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Futile search for a Good Igbo – by Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

The voice and views of Rudolf Okonkwo from 14 years ago but still relevant

Between 250 CE and 1948, Jews were expelled from Europe over 80 times. That is, in 1,700 years, people in Europe expelled the Jews at the average rate of once every 21 years.

It happened in France, England, Spain, Portugal, Germany and dozens of other countries. These countries in their own characteristic ways rose up one day to declare that they were tired of hosting Jews and tolerating their behaviors and accepting their attitude that whatever land they lived in was no man’s land. These Europeans claimed they were more charitable, hospitable, accommodating and generous to the Jews than any other nationality, but the Jews abused it. They demanded that all Jews leave or be vanquished. They said they tried but they could not see any good Jew to make them change their minds.

Historians who have studied the phenomenon came up with the usual explanations given as the reason why Jews were expelled. Here are six typical reasons (from history books and online sources) as expressed in popular quotes used during each expulsion, massacre and persecution. 1.) “We hate Jews because they possess too much wealth and power.” 2.) “We hate Jews because they arrogantly claim that they are the chosen people.” 3.) “Jews are a convenient group to single out and blame for our troubles.” 4.) “We hate Jews because they killed Jesus.” 5.) “We hate Jews because they are different than us.” 6.) “We hate Jews because they are an inferior race.”

Historians have examined these reasons in order to see if they were causes of the hatred or the excuses for the hatred. Historians propound that if they are causes, once the cause is taken away, the hatred will vanish. But if the cause is taken away and the hatred remains, then, it is mere excuse.

On the economic reason which says that Jews possess too much wealth that causes envy and resentment, historians found out that the Polish and Russian Jews of the 17th -20th century were “dirty poor” yet, they were hated. When the Jews are doing well, the myth that they have a plan to rule the world by controlling governments and financial establishments took shape in the fictional work called, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Though it has been debunked as fiction, it remains a bestselling book in the world.

On the idea that the Jews were claiming to be the chosen ones, historians noted that the Jews of Germany in the 19th century denied the concept of being the chosen ones. Many of them assimilated with mainstream Germans, abandoning their language and culture and ways of life. Yet, when the holocaust started, it did not save them. And the Larry Kings of America, who changed their names to hide their identities and those who are not practicing Jews like Madam Albright, have not been spared as objects of hate. Surprisingly, in today’s world, it is the Christians and the Muslims who openly claim that they are the ones chosen by God and nobody can get to God except through their intermediaries- Jesus and Muhammad. But they don’t get the kind of hatred that the Jews get.

The scapegoating of the Jews, especially in difficult economic and political times, is not a cause but rather an excuse. To scapegoat, you must first of all hate. Hitler conveniently used Jews as scapegoat because the hatred was already there. It made it easy for Germans to believe that Jews were the reason they lost World War I and why the German economy was fluttering. The fifth reason, that the Jews killed Jesus, falls flat when the Christian Bible says that the Romans killed Jesus with the help of Jews but the hatred was reserved for Jews alone. The Roman Catholic Church, in its Second Vatican Council in 1963, had to officially exonerate the Jews, but the hatred continued.

The idea that the Jews were outsiders should have waned with the increase in Jewish assimilation over the years. But it didn’t. Instead, the complaint changed. In Germany, it turned into: “We hate you, not because you’re different, but because you’re trying to become like us! We cannot allow you to infect the Aryan race with your inferior genes.”

The final reason is that “we hate the Jews because they are an inferior race.” The Jews are not a race, to begin with.

This is how Rabbi Kalman Packouz put the dilemma of the Jews. “Every other hated group is hated for a relatively defined reason,” he wrote. “We Jews, however, are hated in paradoxes: Jews are hated for being a lazy and inferior race – but also for dominating the economy and taking over the world. We are hated for stubbornly maintaining our separateness – and, when we do assimilate – for posing a threat to racial purity through intermarriages. We are seen as pacifists and as warmongers; as capitalist exploiters and as revolutionary communists; possessed of a Chosen-People mentality, as well as of an inferiority complex. It seems that we just can’t win.”

