Photo shows some notable Igbo leaders with Chief Dr Alex Ekwueme [right]
The above question is an adaption of a similar enquiry attributed to former US Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger several years ago when he was quoted to have asked: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” Dr. Kissinger was frustrated by the lack of authoritative voice for the European nations in the international arena at the height of the cold war.
Although Dr. Kissinger has recently quipped that he is not exactly sure of posing such question, the question is nonetheless relevant when it comes to the present Igbo leadership.
The above poser is also inspired by similar frustration expressed lately by another elder statesman, Chief Mbazuluike Amaechi. During an interview with the Oriental News of Nigeria on September 23, 2015, Chief Amaechi among other statements said: “On part of Ndigbo themselves, they are so divided, they are so purposeless, they are so scattered that the present generation are a very great liability to the Igbo nation, Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria.
“The present generation of political leaders, they are doing the greatest disservice, they cannot come together, and most of them are thinking so much of their individual selves. So, unless they come together… Ndigbo should go back to the drawing board and allow a real leadership to come up. They have materials, they don’t want to use.”
The question of who speaks for the generality of Ndigbo has resounded in my mind and I believe, in the minds of many other Igbos since the passing of the venerable Ikemba Odimegwu Ojukwu. In an ideal situation, it would have been easy to answer the above question by saying: “Ohanaeze Ndigbo” or any of the other groups that claim to represent Ndigbo. Unfortunately that would not be exactly true today. Without going too far into the recent scandals about Ohanaeze Ndigbo, it is fair to say that an average Igbo person does not see any “Oha” in Ohanaeze.
Instead, what he sees is a few “Ndieze” of whom he cannot explain how they get to be members of Ohanaeze and what Ohanaeze actually represents. For too long, Ohanaeze Ndigbo has been mired in politics and leadership tussle to the point where it now lacks the influence and credibility to be an effective arbiter for Igbo causes. It is also evident that some see the current and former South-East governors as the group calling the shots in Igbo land. Like Ohanaeze, except for the praise-singers and the collaborators that follow these governors around, most independent and sound-minded Igbos see the current political class, exemplified by governor’s forum as a major part of the Igbo problem.
That brings me to the personalities pervading the Igbo landscape of today. Of course any person or group can claim to be the chief spokesperson for Ndigbo. But the deeper question is: will Ndigbo answer if such individual or group calls. In Igbo land, respect is earned. Who has the stature of Dim Ikemba Ojukwu, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe or Dr. Sam Mbakwe that truly represents Igbo interest and can inspire Ndigbo into action is at the center of this piece. By action, I do not necessarily mean a response to threat or other crisis. I mean someone or a group that can help galvanize the collective energy and talents of Ndigbo into more progressive movements for the benefit of every Igbo.
Some of us from the old Imo State remember when Igbos from all works of life –traders, artisans, civil servants, both the young and the not-so-young would shut down the entire Aba city just to celebrate a visit by the then Governor of Imo State, Sam Mbakwe. Unlike the crowds that surround the current Igbo political leadership, the multitude that celebrated Mbakwe did so out of tremendous respect and honor for his unyielding advocacy for every Igbo and for his personal sacrifices in the development of the old Imo State. Aba was then called “Aba Mbakwe”. It would be a redundant exercise to reprise the influence of Governor Mbakwe’s progenitors in this article because such are well- documented in Igbo development literature.
The moral and institutional legacies of the likes of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Mbonu Ojike, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, Dr. Michael Okpara, Ikemba and others of their generation remain the fulcrum of the lingering respect for the Igbo ethnic nationality until today. These personalities were trusted because they made themselves trustworthy. Because they also knew that they were required to be unquestioned, they made themselves unquestionable not on the basis of their wealth or intimidation of their opponents, rather because of their personal virtues. This spectrum of personality characteristics enabled our social, economic, and political institutions to function over time.
As I have already alluded, the need for a reliable point of identity for Ndigbo is important for several reasons. In the interest of time and space, let me highlight just a few. One of the biggest Igbo problems is urbanization. The fact that many Igbos leave the core Igbo states to settle in other parts of Nigeria in search of economic sustenance means that the Igbos suffer the most whenever there is trouble in any part of the country. This observation has been shared in many other Igbo forums.
That being the case, it will take credible Igbo leadership to convince a young Igbo entrepreneur that it is worth the sacrifice to lose a few million naira profit by locating a business in Enugu or Owerri; so as to create more economic opportunities in the Igbo region instead of Lagos or Abuja. It will take trusted Igbo leadership to convince the Igbo intelligentsia to implement a unified Igbo strategic economic and social development agenda. It will take trusted Igbo leadership to convince the political class that public accountability and citizen-focused approach to governance is important for repositioning the Igbo nation as a political and economically viable region.
Since I am not advocating for the dismantling of Ohanaeze Ndigbo or any other group at this moment, I have a couple of suggestions that may help strengthen Ohanaeze as a true mouth-piece for Ndigbo. First, for many years, Ohanaeze Ndigbo has been closely aligned to a political party. The political alignment got worse when PDP took reigns at the federal government level; so much so that Ohanaeze Ndigbo became an appendage of the PDP administration. With the change in the political fortune of PDP, Ohanaeze must now return to its original purpose, which is to serve as an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to fight for Igbo interest as opposed to party or membership interest.
Specifically, one way to strengthen Ohaneze, as a true representative of Igbo ethnic nationality is to make it firmly, financially stable – less susceptible to undesired influences from the outside. As such, Ohaneze will be generating its own funds from fees and donations from Ndigbo worldwide. As part of this proposal, all bona fide Igbo organizations within and outside Nigeria will be encouraged to pay a registration or charter fee and an annual membership fee that would help defray the administrative costs for Ohaneze Ndigbo in Nigeria. The idea is not to create another bureaucratic organization with an unrealistic leadership structure.
Rather, this is to reinforce in-built Igbo democratic governance while challenging Ndigbo to rise to the responsibility of funding and owning their representative organization. Having a vast majority of Ndigbo fund Ohanaeze through registration and annual membership dues would help put Ohanaeze in a stronger financial footing to resist the temptation of relying on a few individuals or political office holders for operating capitals. It would also strengthen Ohaneze’s ability to hold our recalcitrant brethren accountable for anti-Igbo behaviors.
This in turn, would require Ohaneze to establish a database that would include the primary and secondary contact information for each registered group. The goal is to create a mechanism for Ohaneze to consult widely (as time permits) or disseminate information on important matters that call for Igbo collective action. With the Igbos spread all over the globe, there must be an organized method to solicit input from a vast number of them without relying on the social media (open forum). It is time to reform Ohanaeze Ndigbo if it ever hopes to earn the status of an authoritative voice of Ndigbo.
Dr. Kenneth Akwuole writes from Baltimore, Maryland, USA