A few months ago, I asked about Okonkwo, and unfortunately, most Igbo people think he was a hero. Newsflash, he was not. Okonkwo was that person who didn’t have the ability to think. Even Professor Achebe once said that he’d prefer if we were like Obierika.
So, the lesson: First, what is diplomacy?
Diplomacy is tact. It is a skill in managing negotiations, handling people, etc, so that there is little or no ill will. There’s an Igbo proverb for that: agbakoo aka nyuo mamiri, o gbaa ụfụfụ. It is not only the Igbo people who can pee together, as a matter of fact, but we also need the help of others so that the urine will foam very well. Let us go back to our darkest moment as a people — 1967 to 1970.
Why did we lose the war? Hubris.
There was an advert that used to run on Radio Biafra, Enugu, just before war broke out, and its tag line was, “Whether they come from the land, sea or air, we will beat them.”
History tells different, and two main things are to be considered here: First, the state creation of 1967 was a strategic masterstroke. It immediately removed the incentive for the “minority” ethnic groups in the Eastern region to support ndi Igbo because their yearnings of decades were addressed with that move. We were blind and deaf to that. The result was that when indeed war broke out, the federal side always had guides from non-Igbo groups, those who have an historical axe to grind with us. Everywhere there was a massacre of Igbos, it was the Southern minorities who pointed out the first people who were shot.
Secondly, let us stop propagating Ikedi Ohakim’s myth that the South-East is not landlocked. It is. Deal with it. Landlocked doesn’t mean you don’t have rivers. It means you don’t have direct access to the ocean. No one is going to spend billions of dollars to dredge 80 kilometres to Azumini.
When you are the bigger group in an arrangement, it behoves you to be that much more considerate towards your smaller counterparts. It helps for good relations. It helps even better when the smaller partners have significant leverage over you. In this case, the significant leverage that our smaller neighbours have over us anyi bu ndi Igbo, is geography. First, the fact is that Kogi State is larger than the South-East. If we put the South-East as a single state, it will be the 14th largest state in Nigeria by landmass.
The following states are each larger than the South-East: Niger, Borno, Taraba, Kaduna, Bauchi, Yobe, Zamfara, Adamawa, Kwara, Kebbi, Benue, Plateau and Kogi. If we add Anioma to ani Igbo, we move up to just above Benue. This densely populated region is a challenge, like it or not.
How is it a challenge?
It is a challenge because, in addition to the huge population density, the quality of the land has seen, for whatever reason, a significant deterioration since Olaudah Equiano’s time. Why? I don’t know yet, but it is what it is.
The reason that ndi Igbo are such great traders is not that we are genetically superior, but because our situation demands that we move about. Our geography makes us what Hubert Blalock called a middleman minority. We must live among others; our geography demands it.
But this is where our republican nature works against us. Because culturally, we do not have “leaders”, we tend to be very abrasive. We do not listen to our own admonition that “Eneke si na kemgbe dinta ji muta mgbagbu na ofu mgba, ọ muta ife ma adaghi n’ala.”
To be truly successful as a people, we must listen to that and adapt to our realities. We must understand that “Ikpe aghahi ima ọchịcha ebe ọkụkọ nụọ.” So we must learn to be less abrasive, and more conciliatory, especially to our near abroad. The same rain that is beating us is beating Ndi mili na Ndi ugbo. So we must embrace them, not antagonise them by calling them “Fulani slaves” all the time, then turning around and expecting them to work with us.
Oh, and for Ndi mili, we should stop looking down on the pain they suffered during the war. Some of our boys did really nasty stuff between 1967 and 1970. The same way we cry about what Ndi ugwu did to us, we should be charitable towards Ndi mili.
Cheta Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence.