LEADERSHIP IN IGBO SOCIETY: ANALYSIS, CHALLENGES AND
EKWE NCHE ORGANIZATION
LAW and ORDER COMMITTEE
As we get ready to rise from 33 years of coma, it is important for every
Igbo man woman and child to remind himself or herself who he or she is.
The reason for doing this is that when an individual or a group of people
have been subjected to intense economic, social, psychological trauma and
or deprivation as Ndi Igbo have been, there is a tendency for them to
lose perspective of who they are. They may stop believing in themselves.
They may attack, fight and even kill one another. Worst of all they may
behave like slaves towards their oppressor. This destroys them even more
than the actions of the oppressor and they will continue like that until
someone wakes them up from their psychological stupor. Let us look at our
identity, who we are, from two angles:
1.) How the world sees Ndiigbo.
2.) How Ndiigbo see themselves.
Let us start with how the world has seen Ndiigbo.
Michael Mok quoting a Reverend father in Biafra said of the Igbo, "The
Igbo man never begs. He is much too proud. He wants to pay for what he
gets. The Igbo are wizards at saving money. When one of them gets a job,
he starts saving right away: first for a bicycle, then for a transistor
radio, and next for a bit of land. Then he builds a house on it, gets a
wife and before the first child is born, he is already putting money by
for the kids school fees. The Igbos are mad for education". Well this is
the Igbo man at his best, hardworking, thrifty, and always putting
something away for the future. The creativity and intelligence of the
Igbo man is clearly celebrated in this statement.
"There was a time when it was impossible to have a car break down in
Igboland. You would find yourself stuck somewhere way out in the bush and
the first thing you know three loafers, two of whom had probably never
peeked under the bonnet of an auto in their lives would saunter up to
see what was the matter. In no time at all, using rags and string they
would have you on your way again". - Michael Mok.
John C. Merriam, after working with Operation Crossroads in Africa had
this to say about the three major ethnic groups. The Ibos (Igbo) in
Nigerian history were a relatively insignificant tribe, but their society
had achievement based norms that adapted quickly to Westernization. All
over Nigeria, they formed a merchant and professional class. An engineer
said, "If you are a businessman and you need engineers, you read
applications and you don't look at tribes. Fifteen of the twenty men you
hire will be Ibos (Igbo). The Yoruba fall somewhere in between but closer
to the Ibos (Igbo) than the Hausa. They are literate, they are
politically sophisticated, but they look at life with a grin".
-The Harvard Crimson, Nov. 12, 1968.
John de St. Jorre in his book, The Brothers War captured the essence of
the Igbo spirit in this description:
"....... Why in defiance of all the normal functional laws of the modern
state, life inside Biafra kept going.
Dr. Pius Okigbo, Biafra's chief economic planner explained to him, "it
is the human factors and the context that matter here and they make
nonsense of theoretical economics". St. Jorre then observed,
"improvisation was the order of the day. Electrical engineers and
chemists were making rockets, hand grenades and the famous Ogbunigwe" ....
petrol was rationed but homemade refineries were soon to be put into
operation and low sulfur oil was distilled in huge water tanks set upon
trestles which kept essential transport moving. Ingenious cannibalization
and mechanical miracles surmounted the dearth of spare parts and the
Biafrans made several armored cars out of lorries and bulldozers.
Government offices increasingly decentralized functioned normally. ....
civil servants had adopted themselves to their reduced circumstances ....
they seemed less like stiff marionettes. And what a galaxy of talent in
Biafra. So many of Nigeria's top civil servants, diplomats, soldiers,
academics, technicians .... the envy of undermanned Black Africa ....
Outside the hospitals and refugee camps, life really did appear
deceptively normal. Water, electricity, and even telephone functioned, if
somewhat erratically. There were no beggars, people did not complain and
there was an extraordinary feeling of togetherness. The natural vivacity
and quick-witted charm of the Ibo (Igbo) people shone through their
terrible adversities. There was a strong determination not only to
survive, but also to survive with a flourish - to show the outsiders and
themselves that life would go on .... In Biafra virtually everything was
in short supply, everything except human energy, ingenuity and an
extraordinary collective and relentless will to struggle on".
