By Obi Nwakanma
I received an e-mail early this week from a reader of the “Orbit” who read this column last Sunday. I quote the relevant part: “I am a 40 years old, well-educated Ibo (sic) man, a lawyer, born in March 1978. I live in Aba in South East Nigeria.
I am interested in what you have written about the religion of the Ibos(sic), and feel that I have been told lies all my life. At my age I do not know many things about the culture of my people, and I live in Ibo (sic)land. I will like you to kindly explain more of this as it will help me answer some questions I have been asking myself.”
I salute this gentleman for this question, and return to this issue on account of his curiosity. I count myself among those who think that Nigeria is an unjust and corrupt place. But I remain partisan to the Nigerian project for reasons which I have stated in previous essays and which I shall restate in the course of this essay. Nigeria as an idea is a beautiful idea – rich, diverse, big, and dynamic. The fusion of cultures towards creating a mighty nation built on the principle of justice and equity, and working towards a fairer union is profound. Nigeria is a young nation in a hurry to reach its full potentials. But it is still a work in progress.
Aside from the contention that postwar Nigeria has been unjust to the Igbo, most Nigerians, including many Igbo agree that Nigeria is a potentially great nation. But in its current evolution, it is also a very corrupt, unstable, and unjust country.
Those who wish to dismantle this union argue that its basic foundation and structure makes it an unworkable agglomeration of peoples whose motivations or worldviews are so disparate that the process of nation-building becomes a Sisyphean task. A vast number of the Igbo believe that Nigeria is a great drawback to their sense of purpose, and Igbo purpose is to be among the great nations of the world, who through industry and talent solve their existential problems, including the problem of needless poverty and infrastructural limitations.
Ask an Igbo, what makes the Igbo different from other Nigerians? What is this “Igboness” for which the Igbo feels profoundly culturally and ideologically different from other Nigerians? It is not biological, or racial, it is simply, as one of the greatest scholars of the Igbo world, MJC Echeruo reminds us, “a matter of identity.” The conscious Igbo will say Igbo are not subject to the rule of kings (“Igbo enwegh Eze”) and as result they model the highest values of liberty and individual freedom. This conflicts with the values of many of their neighbours.
It was the Igbo captives in the Americas, in Haiti and Virginia after all who first startled their interlocutors, with the defiant and profoundly novel idea, “all men are born free and equal. There is none who is the lord of another!”(“Madu nine wu Eze. Onweghi onye wu Chi ibe ya!”) It was the basis on which European philosophers like Voltaire, or Montesquieu, studying these ideas by the “refuse Igbo” in Haiti, the Caribbean or the Virginian colonies, first began to construct and theorize the new ideas about the “Rights of Man,” itself a categorical contradiction given the feudal culture or condition of Europe in that period of emergent enlightenment.
According to the distinguished historian Okon Uya who studied Diasporic formations and the Atlantic trade in the Middle Passage, these Igbo either chose suicide, or escaped to the hills to fight, rather than be slave or be subservient. Igbo democratic traditions guarantees not only individual freedom, but the rights to conscience which challenges absolute authority.
Whereas their neighbours continue to grapple with ontologically subject situations from traditions of monarchism and feudalism, and because Igbo historically do not make kings (never mind the contemporary heresies of “ancient kingdoms and majesties currently going on in Igbo land, which itself serves as an amusing theatrical distraction for many Igbo), the Igbo are not burdened by inferiority complex, or the idea that a man’s place in the social cosmos is permanently ordained from birth. No, the Igbo answer only to their “Chi” and to the collective of the people called “Oha.” This attitude makes them threatening, brash and volatile, among the spaces in the nation where they are resettling in great numbers, and where they are also diluting settled mores.
The word “Oha na Eze” does not mean “a people and their kings.” In Igbo language, it means “The people as well as those among them who have been initiated into sacred title!” Titles are not “conferred” in Igbo culture. But every free born man of the land has the right, and can take any titles they wish. No one deters him. A man takes a title because he finds himself ready. First, he weighs his pocket, then he informs his kinsmen, who then lay out before him the costs and conditions for the rituals, which includes visiting his maternal home to make offerings to the gods of his maternal lineage where he is regarded as “Nwa Diani” (child of the guardian of the land – which is what women are traditionally in Igbo land) or “Oke Ele” (‘Divine child”).
He completes each step of his journey into transcendence with the guidance of a “Dibia,” and the final ceremony is the ritual of rebirth, in which he dies symbolically, and is laid out for three days in symbolic death at his backyard smeared with the “uhe.” He rises on the third day and the “aka” – the anklet of title is tied to his ankle by the Dibia.
Then his kinsmen and peers would lead him in a great dance to the public square, where he dances to the lone, vigorous beats of the sacred “Epete” drum with other men of title joining him in “Egwu Ndi Nze” or “Egwu Ozo.” Thereafter, he calls a great feast of his friends, and then assumes his title, thus joining the conclave of “Ndi Nze,” pledging to the gods of the land to abide by the sacred injunctions of title. That injunction is called “Iwu Nze.” (Meaning “the laws or rules that guide the actions of the Nze,” which is why sometimes, such men of title are described as “Ononiwu” – those who make observances to the laws).
And the oath of the Nze are (a) to Defend/protect the land and be an unfailing acolyte of the goddess, Ala (b) to be an advocate for truth no matter the condition, even at the pain of death (c) to uphold justice irrespective of his own interests, and (d) to defend the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the most vulnerable in society against any form of oppression or injustice. Thus, when the Nze rises to speak in a gathering of the people, he spears his “Ngwu-Agriga” onto the earth to indicate that he is bound by the laws of “Ala;” he makes the traditional four oblations of the Nze by pointing his “Ofo Nze” four times to the sky to the four immanent representations of Chukwu, and he speaks, and whatever he says is considered gospel because he is a witness of truth, otherwise, the holy mother, “Ala” will take him. An Nze or Ozo, or any Igbo for that matter, who bends his head to another commits “aru” or “nso” against his “Chi.” That is the sum of Igbo belief.
I, myself as a revert to Odinala, have taken the first steps towards this holy title by doing the “Igbanye Ekwelem” ceremonies following the death of my father. The Igbo conception of the self- “onwe m” which is the sign of the collective “I” in “onwe anyi” is the basis of his idea of God or the divine. God is a culturally specific phenomena – “Chi awu otu” – Odinala theology says. The God of the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is different from the God of “Odinala Igbo,” who is unrepresentable. The Abrahamic religions preserved the laws of their God in scriptural texts, Odinala teaches that “Iwu Chukwu di na Ndu” – the laws of God are preserved in life, and we embody and signify these laws written into our spirits. It lives for as long as we live. Odinala thus forbids the preservation of any texts of the worship of the divine in any images lest the texts themselves become “alusi.” The God of the children of Abraham was conceived in the desert and is a God of fire that burns the desert. The God of the descendants of Oha – Ndi Igbo – was conceived in the abundant tropical rain forests by the Atlantic, and is a vegetation God.
The God of Abraham is an “angry and Jealous God.” The God of the Igbo is a satisfied and benign God. One is monarchical. The other is democratic. One is intolerant of competition. The other manifests in multiplicity. The Igbo established Four important centers of worship and pilgrimage to this God: the Temple of the Sun – the “Igwe ka Ala” at Umunneoha, the shrine of the Earth goddess, the “Agbala” at Ezi Awka, the Shrine of the Ancestral God, “Ihu Amadioha Ozuzu” (in Etche, by Igweocha/Rivers state), and the temple of the divine God, “Ihu Chukwu Abiama” at Arochukwu (the word “Abiama” means, the “God whom you approach, and it reveals himself.” As in “Ibia, ga amara.” Basically, it means, the self-revealing God, not as contemporary heretic revisionists now claim him to be a corruption of “Abraham!”).
And to date, a sacred tree still stands at the spot where they in Mbaise say God first stood and created the world at “Orie-Ukwu Umunama,” and consecrated the Kolanut covenant as the ritual of the kinship of all men. Igbo have no concept of permanence. Everything is subject to change. You find this in Igbo concept of architecture and design, in its philosophy of arts and life, an example of which can be found in the Mbari; and the great Zik put it in the most elegant philosophical brevity, “No condition is permanent.” This gives the Igbo a highly optimistic view of life and existence. They are not afraid of change. They do not believe that a man’s situation in life is the sum of his possibility. Therefore they strive to the very end. Besides, a man may die poor in this incarnation, and return in the next wealthy and full of wisdom. This belief that one ultimately returns to fulfill his earthly mission makes the Igbo unenvious of another’s fortune.
