By Chigachi Eke
The recent gathering of Igbo governors and parliamentarians at Enugu yielded less than expected in addressing the urgent issue of Igbo insecurity. If any communiqué ever emerged from such high intensity think-tank it was never made public. But the gathering highlighted the worrisome high incarceration and execution rate confronting the unprotected Igbo overseas.
From the Enugu conference emerged the disturbing statistics of 2400 Igbos serving prison terms in foreign lands. Three have so far been executed with another eighteen facing the death penalty. South African prisons are said to hold a staggering 1500 Igbos. Poverty and unemployment in the South-East, in the view of this conference, are the root cause of Igbos flocking abroad where they fall easy prey.
However, conveners of this politically inspired event technically lost the plot in their conceptualizing of the problem. By limiting attention to Igbos abroad, scant regard is given to Igbos in Nigeria whose singular experience in post-colonial Nigeria amply qualifies them as equal victims. This explains why the conference failed to catalogue the number of Igbos killed within the Nigerian borders during the same period. Meaning that the hundred and sixty Igbo men, women and children spontaneously massacred at Jos on the 28th of November 2008, will not feature in the future programme of this meeting as they were not killed overseas.
The conference was also substantially flawed in its failure to engage Igbos overseas as potential exiles. Bread and butter are not pertinent to the mass exodus of Igbos to foreign lands, politics is. Ask yourself why Hausas, Idomas, Yorubas, or the Ijaws are not running away from Nigeria on the scale as Nd’Igbo even though these groups are not better than Nd’Igbo by any material standard. Igbos flee to foreign lands because they are the sole target of state orchestrated genocide.
Finally, the conference did not grasp the full scope of the problem. It limited invitation to political office holders when it is abundantly clear that what we have in our laps is a diasporic issue of all times calling for contributions from Igbo communities world-wide. No invitation was issued to affected constituencies nor to the foot soldiers, namely, young Igbo travelers, graduates, frustrated professionals and survivors of anti-Igbo killings likely to leave Nigeria in the next few years. Inviting these groups would have fostered a two-way rapport as well as laying bare the pitfalls of life in foreign countries.
The above inadequacies inspire this piece ahead of the 2009 first quarter conference, with a view to giving a more balanced and analytical understanding of what we mean by Igbo Diaspora. The crux here is to broaden and deepen the discourse that any meaningful step taken by Igbo leaders and representatives of Igbo Diaspora can also be affective and all-embracing. To achieve these objectives we definitely have to renegotiate what we mean by home and exile (overseas), what Igbo Diaspora is all about, its history and challenges. How to respond to these challenges falls outside the scope of this essay. The burden is on future conferences to come up with workable solutions.
Igbo governors, assembly men, World Igbo Congress, Oha na Eze Nd’Igbo, Biafran National Congress, Ekwe Nche, Igbo Youth Movement and other stakeholders must come to a common understanding of where “home” ends and “exile” begins for the Igbo. We must agree on physical borders in relation to the Igbo and their living space. The question must be asked, where on the earth surface can we call home for Nd’Igbo? And more importantly, is this spot we call home truly compatible with our spiritual and psychological aspirations?
The answers to the above are recoverable in the statement issued by officers of the Igbo Youth Movement, Messrs Olisaemeka Akuchukwu (Chairman), Jude Emenike (Secretary) and Jude Chukwuka (Patron), following the unprovoked killing of Igbos in Jos : “The Igbo in Plateau are fully aware that we are strangers in Plateau State and do not claim indigeneship of Jos North Local Government or any other local council in Plateau State.”
From the above declaration could be deduced that for the Igbo “home” can only mean Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu, Rivers, Delta and Anambra states. “Overseas” includes other non-Igbo states of Nigeria, as well as other countries of the world where Nd’Igbo and people of Igbo descent live.
