BY JONAS ODOCHA.
It is indeed sad and rather worrisome to reflect on events and conditions presenting themselves in the Southeast zone of Nigeria, a zone predominantly inhabited by the Igbo ethnic nationality. Certain events, like the spate of kidnappings, did not originate in the region, but have now been seized and converted into a regional trademark. This is lamentable. The kidnapping of journalists in Abia State brought to the fore the concern of the Federal government over the rascality associated with this heinous crime. The Federal might was rolled out and the journalists, probably because of their identities and professional impact, were quickly fished out and released from the dens of their culprit captors. Case closed!
And now, the very same Abia State, indeed the Southeast, is in the news again for yet another bizarre and unfortunate kidnap story, the kidnapping of nursery and primary school children, for ransom payment. While this was happening, as if it was not pathetic enough for the zone, we all watched in awe and unbelief as leaders of the region, who were purportedly elected to protect the interest of the citizenry, abandoned their duty posts, ostensibly in Abuja jostling for elbow-room space to accompany Mr President to submit his election nomination form. Then the climax of the series of infamy playing out in the region unfolded itself during this same regrettable period, involving the lock-out of eminent leaders of the region who had arrived to attend a summit on the way forward for the region. Of course no one will be bold enough to claim responsibility, and as usual this abomination will be swept under the carpet. One may then ask, in which other zone or region in this country can this rude treatment be visited on prominent citizens who are respectable opinion leaders? But then the Southeast has been turned into an arena where both internal and extraneous divisive biddings can be canvassed for a fee. Meanwhile none of these agents of doom can stand their users in the face and demand for equity and fairness in distribution of amenities and development for Ndigbo.
All these events point in one direction, namely, the vacuum of genuine leadership in the Southeast zone. Tax payers’ resources are appropriated as security votes for the utilisation of the elected leaders of the zone, yet neither the votes nor the security are visible. But there is water-tight security for these leaders and their families, and you and I should simply jump into the Imo and Anambra rivers and go to blazes. Indeed the name of the game is Individualism.
The events catalogued above cannot be ascribed as characteristic of Ndigbo, when one recollects the pride of place of the region in the colonial era, or during the pre-independence struggles and their pre-war status as major contributors to economic and social development of Nigeria. For those who were not privileged to be part of this history, they can be pardoned for their paucity of knowledge of the real nature and capabilities of Ndigbo. Wars may be inevitable but no war is justifiable, since wars arise from man’s failure at dialogue and conflict resolution. Today, one can boldly state that the Biafra war fought by Ndigbo against Nigeria for three years, 1967-1970, has left indelible scars which can account for where Ndigbo are placed on the ladder of scheme of things in Nigeria. The first victim of this war was the value system of Ndigbo which was anchored on tenacity of purpose, buoyed up by hard work. This summed up their quest for education, industry and family bonding. A typical Igbo family, before this unfortunate war, was ever ready to forego luxury or comfort, just to send their children to good schools for knowledge and skill acquisition. It was anathema to find an idle Igbo, because it was believed then that one who did not work and was able bodied had no business begging others for food. This encouraged commerce and industry among Ndigbo and could thus be responsible for Ndigbo being ubiquitous in every remote corner of Nigeria and beyond, eking out a living. Family values starting with honour for the family name, whether rich or poor, contributed immensely in guiding and shaping the attitude and relationship with others, accounting for respect for the marriage institution and upbringing of children. It was indeed a thing of pride to be regarded as an Igbo in Nigeria at the time. Come to think of it, before the period of events leading to the war, how many men were bold enough to approach an Igbo damsel for a relationship or for marriage? Yes, the high bride price was there, but that was to check against frivolity and rascality in marriage and to encourage respect and value for the bride. Of course prejudices and subtle envy must accompany success in a competitive world, and Ndigbo must have been rather too naïve not to have anticipated or realised that inherent natural human instinct ab initio. In a nutshell, that was the summation of the value system characteristic of Ndigbo before the events leading to the outbreak of the war in 1967.
That protracted war, at the cessation of hostilities in 1970, left Ndigbo completely traumatised as a defeated and deflated people. This was because Biafra could not match Nigeria bullet for bullet, there was also the economic blockade suffered throughout the duration of the war, and internationally there was the obvious apathy of the big powers towards the plight of the secessionists. Civilian casualties, particularly women and children, were a sorry sight to behold and people began to lose confidence in themselves, leading to loss of pride and erosion of self-esteem. You may recall that a Nigerian leader, during this fratricidal conflict, was quoted as saying that starvation was a legitimate weapon of war. This followed the harassment of the International Red Cross humanitarian efforts at flying in food relief to the refugees in Biafra who became malnourished with kwashiorkor. The sympathetic world screamed to the high heavens over this inhuman utterance and situation but we all finally came to appreciate the reality that the kingdom of heaven is based on justice while the kingdom on earth is based on oil. This traumatisation of Ndigbo continued with the immediate cessation of the physical war when the same Nigerian leader, acting as the finance minister, caused to be decreed that all Biafrans who operated bank accounts or those who needed to change their Biafran currency for Nigerian currency [both denominated in pounds at the time] should be paid a maximum of twenty  pounds of Nigerian currency, no matter the amount of money they had had in their accounts. It may be difficult to appreciate or understand the financial, psychological, social and moral trauma Ndigbo went through as a result of this decree on a people just coming out of a three-year old war of attrition. These are all scars of that war and we all know that a wound may heal but the scar remains. Are Ndigbo of today, therefore, being haunted by the scars of the Biafran war?
