By Obi Nwakanma
Joe Igbokwe is an official bullhorn for Mr. Ahmed Bola Tinubu, whom he calls “my leader” and the Lagos APC, which apparently makes him partisan to any discussion concerning the Igbo in Nigeria today. Basically, he has taken his stance, and it is frequently a stance in opposition to a general Igbo position. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, because the Igbo, by their republican ethos, accept that all men must exercise their conscience, have their opinions, and be allowed to dissent with the general views.
The Igbo have a saying, “let even the mad man have his say in the gathering of the kin and not stop him, for who knows, the spirits may relay truth through him.” Many of us have no problem with Joe Igbokwe taking an alternative stance, given that we know what we know as Ndi Igbo, that each man carries his own bag of truth: “truth is like the goatskin bag, and each man carries his own.” That would be both a saying and a parable at the same time, as the Igbo sages themselves are bound to say. However, what irks many Igbo readers of Joe Igbokwe over the long period is what might be his Freudian impulsion to “kill his father” in order to establish his on being.
The utter disregard for the Igbo condition, and his projection of an entire Igbo entity as antinomy. Simply because it does often threaten his own apparently quite lucrative and beneficial affiliation, he opposes every Igbo action and opinion. This is dirty. The tendency to dismiss Igbo concerns as a product of some kind of Igbo national paranoia and overreach is disturbing because it is also false. Joe Igbokwe frequently describes the Igbo as people who apparently are conditioned to hysteria and therefore their responses to the Nigerian national question have no basis in truth but only in their own overdetermined reality. This is why I find Joe Igbokwe’s essay in the Sahara Reporters very interesting.
Now Joe is right in saying, and I’m glad he is heeding my own call in my “Orbit” column in the Sunday Vanguard, that the debate over the Igbo and the new Biafra question should not be left alone in the hands of Nnamdi Kanu and his followers. I am glad that Joe Igbokwe is finally awakening to the reality that the great momentum achieved by Nnamdi Kanu and the new Biafra movement is not simply a flash-in-the-pan, but a growing reality, a movement, the result of a profound level of anger and alienation by a generation of young Igbo and in many instances, other Easterners, who have felt themselves discriminated against, and marginalized in a country that utterly disregards them. I am finally glad that Joe Igbokwe has also finally been forced to acknowledge the facts of Igbo marginality which is what gives propulsion to the fiery anger of the new Biafrans. In Igbokwe’s words: “I agree 100% that Igbo have suffered systemic, organized, structured and official marginalization in Nigeria.” This is the point of the secessionist movement. But Joe Igbokwe also says “but let us go into constructive and civilized engagement to redress the imbalance.”
It has happened for far too long. Fifty years is enough for handwringing; fifty years of “systemic” marginalization has basically aborted an entire generation, and fifty years of “civilized and constructive engagement” has not yielded reprieve to the Igbo. The Igbo have argued, negotiated, cried out, pleaded, tried to build bridges, made sacrifices and concessions for peace, have often yielded grounds to avoid conflict just to preserve this federation, and all that “constructive” effort has actually yielded nothing but continued marginality, discrimination, and insult to the Igbo. Joe Igbokwe is a witness to the event in the SDP in 1992/3 when Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, then senate president publicly insulted Odumegwu-Ojukwu at the SDP convention in Benin city when Ojukwu raised the issue of the Igbo representation in the party, over which Ojukwu left the SDP and backed Dawakin Torfa and Dr. Sylvester Ugoh for the 1993 presidential elections. Yet Joe Igbokwe said nothing about that insult to Ojukwu or the Igbo. Joe Igbokwe was witness when Dr. Sam Mbakwe, in his negotiations with MKO Abiola who promised to make an Igbo Secretary to his government, and Mbakwe quipped that the Igbo needed more than the guarantee of the SGF in an Abiola-led government, because the SGF was no more than the “President’s tea boy.”
MKO Abiola in response declared that he did not need the Igbo or their votes and that he could do without them, to which Arthur Nzeribe made his famous declaration, “well, you cannot be president in Nigeria without the Igbo” and fought him in his uniquely Nzeribe-way. What did Joe Igbokwe do? Nothing. He insults Nzeribe. He insults Zik, he insults Ojukwu, he insults Mbakwe, he insults Achebe, and he insults everybody who has said, “Igbo eketere ole?” What is the share of the Igbo in this republic? Anyone who says, Igbo shall not stand by as mere witnesses to history, while others make and shape Nigerian history to Igbokwe has, how did he and his doppelganger, Ozodi Osuji put it?, a “selfish sense of superiority and paranoid grandiosity.” These are his very words. People who have a “selfish sense of superiority and paranoid grandiosity” do not cry about their marginalization. And the Igbo have cried, and cried, and cried. As a matter of fact, Igbo cry has been for fairness and equity, not just for the Igbo, but for all marginalized people in Nigeria. For crying out, Igbokwe also says the Igbo are not only “paranoid” they have a “persecution complex,” a “marginalization complex” a “defeatist syndrome” and a “leadership complex.” The last bit is even more intriguing to me: it accuses the Igbo of either wanting to lead, or worse exhibiting an impulsion to leadership all the time. You hear in Joe Igbokwe’s voice, the voice of the ventriloquist. He repeats what he has been programmed to say like a robot. But in all that yo-yoing, he never ponders or reflects, on the contradictions of his own statement in agreeing that Igbo have been victims of “systemic marginalization.” Joe Igbokwe accuses Nnamdi Kanu of “hate speech.”