Inversely, it also means that for the Igbo overseas could be “home” the moment Nigeria makes itself a putative “land of exile.” If the Nigerian state deliberately alienates Nd’Igbo, deny us equal rights and tacitly institutionalise the confiscation of our properties, then we must begin to interrogate the notion of Nigeria as home.
Contingent on the above, I define as Igbo Diaspora people of Igbo descent carried away from Igbo land during the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Sahara slave trades. I define as Igbo Diaspora seventh generation Igbos whose fathers were conscripted into colonial armies and taken to foreign lands for engagements. Igbo Children jetted out of Biafra to Garbon during the Igbo Holocaust of 1967-1970 are also Igbo exiles overseas. The 39-year old Igbo trader whose shop at the Katako Market was maliciously torched, and fearing future attempts on his life fled to South Africa to try his hands there, constitutes part of the larger dislocated Igbo population overseas. She is also a homeless exile the young Igbo widow, unprotected daughter, abandoned wife, lonely mother or separated fiancée who survived the killings but still trapped in Nigeria; and who can be argued to be in a state of mental exile on account of the hostile country she finds herself in, living in Nigeria yet not belonging in her alienation.
Igbo Diaspora bears close similarity with Jewish Diaspora: both are a product of conquest and defeat resulting in the mass uprooting and transplanting of the affected population. Diaspora has a recent origin in the lexicon of modern languages in relation to man, home and exile.
“Diaspora” is a Greek word that refers to seed dispersal or, in the realms of the classics, the dispersal of ideas. Jewish writers appropriated and popularized this word in reference to the dispersal and exile of Samarian Jews of the Northern Kingdom by the Babylonians. Then came the final exile of Palestinian Jews in A.D. 70. By this date the Roman army destroyed the last Jewish fortress of Massada following the destruction of the second temple built by King Herod in the City of David, Jerusalem.
The carrying away of Palestinian Jews into exile by the Romans to distant colonies marked the end of a lofty Jewish civilization that spanned thousands of years. But to some extent, the Jewish exile in the first century A.D. also marked a new beginning in science and learning as the scattered population became the spark for alternative civilizations in their new environment. This is largely so because a diasporic people carry along with them vestiges of their original culture, learning and identity.
For instance, during their Babylonian exile Samarian Jews preserved their identity through religious practices and writings. They look to Jerusalem or Zion (site of the Solomon Temple which in turn housed the Ark of the Covenant) as their spiritual and political capital. Thousands of years following, black slaves adopted “By the Rivers of Babylon”, a Jewish poetry composed during the Babylonian exile, to describe their slave condition in the Americas. The New World assumed the role of Babylon in Negro Spiritual just as Mother Africa becomes Jerusalem.
Following the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 the Hebrew language became the official language of the young Jewish state. >From that date all military, diplomatic, intellectual and social writings were done in Hebrew. Consequently there was a substitution of the word, Diaspora, with two Hebrew words, “galut”, meaning “exile” and “tephuztzot” meaning “dispersal”. These two Hebrew words are used to refer to the larger Jewish communities living outside the new state of Israel.
Igbo Diaspora, or scattering, across their traditional borders has a more recent history when compared with Jewish Diaspora. To understand this one must constantly bear in mind the historical interplays that produced this movement in the past six hundred years. Beyond this period were little known internal or external forces capable of disrupting the well established traditional Igbo world.
Excavations and recovered artifacts around the Igbo Ukwu areas may in the future, though, force scholars of Igbo Studies to take an entirely different approach in the dating of Igbo Diaspora. There’s preponderance of evidence from the Igbo Ukwu excavations that external trade and contacts existed between Nd’Igbo and the outside world dating, perhaps, for thousands of years. If such possibilities were the case then Nd’Igbo must have dispersed much earlier than thought because diaspora is conditioned by military conquest or peace time trade.
But were they instances of exile and dispersal in traditional Igbo society beyond the past six hundred years marking the point of cultural contacts?
Indeed, there were. But they were highly circumscribed as internal mechanism of checks and balances traceable to traditional Igbo religion practiced for thousands of years before being replaced by Christianity.
