Hakeem had theorised that what some see as the Igbo problem in Nigeria is a myth borne out of ignorance. Ignorance naturally breeds fear, since there is a tendency to be apprehensive of what we don’t understand. He observed that very few Nigerians of other ethnicity have had the chance to live in or even visited Igboland to experience the people first hand in their homeland and outside the sphere of business engagements.
As I sat by the corner, fiddling with my phone while patiently awaiting Madam Yemisi’s ambrosia, this tall, ebony hunk of a guy waltzed in. He quickly surveyed the place and beelined, easing his modest frame into the chair close by me. Even as a guy, it was not lost on me that this fellow was divinely built to impress and I concluded that he is the type who potentially could charm worldly women into denying their husbands or boyfriends, just for a fling. But anyway, before one gets too distracted by the mundane, let’s keep the focus on important stuff.
Hakeem is probably in his early thirties, personable and gregarious. You could tell he is from corporate America and most likely holding an influential position somewhere in town. My love for Nigerian cuisine has led me to all kinds of culinary adventures and that was how I chanced upon this gem lost in the hustle of downtown Houston.
“Hello”, I greeted, flashing a smile. “Osmund”.
“Oh. Hey Osmund. Hakeem here. How you dey?”, he said smiling back.
I answered in the affirmative, but not before letting him know that the correct word is Igbo.
Before long, we launched into a long session, interrogating the promises and realities of Nigeria. We bemoaned the economy in recession, condemned the incessant killings and banditry in the North-East, and cringed at the shooting of the EndSARS protesters at Lekki gate. Of course, we had to dabble into the politics of 2023. It turned out that Hakeem is the scion of a famous political family in one of the South-Western states and his late father was a federal minister in the Second Republic.
He believes that the time is long overdue for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction but worried that the activities of the Indegenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is casting a dark cloud over it. “You can’t be seen fighting for secession and at the same time wanting to be the president of Nigeria”, Hakeem emphasised. He would not be the first to make that point.
As Nigerians begin to look beyond the train wreck that is the Buhari era, the question of sending an Igbo person to Aso Rock has become one of the hottest topics dominating many news cycles. The latest fad in our political commentary is to offer some sort of advice to Ndigbo, ranging from cautionary tales to reeling off a whole list of dos and don’ts. Some have even suggested that Ndigbo should bow their heads in supplication, like good servants, hoping to get noticed by the benevolent spirits. In a different take, IPOB and like-minded groups are fully convinced that belligerent posturing seems to be the only language the Hausa-Fulani oligarchs understand.
Another point often made is the noisy ebullience and superciliousness of the people, which tend to unsettle other ethnic nationalities. Granted that those are hardly sought after virtues, but truth be told, there is something in every culture or ethnic group which attracts and others that repel.
Of course, if one should go searching for honey, you expect to be stung by bees. What is rather bizarre is the suggestion that whatever sin IPOB is accused of committing, somehow translates to an Igbo transgression. IPOB, for sure, commands a considerable following, especially among disgruntled Igbo youths who are appalled by the fact of being confined to second class status in their own country. That said, there has never been a referendum to determine if the demands of the separatist group reflect the wishes of Ndigbo. The people are incurably republican and many would shudder at the mention of IPOB speaking for them.
The last time I checked, the Yorubas were never found wanting just because the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) demanded an Oduduwa Republic during the early days of the June 12 struggle. The same goes for the Niger Deltans, when in February 23, 1966, Adaka Boro and his Volunteer Force declared a Niger Delta Republic. At every juncture in our nation’s history, there has always been agitation for secession by one group or another. In fact, prior to independence, Northern Nigeria was the first to dangle the carrot of secession from the Nigerian colony. That was why Zik addressed the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) caucus on May 12, 1953, giving the reason why they needed to stick with the union. The region was richly rewarded and the North received a great deal of concession thereafter.
Separatist agitation is a global phenomenon and not unusual in multi-ethnic, culturally pluralistic societies.
Another point often made is the noisy ebullience and superciliousness of the people, which tend to unsettle other ethnic nationalities. Granted that those are hardly sought after virtues, but truth be told, there is something in every culture or ethnic group which attracts and others that repel. On a flip side, some of those traits also turn out to be the fuel that powers the never-give-up and can-do spirit of Ndigbo. That said, Achebe in his book, The Trouble With Nigeria advised that “Igbos must learn less abrasiveness, more shrewdness and tact and a willingness to grant the validity of less boisterous values”.
Hakeem had theorised that what some see as the Igbo problem in Nigeria is a myth borne out of ignorance. Ignorance naturally breeds fear, since there is a tendency to be apprehensive of what we don’t understand. He observed that very few Nigerians of other ethnicity have had the chance to live in or even visited Igboland to experience the people first hand in their homeland and outside the sphere of business engagements. He narrated the story of how many years back, he was posted to Imo State for his National Youth Service. With all the dreadful things they heard about the place, his mum was hell bent on getting him reassigned to somewhere closer home. Hakeem, though nervous at the time, however insisted on going for the ride, just out of sheer curiosity. After a feisty exchange, with lots of going back and forth, his mother reluctantly yielded. Hakeem would later confess that the one year he spent in Nekede, a small town near Owerri, was the best time of his life. By his account, Igbos are the most under-appreciated and hospitable group of people in the planet.
…let’s hope that our national history has a moral arc that will bend in the direction of justice and that such hope will triumph over our past experiences. Ndigbo, on their part, should realise that politics is a serious business. In business we are told, you don’t get what you deserve, you simply get what you negotiate.
It is an undisputed fact that Igbos, with their nomadic business lifestyle, tend to travel far and wide, settling down and setting up businesses everywhere, in a way that speaks to the national spirit desperately needed in Nigeria. More than others, Ndigbo are also more likely to embrace cultural identities different from theirs, be it in clothing, food or learning indigenous languages of their host city, sometimes even to the detriment of their native language. It’s not uncommon to find an Igbo born in Lagos or Kano who is fluent in Yoruba or Hausa but can’t even complete a full sentence in Igbo. Cosmopolitanism just happen to be their second nature.
The path of politics is strewn with betrayals and head spinning intrigues and Ndigbo should not be naïve to expect that the presidency will be handed down to them on a platter. The people have to first lay a solid groundwork, making a commitment to move past unbridled individualism, eschew unhealthy rivalry and play a politics of the collective. If we are serious about this project, our many semi-literate political jobbers whose claim to fame is only through thuggery and pay-for-vote scheme must self-isolate. Ndigbo would have to face up to the adversaries from within who are ever willing to mortgage the group interest in a whim.
Like Chidi Amuta prayed in his powerful essay titled, “2023: Igbos and the Politics of Moral Consequence”, let’s hope that our national history has a moral arc that will bend in the direction of justice and that such hope will triumph over our past experiences. Ndigbo, on their part, should realise that politics is a serious business. In business we are told, you don’t get what you deserve, you simply get what you negotiate.
As we were cleaning out the appetisers that consisted of chicken suya with roasted corn, Madam Yemisi emerged with a big bowl of smoky hot ewedu and gbegiri. I carefully surveyed the plate, making sure that all the “side attractions” were well represented and then quickly descended on it like a wounded Tiger. Hakeem looked at me and smiled.
“Ounje ajeye o”, I greeted.
“Yoo gba ibi re”, he responded, pleasantly surprised.
Yorubas always seem to have the perfect pitch for every occasion. I am guessing you may have figured that Hakeem is my new best friend.
Osmund Agbo, a public affairs analyst, is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: email@example.com