Though Igbo, I don’t understand Igbo people (FULL VERSION)
By Agunze Azuka Onwuka
Even though I am Igbo, I must confess that I still don’t understand Igbos fully. If I don’t understand Igbos fully, imagine how wrong most non-Igbos would be when they make conclusions about the Igbos.
The natural trend is that people migrate from poorer and less-developed areas to richer and more-developed areas. That is why when non-Igbos see the huge number of Igbos outside Igboland, they naturally conclude that Igbos “run away” from “their jungles filled with mud houses and thatched roofs” to “better” places. You cannot blame them, because just like I said, Igbos are difficult to understand even by fellow Igbos.
In Nigeria, there is no generally accepted means of determining a richer and more developed area, but there are some parameters that may give us an idea how the states stand. One is the amount of cash that circulates within a state. The second is the cost of property in a state or city.
In May 2013 when the Central Bank of Nigeria was planning to introduce the cashless policy, the then deputy governor of the CBN, Mr Tunde Lemo, disclosed that 90 percent cash transactions in Nigeria occurred in 6 states and Abuja the Federal Capital Territory. He listed them in this order: Lagos, Rivers, Anambra, Abia, Kano, Ogun plus Abuja.
We know why Lagos will always be on top: nation’s former capital and current commercial capital. Rivers is the oil capital. Ogun is the gateway state which has benefited from the expansion of Lagos. Kano is the largest state in population and the heartbeat of the North. But why should Anambra and Abia be among the top 6? They have no major federal government projects to attract people. They were never capitals of Nigeria. In fact, they are new states created in 1991 with new capitals in Awka and Umuahia respectively. Each of them had to start afresh to construct a government house, secretariat and infrastructure.
The reason why Anambra and Abia are among the states that control the highest amount of cash is simple: Anambra has Onitsha (which has expanded into Obosi, Ogbaru, Nkpor and Ogidi) and Nnewi, while Abia has Aba. These are big commercial cities built, developed and sustained by the Igbos without external help or federal government support. Note that Onitsha and Aba were destroyed during the 1967-70 Biafran War and were only rebuilt after the war. Nnewi became a commercial city during the 1970s after the pogrom and Civil War when returnee Nnewi indigenes decided to start doing business in their hometown.
The second point is property price. If you need a duplex on a plot of land of less than 600 square metres (120 by 60 feet) in the central business districts of Onitsha, Aba, and Nnewi, you should be ready to part with as much as 200 million naira. Outside Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, there is no other Nigerian city where property is more expensive than in Nnewi, Onitsha, and Aba.
There is no way an area with such cities and cash-flow and high cost of property can be less developed than other towns and cities in Nigeria. Surprisingly you see hordes of people from Onitsha, Aba, Nnewi and other Igbo towns leaving the same cities to settle in remote towns and villages in Nigeria which are far less developed than theirs. That is one of the reasons I say that I don’t understand the Igbos. Unlike most human beings, Igbos don’t settle in certain places because such places are better than theirs; rather they seek out virgin lands. An Igbo believes that a fellow Igbo knows what he knows; so he needs to go to uncharted territories so that he can meet a need.
Some years ago, I heard that Igbos were trooping to South Sudan. I was surprised and enquired into it. What I found out was that with the war that had ravaged South Sudan, there was no electricity, no water, and other essential commodities. So there was a need to satisfy. And the Igbos trooped into the country to fill that need, taking the risk but making the money.
Another reason why it is hard to understand the Igbos is their attitude to risk. How many times has Igbo property been destroyed, especially in the North? Have many times have they been killed? Yet the Igbos return to the North regularly to live and build. I doubt if I have seen any ethnic group that will return to a place where they have been killed repeatedly and their property destroyed. It simply makes no sense.
What about the abandoned property policy in Rivers State after the Civil War that made Igbos lose their property? One would think that Igbos would never buy an inch of land in Rivers State. But not Igbos. If you go to Port Harcourt today and check the ownership of property from street to street, Igbos are in the majority. A cousin bought a house for 35 million naira in Port Harcourt recently. When he was asked if he was not afraid of losing it again to another abandoned property saga like it occurred to his father, he shrugged and said: “When we get to that bridge, we will cross it.” His current concern was that he was tired of paying rent, which was increased every other year, and getting threatened with quit notice.
Among my family and close friends who have bought property in Lagos, many have lost their money to either fraud or omonile family squabbles. They would lick their wounds for a while and still save money again to buy land.
Why do Igbos like to buy lands? Many non-Igbos assume it is because they want to “take over other people’s communities.” That is far from the truth. Igbos are a proud people. They don’t like “serving” others forever; so they strive to have their own house and be their own bosses.
Secondly, the Igbos are investment-driven. They have discovered that the most reliable investment that appreciates continuously in Nigeria is property. During recession in other countries, property prices fall, but in Nigeria they continue to soar. So Igbos go for it wherever they live, especially when it is cheap, so that in their old age they will have asset to take care of themselves and bequeath their children.
There is also a third point. The Igbos believe that only a leech gets nourishment from a place without contributing to the development of the source of that nourishment. The Igbos say: Ebe onye bi ka o na-awachi (One must develop and protect where one lives.)
Many times they pay rent for shop or house and lose the money via fraud or family tussle. Sometimes their shops are destroyed by government for one reason or the other. They lick their wounds and look for the next place to rent.