Exile and banishment were integral to the Igbo religion and cultural practices. The Igbo reserved the dreadful punishment of exile for the equally dreadful sins against their powerful earth goddess, Ani or Ala. Traditional Igbo religion favoured banishing a serious offender to taking his life due mainly to the fact that a man’s blood is sacred in Igbo cosmology. Rather than putting a habitual thief, for example, to death he is simply banished permanently from his clan, or for a certain number of years, since shedding his blood was a bigger offence.
The exile we’re talking about here had a minimal impact on the larger Igbo society as the clan and society survives the exile of a single man who at any rate is aided even in exile to integrate into his new environment. This type of exile was reformatory and non-diasporic as the victim in this instance is never banished outside the Igbo society. Instances where prisoners of war are sold, they are never sold outside the Igbo society.
But things were not localised for all times.
As regulatory instruments exile and banishment were in the 15th century globalised and commercialised. This marks the cradle of Igbo Diaspora, an event that unfolded in four different waves with each directly, but still indirectly, related to the other.
The first wave of Igbo Diaspora began around 1452, the year Catholic Pope Nicholas V gave his approval for Africans to be bought and transported as slaves to the Americas; and lasted till 1865 when the United States abolished slavery. There is no accurate statistics on the number of Igbo slaves captured and transported out of Africa. But judging from the manifests, diaries and travel journals of captains of merchant ships, brokers and planters involved in the trade, it is evident that a disproportionate number of slaves shipped from the Bonny and Calabar ports were essentially of “Heckbo,” “Hebo,” “Ebo” or “Ibo”, variations for Igbo, stock. The slave trade saw the transplanting of millions of Igbo descendants to new environments in Europe, Brazil, America and the Caribbean; especially Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, just to mention a few.
As a footnote, I must add here that the Trans-Sahara slave trade, an evil no less catastrophic, was singular in decimating the northern territories of Igbo land. It was only abolished in 1936 when Northern Nigeria formally stopped exporting slaves to North Africa. Also non-existent were reliable statistics on the number of Igbos who made the death-march across the Sahara desert to the slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East. However, what can be said is that such was the overwhelming number of Igbo slaves at the slave markets of Northern Nigeria that their pathetic cries of “Nyem mmiri” (give me water!) obviously forms the basis of that derogatory term for Nd’Igbo today. Sad as it were, Igbo historians pay little attention to this event due mainly to the fact that Igbo slaves left no descendants in the Arab world. Arab slavery made the castration of black slaves a condition.
If slavery and slave trade marked the first wave of dispersal, colonialism and legitimate trade ushered in the second wave. For a period of seven decades, 1900-1966, the Igbo consolidated and modernized under the relative stability ushered in by the British rule. From slave trade their society adapted to the exiting challenges that came with legitimate trade in palm oil. With a rapidly increasing population the result was mass migration in search of economic opportunities and, in particular, Western education.
Unlike the mass dispersal occasioned by the slave trades this migration was willful and, scholarly speaking, cannot qualify as diaspora which involves the “forceful” scattering or carrying away of Nd’Igbo beyond their traditional territory east and west of the lower Niger down to the Atlantic coast. But this argument remains untenable considering that colonial wars and duties took Igbo servicemen to pacification campaigns in Hausa land, Ashante land, Burma, the Congo and Gambia. The large concentration of Igbo population in Cameroon till date is traceable to the British colonial mandate when Southern Cameroon was administered as part of the Eastern Region of Nigerian, home to the dominant Igbo majority.
But by far the most sudden and dramatic wave with an equally shattering proportion lasted just a four-year period, 1966-1970. The Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu coup triggered unprecedented anti-Igbo pogroms that ended in a thirty-month Biafran/Nigerian war. By the end of that war one-fifth of the world Igbo population has been starved, bombed or killed.
