The Igbo Question: what Ndigbo want in Nigeria
“What does (sic) the Igbo Want in Nigeria?”
Among the pre-civil war Igbo generation, the reaction to the Nigerian conundrum of official discriminatory and containment policies against them has been a lamentation of self-pity and an endless cry/complaint of marginalization, while the recent passive but feeble resistance by way of rejection of the Nigerian State is put up by the youth who did not witness the civil war. But the message from both remains incoherent and there is no concerted action plan (constitutional or otherwise) to challenge the problem and overcome it.
The passive resistance started with one Ralph Uwazuruike’s formation of Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra in 1999. Ojukwu was still alive when this movement started and he did not quite condemn it or formally approve it, even though he counselled the agitators that Biafra remains in the realm of idea and that realization of the defunct Biafra might be quite herculean since the dynamics that gave birth to Biafra in 1967 are no longer the same with those propelling the new Biafra agitations.
But it is the new movement headed by Nnamdi Kanu and christened Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) that is giving the rulers of Nigeria (remaining members of the July 29, 1966 Movement) goose pimples because this is a fact of history they have done everything to bury, including abolishing the study of history in primary and secondary schools. The people are equally disturbed and unease over the civil protests in some parts of Southeast and South-south zones. Opinions largely condemn the agitations but draw attention to the socio-political problems that fuel the agitation. But the Igbo Question in Nigeria remains less understood or appreciated by the rulers and even the people and thus may never be resolved. This view is best illustrated by no less a person than the President (General Buhari) during his maiden media chat, when he was confronted with the Nnamdi Kanu question and he betrayed both his seeming misunderstanding of the problem by trying to locate the answer to the question in the personal misfeasance of that individual and went ahead to presumptuously accused the Igbo as an ethnic group with the alleged Nnamdi Kanu‘s IPOB crimes. General Buhari had rhetorically asked: What do the Igbo want in Nigeria? General Buhari’s question presupposes that the Igbo as a group sent Kanu to be doing what is doing and that he represents them. If that presidential reasoning be logically stretched, it then means that the Boko Haram activity in the North is the commissioned actions by the Hausa/Fulani and Kanuri. It is always easy to fall into ethnic profiling wherever an Igbo is concerned by simplistically resorting to ‘Igbonize’ whatever individual crimes or misfeasance of an Igbo as the group’s collective guilt, as happened with the Nzeogwu coup but the July 29, 1966, July 29, 1975, February 13, 1976, December 31, 1983, August 26, 1985, April 21, 1990 coups, etc., were never maliciously and mischievously labeled after their respective leaders’ ethnic group.
The Way Forward
For the Igbo to change their socio-economic and political conditions in Nigeria they have a lot to learn from the Jews of the modern state of Israel. It is necessary that we dwell in detail on the Jewish experience to guide us. The resolution of the Jewish Question came about because of the emergence of a man of ideas in the person of Dr. Theodore Herzl, who kick-started the revolution that gave birth to the modern State of Israel. Prior to that, the Jews in Diaspora were at the receiving end of all manner of racial discriminations, pogroms and insults, first under the Roman Empire and in particular under Emperor Nero. What threatened to wipe out the Jews was the European anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust under Adolf Hitler of Germany. It was estimated that over six million Jews perished under the Nazi’s policy. Chaim Potok, in his book ‘Wanderings: History of the Jews’ captured the Jewish experience vividly and poignantly and it is necessary that the Igbo elite should read that book for a lesson on positive nationalism. Let us summarize the story in that book to see if we can draw any lesson that might help the Igbo.
Dr. Theodore Herzl was an assimilated European (Austrian) Jew. He had a Ph.D. in law, but chose journalism for a career. He was a Paris correspondent of a liberal Viennese newspaper. It was stated that it was in the course of his work as a journalist that he encountered an incident that was to change his perception of the anti-Semitism then sweeping Europe and consequently the Jewish Question and instantly transformed him from an “assimilated and highly sophisticated” Jewish journalist to become “the fiery prophet of political Zionism”.
In January 1895 in the city of Paris, Theodore Herzl witnessed the trial of a Jewish officer in the French army. The name of the officer was Alfred Dreyfus, by rank, a captain. He was accused, tried and sentenced to “degradation”; a form of shaming and dismissal from the army. He was finally imprisoned in the Devil’s Island. Herzl was convinced that Captain Dreyfus was being punished unjustly “for a treasonous act he did not commit”. According to Herzl, Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his rank and humiliated. Herzl was particularly incensed by the anti-Semitic feelings of the French society and he was shocked that such an act of racism could happen in Paris, a most civilized city, of all places. For he had heard the Paris mob shout ‘Death to the Jew’ on that day in January1895, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was being tried for treason. To Herzl, Dreyfus was being punished more for his race than for his alleged crime. From that day Herzl experienced a total transformation from being a “moderate assimilated European Jew” to a firebrand Zionist activist. He was later to translate his feelings into an idea of political Zionism. This idea was later translated into a “practical program” about the future of the Jewish people.
