By Obi Nwakanma
In January, Ohaneze Ndi Igbo, elected Mr. John Nnia Nwodo as its new President (never mind the tautology “President-General”). Not a few Igbo breathed a sigh of relief on account of the fact that Nwodo was the right sort of peg in the right sort of hole.
Let me recast a little background to the beginnings of Ohaneze as a group. But before then my source: as a young reporter in the 1990s, I visited Dr. Akanu Ibiam in Unwana, Afikpo – tracing my path from Enugu, where I’d first been directed to meet him.
He was a lean and Athletic man even then already in his 80s, and looked nothing like what I’d imagined, a “king,” with all the paraphernalia of masqueradry I associated with such buffoonery in Igbo land. Dr. Ibiam wore a simple print shirt that day, and had on, not a crown, but a beret that made him look more like a French bohemian than an Igbo monarch.
And I did ask how an elder of the church of Scotland, a Presbyterian in fact, and former missionary doctor ended up as a king. It was Dr. Ibiam who first reminded me in fact that the word “Eze” did not necessarily mean “king” in the Igbo language.
“I am not a monarch in the imperial sense of the word. I am a justice of the peace, and keeper or trustee of the powers of my people in Unwana.” It all began in 1970, when the old guard of Igbo political leadership, mostly former ministers of the government of the East met, first at the home of J.M. Echeruo in Enugu, in a meeting with the British Minister Lord Carrington, which set the tone for discussions on the strategic reconstruction of the East from the devastations of war.
But there was also in the background, the plans for a full political re-integration, which required that the old political guard, not long out of power return to the grassroots, regroup, and prevent the planned insertion of political subverts into the Igbo communities aimed at weakening Igbo political interests from the center.
These former political leaders of the East agreed to bid their time at their local community levels, and stand as bulwark against the political threats against the Igbo at the end of the war, in preparation for Gowon’s political transition billed to commence in 1974.
Thus, they took on the role of Community leadership and became “Eze” – and this was how most of the old ministers of government became “Eze” – among the many, Ibiam, Echeruo, Okeke, and of course, John Nwodo, the father of the current president of Ohaneze. They also started Ohaneze as a Political Action group, with Dr. Akanu Ibiam as its first president. These political leaders met regularly as trustees of Igbo political interest, and kept the fires in the forges alight.
Ohaneze was largely inactive between 1979 and 1983, but by the late 1980s and 1990s, it became the clear fulcrum of Igbo political negotiations in the absence of any other viable political conduit. But one of the major criticisms about Ohaneze over the years is what its many critics have observed as its distance from the people whom it purports to represent.
There is a serious sense among a large segment of the Igbo that Ohaneze is far more than anything else it might claim, a mutual admiration society representing largely elite interests, and without a real grounding within the “Oha” – the Igbo public – which ought to be the bastion of its power. That the leaders of the organization have failed over the years to connect with an important segment of the Igbo society represents a critical disjuncture within the Igbo political world itself.
As a matter of fact, very serious Igbo political actors at some point saw Ohaneze as either too tepid or too compromised by its political affiliations, actions or even inaction, to offer the Igbo any serious umbrella for political action. People like the late Dr. Sam Mbakwe, for instance, refused to associate with Ohaneze because of what he believed to be its reactionary and complicit agenda. It did feel at one point in its history to be the tool of the “anti Zikist” forces in Igbo land.
At one point, the late Ikemba Odumegwu-Ojukwu rejected Ohaneze’s program both for its tepidity and for its inconsistencies. Ojukwu once famously quipped that he had no business with an Igbo organization that was merely a “socio-cultural group” in the face of the political realities that confronted the Igbo in Nigeria.
Ohaneze has tended to be a centrist, and middling organization, and as far as negotiations go with the government of Nigeria, on behalf of the Igbo, have often been worsted, or have negotiated mostly from a positon of weakness. Ohaneze had long failed to take advantage of its potential to build power structures that could enhance it operationally and make it the shadow authority of the Igbo.
Ohaneze has for instance, watched without intervention, the decimation of the Town Union governments in Igbo land, which could have been its direct source of political power among the Igbo who do not do well with the rule of kings. Ohaneze has failed to fully integrate Igbo city Town Union organizations across Nigeria and even West Africa, which could have been an important source of its political program.
Ohaneze has failed to step fully into the shoes of the old Igbo Union, and expand its program, which would have assured it of wider support and offered it its most relevant mission, or raison d’etre, and connected it directly to the Igbo public. Ohaneze’s failure to provide true leadership; its many failed opportunities to organize the Igbo have led ultimately to the rise of contending organizations, including of course, IPOB among a new generation.
The fact that IPOB depends on its funding from the subscriptions wholeheartedly paid by those who believe in its mission should underscore Ohaneze’s slippery place within the Igbo world, and the possibilities it has failed to utilize in creating “Utu Ndi Igbo” worldwide – a subscription system that would have given it the liquidity to run its political, social, and economic programs, for as long as the Igbo buy-in to an Ohaneze they could believe in.
But although it has the opportunity, Ohaneze has been unable to build real political capacity in Igbo land, or a real following or support, and remains very vulnerable because it is now competing with a new political discourse among the Igbo – the discourse of separation and autonomy championed by a resurgent Biafra movement.
Given its challenges, Ohaneze must quickly recalibrate, and that is why many see the emergence of John Nnia Nwodo as a good first step. John Nwodo has the kind of training, preparation, and political experience that should stand him in great stead in this unique task, and at this unique moment when the Igbo need a rallying force in negotiating its future political and economic place in contemporary Nigeria.
Trained as an Economist and a Lawyer, both at Ibadan and the University of London; Nwodo, former Students Union President of the University of Ibadan in the 1970s, is a profoundly eloquent man; a man made for the political balustrades. As the youngest Political Adviser to the president of the second republic, and later minister of Aviation, Nwodo clearly cut his teeth very early in public service.
His later experience in the transitional military government as Minister for information, gives him added lustre, and yes, he comes from a family where public service seems ingrained. He seems right for Ohaneze at the moment. His advocacy so far, in speaking directly about the Igbo situation has been without the usual tendency by people in the same position, for biting their tongues to maintain faux-neutrality in the matters of nation.
Nwodo has initiated a number of bridge-building moves with his parley with the Afenifere; and his meetings last week with the group of the South-South in the SE-SS conference. He is reaching out to the middle belt and to the North, and it is all good.
Nnia Nwodo has said quite clearly that the Igbo must stop talking about “marginalization” and get on with it. I agree. The Igbo have made that point, and it has not earned them any significant reprieve. Igbo must now turn in-ward, and muster every fibre to rebuild. John Nnia.
Nwodo must lead the Igbo to the great Igbo renaissance, but it must start with repositioning of Ohaneze Ndi Igbo. Ohaneze must develop a political program; build an efficient organization, situate itself firmly in the Igbo mind, and acquire real power and mandate. It must seek the best Igbo talents widely dispersed across the world, and build this organization.