The essential point here is that the Biafran war took two notable groups of Igbos outside Igbo land. The first group consists of infants separated from their besieged environment and flown out to the safe haven of Garbon to escape the ravages of war. At the end of the war not all of these children returned back to Igbo land as a large number of them was adopted by Garbonese families. The second group includes thousands of underage Igbo girls abducted by Nigerian troops as sex slaves and child-brides in military settlements all over Nigeria. Take note that nothing more has been heard of these girls in the thirty-nine years since the war but they are there to tell their stories.
Armed hostilities ended in January 1970 only to be replaced by stringent but crippling economic measures aimed at ensuring that Nd’Igbo were kept on their toes for a long time. These include the summary execution of Igbos returnees at Port Harcourt, Borri, Yenagoa and the Bonny Island, confiscation of Igbo monies as war reparation and, of course, the exclusion of Nd’Igbo from corporate Nigeria through the Indigenization Decree. But by far the most destructive of the Gowon administration’s policy against Nd’Igbo was the Abandoned Property Decree. This edict transferred landed properties, houses and businesses owned by Igbos to the Niger Delta minorities and the Yoruba. With their monies, rights and means of livelihood eroded by a minority headed junta, Nd’Igbo had no choice than to look beyond the Nigerian borders for survival and safety. Thus began the fourth and on-going wave of scattering since 1970.
Any society losing millions of its members cannot remain the same and the Igbo world is not an exception. There’re consequences and shocks. The mass movement of Igbos overseas creates perceptible problems at the cultural level, the individual, family, community and the larger Igbo society. The concluding part of this article will expatiate on the above.
The Igbo language could be the first casualty. This will be the case the moment it ceases to be the preferred medium of exchange in commerce and politics. Within the home environment it could lose its mother-tongue status forever as many Igbo families become inter-tribal, or inter-racial. It could also lose its first-language status if its few users prefer other languages for tutelage and pedagogy. As window into the future, consider the fate of the Igbo language in the popular culture. Igbo films and other arts forms do not enjoy much patronage from directors and producers, never mind that Nollywood is essentially bankrolled and marketed by Igbo merchants.
So what are we saying here? We’re saying that unless we empower the Igbo language today other languages will in turn disempower us tomorrow.
There’s a subtle reengineering of the Igbo society when one out of every five male reside outside the five Igbo states, including Rivers and Delta. This dramatically alters the sex-ratio of the population as we have more women in Igbo land at any given time. This imbalance so created is dangerous on two grounds. Firstly, the physical, political and economic voids created by the mass migration of Nd’Igbo are conveniently filled by people from other ethnic groups. Igbo leaders of thought must read a much deeper meaning into the perpetual harassment and killing of Igbos in Nigeria, especially in Hausa land. Igbo exodus beyond the Nigerian borders comes in the wake of each anti-Igbo aggression.
Secondly, this crippling imbalance tends to erode core Igbo values. In traditional Igbo society the family structure is mainly: father, mother(s) and children. But this may completely alter forever. The increasing number of Igbo male marrying in exile, and this is in the millions, leaves far too many Igbo girls stranded at home as their potential suitors are tied down with foreign wives.
As Igbo girls are without suitors at home, they’re also on their own overseas.
There’re strong indications that within diasporic communities marital choices are not favouring Igbo girls. Most Igbo men tend to have a preference for white women than being tied down with Igbo girls next door for reasons ranging from bad behaviour to questionable lifestyle.
This imbalance may reach a tipping point where unmarried but potentially aging Igbo girls may opt to marry outside the Igbo society, which is not a problem. They may also choose to be single mothers, which becomes a huge problem considering the stigma and conflict that follow such practice.
The above scenario means that in future the structure of Igbo family might read: mother and children from different fathers. When single mothers begin to head Igbo families there’s going to be a crisis of identity for the young Igbo boy who has no father-figure to look up to as role model. Sons of single mothers will also have a huge problem in relation to land ownership and inheritance. Which means the Igbo society must diffuse a tickling time-bomb.
