From time immemorial, choosing their leader has always posed a problem to Igbo, to the extent that it is widely believed that it would be difficult for them to accept to be under anybody’s leadership. The axiom IGBO ENWE EZE (literally meaning Igbo have no king) took its root from this thinking. The closest Igbo came to having an anointed leader was when the Great Zik of Africa, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, returned from Pennsylvania, United States of America, in 1934, to join the independence struggle. Contrary to the expectations of Igbo that Zik would emerge as a parochial and clannish leader, he took a Pan-African posture. His reasoning, actions and utterances were skewed toward achieving the ultimate goal of uniting the whole of Africa and building bridges across tribes, religions and statuses. His fame spanned every length and breadth of the world. There is hardly any part of the globe that does not recognize the role this great son of Nigeria played in the integration of Africa into the international sphere and space. Even his death has not diminished his stature or status globally. No wonder his life has remained a course of study in many tertiary institutions across the world. At Pennsylvania University where he lectured for many years, he towers like a colossus even in death.
Indeed, the tenure of Zik as President instead of particularly advancing the interests of Igbo furthered the overall interest and sovereignty of the Nigerian nation, which he loved with so much passion. Even in the build-up to the pogrom in 1966 that led to the massacre of Igbo, Zik maintained a non-partisan and neutral position. He rather strove after the unity and peace of Nigeria. This position attracted to him scorn from some of his people.
Though he was highly rated and respected among Igbo, this did not make him a truly Igbo leader. So, Igbo continued their search for a real leader that would meet their aspirations as a people and promote their interests in a complex nation as Nigeria. Curiously, at this critical time, other tribes such as Yoruba and Hausa had had instituted leaderships led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo (former Premier of Western Nigeria) and Sir Ahmadu Bello (Sardauna of Sokoto and former Premier of Northern Nigeria) respectively. The culture of political suaveness and dexterity they stood for is still dominant in their respective regions till this day. Probably, this accounts for the advantage both regions have had over other regions, especially the South East geopolitical Zone that has found it gruelling to find its feet in Nigeria’s political space. As expected, some critics of Igbo origin have constantly blamed this on Zik’s over-compromising politics.
Yoruba place in Nigeria’s socio-political development has been quite pivotal, placing them at a strategic position for survival. While other tribes are running helter-skelter, seeking solution to their endemic marginalization, Yoruba are celebrating the 103rd anniversary of the death of their life leader, Chief Awolowo! That is the beauty of the leadership thrust of the famed late Yoruba leader.
Nevertheless, the real test for Igbo unity and identity came when they were faced with annihilation in mid60’s. They desperately wanted a leader to take them out of the land of ‘Egypt’ into the ‘Promise Land’. They looked toward the east, west, north and south for a Messiah, but none came. Fearing that his people might be wiped out of the face of the earth Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was moved to take up the leadership gauntlet to fight for the emancipation of his people from internal colonialism and neo-imperialism.
The desire to lead Igbo was a personal critical choice made entirely by Ojukwu himself. He was neither goaded nor coerced. He assessed himself very critically and felt he fitted into the picture of an emerging Igbo leader. His interest in the leadership of Igbo was not for personal gains, but it was borne out of exigency. What would a graduate of History from the prestigious Oxford University, United Kingdom, and son of a multibillionaire be doing with the leadership of a people thought to be inexorably complex?
In any case, the attitude of Ojukwu to the Igbo Project was one totally opposed to self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. He was unwaveringly committed to the freedom of his people and the carving out of an identity for which they would be recognized and respected. It was in strict pursuit of this agenda that he led them to a 30-month civil war of liberation from annihilation. The choice to go to war was the only option available to him at the time. It took a man of Ojukwu’s clout and courage to lead a complex and ambivalent race as Igbo to war, without any opposition. Those opposed to war, in whatever guise, did that surreptitiously as they lacked the boldness to withstand the unison of Igbo to defend themselves.
It could, therefore, be said that Ojukwu defied the age-long attitude of Igbo not to subject themselves to the leadership of one man. Again, the war has torn to shreds the thinking that Igbo are difficult to lead.
What however distinguished Ojukwu and reduced opposition to his leadership was his intellectualism, simplicity, sincerity of purpose, the popularity and wealth of his father, courage, vision and military background. Ojukwu was many things rolled into one, yet he was unassuming and urbane. Even though the war was a very difficult one to prosecute, Ojukwu still managed to keep his nation afloat, despite the sophistication of the enemy’s weaponry and allies. It is not arguable that only a few tribes could face the adversities Igbo faced during the war and still live to tell the story.
