When, in the immediate post-Nigeria/Biafra Civil War years, Ukpabi Asika, then administrator of East Central State, told his fellow Igbos that “amnesty does not mean amnesia”, he meant to remind them that though the victorious Federal Government (or the rest of Nigeria, if you like) may have forgiven them, it certainly hasn’t forgotten – and it may never forget. But would he have envisaged that decades later, the Igbos would, unfortunately, themselves relapse into amnesia, forgetting totally the hard lessons of that brutal war? I doubt so.
I do not wish to return in detail to the various ways the Igbos have exhibited their collective amnesia since the civil war ended. I have amply dwelt on that in an earlier article “Are Igbos suffering from collective amnesia?” which is available online. The bottom line is this: huge Igbo investments are scattered in all parts of Nigeria with the exception of Igboland. Igbo people are all over the place contributing to socio-economic development while Igboland remains grossly underdeveloped.
There is a sense in which one can argue that the civil war experience – particularly the ‘abandoned property’ saga – did inculcate some sense of responsibility into the Igbos. Many of them who had lived in fine mansions in the cities where they had established themselves prior to the war returned home as refugees to squat in mud houses with their relatives in the villages. Reason: they had no homes in their homeland. That sad experience brought about a new thinking – aku ruo ulo (literally, let the wealth be felt at home). The Igbos learnt to take part of their wealth to their native land – in the form of community development projects through the town unions, as well as big mansions. But that did not seem to have lasted for long before they reverted to their pre-war ways.
To re-echo the optimism of many a Nigerian leader, this country won’t break up – and nobody prays it does. It’s not our portion (permit me to go Pentecostal just this once), but supposing, just supposing, considering the vagaries of our daily existence in this hole of a country, something happens to Nigeria right now? Sorry to say, but given the unquantifiable loss the Igbos have suffered, in man and material, in riots across Nigeria since 1953, it would be most tragic if, this time around, the Igbos are caught napping, with all their eggs in one wrecked basket.
Igbos are a migrant people. That’s given. It’ll sound unnecessarily repetitive to restate the oft echoed sentiment that wherever you go and don’t find an Igbo person, then that place must be uninhabitable. Writing as early as 1957 in West Africa: A Study of the Environment and Man’s Use of It, R. J. Harrison Church did assert that the “Ibo are found in temporary work all over Nigeria, and some 20,000 are employed in Fernando Po”. The Igbos have never looked back ever since; not even the events of 1966-70 could hold them back.
As it is, it’s obvious, given their stakes in their various host communities in other parts of Nigeria, that the Igbos cannot possibly return home en masse – permanently. That can’t and won’t happen – not even for those Igbos living in the flashpoints of northern Nigeria. It’s not even desirable at this point. Of course, Igboland cannot even contain all the Igbo people were they to suddenly return home. Igboland is a land-hungry area. Land hunger was part of the reasons the people emigrated out of their traditional homeland in the first place. What can be done for now is for the Igbos to begin to consider taking part of their investments home. It may not be economically viable at first, but it will be, over time, and it’s something worth doing, however you look at it. I often imagine what Igboland would be if just a quarter of Igbo investments in Lagos alone is brought back to Igboland!
We can take a cue from the fact that there are many foreigners living and doing business in Nigeria who make huge profits here and repatriate their profits to support the economies of their home countries. Nigerians in other parts of the world are also known to do the same. In 2012 alone, it is estimated that remittances from Nigerians in Diaspora into the Nigerian economy are in excess of N3 trillion. Who says Igbos in other parts of Nigeria (and the world) can’t do the same for Igboland?
But first, the governors of the five South-East states must work consciously and painstakingly to woo rich Igbo Diaspora back to Igboland. All this empty media hype won’t go anywhere. The Indian model may be instructive here. Every year, the Indian government organises Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Expatriate Indians’ Day), an annual jamboree of Diaspora Indians, which is also used to attract expatriate investment. The Indian government can do this because it places great premium on its Diasporans and what they can contribute. Shashi Tharoor, India’s minister of state for human resource development, admits: “The importance of diaspora financing – from the remittances of working-class Indians that have transformed Kerala’s countryside to the millions poured into high-tech businesses in Bangalore or Gurgaon by Silicon Valley investors – simply cannot be minimised, especially during a global financial crisis.” Yet, Tharoor makes a case for encouraging the Diasporans to do more, and giving them reasons to do more, because “when India allows its pravasis to feel at home, India itself is strengthened”. The South-East governors can take a leaf from this.
For their part, the Igbo Diaspora also have to show a willingness to come home to develop Igboland. Then they can begin by engaging their governors. The onus, as I’ve said, is on the governors to create the enabling environment in their various states to attract rich Igbo people to invest back home, but what if these governors lack the ideas? This is why the Igbo Diaspora cannot wait eternally for the governors. They can, as in the saying, be the mountain that goes to Muhammad. Igbos have developed swamps in the west and deserts in the north for too long, but that hasn’t moved Igboland an inch out of gross underdevelopment.
One other option for Igboland is to toe the line of regional integration that has become a fad across the country. As I have argued elsewhere, “To say that the states of the South-East need economic integration as much as other regions of the country – or even more so – is merely stating the obvious. There is no doubt that the South-East is among the least developed areas of the country – if not the very least – in terms of infrastructure, which is worsened by the virtual absence of federal projects in the region. This is one reason the Igbos of the South-East are scattered in all parts of Nigeria and the world where they contribute immeasurably to development, while their home region remains a backwater. Joining forces will likely reverse this trend. Working together, the South-East states, rather than wait eternally for a sleeping – or politics-playing – Federal Government, can pool resources and commence work on the direly needed Second Niger Bridge and such other projects, rehabilitation of the badly damaged interstate roads in the region, and development of other infrastructure that would bring the Igbos back home to invest.”
While these things may not be as straight-forward as I present them, and while I can’t claim that this is the final word, I believe it’s a starting point. Let others who have the good of Igboland at heart join this debate. Who knows, we might still be able to redeem Igboland from its present calamitous state; we might still be able to wrest Igboland from the grip of kidnappers, armed robbers and other criminals who have made visiting home a nightmare for many (especially since some pundits believe these crimes are rooted in the widespread joblessness in the land); and we might still be able to move all these Ebonyi children hawking all-what-nots at every bus stop back to their state where they can contribute more meaningfully to the development of both themseves and their state. So help us God.