The Igbo community overseas is casualty to another type of upheaval. In recent times one begins to hear of the squabble between the Igbo man and his wife. Certain skeptics are wrongly interpreting such strife to mean that the Igbo man wants to control his wife as he feels belittled by the huge pay packet she brings home at the end of the month. But this is a theory very hard to sell as the Igbo woman is traditionally an achiever. She has the autonomous space to be industrious and enterprising.
As a power broker she forms the market women’s association to challenge the imposition of tax on women by the British, she led the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929, she is a member of the Christian Mothers and other women groups put in place to check opposing excesses.
A baffled colonial power at odds with the political dexterity of the Igbo woman now made it a point to study her more closely. The 1939 Keith Ross report titled, “African Women: A Study of Igbo of Nigeria,” was predictable. The Igbo woman, it concluded, is a progenitor of change as she is not constrained by Igbo patriarchy or colonialism.
I know of many great Igbo sons who owe their greatness to their proactive mothers. Let me limit instances to Dr. Orji Uzoh kalu and Chief Stan Eke of Task Computers. The day Emeka Okafor was drafted into the NBA any keen observer could tell that his mother was a huge influence in the young athlete’s life considering the manner mother and son hugged. Nneka, mother is supreme.
No. The Igbo woman is her husband’s greatest asset, not his threat. Role reversal is not the plausible cause of the crisis rocking the diasporic Igbo family.
I would rather explain it in very simple term-acculturisation. In this era of cell phone, the internet, Nollywood and culture of consumerism, the innocent is drowned in the widening gyre. When the good intentioned exile takes his life savings and returns to his village to marry “a well behaved innocent girl from a good family.” On taking his ideal wife overseas a scary drama begins to unfold all around him as the innocent girl from a good family overnight made herself the poster girl for Western feminists. The end result is alienation, a bitter divorce, and in some instances, outright murder. When an Igbo kills his wife abroad and is flung into prison I wonder the fate of his orphaned children.
While pondering the fate of Igbos in foreign prisons Nd’Igbo must also take a stand on the rising number of Igbo women killed by their estranged husbands, as well as the whispered deaths associated with disputes over money and girlfriends within the Igbo community overseas, as condemnable as these irrational killings are. There must be a better way of handling serious marital crisis or disagreements over money.
But here’s Armageddon.
If the scourge of kidnapping and extortion in Igbo land is not brought to an immediate end by all means necessary, we might as well brace up for another long night of fear, violence and separation. Have we forgotten the horrors of slave trade too soon?
I conscientiously believe that the greatest shock occasioned by Igbo Diaspora remains the singular and irreparable loss of brain drain. The absence of the wise and prudent seems to have given impetus for the enthronement of bandits and murderers. It must bother the conscience of every Igbo why Nd’Igbo are today kidnapping their own toddlers and the vulnerable with the threat to butcher them for ritual body parts if those abroad do not pay up. Is this not the very thing our ancestors did during the slave trade, selling their very souls to the devil?
It is a crime beyond unimaginable proportion that able-body young men could today gang up, not to start a block industry or initiate self-help schemes, but to abduct a seventy-year old grandmother. She is chased, caught and subjected to the most humiliating insults imaginable where she had to sleep, eat and defecate with her two legs tied together. And when these miscreants collect their ill-gotten wealth they become instant heroes in Igbo land. So where is the morality? Where is the love, the respect for motherhood?
So how could Ralph Uwazurike, assuming he actualises the Biafran state, convince the Emeagwalis, Onyiukes and Achebes to return from exile and help the young state to its feet when the home they’re coming back to could cost them the lives of their wives and grandsons? Chief Uwazurike, I passionately respect and honour you but give us Biafra just not yet!
So we’re gradually sliding down to a level where victims of kidnapping and extortion will simple flee Igbo land for life in exile.
When we come to that stage our governors and assembly men must go back to the drawing board and redefine home and exile.