Rising from his dream of practical resolution of the Jewish Question, Herzl wrote to Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a millionaire French Jew, banker and philanthropist for an audience to discuss the Jewish Question. Herzl was granted audience by Baron Maurice de Hirsch. In the parley, Herzl explained that Jews’ “lack of unified political leadership due to the dispersion was their worst misfortune”. He noted that this had harmed the Jews more than all the persecutions. Herzl further explained that this lack of a sovereign state of their own and consequent political leadership “has ruined the people inwardly as there has been no one to train them to become real men”. He insisted that “Jews were pushed into all the inferior occupations, herded into the ghettos in foreign countries where they caused one another’s degradations and when they were let out, their oppressors suddenly expected them to have all the characteristics of a people accustomed to freedom”. Herzl went on to speak of the need to unify the Jewish people politically, educate them by offering huge prizes for “striking deeds of courage, self sacrifice, ethical conduct, achievement in art and science – for anything great.” He counselled, and was optimistic; that this system of civic re-education, re-orientation and regeneration would raise the moral level of the people. The respected Jewish millionaire was said to have listened patiently to Dr. Herzl’s novel idea, but he considered it outlandish and unrealistic. He politely dismissed Dr. Herzl. Dr. Herzl stated in his diary that the millionaire thought of him as being mad or at best deranged.
Herzl also consulted another London based Jewish millionaire called Baron Edmond de Rothschild and met a brick wall, or at best, skepticism. He retired to his study and fashioned the Zionist Ideology, whose central object was the founding of a separate State for the Jews. He travelled the whole world to educate the Jews on the idea and to sensitize the world on the need to give the Jews a homeland of their own. Herzl was greeted with enthusiasm by the greater majority of Jews worldwide but also cynically dismissed by a few – mainly assimilated Jews comfortable with their conditions overseas.
In 1897, Herzl predicted that there would be a Jewish State in fifty years. In 1902, Herzl met and requested the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which then had jurisdiction over Palestine for the founding of the Jewish State in Palestine. The Ottoman Empire offered Herzl Mesopotamia but not the land of Israel. Herzl rejected the offer. Herzl met the government of Britain to help convince the world to allow for the establishment of the State of Israel but Britain offered them resettlement in Uganda or Kenya: This offer was tabled before the Sixth Zionist Congress in August, 1903. This proposal tore the Congress between those willing to accept the offer and those against it. The bickering associated with the British offer affected adversely the health of Dr. Herzl and on July 3, 1904, he died of pneumonia. The offer was finally rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905. Herzl’s struggle was carried on until the State of Israel was created in 1948 – exactly 50 years after Dr. Herzl’s prophecy! A town named Herzlia near Tel Aviv was named after him to immortalize his imperishable legacy to the Jews.
What The Igbo Want In Nigeria
It is necessary for us to go into detail in understanding the man Herzl, and how his idea saved the Jewish people in the hope that God may give the Igbo a Herzl. In the absence of a Herzl, the Igbo may do any or all of the following: we may not call for a separate state as some misguided people are doing under the banner of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and now Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB); but we can join other well meaning Nigerians and ethnic groups to stridently call for the recovering and restructuring of the Nigerian State stolen by July 29, 1966 movement and coveted since then according General M. C. Ali in his book, The Federal Republic of Nigerian Army. The Nigerian State as presently owned, designed, constituted and entrenched in the 1999 Constitution is a deliberately engineered, packaged product and made-to-fit and satisfy narrow ethnic interests that championed the 1966-1970 crises, which caught up with the Igbo, and the ensuing civil war struggles, which the Igbo lost. So, it is not in Igbo’s interest to sustain it as it is. The Igbo should unashamedly and openly be at the forefront of all legitimate agitations to recover and restructure the Nigerian State to serve them and other tribes on the principles of equality, liberty, egalitarianism and justice. The Igbo does not ask Nigeria for anything greater than a level playground and merit-based system. If that is achieved by the institution of a largely meritocratic system then we shall see who will be agitating for secession or struggling to get out of Nigeria.
