Inevitably, the Igbo of Nigeria are the catalysts that will bring about a new Nigeria. If that new Nigeria must arrive, it will be built on the principles of justice, equality, and fraternity.
The question has often been asked: “What do the Igbo want?” These are precisely what the Igbo want: justice, equality, fraternity. The Igbo represent one part of Nigeria fighting for the soul of Nigeria.
They are defenders of the republican ethos. The key forces ranged against them are invested in the feudal ethos. To the Igbo, all men are born free and equal, and are uniquely endowed by their “Chi.”
This was precisely what the Igbo who had been captured into slavery and held as slaves by one of those American founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, told him in Virginia. These defiant Igbo said: “Madu Abughi Chi Ibe ya.”
That means, there is none who is master of the other. “Chi Onye n’edu ya.” All men are endowed by their indwelling God to fulfill their divine destinies. The Igbo in fact named their children, “Mu Na Chi So” – basically, “I walk guided by my divine Guardian.” Or to be simply put: “I and the divine are one.”
A people such as these are not easily mastered. The theological foundation of the Igbo being, pre-Christian, is that all Igbo are direct descendants of the Supreme Being called Chukwu. They do not bow to any other.
They do not make kings because as the ancient Igbo said, “Nani Chukwu wu Eze Ndi Igbo.” Only God is the king of the Igbo. Sometimes they would say “Oha Wu Eze.” The people once gathered are the sovereign of the Igbo.
There is not a single man, or a single authority, to which the Igbo bow or invest with absolute power.
The Igbo believe in the sanctity of the human life. Igbo life might be special, but they accord this same right to other humans – the right to be free, and the right to be accorded the dignity of their beings. Because to the Igbo, “Anyi bu ofu.” All men are one. The Igbo do not discriminate against people based on colour, pedigree or conviction.
They judge people by character: “Agwa-wu-mma” – they say. Character is the sum of inner and external beauty. The Igbo do not discriminate based on origin. They have words that signify this: “Ojemba Enwegh Iro”: Those who travel among other people do not make enemies.
This is simply Igbo recognition that all humans share a profound humanity, and must invest in the fraternity of mankind to survive. To the Igbo, the meaning of man is “mma Ndu” – that being who is the highest embodiment or reflection of life. Life itself is sacred, and must be respected and preserved.
Thus, the Igbo saying, “an old and wise man does no sit around to watch a she- goat in parturition deliver while tethered to a rope.” It dishonors even the life of the animal to be born in bondage. A people’s saying is a record of their epistemic and moral philosophy. One of the lasting ideas the Igbo left the world is that insistence to Thomas Jefferson who was struck by the impudence and the clarity of thought and ideas of these “unmastered Africans” who were so-called slaves in his plantation; who were quick to rebel, and who often told this “Leader of whitemen,”: “Dianyi, N’eziokwu, Madu Nile Wu Eze. Onweghi onye wu Chi Ibe ya. Chi onye n’edu ya.” That is, “It is self-evident truth that all men are born free and equal.
There is none who is master of the other according to the divine laws. All men are equally endowed by their CHI and given individual gifts and purpose.” Thomas Jefferson used these Igbo ideas to frame the foundations of the American republican idea.
Even as a slave holder, he came to frame the American idea in the following terms: “We hold these to be self-evident truth: All men are created free and equal and they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thus did this ordinary, routine Igbo idea, which Jefferson had learned from his Igbo slaves, become the radical idea that gave rise to the American republic.
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or what the Igbo called “biri kam biri.” That is the foundation of the pursuit of happiness: “Live so I too can live.” It was thus not surprising that the greatest of the Igbo men, who lived in the 20th century, quite, very easily, absorbed and understood the basic frame of the American idea. While his peers were going to Britain to study Law and Medicine, and all such quotidian stuff, Azikiwe went to the United States to study Anthropology, Politics, and Philosophy – the liberal and Humane letters, the foundations of intellectual leadership and public service.
He quickly understood the connections between the American ideas and its roots in Igbo humanism and its liberal culture, and used that frame to fight for a modern, independent Nigeria. Azikiwe was, of course, confronted by a fierce, reactionary, institutional culture of feudalism and monarchism, the sort we have inherited as the “Oga at the top” culture which has two domains of the public: the aristocracy and the peasantry.
In this particular culture, people were ordained by their God to know their place; not aspire beyond their breeches, and taught that “power belongs to God. And only God makes kings.” In other words, whoever God has made king had what is called the “divine rights” to rule; to challenge him means to challenge God. We still hear this ignorant shibboleth today uttered by the most ignorant of folks who say “only God gives power.” This is the pre-enlightenment mindset.
But with the rise of the Rights of Man, based on the “Iwu Oha” (the Republican ethos on which the European republican transformation took place, starting with the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the American War of Independence), it came to be understood that God does not make Kings. Neither does he give power.
