I am of the Igbo stock from Ukala-Okpunor in Oshimili North LGA of Delta State. I am 61 years of age and have from late 1965, during my undergraduate days at Downing College, Cambridge, England, been fascinated by my people, the Igbo, and specifically by what makes them such a pulsating enigma of a people.
It was, indeed, a chance remark by the late and distinguished scholar in Social Anthropology at Cambridge, Professor Meyer Fortes, which set me on my lifelong journey of private enquiry into the ethno-spiritual makeup of the Igbo. My then larger-than-life and boon companion was my fellow undergraduate at the Cambridge University faculty for Archaeology and Anthropology, Mallam Ibrahim Tahir of BBC Bush House fame.
As was our wont, we were on this particular autumn afternoon having tea at a teashop that was just across Ibrahim’s King’s College when our Professor in Social Anthropology, Meyer Fortes, walked in and sat with us for a chat. One thing led to another and we soon found ourselves discussing ethno-types in Africa.
Professor Fortes had been one of the bright lights in Lord Bailey’s team of Africanists that did the regular tome of Africa Survey for the British Foreign and Colonial Office. And Professor Fortes told us that, according to Lord Bailey, the Igbo, out of the legion of African ethnic groups they studied, were the least encumbered with any cultural baggage. In a manner of speaking, the Igbo come light and go light with the baggage of culture.
Of course, Professor Fortes assumed that Ibrahim and myself knew what Lord Bailey meant with the concept of cultural baggage and did not venture into any explanation of it. But as soon as he took his leave of us, Ibrahim and myself fell to a very passionate but friendly discussion of this hazy concept. And, if my memory serves me right, we eventually let the matter be without agreeing on what the concept of cultural baggage stands for. But there was something, which my mind could not let be after this encounter. I had to know more about my people, the Igbo, who come light and go light with the baggage of culture.
My lecturer in Social Anthropology at Cambridge, Mr. G. 1. Jones an ex-colonial administrator in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, and an Igbophil of sorts, was on hand to give me advice on where to find materials on the Igbo. And what I could glean from the diverse tomes of Igbo historical and ethnographical that came my way was this. There was no love lost between the European slave-dealers and colonialists and the Igbo either on the continent of Africa or in the Diaspora. Igbo slaves were difficult to handle, prone to rebellion and bad for the economy of the slave-owner. And, the fear of the Igbo was, in a manner of speaking, the beginning of economic wisdom among European slave-owners and, later, colonialists.
The Igbo was a troublemaker and a troubleshooter in bondage as one saw in Haiti in the rebellious years leading up to the overthrow of the French and the independence of the island in 1805 and in the Southern States of North America where Igbo slaves jumped into the sea rather than face slavery! So, the Igbo were bad news as a slave. And in the restricted freedom of colonial Nigeria, as the colonialists saw to their continued irritation, the Igbo was uppity, difficult to convince and difficult to lead. He was never really the darling of the mandarins of the British Foreign and Colonial Office at Whitehall, London!
But, all of the above was what European predators thought about the Igbo! I was not satisfied with it. I wanted to know what made the Igbo uppity, difficult to convince and difficult to lead in the restricted freedom of colonial Nigeria and what made him a troublemaker and troubleshooter in the bondage of slavery abroad. I simply wanted to touch the Igbo spirit in order to better understand who I am. And the books I read then in England could not lead me anywhere in this direction. And so I shelved the project of my search for the essential attributes of the Igbo without knowing whether I would ever come back to it.
But, did I really shelve this project? Not at all. For what I failed to realize at this time in Cambridge is that I had begun a lifelong journey of an inquiry into my essential, I as a member of the Igbo stock and that this project could never be shelved until the very day I died. Indeed, my search for what makes the Igbo what he is is my search for my true identity as a full-blooded Igbo. There is no way my mind could rest the matter as soon as it had embarked upon its search. So, what I do now see, in retrospect, is that my mind has been, for nearly four decades now, trying to put a tangible structure to the Igbo spirit. And what I do give in this brief write-up is my status report on what I think makes the Igbo what he is as a man of vision, mission, adventure, integrity and compassion. But, before I embark upon this my brief ode to the Igbo spirit, let me fill in the reader with a few titbits about my life after going down from Cambridge in June 1966.
