Who Are Really the Igbo in Nigeria and in Diaspora?

With Jude Atupulazi                          Continued from last week

This was where things began to take a negative turn for the Midwestern Igbo identity. In 1964, a brilliant and ambitious 30-year old from Asaba joined the public service. Phillip Asiodu, an Oxford graduate who spoke Yoruba as a first languge, rose very fast and by mid-1966, as Nigeria was melting down around everyone, was already a Permanent Secretary in the federal civil service. Unfortunately, he faced the same mistrust that every Midwest Igbo faced in Nigeria of the time: where did his loyalties lie? With Nigeria, or with the rebels? He chose Nigeria, and as tends to be the case with people who have to prove themselves, showed his loyalty to Nigeria only too well.

Asiodu was the one who advised Gowon to renege from the Aburi Accord when he pointed out that Ojukwu had outmanouvered Gowon in that meeting in Ghana. The moment Gowon reneged on that deal, war became inevitable. The war had a personal effect on Asiodu as his brother Sidney, a well-known prize winning athlete, was killed during the Asaba Massacre in 1967. But Asiodu kept his head down, and remained firmly Nigerian, and non-Igbo.
That was the birth of the split in identity. A people defeated in war have a tendency to bow their heads. Those who can, reject being members of that defeated group. So it is no surprise that those Igbos who could, (borderlands) decided that they no longer wanted to be Igbo.

Midwest Igbos created a new identity to the extent that the town of Igbo Akiri changed its name to Igbanke, and its most prominent son, Samuel Chiedu Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, who along with Alexander Madiebo, narrowly escaped death in the July 1966 Coup, dropped “Chiedu” from his name entirely, and emphasized Osaigbovo. To be honest, I cannot hold people responsible for such behaviour. The city of Gdansk in Poland was once called Danzig, and it was in Germany.

Going back to Dennis Osadebe, after the war, some prominent Igbos, including Osadebe, banded together to try and resurrect the Igbo Progressive Union which had been proscribed by Aguiyi-Ironsi in 1966. So they formed the Igbo National Assembly whose stated goal was to unify Igbos under a common umbrella body.
In no time, the INA was banned by the FG, but by 1976, shortly after the murder of Murtala Mohammed, they tried again, and this time, went the route of a socio-cultural organization. Thus Ohaneze Ndị Igbo was born, and one of the original signatories to the Ohaneze Charter was Dennis Osadebe, along with Ben Nwabueze, and a few others whose names I don’t recall.

Osadebe knew that the place of the Midwestern Igbo in Nigeria’s geopolitics would always be with his kin from across the river, and he always acted accordingly. Osadebe was the one who coined the term Anioma, as the entry region of the Midwestern Igbos into Ohaneze. Some of these things are simple to check out; for example, the expression, “Anioma”, does not appear in any document predating 1975.

The funny thing is that by 1992, even Asiodu, who was perhaps most directly responsible for the identity crisis facing his people, had come around, and along with some notable people from Anioma, wrote a letter to the military Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida, asking him to take Anioma out of Delta State, excise Onitsha and Atani from Anambra State and create an Anioma State which would have been a part of what is now the South-East Geopolitical Zone.

The signatories to that letter, dated 15 June, 1992, were as follows: Nnamdi Azikiwe, Owelle Onicha; Dennis Osadebe, Ojiba Ahaba; Phllip Asiodu, Izoma Ahaba; Anthony Modebe, Ogene Onicha; Ben Nwabueze (from Atani in Anambra State); Chukwuma Ijomah (from Aboh in Delta State); and Ukpabi Asika. BIC Ijomah died just over a month ago, so of all the sages who signed that letter, only Ben Nwabuee and Phillip Asiodu are still with us, and for whatever reason, IBB did not act on the letter.

What is the lesson from Chief Asiodu’s apparent turnaround?

Once your name is Emeka (figurative of course), Nigeria will always happen to you.
That is what people like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala understand.
That is what people like Austin Okocha understand.
That is what great men like Osadebe, Ijomah, Achuzia, and eventually Asiodu, understood.

The truth is that based on our history, the Anioma man never saw the Niger River as a barrier. As a matter of fact, just read Chinua Achebe’s Chike and the River, and you’ll get a sense of how people used to cris-cross the river at that salient point before the bridge was built. The remnants are still there today. Cable Point projects into the river. It is clearly an old market, and Onitsha Marine also projects into the river.

