Turning Adversity to Advantage: The Igbo Example

Turning Adversity to Advantage: The Igbo Example

By Rees Chikwendu

Rees Chikwendu
Rees Chikwendu

Within Nigeria’s political equation, the Igbos – one of the three major ethnic groups in the nation – have had a chequered history. Even though they embraced western education late, they engaged in a sprint race to assume a leading role in the civil service, military and the multinationals even before Nigeria’s independence in 1960.

This was not a perception but the reality on ground.

The Igbo ethnic group wielded much influence. Of course it was not without repercussion. It created a feeling of unease and discomfort in other ethnic groups. Others saw it as “domineering” while the Igbos saw it simply as the reward for diligence and focus on excellence.

In a YouTube video, former premier of Northern Nigeria, the late Sir Ahmadu Bello – who was better known as the Sardauna of Sokoto –  said of the Igbos:

“The Igbos are more or less the type of people whose desire is mainly to dominate everybody. If they go to a village or a town they want to monopolize everything in that area. If you put them in a labour camp as a labourer, within a year they’d try to emerge as the headman of that camp.”

But let us try to be dispassionate and question the framing of the Igbos by the late Sardauna.

Is it really true that the Igbos desire to dominate? The Igbos had assumed that height before the British colonialists left Nigeria. Did the British purposely favour them? The answer is no. On the contrary, the British liked them the least for three reasons: they gave the British the worst resistance and least cooperation during the British entry into of Nigeria; they resisted western education the most initially; and they fought for Independence the most through the Zikist movement led by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Is it a crime for a labourer to desire to become the headman? Is it a crime for a tenant to desire to be a landlord? Is it a crime for an employee to desire to become and employer?

So are the Igbos domineering or that they are fired by circumstances of nature and nurture to desire to excel in life wherever they find themselves? Is it a crime to be ambitious in life or desire to improve your lot in life?

Well, historical facts and analytical knowledge would show that the Igbos, along with their Yoruba brothers in Nigeria’s south, were far ahead of the north in education, which is a key resource in the modern world. Even to this day – and in many parts of the north – western education is still discouraged. Women and children are deliberately withheld and prohibited from pursuing education.

Consequently, statistics shows that there are over 10 million children in the north who are not in school. This is a time bomb.

In fact, the dreadful Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram represents this backward ideology that has mitigated growth and development in northern Nigeria. It is not surprising that this terrorist group kidnapped over 218 girls from their school in Chibok more than two years ago.

In contrast, the south saw (and still see) western education as the key to success and a better life.

What exactly is my point?

I do not believe that innate talent is enough prescription for success. Although talent is a necessary ingredient to achievements, it plays second fiddle to opportunity.

But what then is the opportunity in being Igbo? It is a cultural opportunity. In general, based on broad cultural constructs, the Igbo society can be seen as collectivistic in nature. This means that there is a tendency for individuals to put higher value on group goals and norms. In theory, perhaps.

However, it is not always the case in practice.

Even in what is often labelled collectivistic cultures, there are some situations where individualistic traits could dominate collectivistic behaviors.

In other words, societies cannot be put into individualism versus collectivism boxes; there is no absolute individualism or collectivism.

Some cultures might lean towards one or the other, while others might even have a balance between the two dimensions. Who knows?

Nonetheless, it is within these cultural dimensions of individualism and collectivism that we might start to see the cultural opportunity of being Igbo.

Although the Igbos might be categorized as collectivistic by cultural scientists, I still think they are more individualistic than the rest of other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. The ratio of one cultural dimension to the other cannot be ascertained and to do so is not my objective here. Rather, I am interested in the cultural opportunities that come with being Igbo and more individualistic than other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.

According to David McClelland (1961), in the theory of achievement motivation, collectivistic society constrains achievement while the desire to achieve is more of an individualistic behaviour.

Scholars have erroneously attributed this latter behaviour to mainly western societies. The notion is that they are more (or higher) individualistic than the rest of the world.

But truth is none of such scholars has actually come down to measure the degree of individualism or collectivism in Africa. And even if they did, no country should be limited to an overly simplified dichotomy of individualism versus collectivism nonsense.

Instead, it should be based on specific behaviours. I digress.

Now we might already start to see where I am driving to with my Igbo cultural opportunity argument. Could it be that the Igbos are more individualistic than the other nationalities within Nigeria? And could it be that they have higher achievement motivation being driven by individualistic behaviours?

If this is true, I think what late Ahmadu Bello meant to say is that the Igbos are more or less the type of people that desire to achieve rather than to dominate everybody. I do not see anything wrong in being driven by achievement motivation.

It is what Nigeria actually needs to develop itself.

If otherwise the late Sardauna portrayed the Igbos as people whose desire is to dominate everybody, then his intention and motive were more to demonize rather than dispassionately identify. In other words, he could not understand what was playing the tune to which the Igbos were dancing. In that case he should not be blamed too much, because he knew no other better ways to awaken his people or to stop the Igbos.

What are some of the cultural opportunities in being Igbo and which make the Igbos achievement-driven? Well, one can be found within the Igbo family system. Unlike most other ethnic groups in Nigeria, Igbo family system is less constraining. Like most western cultures, Igbo parents (particularly fathers) nudge and prod and encourage their children (mainly their sons) to question authority and believe that nothing is impossible. Most Igbo sons, through concerted cultivation (mostly by the father), are taught to assert themselves – not to dominate.

Some Igbo parents secretly admire their sons when they reasonably question their authority. While other cultures might see this as being disrespectful to parents and a disadvantage, I see this as a cultural advantage.

