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Cheta Nwanze: Nigeria has an Igbo problem



One of the best pieces written about Nigeria’s Igbo problem by a non-Igbo person was recently republished by David Hundeyin in his BusinessDay column. There are two parts to it, here and here. I highly recommend that you read it.

Reading the article, no one should be surprised about the almost visceral reaction to a tweet I made a few days ago in which I quoted a statement written by Chinua Achebe in his 1983 book, The Trouble with Nigeria. Prof Achebe said, “Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.”

The interesting thing is that if all the people who predictably attacked me and talked about “victim mentality” and “bigotry” and “disunity” had bothered to look at the tweet I had put up just before that, they’d have realised that my tweet was actually addressed to my own people. But expecting people who are entering a discussion with predetermined opinions to bother to do basic digging would be expecting snow in the Sahara. Such people are so caught up in their own bigotry, that what they simply do is project their own mindset on others.

It is true that many Igbos in Nigeria have paranoia regarding our relationship with the country. But you really can’t blame them. Incidents of mass bloodletting in which Igbo people are the sacrificial lambs are still in living memory. I know people who saw first-hand the slaughter of 1966, and since my grandfather (and some of my uncles) were killed in the Asaba Massacre, only his wife (my grandmother) and his first son (who survived the Massacre simply because he was abroad when it happened) have passed away. In other words, there are people alive who faced a firing squad 55 years ago just because their ancestors spoke a dialect of the language that was classified as Igbo by TE Dennis around 1908. I have not talked about people who survived attacks in places like Kano and Kaduna in the 1990s and 2000s, again, simply because of where their ancestors came from. 

You see, Nigeria has an “Igbo problem”, and no matter how many times people try to deny it, it is there. It manifests in so many ways. Think about Danladi UmarAbubakar MalamiRemi Tinubu, and Muhammadu Buhari, just as examples. Nobody has as much as censured any one of them, and more people are taking a lead from these rather bad examples as Igbo bashing is becoming more of a staple on social media.

Having said all of this, I must say that I am increasingly moving towards the view that even we, ndi Igbo have some work to do on ourselves. There is a need for us to change our ways and adapt to our environment that is even more urgent as Nigeria is headed for an enforced renegotiation. We would be making a strategic error if we enter that renegotiation as the group that everyone loves to hate.

Something I have been consistent with is this: while the idea has some merit, I’d rather not have an Igbo man replace Buhari as Nigeria’s President next year, for the simple fact that the disaster the man has wrought on Nigeria is so great, and it is his successor that will be blamed for it. 

You see, asides from having a collective short memory and living in the moment, Nigerians tend to do collective guilt. This means that more often than not, we blame the sins of one person on his entire natal group be it his ethnic or his religious group. It is the way we’ve been trained since colonial times. Yes, all those “punitive expeditions” conducted by people like Hugh Trenchard trained us to hold a village responsible for the actions of an individual, and you can’t undo that in a few short years of concerted effort, which is something we have not even started. I struggle to recollect, ever, a period in Nigeria’s post-independence history where we have had a deliberate campaign to teach our people about the benefits of holding an individual, not his group, responsible for his actions. You see it in the way our security forces behave until this day: a man is accused of fraud and absconds, and police go to his house and arrest his wife. Some youths kill a soldier, and the army goes in and razes their village. This is how we roll, and this has affected the relationship of Nigerians with members of its third-largest ethnic group…

There are two counter-arguments to my argument about not wanting an Igbo man to succeed Buhari. The first one was made by my friend Tunde Leye, and it’s about how such a hypothetical Igbo president would use the awesome powers that the Nigerian Presidency bestows on its holder. That argument is theoretical, but I’m certain that whoever succeeds Buhari will not have the goodwill that Buhari came in with, the goodwill that helps such a person harness the security forces to their max. Whoever succeeds Buhari will face all sorts of opposition, open and hidden, from day one. If he tries to clamp down, many of those who have hitherto been silent as Buhari has unleashed the security forces on Shiites, IPOB and peaceful protesters at Lekki would suddenly find their voices. Buhari’s successor is going to have an uncomfortable time, of this I am certain. 

The other counter-argument is that Igbo people should not be afraid of pushing our best forward to change things in the challenging environment that will be post-2023 Nigeria…

This argument has merit, and our culture encourages people to take on challenges. After all, our ancestors said, “Mberede nyiri dike, mana mberede ka eji ama dike. (A hero is determined by the impossibility of the task before him).”

This is true, but our ancestors also said, “Ikpe aghahi ima ?ch?cha ebe ?k?k? n??. (A cockroach is never innocent in a gathering of fowls).”

This brings the question, which will happen to a putative Igbo president first post-Buhari? The hero part, or the cockroach part?

Sadly, despite all the apparent suffering in the country, Nigerians are not quite ready to have that conversation about the hard decisions necessary to change the fundamentals of the country, so there is no point in putting one of ours in the bull’s eye to make those decisions. I am of the opinion that the whole thing has to run completely aground first, and stay aground for a while before people’s eyes will begin to clear. Nigeria is not there yet, and wouldn’t be for another five to 10 years. As an example, whoever attempts to remove the petrol subsidy in June 2023 is going to face mass action. Whoever attempts to repeal the Land Use Act will face a massive kick. I’d rather it is not an Igbo person simply because we have the weight of history on our backs. An Igbo man making these tough but necessary decisions will have the blowback of the inevitable escalated short-term suffering that follows the decisions visited on the entire group. 

Having said all that, if the rest of the country decides that they want an Igbo person to succeed Buhari, then I’ll go with the maxim that “vox populi vox Dei”, even though I don’t believe that God speaks through anyone in Nigeria any longer. 

However, my point is buttressed by the attention, scorn, and near disdain that is greeting the opposition to Peter Obi’s attempts by various quarters, so let’s remind ourselves of a bit of fairly recent history. In 1999, a majority of the country accepted that the Yoruba people had been cheated of the Presidency six years earlier, and as a result, for the first time in our history, every other group stepped back and only one group, the Yoruba, produced the candidates for the election. I was just a young man of 19 at the time preparing to vote for the first time ever, but I don’t recall anyone telling the Yoruba that “you are not united”, “give us just one person to vote for”, “but you have threatened to leave Nigeria”, and other such crap we’ve recently heard.

This is the kind of language that we have been hearing from a lot of quarters in this day, when many Igbo people and even non-Igbos such as my friends Dapo Oluyomi and Gege Ediae, who both feel, rightly or wrongly, that it is time to “give” the Presidency to the South-East.

Is that fair?

It is patently unfair that at various times, Nigeria has been able to agree that “it’s the turn of a group” Yoruba (presidency in ’99), Niger Delta (VP in 2007 with a view to replacing the North in 2015 before fate intervened), North in 2015, then suddenly when the Igbo use the same argument the rules appear to change. But as I’ve pointed out, I don’t want an Igbo person to take this poisoned chalice because, for us, the rules change, and that is a reality we have to live with and plan according to.

For those who like to pretend that Nigeria has no “Igbo problem”, udo diri unu.


Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence


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