In the past few weeks, there has been a deluge of articles in the media overflowing with historical distortions and excessive anti-Igbo rhetoric, authored mostly by non-Igbos. At a point, it became extremely difficult to keep up with the reading considering the alarming frequency with which the writings were being churned out across various media sites.
Professor Odinkalu’s response to Sir Jibrin Ibrahim’s essay on the Igbo question came at a time I was making sustained efforts on Facebook to douse the tension triggered by false media reports about a burnt mosque in Onitsha. Reacting to the media reports, the status updates of several northerners on Facebook brazenly baying for the blood of the Igbos in the north were just too gruesome to twig. It was easy to ignore and discount the bloodthirsty rants based on the understanding that they do not represent the views of majority of northerners, especially their intellectual and elite class. This stance explains my bewilderment when I read Sir Jibrin Ibrahim’s initial article on the Igbo question which startlingly, chronicled the same flawed stereotypes, hasty generalizations and negative profiling of the Igbos which litter the social media. It was quite disconcerting to see my previously-held persuasions demolished by someone I hold in very high esteem.
There are five main reasons why Sir Jibrin’s article warrants a duteous rewrite, or at best, an outright retraction. First, the growing tradition and bourgeoning number of outsiders telling the Igbo story, rewriting their history and shoving down their squinted narratives as legitimate accounts of Igboism is something to deeply ponder about. To be clear, it is the constitutionally-enshrined right of every citizen to proffer proposals for promoting integrated political and economic development of any part of the country. However, what makes the teeming exercise of this right questionable is the excessive focus on the Igbo question at the expense of more burning issues of national significance such as full-blown terrorism in the North East, reported mass killings of Nigerian soldiers, the crumbling economy, disappearing fundamental rights and freedoms, child marriages, internal displacements and so forth, most of which are occurring outside the region where Igbos predominantly live. Could it be that the Igbo question is more germane than these burning national issues to warrant this sort of overflowing attention?
Perhaps, there’s a reason why the Igbos have allowed this let-others-tell-my-story tradition to fester. In Sir Jibrin’s second treatise and anger-laden rejoinder to Professor Odinkalu, he frowns at what he perceived as a labelling of ethnic bigotry ascribed to him. It is this same labelling and ethnic slurring that has effectively been used to cage the Igbo elite and intelligentsia. Igbos who openly challenge the institutionalized inequities which the Nigerian federation has historically employed to exclude them from socio-economic governance of the country since the post-civil war era – which Sir Jibrin admits to – are routinely christened as ethnic bigots, forcing many into ignoble silence. With unbridled optimism, I hope that Sir Jibrin’s article will open the gateway for a frank engagement and multi-ethnic conversation around these issues to take place without the needless attachments of negativity.
Secondly, Jibrin’s article subtly imported veiled boasts about ethnic supremacy when he rhetorically asked why “proud and hard-working people, “the Jews of Africa”, have been forced to play second fiddle to the other for too long, especially the Hausa-Fulani ruling circles.” He ended up providing answers to his rhetorical question when he stated that the when “the Igbo elite became more successful, they refused to change their narrative about the Nigerian State and today the initiative is out of their hands.” I think it was this hardnosed sentencing of an entire tribe that gave his motives away. At this point, he was no longer proffering ideas of inclusiveness, but was evidently, making very judgmental averments to justify his unsupported claims of Hausa-Fulani supremacy. This probably explains why Professor Odinkalu assumed that Sir Jibrin’s article “risks and invites credible allegations of bigotry” and I agree.
Thirdly, like a father drawing the ears of an obstinate child, Sir Jibrin admonishes that the “biggest failure of the Igbo elite is the incapacity to play the political game. To be major players in politics requires team and coalition building.” Again, this admonition makes a lot of forced assumptions about what the collective aspirations and pursuits of the Igbos elites should be. It builds on the conjecture that the success of a tribe is determined by the political heights they attain. In order words, the Igbo elite have failed (biggest failure for that matter) because they lack the capacity to play the political game. This viewpoint is not accurate by any stretch of imagination. While the Igbo presidency is a project nurtured by many, it does not necessarily translate to, or transform into an Igbo agenda.
