By Charles Kumolu
THE demise of Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu may have signalled the beginning of an era, given that the question of who succeeds him as Igbo leader would probably not be answered in a short while.
The manner in which he earned the Igbo leadership and the uneasy calm trailing the crowning of the leader of Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, Chief Ralph Uwazurike’s as Ijele Ndigbo, indicate that the last may not have been heard about who becomes the consensus Igbo leader.
Already, in a manner reminiscent of the controversy generated by the 1995 conferment of same title on Ojukwu, the installation of Uwazurike has stoked the fire to high heavens. To calm this brewing controversy, the traditional ruler of Agu-ukwu Nri, who gave him (MASSOB leader) the title, Eze Nri, Ezeobidiegwu Onyeso, had defended why Uwazurike was chosen as Ijele Ndigbo.
He had said: “The palace of Eze Nri Enwelana II is sad about the controversy trailing the conferment of a chieftaincy title on Chief Ralph Uwazurike and wishes to make it abundantly clear to all and sundry that he only conferred the chieftaincy title of Ijele Ndigbo on him.
The palace regrets the unnecessary controversies and misinterpretation generated by the title, Ijele Ndigbo.”
Regardless of this apparent defence, it is believed that the debate on who steps into Ojukwu’s big shoes may have just begun. A former governor of Anambra State, Senator Chris Ngige, acknowledged that the demise of the former head of state of the defunct Republic of Biafra, has opened another phase in Igbo political history. He conceded that Ojukwu’s death has created a leadership vacuum, but added that Igbos have never sat down to elect a general leader.
Ekwueme is the highest ranking Igbo leader—Ngige
Ngige submitted: “Ikemba’s demise has created a great vacuum in Igbo leadership. And you know that he became a leader through the circumstances of history, especially the January 1966 coup. The genocide and the pogrom that was unleashed on Igbo people threw Ikemba up. So the Igbos have never really sat down at any time to elect a leader.”
Touching on the belief in most quarters that there could be a successor among the crop of Igbo leaders, he said: “The highest political office holder in the land today is Dr. Alex Ekwueme, but if you ask people who is the highest Igbo leader now, they will tell you they don’t know. Ekwueme is the highest Igbo man that has held office in Nigeria. So, the death of Ikemba has kick-started another phase in Igbo nationalist struggle. I think that instead of talking about who fills the leadership vacuum, his death has opened a phase in Igbo history. It is meant for Igbo men to close ranks with one another. It is just like how Jesus Christ left his followers to carry on with his good works, the Igbos are left with a very good project. This affects the elite particularly. They should not relent to fight for justice, peace and equity in Nigeria.
“As far as I am concerned, I am ready to be part of the political army that will soldier on for Igbo unity. We will continue on the project of emancipation and protection of Igbo people that Ikemba started. Above all some of us are ready to continue with Ikemba’s project, we don’t need to be called leaders to do that.”
We are egalitarian without central leadership— Ezeife
For another former governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, the question of who succeeds Ojukwu, should not be an issue. As far as he is concerned, the Igbo race has always been a republican society, without a central kingship.
He notes: “In leadership, we have dynasty and dynastic succession. So, what office was Ojukwu holding before he died? Ojukwu was holding office in the minds of Ndigbo and not by election or appointment. Eze Igbo means king of Igbos, but he was not a king that orders his people around by way of control.
Igbo has no such leadership before Ojukwu died and now. On who will be his successor, the traditional ruler of any Igbo community has the right to confer any chieftaincy title on any body he deems fit. And the person has the right to receive it. It does not mean that giving any traditional title to any Igbo leader, means that the person is the king of the Igbo.
“Ojukwu’s leadership among Ndigbo was earned. And we know that Ojukwu is newsworthy and anything around him is newsworthy. So circumstances made Ojukwu leader in the mind of our people, otherwise the question of who succeeds him is a non-issue, because Igbos don’t have such central leaders. The Ijele Ndigbo, Eze Igbogburu or any form of traditional title does not mean the king of Igbos.”
Contrary to the assumption in some quarters, that a successor had be selected, Ezeife explained that a new set of leaders would emerge for the unity of the Igbo race. But he was quick to add that such might not translate to a one man leadership for Ndigbo. His words: “Our people are egalitarian with a republican system. Leadership would emerge in a collegial way; it would not come in form of a one man leadership. It will be difficult for a one man leadership to emerge. What would emerge would be a group leadership, whose leadership qualities would bring about unity for our people.” Asked the possibility of a consensus leader emerging from the present crop of Igbo leaders, Ezeife, said: “I don’t know leaders are created by followership. If our people decide to follow and listen to one particular person, that person becomes a leader. It is possible but like I told you, a body of leaders would emerge because we need it.”
Igbo nation before Ezeigbo controversy
The position of the two ex-governors appears to be in consonance with an Igbo adage, Igbo enwegi eze, which literally means that Igbos have no king or central leadership. A look into Igbo traditional history speaks volumes on this. The traditional Igbo political organisation is based on a quasi-democratic republican system of government. In tight knit communities, this system guaranteed its citizens equality, as opposed to a feudalist system with a king ruling over subjects.
This government system was witnessed by the Portuguese who first arrived and met with the Igbo people in the 15th century. With the exception of a few notable Igbo towns such as Onitsha, which had kings called Obi, and places like the Nri Kingdom and Arochukwu, which had priest kings, Igbo communities and area governments were overwhelmingly ruled solely by a republican consultative assembly of the common people. Communities were usually governed and administered by a council of elders. Although title holders were respected because of their accomplishments and capabilities, they were never revered as kings.