James Eze explores the subject of the economic prowess of the Igbo people of South East Nigeria in this insightful article.
Before the Biafran War, Eastern Nigeria was one of the few regions of hope in black Africa. The World Bank made this official in 1964 when it named Eastern Nigeria the fastest growing regional economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Certain indices validated this position.
Nigeria was the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and palm kernel at the time and almost 90% of that came from the Eastern Region. Beside palm oil, there were also cassava and coal which formed some of Nigeria’s major export earners.
At the same time, the Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation had grown into a behemoth, employing many people that helped stimulate and sustain consumption. It was a boom period for the region and when other Nigerians whispered in circles about Igbo domination at the time, it was mostly in terms of economic power.
Much of that came from the Great Zik and Mbonu Ojike who did quite an excellent job of crafting the Eastern Nigerian Economic Reconstruction Plan (1954-1964) which laid the foundation for the growth of the region. This economic roadmap took a life of its own in the hands of Dr. M.I Okpara and eventually blossomed into a buoyant economy that heightened talks of Igbo Domination, which eventually coalesced into plain fear and resentment from other ethnicities. Indeed, the economy of the Eastern Region was so strong that when the first gun shots of the Biafran War sounded in Garkem, the East was not too bedraggled to muster a response.
But the War ate up everything – people, infrastructure and of course the economy. The devastation was so colossal that by the time peace returned in 1970, the once buoyant economy had become crippled; completely exhausted and lifeless. Those who survived were clutching at straws, grasping at thin air and ending up with miserly twenty pound notes. At the time, the only thing that mattered was survival. With so much energy and dynamism seeking expression, something was bound to give. And it did in a number of ways.
First, the Igbo elite were utterly fragmented and driven into individualist survival stratagems. This marked the foundation of divisiveness and lack of cohesion among our political elite to date. Sadly, it was to rob us of our brightest chance at the presidency in 1999 when Jim Nwobodo spoke Hausa in Jos to drive the final nail into the coffin of Dr. Alex Ekwueme’s presidential bid. Our political elite could never travel the same road to a meaningful destination. There were so many other ego wars strewn across the landscape as the Igbo elite sought to make something of the scraps that Nigeria had left them. At a point, the divisions and rivalries were so intense that one wondered if they were the same people who had worked together, lost family and friends together, fought together and stood up together to gaze eyeball to eyeball with genocide. One wondered how a group that long before the war, had pooled funds together in various Town Unions to send promising boys from different towns on overseas scholarships could have lost their kindred spirit all of a sudden.
The second post war reaction of the Igbo was a strong aversion or dislike for home. Perhaps it is only normal that people should flee the scene of a great loss. Perhaps other people have handled their own inheritance of loss better than the Igbo. Whichever was the case, the Igbo abandoned the scene that reminds them of great personal tragedies and began to sink their investments in any place else but Igboland. The Igbo homeland therefore became a territory with no “landmark.”
Ohaneze & Aka Ikenga
One of the most significant responses of the Igbo to their peculiar leadership challenges as a naturally acephalous group is the emergence of Ohaneze Ndigbo. This gathering of wise, old men, scholars, academics, community leaders and successful businessmen and women has played a critical role in preserving the Igbo ethnic nation since the association came into existence in 1976. Indeed Prof Ben Nwabueze may never fully understand what he did when he smartly assembled what would eventually become Ohaneze with the support of other cerebral personages like M. I Okpara, K. O Mbadiwe, Pius Okigbo, Jerome Udorji and many others. At the time, the Igbo were still shell-shocked from the war; struggling to regain self-belief. Through the years however, Ohanze has remained the bastion of Igbo pride and dignity in the gathering of ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. It probably adds very little to observe that what the Igbo lack in a towering political leader whose voice is representative of the tribe has been taken care of by Ohaneze. The success of Ohaneze has spurn the emergence of Aka Ikenga, the intellectual arm of the umbrella group, Igbo Ezue, Mkpoko Igbo, World Igbo Congress and several other groups that have mutated over the years with the ostensible objective of pursuing Igbo interests. A good many of them have gone extinct though.