Edward C. Schwarzenbach writing in the Swiss Review of World Affairs
spoke of the Ibos (Igbo) thus: "The Ibo (Igbo) of the East have always
spoken the most progressive language in Nigeria and been more or less
leftist oriented. Precisely for this reason, they were of no long-range
political interest to Moscow. To the Igbo with their egalitarian society,
free of hierarchical structures, communism is by no means attractive and
they are not susceptible to Soviet propaganda." Schwarzenbach predicted,
"Now that the Igbo have been overpowered and the North armed by England
and Soviet Russia has defeated Biafra, the Yoruba of the Western part of
the country may soon find themselves in trouble."
Even people who hate Ndiigbo sometimes truthfully acknowledge the
sterling qualities of Igbo men and women. One such person is Lord Lugard
who in a foreword to the book, African Women by Leith-Ross, said: " ...
the essential characteristics of Igbo womanhood are little changed. She
is ambitious, self-reliant, hardworking, and independent. Her interests
are centered in love of her yam field coupled with a passion for trading
and the desire to grow rich. She claims full equality with the opposite
sex and would seem indeed to be the dominant partner. The women's
councils, approved and trusted by the men enact laws for the protection
of crops, and enforce them by suitable penalties including ridicule. The
alacrity with which they will abandon old ways for new is evident in the
popularity of hospitals, courts of law, schools and post offices. And
though they show little deference towards Europeans, they are intensely
eager to obtain the education which Europeans have brought as a means of
Describing the political philosophy and organization of the Igbo, Cronje
in his book The World and Nigeria stated as follows: "In the East
indirect rule failed altogether. There were no big chiefs, emirates or
empires which could be adopted to the needs of British administrators.
The Eastern people lived in village groups administered by councils which
were presided over by senior men who held office by virtue of their
personal ability as much as by age or lineage" [Cronje, S. 1972, The
World and Nigeria, Sidgwick and Jackson, London]
Reporting on the position, status and influence of chiefs and natural
rulers in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, G. I. Jones stated as follows:
"The usual patterns is for public matters to be discussed at a general
meeting at which every able bodied male who is a full member of the
community has a right to attend and to speak if he so wishes. ...the
community particularly in the Ibo(Igbo) area is not prepared to surrender
its legislative authority to any chiefs, elders or other traditional
G. I. Jones (1957)
Report on the position, status and influence of chiefs and natural
rulers in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, Government Printer, Enugu.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo speaking of the Igbo and Ibibio stated: "The Ibos
(Igbo) and Ibibios cannot tolerate anyone assuming the authority of a
chieftain over them." Obafemi Awolowo (1947) Path to Nigerian Freedom,
Faber and Faber.
Jack Shepherd, senior editor of Look had this to say of Igbo:
"....The Biafran struggle centers on regional and economic rivalries
that reach beyond the fighting. Ibos (Igbo) from Eastern Nigeria burst
quickly into the 20th century developing as doctors, lawyers, engineers,
and competing with (perhaps overwhelming) less educated Nigerians
especially Hausas and Fulanis in the North. The rivalry and jealousy
intensified. Ibo (Igbo) aggressiveness and ambition in commerce, public
utilities and the civil service made them a hated people. They were
called the Jews of Black Africa." Look, Nov. 26, 1968.
