Reenvisioning Igbo Leadership Against 2023

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By Dr. Johnson Greg

For the Igbos, there is now more than ever an immense crisis of leadership. Historically, unlike other ethnic nationalities that formed Nigeria, the Igbos were hardly measured by any unified allegiance to a single consensus leadership authority. This is best captured in the popular Igbo aphorism:”Igbo ewe Eze”, which literally translates to: “The Igbos don’t have a king”. This acephalous nature of the Igbo nation, characterized by diverse loci of leadership authorities, has been with the Igbos throughout history. While that political orientation conduced well to democratic tenets and participatory polity for which the Igbos were well known, history has now evolved to a point where the Igbos must reimagine their thinking and practice of politics.

In any circumstance where the Igbo nation were to deal with other nations through their representatives, the fact that the Igbos have no king, a reality that may work perfectly in a purely intra-Igbo setting, becomes a huge drawback in any interethnic engagement. That is to say: in any arrangement where the Igbos were to interface with the world through a common representative, the absence of a single and readily acceptable common leader of the Igbos deprives them of the benefit of efficient agency for collective action.

Naturally, the lack of automatic and readily acceptable arrowhead to lead the Igbos had come to pose a challenge, as the Igbos increasingly needed representation of Igbo interests beyond Igboland. This led to the gradual and eventual emergence of Igbo figures like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Michael Okpara, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, etc. as those that the Igbos looked up to for representation of the Igbos in interethnic affairs over time. Thus evolved the tension between a political culture characterized by the absence of a king with a growing need of the Igbos for a concentrated leadership. While the Igbos do not have a king, they have certainly a need for a king-like figure in order to deal with the rest of the country that have their kings. The Igbos have improvised with leaders as the need and circumstances have demanded. The last such king-like figure for the Igbos was Chief Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.

Though never a king of the Igbos in a formal sense of a monarchy, Ojukwu personified the notion of the Igbos under one leader. He was the closest that one particular individual ever approximated the ideals of a central figure that could embody the aspirations and sentiments of the Igbo people. And since the death of Ojukwu, there has been a significant diffusion or void in the location or identification of an ultimate Igbo leader. The question – who is the leader of the Igbos today – if asked, will not have as clear an answer as it would when Ojukwu was alive. Yet, the need for a clear answer to that question could not be any greater than it is today in Nigeria.

Given the ambivalence that has define interethnic relations in Nigeria, there is a most urgent need for the Igbos to have a king-like figure, or a clear idea who such figure could be. To not have such a figure or a process of agreeing on such a figure causes the Igbos a lot of headache in the present state of affairs in Nigeria. The emergence of modern Ohaneze Ndigbo, the belligerent dispositions of groups like the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) toward Ohaneze, and certain claims made by IPOB, etc. all signify the absence of a unified or coordinated leadership of the Igbos at a time of great need for such leadership.

These thoughts have engaged the minds of many observant analysts. As Nigeria moves toward 2023 general elections, amidst the heightened and inevitable clamor for the ultimate leadership of Nigeria to be zoned to the Igbos, the urgency of some clarity as to a unifying Igbo voice rises to a crescendo. It was a dramatic coincidence, therefore, that Senator Rochas Okorocha, a sitting Senator and former Governor of Imo State, would make some profound statement to this effect during his chance meeting with Senator Orji Uzor Kalu recently. As reported in the media, Okorocha, upon running into Kalu at a social function two days ago, said:

”Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu is late, politicians like Jim Nwobodo, Arthur Nzeribe and many others are no longer active as they used to be . Many other great leaders are no more and that vacuum must be filled up. So the responsibilities have fallen on other people’s shoulders, and that shoulder is that of Dr Orji Uzor Kalu and myself. So it is important that we gather as brothers and discuss issues that will help the entire Igbo people. Because if a child knows what killed his father, he wouldn’t allow himself to die same way”.

The above statement has an incredible pith to it in the general sense of reaffirming the obvious need for clarity as to who the leaders of the Igbos are to be, and also in its unambiguous recognition of Orji Uzor Kalu as a veritable leader of the Igbos, to replace past leaders like Ojukwu and Zik.

This writer is aware that the identification of Kalu and Okorocha may ignite certain sentiments among the Igbos. And that is the conundrum that must be addressed immediately. The question can be put straight thus: “How do the Igbos feel about Okorocha and Kalu teaming up as the contemporary Igbo leaders”? These two men were recently or are currently involved in competitive politics. So, an average person cannot see or understand them outside the political competition they are involved in. It will take the largely unavailable degree of discipline to view Orji Uzor Kalu without succumbing to some of the things his political opponents and detractors have said about him. Indeed, for an average human observer, the cruel and ridiculous fiction the political opponents of Kalu scripted about him may be more appealing than the truth. So, if one asks an average critic: “Why do you think that Orji Uzor Kalu was ever involved in corruption”?, and he wants to give an honest answer, he will say: “Because the EFCC said so and repeated it many times in some newspaper articles that I’ve read over the past 14 years”. It may not occur to such average critic that the EFCC is not a neutral or disinterested actor. He may not realize that the EFCC is a partisan player in the political competition and that as such it is impossible to look to EFCC for truth in the matter of who will be a good leader for the Igbos.

Addressing this attitudinal challenge is absolutely essential at such a critical stage in the evolution of the Igbo participation in the Nigerian enterprise, which 2023 may veritably become. One notices a significant disconnect between the Igbo elites and a radical mass of the Igbos in their understanding and approach to the question of Igbo leadership. There has been a tendency toward a rather romanticized and Utopian understanding of Nigerian politics among the Igbos. They tend to view leadership and leadership personas from an utopian prism rather than from the angle of realpolitik. One saw recently such idealistic view of politics when a group of Igbo youths were asked to list five Igbos they believe should be president of Nigeria in 2023 and they included Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala and Professor Charles Soludo. Such is a common display of characteristic naïveté and utopia. Neither Okonjo Iweala nor Charles Soludo has plans or intention to run for presidency in 2023. Listing them as one’s choice of likely president in 2023 reflects a significant cognitive misalignment which leads to considerable weakening of the Igbo stake in Nigerian politics. It is time to step back and reenvision leadership for the Igbos that will tend toward realpolitik rather than a misguided idealism.

A realistic assessment of the person to lead the Igbos must, as a matter of necessity, beam the searchlight on a person who can unify the factions and seal the multiplicity of fissures that have bedeviled Nigeria. The person must be a healer of historical wounds inflicted on Nigerians by fellow Nigerians. The person must be a unifier, not a divider. The person must be acceptable to Nigerians of different ethnicities, religions and social classes. It must be a person that the international elites and the global community will be at home with. And mark you, it should be a person tested by adversities and refined by controversies, but one who has a proven capacity to survive such adversities. It must be a person with compassion, yet tough enough to walk through an intense fire. There is clearly such a person in Orji Uzor Kalu. Okorocha is therefore very right: the leadership of the Igbos should fall on the shoulders of a man like Orji Uzor Kalu, and other Igbo leaders should rally around him in support.

As the year 2023 beckons on the Igbos as Nigeria’s defining moment, the Igbos must rally together behind a leader that can heal the land, reconcile the people, and guarantee justice and development for all. This writer has no doubt in his mind that Senator Orji Uzor Kalu is perfectly suited for that role.

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