That is the original location of the famous Onitsha Market. Has anyone from Onitsha ever stopped to ask himself why the Basilica of Holy Trinity was built basically a few metres away from the river at Onitsha Marine? Cross the river to Asaba and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is in an almost identical position. Both churches were built about the same time, commissioned by the same man, Carlo Zappa.

How else do you explain that the dialect of Igbo spoken in Asaba, and that spoken in Onitsha, are the same language?
In the end, the Anioma man, because Biafra lost a war 50 years ago, may deny his identity all he wants, but it will not change the fact – in the Byzantine politics of Nigeria, the day will come when Nigeria will tell you who you are.

I think that is the one thing Nigeria never fails at.
Once your name is Emeka, or Chike, or Nnamdi, or Uju, or Chukwuma, or Obi, or Ogechukwu, or Ekwi, or Azuka, or Ike, or Nonso, or Ifeanyi, or, indeed, Cheta, the day will come, when Nigeria will tell you who you are. Don’t be caught flat footed.

For the Igbos from the East, never forget some facts — the most effective Biafran diplomat during the war was Raphael Uwechue, Oguluzeme Ogwashi-Uku. The majority of the weapons that were supplied to Biafra came from France, and it was his efforts. Almost all of the CARITAS flights that saved starving Biafran children, had his fingerprints on them.

Plus the fact that Emeka Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi, got out of Biafra in the end and spent 12 years in exile in a French speaking country, was due to his diplomatic efforts. Raphael Chukwu Uwechue was also President-General of Ohaneze Ndị Igbo for four years. Ndị Anioma, that was your son.

Also, Igbos from the East, never forget that the successful commander of Biafran forces during the war was Joseph Achuzia, Ikemba Ahaba. From 4 October 1967 to 12 October 1967, he prevented Nigerian forces from successfully crossing the Niger River. The Nigerians could only establish a bridgehead at Onitsha Marine before they were beaten back by Achuzia. This defeat was one of the things that led to the massacre of his kinsmen in Asaba on 7 October 1967. On 31 March 1968, Achuzia directed Jona Uchendu’s company of about 700 men in what became Biafra’s most spectacular success of the war, the Abagana Ambush.

In that event, 700 Biafran men defeated a Nigerian force of 6000 men. Only 100 Nigerian soldiers, including Murtala Mohammed survived. It was after that action that Murtala did not take part in the war again. Achuzia who died two years ago, was also an Anioma son.

Last year I took my friend and partner, Tunde Leye, to my homestead. In going to that area, we did not cross the Niger River (Oshimmiri in my native dialect) the way most people cross it these days. Rather, we went the old way. We took a boat from Cable Point (Ikpele Mmili) in Asaba, and 12 minutes later, we were sharing a beer with some of my acquaintances at Onicha Marine. You see, for those who know the history, Asaba and Onitsha, prior to the building of the bridge, both communities were quite close knit, something we’ll discuss later on today.

The third point in the dictionary definition of a mongrel is “any cross between different things, especially if inharmonious or indiscriminate.”

This is the classic definition of the Igbo people, something I wrote about six years ago. The Igbo people came from different parts of what is today’s Nigeria, and settled in the area that they now call home.
This, centuries worth of migration, mixing and consolidation, was anything but harmonious or planned. However, further research has shown me that some of what I wrote then was incomplete, but I will refrain from saying “wrong”, because I am unfit to untie Elizabeth Isichei’s shoelaces, and it was from her 1976 work, ”A History of the Igbo People”, that I drew heavily for that piece.

In the last few days there has been a lot of argument on Twitter about whether the Igbo speaking people of Delta State in Nigeria are Igbo, or something called Anioma. Some people from this area have pointed out that they have been victims of taunts by some Igbos from the East of the Niger, who have themselves said that Delta Igbos are not Igbo.

Both sides of this argument are right, but one tweet I saw was an outright lie. There is no one from the East who will call a native Anioma person, “Onye ofe mmanụ. That particular slur is reserved for Yoruba people as the thinking behind that stereotype is that the Yoruba people cannot cook, but rather drown their soups in oil and pepper to cover the lack of culinary skills. My pot belly can tell you that that stereotype is way off, but that is another topic for another day…

The words used for the various peoples of the former Bendel are as follows – Ndị Ika, to describe the Igbo speaking peoples of the Midwest; Ndị Idu, to describe the Bini people; Ndị Ohu (a slur), to describe the Esan people (and the history of this is actually linked to Benin); Ndị Usobo, to describe those in the “proper Delta”, that is the Ijaw, Ijekiri, Isoko and Urhobo.
To be concluded in next edition