In a special article on the Nigerian Civil War, Time described the three
major ethnic groups in Nigeria thus: "To the North living on flat
grassland that backs up to the Sahara sands dwell the Hausa and Fulani,
haughty, devout Moslem peoples governed locally by feudal emirs. The
Western Region is the home of the Yoruba, a tribe known for its profusion
of gods (more than 400) and its joie de vivre. To the East where they are
now trapped, the ambitious and clever Ibo (Igbo) people thrived. Brought
forcibly together under colonial rule, the three regions developed the
hatreds and jealousies of totally different culture. Most hated of all
and most envied by other Nigerians were the Ibos (Igbo), quite possibly
Africa's most capable people and by force of energy and intellect, the
dominant tribe of newly independent Nigeria. Within their tribal culture
lay unique seeds for Western-style self-improvement. Unlike many other
tribes, they had no autocratic village chiefs. Instead, they were ruled
by open councils of what sociologists called high achievers... successful
yam farmers, warriors, public speakers. The titles a man earned were
buried with him and his sons were forced unlike most Africans to make
their own reputations. The Igbos welcomed missionaries because they
brought schools and books. Before their secession from Nigeria the Ibos
(Igbo) of Eastern Region were spending 40% of their public funds on
education. Villagers often pooled their resources to send the most
promising boy of college age off to study in Britain.... those who stayed
at home eagerly absorbed the mechanics of industry and government from
British colonials who came to rely on willing Ibo (Igbo) hands to do
their work... They became Nigeria's most cosmopolitan people whose
traders and technicians spread throughout the country building factories,
hospitals, and their inevitable cooperative self-improvement
associations. After the British left, the Ibos (Igbo) in effect inherited
the controls of modern Nigeria from civil service posts in the government
to engine driver jobs in the railway." Time, August 23, 1968.
In a report to the United States Senate (called the Goodell Report)
Senator Charles Goodell who sponsored and led a study mission to Biafra
and Nigeria stated thus: "Biafrans and particularly Ibos (Igbo) were
previously dispersed all over Nigeria. They stood out among inhabitants
of West Africa in literacy, percentage of youngsters admitted to
institutions of higher education and devotion to learning. Indeed many
foreign observers have felt that envy was generated among Nigerians as a
result of the high degree of education of the Ibos (Igbo). Their
occupation of a high proportion of the professional and managerial
positions as a result of their education level was one of the
psychological factors responsible for the civil outbreaks in Northern
Nigeria in May - September, 1966." On governance in Biafra he remarked,
"What is remarkable and frankly surprising about the Biafrans is their
sense of organization and their commitment to orderly procedures, both
governmental and private in their current situation. The administrative
or executive branch of Biafran government is departmentalized and
functionally organized top to bottom .... The central government relates
more or less well to the provincial government offices, and the various
departments of the central government cooperate with and sometimes oppose
each other in the manner familiar to those who knew the Nigerian
governmental procedures before the war, or for that matter, in the manner
of most governments. The Consultative Assembly referred to earlier is a
group of provincial and village leaders selected by their people and
answerable to them for their decisions and recommendations."
Goodell Report, Congressional Record, S 1985.
Times, commenting on the democratic credentials of Biafra stated thus:
"For a country at war, and life and death struggle at that, Biafra is run
in an amazingly democratic and efficient way. He (Ojukwu) runs Biafra as a
war time democracy, frequently seeking the advise of Ibo (Igbo) elders.
Biafra also has a functioning judiciary, a ministerial executive
government and civil service. There will be no military dictatorship here
he (Ojukwu) says. Times, August 23, 1968.
We have been listening to how other people see and regard Ndiigbo. The
other part of the equation is how Ndiigbo see and regard themselves.
Let's review some of the things we know about Ndiigbo. Philosophically,
Ndiigbo maintain a very delicate balance between INDIVIDUALISM and
COMMUNITARISM. Very early in the socialization process the Igbo child is
taught that he is the master of his destiny. He learns that success in
any task which he or she undertakes is his responsibility and that he
will equally take personal responsibility for any failures. He is
instructed to strive for excellence, success and status and is taught
that his status in society will be the result of his personal
achievement and not the result of any ascription. His individual efforts
are reinforced and encouraged and gradually he realizes that even among
his age mates he has to compete for power, status and respect and that
his social condition will depend almost exclusively on his individual
efforts. Through encouragement and the abundance of modeling, he learns
that failure is only a temporary set back which should provide even
stronger motivation to overcome the obstacle. The philosophy of
individualism is also transmitted to the child through Igbo philosophy.
