RUDOLF OKONKWO'S COLUMN
n primary three, I had the (mis)fortune of being taught by an old part time teacher named Mr. Chukwuma. He was once a school headmaster and as such, was well respected in his chosen profession. He ran his class with great authority which was never questioned by his pupils nor the school management. Mr. Chukwuma wore blue shirt everyday to school. At the slightest provocation, he would bark, “I am superior to the little dog in your mother’s house. If you bring your mother here, I will spit into her mouth”. To stubborn kids in our class, Mr. Chukwuma would always say, “You do not display your eligibility as a bride with a festering wound on your forehead.” He was a no nonsense man. My junior brother gave him so much trouble that one day, Mr. Chukwuma blurted out, “What is going on with this kid is something that I do not understand. And what pains me is that this kid is my own kid.”
As I think today of the Igbos of Nigeria, I remember, Mr. Chukwuma and the wisdom he impacted on me as a kid.
You must have read or heard about the big meeting. Yes, that one. The one held at Nike Resort the other day. Yeah, it was off the wall. I have to mention it too. I do so because everybody else is writing about it. I do not want to be left out in that commentary on the most historic event of the 21st century. I bet you know that it is not everyday that the Igbos of Nigeria meet. Mere getting them together is a huge accomplishment. And you bet, when they climbed that iroko tree, they will make sure they gather firewood for iroko trees are not climbed so often. Well, you may now begin to think again.
The Igbos of Nigeria are a special lot. They are the only group of dancers who dance to “Have You Come?” tune and call it a dance. Talking to them is like knocking on the horn of a toad. When something enters through one ear, it leaves through the other. They are like soldier ants in absolute disarray. Upon looking at them, one sees different cliques, each fighting over a piece of rotten meat. They are the vultures that converge when sacrifice has been made. The Igbos of Nigeria are the only people who develop hyena as you treat their kwoshioko. They are the only people who pursue the rat while their house is on fire.
When that so called historic summit idea came up, it was hailed by outsiders who have superficial understanding of the Igbos of Nigeria. But having attended three World Igbo Congress conventions, having read tones of resolutions and proposals, I had become immune to disappointments from the Igbos of Nigeria. I am pretty sure I once saw designs of an airborne sea on top of Onitsha main market. I have seen the draft of a hanging International airport, and a multi-tracked subways in the hands of the Igbos of Nigeria. Those geniuses have turned gully erosion sites into Gardens of Eden. The only problem that is currently being reported to Umuahia is that it is all on paper.
Those waiting for the communiqué could as well begin to write one for themselves. It used to be a battle deciding what language to use in such writings. It used to be a war between those who wished to have a watered down communiqué and those who wanted a strongly worded one. Some used to fight for a communiqué that usually begged as others asked for one that demanded. Thank God, the Igbos of Nigeria have finally overcome that lapse in judgment. The little skirmish is now based on a noble ideal- whether it should be pro-Obasanjo or pro-Babangida. Who said they would never graduate?
I remember attending my first World Igbo Congress convention in New York in 1997. I got there, uninvited and was marveled at the crowd that had taken over New Yorker hotel. During the elegant proceedings, a virtually unknown Igbo man stood up and told the audience that he was a Chief Engineer in charge of the then, $10 billion dollar engineering wonder called the Big Dig, in Boston, Massachusetts. To that announcement, I said wow! At the same convention, I met computer wonder kid, Dr. Philip Emeagwali. I had read a lot about him. I shook his hand and told myself, ‘today is today’.
As the convention proceeded, I watched as Prof. B. Nnaji talked about how to technologically turn Igboland into an African wonder. Eh! I was full of pride. Then I met the greatest of them all- Prof. Chinua Achebe. His entrance was grandeur. His performance grandiose. I felt accomplished. I left the convention feeling that these Igbos of Nigeria were up to something magnificent. I was convinced that the Igbo Credit Union, Igbo Bank, Obi Igbo and other great ideas they proposed would soon become reality. I imagined myself stepping into Houston, London, Lagos, Beirut etc and beholding monuments that attest to the presence of the Igbos of Nigeria. I was naive.
A psychology professor once asked me to explain what changed in Igboland following the coming of Christianity. I told my class that Omenala Igbo was displaced by the common law. By that single move, Amadioha and all the Igbo gods and deities that exert instant justice were replaced by Christian God that is slow in acting, full of mercy, and that accepts Sunday confessions even as man sins again on Monday.
To illustrate what I meant by that, I used the relationship between car drivers, highway cops and radar camera. I told the class that during the days when Omenala was supreme, life in Igboland was like driving on a highway that was monitored by a series of radar cameras, the kind one sees in Germany. The camera would pick up an over speeding vehicle, pull up the plate number and issue tickets. The common law era required a cop to be hiding by the roadside and hoping that car driver’s radar would not pick theirs up. Not only does police patrol system limit the number of speeding vehicles that could be nabbed, there were other complications with the system. Drivers could take the cop on a highway chase; talk the cops out of issuing tickets, and some would not pay even when tickets are issued.