All these socio-cultural groups have sought to bring the Igbo together on the altar of brotherhood and unity. Through the years too, we have seen the rise of MASSOB with the sole mission of actualizing the Biafran project through non-violence. At its very peak, MASSOB held a strong appeal for Igbo youths who felt done in by the scorched earth policy of the federal government towards the South East of Nigeria. The group’s posture of non-violence had created a problem for the federal government that would have wished for a more obvious justification of a sinister crackdown on members of the group. In more ways than one, it could be said that MASSOB is the precursor to the emergence of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the self-determination group with a growing global appeal that is agitating for the realisation of the sovereign state of Biafra. Other groups like the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM) and the Lower Niger Congress (LNC) have also sprung up to intensify the agitation.
It is instructive to note that a major objective of these groups including the agitators is the re-emergence of a more prosperous Igboland. Somehow, there is this niggling feeling that these agitations would have been needless if there were no sense of alienation or neglect or a common plight in the hands of the federal government; if most federal roads in Igboland were not in such absolute disrepair and if there were no undisguised bareknuckle policy against the Igbo.
A Subtle Response
The Igbo have continued to mount a subtle response to Nigeria’s sustained indifference. A remarkable example is the growing spate of purposeful governance in Anambra State in the past thirteen years and Enugu State in the past nine years. Starting from Senator Chris Ngige through Sullivan Chime and Peter Obi to Governor Willie Obiano, the signs indicate that Igbo governors have finally realised that they have their work neatly cut out for them. They have discovered that the indifference of the Federal Government is not an acceptable explanation for Igbo backwardness. But perhaps more importantly, they have realised that though they may not have enough resources, the little they control can change the Igbo story in the 21st Century.
Although many people still point at the search for legitimacy as Ngige’s actual motive for building a network of durable roads in some parts of Anambra State in his time, his three-year regime has gone down in history as the turning point for Igbo governors to assume full responsibility for their states with the return to civilian rule. Peter Obi followed in his footsteps and further interpreted governance in terms of the linking up of towns and communities in the state with an impressive network of roads, the return of schools to the missions and a great foundation in primary healthcare. Sullivan Chime redefined governance in Enugu as a massive urban renewal initiative that earned the Coal City the enviable rating as one of the 35 cities across the world to join the Rockefeller Foundation’s Most Resilient Cities in 2014. Fueled by the desire to develop a proactive plan to address emerging challenges of urbanization, the Rockefeller Foundation had come up with the idea of selecting the second set of cities that would join its 100 Resilient Cities in the world that had demonstrated a commitment to building their own capacities to withstand the complexities of the 21st Century. As a result, 330 applications were received from 94 countries around the world. Quite interestingly, the chosen cities in Africa were Enugu (Nigeria), Accra (Ghana), Arusha Tanzania and Kigali (Rwanda) while the ones selected in Europe were Athens (Greece), Barcelona (Spain), Belgrade (Serbia), London (Great Britain), Lisbon (Portugal), Milan (Italy), Paris (France) and Thessaloniki (Greece). It is to former governor Chime’s credit that in addition to placing Enugu on the world map, he followed that rare feat up with the provision of security and the attraction of investments into the state.
Following this trajectory of excellence, Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State had adopted a strategic approach to governance that opened the state up and turned it into Nigeria’s new investment destination. Obiano also clinically drove away the criminal elements that made the state difficult to inhabit and shored up the profile of Anambra as Nigeria’s most secured state. Obiano’s approach to urban development is exemplified in the amazing transformation of the Awka capital city into an emerging centrepiece for tourism with the three sparkling bridges and a vibrant social life. Obiano has also shifted the paradigm by firmly placing Anambra on the country’s agricultural map while maintaining her enviable position on the educational map.
The Real Hopes of a Comeback
It is indeed fascinating but not entirely strange to note that the earliest hints of a possible Igbo come-back showed up in Anambra State. The surprise really would have been if it had begun anywhere else earlier. The truth is; Anambra has always been the epicentre of Igbo ingenuity. Indeed, what has been noted as the growing new consciousness among Ndigbo to rebuild the homeland began with the first democratically elected governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, in the early 90s. It was this Harvard trained economist who first came up with the “Think Home” ideology. But Ezeife was probably ahead of his time. The auguries did not favour this campaign in his brief spell in office. However, he may have succeeded in planting the idea in the minds of many illustrious indigenes who were too terrified to invest at home by the scary security situation at the time.
