The Leader, Oganiru Ndigbo Foundation (ONF)

Members of Igboville

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen

All other protocols observed

 

I am definitely dumbfounded by this great honour bestowed on me by the leadership of this great organization, to take us all in a journey into the past, in the present, for the sake of the future. I was shocked when I was contacted for this because, first, I lack the eloquence of speech, the intellectual depth, and the academic rigour required to carry out the necessary research work to do justice to this topic. Neither do I have the commensurate exposure to fully understand the dynamics of the Nigerian society in general, and that of Igboland, in particular.

 

But what I lack in intellectual depth and sophistry, I will try to make up in common sense; straight to the point through practical approach to the challenges facing us as a people. While I do not have any intention to preach to you, I must not fail to liken my dilemma with that of Apostle Paul when he was confronted with the challenges of convincing the Corinthian Church about the Gospel. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 wrote:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom but in demonstration of Spirit and of power that your faith should not be in the wisdom of man but in the power of God.”

 

What I am here to share with you this day is my sincerest belief of the steps my generation must tread to take Igboland to the next phase in its quest to find a place for its people in the fast-emerging conundrum called Nigeria. I am not among those who believe in reminiscing over the good old days. I believe, like Mary Engelbreit, said, “If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” I think what we need to do is change not only the situation staring us in the face, but equally the way we think about it.

 

My generation is a very special one in Igboland. We came at a very different time. We are a generation that never fought a war and were never defeated in a war, but had to face the characterization of those who lost a war. As someone succinctly put it, we are in-between two worlds. The greatest challenge facing my generation is the will to transcend its differences and lean towards the spirit of real and true cooperation. We broke the political identification that subsequent generations accepted and condoned, but what have we done with that?

What is giving me sleepless nights is that while we have overcome some of the most potent obstacles any generation of Igbos faced, we have unwittingly allowed ourselves to retrogress into the cocoon created by statism. Of course, this has divided us the more along unproductive states line, reinforcing the factors that hinder the emergence of a pan-Igbo economic growth platform, creating very ineffective sub-group economies that cannot stand on its own, and yet will not yield to a more robust interconnected regional economic system to unleash the potential of Igboland to the pinnacle.

 

We need to refocus on things as a unified populace that is interested in self-preservation because these issues are going to start affecting us all irrespective of our ideologies, or religious inclinations. If the next generation is to have a chance, then this generation has to learn to put aside our petty differences and inconsequential ego trips and learn to work unilaterally to fix some of problems bedeviling us.

 

When Was the Glorious Days?

Many contemporary scholars of Igbo history pegged the glorious days as from 1935 to 1965 just before the political instabilities that led to the war of attrition the rest of Nigeria fought against Igbos. These three decades marked the explosion of Igbo enterprise and an unbridled unleashing of the Igbos’ unconquerable spirit to the concern of others, most especially the colonialists who saw this zero to hero manifestation as a direct threat to their stranglehold on the colony.

 

From the first time Igbos got in contact with others living in what today is known as Nigeria, Igbos have been at war: war for land, war for water resources, war for economic space and war for opportunities. With centrally organized leadership except allegiance to the theocratic Priest King at Nri, Igbos lacked the cohesion needed to chart a common course for their collective destiny. According to eminent historian, Kenneth Dike, “perhaps the most important factor conditioning Igbo history in the nineteenth century and even today is land hunger. This resulted in Igbos seeking other avenues of livelihood outside the boundaries”.

 

Dike highlighted that while the British policy supported the ethnic groups surrounding Igbos in their quest to contain this expansion, it did little to prevent Ndigbo from making inroads into other areas.

 

Dike graphically captured this development thus: During the forty-year period from 1911-1951, the number of Igbos in Lagos increased from 264 to 26,000.  In the Northern Provinces, there were less than 3,000 Igbos as at 1921, and nearly 12,000 in 1931. By 1951 the number had increased to more than 120,000, excluding settled Igbo minorities along the boundary between Eastern and Western regions.  These figures become more meaningful when it is realized that most of the Igbo immigrants gravitated to the urban centers where wage employment could be obtained.  By the end of World War II, Igbo clerks, artisans, traders, and labourers constituted a sizable minority group in every urban center of Nigeria and the Cameroons.

 

This development did not go down well with the others but they could not device a means to contain it. It has been well noted that the first recorded source of acrimony between the Igbos and the Yorubas was the fact that the Igbos were so dynamic that the perception many other ethnic nationalities have of them changed so fast to the consternations of their hosts. For example Dike noted that the first set of Igbos who ventured into Yorubaland were farm hands and labourers, servants and many who were ready to do any sort of menial job just to be relevant. But the rate at which such people transform from being servants to something higher did not go down well with their hosts, many of whom discovered that their ‘farm hands’ have become self-sufficient all of a sudden.

 

As those Igbos who have become self-sufficient travel home, they bring others or their seeming success lure others who join them in whatever they were doing outside of Igboland. Many found western education as escape route to the crushing lack of opportunities at home. Dike wrote that the success of Christian Missionaries in Igboland was as a result of this very fact.  Village improvement unions sponsored scholarships, and Igbo students flocked to secondary schools in Yorubaland and by the late 1930s the Igbos were more heavily represented than any other tribe or nationality in Yaba Higher College and in most Nigerian secondary schools.  Thenceforward the number of Igbos appointed to the African civil service and as clerks in business firms increased at a faster rate than that of any other group. 