There are two means to power: the bullet box or the ballot box. But the feudal idea continues to persist in Nigeria as counter to the idea of the Republic. Nigeria also happened to have been colonized by monarchist Britain. Great Britain, which is a constitutional monarchy, found the Igbo republican idea, and the Igbo people, both dangerous and rebellious.
They quickly found, of the three main cultures in Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani (a political category which they created by fusing the Hausa together with their Fulani Feudal overlords) and the monarchical Yoruba with their kings, more amenable to colonial rule.
The rebellious Igbo fought them from 1900 – 1930. When Zik returned to Nigeria from 1937, he led the Igbo and their allies across Nigeria, and fought the British colonialists until the Brits agreed to home rule in 1957 and independence subsequently in 1960. As a matter of fact, from 1947, the British began making preparation for their exit in Nigeria. Recognizing the inevitability of that departure, they began to manipulate every mechanism to make certain that Azikiwe and the nationalists, who believed in individual freedom, liberty, and fraternity, and the abolition of the monarchies and the feudal system, did not govern Nigeria. First, they helped fund the revanchist parties in 1947, North and South. Second, they manipulated the 1950/51 elections, the result of the nearly botched Ibadan Conference.
Then in 1954, the nationalist party, the NCNC, surprised them by winning the Federal Elections in the Southern Regions, in spite of the machinations of the British colonial regime and their local allies.
wThis shocking victory set in motion their plan B. Nigeria was coasting towards independence in 1956 which would have guaranteed greater visibility to it as a leader of the Africa nations; greater impudence, for Azikiwe would have, aside from assuming the leadership of government also taken the Foreign Ministry portfolio. The British were scared, and did record their fears of an Azikiwe addressing the United Nations. It would have set off powerful chain reactions.
The British were committed to stopping the powerful leader of the nationalist movement, impelled by the Igbo idea of freedom, individual liberty, and the dignity of the Black man, to lead Africa’s potentially most powerful nation. So they set in motion a series of political forces to contain him. Indeed, in 1956, on being privy to the plot transmitted to him by “certain friends of Africa,” in the British establishment, George Padmore, Azikiwe’s friend and London and international correspondent for his paper the West African Pilot, fired off an urgent letter alerting Azikiwe about the plot to subvert his political legacy as the leader of the African Liberation Movement in the 20th century, which was the endgame: deny independence to Nigeria in 1956, give Ghana first shot, and make certain that Azikiwe never led Nigeria. He urged him to quickly come to London, and stave off some of these plots. But the plot was already in motion: first was the 1955 plot to invade Eastern Nigeria with British soldiers, suspend the Eastern Nigerian constitution, cause chaos in Eastern Nigeria, possibly liquidate Azikiwe, suspend the promise of home rule, and re-impose direct British rule. From May to October 1955, this plot was active.
Only the refusal by Governor Clement Pleass, fearing the resistance in the East, and the implications of the military outcomes clearly outlined by the GOC, Major General Ingliss, who had been ordered to prepare an invasion plan, prevented this. But the British engineered the political crisis in the East, set up the Forster Sutton commission to undermine Zik, instigated the 1958 NCNC party crisis, and manipulated the December 1959 elections that denied the NCNC their electoral victory in 1960.
The rest is history. As part of the compromise to get the British to rescind their threat to withdraw independence from Nigeria, Dr. Azikiwe accepted the position of the Governor-General, which had largely been stripped of its powers, and was essentially a “ceremonial position.” But by 1963, the Republican constitution restored his powers as President, and turned the office of the Prime Minister essentially into the President’s Chief political adviser in parliament. In other words, executive power was restored to the President and no longer to the Parliament and to the Prime Minister.
The office of the Prime Minister of Nigeria did not have executive power. This is why it is false to describe Zik as a “ceremonial president.” Many of those who mouth this nonsense have either never read the 1963 Constitution, or if they did, never understood it.
As a matter of fact, the Constitutional Act of 1963 that established the Republic was so unambiguous in saying: “the executive power of the state shall be invested on the president.” No ambiguity. Dr. Azikiwe’s greatest sin was that he chose “compromise” in the face of external and internal threat to the integrity of the Nigerian federation rather than use his enormous powers arbitrarily. This angered the young radical nationalists in the Nigerian Army who put in motion the coup of January 15 1966 as a counter to the planned coup of January 17, 1966 which was in the offing by the conservative wing of the same Army. In whatever scenario it is measured, the coups of 1966 overthrew the republic under the presidency of Dr. Azikiwe.
The rest is history. The essential point of this discussion is that this current administration is taken straight from the colonial template of 1955 to create chaos in the East, deploy soldiers, roll back the economic or political progress there. Basically, use the excuse of an Eastern secession to undermine the South-East politically. The point, of course, is, it will not work.
The signs of a blowback are already there. And it brings me to one essential point of this discussion: the Igbo are the catalysts of Nigeria. Push them out, Nigeria atrophies. Deny them their rights while in Nigeria, Nigeria atrophies. Because they are the backbone of this modern nation, the Igbo ideas of liberty, justice, equality and fraternity will restore Nigeria, and instigate its second nationalist movement. It is inevitable.