Among the different ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbos are without a doubt, one of the most remarkable. So remarkable, indeed, that some have even traced their ancestry to Biblical Israel, as the far-flung descendants of Jacob, the Jewish patriarch. Gad, Jacob’s seventh son, is said to have had three sons who settled in South-eastern Nigeria.
These sons; Eri, Arodi and Areli, are believed to have fathered clans in Igboland and to have founded such Igbo towns as Aguleri, Arochukwu, Owerri and Umuleri.
Even the bitterest adversaries of the Igbo cannot but admit that, as a people, they are very resourceful and ingenious. Indeed, this has often been the cause of their envy and dislike by others. However, more enlightened non-Igbo Nigerians see this as a cause for celebration. While today, the centre-point of Nigeria’s manufacturing is situated in the Lagos/Ogun axis, there is no doubt that the real locomotive of Nigeria’s indigenous industrialization lies farther afield in Aba and in the mushrooming cottage-industries of the Igbo heartland.
In one of the paradoxes of Nigerian history, the terrible civil war provoked homespun industrialization in the South-East. Military blockade left the Igbo with little alternative than to be inventive in a hurry. While Nigeria as a nation failed woefully to harness this profitably after the war, it has nevertheless ensured that the Igbo are at the forefront of Nigeria’s economic development today.
Indeed, the way we disregard “made in Aba” today is the same way we disregarded “made in Japan” yesterday. For those of us who believe against the odds that Nigeria is the China of tomorrow, we equally recognize that the ingenuity of the Igbo is an indelible part of the actualization of that manifest destiny.
Hall of fame
The Igbo have been a great credit to Nigeria. They have given us a great number of our favourite sons, including international statesman Nnamdi Azikiwe; military leader Odumegwu Ojukwu; regional leader Michael Okpara; vice-president Alex Ekwueme; mathematical genius Chike Obi; literary icon Chinua Achebe; world-class economist Pius Okigbo; world boxing champion Dick Tiger; international statesman Emeka Anyaoku; and world-class artist Ben Enwonwu. Permit me to include in this illustrious list even some of my very good Igbo friends: Pat Utomi, Ojo Madueke, Olisa Agbakoba, Joy Ogwu, and Stanley Macebuh.
Let us get one thing straight: Nigeria would be a much poorer country without the Igbo. Indeed, Nigeria would not be Nigeria without them. Can you imagine the Super Eagles without the Igbo? Not likely! Who can forget Nwankwo Kanu, Jay Kay Okocha and our very own Emmanuel Amuneke?
Can you imagine Nollywood without the Igbo? Impossible! Just think of Stella Damascus-Aboderin; Rita Dominic and Mike Ezuruonye. And then there are the diaspora Igbo who many are unaware are of Igbo descent, including concert singer and actor Paul Robeson; Oscar award-winner Forest Whitaker; mega-pastor T.D. Jakes; Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu; and BAFTA actor award-winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.
You may well wonder why I have found it necessary to present this small litany of Igbo who-is-who. I think it is important to emphasise how the Igbo have been very vital to the Nigerian project. They have more than represented Nigeria creditably in virtually all walks of life. This makes it all the more absurd that this same people have been consistently denied the position of executive president of the country in all but six months of Nigeria’s 54 year history.
Civil war legacy
Of course, a major reason for this was the 1967-1970 civil war which had the Igbo on the losing side. But that was over 40 years ago. If there is really to be “no victor, no vanquished” in anything more than mere rhetoric, then the rehabilitation of the Igbo back into post civil-war Nigeria will not be complete until an Igbo man finally becomes president of the country.
That imperative should be of interest to every Nigerian nationalist, committed to the creation of one Nigeria where everyone has a deep sense of belonging. The problem, however, is that the Igbo themselves seem to be their own worst enemies in this regard. They appear to be doing their very best to ensure that this inevitable eventuality continues to be denied and delayed.
The Igbo need to forgive Nigerians. No one who lived through the horrors that precipitated the secession of Biafra and led to the civil-war cannot but admit that the Igbo were abused and maltreated in one of the worst pogroms ever. It was not just that they were senselessly massacred in their own country; it was that they were butchered.
I remember vividly gory pictures of scores and scores of the Igbo with hands chopped up and with legs amputated. And then there were the ravages of the three-year civil-war itself, resulting in the death of millions of Igbo; many through starvation and attrition.
