By Okey C. Iheduru/Business Day
Washington, D.C., the United States capital, hosted a number of events and activities about Nigeria over the past week. Acting President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan met with President Obama in his first official outing as head of state, and later participated in the nuclear weapons summit, interacted with heavy weights at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, and had an hour-long interview on CNN.
By all accounts, our acting number one citizen acquitted himself well and put the country back on the international arena. Shortly before Jonathan's arrival, however, the eight annual conference of Igbo Studies Association (ISA), appropriately themed Nigeria at 50: The Igbo Experience, was held at Howard University from 9-10 April 2010.
From its modest beginning in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1999, the ISA has become a prestigious annual event that now attracts eminent academics, media moguls, businesses, and politicians from North America, Europe, and Africa. There were about 84 academic papers, four plenary sessions, and fourteen concurrent sessions on topics ranging from Igbo language, literature, religion, spirituality, civilization, culture, health, environment, women, education, conflict management, entrepreneurship, youth and sports, and the old and new Igbo diasporas.
For many Igbo intelligentsia resident in Nigeria, ISA conferences are among the few venues where reasoned debate can take place without the suffocating stench of 419 money-bag politicians, silly chieftaincy and religious titles, and charlatans of all stripes that now bestrode a land once noted for honest individual achievements and sense of community. The goodwill message from Ohaneze Ndi-Igbo president, Ralph Uwechue praised ISA as 'a strong platform to showcase Igbo civilization and the contribution of our people towards the advancement of global civilization.' Prominent Igbos, such as Onwuchekwa Jemie, editor-in-chief of Business Day newspaper; and Ebere Onwudiwe of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja; Ihechukwu Madubuike, former education minister and Vice Chancellor of Tansian University, Umunya; T. Uzodinma Nwala of University of Abuja; Pat Utomi of Lagos Business School; and Senator Uchechukwumereije regularly attend these meetings.
Over the years, the keynote address has become the big masquerade of ISA conferences. Last week, Senator Chukwumerije's address, 'Journey in Reverse Gear: Tragedy of Self Denigration' did not disappoint. He traced the phenomenal success of Igbo identity-building and civilization before the tragic events of 1966 and the subsequent Biafra-Nigeria civil war, and proffered strategies to reverse Igbo marginalization and self-denigration that accompanied Biafra's collapse forty years ago.
There was also a 'special plenary roundtable' on 'Emergent Issues of Peace and Security in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects for Democratization and Development' featuring Judith Asuni of the U. S. Institute of Peace; Peter Lewis of the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University; as well as Utomi and Nwala. As usual, ISA poetry reading featured some of Nigeria's best in the craft-Obi Nwakanma, Chimalum Nwankwo, Dubem Okafor, Ikeogu Oke, and Tess Onwueme. But the trophy goes to Chris Ebighgbo, a Fine/Applied Arts lecturer at University of Benin who regaled the audience with traditional Igbo wooden flute and dignified step-dance, traditionally reserved for titled men who pranced about in tandem with the call of the flutist, demonstrating their war prowess and other noble deeds.
The second-generation Igbos in attendance was clearly attuned to issues of extra-territorial citizenship and loyalty. A group of Washington, D.C.-based Igbo high school students raised funds for summer work experience at the historic Igbo Village project in Virginia, USA. Records show that Igbo slaves-about 37 per cent of blacks in the state of Virginia prior to the American civil war (1860-1865)-built up that state. The Illinois-based Umu Igbo Alliance, comprising high school and college-age Igbos, marketed their upcoming July 29-August 1, 2010 'Igbo Ezue: Launching the Igbo Renaissance' where Igbo youth and organizations from all over the U. S. are expected to attend.
It is indeed a reflection of Nigeria's present predicament that the most credentialed gathering of Ndi-Igbo discussing Nigeria at 50 took place in far away America. Few universities in Nigeria can boast of one-fifth of the scores of Igbo scholars that assembled in Washington last week. Appropriately, the conference communiqué called on Ndi-Igbo to pay close attention to Igbo migration, specifically, the implications of brain-drain. The language of ISA meetings is English, not Igbo, an irony amplified by the conference communiqué's call for an
Igbo Language Academy 'as a matter of urgency' to help reverse alleged imminent disappearance of the Igbo language. Also, as Igbo villages decay and turn into kidnap counties for the well-to-do, Ndi-Igbo are busy re-creating Igbo village and youth culture in America. Is America the best hope of preserving the best of Igbo culture and civilization?
Over all, the 2010 conference brought out the very best in various actors. The U. S. consular staff in Abuja and Lagos received deafening applause as Nigeria-based attendees recounted the professionalism and cooperation accorded them during their visa applications and interviews. The biggest kudos, however, went to the conference chair, Apollos Nwauwa, a professor of history at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA whose remarkably efficient organizational skills (including liaison with the U.S. consular officials) earned him another term as conference chair.