Contrary to the views in some quarters, it was not a stupid thing for Igbo to have gone to war. This is why up till today Igbo are united in the approval and support they gave Ojukwu during the war. This position has been vindicated by the national burial accorded Ojukwu by the federal government, and the utterances by some prominent Nigerians on the death of the Ikemba. For instance, Dr. Tunji Braithwaite said bluntly during the day of honour for Ojukwu organised in Lagos as one of the events lined up for the burial, that Ojuwku did not secede, rather that it was circumstances that compelled him to do so. Circumstances beyond his control definitely. Who would be in Ojukwu’s shoes and fold his hands while his people were being massacred? Some top personalities have confirmed they would do the same thing if they found themselves in a similar situation.
All that happened during and after Ojukwu’s death and burial underscored one point: that Ojukwu was great in life and death. The whole animosity against him for taking Igbo to war had been thrown to the dogs, because of the outpouring of grief from even unusual quarters since his death and burial.
The greatness of Ojukwu in death was succinctly captured by President Goodluck Jonathan at Nnewi on the day Ojukwu’s remains were being interred. Overwhelmed by the large turn-out of people the President confessed that he had never witnessed the kind of burial accorded Ojukwu. The President was absolutely right. I made the same point in my piece last week in which I stated that the only burial that could come close to Ojukwu’s was Zik’s. Even at that, Zik’s funeral was not as elaborate and celebratory as Ojuwku’s. Ojukwu’s doubled as a funeral and celebration of life.
The question now is: “Who then does the cap fit?” “Who will succeed Ojukwu as the leader of Igbo?” this question has become imperative now that there is a wide vacuum created by the exit of Ojukwu. Another question that should be answered as well is: “Why was nobody groomed as a natural successor to Ojukwu?” Yoruba, for instance, had the same problem after the death of Chief Awolowo in 1987. But the difference between Zik and Awo is that while Yoruba see Awo as their leader unto death and after death Igbo have almost forgotten everything about Zik. The desolate state of Zik’s Mausoleum (his final resting place) in Onitsha is a pointer to how much reverence Igbo have for him!
After the death of Awo, Chief Abraham Adesanya emerged as the acclaimed leader of Yoruba. His tenure was characterized by crises among key Yoruba cultural and political organisations, making it difficult for him to wield as much influence as Awo. Nonetheless, after Adesanya’s death and up till now, Yoruba are yet to formally nominate a successor. But since nature abhors vacuum, a leader in the person of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has stepped in. The exploits of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which he leads tell the whole story. The clean sweep, except in Ondo State, of elective positions by the party in the 2011 elections shows that the party has its hegemony in the west. It is the political sagacity of Tinubu that made all that possible. Who then can say Yoruba have no leader?
Is the same picture obtainable in the South East where Ojukwu trod like a colossus? Despite Ojukwu’s fabled fame, he could not do much to unite Igbo politically. I must confess that I was surprised at the tumultuous reception accorded Ojuwku wherever his body was taken to. If Igbo had shown him the same solidarity politically, probably Igbo would have been better off. In 2007 elections – of the four states up for grabs – APGA (led by Ojuwku won only one State – Imo) while PDP won the other three. Generally considered, while PDP controls three states (Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi), APGA controls two States ( Anambra and Imo). Who knows what will have happened in 2015 if the Ikemba were to be alive?
The truth of the matter is that Igbo are not united in the pursuit of their common good. Politically they have not fared better. This is what has worked against their constant effort to re-launch themselves into the political mainstream. Those that divide Igbo do so capitalizing on their political naivety. It is generally believed that it will be difficult for Igbo to build a united front to achieve their political goals. Already plans are afoot to ensure that they do not achieve this purpose before the next general elections.
What this translates to is that whoever will be chosen to lead Igbo after Ojukwu must have both political and economic clout to be able to address the emerging challenges in our political life. It may be difficult – almost impossible – to get another Ojukwu, at least not in this era, but it is possible to get somebody who will give Igbo a new character and identity, if the search for a successor is diligently done.
There is no question that successor-materials abound everywhere in Igboland, but no machinery has been put in place to achieve it. As usual, agents of darkness will work against this as well. This is why Igbo should rise up at this critical time and take their destiny in their own hands. It will amount to sheer illusion if they think somebody else will do it for them. They should build on the solidarity and goodwill gained from Ojukwu’s funeral to launch into prominence.
What Igbo do not need at this time is unnecessary animosity and hatred. There is an urgent need for them to come together and marshal out plans on how to attract more amenities to Igboland, build a solid political base, and safeguard themselves from intimidation and annihilation wherever they may reside. The ongoing killing of Igbo in the north should stop, after all nobody has the monopoly of violence. As much as Igbo are peaceful and law-abiding their rights and personality cannot be trampled upon.
The time has come for Igbo youth, elders, men and women to stand up to be counted in the effort to choose a courageous, credible and confident leader to succeed Ojukwu. Delay, they say, is dangerous. 2015 is by the corner, and there is a compelling need to ensure that the stage is set on time. The mistakes of the past should be consigned to the bowels of history. All aggrieved persons should bury their hatchet and work for the peace, unity and progress of Igboland.
As for Ojukwu, he has run the race well and has received the crown of victory. May his soul continue to rest in peace!