From an early state, an Igbo child is meant to know he should not bank on any godfather to make him successful. He is meant to realize that his future success or failure rests with how he has prepared himself through education, dedication and diligence.

Also, the Igbo society does not have a strong hierarchical system compared to other ethnic nationalities. Hence the saying, “Igbos know no king.”

However, do not mistake the lack of a strong hierarchical system with the absence of leadership. Even in communities without kings within the Igbo society, family heads and the elders of the clan have the principal authority.

When important issues that require broader public deliberation arise, families and clans elect those that will represent them in the discourse. This is what makes the Igbos more republican in nature. It is a less constraining culture (cultural advantage) that gives room to individualistic emphasis – and the Igbos thrive in it.

The Igbo family system promotes individual merit and discourages nepotism. This is why an Igbo in a position of power does not believe in flooding other positions with those from his ethnic group. You have to merit it. The Igbo would prefer everybody to compete and the best chosen based on merit. That is why the Igbos hate the quota system which they see as promoting mediocrity. They believe in competition which identifies and rewards the best, no matter their ethnicity or religion or sex.

Back to the point of education mentioned before. It is the individualistic nature of the Igbos found within their cultural opportunity that makes them appear hungrier for success. It enabled the Igbo founding fathers to acquire the needed education in prestigious and elite western universities, and they decided to return to Nigeria to initiate and join the struggle for independence.

When the struggle for independence bore its fruit and the British agreed to leave Nigeria, who were those ready to lead the fledgling nation? The Igbos were in the majority to lead, already infused and groomed by the ideologies and philosophies of their black brothers in United States, who were struggling for their own freedom.

No doubt the reason the Igbos dominated the Nigerian civil service just before Independence and in the first republic.

Education became the resource needed to lead Nigeria out of colonialism. To govern the new Nigerian nation when the British left, education was also the resource needed, and the Igbos possessed it in abundance then and even today.

National statistics each year shows that the percentage of the Igbos that enrol in exams conducted by JAMB and WAEC in Nigeria are higher than those of any other ethnic group in the country. It also shows Igbo states leading in performance in the exams. This is the result of desiring to excel and have better opportunities in life.

There is no better conclusion than to state that the cultural opportunity within Igbo culture makes them more success-oriented.

With every sense of modesty, apart from the Yoruba ethnic nationality, no other group in Nigeria comes close to the Igbos in the motivation to excel – especially in education and economic activities.

Another opportunity can be found in Igbo ethnic adversity. Well, many might not see adversity as an opportunity, but I do. In what ways has adversity become an Igbo advantage? I will tell you.

July 6, 1967, the Igbos were forced into a Civil War – which lasted for about three years. Yes, forced. For one thing ,the war could have been averted. On the contrary, northern Nigeria repeatedly and consistently carried out pogrom against the Igbos living in the north. The agreement reached at the peace talks in Aburi, Ghana were not honoured by Nigeria.

With a sense of self-preservation – a human reaction – the Igbos decided to leave the entity called Nigeria, since their safety could no longer be guaranteed. The Igbos left Nigeria to have their peace and safety. They saw that their safety was no longer guaranteed in Nigeria after over 50 thousand of them were massacred in many parts of Nigeria. The Igbos were indeed pushed into a Civil War.

After the war the Nigerian government decided to punish the Igbos even more. A wicked policy to confiscate the wealth of the Igbos was promulgated. All Igbos were paid £20 regardless of the deposits they had in the bank. This was a setback for the Igbos. The war and this anti-Igbo policy was an adversity.

To survive in this crucial moment, the Igbos ingeniously engineered a unique economic system of apprenticeship. For more details of this practice, see this link: How Apprenticeship Has Worked Wonders for the the Igbo.

It helped the Igbos to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor and to recover from the adversity of the war and Nigerian anti-Igbo policy. Most importantly it helped the Igbos to gain mastery of economic activities. Even though the indigenization policy after the war did not favour the Igbos, they still rose to the top economically.

So, through the Igbo apprenticeship scheme what started as adversity ended up being an opportunity, and the Igbos have continued to thrive economically in Nigeria.

Since the end of the Nigerian Civil War, the government has continued to use various economic policies to marginalize the Igbos. This is to keep the Igbos on check due to fear of Igbo domination. Such policies have also taken Nigeria backward in developmental strides, because a policy against a major ethnic group like the Igbos (with great economic potential) is a policy against Nigeria.

The point is that all of these have toughened the Igbos and made them the hardest stock of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities.

The Igbos have acquired the valuable skills to survive economically, and any day Nigeria is ready to move forward and to drop its anti-Igbo policies, the Igbos will be ready to lead Nigeria economically out of its retrogression.

Apart from the Igbo apprenticeship scheme, the war also made the Igbos to be among the most travelled people in the world. Travelling has become part of Igbo lifestyle, and they work hard to establish themselves wherever they emigrate to.

The Igbos have learned to take advantage of circumstances that come their way, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, they will be ready to act and to lead.

Rather than see the Igbos as people who have the desire to dominate everybody, they should be seen as people who take advantage of hidden opportunities which others ordinarily are not willing to take.

This has come mainly due to their cultural advantage and adversity. The words of Malcolm Gladwell, one of the best social observers of our time, better describe the Igbos: “It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.”

The culture and circumstances have made the Igbos who they are. They have utilized the hidden advantages of their culture and circumstances.

  • Rees Chikwendu
  • Assen, The Netherlands
  • Email: r.c.chikwendu@gmail.com

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One Comment

  1. Thompson September 9, 2016 Reply

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