Indeed, Nnamdi Kanu has exhibited the worst kind of instincts and does need to be taken to task over his extremist positions, and his use of needless incendiary rhetoric. But to then say that the so-called Arewa youths are applying a “balance of terror” and learning “hate speech” from the Igbo, and that the Igbo leadership and community organizations are simply, therefore, to blame for their silence is not only ridiculous but is to be blind to the history that Joe Igbokwe summons as his witness: Joe never said a single thing when young Southerners, including young Igbo who had gone to do national service as Youth Corp members, were killed by mobs of the Northern youth in 2011 after Goodluck Jonathan won the presidential elections. How about that for “ethnic bigotry” “primordial tendencies” and ‘reckless abandon”? What did Joe Igbokwe say about those killings and the political riots, and the brazen subversion of Jonathan’s presidency in the North right from its inception? What did Joe Igbokwe say when the Oba of Lagos threatened to drown his Igbo kinsmen in Lagos if they did not vote for Joe’s APC in the 2015 elections? Did Joe not join in calling Igbo names, reminding them how they are merely “visitors” to Lagos? And about the “unacceptable …abuse and uncensored choice of words used against the person of the president” – meaning Buhari -what did Joe Igbokwe say when people were calling President Jonathan all sorts of unprintable names? Was the “President” in front of Jonathan’s name any less in weight than the “President” in front of the name, “Buhari? Was it not Joe Igbokwe who first called his own president “clueless” and such other insulting names? What did Joe Igbokwe say when Buhari threatened to unleash mayhem in his now famous “the blood of baboons” sermons? Did Joe consider that the blood tide that was threatened was directed against his kinsmen in the North? This was long before Nnamdi Kanu began to deploy his own clearly deplorable hate speech. Hate speech, in this case, begat hate speech, and it began with Joe Igbokwe and his cohorts, and it was directed, fully charged against President Goodluck Jonathan, who by all estimation has been the president that was most disrespected in office in a blizzard of obloquy unleashed on his person by Joe Igbokwe and the bullhorns of the APC of which he is a card-carrying partisan. What the “young” Biafran agitators are doing is following exactly in the footsteps of the Joe Igbokwes of this world who invented political hate speech against President Goodluck Jonathan and his supporters. It is thus quite clear, and it is not for nothing that Joe Igbokwe is now regarded as a “saboteur” in Igboland – and I did warn him about his terrible fate – the result of his own use of hate speech against his own people simply because he wishes to protect his own personal investments in Lagos.
Joe has made his choices, and they are choices that places him in direct conflict with the Igbo, for whom he can no longer speak, and with whom he now has what we call a credibility deficit. And there are quite a lot of things Joe Igbokwe clearly still does not know about Ndi Igbo: one, the Igbo “ji Ofo” – there is the ancient Igbo code of justice: as a people, the Igbo are guided by a fierce and unbendable will to justice. The Igbo do not seek equity and fairness alone for themselves, they seek equality and fairness for all individual Nigerians as the primary condition of Nigerian citizenship. They seek a great and prosperous country where no one would threaten to drown or kill the other without consequence; or where some jackass would “order” them out of a region where they have settled, or discriminate against them or anyone else for that matter on the grounds of their identity. The Igbo stood solidly for Goodluck Jonathan, and they do not want to be persecuted for their political choices as has been the case in this APC government under Buhari which Joe Igbokwe fully supports. This is exactly what Joe Igbokwe fails to comprehend. That he supports the persecution of his own people for personal political gains, and that is an abomination. About Igbo assets in the North. It is only property, Joe, and real estate is not regenerative investment, it is only stock assets.
It declines in value by attrition. If the Igbo, for any reasons, were to leave the North, the property value in the North will collapse according to the law of demand. So, whatever assets the Igbo may be forced to leave behind, the loss will be momentarily felt, but those places where they left will be “ghost cities.” It is not true that the Igbo can, should they be forced to leave, not be able to live “together” in the same political space or nation. There is no greater fiction. The greatest momentum in Igbo life took place with the “ingathering” of 1966 – and that energy has never since been recreated or felt in the East. There will be moments of tension, no doubt. There might even be excessive and at times deadly competition. But the Igbo is a conciliar culture built on negotiations and compromise, and they will thrive if they choose to go it alone. They may even end up partnering with the Southern Cameroon secessionist movement to form a “union government” or better still, effect what we might call their own “Bakassi Purchase” – equivalent of the American “Louisiana Purchase” and there is nothing that is impossible. Nonetheless, we must work with everyone interested in salvaging and preserving the Nigerian nation to help pull back from these edges.
