by Obi Nwakanma
LAST week, renowned novelist Chinua Achebe delivered the Ahiajioku lectures. The Ahiajioku annual lectures have become the most important public podium for a distinguished Igbo thinker to address the Igbo on a fundamentally Igbo issue. The visionary government of Dr. Sam Onunaka Mbakwe established the Ahiajioku lectures in Owerri, and the first lecture was given by the eminent scholar and critic, Professor MJC Echeruo on the subject: “Ahamefula: a matter of identity.”
Echeruo’s pioneering exploration set the tone for the Ahiajioku lectures which have hosted an array of distinguished Igbo scholars including the late D.I. Nwoga; Angulu Onwuejiogwu, Pius Okigbo, Bede Okigbo, Ben Nwabueze, Adiele Afigbo, Anya O.Anya, Victor Uchendu, Nolue Emenanjo, up to the past week, with Chinua Achebe. I still hope that the Ahiajioku committee will consider getting either the eminent Ben Obumselu or Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, if the gods of the Igbo world keep them, to give next year’s lectures and the year after. The harvest is consistently rich. It is one important forum where a lively gathering of the Igbo experience momentary epiphany.
This year’s lectures by Achebe did not, it seems, address a specific area of Igbo life, but spoke more in a general way about the challenges before the Igbo in the areas of the uses, and the development of the Igbo language and history, the sustenance of the Igbo ethical life of work, industry, innovation, probity, thrift, and honesty, and the fostering of a more coherent Igbo identity to reunite its confederal patchwork and re-ignite Igbo collective agency. Basically, a renewal of the Igbo spirit - that mystical sense of what the Germans call the “volk”- as a means of self discovery. There is a sense in the Igbo world, especially among its thinking classes today, that there is an Igbo crisis of identity and value, and that this crisis of the Igbo is at the roots of its contemporary limitations particularly in the formation of nation.
At the core of the Ahiajioku lectures is the project of self-interrogation; a means by which the Igbo ask questions of themselves. It was not accidental that only nine years after the end of the civil war that devastated the Igbo world and almost sapped its national will, the most self-aware government elected by the people since the end of the war, led by a visionary man, put together a committee of Igbo intellectuals to explore the possibility of what has now become the Ahiajioku lectures.
The conceptual frame of the “Ahiajioku” idea is particularly, thanks to the secular and historical imagination of the brilliant Donatus Nwoga and Gaius Anoka, to provide sacred grounds for pan-Igbo ruminations using its greatest mythos - its season of thanksgiving.
They did not limit the lectures to merely the concerns of “Imo state”- to that narrowing of the field of what it means to be Igbo. But they created the grounds of a pan-Igbo discourse community; a means of looking at, and renewing the Igbo world; in which a worthwhile Igbo was invited to explore the Igbo question. My point is that unlike today, the Mbakwe administration did not limit the possibility of the Igbo world. They saw the stark possibility of a renewed Igbo enterprise. It was called Igbo unity. This was also at the core of Chinua Achebe’s lectures last week. But Igbo unity is not a merely theoretical thing. It must be the product of generative action; a well thought-out and instrumentalized process that begins from that interrogatory stance: who are the Igbo?
What makes anyone Igbo? Igbo is of course the totality of identity, values, rituals, memory, heritage, left to us by the Igbo ancestors. But one is not Igbo merely because they bear Igbo names or have Igbo parents.
It is, as Echeruo said, “a matter of identity” – the product of consciousness. At the central philosophical core of Igbo conception of being and agency is the self (“onwe”), that fully Cartesian conception of the subjective.
In other words, long before Rene Descartes grappled with the question, one of the foundational thesis of the European enlightenment, outlined in his famous Discourse on Method, the Igbo had settled the problem quite elegantly of the self-conscious “I” of history. I will leave the more subtle theoretical issues around this to Igbo Philosophers like T. Uzodinma Nwala, but it is important to situate the idea of the Igbo self (“onwe”) in its relation to the collective other (“onwe anyi”) to understand the Igbo.
It is a cultural psychology that insists on the primacy of autonomy and shared autonomy, what some identify as the “king in everyone.” But ever so conscious of intricate dualism, the Igbo also understand that the autonomous self - the “onwe” - is subject to only one king: the “Oha”- the collective will. That is why the Igbo say, the king of the people is the Oha. Whenever the Igbo gather in freedom, there, their sovereign will is constituted.
I point this out basically to counter Asagba na Asaba, Professor Chike Edozien’s suggestion at the Ahiajioku lectures for the creation of the institution of “Eze Igbo Nile”- the Igbo King - on a rotation that would function like the papacy. his is a very bold proposition and move to create an Igbo monarchy. But the Igbo think of the monarchy as abominable (“Ezebuiro”), a fact which Achebe himself has noted in one of his essays in Home and Exile. So it will be futile to embark on such an illusion.
I, as Igbo, am my own king. But there are two kinds of Igbo today: a handful that want to institute the monarchy in Igboland, inspired by the feudal and monarchical cultures of the Igbo neighbors.
These pseudo royalists want an Igbo “ruling class” to be master over a vast, landless, new peasantry which they wish to create and dominate. Majority of the Igbo nevertheless remain skeptical and free; true democrats, who would never countenance the rise of the monarchy. They keep to the republican ideal of the Igbo world that has historically made the Igbo one of the most vital, resourceful, innovative, and freest cultures/people in the world. To lose that vitality is akin to death.
The Igbo world is in fact in crisis, and Achebe’s lecture was not fully able to capture the ramifications. But we must listen to Chinweizu’s admonitions about an urgent and necessary return and revival of Igbo culture.
The first place to start is to return to its authority system - the “Umunna” system and upturn the incipient “Igwe” or new warrant chieftaincies that now dot the Igbo world. The Igbo are faced with 21st century problems and must adopt 21st century solutions. It is a major tragedy that key, brilliant Igbo like the famous novelist V.C. Ike, the economist Green Nwankwo, the musicologist, Laz Ekwueme, and the famous bioscientist, Chike Edozien, among many have succumbed to the “Igwe” antinomy. It is largely a waste of human resources. Their peers in Europe and America are chairing large foundations, helping to raise funds for research institutions, remaining active in scientific and humanistic education; heading the trusts of major universities and independent laboratories, creating values that sustain and validate the highest pursuits of their societies, and leading their communities as volunteers and models of the highest civic acts: democratic involvelment.
They should be talking about remodeling, re-equipping, and upgrading facilities in all schools in Igboland to meet the needs of the current century; they should be concerned about creating a new generation of Igbo and even Nigerian leadership through deliberate, strategic action and education; they should be proposing the establishment of the Mbonu Ojike Medical Research Centre as the teaching hospital for the School of Health Sciences of the Federal University of Technology Owerri; they should be putting their heads together to raise money throughout Igbo land for the Anioma University; they should establish the Igbo People's Fund with seven trustees, to raise money and fund Igbo Education and Scientific Research, Igbo political Action, Igbo People's Security Initiative; the Nnamdi Azikiwe professorships; the Ibiam residency; the Eni Njoku BioTech Fund; the Jaja Wachukwu Centre for Strategic and International Studies; the Osadebe Prize; the Odumegwu-Ojukwu Centre, etc. etc.