Igboland: When Did Things Really Begin To Fall Apart?

by Jideofor Adibe

That the level of insecurity in Igboland has reached unacceptable level is no longer news. In virtually all parts of the South East, daily reports of kidnapping, armed robberies and ritual murders have morphed from the gory to the macabre. The Daily Independent (online) of July 1, 2010 reported that commercial and industrial activities in the entire South East zone risk unravelling if the situation is not halted soon. The paper for instance reported that in Anambra state, a “total of 62 wealthy businessmen have fled Nnewi industrial town, while half of the businessmen in Igbo land have relocated to other parts of the country for fear of falling victim to kidnappers and armed robbers.”

True, Igboland is not the only area of the country with security problems. The distinguishing feature however is its absurd level, which recently prompted President Jonathan to order joint military operations to flush out the hoodlums in the area. Okey Ndibe, an activist columnist and novelist, who himself is an Igbo, used the metaphor of war to describe the near state of nature that the area is fast degenerating into. In a brilliantly written piece, “The War in Igboland”, (Daily Sun online, June 22, 2010), Ndibe appears to suggest that the cause of this ‘war’ in Igboland is “crisis of values” typified in people’s apparent deification of wealth. He blames the ‘oti nkpu’ (praise singer) musicians like the late Oliver De Coque and Osita Osadebe for contributing to this “crisis of values” with their songs that seemingly glorified charlatans who came into wealth by questionable means as “owners” of their community.

While I agree with many aspects of Okey’s arguments, I am however not too sure that ‘oti nkpu’ musicians should be blamed for the alleged crisis because praise singing is often an important leitmotif of the folk music genre in many parts of Nigeria. Every type of music – just like in literature or any work of art – tends to have a defining characteristic: racial soldering in reggae, social rebellion in rap, love in blues, spiritual awakening in gospel and political rascality in Fela’s afrobeat. Most people enjoy music for what it invokes in them, not necessarily because of its message: the rhythm, the voice and the creative mix of voice and sound. Similarly many people read a novel more because of an author’s narrative skills than for his/her message. I feel blaming ‘oti nkpu’ musicians for the assumed “crisis of values” in Igboland will be akin to blaming Western thriller novels, war films, wrestling and boxing for violence and crimes in these societies.

I share the frustration in Okey’s voice in the aforementioned important article. I am however not sure I agree with his suggestion that the alleged “crisis of values” is a recent phenomenon in Igboland. It could in fact be argued that “crisis of values” was a primary concern of the Igbos at the turn of the century. We can see this in Chinua Achebe’s most famous work, Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958. The novel is not only a great work of fiction but also one of the most important narratives on Igbo sociology. Here Achebe tells us how the introduction of Christianity and subsequently colonialism led to the adoption of new values by the Igbo town (or village) of Umuofia, and how the new values “put a knife” in those things that held the community together. The novel’s main character, Okonkwo, on returning from a seven-year exile, found to his chagrin, that the Umuofia he left behind had fallen apart because of the new values: people no longer acted like one and respected personalities and institutions had lost their prestige and relevance. In what is perhaps an echo of the “crisis of values” identified by Okey, in which wealthy Igbo ruffians are now ‘crowned’ as “owners” of their community, Okonkwo returned to find that people previously regarded as social outcasts and scoundrels (who were of course the first to embrace the new ways of the White man and his religion) had become the new elites. Okonkwo did his best to re-awaken the old values in his people but it was a futile and solo effort that was doomed to fail. This could be called the first “crisis of values” in Igboland.

In many ways the first “crisis of values” was successfully resolved by the onset of full colonialism and the creation of the colonial urban centres. Though there was no consciousness of being Igbo before colonialism, and many Igbo villages were in fact oblivious of the existence of one another, in the colonial enclaves the consciousness of being Igbo was developed as they competed with other ethnic groups for scarce values like jobs and scholarships. The first “crisis of values” was therefore successfully resolved through efforts to develop a pan-Igbo identity (buoyed by the prestige of prominent Igbos like Zik, Nwafor Orizu and K.O. Mabdiwe as well as institutions like Igbo State Union) and aggressive encouragement of Igbos to embrace the new values of the White man. The project of pan-Igbo nationalism was given a further fillip during the events that preceded the civil war, which culminated in the proclamation of the Republic of Biafra. It will seem however that since the end of the civil war, the Igbos have been engulfed in an identity crisis that has remained unresolved.

Okey is right that Chinua Achebe is not given the sort of recognition accorded to many moneybags in Igboland by the folk musicians. But this has probably nothing to do with “crisis of values” but more because Achebe as a novelist has a specialist skill set, which only people familiar with such skills will appreciate. Among the educated, Achebe remains one of the symbols of Igbo pride. In virtually every society, it is often easier for the masses (especially when most are hungry) to know and lionise men of wealth than it is for them to recognise people who have distinguished themselves in specialist fields like medicine, IT, sports or creative writing. ‘Oti nkpu’ musicians want to reach the masses, and the more successfully they can do this, the more they will get more moneybags to pay them to make songs in their praise – pretty much the way newspapers need high circulation numbers to win the heart of advertisers.

I agree with Okey that there is less scrutiny these days on how people come about their wealth. But this is not peculiar to Igboland. I will therefore argue that what Okey identified as the “crisis of values” in Igboland is more a crisis of the Nigerian state writ large because as often happens, any practice borrowed by the Igbos – whether home video making, kidnapping or 419 – is guaranteed to be taken to dizzying heights. I do not think the Igbos necessarily love money more than other ethnic groups in the country.

My take is that the fundamental crisis in Igboland today is the crisis of the elites – not that of values. In the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, the German sociologist Robert Mitchels tells us that all forms of organisations or societies are eventually effectively controlled by an oligarchy – a small group of elites distinguished by either royalty, wealth, family ties, military control, or religious hegemony. This oligarchic group – whether called cabals, mafias or kitchen cabinet – are usually Cohesive, Conscious and Conspiratorial. It could be argued that any society without a set of elites with these three important Cs is unlikely to be able to present a common front or effectively defend the group’s interest. I will argue that since the end of the civil war, the crisis in Igboland is the inability to produce enlightened elites with the aforementioned three Cs.

Despite the current challenges however there are ma

ny grounds for optimism that the Igbos will successfully re-invent themselves as they did after the first “crisis of values” following the Christian and colonial intrusions.

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