It is therefore, hardly strange that the growing nostalgia for Igboland and the quest to rebuild it is one of the earliest obsessions of Governor Willie Obiano. Any close observer will recall his call-to-arms to his fellow Igbo in his inaugural address; his appeal to Ndigbo to repossess the pioneering touch they seemed to have dropped with the War. The speech was laced with strong emotional hooks that paraphrased Martin Luther King Jnr’s injunction on the imperatives of living together as brothers or perishing together as fools. Obiano’s Inaugural was full of sound bites, including his assurance that under his charge, Ndi Anambra had “no choice than to determine whether they were the sons and daughters of their fathers and true heirs to their pioneering excellence!” Indeed, from Obiano’s grand opening, we can trace a slow but steady psychological build up. A great component of this build up is the massively symbolic memorial for Igbo casualties of the Biafran War. It was the first time a government would put a garland of dignity on the memory the war heroes. The event was aptly titled Ozoemezina (Never Again!) In a sense, it was a brilliant move to appease the restless spirits of our dead brothers and sisters and summon their support for a grand Igbo renaissance. It turned out a wise move, because it would seem that Obiano has done nothing wrong ever since, attracting the listening ears of illustrious Anambra entrepreneurs who have solidly resolved to make a loud statement in Nigeria, beginning from their home state.
Obiano has also followed this up with a well-received address at the World Igbo Congress where he expressed dissatisfaction with the famed Igbo success story that reminded him of the paradox of a tree with roots in the sky. He subsequently made a strong appeal for a joint effort by the governors of the five states of the South East to build a new economic block.
Yes! The Igbo Can! (Igbo ekwelugo na ana Igbo ga adi mma)
It is indeed interesting to see the resurging consciousness among Ndigbo across the world that the time to look back home with fondness has eventually come. From Lagos to New York and London to South Africa, there is a growing awakening that Igboland is finally ripe for development. There seems to be a new ring of magic on this strong new sense of selfhood…something akin to a spiritual awakening. Whatever it is, this whole new fondness for the homeland is almost infectious.
Indeed, there is a growing belief that the Igbo can remake themselves and re-invent their homeland. As one of Africa’s most remarkable ethnic nations, Ndigbo have repeatedly proven their capacity to contribute to the global economy and civilization both as individuals and as a group of people threatened with extinction. As individuals, the Igbo seem to have fared better; dazzling their peers in commerce, the arts and sciences, the academia and in the professions. The landscape is strewn with pockets of Igbo ingenuity at home and in the Diaspora. And in spite of the setback from the war, Igboland has since shrugged off the image of smouldering rubble melting under the scorching sun of neglect from the government at the centre. Most Igbo towns no longer look like pictures out of National Geographic. In fact, in some places, one is pleasantly stunned by the level of development.
During his recent visit to Anambra State, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo couldn’t believe what he saw in Onitsha and Nnewi. Yet his visit was restricted to Krioral Limited, the Pokobros Group, Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Limited, the Chicason Group and Tummy Tummy.
Vice President Osinbajo saw enough to elicit a gushy adulation for Igbo entrepreneurship. Yet, Igbo entrepreneurship is still on exile and has now real roots in Igboland. The only eyesore in the South East remains the federal roads linking the major cities. These apart, Igboland is not left behind in the quest for modernity and progress.
As a group, there is still a huge residue of pride in the breath-taking scientific achievements during the war and a deep belief that those records could be bettered, given the right conditions. Innocent Chukwuma is already blazing an excellent trail with his automobile manufacturing company in Nnewi, the first in West Africa. Indeed, the Igbo have never doubted his capacity to re-make his world. What may still be in doubt is the readiness of his neighbours to accept that fact!
James Eze is a writer and senior special advisor to the governor of Anambra State on media. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.