To understand the four recommendations that I shall propose in this piece, it is important to go to some fairly long background information on what is happening today in the South East region of Nigeria.
For a very long time, Igbo intelligentsia have been exhorting entrepreneurs and investors to literally make South East their business home. In various treatise, they proposed that this is the best strategy to defeat the injustices that succeeding administrations in Nigeria visit on them. What they preached was essentially a refinement and upscaling of the famous community self-help character that has hitherto powered development of villages and communities in Igboland. The old style of development, as great as it was, only ended up delivering fish to the villages. It could not help hundreds of thousands of unemployed youths churned out from universities as well as villagers frightened out of their farmlands by rampaging herdsmen.
The solution-thinkers largely succeeded. Their exhortations eventually created two opposed tendencies, a self-defense attitude to confront the injustices, and a return to wealth creation in their homeland. In other words, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu’s socio-political assault represents the former, while majority of Igbo leaders accepted the latter concept known as aku luo uno. But then, all of a sudden, socio-cultural leaders decided that they would make a bold pitch for the ultimate prize, a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction. It appeared that, in their calculations, this could take the wind out of the sails and thereby blunt the zeal of separatist agitation, when achieved. They somehow hoped that an Igbo leader would emerge, be elected and recreate a Nigeria where opportunities are fairly shared. This thinking represents a third tendency.
At the end of the day, all tendencies can be interrogated under two sub-themes. For the sake of brevity, we shall call them soft and hard power play. Soft power incorporates a return to utility education, promotion of technical innovations and inventions, and backward integration of investments, aka aku luo uno. Hard power, on the other hand, includes separatist agitation and the bid for “Igbo presidency,” both co-existing in parallel spaces with no hope of a meeting point.
Protagonists of these tendencies dug into their silos from where they began to operationalize their various concepts. In a noisy but empty show of strength, Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB raised the bar of agitation to dangerous levels by forming a youth wing to challenge open grazing. His target remains itinerant pastoralists who allow their herds to destroy local farm crops along the routes as they migrate from north to south. As well-meaning as the Kanu effort was, it, nevertheless, played out as a rather simplistic (and dangerous) response to those who clearly had guns and security cover as they rolled through local communities.
The socio-cultural leaders changed their leadership and, by default, elected a tested intellectual who knew how to diplomatically articulate the Igbo challenge. Suddenly, the cries of Igbo presidency became better articulated and began to gain converts from regional divides. The new leader, elected by default, articulated the Igbo presidency pitch with wisdom and insight, buried in a disarming smirk that removed offence from the hard truths he delivered with his unique local cadence. It suddenly became clear to all that, if left unchecked, the Igbo will not be marginalized in the 2023 leadership selection process, even when they did not secure the ultimate prize.
By 2019, the idea of aku luo uno had caught fire. Development agencies gave traction to the economic march, promoted independently by private and public individuals and bodies. They supported the regional efforts through foreign expertise and grants. Legacy businesses were not left out. Factories began to spring up in Igboland, a lot of them pioneered from Anambra State. Significant examples suffice. A second car assembly plant and an international airport built to rival and surpass Enugu became a reality. Mechanized agriculture kicked in. The rich accepted the challenge to build “buffer” homes and businesses in the East.
The result of all of this was an inexorable Igbo economic and political advance that Nigeria did not fail to notice. Although mostly uncoordinated and sometimes working at cross purposes, the impact and effect was noticeable. Many groups of like-minded professionals sprang up, each eager to play a leading role in the onward march.
Unfortunately, these independently constituted and excited groups continued to clear their bushes without anyone climbing the tree to see where the path led, who was watching and with what degree of approval or disapproval. No reconnaissance teams went to scout and report on what those who think they own the bushes were going to do about their ongoing bush-clearing efforts.
Before anyone could say “dot,” a fifth column emerged from the woods and began to do two things. There were attacks on security formations and federal infrastructure, with a number of police and military personnel gunned down. Several stories were being planted in the media, evoking stereotypes that automatically pitched the rest of Nigeria against the Igbo. Fake news was planted in a respectable newspaper about arms factories and buildups in the region. There were unproven allegations that Igbo youths were mobilizing to attack Lagos. The song from those advancing from the eastern flanks of the South-South pleased the Presidency. Allegations of impending violence, resurrection of Igbo stereotypical innuendos and instigation of subtle rivalries among the pet associations became the order of the day.