In 2005, Okey Ndibe wrote a piece he called, “Thou Shall Not Rent to Igbo.” In it he brought to the fore the discriminatory challenges Igbo tenants were facing in finding apartments to rent in Lagos. In a rejoinder titled, “Igboman can be a good Tenant,” Kola Akomolede’s argued that it was not only Yoruba landlords who do not want the Igbo tenant but landlords of other ethnicities, including some Igbo landlords. He suggested that the real problem was the nature of the Igbo man and not the discrimination against Igbo tenants which he made every effort to justify. He suggested that Ohanaeze should advice Igbo men to “change their attitude and behave like gentlemen.”

European intellectuals, including some Jews, made similar appeal to Diaspora Jews across Europe before Hitler came. Many Jews bought into it. They changed their names and many abandoned their religion all together. Some intermarried with Germans. But when Hitler came, it did not save them.

Instead of finding practical structures based on law and order to deal with universal issues between tenants and landlords, Akomolede made flimsy arguments like the one about the Igbo with “good background” being good tenants. Property consultants and owners, he suggested, should care about good background of tenants. He finally fell back on the popular refrain that the Yoruba are the most accommodating nation in Nigeria.

We have heard that line before. And we are hearing a lot of it today. Some have observed that beneath the issue of discrimination against Igbo tenants is the bigger and subtle issue – the battle for Lagos.

That battle for Lagos has actually come out in the open.

Common with all things Nigeria, Akomolede’s greatest failure was in subscribing to the predominant Igbo stereotype on the basis of which he demanded a change in the nature of the Igbo. “Stereotypes are not necessarily malicious,” once cautioned Chinua Achebe. “They may be well meaning and even friendly. But in every case they show a carelessness or laziness or indifference of attitude that implies that the object of your categorization is not worth the trouble of individual assessment.” That’s how the action of a man or a group of people in Nigeria is often ascribed to the action of an ethnic or religious group.

The old conventional wisdom was that of Samora Machel: ‘For the nation to live, the tribe must die.’ The new conventional wisdom is that, the tribe can live as long as it wants. But for the nation to live, impunity must die; citizens’ rights must be respected; law and order must be established and enforced, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or creed.

On the one hand, since 1914, the primary question of Nigeria has been the Igbo question. There are other important questions, but in the answer to the Igbo question comes the understanding of all the other questions. On the other hand, the primary tragedy of the Igbo is that they are living in a Nigeria that is yet to come, if it ever comes.

The innocence of the Igbo ended long time ago. It ended before 1945 when some Northern elements in Jos first rose up and massacred Igbo people. When it was repeated in 1953 in Kano, the British inquiry reported that, “No amount of provocation, short-term or long term, can in any way justify their (Northern Nigerians) behavior.” The British report went further to warn that “the seeds of the trouble which broke out in Kano on May 16 (1953) have their counterparts still in the ground. It could happen again, and only a realization and acceptance of the underlying causes can remove the danger.”

Of course, it happened again. It happened in all of northern Nigeria in 1966, Kano in 1980, Maiduguri in 1982, Jimeta in 1984, Gombe in 1985, Kaduna & Kafanchan in 1991, Bauchi, Kastina, & Kano in 1991, Zango-Kataf in 1992, Funtua in 1993, Kano in 1994. Since 1999, over 10,000 people have been killed in more than a dozen incidents of religious/ethnic conflicts. And since 2009, over 4000 people have died in Boko Haram attacks. The dispossession and displacement of Igbo people once desired by the leaders of the Northern House of Assembly in the 60s have now been achieved by Boko Haram in the 2010s. In places like Maiduguri only death-defying Igbo stayed put. Even those types have sent their wives and children home.

