Three years ago, I travelled to the United States for the annual convention of Mbaise people living there. The convention, which is usually rotated among the states in the U.S., held in Dallas, Texas, that year.
Former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Emeka Ihedioha, a proud Mbaise son, and President General of Ezuruezu Mbaise, the umbrella association of Ndi Mbaise in Nigeria, Okey Aguwa, who lived in the U.S. for many years before coming back home, were also in attendance.
That was the first time I was attending the convention that had become a landmark event for our people in the U.S. every year. And it was like a homecoming of sort for me.
A very good percentage of Mbaise people living in the U.S. was there because, as I was told, many of them live in the twin cities of Dallas and Houston in Texas.
I met many friends, some of whom were school mates, who left the shores of Nigeria immediately we left secondary school.
What surprised me most was that most people who graced the ceremony had the titles of chief or lolo prefixed to their names. Many were adorned in elaborate traditional regalia with heavy beads around their necks and wrists and oversized fans in their hands.
And you dare not call anybody by his first name without first pronouncing the word chief.
I remember telling someone who sat beside me at the gala night that there seemed to be more chiefs and lolos of Igbo extraction in the U.S. than we have in Nigeria. The guy smiled and said I had not seen anything yet. “Wait until you see the Eze Ndigbos. These ones are the small fries in the bourgeoning chieftaincy industry among Ndigbo in the U.S.”.
As it is in the U.S., so it is in almost every part of the world where the Igbo live and, of course, Nigeria their country is not an exception.
The jury is still out on the question of whether it is right for some Igbo sons to crown themselves Eze Ndigbo in any part of the world outside their ancestral homeland.
A few years ago when Eze Cletus Ilomuanya was the Chairman of the South East Council of Traditional Rulers, the council frowned at the idea of having Eze Ndigbo in the Diaspora.
In fact, the council banned anyone from bearing the title of Eze Ndigbo outside Igboland. The case went to court because the association of Eze Ndigbos, particularly those in Lagos, kicked against the ban.
Unfortunately, I don’t even know what became of that case.
But the fact of the matter is that these men who gave themselves the title of Eze Ndigbo are not Igbo kings. They are not recognised by any serious minded Igbo. They don’t go home as Igbo kings because they don’t have kingdoms.
As an Igboman, I have never stepped into anyone’s “palace” in Lagos in the name of paying homage to a traditional ruler. I have never consciously addressed anyone as such.
So, what is the noise about Eze Ndigbo in Yoruba land and the usual stereotyping of Ndigbo by the Yoruba elite all about?
Penultimate week, the Deji of Akure, Adelusi Aladetoyinbo, had misunderstanding with the self-styled Eze Ndigbo of Akure, Gregory Iloehika, over the lingering leadership crisis at Mojere market, the biggest spare parts market run mainly by Igbo traders in the Akure metropolis.
Then, on Friday, October 16, a Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG), issued an inciting statement against Ndigbo as it has become the tradition in recent times.
What is disturbing is not ARG’s demand that all traditional rulers in Yoruba land, as well as state governments, derecognise Eze Ndigbo. Neither is the decision of Aladetoyinbo to “dethrone” the Eze Ndigbo of Akure.
As I noted earlier, the Council of Traditional Rulers in Igbo land took the decision a long time ago not to recognise them, and even banned them. I am also not sure that any state government in the South East gives them any recognition.
They have no staff of office, no kingdom, no subjects and they are not paid stipends by any state government. So, of what use is any traditional ruler who has no kingdom, no subjects, and no legal paraphernalia of office?
These are only leaders of their Igbo communities in the Diaspora as we have the Sarkin Hausawa (leader of the Hausa) in all the nooks and crannies of Nigeria.
So, when ARG claims that it is an unrelenting desecration of Yoruba culture by the Igbo communities’ obsession with having a crowned king in Yoruba domains, the question is who crowned them? How were they crowned? Where and when were they crowned?
If Afenifere says the title of Eze Ndigbo in Yoruba land is not backed by any customary law and is therefore considered alien, it is only saying the obvious and the group is not alone in that thinking.
That was why the Council of Ndieze in Igbo land kicked against the trend long before ARG did.
But to claim that “the evolution of this structure has forced us to consider it as an expansionist agenda as the structure is only rampant in Yoruba land,” is to stretch falsehood to its very limits.
The truth is that there are as many Eze Ndigbos as there are Igbo communities around the world.
Kunle Famoriyo, publicity secretary of ARG and other purveyors of this hateful statement know that there is Eze Ndigbo of New York, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, in the U.S., as there is in London, Glasgow, Cardiff, in Great Britain; Johannesburg, Kimberley, Pretoria, in South Africa; and Accra in Ghana; as there is in Kaduna, Maiduguri, Kafanchan, Kano, Yenagoa, et cetera, here in Nigeria.
But, of course, ARG needed to use that allegation as the foundation on which to erect the next invidious block of ethnic batting, which is its claim that the idea of Eze Ndigbo sprouted and started spreading connoting territorial influence and even ownership.
Perhaps, the most absurd reasoning embedded in the Afenifere argument is the assertion that a people can be labelled migrants in their own country simply because they chose to live in a part of the country other than their “ancestral homes.”
How low must we descend in a bid to accentuate our national faultlines for ethnic supremacy?
As sad as this development is, it is also a wake-up call to those who are still cocooned in the illusion that the Nigerian project is a settled issue.
Scapegoating Ndigbo and setting them up for another round of ethnic cleansing – which is what Afenifere did hiding under the smokescreen of the so-called Eze Ndigbo and the Deji of Akure brouhaha – is a rather disingenuous and duplicitous attempt at solving the lingering national question.
Nigeria has become a country where citizenship confers no rights and privileges but only obligations on a few of its people.
Fifty five years after independence and over a century after the birth of the country, those who ought to know by virtue of their standing in the society still believe that a nation can actually be nourished on the diet of its fault lines.
Or that peaceful coexistence and tolerance can be achieved in a society where the potentials of its citizens are grossly limited by boundaries drawn by ethnic jingoists and tribal flag-waivers rather than the laws of the land.