalu onye kpatalia. Relocation of Igbo assets and resources may not initially seem profitable, but their longer term dividends cannot be discounted.
We also need to revamp and reinstate the Biafran utilitarian mindset, with lesser emphasis on federal politics in the interim. The reason is simple. Creating pockets of excellence in governance, production, industrialization and embarking on the unfettered endowment support for our educational institutions, especially the tertiary institutions, will be a good starting point. This will result in reliance on domestic resource mobilization. If China can do it, south-east Nigeria can do it. Furthermore, our organized private sector (OPS), which is already vibrant within the south-east region and beyond, has vast room to expand and more so in the area of enhancing scientific and technological capacity of the region.
Comparatively, I see in the Igbo nation and south-east as a region analogous to Germany’s egalitarian industrial belt, the Bavaria region; which though it has never controlled power at the centre, has a formidable regional party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), that dominates the national economy and hence, has consistently produced Germany’s ministers of interior, economic planning and finance, as a dependable coalition partner with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or any other ruling party. It ought to be easy to replicate such an arrangement here, but we must establish the leadership collegiality required to embark on such long term strategic plan.
In this context, Igbo leaders must accord to the leadership of Ohaneze Ndigbo, the moral and financial support it requires to perform its duties in a seamless manner. Our state governors, for their part, must not expect the Ohaneze leadership to dance to their tune and become their lackeys, simply because they offer intermittent financial support. As an entity, Ohaneze should have by now, with their assistance, articulated long term investments plans that would guarantee its functionality and independence regardless of who is at the leadership helm. Relatedly, how we choose our representatives and elected and appointed officials must be revisited. The notion that only those with the deepest pockets pre-qualify for public office is both undemocratic and unproductive.
Finally – and this may prove the hardest of tasks, since it undercuts our growing penchant to promote the Igbo enwe eze mentality — we need to rise above our fractiousness as a people. This misplaced adherence to a no-leader-no-follower republicanism culture has become defeatist. Our unbridled inclination to onye kwulu otor akwatu ya, so mu bue eze ga akwu otor, must end.
In closing, I need to underline that as much as we may seek to blame our compatriots for Igbo challenges and shortcomings, we know where and when we have faltered. If we consider some of the foregoing suggestions seriously, we might begin to shift away from our present quagmire and the suffocating despondency in which the Igbo nation finds itself in the present day Nigeria. The tasks ahead are seemingly arduous, but they are by no means insurmountable. We have abundant Igbo aphorisms that should serve as guide and metaphors that ought to presage Igbo renaissance. What Ndiigbo require now is iwelu ile anyi gua eze anyi onu! (Ndiigbo should use their tongue to count their teeth!) I thank you for your attention.