As the physical war ended in 1970, there were other laws or decrees which contributed significantly in placing Ndigbo at positions of extreme disadvantage in the scheme of things in Nigeria. The Indigenisation Decree allowed Nigerians to take over some businesses hitherto being operated by foreigners or to have controlling shares or stake holding in such businesses. Ndigbo could not have the financial muscle to be part of this exercise as you will recall that the initiators of this laudable indigenisation enterprise were the same individuals who paid Ndigbo businessmen, who might have been millionaires before the war, unthinkable paltry 20 pounds, no matter what they had had in their accounts! That was simply economic strangulation of a people, while opening up avenues of wealth and enterprise for the rest of the country.
There was the general characterisation of Ndigbo as purveyors of education, just as my in-laws, the Ekitis, are regarded in the Southwest. But what happened at the end of the war; all the schools in the country were taken over by government, resulting in the seizure of mission schools which were the bastion of quality academic and moral education in the region prior to that war. Teachers became disillusioned and demoralised and the trauma inflicted at the time is still manifested in the overall poor rating of education in Nigeria to this very day. Gradually Ndigbo families and school-age children began to lose confidence in academic pursuits. Even with regard to higher education there were policies introduced which were subtle ways of stifling Ndigbo efforts at either gaining entry or having access to universities or tertiary institutions of their choice. Do you remember quota system, selective cut-off points, catchment areas, and other discriminatory policies? At the employment and appointment levels you can readily recall the issue of quota, Federal character, zoning, selective promotions and several others which are manipulated to suit parochial, religious or ethnic interests. In all these, when your people are not opportuned to belong to the forces which influence the direction of flow of these decisions; they merely end up with the short end of the pole. This is where Ndigbo have found themselves in the scheme of things in Nigeria of today.
Petroleum has remained the mainstay of the Nigerian economy since the end of the civil war, having displaced mining and agriculture of the pre-independence era. Petroleum has contributed to the development of infrastructures and businesses, coupled with massive employment and utilisation of some local materials. There have been bodies set up by government to assist oil producing states in infrastructural and other development efforts, as a way of compensating them for environmental degradation and consequent economic and social disharmony. In all, there are nine states of the federation so recognised as oil producing. The Southeast zone of the country has 2 states, Imo and Abia as major oil producing states in the region. As at today, despite the antecedents of Owerri as the precursor of oil business in Nigeria, [where Shell D’Arcy, the forerunner of Shell BP and later Shell Petroleum Development Company [SPDC] commenced operations in Nigeria], there is no petroleum industry related federal presence in the whole zone, such as refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer plants, LNG plants, institutions or laboratories and the like. You can imagine the level of deprivation and criminal neglect of a zone or a people over time, and under various forms of government in their own country.
All these deprivations, stiflings and neglect resulting from a lost war, are obviously telling on the aspirations and dreams of the teeming millions of youths roaming the rural and urban areas of the Southeast. When the Niger Delta youths could no longer tolerate the insensitivity of the Nigerian government to their plight, they took the law into their own hands which culminated in various criminal and anti-social activities, including disruption of oil and gas industry activities and kidnapping of expatriate workforce. But all that is now history, thanks to a listening government, with the realisation of the fact that dialogue is the healer of all wounds and not confrontation or war mongering.
Let me state unequivocally that nothing can justify restive youths taking the law into their own hands or individuals or groups destabilizing a government or causing security concerns in any manner or form. There are legitimate ways of pressing for justice, equity and fairness to address very obvious lapses as currently prevalent in the Southeast of Nigeria. But again herein lies the issue of leadership. Who could have imagined Zik, or M.I. Okpara or Akanu Ibiam or an Mbadiwe or an Mbonu Ojike watching over the deterioration of affairs in Igboland during their lifetime? Come to think of it, who would have dared to lock out any of these revered leaders from a venue of a meeting they were scheduled to attend? But today in the Southeast any idiot who has had access to money, no matter how such money was sourced or acquired, easily finds his way into politics. He then buys his way into a position of authority or power and his first victims are the intellectuals, people with good ideas, people of honour and people of conscience. These are people antithetical to his crooked and warped ideas which only target state funds, and therefore these perceived enemies must be hounded and intimidated out of circulation or relevance. This is the dilemma of Ndigbo. No outsider will resolve or reverse it for Ndigbo because it makes the outsider comfortable to see the zone in disarray. The governors in the Southeast must sit up and show more concern for the ever growing number of educated, unemployed, able bodied Ndigbo youths all over the country, but particularly at home. Let these youths be engaged in school-to-farm agriculture projects, road construction and other positive gainful assignments. If it is a hidden policy of the federal government not to have its presence in the zone, the governors can do much better than what is happening now. As long as these youths are jobless and idle, as long as politicians recklessly flaunt and display ill-gotten wealth, and as long as people in authority show no remorse for non-performance, the Southeast zone will not be safe for anybody.
Ndigbo must therefore shake off the war scar mentality and accept that we have erred over these years and begin to make determined efforts to change a mindset of money meaning everything and that power is for grabs and should be used in settling perceived personal scores, instead of being used for development. Ndigbo must begin to realize that they are in a world of people, some who may not particularly like them but may merely tolerate them and their perceived excesses. They may be right and they may also be wrong. Take a country like Israel which is surrounded by hostile neighbours, but Israel is thriving because there is that collective determination to survive and their leaders are genuine leaders who pursue a common goal of interest. Ndigbo have so far denied themselves of genuine leadership for some time now and that genuine leadership must emerge if the current stigmatization of the Southeast is to be tackled sincerely and laid to rest. Let us recall that in the 60s when the then Western Nigeria was in leadership crisis, the great artiste, late Herbert Ogunde, of blessed memory composed a song entitled Yoruba ro nu, meaning that the Yoruba should please think. Ndigbo chenu echiche. The time is now.
BY JONAS ODOCHA.