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Igbo Soul searching : Imitations of the truth we must tell ourselves

Igbo people“…The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself….” Patrick Moynihan


When we survey the broad tapestry of Igbo history, both ancient and modern, we have beguiling intimations of a great past often shrouded in mystery, but obviously given substantiation by the modern echoes of a great people. From the mystery and sublimity of the Igbo Ukwu bronzes which predate the Benin and Ife bronzes by a clear 300-500 years but whose technical sophistication nevertheless is well ahead of these other later artefacts of the Nigerian cultural area. And can we forget the intimations of the great kingdom of Biafra? What is not in doubt is that the whole cultural motif of Ndi’Igbo – the intellectual musical, artistic and literary products including the values practices, symbols, institutions and human relationships of Nd’Igbo embody intimations of a high culture which presumes a high civilization.

As I suggested in my Ahiajoku lecture in 1982, there seems to exist a 500 year hiatus in Igbo history, perhaps in the years between 1000-1500 AD. This period whose void our historians have not been able to fill was followed by a series of clearly traumatic events- the slave trade, colonialism and most latterly the civil war. Taken together survival in the tropical forests of West Africa in these circumstances proclaim great tactical skills. What seems missing is an overarching strategic thrust to the business of life in such a civilization. It is in the echoes of these countervailing forces in the Igbo psyche that we can explain the inconsistencies and even contradictions that seem to be part and parcel of the Igbo past as reflected in the individual Igbo  persona. And we cannot forget the intimations of the spiritual dimensions to the proto- Igbo culture with its multitudes of migrations and counter-migrations so masterfully and painstakingly recaptured by the late Chief B.O.N Eluwa in his monumental book Ado n’Idu- History of Igbo Origins. The spiritual has always been an important part of the historical Igbo experience- the transcendentally spiritual always jostling for attention in the Igbo psyche with the frivolity of the mundane- the genius of the divine always competing with the sublime vanity of the merely human. So who are the Igbos and what are the major constituents of their destiny as the first decades of the 21st century proclaimed themselves? We need to know and understand who we are, what are the existential challenges that face us and what can be the long term mission of the gifted Igbo not only in Nigeria but also in the global environment. We need to remind ourselves as well as teach our children that we have been in our present location over the last 5000 years –we predated each and everyone of the major ethnic formations of present day Nigeria. We are unequivocally the original landlords of the Niger Area.

The Challenge of the 21st Century for Nd’Igbo.

The challenge of the 21st century for the Igbo as for other peoples of the world has been defined by two developments in the twilight years of the 20th century- the phenomenon of globalization and the dominance of new technologies over the pattern of life in all societies. While globalization tended to homogenise and fragment cultures, technology tended to create the notion of instantaneous gratification. The elderly can no longer keep pace with the speed of changes in the given pattern of life, the youth can no longer find the stability and anchor that the wisdom and defined predictability of events in the past can give. It is now a world that is always on the go and instantly! The environment is not only dynamic, it is also uncertain and unpredictable. Knowledge is now more or less on tap, but what knowledge and for what purpose? To the uninitiated it is a world of incipient and emerging confusion often verging on the chaotic. Wisdom is at a discount, raw data as information is often mistaken for knowledge and a new relativity emerges in our values and our understanding of the world we live in. old certainties give way to new doubts, and new orthodoxies, evanescent and inchoate become the norm. The child is now the father of the man (Isaiah 3). Growing up in this new world is both a challenge and a passport to alienation, confusion and insanity.   This is the possible world of the modern Igbo youth – he can travel round the world in his imagination aided by television and the internet and become the inheritor of new global cultural practices alien to his persona, history and culture. The challenge is how to stabilise the youth long enough to teach, redirect and reorientate him or her. It is not surprising therefore that wherever we look in the Igbo world there is disaffection, dissatisfaction and hardly suppressed ennui. The challenge is not only social but economic, and not only economic but also political. It is a multi-faceted world of barely understood problems that demand a multi-tasking framework of new values to tackle them and this in the midst of the collapse of our educational system and now barely relevant cultural values and ethos. In this new environment of escalating changes, the youth is cut adrift from the otherwise comforting base of spirituality given the invasion of his world by the new gods of money and materialism. It is as the bible reminds us: our people perish for lack of knowledge and they cannot learn because there is no one to teach them for As Oscar Wilde observed with regard to the England of his day- those who are in need of learning have taken to teaching. For if truth be told “…the world at the end of the 20th century is far poorer, far more unjust, and far more authoritarian than most people at mid-century expected it to be…”

