By Obi Nwakanma
Last weekend I was in Chicago for the annual International Igbo Studies Association Conference.
The conference was held at the Dominican University in River Forest, Chicago, under the good graces of President Dr. Donna M. Carroll and Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, and the great stewardship of Dr. Nkuzi Nnam, Professor and Director of the Black World Studies at the Dominican University.
I had been invited by the quondam President of ISA, Dr. Apollos Nwauwah, Professor and Director of Africans Studies at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, to speak on the Special Executive Roundtable on “The On-going National Conference: An Appraisal of the position of Ndi-Igbo.”
It felt like an appropriate moment for that discussion given the quality of noises coming from the Igbo delegation to the current National Dialogue. It felt, particularly in my various discussions with Professor Felix Ekechi, Emeritus Professor of History at Kent State University, Professor Christian Ukaegbu, Distinguished Market and Developmental Sociologist, now at Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and the likes of Dr. Sam Enyia of Lewis University, Dr. Tobe Nnamani, of the National Missionary Seminary of St Paul, Abuja, Dr. Godson Obia, Professor of Geography and Associate Dean of the College of Sciences of the Eastern Illinois University, among many others, that the Igbo are in that
anxious and restless mood of which the poet and philosopher, Dr. Chielozona Eze of the Northeastern Illinois University Chicago, and I both agreed, was reflective of what I have discerned as “nationalist melancholy.” It is that strange feeling of lack, loss, and lingering displacement and alienation, which has been the mood of the Igbo since the end of the civil war in 1970.
It is the ironic condition that is compelling Igbo excess – its drive towards transcendence and mastery – in its cultural output; its nationalist imagination; its industry; its dispersal; its psychosis.
The ironic good in it all is that the Igbo themselves are aware of their condition, and across the world today, in family living rooms and dining tables; at academic conferences and the cloisters and halls of great academies, in their villages and towns, and in the great urban ghettoes of the world where they can be found, the Igbo themselves are raising the “Igbo question.” It is the same condition that compelled the Jewish question; the Irish question, and that gave Germany, Kant, Hegel, and the philosophers of the German enlightenment.
The Igbo are conducting what I call the inward gaze. I went to Chicago, therefore to articulate the following positions: that the Igbo must come to terms with their historical role and task as builders of a modern polynational state. In this task, they are in partnership with other nationalists for whom the Nigerian state built on justice, equity, and freedom is a historical imperative.
It is true today that there are two types of the Igbo: those who are ambivalent about Nigeria, and wish to withdraw permanently from it, and those who are resolved about Nigeria and wish to fashion it out of its primordial chaos. Those Igbo who wish for a separate Igbo nation have compelling argument: Igbo must seek self-determination, given that, as they say, the potential of the Igbo people are trapped or caged in Nigeria where, they are convinced, the national pastime is “Igbo hate.”
A nation, where, as one scholar put it last weekend, “the Igbo have been killed and targeted just for being Igbo.” It is a powerful argument in itself, this quest for sovereign security. There are those like me, who insist however that the Igbo, rather than contract, must expand the frontiers of nation.
It is in Igbo historical interest to work in line with the ideas circulated from the 18th, 19th, and 20th century by four of the greatest Igbo political and intellectual leaders in the last three hundred years: Olauda Equiano, Dr. James Africanus Horton, Dr. Edward Blyden, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
The Igbo must continue to seek and work with the individuals and groups with whom they share this compelling vision of a great African nation-state.
The Igbo of this generation must therefore understand the nature of the nationalist debate.
In a monograph published in November 1959, and re-issued on 30th April 1979, titled “Matchless Past Performance: My reply to Chief Awolowo’s challenge,” Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe wrote the following: “The NCNC was founded in 1944 in order to win for Nigeria political freedom, social equality, economic security, and religious toleration.
Since then it has been subjected to the most severe strictures both by the powers that be and by certain individuals, who seven years later, founded the Action Group as a Fascist counterpart to its socialist principle.”
Three compelling visions have animated the Nigerian project since 1951: the feudal theocracy of Ahmadu Bello which drives the agenda of what Chinweizu has described as “caliphate colonialism,” Obafemi Awolowo’s fascist nationalism, anchored on the primacy of ethnic particularism and Yoruba exceptionalism, and Azikiwe’s pan-African nationalist humanism.
The Zikist ideal of a great diverse and shared nation, “where no man suffers oppression,” has been the casualty of other contending ideas and forces, and has been in abeyance in Nigeria since 1967. The civil war forced the Igbo to withdraw from Zikism and embrace isolationism masked in the debate about “self-determination.” Nigeria has been the poorer for it.
The Nigerian fascist movement has masked itself behind the debate on “true federalism.” But what is “true federalism?” This will be the subject of another essay. Mainly, what the Igbo delegation to the National conference should bring back to the Igbo should not be the creation of a new state for the Igbo, but the consolidation of Igbo and other citizens right in a properly organized federation. A new state will not resolve, but will complicate the Igbo situation.
The challenge for the Igbo is two pronged: one is internal, and the other external: internally the Igbo should create a joint development and common services capacity to drive Igbo development in the 21st century. They must jointly deal with what I call the “unemployment bomb.” With the highest number of highly skilled unemployed in Nigeria, the Igbo are sitting on a keg of gunpowder. The Igbo must therefore restore Community development and local administration based on the 1956 county council model adopted by Eastern Nigeria for effective service delivery and development.
Until they dispense with the current model of “autonomous communities” and their monarchs, the drive for grassroots development will be stymied. Externally, the Igbo must create a 21st century security platform that will secure, protect, and repel any acts of violence against any Igbo anywhere they live. The Igbo must account for their own condition and stop blaming other factors.