I am just coming back from the Southeast, precisely Ngor Okpala in old Owerri division. Owerri people (defined largely to include old Ngor Okpala and Mbaise) are quintessential Igbo, according to some accounts. The great Achebe was inspired by their cultural richness to write Things Fall Apart.
Life is beautiful in the Southeast, even as bad governance is fast ruining the life of an exuberant and intelligent people. But in the Southeast, there is soul. That is, if you pay attention to the wisdom of ages that can rival those of the Hebrew and the Greek: two greatest civilizations of all ages. I guess the Igbo add to the tripod of the global intellect.
I went for a burial of a close relative. Bad roads made the journey torturous. As we wobbled through the night, I thought about Dr MI Okpara, Nigeria’s managerial genius who crafted the world’s fastest growing economy in the 1960s through what we now know as the ‘developmental state’. I remembered Dr Sam Mbakwe, ‘The Weeping Governor’ whose ‘Biafran Spirit’ mobilized old Imo State to show the Nigerian nation how to build infrastructure through voluntarism. No matter what becomes of the Imo airport through subsequent leadership mediocrity, the airport stands as a testimony that our forebears were right that ‘igwe bu Ike’ and ‘ivu anyi ndanda’. Of course, my mind raced to Dr Nnana Ukegbu whose ‘Agrarian Revolution Without Tear’, and ‘Technological and Economic Development Mission (TEDEM)’ would have turned Nigeria into the better of Singapore and South Korea. These Igbo visionaries were hamstrung or obstructed by the mediocrity and dysfunction of the Nigerian state. In Owerri and the rest of the Igbo homeland, you will see evidence of enterprise, innovation and modern statecraft buried in the infrastructural and governance ruins.
At the funeral after the burial, I encountered the Igbo civilizational imprint that has become much misunderstood and maligned these days: the Igbo republicanism. Many notable modern Igbo people regret that worldview. In their small minds, the crisis of being and belonging of the Igbo in today’s Nigeria derives from this normative defect. For them, if we don’t make for ourselves kings like our neighbours, then we will remain miserable. More important for them, we will not be Nigeria’s president. Like the misguided Jewish elders, they are asking that we be like our brothers and sisters – the Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani – and have stalwarts rule over us like the rest. Wiser Igbo leaders, especially the young, are saying no. The experience at the village funeral convinced me that those who say that everyone should be their own king are right. Again, I can tell Sir Arthur Eze, ‘Ozo Igbo Ndu’, that the Igbo love themselves.
As I was greeting my Abuja friends at the funeral event, an uncle, a senior by few years, who is financially out and out in every sense, drew my shirt and informed me that the Nze of our community, who was seated with some youths and a few young elders at far corner of the large compound, wants to see me now. The Nze was formerly a Lagos hustler who made money in ways that some consider objectionable, but returned to the village to invest in its wellbeing. He invested energy in community peace and human resource, and was greatly love by the youths. When he entered the race to be the Nze, many elders objected, pointing his past as ‘businessman’ in Lagos. These elders knew he was in good standing on community support and peace building. But they felt his past was not a good pedigree for such noble customary leadership. But the people wanted him. At the vote he won. Those elders filibustered, but finally yielded to popular choice. He has not being found wanting in the office of Nze.
The Nze asked me to sit with Umunna. As I sat down, I surveyed the mixed multitude. A few notables were seated. A pastor who practises in Warri, a Prof from Benin, an insurance chief executive from Port Harcourt, a rainmaker, a petty trader, several unemployed youths, a retired headmaster and several nondescript Umunna: everyone sat on the next available seat just as they came. The insurance chief executive ordered for drinks for all – he is not from the bereaved family. He is following the Igbo wisdom that ‘whoever is able should bury the father and not leave it to the first son because it’s not the first son that killed the father’. Soon I ordered a pot of pepper soup. The challenge was how to share the limited supply to a larger number of Umunna. I presented it to the Nze and sharing started. First to the Nze, then to the chief and other chieftains from neighbouring communities. Then we ran into a problem. Many could not get. Then someone brought plates of chicken. I gave to the Nze, gave to the chief and other chieftains sitting around the Nze. Then a voice shouted from the far comer: “Are we not part of the funeral? What’s happening there?” I looked at him. He wore dirty slippers and looked physically inconsequential even as his voice was thunderous and confident. No one challenged him. The Nze glanced at his side and nodded. Another supply came, and I headed straight for the far corner where this penurious but dignified Umunnna sat. He took the big chuck of chicken without any courtesy. The Nze and his fellow titled men did not receive any portion. I felt satisfied. I have done justice.
Suddenly a voice thundered from the other side: “Do you guys remember age in your distribution? You can be installed Nze or chief, but you can’t be installed the oldest man. You boys should honour old age to grow old.” He did not say it again. A plate of boiled egg arrived, and I started with him. “You can’t be installed the oldest man.” That rang in my head. I remembered Achebe’s words: ‘amongst the Igbos (sic), age and title are revered’. Revered but not worshiped. The actual Igbo word interpreted as title is ‘Nzere’, which is better interpreted as ‘achievement’. So amongst the Igbo, age and achievement are revered. But every person is honoured and dignified as an Umunna. The rich and the poor; the distinguished and the wastrel.
Now some people think we are not so blest because we are not organized hierarchically, such that the likes of Sir Arthur Eze will have their fiefdoms. We say we are a republican people. People trivialize this powerful conception to just that we don’t have emirs, obas and sultans. It is more than that. Republicanism starts from the concept of absolute egalitarianism; it means that all people are equal in one virtue that matters: dignity that attached to being an Umunna in a covenantal relationship. Those who peddle the myth of our Jewish origin have this similarity as a probative evidence. The Jews and the Igbo alone in human civilization can lay claims to this extraordinary insight that formed the normative foundation of our imperfect democracy. The Greek in all their profundities are not in this rarified circle. Athens – the Greek city state associated with the birth of democracy – has the contamination of hierarchy amongst the gods and humans. Eric Nielsen of Harvard in his Hebrew Republic argues convincingly that the origin of democracy and universal human rights is Hebraic texts popularized and theorized by the calvinists and English writers like Harrington.
So to those who think we are miserable because we have refused to be like our neighbours, bear with us. This refusal has deep historical and ideological roots. This glorious light has illuminated the world. Maybe it’s our duty to continue to bear the witness of republicanism to the world after the Jews seem to have dropped it. ‘Igbo Enwe Eze’ stands as a memorial to a view rooted in covenant with Jahweh that every one counts equal, no matter how wise or wealthy. This will roil those with aristocratic disposition and pretences. No matter how much they share money as generosity in their community, it will pain then that they don’t see mass of Umunna bowing to them or kneeling and shouting ‘ranka dede’. Like King Ahab, they will lose sleep that wretched Naboth refuses to sell his patrimony to the kingly family. To these pretentious aristocrats, the Igbo are an inferior people. They are paying us a compliment with their insults.
Dr Sam Amadi is former MD/CEO of Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission