By Ikechukwu Amaechi

NDIGBO will go to the polls on January 11, 2021 to elect a new President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation. It promises to be a consequential election. But why?

Whoever wins will lead Ndigbo in what is perhaps the most critical period in Nigeria’s history. The country is at the delicate crossroads of history with politicians behaving like Emperor Nero who “fiddled while Rome burned.” It is even more so for Ndigbo whose political elite and their conduct in the face of existential threat reveal total lack of concern for their people.

Founded in 1976, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, which represents Igbo communities in and outside Nigeria – The five South East states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo, plus Igbo communities in Rivers and Delta – is a child of circumstance.

At the end of the civil war in 1970, some concerned Igbo elite, conscious of uniting under one umbrella their kith and kin devastated by a genocide, founded the Igbo National Assembly, INA, which was later banned by a Federal Military Government suspicious of anything Igbo.

But Ndigbo, as resilient as ever, did not shillyshally, hence the creation of Ohanaeze Ndigbo in 1976. Professor Ben Nwabueze, a foremost constitutional lawyer, played a prominent role and emerged its Secretary-General, a position he held for 20 years.

The primary goal of Ohanaeze, which is not a political party, is to foster Igbo unity in order to burnish their national political lot. And Igbo socio-political and economic titans of that era – Chief K.O. Mbadiwe, Dr. Francis Akanu Ibiam, Dr. Michael Iheonukara Okpara, Dr. Pius Okigbo, and Chief Jerome Udorji – gave it maximum support.

Forty years after, Ohanaeze Ndigbo has reasonably delivered on its mandate. The outgoing leadership headed by Chief John Nnia Nwodo as President-General has particularly done a good job, skillfully navigating the treacherous landmines that litter the Nigerian political space.

But in all these years also, Ohanaeze has had its leadership challenges with external forces pushing hard to influence and control whoever becomes the President-General. President Olusegun Obasanjo arm-twisted the Professor Joe Irukwu-led executive to alter the Igbo position on his ill-fated third term bid. Since 1999, South East governors have tried to exert influence on the group.

Such attempts reached a ridiculous climax this year with the consensus abracadabra spawned by some leaders in Imo State led by Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, apparently at the behest of Governor Hope Uzodinma. Yet, the need to elect a credible Ohanaeze leadership resonates louder today than ever before.

The consensus hocus-pocus where Professor George Obiozor was said to have emerged unanimously as the compromise president-general chosen by the so-called Imo stakeholders to succeed Chief Nnia Nwodo is ridiculous. It is the turn of Imo State to produce the president-general because the office is rotatory, but the Ohanaeze constitution states that offices are filled through election.

Election takes place after an electoral committee is constituted by the highest decision making body, Ime-Obi, which also ratifies the time-table for the exercise. Contestants are declared eligible after screening by the committee. Article 11 (b) of the constitution stipulates that “the President-General shall be elected by the National General Assembly from the state whose turn it is to fill the office, provided there are at least three candidates.”

Over the years, the will of the people has prevailed in the choice of Ohanaeze leaders and it goes without saying that the organisation will lose its essence when anti-democratic forces masquerading as political leaders nominate occupants to the offices as Uzodinma is trying to do with the Obiozor consensus gamble.

Make no mistake, Obiozor, former Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States and Israel, is qualified to occupy the high office of Ohanaeze President-General. But he is not the only qualified candidate or even the pre-eminent one. Other candidates are Prof. Chidi Osuagwu, former Chairman of Imo State Ohanaeze Ndigbo; Dr. Joe Nwaorgu, former Ohanaeze Secretary-General; Dr. Chris Asoluka, former president of Igbo think tank, Aka Ikenga; Chief Goddy Uwazurike, former president of Aka Ikenga; as well as former President of Imo State Ohanaeze Ndigbo.

In fact, in a sense, Obiozor is the least qualified considering the limited role he has played in Ohanaeze. How can anyone prefer him as a consensus candidate over and above Nwaorgu, who, apart from having been both Deputy Secretary General (2000-2004) and Secretary General (2003-2017), has also been a member of Ohanaeze Ime Obi since 2002?

Forces outside Igboland have clear interests in who leads Ohanaeze. That is normal. But allowing those interests to have their way, as they seem to have done in the political arena, will be a bad omen for the body because it will vitiate its ability to serve as a voice for our people.

That cannot be allowed to happen because despite its challenges, Ohanaeze remains the last buffer against Igbo onslaught in Nigeria. If Ndigbo lose Ohanaeze, they may well have lost everything.

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The office of President-General is as important as that of Secretary-General now zoned to Abia State. One of the biggest problems of Ohanaeze is its lack of institutional memory because the secretariat has not been run as it should.

But that will be a thing of the past if Ndigbo entrust that all important portfolio in the able hands of Chief Ireke Kalu Onuma, a Russian-trained historian who hails from Abiriba in Ohafia Local Government of Abia State.

I have known Onuma for 20 years and he has delivered as the pioneer administrative secretary of Ndigbo Lagos Foundation. His administrative ingenuity has made the association one of the most successful Igbo associations.

His record keeping ability, which he deployed in digitalising the operations Ndigbo Lagos secretariat, is incredible. That is exactly what is needed at Ohanaeze Ndigbo secretariat.

On his return from Russia, Onuma served as Personal Secretary and Assistant to the first President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Justice Ezebuilo Ozobu. Since then, he has not looked back in serving Igbo causes, most times spurning political appointments and more lucrative offers from the private sector.

As pioneer administrative secretary of Ndigbo Lagos Foundation, a position he holds to date, he has served under three Presidents – Chief Chris Ezeh, Prof Anya O. Anya and Gen. Obi Abel Umahi.

Onuma served as Research Assistant to the Ohanaeze legal team during the Oputa Panel, reporting to lead counsel Chief Anthony Mogboh (SAN) and Peter Umeadi (SAN).

He was part of the research and back-channel team of Ohanaeze Ndigbo during the National Conference convened by former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan.

Research and back-channel team

He served as West African Liaison Representative of the third elected President of Ohanaeze, Ambassador Ralph Uwechue, which took him to Mali, Niger Republic, and the Republic of Benin to establish Ohanaeze chapters in those counties.

Besides, Onuma served as the youngest member of a high powered group of Igbo Elders that met periodically during the fight against Obasanjo’s third term bid. That group included Chief C. C. Onoh, Justice Eze Ozobu, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, Dr. Offiah Nwali, Adm. Ndubuisi Kanu, Gen. JOJ Okoloagu, and Dr. Uma Eleazu, among others.

He was a founding member of the South East South South Professionals of Nigeria where he served as the Assistant Secretary and is now the Secretary General.

To say that Onuma has devoted his entire adult life to Ndigbo, working on diverse human enhancing projects across Alaigbo, is to say the obvious. There is no Igbo cause in which he has not involved himself since his return from Russia. And he has done so with utmost dedication. His passion for Igbo causes is beyond compare. He is cerebral, technology-savvy and debonair. His diplomatic skills are awesome. These are all talents that the Secretary General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo need to possess to be effective in a Nigeria that has become so febrile.

And he has put down his thoughts in writing for posterity. He is the author of Igbo Critical Essays, a collection of essays on Ndigbo with a foreword by Prof U. U. Uche.

“I will not just keep your record, I will protect it,” Onuma has promised Ndigbo. That is the way it should be. With him manning the Ohanaeze secretariat, keeping and protecting records, under the leadership of a President-General not foisted by adversarial forces, the future of Ndigbo is, indeed, bright.

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