About the Igbo language – Joe Igbokwe apparently does not know that the Igbo language is one of the official national languages of Equatorial Guinea, or that there are dialects of the Igbo language spoken in Central Africa. He continues to dwell on the unreflective and unreconstructed fiction that has long been retailed about the Igbo by official Nigerian narrative that sees the Igbo more in terms of adversaries. And finally, while a great Nigerian nation is valuable and desirable, and must be preserved, and might actually quite possibly be in the long run in the higher interest of the Igbo, but it should be a nation based on the guarantees of true equality and solidarity. But it will not happen with the likes of Joe Igbokwe disparaging Ndi Igbo in general over their stance on their own experience of marginalization. You must sit with Nnamdi Kanu whatever else you may think of him, and listen to him, bring him in with his group, and provide him conditions for rapprochement, and these without pre-condition. It will also not be a Nigerian nation preserved on the back of the Igbo, based on a Carthaginian treaty and its, “peace of the graveyard,” where the Igbo will continue to dwell inside a glass ceiling, or the condition that the late Dim Emeka Ojukwu called the situation of “ Jonah in the belly of the beast,” just so that the Joe Igbokwes of this world would have peace, the security of their own investments, and continue to enjoy the long, endless, pointless rumination also called, “civilized, constructive engagement.” At some point, people do rise to say, “heck, No!” when they are no longer able to stomach their condition. This is what is going on with the young Biafrans.
Once upon a time, people used to mock the Igbo and say that Igbo people could never agree to act with one voice. Well, Nnamdi Kanu and his group have demonstrated what I have always known to be true, that there is a fundamental misinterpretation of the Igbo, by people like Joe Igbokwe who have for far too long lived inside his own head about the Igbo. The Igbo act, and are perfectly capable of constructing a universal will, particularly when it comes to the matters of collective justice. These are dangerous times, and truth be told, many of us who have crossed the threshold of fifty are not in charge of this movement or its impulsions.
The young Igbo have risen to confront us with our failures to act to prevent this moment. We can only move deftly to control the debate and reshape the enterprise and prevent what seems currently an inevitable confrontation. This is the point that Joe Igbokwe must acknowledge, that he has been a witness to a history of injustice on the Igbo, and has chosen rather to be, not a witness of truth, but a self-righteous, self-interested dissenter, because injustice to the Igbo is not his primary concern. His primary and reactionary quest is that the Igbo dare not rock his boat by speaking out against the pressure of the factors that are intent on destroying them. Igbokwe wants Igbo silence and humility which by the way only needs three alphabets to become “humiliation.” But as the novelist, Chukwuemeka Ike would say, “Our Children are coming” and they are coming with the ferocity of half a century of suppressed and unmitigated anger. What must however be made clear to these young Biafrans – be they Ogoni, Kalabari, Ijo, Efik, or Igbo – for it is clear that there are great supporters of this movement among these groups too – is that the Nigerian project is a huge work in progress, and yes, Nigeria in which only the Igbo prosper will be as dangerous for them as the Nigeria which seeks to marginalize them.
And Igbo interest and future can be secured in a Nigerian federation given certain conditions. We must give Nigeria a chance. We must help to shape it rather than abandon it. We have the opportunity today to direct this fierce anger into a huge collaborative anger by arming the youth of the land with ideas, and make them see that their enemies are not the other dispossessed youth of the North or the South, so that they can build common grounds, and aim at creating a Nigeria of opportunities; that Nigeria which Zik promised the youth – the ones he called the “new Africans;” a Nigeria built on cooperative citizenship rather than adversarial citizenship. What is good for the young people in the South must be good for the young people in the North, and none must be made to suffer disadvantage in order to prod-up the other. We must make them understand that merit is crucial, but accommodation is as vital in the construction of one’s strategic interest. But one must not be at the detriment of the other. We must guide them towards dispensing with the sustained animosity that fails to see how religion, ethnicity, and class have combined to become the toxic mix that now tears at the very soul of this country.
There, is where I’m prepared to stand in my critique of Nnamdi Kanu. But we cannot blame the Biafran agitators because they agitate out of pure anger of felt dispossession. And so, Joe Igbokwe may witness to history, but as that sagely philosopher of African and human freedom in the 20th century, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe did once say at another crisis point, “history will vindicate the just.” But only the just, Joe. We need a just peace, not the perfect peace, but also not the peace of the graveyard purchased on the back of the long-oppressed who now say, “No, in Thunder!” because history too is their witness.
*Dr. Obi Nwakanma is Professor of English, and Columnist of the “Orbit” in the Sunday Vanguard.