The Igbo should understand that apart from the Independence and Republican Constitutions of 1960 and 1963 there has not been any other Constitution that can be rightly called the “People’s Constitution” in the true sense of the word. The 1979 Constitution was midwifed by the military regime that designated certain items on the agenda of the Constituent Assembly as “no-go areas”. The “structure of the State” was one of those items. The 1999 Constitution is even worse because it was a creation of an unelected Committee and even the product was further subjected to hush-hush panel-beating by the then Armed Forces Ruling Council. So, the Igbo political elite should join other power blocs or stand alone to work and struggle for, if not a new constitution then, a positively amended one that will adequately cater for the welfare of the Igbo and other tribes – especially in the area of devolution of powers to the federating units and equal opportunity and level playfield for every Nigerian. For the Igbo, there can be no other agenda greater than retrieving and restructuring the Nigerian State to suit all constituent parts on the principle of equality, freedom and justice.
A New Beginning
Secondly, committed Igbo leaders regardless of political persuasions or ideology should organise to map out socio-economic, cultural and political blueprint, which any leader in whatever position be it in the local, state or federal government must subscribe to as his working document. After the inauguration of this Pan-Igbo body, it shall have as one of its objects the bringing back of estranged or alienated people of Igbo ethnic stock in states outside the South-east such as Delta, Rivers, Cross Rivers and Akwa Ibom. The leadership must seek new cooperation and rapprochement with the neighbouring states in South-South, the Southwest and the Middle Belt. Thereafter, we can seek rapprochement with other political blocs or ethnic nationalities.
To promote the rapid industrialization and economic wellbeing of the South-east and other Igbo ethnic communities in the South-south zone, the resources of Igbo businessmen, especially those in the banking, insurance and other financial institutions, should be harnessed and pooled together in a kind of a consortium, which facility is to be managed by designated banks and applied towards the promotion, growth and sustenance of Igbo enterprises in commerce, industry and agriculture. This facility is to be amply guaranteed by the five Southeast states. There should be a conscious development of the economic and social infrastructure in Igbo land to reduce the mass migration of the Igbo to other states. An International Airport in Enugu and Asaba and a dedicated seaport in Delta, Cross River or Rivers States either in conjunction with any of these neighbouring states will be of immense economic benefit to the Igbo. The two areas are nearer to the Igbo mainland than Lagos seaports. There should also be a conscious development of the markets such as Nnewi, Onitsha, Aba, Abakaliki, etc., so as to encourage our businessmen to consider Igbo land the prime investment area before any other areas. Nnewi has achieved the feat of being an industrial hub and should serve as a distinctive example to other Igbo businessmen. This measure if properly articulated and developed will create economic opportunities within Igbo land thereby curbing the Igbo’s penchant for migration to areas of better economic prospects.
To sanitize the Igbo political culture, a code of ethics must be put in place and placed at the disposal of all autonomous communities in Igbo land for implementation. A major political enlightenment and socio-cultural education with Igbo language and Nigeria/Igbo histories starting from primary to secondary school must be undertaken by the five Igbo States and communities across the country and elsewhere. This wave of political cum cultural orientation should be consciously undertaken by the Southeast states with the town unions and the traditional rulers’ councils as the custodians and purveyors of the new culture, education and enlightenment.
In the absence of having a controlling jurisdiction of a particular political party dedicated to the articulation and struggles for the enthronement of a republican and democratic system with all their values in Nigeria, every Igbo in any political parties should endeavour to work for the enthronement of these values of egalitarianism, freedom and justice for all. Political power on its own without all the other supporting artifices that enable the fair, effective access and utilization means nothing and even useless to the power-wielder and his ethnic group as President Jonathan must have discovered to his chagrin. So Igbo should not be obsessed with the capture of political power under the present political structure and the 1999 Constitution (actually Basic Law) that entrench and girds it. All Igbo businessmen who currently have politics as the major area of investment should be discouraged and such people educated to shift their attention to more productive ventures. Our people must be educated to know that politics is a vocation of service, which people altruistically embrace to learn the art of governance. It should not, therefore, be seen as business deals, which yield personal profits but rather an act of selfless rendering of public service to the people.
The moral and ethical tone of our society must be raised to enable the Igbo hold tenaciously to their traditional Igbo values of self-sacrifice, honour, integrity and personal achievement resulting from cognizable means, be it in the arts, sciences or business.
The above proposal may sound or appear outlandish but as Herzl said, “dream and action are not so far apart as is often thought”. He went on to add that; “All the acts of mankind were dreams once and will become dreams again”. If our leaders allow the Igbo to continue in this rudderlessness without taking any concerted effort to set us aright on the road to self-discovery, then we may, as Herzl predicted in his letter to Baron Hirsch, “have to sink lower,…have to be more widely insulted, spat upon, mocked, beaten, robbed and slain before we are ripe for the idea.” Let’s say; “enough is enough” and stand on that resolution to pull us out from the hangover arising from the defeat inflicted on the Igbo psyche after the civil war. We shall overcome if we persevere.