Usually, before Igbo bloods were spilled, it was customarily preceded by arguments in several quarters, official and unofficial, in the media and in secrecy, about the disdain of the very nature of the Igbo and the need for Igbo to change. In Northern Nigeria of 1964, there were calls in the Northern House of Assembly to revoke forthwith all Certificates of Occupancy from the hands of the Igbo residents in the region. Lawmakers stood up in the assembly and promised to find ways to do away with the Igbo. Alhaji Ibrahim Musa Gashash, O.B.E and Minister of Land and Survey, told the assembly in March of 1964 the following:

“Having heard their demand about Ibos holding land in Northern Nigeria, my ministry will do all it can to see that the demands of members are met. How to do this, when to do it, all this should not be disclosed. In due course, you will all see what will happen. (Applause)”.

The Northern People’s Congress, NPC, followed Alhaji Gashash’s promise by issuing a booklet called SALAMA: Facts must be faced. This booklet portrayed the Igbo in a very bad light and gave the masses in the North the sense that the Igbo were the source of all their problems. At the same time, the government of Western Nigeria also issued their own booklet called UPCAISM in which the Igbo, called “strangers,” were depicted as land grabbers who must be removed from Western lands and government positions. The booklets also displayed pictures of shops and stores owned by the Igbo and indulged in undue character assassination.

The military coup of 1966 presented a pretext to carry out a plan that had been laid out years before. It was a plan that aimed at a total extermination of the Igbo or, at least, their containment. The pogrom and the brutal war that followed was the final solution to the perceived Igbo problems in Nigeria. When Anthony Enahoro traveled round the globe arguing that starvation was a weapon of war, he was following the script for the total extermination of the Igbo. When Benjamin Adekunle boasted to foreign reporters, “I want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary and no UN delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything that moves and when our troops march into the centre of Ibo territory, we shoot at everything even at things that do not move…,” he was following the same script.

Just like the once accommodating and charitable and hospitable and generous Germany became a graveyard of Jews when Hitler came, Nigeria became a graveyard of Igbo when Gowon came. And, equally, like Germany, Nigeria failed to accomplish the final solution plan. The only difference was that the Jews learnt from that horrible Holocaust experience and formed their own country while the Igbo failed in that struggle for Biafra and returned to embrace Nigeria as if nothing had happened. Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University and a renowned scholar on Races and World Economies wrote that, “Most of the great mindless slaughters of the 20th century — whether of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the kulaks in the Soviet Union, the Jews in Germany, the I[g]bo in Nigeria or the Tamils in Sri Lanka — have been slaughters of those who dramatically eclipsed the accomplishments of others.”

The kulaks were liquidated. The Armenians, the Jews and the Tamils are struggling and still fighting to keep the memories alive and stop it from ever happening again. The Igbo on their part, forgot what happened and why. But the Nigerian elements, disappointed in their unfinished job, have not forgotten. Instead, they are busy preparing for the final battle. Those in doubt should listen when they remind the Igbo openly that “history will repeat itself.” In ways subtle and covetous, they are laying the ground work for what we all know must come. They are making public and closed door speeches in which they are promising that “how to do this, when to do this, will not be disclosed.” The seed of the trouble, as far as these Nigerian elements see it, is in the nature of the Igbo. As long as Igbo will not denounce their Igboness, it will happen again. And this time, it may be a total annihilation, from Port Harcourt to Lagos on to Gusau via Abuja.

Acknowledged, it has been difficult, and will always be difficult, for the rest of Nigeria to interpret the Igbo life and worldview. There is a big difference between what the Igbo think and what others think the Igbo think. This misunderstanding, in many quarters, has continued to be transformed into inert hatred. The myth of the Igbo constantly in the face of Nigerians everywhere, has proved very difficult for many to decipher.