When Omenala was supreme, the punishment was swift and just. It had no respect for wealth or position in society. The same could not be said about the common law. The common law had loopholes that were exploited. It led to things falling apart in Igboland. Though the same circumstances occurred in most of Nigeria, it was pronounced in Igboland because of its republican nature that gave no room for an alternative superior authority that could pick up where the common law failed.
For a short time after the dethronement of Omenala, there was a brief ascension of meritocracy. That was when the likes of Zik were opinion leaders. This period had teachers, civil servants, civil and church leaders, as galvanizing leaders of the community structure. Then, the moral authority was conferred on those who were placed in the meritorious position. After the civil war, the last hold of merit on the society collapsed and so began the rule of the mediocrity. That is where the Igbos of Nigeria are today. With Omenala gone, merit thrown off the window, everyone became a king unto himself.
In such arrangements, the common cause usually is the first victim. For common cause to thrive in the heart of a people, a sense of sacrifice must be well and alive. That could not be said to be the case in Igboland. The sacrifice of those who fought the war had not been acknowledged. No monuments had been built for those who died. No mountain had been named after those who led in the struggle. Those who financed the war were uncelebrated. Rather the heroes who led the war were denied reverence and every flaw of theirs are highlighted beyond the limits. Not surprisingly, hopelessness is what happens in a society without heroes.
The Igbos of Nigeria are being crushed by the dew, contrary to what Chief Osita Osadebe pleaded in his song, “People’s Club”. Why? Because they are no longer people of good behavior. They are no longer brave and courageous. They are no longer worthy. Because they have placed money ahead of good name. Because they no longer declare and deliver. The lives of the Igbos of Nigeria have therefore become what Osadebe called "Osondi Owendi." As the song goes: “What pleases a man pleases his chi/ In this world we are/ Who is superior to God/ He who out runs his chi/ Goes to bed before his chi.” (That was just an attempt at an English translation of the song.)
The Igbos of Nigeria are still at a loss as to how to sanction their erring members. By their very nature, they cannot institute the kind of sanction that Afenifere or Arewa group does. The only kind of sanction that would work is the one driven by public opinion. Without media house dedicated to Igbo cause, there is no way of swaying public opinion against unbecoming conducts. And without sanctions, no society can set moral rights and parameters for integrity. As long as the Nwobodos of Igboland still have unlimited money they made in government, only orchestrated public opinion could push them out of contention.
A typical clan member of the Igbos of Nigeria would say, “Don’t discuss this in public. Don’t wash our dirty linens for the world to see.” Yet, everyday, when they meet in what ought to be a closed door meeting, what comes out is a display of shame. It obviously does not count when they shame their own people. Ask them what they have done for Igbos lately. They will say, they paid their village tax.
For Igbos to be lifted off the valley of despair, sacrifices are needed. Not superficial sacrifices but the kind that pains. The kind of sacrifices that the Jews of Europe made to save themselves and secure the state of Israel. Igbos must be ready to give to the cause of Igboland without seeking reward and accolades. They must begin to see a higher meaning in life that surpasses the fleeting and endless struggle to acquire wealth most of which hardly survives a generation. People like Arthur Nzeribe would live a more meaningful life if they give all they have to Igbo cause than they would ever achieve hustling at the Nigerian high table.
Paraphrasing my teacher, Mr. Chukwuma, the Igbos of Nigeria should stop displaying their eligibility as a bride with a festering wound on their forehead. The Igbo clamoring for the presidency of Nigeria come 2003 should have been the least of their worries. An Igbo presidency will do to the Igbo struggle for autonomy, what Obasanjo presidency did to Yoruba struggle for autonomy. The very structure of Nigeria is at the core of Igbo decline. The re-establishment of an autonomous Igbo state is the only way of saving the way of life of Ndigbo. It worries me that the Igbos of Nigeria do not seem to get it. And I tell you this, just as my teacher, Mr. Chukwuma would have said it, “What is going on with the Igbos of Nigeria is something that I, Rudolf nwa Okonkwo, do not understand. And what pains me is that the Igbos of Nigeria are my own people.
Thank God there is an emerging new tribe of Igbos. Like the Igbos of Nigeria who are all over the world, this new tribe of Igbos are also multiplying everywhere Igbo people are. They are the future of Alaigbo. They are the ones who will map the road and dictate the tune that the Igbos of Nigeria will sing tomorrow. They have assumed the responsibility of rationalizing the past with the present. They are seeking men of honor and courage who would be accountable to the good of Alaigbo. They are given the original name, Igbos of Biafra.
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