Nd’Igbo and Nigerian Realities:

As indicated earlier, the culture (and social behaviour) of Nd’Igbo is tenaciously a product of the tropical forest environment. Such an environment restricts movement and encourages the dispersal of small communities over wide areas. Such communities tend to be self-reliant and display an autonomous and independent turn of mind. As I had pointed out also in the Ahiajoku lecture in 1982 the profusion of edible fruits, roots and leaves in the tropical forest imposes its own kind of constraints in the emergence of leadership and the organisational framework of society. It is, perhaps the genesis of that rugged individualism that is emblematic of the Igbo spirit and character and the foundation of the republicanism that is echoed in our social organisational ethos. Despite this rugged individualism, the leader operates both as priest and king, hence is subject to sacred duties, obligations and taboos which necessarily constrain the leadership ethos. The concept of territorial empires is strange to the Igbo social organism but the spiritual suzerainity of the priest-king can be exerted over a wide area. It was a society in which communities were generally self-sufficient and valued their relative independence and autonomy. This was an idyllic environment in which the degradations of first the slave trade and later the colonial interregnum came to destabilise. It was a strange world defined by mutual incomprehension between the new comers’ (the colonialists) and the existing society. Lack of mutual intelligibility was to give way to a fundamental misreading and misunderstanding of the Igbo society by the colonial visitors- the co-existence of a sophisticated ethos founded on dignity and self-respect alongside a simple lifestyle with limited material needs proved difficult for the visitor to understand.  The framework of empire in the Igbo psyche was not material but spiritual hence the trade routes that produced the Igbo Ukwu bronzes may have extended to the Congo and Zambia as sources for their copper just as filial relations may have extended as far as Ile-Ife as Eluwa demonstrated through the instrumentality of place names. The consequence of the understated style of Igbo culture despite its technical sophistication in the pre-colonial and early colonial period bred the tendency for the visitor to underrate high the culture as well as the people.

The evidence of the life of Nd’Igbo in present day Nigeria suggests that it was not only the British colonialist who misunderstood Nd’Igbo but even our neighbours, our compatriots, other Nigerians’ also misunderstood and continue misinterpret Nd’Igbo and their ways. They say we are too pushy, too insensitive and some even accuse us of being arrogant. There is in the Igbo psyche a certain boisterousness of spirit, we must admit, which often manifests in a lack of introspection. We need to cultivate the capacity to listen, to hear the other man. Consider the environment of the waiting room in a Nigerian airport. The decibel level of noise increases when a handful of Nd’Igbo join the throng. Why?

They say we love money- that we are too materialistic. But surely the Igbo man cannot be more materialistic,  cannot love money more than the Kano Hausaman or the Ijebu Yorubaman. But the difference is that we tend to flaunt it in their face and in the process set off alarm bells in their brains hence the frequent misjudgement that we are domineering, always pushing for domination. It is clear that in our relationship with other Nigerians we need a little more introspection and circumspection. We need to cultivate an inner life of quiet reflection and sobriety.

If truth must be told, the average Igboman is energetic, industrious and thrifty. But we often project also an aura of indiscipline, a “and –so-what” attitude that can often come through as a lack of humility, a misplaced hubris. But we can also rise to challenge of a new environment. There is a can –do spirit that is evident in the Igbo man’s approach to life. We demonstrated it in the frenetic burst of energy shown in education and international trade in the period 1930-1960 which falsely projected us as coming from nowhere to suddenly occupy the front-line position in the economy, in the nationalist political struggle and in the management of the public service especially in the technical areas of the railways and the Posts and Telegraphs (P and T).

The speed with which we bridged the gap in education and the acquisition of western culture particularly with respect to our Yoruba compatriots set off alarm bells which reinforced the latent resentment that tends to follow exceptional success. And we lacked subtility. And what did we expect the naturally inscrutable Hausa-Fulani compatriots to make of this maniacal energy especially against the background that he was the favoured amongst the multitude of Nigerian compatriots by the colonial British? Fear and resentment are natural cousins when human beings face what they do not understand or can explain.

In our trade relations we tended to cut corners. The tendency to ‘cheat’ even amongst brothers could not endear us to each other let alone to strangers. Indeed, there is a spirit of ingrained and unethical behaviour which is assumed to be part and parcel of the trade practices of the average Aba or Onitsha trader which often passes for smartness but which is basically fraudulent. And we need to exorcise this spirit in our business culture.