Central to this individualistic philosophy is the concept of CHI or
personal God. Broadly conceptualized, it is the totality of the
individual's being, his past history, present activities and future
result. This destiny, fate and other factors collectively shape his life
and his activities during his lifetime. The importance of this life force
is captured in the Igbo proverbs which emphasize the complex interaction
between the individual and his CHI. A few examples will help to
illustrate this point: "Onye kwe, Chi ya ekwe" If one agrees, ones Chi
will also agree. This proverb epitomizes personal responsibility and
individual self-determination. It almost implies that one can bargain or
negotiate with ones Chi for favorable outcome of events. "Onye nya na Chi
ya n'ije, ukwu adi akpo ya". One whose Chi is present in ones journey
does not strike ones toe against a rock. "Onye ka mmadu ka Chi ya." He
who is greater than another is greater than his Chi. "Ofu nne n'amu mana
ofu Chi adi eke." The same mother can give birth to several children but
each of them has a different Chi. "Okuko adi akpanye n'afo efi." A chick
does not put food in the stomach of a cow.
This pattern of socialization helps individuals clearly establish their
self-defined identity. In a rather paradoxical way Igbo Society also
emphasizes COMMUNITAL relationship. Within the family children learn to
support each other. In the neighborhood community children of different
families learn to play together, to share food and simple chores like
cleaning the village square or village stream.
Soon they organize themselves into age mates preparatory to organizing
themselves into age grades later in life. Irrespective of the economic
status of their parents, they learn quite early that everyone needs
everyone else for successful existence. When they organize themselves
into age grades, they undertake community projects such as building
roads, hospitals, civic centers, health clinics etc. All these are meant
to emphasize to the individual the indispensability of the group, the
community to their survival. The community is not seen as just a
collection of individuals. It is seen as a unique relationship in which
the survival and happiness of the individual is intricately interwoven
with the survival and happiness of the community to which the individual
belongs. Beginning with the family and extending outward to Umunne
(extended family), Umunna (kindred), Village (Ogbe) and town (Obodo,
Ala), Igbo society is seen not as a collection of individuals each with
his own rights and liberties in an atomistic manner but rather as
collections of individuals in groups that systematically and
progressively become enlarged. The structure can be likened to concentric
circles that expand outward in a systematic manner, the larger circles
containing the smaller circles and yet allowing them to maintain their
identities and structures and at the same time using the identities and
structures of the smaller circles to maintain the integrity and strength
of the larger circles in a rather symbolic manner. Just as symbiotic
relationship in living organisms requires careful maintenance of this
delicate balance for the survival of each organism, Igbo society
require careful maintenance of this delicate balance for her survival.
The importance of group affiliation in Igbo philosophy and worldview is
captured in Igbo proverbs and idioms. For example, "Ofu osisi adi eme
ofia." [A tree does not make a forest.] "Ofu onye nie onwe ya aka ya
aputagi ukwu aputa." [If a person buries himself, one of his hands or
legs must show above ground.] "Onye gbara umu nna ya mgba isi n'ebu ya
aja aja" [He who wrestles with his kindred folk will have his hair covered
with sand.] "Onye kwulu so ya, ijiji atagbue ya." [He who stands alone
will be devoured by even flies.]
How is this apparent contradiction between individualism and
Individualism provides the philosophical base for individual achievement
and the strive towards excellence, while communitarism acts as a
counterweight to the temptation so often abundant in selfish, survivalist,
individualistic, ascendancy-inspired activities (survival of the fittest
philosophy) to trample upon and possibly destroy others including
relatives and friends in the scramble to get to the top.
Because an individual sees himself as an integral part of the community,
he or she feels obligated to protect the welfare, integrity and honor of
that community by not engaging in any acts that will be prejudicial to
the good of the community, and by doing those things that will promote
the welfare and survival of the community. The community on the other
hand spreads its wings of protection and care over the individual, but
wastes no time in calling an erring member of the community to order. On
rare occasions it imposes such harsh sanction as ostracism or even
banishment on an erring or recalcitrant member. This socialization
enables an Igbo child early in life to develop the all important
principle of self-control in their daily activities.
The delicate balance serves two purposes:
1.) It preserves the integrity of the community by shielding it from
external and internal intrigues and acts of sabotage aimed at
destroying that integrity.
2.) It protects the individual from destructive behaviors of other
people as well as their own propensity towards self-destructive or
Thus the community protects and preserves the individual just as the
individual protects and preserves the community.