Naturally, the noise of aku luo uno and other strategies has been (temporarily?) stilled.
In retrospect, the big mistake that the excited groups made was to limit their vision of igwebuike. Each group applied the concept to reinforce internal development approaches but failed to escalate it to relationships with other groups. In other words, every group chanted the igwebuike mantra from the narrow prism of their insular associations. It was almost as if each group was intent on being the one to take the glory for leading the Igbo to the Promised Land.
Igwebuike happened within groups, which, however, approached a wholistic Igbo development with an ikeotuonye mindset. It was, therefore, relatively easy to penetrate their ranks and halt their advances as the fifth columnists skillfully (and sometimes blatantly) resurrected igbophobia among rival ethnic nationalities. They successfully covered the grounds of the South East with gasoline. Unknown gunmen merely celebrated the final ritual of striking and dropping a match to engulf the once most peaceful region in a thick smoke of insecurity. This smoke is so thick and foggy that no one can as yet see and count the damage being wrought, as security operatives pick off innocent youths fleeing from the inferno.
So much for the Igbo march! It will take quite some time for the groups to return to their pet soft power projects. Today, old men and women in South East villages beg their sons and daughters in townships outside the region to forget about coming home on routine visits. Aku luo uno has become a distant echo in the void as Igbo investors hurriedly return their monies to the banks. Politicians and socio-cultural leaders know full well that only the living aspire to high public office. The zeal of an Igbo presidency has petered out as quickly as it began to smolder under a new sociocultural leadership. No one pays heed to the plaintive cries of IPOB that it had nothing to do with the killings and arson. Ndigbo, quo vadis? Is there a way to clear this smoke and create a pathway for the Igbo to once again breathe the clean air of safety and security being polluted by an occupation force ostensibly deployed to fan them out?
I offer four suggestions
It is not late for leaders of emergent development tendencies to come together to form a caucus of South East Development Associations. This caucus could announce its arrival by issuing a joint statement, signed by all of their leaders who are members of the caucus. South East economic leaders need to think outside the box so as to present a united, mature and reasoned position that addresses the situation and explains how they think this externally activated second war will end.
I recall a famous visit by the late Chief MKO Abiola to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe at Nsukka to ask for support to actualize an MKO presidency. The Wizard of Onuiyi Haven gave MKO a simple advice: “Do not forget the legal option.”
The South East Governors’ Forum and Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide should go beyond talk to let the law speak for them whenever and wherever it matters most, especially after backchannel entreaties fail. If nothing else, this will leave a record for coming generations that Igbos did not cower in fear when their people were threatened, as is now the perception.
For our impatient brothers and sisters, do we need to be reminded that Nigeria got independence from Great Britain without firing a shot? Victory came through unity of effort across east and west, driven by altruistic, patriotic leadership, pioneered by the late Herbert Macaulay and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Therefore, we must add a non-violent bite to the legal battles, as a third alternative, if a separate republic is what the Igbo want. And here, I must pause and state clearly that this has never been my preference, since the day that I had the first of two major conversations with the Great Zik about Igbos in Nigeria. Is it possible to exercise restraint from the loose and truculent broadcasts and seek to work with other leaders on the ground and the diaspora community to mount legal and street protests that will not be greeted with guns and teargas? Such unity of purpose will surely escalate international pressure on the current leadership while deploying extant local laws to shoot down policies that violate the spirit and letters of our constitution.
Finally, a constituted united Igbo leadership caucus should be able to directly engage with the authorities and the media to respectfully but firmly challenge current flawed and dangerous Igbo hate rhetoric. The most recent interview that the President granted the media shows that the current administration either does not want or cannot see that all Igbo are not IPOB even as all IPOB are Igbo. It is, therefore, important and a matter of urgent ethnic survival for this distinction to be clearly articulated, understood and appreciated in the public sphere. The hurriedly arranged face-saving meeting between Nigeria’s Defense Minister and some Igbo leaders does not cut it.