An Igbo would say to a man fortunate in this life, “dianyi, Chi gi mu anya!” and celebrate with him, rather than be envious of him, and say to him, “In my next life, may this kind of fortune follow me too.” But he is never constrained by anyone’s status. Status, being impermanent does not give anyone tyrannical rights. They are therefore adventurers, capable of adapting the best in every culture with which they make contact, and building upon it, and dispensing with what is worthless, while preserving their most valuable culture. The Igbo have a cult of the “first-born son” – the “Opara” – whose meaning is, “priest of the Sun god.” The first born son is dedicated at his birth to the service of Chukwu as priest. They belong to the cult of the “Sun-god” and observe “Iwu Anyanwu.” They are never sent to battle. They are protected by sanction. After a certain age, every first born son returns to Ala-Igbo, particularly at the death of his father, to tend the shrine of his ancestors and serve as his family’s priest. He must take a title.
Even if he does not have the means to embark on the rites, his siblings contribute the resources to make him complete the rituals so that he would belong among the titled of the land. The “Di-Opara/Di-Okpala/Di-Okpa” – the oldest surviving first born sons of the land hold as trustees, “Ofo Ndi Iche,” and belong to the conclave of “Ndi Iche.” If there is a ruling class in Igbo land, it is they. When they gather as one, they are the traditional rulers of Igbo land. But their words are not law. They represent Ala, the goddess of the earth, whose sanctions are law. Although they consider “Ala-Igbo” holy, the Igbo also understand that profound imperative, “ebe onye bi k’ona awachi.” A man’s home is where he lives and thrives. And that is why the Igbo invest heavily and without stint, wherever they make home. That is not going to stop anytime soon. Because indeed for the Igbo, “Uwa bu ofu” – the earth is one.
There is no material difference between peoples, only their unique and useful customs, which the Igbo acknowledge as vital, and often say, “Nku di na mba, n’eghere mba nri!” (the firewood found in a land cooks food for the people of the land). A way of saying, each custom is neither inferior nor superior, just useful. The Igbo therefore accord to such customs, their due, without compromising their own sense of the world. The Igbo world view is essentially a very liberal worldview. The true Igbo (“Igbo wu Igbo”), who understand Igbo traditional ideas and values can never be conservative. Which is why it is shocking, what has become the current mind-frame of a contemporary generation of the Igbo. Free enterprise and the right to property does not make Igbo a “capitalist.”
The Igbo is a creator of wealth, and the wealth of the Igbo man in the end belongs, not to his children, but to his kinsmen! The wealth of the Igbo woman belongs to her daughters and daughters-in-law! True Igbo men do not inherit wealth or titles. They inherit fierce ambition to prove the beneficence of their “chi,” their autonomy, freedom, and the dignity of their own labour through years of apprenticeship and education, and the good and honorable names of their ancestors. That is all they need to start in life: a good name, and a high purpose.
Wherever an Igbo goes, he carries with him the pouch of “Aja-ocha” from Igbo land, and spreads it where he makes his home. And that is why as far as the conscious Igbo is concerned today everywhere in Nigeria is Igbo land. The Igbo are the catalysts for a new Nigeria, and they have a worldview that will unite and redeem Nigeria, and turn it in the long run into a prosperous and humane nation: the Igbo insist on freedom and liberty for all humans, the Igbo code of justice is about restorative justice, and the true Igbo understands that beneath the layer of our skins, and worldviews, all humans are the same.
They call the human not just the Igbo – “mmadu” – that which reflects life, and to the Igbo, “Ndubuisi.” All life is sacred.
If the Igbo must assume the mantle of their ancient ancestors, they must fight for justice, not only for the Igbo, but for all oppressed Nigerians, and there is a vast army of those, who also deserve equal rights and justice. All those who have suffered injustice and discrimination in Nigeria like the Igbo; those who have been impoverished by a blind oligarchy, that child who cannot go to school and has been turned into an almajirin and condemned to a life of ignorance, disease, servitude, and perplexity by a so-called ruling oligarchy – these are the true allies of the Igbo whom they have failed to court – all those who seek liberty, prosperity and equality – all the ideals that the Igbo model. The true Igbo must reassert themselves in this nation, and stop wilting. The golden age of the Igbo, all the great things the Igbo achieved in the modern era was under the great Zikist light. Since the Igbo abandoned the light of Azikiwe in pursuit of a very narrow vision, they have been in progressive decline as has the nation the Igbo themselves shaped. That is why I do not agree with IPOB. It is inviting “Ekwe-Nsu” (chaos) into Igboland. Not freedom, or liberty, or light.