My flight back to Nigeria was scheduled for that blighting day of July 29 1966 and had to be shelved until August 4 1966. I made it to Lagos on that day and came to see a Nigeria that was calm on the surface but was doing unspeakable horror and mayhem to the Igbo in Lagos, at Ibadan and all over Northern Nigeria. But I never felt that I was in danger and went about Lagos without any fear for my life. And in so doing I came to catch an instructive glimpse into the mind of the Igbo.
The heavens were about to fall upon him and even the ground he stood upon was giving way under him. Yet, he did not panic. He reacted with bone-chilling firmness and maturity. Kai, was I happy to be an Igbo? Save, for the Roman Catholic Church, the Igbo had no friends at home or abroad. This is what I saw with my own eyes in Lagos from August 4 1966 until July 18 1967 when I was taken into a seven month detention spell at Ikoyi and Kirikiri prisons and mercifully kept out of harm’s way in the hands of my fellow countrymen. And after my release from detention on March 14 1968, I bolted for Europe on April 18 1968.
I spent the ensuing fourteen years in Denmark and Tanzania teaching social anthropology, reading and teaching economics and doing research in economics. But in late 1982, nature and culture reached out to me in Denmark and brought me back to Nigeria for keeps. And on my coming back to Nigeria, what I saw, after twelve years of the end on January 15 1970 of the Biafran hostilities, was as marveling to me as it was encouraging. The Igbo, my people, were back into the mainstream of the Nigerian socio political and economic life as if nothing had occurred between 1966 and 1970.1 was happy to be back to Nigeria and I have no desire whatsoever to ever leave Nigeria again for anywhere else. Why so? Because the Igbo spirit is the future of Nigeria.
The Igbo spirit is not a conquering spirit, an imperial spirit or an exploiting spirit. The Igbo spirit is an Afro centric spirit, a competitive spirit, a liberating spirit and a spirit that restores. In fact, the Igbo spirit is the quintessential IslamoChristian spirit of the common good as one finds in the holy books of the Quran and the Bible. Thus, the Igbo spirit thrives and lives by the democratic ethic of one for all and all for one.
This is the liberating and restoring spirit that is about to encompass Nigeria and to take her to great heights of material and social plenty and of individual freedoms. And there is nothing anyone anywhere on this earth or in the heavens can do to stop this Igbo spirit from encompassing and elevating Nigerians and the black race as a whole. For the matter has long been settled in the highest heavens, the abode of God Almighty.
So, it is quite understandable that the Igbo must go through, as they are doing today, the harassment and chicanery of the sworn enemies of light and of the liberation and restoration of the black race. The Igbo spirit is the bearer of light and where light comes, darkness must disappear. So what we are experiencing in Nigeria today is the era of pitch-darkness, which must precede the dawn of freedom and plenty.
In fact, what we are witnessing in Nigeria today, with the Igbo bearing the full brunt of it, are the thrashing death-throes of an old and uncaring dinosaur of a Nigeria of the ungodly where local slave dealers have unleashed, on behalf of their old European slave-dealing puppet-masters, a culture of impunity and lawlessness on all Nigerians and especially on the Igbo. But it will not last. This is simply so because the 21St century is the century of the African and the Igbo are in the forefront of the war for the economic liberation and empowerment of the black race. This is what makes the Igbo spirit the ethical template of the future for the common good of all Nigerians and every black person.
What then are the attributes of the Igbo spirit? One, it is God-fearing and God loving. Two, it is democratic to the core. And three, it is private enterprise write large. The Igbo puts God Almighty at the center of his sociopolitical and economic life and this is what explains why he is so fiercely democratic and so competitively entrepreneurial but so passionately communal to the core.
