Saturday, July 14, 2007

An Outsider's Guide to Igbo Psychology

by Obi Nwakanma

FOR a professor of law, I plead to say, Akin Oyebode’s thinking presents itself as significantly as a surprise. I refer particularly to an interview in which he responded to questions by journalists from the Punch newspaper, published last Sunday. “The Igbo” the Law professor and former university chancellor said, “are their own worst enemy. They couldn’t get their acts together.

Two Igbo will give you three opinions.” Excuse me! I did not know that a variety of distinct opinions is a cardinal sin in a democracy. But one of course, understands from where Oyebode is coming. In the usual discourse of Nigeria, everyone tends to think in terms of what symbolic office goes to whom and where. The same old bread and butter politics of sharing the national cake, as we have learnt to call it.

From that logic, the Nigerian estate belongs to those who can “get their acts together.” But not the Igbo. They couldn’t be president in 2007 because they are their own worst enemy. But even then, the Igbo want something visible, Oyebode says, and have to be taken care of. Such presumption! I will not even bother to rehash all the conditions that led to the April farce that has been called elections; the demographic gerrymandering that is aimed at the Igbo, or all the battles the Igbo are fighting for an equitable federation, at the minimum. But I should just say that the Igbo do not want to be taken care of.

The Igbo want equity and justice for every Nigerian and for themselves as formidable participants in the affairs of the nation. The opposite of justice is injustice, and it is not an alternative, and it carries consequences that will emerge soon enough. The Igbo are no longer in the mood to beg anybody for their entitlements as Nigerians.

The Igbo are not looking for handouts. As events begin to shape, Oyebode and those like him who think that the Igbo have been worsted will only wake to realize that the Igbo are not, given the reality of their history and their location in the Nigerian commonwealth, in any weak or desperate position at all, and can assert their will as a people when the occasion demands, and when they are ready.

The Igbo have a right to the Nigerian commonwealth as much as other Nigerians, and consider Nigeria their inheritance, having been at the forefront of its nationalist liberation struggle from colonial oppression, and having shed an excess of blood in the war fought for its soul between 1967 and 1970; will no longer be driven out of Nigeria except on their own terms, and will not tolerate any more role as the whipping post of the Nigerian plantation. The fight for a new Nigeria is for individual rights and economic justice – not about some organized political Mafiosi distributing pork to themselves. That is what the Igbo say.

That is the mood of the new generation of the Igbo, scattered everywhere in the world as scientists, bankers, lawyers, professors, doctors, administrators, traders, nurses, thieves, scam artists, mercenary or buffalo soldiers, and so on. In the last forty years, the Igbo have mostly stood apart and minded their own businesses, while those who thought they conquered Nigeria have run it more like a pirate ship, than a nation, and into the ground.

Running a country like Nigeria is far more complicated than the talent for organizing coups and counter coups, massacres, pogroms, loots and other political and economic conspiracies. Without doubt, there are many other Nigerians with talents, but the state of Nigeria today is a reflection, forty years after the war, of the absence of significant Igbo talent for organization in the Nigerian public space. Professor Oyebode should speak to that, because he ought to know the truth.

But Professor Oyebode is not alone. Today, everybody is an expert on Igbo affairs. Perhaps its time to organize a national conference on “the fools guide to Igbo psychology,” and that should settle much of the prattle. A few weeks ago, David Mark, the current Senate president took his own turn to berate the Igbo for “pulling down” their prominent sons. Many of us chose to ignore the senator from Oturkpo. But perhaps its time to tell senator Mark that it is not within his mandate to tell the Igbo what to do with or to their leaders.

He should mind his own business. In any case, his grouse was on account of the controversial Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani’s personal decision to excuse himself from the mutual admiration carnival in Enugu tagged a reception for senator Ike Ekweremadu, whom David Mark has most cynically described as the current leader of the Igbo, who occupies “the highest public position” available to the Igbo in the country today. But excuse me, that description is way off mark (excuse the pun). Mr. Ekweremadu is no leader of the Igbo.

He is a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and its current deputy president. He represents a political constituency and answers to a political party, and not to any Igbo consensus. He is a leader in the Nigerian senate, and that does not make him a leader of the Igbo. And when it comes absolutely to a matter of definition, the position he occupies is a bag of wind, and does not have the authority even of a local government chairman in Igbo land or elsewhere.

It’s a jolly ride position, for himself, his family, and some of his friends. It’s not for the Igbo. Besides, Senator Ekweremadu himself will tell you that he does not consider himself a leader of the Igbo; his constituency is national and universal. He has never spoken for the Igbo in the senate. The Igbo know their spokesmen.

Meanwhile, it is not up to David Mark to advice the Igbo on unity. As the Igbo themselves are too well aware: when they act in “unity” they threaten many entrenched interests, and are accused of “clannishness,” and are slaughtered for it; and when they act, as they frequently do, from their highly democratic impulse, they are described as fractious and disunited- “their on worst enemy.”

The Igbo do not need anybody to tell them when to be united, or when to disagree and pursue individual perspectives. They rise to the occasion. A disunited people could not muster the will to stay at home when a political movement called MASSOB asked them. That was no sign of disunity. The Igbo also know their leaders: they are simple, ordinary, flawed folk. Not living deities or those who so presume. The Igbo also have a tradition of vertical and horizontal leadership. They keep their real leaders behind the scene, and send out the Egwugwu for the public act. It is all part of the Igbo idea: “ebe ihe kwu, ihe ozo akwudebe ya.” Where one thing stands, another stands next to it.

So you have the NCNC and Zik, and you have the Igbo state Union with ZC Obi, doing the groundwork. In times of crisis, the Igbo push out a section of their men and women as Greek gifts, to be “warrant chiefs” and be their ears and eyes. Anybody who imagines that what they see publicly at work is Igbo leadership either does not understand the Igbo, or deliberately misreads them. That’s also alright. But the plain fact is less ambiguous: the Igbo do not have a leader, and have no need for one.

They have leaders. Individuals from parts of Nigeria with a culture of feudalism and the monarchy, often see the Igbo from the prism of their own world. They want one central perspective; one organizing figure to associate with the Igbo. But that’s not the way the Igbo people do things.

The Igbo remain ahead of many Nigerian cultures in their highly developed democratic norms. Igbo norms of dissent often seem to those who do not understand it, to be fractious. But out of Igbo dissent comes toleration; comes a multiplicity of views that allows Igbo creative spirit to thrive, see alternatives, escape from the herdline, and engage the world without fear or ambiguity.

It is important to outline these habits of the culture, particularly for a younger generation who may be tempted to see in Igbo value for democracy and the sanctity of difference, something to be ashamed or afraid of.

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