In the last few years, the Igbo apprenticeship system has gotten a lot of attention as a model that should be institutionalised, as Nigeria eagerly strives to make the most of its entrepreneurship boom. Popularly known as “imu ahia” or “igba boy” among indigenes of Nigeria’s Eastern Region, the system features the right mix of active and passive learning, with lessons that are better experienced than explained. One of such lessons is that of moving to a new place where one is relatively unknown, and working hard to build an empire.
Trade is the one thing that has remained unchanged about the story of Eastern Nigeria. As the abstract of The Journal of African History (1972) puts it, “the peoples of south-eastern Nigeria have been involved in trade for as long as there are any records.”
Along with this history of trade exists a history of constant movement from place to place in search for new connections for progress. These connections could be anything from a young man whose parents believe he has some aptitude for business taken up by a well-established businessman living in the city, or the opportunity of setting up shop among migrant traders who receive enormous credit from suppliers. But, in the history of Nigeria, the Niger Bridge arguably remains the biggest connection that has happened for the Igbo.
Completed and inaugurated in December 1965, the Niger Bridge connects Eastern and Western Nigeria, starting in Onitsha, Anambra State, and terminating in Asaba, Delta State. The almost £7 million-worth steel bridge took about a year to complete, birthing a 36 feet carriageway with pedestrian walkways on both sides. For the Nigerian government, the bridge represents a historic monument that created an easier way for its citizens to move around but, for the Igbo, it is a symbol of trade, access to greener pastures and bears so many tales for many different people.
The Onitsha Bridge, as it is sometimes called, is a structure everyone who has ever travelled from the East towards the western or northern part of Nigeria remembers. For many, it marks that sojourn to a new place, to a new life, one that you hope is better than the life you left on the other side of the bridge.
With a 4,600ft length, that bridge makes for a long, beautiful but reflective ride, one where you look out into the River Niger, with a mind filled with thoughts, unknown to you what the future holds, but with that little assurance that, if you work hard, good things will come your way, as it has for others before you, others who just like you believe in a progressive life.
You believe in this because you know the story of someone who made it in the movie market in Alaba or spare parts market in Ladipo, Lagos State, another trading somewhere in Kano, a friend who set up a shirt business in Abuja or even your kinsman who hawks in the hot Berger traffic of Lagos. They all sojourned through this same bridge to a better life.
For the typical Igbo man, there is always a quest to conquer a new place, to expand, to grow. The thinking remains that, rather than settle within a small community and be great there, you can be greater in more places than one, giving other people opportunities to grow as you go.
There’s a popular Nigerian joke, that wherever you go to and don’t see an Igbo man doing business there, you might as well leave, as the Igbo are taken to have a great eye for business and opportunities and would travel lengths to explore them. Among Igbo traders themselves, there is yet another joke or somewhat of a challenge, common among widely travelled businesspeople who would often ask their “home-based” colleague: “I gafela Niger Bridge?” which directly translates to “have you passed the Niger Bridge?” aimed at questioning how much opportunities the home-based trader has explored and shows the significance of the Niger Bridge to the Igbo.
This belief in seizing opportunities and continuously aiming for progress is what Life Lager Beer recognizes and symbolises with the Niger Bridge in its beer bottle branding. The Life Beer brand has never been subtle about its celebration of the progress that the average Igbo person stands for. It is part of the brand’s DNA and, with the Niger Bridge, it displays the biggest symbol of the Igbo journey to progress, right there on its bottle.
Beyond the beer’s constant celebration of what it means to be Igbo with this symbol also lies a tribute to the long-standing show of love, from one kinsman to another. When the festive seasons approach, the Igbo are known for travelling long distances home to be with their extended family, celebrating over drinks and bantering about life. In those moments, plans are also made, plans which often culminate in helping another kinsman cross the Niger Bridge, to start a better life and continue a long tradition of progress. And this journey of progress often starts at the Niger Bridge.
Inevitably, more bridges will be built, more routes to connect the cities in the East, and even more means of transportation may arise. But none will be as iconic as the Niger Bridge – The Bridge of Progress.