So, the Igbo spirit is not about the ethnic subjugation of one group by the other. Rather, it is about the opening up of equal vents of opportunities for the small as for the medium size and for the big, for the weak as for the half-weak and the strong.
It was, indeed, this very stark and unmistakable difference between the Eurocentric spirit of oppression and enslavement that rules Nigeria today and the Afro centric Igbo spirit of liberation and restoration which will rule Nigeria tomorrow that I had in mind when I wrote as follows on pages xviii and xix of the Preface to my book of 2002, “Globalization at the Crossroads: Capitalism or Communalism? “
“Consequently, the centre is extremely attractive to any budding ethnic politician in Nigeria. For, they are all ethnic politicians. It is there at the centre that the financial and fiscal power of Nigeria is concentrated. So, every ethnic politician wants to get to the imperial centre at all costs. And when he eventually gets there, he wants to keep the imperial reins of Nigeria’s financial and fiscal power within his ethnic bailiwick for all time and at all costs. It is an ethnic winner-take-all affair where only the ruthless and the idolatrous survive.
“However, we do want a Nigeria that has ample room for all of us. This Nigeria must deal, even handedly and fairly, with all of us no matter the physical size of our persons or the purported numerical strength of our ethnic origins. Equal representation and participation for all of us shall be the whole of the law. Thus, each and everyone of us, individuals and groups, who belong to Nigeria must be allowed to use our native and achieved financial, human and material resources for our private good and for the common good…”
But the reigning Eurocentric spirit of oppression and enslavement in Nigeria today is the sworn enemy of democracy. This is so because it puts Mammon, instead of God Almighty, at the centre of the socio economic and political life of the Nigerian. This is the source and sustainer of the culture of impunity and lawlessness, which pervades all levels of governance in Nigeria today. For where Mammon is in charge, do what thou wilt is the God-hating and God-baiting whole of the law. Fortunately, however, the Afrocentric Igbo spirit which seeks to put God Almighty first in the thoughts, words and deeds of the Nigerian, is, most certainly, around the corner to consign this Eurocentric spirit of the congenital blighter, the cowardly scourge of the Nigerian and the black race, back to the pit of hell where it belongs.
Therefore, the Igbo in Nigeria have nothing to fear but fear itself. They should always bear it in mind that to whom a lot is given, a considerable much is expected in return. God Almighty has blessed them with the knowledge of the financial and industrial ways and means of turning sand into gold. It is their duty to open up and spread this knowledge among their ethnic neighbors in the near and far beyond of Africa in order to forge such an ever widening and concentric wave of financial solidarity among different ethnic groups in Nigeria and Africa, that will empower each African ethnic group to yield its best of social and industrial products for the common good of all Africans and to the glory of God Almighty.
In fact, the true social message of the Igbo spirit for the Nigerian in particular and for the black race in general comes straight from the Catholic Social Teaching and more specifically from St. Paul’s 2 Corinthians 8: 1315 and St. Peter’s 1 Peter 4:10 as follows: Financial solidarity among Nigerians and Africans leads to the industrial subsidiary of each Nigerian and each African. This is what the dividend of democracy is essentially about. It is the enabling environment to dream dreams and to see one’s dreams work out in practice in one’s lifetime. And this social message that allows the zillion flowers of entrepreneurial excellence to bloom in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole is the essential social ethic of Islam as in Qur’an 16:90 al’adl walihsan. Hence, the Igbo spirit is the IslamoChristian ethic for the economic liberation and restoration of man in Africa and beyond.
Consequently, the Igbo in Nigeria and in the Diaspora should take heart and continue to put all before the Throne of Grace. For their past and current tormentors, both Eurocentric and local, are just but a passing storm in a God-baiting and God-taunting teacup. Uyagami!
Peter Alexander Egom, the Legendary “Motor-Park Economist”, wrote this article before he died on March 3, 2013 at the age of 70.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.