The end of the war brought no respite, as the Igbo were pauperized by fiscal decrees that wiped out their savings and their properties were blatantly sequestered by opportunists. All this is more than enough to destroy the spirit of any group of people. But God has been on the side of the Igbo.
It is a testament to their resilience that, in spite of this terrible affliction, they have survived, bounced back and have even triumphed in Nigeria. Forty years have now gone by. The Igbo may never forget what happened to them and, indeed, should never forget. But it is past time for them to forgive.
We are sorry
This is one voice in the Nigerian wilderness saying to the Igbo from the depth of his heart: we are sorry. We are sorry for the way we mistreated you. We are sorry for the way we abused you. We are sorry for starving your children to death. We are sorry for killing your loved ones. We are sorry for stealing your properties.
We are sorry for making you feel unwanted in your own country. Please forgive us. It is time to forgive us. It is way past time for the Igbo to forgive Nigerians. We beg you in the name of God.
There was a civil war in the United States, but the defeated South rose from the ashes. Five of the last nine presidents of the United States have been from the South, including Jimmy Carter from Georgia, George Bush from Texas and Bill Clinton from Arkansas. The time is overdue for an Igbo president of Nigeria, but it is not going to happen as long as the Igbo continue to hold a grudge against Nigeria and Nigerians.
There is no question about it: the Igbos cannot elect a president of Nigeria on their own. To do so, they have to join forces with others. They have to form alliances with people from other parts of Nigeria. That is not going to happen as long as the Igbo continue to bear a grudge against practically everybody else.
The Igbo have a gripe against virtually all the people they need. They have this tendency to antagonise their possible alliance partners. They keep dredging up the past, refusing to let sleeping dogs lie. Until they drop these gripes, they are not likely to realise their dreams.
For example, the Igbos have this tendency to demonise the Yorubas. It is alarming when reading the Vanguard blogs today to see the animosity often expressed between Igbo and Yoruba contributors. The hatred is most unhealthy. Insults are traded with abandon. What is the point of this? For how long will the Igbo demand emotional retribution from every Yoruba for the betrayal of Awolowo? Most of the contributors were not even born when the civil-war took place more than a generation ago.
There is now even transferred aggression against Babatunde Fashola, who made the blunder of repatriating some destitute Igbo from Lagos back to their home-states. The man has apologised for the infraction. He should be forgiven. Blunders are not the exclusive preserve of the non-Igbo. The Igbos have made more than a few themselves and will yet make others.
Paradoxically, the redemption of the Igbos to prominent national office moved apace under President Obasanjo; a Yoruba man. Recognising that Igbos are some of the most seasoned, competent and experienced public-servants, Obasanjo relied heavily on their expertise.
Thanks to him, we got Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at finance, Charles Soludo at Central Bank, Obiageli Ezekwesili at education, Ndidi Okereke at the Stock Exchange, and Dora Akunyili at NAFDAC. Indeed, Igbo statesmen came into more prominence under Obasanjo than did Yoruba statesmen. But for some strange reason, this does not seem to have succeeded in assuaging the ill-feeling of the Igbos toward the Yorubas.
Within the framework of Nigerian politics, the Igbo also have a fundamental problem. Out of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbo have by far the worst politicians. They have no recognizable leaders, and have no discernible strategy as to how to negotiate power at the centre. As a result, the Igbo have tended to be short-changed at the federal level. Traditionally, the inconsequential ministries, such as the Ministry of Information, have been zoned to them.
The Igbo need to work out a plan that will take them to Aso Rock. First, they need to choose and groom a de-tribalised leader of the Azikiwe mould who can be sold to non-Igbos. Then, they need to give him undiluted support. At the moment the internal politics of the Igbo militates against this. The Igbo seem to hate themselves as much as they hate others. They seem to fight themselves with as much venom as they fight others. Every potential Igbo leader seems to have more enemies within than without. This must not be allowed to continue.
The Igbo need to help themselves in order that their friends can help them. In this centenary of Nigeria’s amalgamation, as we embark on the arduous process of crafting our future through a National Conference, we salute the Igbo for their fortitude and implore them to stake their claim in Nigeria. Nigeria cannot survive without the Igbo.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on March 4, 2014. With recent developments in Nigeria it is becomes relevant to rehash the points in this article.
Femi Aribisala is a scholar and international affairs expert. He is currently an iconoclastic church pastor in Lagos. He is also a syndicated essayist for a handful publications in Nigeria. Connect with him on Twitter at @FemiAribisala and at his website, www.femiaribisala.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.