In a 2005 Igbo Day keynote speech titled, The Primacy of Political or Economic power: The Igbo Dilemma, Professor Anya O. Anya noted that:

“There is an inherent paradox and contradiction in the lgboman’s place in Nigeria. On the one hand given his industry, his intelligence and his enterprise, the Igboman is a desirable gift to Nigeria and the stuff of which great nations and great civilizations can be built. On the other hand, given his presumptive confidence in his abilities and his unabashed hunger to succeed at whatever cost, he engenders fear and unwelcome visibility amongst his compatriots. His lack of subtlety, his drive to overcome and his insatiable “greed” for material progress engenders resentment and often inexplicable, and perhaps, undeserved hostility in the host communities. His “loud” style of Life and the facility with which he can adapt to and adopt new ways can also be unsettling to foreign cultural formations that have come in contact with the lgbo including the colonial masters. There is thus an underlying sense of conflict in the lgbo presence in Nigeria.”

For those who care but do not know and those who know but do not care, the Igbo are not perfect. Like so many other groups, the Igbo have those uncommon human frailties and foibles as well as unique virtues and wisdoms. When their sense of vanity is heightened, their sense of modesty is diminished. When their sense of belonging is enhanced, their sense of variance is lessened. The Igbo know that things others did to them were many but the things they did to themselves were more. (Apologies Prof. Chieka Ifemesia). But the Igbo history warrants that the Igbo must keep eternal vigilance – chasing away the prey while scolding the chick.

In trying to find an answer many observers of negativity in Igbo life seek, I stumbled on “The Focus of Igbo Worldview,” a paper presented by Prof. Donatus I. Nwoga. In it he wrote:

“The opportunity which the present times have given for the predominant attributes of the Igbo to blossom into the ugliness of materialistic indiscipline, and lack of grace and finesse, must not be taken to represent the all-time behavior of the Igbo. A characteristic which could have been favorable and positive in one phase of the history of a people, which could again be positive and beneficial in another phase, could present the greatest negative consequences in a transitional phase. In practical terms, the attributes which make the Igbo appear vulgar and materialistic at this phase, could be the same attributes that made them achieving and titled people in the past. The present could merely be revealing the impact of new, uncharted times to the chaotic instinct in those who had been restrained by the limiting structures and facilities of the ordered past. And it is important to retain then the diachronic consciousness that transitional people have the handicap of having lost the grace and poetry of their past, without yet acquiring the grace and poetry, or at least the discipline and sanctions of the modern.”

The duty those who believe in Nigeria owe to this transitioning Nigeria is to give her a structure. In a structured Nigeria where there is law and order, people will be treated as individuals according to the laws of the land. Those who currently take advantage of the disorder in Nigeria would have to get in line or face the letters of the law. In a just and equitable society, those who are industrious, honest and creative will soar. Until then, those who dream of changing the nature of the Igbo or any ethnic group for that matter are confounded with many paradoxes.

The fundamental truth is that the Igbo, as part of humanity, have the right to live anywhere – with or without Nigeria. Let it be known that the original sin of the Igbo has not changed and will never change – it is the sin of being Igbo. It is from it that all other sins emerge and get magnified. The Igbo have nothing to prove and must not begin a defense of that right or a discussion of their Igboness on the terms of others. It is a matter of expediency for the Igbo to know this and for the Igbo to understand its implication in their final battle for survival.

If the Igbo had not embraced western education in the mid-1930s and overtaken the rest of Nigeria thirty years after; if the Igbo had not accepted Nigeria and emigrated from their tropical rain forest of the east to all corners of Nigeria; maybe, the pogrom would not have happened.

For many, a good Igbo is one who is only Igbo in his home; who is not Igbo everyday and everywhere; who is apologetic for being Igbo, and who wears the following expression on his forehead: “how dare you assume I am Igbo?”

Though my last name is as Igbo as they come, I’m sure that I’m not a good Igbo man. I do not conform to every man’s definition of an Igbo, including definition by the Igbo themselves. But that should not be a problem, unless you are Femi Fani-Kayode and his like.

There are serious people vigorously dedicated to the search for a good Igbo man or woman. I enthusiastically applaud them. And I must add, with all honesty, “Bros, Good luck with that!”

(This is an updated version of my 2005 article, Igbo: The Final Battle)


Development and policy analyst with a strong interest in the arts and inclusive social change. Dabbles occasionally into poetry and literary criticism!

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