In all this it is evident that we have exhibited exceptional tactical sense but have lacked the strategic depth that could establish our success in a sustainable and enduring manner in our new environment in the wider Nigerian society. This is illustrated most vividly in our management of the politics of the immediate post-independence period, of the civil war and of the post-civil war relationships in Nigeria especially until recently with our neighbours of the South-South. The question that often baffles our friends and well wishers is: how can a people so gifted, so ingenious seem so obtuse in their understanding of their environment and the management of their relationships especially in times of crisis?

Without a doubt, the ultimate challenge facing Nd’Igbo in the 21st century is how to build a progressive society within and beyond Nigeria. Such a society must be founded on the three pillars by which progress is measured in the 21st century, namely,

•    Economic development with material and spiritual wellbeing of our citizens;    
•    Social economic equity amongst our people
•    Political democracy in our national environment.

So where do we begin from?

What needs To Be Done

It would seem trite to say in a predominantly Christian gathering such as we have today that we need to return to God! It is so because none of the goals we have indicated above is achievable outside the context of what God’s plan for Nd’Igbo and for Nigeria can be. If truth be told Nd’Igbo evince to the greatest degree those characteristics and values that were vital in Western Europe and more recently in South East Asia to build sustainable progressive societies. We are widely dispersed not only in Nigeria but throughout West Africa and the wider world. We are innovative, intelligent and hardworking beyond comparison. On the flip-side is our tendency to impatience and a disposition towards the pursuit of short term goals. As noted earlier we tend to be tactical rather than strategic. We need therefore a rewiring of our psyche and our mind- a complete transformation and re-ordering of our mind-set and our spiritual values. We need to change our strategies and we need to redefine our goals and mission within an over-arching corpus of Christian values. We need to learn the strategic utility of silence in normal human exchanges. There are times we do not need to say all that we know. We must learn the virtues of deliberately cultivated inner life of contemplation.

The first challenge is to recreate the Igbo homeland. What faces us is similar to what faced our forbearers between 1930 and 1960. While Zik espoused the broader Nigerian vision, it was the practical, hands-on, determined and head-on confrontation of the problems of our homeland in the decade 1956-1964 by Micheal Okpara and his compatriots that changed the story. What they gained was lost beyond imagination by the inability of us all to appreciate the appropriate strategies to cope with the challenge of those times- a challenge like no other. At the height of what would have been the greatest triumph of the Igbo ‘can do spirit’ we lost all through insufficient appreciation of the fundamental strategic shift needed in the circumstances of those times, propelled by hubris and inappropriate human ego. Yes, the challenge was awesome but did we as leaders have the patience to explore all the options? Some may pose the contra-factual question could we have given the pogrom and the mass dislocation of the population across the country, afford the luxury of a measured response? That must remain the unanswered question of our recent troubled history.

The second challenge is to engineer a strategic shift that will be appropriate to the demand of these times. Can we consider a new strategic shift that is not founded on a too-obvious concentration on the problems of Nd’igbo but rather insinuates the problems of Nd’Igbo within the wider context of the problems of the Nigerian situation not only for Igbos but for other ethnic formations? Maybe that way we may find new friends and work co-operatively with other ethnic formations that share identical problems with us.

Finally we need to tackle the problems created by the total collapse of our value system. We need not only to re-establish the Igbo ethos that pursues excellence, merit and integrity driven by a new communal spirit that constrains our rugged individualism and in addition succeeds to re-enact the healthy competitive spirit of the Igboman that dares always to improve on what the next door neighbour and community has done. All these need to be pursued within the context of the technologically sophisticated but amoral and humanistic environment of the 21st century. The spiritual must be restored to its primacy in our affairs if the Lord tarries. May the Good Lord bless our land, ourselves and our Nigeian compatriots. Thank you for your patience and forebearance.

Elder (Professor) Anya O Anya Ph.D (Cambridge) (Hon), FAS, OFR, NNOM

President-General, Nd’Igbo Lagos

Anthony-Claret Onwutalobi
Anthony-Claret Onwutalobi
Anthony-Claret is a software Engineer, entrepreneur and the founder of Codewit INC and CEO of Portia Web Solutions. Mr. Claret publishes and manages the content on Codewit Word News website and associated websites. He's a writer, IT Expert, great administrator, technology enthusiast, social media lover and all around digital guy.

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