In spite of these losses, they don’t create the narrative: “Lagos people defraud people”. They see it as the risk human beings face in life. It does not deter them from seeing a new place to buy or rent in the same Lagos or wherever they are.
There is also a fallacy that other ethnic groups who don’t know the Igbos have created and believed: that Igbos don’t sell land to non-Igbos. A big, fat lie! Igbos are business-minded: they sell to the highest bidder. Once Igbos sell land and a goat is killed over it, it is sold forever. The blood of the goat is the covenant between the seller and the buyer.
If the reason the Northerners and Southwesterners give for not usually buying land en masse in Igboland is because Igbos don’t sell to non-Igbos, how many Northerners or Southwesterners, for example, own property in Edo or Cross River or Akwa Ibom? Don’t these non-Igbo states sell to non-indigenes too?
The fact is that there is too much caution and fear from most Nigerians about other parts of Nigeria. They believe that “something” may happen in future; so there is no need to risk their investment outside their region except it is in a central place like Abuja and Lagos. Many people who, for one reason or the other, find themselves in Igboland (working or doing businesses) usually prefer to leave their families in their home state because they believe that “something” may happen. As they make their money, they save it and take it back to their home state or region to invest.
But the Igbos don’t act like that. That is why many think the Igbos are foolish. Can you blame them for thinking so? The Igbos sometimes act against the human belief in self-preservation.
The funniest part is that some Igbos would erect a duplex in their hometown, leave it uninhabited and go to Lagos or Abuja or Kano or a smaller town to live in an apartment that is worse than what they have at home.
It sounds crazy. But it is common among the Igbos.
It can only be found in the Igbo philosophy “a dighi ano otu ebe ekiri mmonwu”: One does not stay in one place to watch the masked spirit; or “mbughari ka e ji ere mbe” (the tortoise is sold by being taken round the market). It is like the Johnie Walker motto: Keep on walking. Don’t stay in your comfort zone.
The Igbos believe that the home is always saturated. One needs to move to other territories. The movement does not necessarily need to be out of Igboland.
Ironically, while Onitsha people are seeking greener pastures in other states, Nnewi people and other Igbos are making a killing in Onitsha. And while Nnewi people are looking for greener pastures in other lands, Enugu people have taken over most of the businesses in Nnewi, prospering and buying every available space there. It is like that across Igboland. Igbos always believe that their fortune is surer in a place outside their home.
Igbos are very competitive. They have no issue with visitors settling within their land. If the visitor can compete, he will succeed.
Igbos not only welcome visitors, they protect and defend them. It is a taboo to shed the blood of a stranger in Igboland. If the stranger becomes impossible, the community leaders will come together and ask the person to leave. But a stranger should never be hurt.
Those who have not lived in Igboland will find it difficult to believe, but Igbos treat strangers better than the indigenes. The visitors get favours the indigenes cannot get. The strangers get waivers that the indigenes cannot get.
And if a stranger, especially one that is from another ethnic group, settles in any part of Igboland, starts a business that employs people, builds his residence in Igboland, embarks on any form of community development, he is seen as great “brother” and he will most likely be given a chieftaincy title. Igbos cherish people who invest where they live and adopt where they live as home – people who don’t stay aloof from their hosts. They would like you to bring in your kinsmen, bring in your home dance and culture, perform at their festivals, or create your own festivals – they would come out to watch and enjoy them. That simply tells them that you have made yourself a stakeholder in their community, not a parasite that only sucks and takes away.
Igbos are aggressive, highly competitive, proud, impatient, brash and noisy. Others find these traits irritating. But human beings are different, so also are ethnic groups. The Igbos have fought a war that destroyed everything they had. They received 20 pounds ex gratia after the war. Their property has been confiscated. For no clear reason, the federal government has not built projects in Igboland like it has done in other parts of Nigeria. They are faced with the Nigerian quota system that limits them. They have been killed many times and their businesses destroyed. They were even killed over a cartoon made in faraway Denmark which had no link with them. In spite of all these odds, they have succeeded. Naturally it makes them arrogant. Their thinking is: “In spite of all we have faced, we have succeeded. So what else can you do?” To them it is “confidence” and not arrogance.
Many find that trait annoying. I wish Igbos could groom themselves to operate wherever they are, especially outside their domain, without drawing attention to themselves. But you cannot change a people by fiat. It is like trying to teach the peacock not to be flamboyant.
We can only strive to understand one another in this country. Our deepest problem is that we don’t even attempt to study and understand each other, so as to see why we all act the way we do as a people. Yet we stay hundreds of miles away from each other and make conclusions about others. We create stereotypes about others and spread them with the strongest conviction, infecting our children and grandchildren with such stereotypes. We judge others by our standards, seeing everything done differently from our way as bad. Only our way of life is good. When our brother does something bad, we single him out as bad, but when a person from another ethnic group does the same thing, we tar his entire ethnic group with the same brush.
We only see the bad sides of other ethnic groups even when each of our ethnic groups has a lot of good sides that can be learnt.
We assume that our ethnic group is the best, our ways the best, and our land the best.
But no ethnic group is better than the other. Each ethnic group simply has its own ways and standards. Those standards are not the standards of any other ethnic group.
That is the way life is. Sadly, only very few people know this. The vast majority believe in ethnic superiority, which has been the bane of Nigeria.
— Twitter @BrandAzuka