 

Education as the bedrock of our development

No other factor gave Igbos the springboard to meet and overtake others in different spheres of life than education. Education held the secret of Igbo emergence as a force in Nigeria. Dike noted that by 1945 the gap between Yorubas and Igbos was virtually closed.  Increasing numbers of Igbo barristers and doctors began to arrive from England.  By 1952 there were 115 Igbos at the University College, Ibadan, while there were 118 Yorubas.

 

To understand the enormity of this feat, it is imperative to note that the Yorubas have as at 1879 produced their first graduate, while it took the Igbos 55 years later in 1934 to produce their own graduate. According to Prof Ihechukwu Madubuike, the Great Zik was so inspired by that to the extent that he named the Law Faculty of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka after Sapara Williams who became a graduate in 1879. Madubuike claimed that it was the competitive spirit of Ndigbo that led our fathers and leaders to invest massively in the field of education when the missionaries eventually came from Yorubaland into Igboland between 1840 and 1857. Moreso, while Bishop Ajayi Crowther and the Church Missionary Society had adopted a standard orthography for the Yoruba Language in 1875, it was not until 1961 that a complete Igbo orthography was produced by the Mazi S.E. Onwu Committee. Still Igboland became the yardstick of both economic growth and human development across the world within three decades of its emergence into the national scene. Led by the quartet of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nwafor Orizu, Mbonu Ojike, and Ozumba Mbadiwe, an unassailable political foundation helped identify other worthy sons such as Akanu Ibiam, Alvan Ikoku, Michael Opkara, and others who brought glory to Igboland.

 

Foundation for greatness

Writing in Classical American Literature in 1922, renowned author D.H Lawrence noted:

 

‘’Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks.  Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools.  And their grandchildren are once more slaves’’.

 

There was no magic concerning how Igboland became the envy of all within a twinkle of an eye and as soon as Igbos gained self rule, this success manifested in different areas from politics to economic growth and community organization. Igbos were blessed with rich sons who understood what their role in development was, unlike today. They were merely custodians who used their wealth to better the lots of Ndigbo, contrary to what obtains today where every rich man wants to go into politics with the aim to use his money to get the power. At the height of Igbo political ascendancy in Nigeria, we had real money men such as Okonkwo Kano, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, Chief Ihekwoba of Nkwerre, Chief Akwiwu who was the first mayor of Port Harcourt, Chief Abaecheta of Mbieri, Chief F.U Anyanwu and Chief Awusaku of Mbaise and Chief Nnanna Kalu among others of their generation who provided the much-needed funds to project many community-based projects, education and politics. But today, every rich man wants to be in charge; it was not so then.

 

With the support of these philanthropists and a very cordial relationship with the politicians under the able leadership of Michael Opkara, industries adorn the length and breadth of Igboland.  Calabar Cement Factory, Nigeria Cement Factory, Nkalagu, Niger Gas Enugu, Turners Asbestos, Enugu, Pepsi Cola Factory, Onitsha, Golden Guinea Breweries, Umuahia, Aba Textile Mills, Trans Amadi Industrial Complex, Port Harcourt, Obudu Cattle Ranch, Presidential Hotels (Enugu and Port Harcourt), Eastern Nigeria Development Corporation, rubber and palm plantations, Cashew Industries and Ekulu Pottery which were as a result of well laid-out development plans that transformed the region. A World Bank assessment in 1965 noted that Igboland has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. And with farm settlements across the region, the issue of self-sufficiency in food production was a done deal.

 

 

 

The Biafran War

The painful consequences of the Biafran War cannot be overestimated but every time I think about it, I remember a Russian proverb which says that “forget the past, lose an eye; dwell on the past, lose both eyes”. I see the aftermaths of the war and the exploits as great lessons for Igboland; something to learn from instead of brooding over it; something to strengthen us instead of highlighting how it destroyed us; something that adds to our great heritage. How can we forget such an event,? Even the pains transcend to generations yet unborn, but should we allow it? My answer is NO.

 

I think the greatest embodiment of our never-say-die spirit after the war is Rangers International Football Club. It is a pity that, that which should have helped us to productively unleash our anger in the positive is being allowed to die. Rangers should be to Igboland what Barcelona is to the Catalans. The spirit that is propelling their call for independence from Spain today is kept alive by Barcelona Football Club. That is why they say Barcelona is not a football club but a national team. Rangers FC on the other hand is a movement. It emerged as an offshoot of the Biafran Army regiment known as the Rangers. The club came into full existence at the end of the civil war in 1970. At its inception, the club was made up of players who were involved in the civil war in one capacity or the other. For instance, Christian Chukwu, who became the captain of the team after the exit of Godwin Achebe, served in the Boys company in the Biafran Army. The club at the end of the devastating civil war served as a beckon of hope to millions of Igbos who looked up to them as a source of inspiration and motivation at a critical period of their lives. The success story of the club in the early 70s is still reeled out by football pundits, having won the Challenge Cup (now the FA Cup) consecutively in 1974, 75 and 76, a feat no Nigerian club had ever achieved. Rangers had equally won the league title more than any other club in the history of Nigerian football. These achievements had made the club an indomitable symbol of Igbo spirit, which perseveres in the face of difficulty and a hope when all seems to have been lost.

 

How can we reinvent the glorious days?

Integrated economy

Common platform — Oganihu Ndigbo Foundation, for example

Common purpose

Exemplary leadership

Sacrifice

As Pastor Hugh White observed: “Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power”.

 

Thank You for your attention.

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