By Ochereome Nnanna
At first, I mistook Obi Cubana for Cubana Chief Priest. The latter, a corpulent young man who is always seen flaunting expensive spirits and cash amidst great luxury, runs rampant on Instagram. Apart from endless merriment, he never says anything to entertain my quality attention.
At first, Obi Cubana’s uncommon mother’s burial in Oba was to me just another celebration of money by fast young Igbo men of mysterious means. The same money that millions of Nigerians cannot find to eat, live in decent shelters or pay their children’s school fees was being ruthlessly toyed with.
Bundles of currencies from every conceivable economy were used to play football, and the social media was simply beside itself. Obi Cubana himself came into the picture in bold relief when he opened his mouth to talk. Two interesting matters arose from that unusual funeral.
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The first was a Facebook post by a Bayelsan who threw the question to his people: Can the Igbo apprenticeship system which produced Obi Cubana, and which he has burnished to produce dozens of other wealthy businessmen, work among Bayelsans? I read every response which I found frank and devoid of diversionary sentiments. Over 90 per cent of the respondents said it would not work because Bayelsa youth are too proud, lazy, fun-loving and lack the patience to serve a master for five to seven years. They also said that those who have made it treat young men and women who work for them with disdain and would never do anything to help others come up to rival them.
According to them, most of the successful people in their society are connected one way or the other to government – as politicians or civil servants. One of them however insisted that entrepreneurial training or mentorship is not a tribal thing. It would work in any society that embraces it wholeheartedly as the Igbo have done.
Let me respond to this. The Igbo apprenticeship system was invented in the Abiriba culture. It originated among their blacksmiths. Children were recruited through formal ceremonies from their parent by masters. They served, learnt the trade and were later established by their masters. This was later taken to other forms of business and vocation. It was a kind of cultural education which made it possible for children from the poorest families to become noble men of tomorrow. It was a model that created and shared wealth – the more the merrier. With it, Abiriba became what Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe described as “Little London” in the residence of Chief Jonah Ndukwo Kalu (Ndukwo Nta) at Okpuachi in 1958 when he came for a campaign.
It wasn’t until after the Civil War that other Igbo groups, especially the business community from Anambra and Imo North, embraced it and even did it better than the Abiriba because the Anambra businessman was far more versatile and frugal. When Anambra youth massively embraced education in the 1980s and 1990s and started feeling “too big” to serve a master, Anambra traders went to Enugu State to recruit “boys”. Today, Enugu has become big in business. Ebonyi has joined the train and are also growing.
Today, the apprenticeship system is almost dead in Abiriba because of pride and laziness among the youth who, like their Bayelsa counterparts, prefer quick money. Of course, the pursuit of Western education to university level also works against the cultural entrepreneurial system because most graduates believe they are entitled to start earning a living rather than go back to serve a master. Many of them, like their Bayelsa counterparts, have become tools in the hands of politicians, while others simply drift abroad to float around like logs at sea.
I agree with the Bayelsa respondent who said there was nothing tribal about the Igbo entrepreneurial system. It will work among any group of people who embrace it wholeheartedly and respect its principles. The “master” and “servant” must not deviate from their obligations. The servant must be humble (ready to respect all members of his master’s family), industrious, patient, smart and ready to learn. The master must be a father figure, tolerant, willing to teach, link up his wards and also ready to establish them after years of meritorious service.
The instructive thing is that wherever it works, the master and his servant become friends for life. That is the “goodwill” Obi Cubana was harping at. A servant may tomorrow become bigger than his master and either help to revive his dwindling business or look after him in old age. They become part of each other’s families. But when it fails, both become lifelong enemies, and the enmity often extends to family levels.
But something is missing, even in the Igbo entrepreneurial system. Leaving it to the master or the servant to conform to the principles of this engagement often leads to failure. Unless there is something strong to keep people to their obligations, people will always abuse the process. This is why you see traders engaging a lot in fetish practices, swearing at shrines (like the infamous Okija Shrine), belonging to cults and swearing blood oaths.
In my view, for the cultural business apprenticeship model to work, it is possible to codify it and build it into our educational system. After the basic education, the academic bright lights should continue to SS and university levels and even beyond. The rest should be divided into the vocational and business groups. They will also continue to SS level, after which they will spend four or five years learning the practical aspects under willing businessmen and women. Those who pass by keeping to the principles of the business training will be supported to start their own businesses. The state will provide the framework to keep participants to their obligations.
That way, it will work in every society. Join me next week for the second leg of: Street side of money.