I think it would be appropriate to situate Sir Jibrin’s imaginative propositions of political success within the realm of the concept known as cultural relativism in international human rights law. This concept simply refers to the debate between the relative or universal concepts of rights encoded in wide-ranging human rights instruments. The cultural relativists insist that the concept of right and wrong differ throughout the world and draw from indigenous traditions, religious ideologies and institutional structures in different climes. I think the same argument forcefully applies to this analysis because the Igbo tribe itself is not a homogenous society where universalist ideals of political success prevail. Cultural evaluations of political success vary from locality to locality in Igboland.
Sir Jibrin would be surprised to learn that in places like Imo and Anambra States, a Catholic Bishop commands greater social respect and wields more political influence than a state governor! In Mbaise in Imo State, 99% of mothers, including the elite, would prefer to have their sons end up as catholic priests than as governors and presidents. Likewise, Ebonyi State, the least educationally-advantaged state in the entire South East is no doubt, toweringly miles ahead of all states in the North East, North West and North Central put together. Accordingly, measuring up with other sister-states in the region is a perhaps, of greater priority to the elites in that state than realizing an Igbo presidency. To the parents from Imo, Anambra, Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi whose children have to score 139 and above to gain admission into unity schools while their counterparts from the northern region need to score as little as 2 to gain admission into the same schools, ensuring that their kids and wards meet the cut-off mark is considered as a greater achievement than winning an election to acquire political power. To the trader at Onitsha main market, how to settle his apprentices and ensure that they are economically empowered, is a greater measure of success than an Igbo presidency project. The truth is than an average Igbo man/woman, including the elite class, is naturally socialized to trust that s/he can attain the greatest heights in any endeavor without political power. So, unlike the traditions Sir Jibrin is used to, political power has never been a means to an end, or an end in itself in Igboland. What Sir Jibrin has simply done is to use his own subjective benchmarks of success to measure an entire race, an act that obviously revels in oddity.
The fourth reason is the most pungent, particularly because of its extreme hypocritical underpinnings. Mr. Jibrin alleged that “teaming up with Goodluck Jonathan produced petty rewards for a few but it rolled back the schedule for an Igbo presidency.” This was after chiding Chinua Achebe for hitting the Yorubas very hard at a time he should have been thinking about an alliance with them to confront the North.” Sir Jibrin’s obvious inference was that Igbos voted en masse for Jonathan for some petty reward, and not based on conviction or any ideology. He however, fervidly overlooks the fact that the same en-masse voting was witnessed even in more Shakespearean proportions in the north, but he instead, has a different explanation for that. His alternative inference for that similar voting pattern was that those who did so in the north, acted out of patriotism, nationalism, and without expectation of any reward. Haba! This narrative is not only flawed, but warrants a retraction because of its profoundly hypocritical characteristics and more so, the subtle defamation of an entire race. He didn’t stop at slandering an entire ethnic group, he concludes by slamming another death sentence on the Igbo presidency: a dream he insists is collectively shared by Igbos in general, and which he regards as the highest indicator of political success for the Igbo elite.
Fifthly and finally, Sir Jibrin’s essay on the Igbo question clearly invites a cross-region-wide introspection on the Nigerian project. The strongest outcome of that essay is the opportunity it provides for Nigerians to peep into the minds of the elite class, and the painful realization that their mindsets do not differ significantly from the discountenanced opinions held by ordinary people on the streets. Its high time this order is reversed intellectually, socially and politically across all strata of the society. The starting point toward a reversal is for Nigerians as whole to deeply reflect on how the persistent generalizations and stereotyping of other tribes is frustrating healthy conversations for inclusion and cooperation. And as we do so, we must constantly draw lessons from Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Danger of the Single Story’. I rise.
Victoria Ohaeri is the executive director of Spaces for Change (www.spacesforchange.org), a youth-development and policy advocacy organization based in Lagos, Nigeria. She can be reached on email@example.com.