One lesson that has been lost in the commentaries about how Obi Iyiegbu, alias Obi Cubana, chose to bury his beloved mother is the lesson of the positive side of the Igbo apprenticeship scheme. For this reason, therefore, the lavishness of his mother’s burial ceremony is immaterial to me.
The Igboman is noted for his dexterity in trade and commerce. Some would say buying and selling. And that exactly is what Obi Cubana does. He buys and sells choice alcoholic beverages. He sells entertainment through his chain of hotels, bars and clubs. He buys a piece of land and transforms it into a hotel where he sells rooms for leisure and business. Simply put, he is a trader. His choice of business indicates that he must engage other people to work for him and with him. In doing this, he comes across all sorts of characters. Some will elect to learn humbly from him while hoping to go private someday. Some will prefer otherwise. Those who prefer to learn from him wait patiently on time.
In his interview with BBC Igbo Service, the young man stated his focus on grooming young people and expanding his network of friends by helping others to grow. Grooming young people is about tutelage. Here, Obi teaches, coaches and sees them through enabling them with start-up funds. He does not end there; he further guides them through their growth process and enables them to stabilize in business. This way, he plays the role of a master as his boys (umu boy) mature to become their own bosses. This essentially is what the master (oga) does in the Igbo apprenticeship scheme where young people start off by undergoing business or skills acquisition training under the guidance of someone else who provides him with seed fund to take off.
For me, what Obi Cubana demonstrated is the power of this scheme to build people and make them even greater businessmen and women. Through him, several young people have grown big. He empowers them with seed funds for startup and also monitors their growth. This was the system that built Igbo towns and villages in the past. It was the system that turned young traders into millionaires and enabled them to build their communities through massive financial contributions for the construction of community schools, community health centres, churches, roads, etc. It was the scheme that created the millionaires that built Onitsha, Aba, Enugu, Owerri, Orlu, Umuahia and other towns before attention shifted to Lagos and Abuja. Many of those millionaires probably did not get education beyond secondary school.
Most times, a master’s event like burials, anniversaries, birthdays, etc, are occasions for his boys (umu boy) to show gratitude to their master (oga) for his goodness and assistance in seeing them through their growth process. There have been occasions when a former apprentice (nwa boy) would outbid his master (oga) at church bazaar events, only to buy and still donate the item to his master or his wife as a show of gratitude. Stories like that are everywhere in Igboland.
However, this once wonderful scheme seems to have lost its relevance for today’s youth. Reason: the mad quest for easy wealth. Sadly, nothing comes easy. Even those who make money through rituals (if it ever exists) would still tell the uninformed that ‘it is not easy.’ This is the sad outcome of a society that has parted ways with its values, especially the virtue of hard work. Every parent will tell their wards that hard work pays. But today’s youth is not patient to work hard enough to achieve his life goal. Apprenticeship is hard work. It is about patient submission to a learning process, which is sometimes depriving. Those who go through it graduate with a knowledge base that no business school imparts.
This is why the chairman of United Nigeria Airlines, Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, instituted a chair at the Business School of Nnamdi Azikiwe University for a study into the Igbo apprenticeship scheme and how to reinvigorate it as a veritable and vital tool for empowering youths and taking them off the streets. The study, which is now into its second phase, is being fully funded by Dr. Okonkwo, who believes that the scheme holds greater promises for the Igbo youth. Those promises are exemplified in the response Obi Cubana got from his ‘men’, as he calls them, many of whom gained business knowledge and exposure as apprentices under him.
For Okonkwo, therefore, the apprenticeship scheme is a mass employment driver that would lift people from poverty. He wants to see the scheme reinvigorated and made to serve that very useful purpose it once served. And there is a reason to argue that the Igbo apprenticeship scheme will help uplift and empower more youths than motorcycles and tricycles will. What the Igbo youth actually needs is someone to point the way to a startup for him. He is sure to excel. That is another message from the Obi Cubana ‘men’. He started them up in business and, today, they line the streets to show gratitude.
I also think that this is one area of human development that the political leadership ought to explore. This is because of the capacity of the scheme to keep a high percentage of the youth population busy. What we see as empowerment programmes by political leaders, especially in distributing tricycles and motorcycles or grinding machines, wheel barrows, shovels and head pans, do not show thoughtfulness in addressing challenges. Often, we see state governors place ban on the use of tricycles and commercial motorcycles in certain parts of the state after assumption of office. Those were the same keke and okada they shared during campaigns.
So, in a subtle but profound way, Obi Cubana reminded us of the power of the Igbo apprenticeship scheme to transform boys to men and empower them beyond what government would do.