LEADERSHIP IN IGBO SOCIETY: ANALYSIS, CHALLENGES AND
SOLUTIONS

BY
EKWE NCHE ORGANIZATION
LAW and ORDER COMMITTEE


COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP IN IGBO SOCIETY.

To fully understand political behavior and especially leadership in
Igbo society, we have to go back to the smallest group, which is the
family. The father is seen as the head, voice and shield of the family.
He takes direct charge and responsibility for whatever happens in his
family and will not accept dictation from even his father. Thus he is
seen as "di bu uno", the man that carries the household. I am sure that
some of you will ask, how about the woman? The woman or mother is seen as
the heart of the household, the pillar which provides emotional
nurturance for the family as well as ensures that material nurturance is
available on a daily basis for the family. She is a moderating influence
in emotionally charged, explosive situations and is usually her husband's
confidant and adviser in most matters affecting the family. If the family
becomes involved in discussion, negotiation or conflict resolution with
the (Umunne) extended family, (Umunna) kindred, his primary
responsibility will be to protect the rights and privileges of his family
and to ensure that the voice of his family is duly heard during the
discussion. In such situation, he will be expected to consult with his
wife and grown children to figure out what position he should take on the
issues. If the family suffers injury, injustice or disability as a result
of his failure to protect their interest, he will be roundly blamed by
his wife and children and depending on the severity and frequency of the
incident could face revolt and challenge to his authority by his adult
sons especially the eldest son. That scenario is rare but it happens.

In matters affecting the Umunna (Kindred) every family is represented by
adult males from each family. However leadership of the Umunna is vested
in the eldest male in the Umunna who is called Okpara, opara, onye ishi,
diokpa etc. The diokpa keeps custody of the Ofo, the sacred stick, which
symbolizes the legitimacy of his authority as well as his commitment to
justice in all his decisions and rulings. The authority of the diokpa is
not imbued with dictatorial power as he must consult with all the family
and possibly obtain consensus on the issue at hand before making a
ruling. He also cannot enforce a ruling without the explicit mandate of
the extended family.

If the Umunna is involved in a negotiation, consultation or conflict
resolution with other groups at the level of the village or town (Ogbe,
Ama, Obodo), the diokpa becomes the spokesperson for his Umunna.
Consultation with members of his Umunna will precede all-important
decisions that he will render. If he is requested to render an opinion on
the spot by the Obodo (Town), or if he suspects that the opinion he is
about to render will be regarded unfavorably by his Umunna, or if he is
faced with a totally new development, that he was not prepared for, he
will immediately request leave of the Obodo to consult with his Umunna
through a procedure called "igba izu or izuzu", before rending the
opinion. During the izu, which is usually done standing up in a circle a
good distance away from the Assembly, all the members of the Umunna will
have an opportunity to air their views on the issue at hand. The
discussion goes on for a few minutes and quickly they arrive at a
consensus on what their leader should present as their view. When they
get back to the assembly the diokpa or some other person delegated to
present their view renders their opinion as clearly as he can. He will
usually end by looking back at his Umunna who may be standing or sitting
behind him, and intoning in a clear voice: "Okwa nu ya ibe anyi nu" or
"okwa ihe unu kwuru" (is this what you resolved). And all the members
will answer in unison, "iyaa obu ya" (yes it is). And they salute him by
his traditional name. If he missed a point, they will take a quick glance
at one another and a member of his Umunna will quickly interject when he
asks the question "okwa ihe unu kwulu", "ka m nwelu gi aka" (let me help
you). And he will add the point missed by the diokpa. If he says
something totally different from what they had agreed to, a member of the
group will quickly call his attention to it and immediately effect a
correction. During the izu, the Umunna does not usually strive for
unanimous agreement on the issues. Rather they seek to establish
an acceptable majority. And once this majority has been established, it
becomes the consensus and all opposition ceases as everyone is expected
to stand with the group. This is why Ndiigbo have the saying: "onye
Umunna ya gburu adi agbe mmee" (whoever is killed by his Umunna does not
shed any blood). The diokpa maintains his authority , power and status by
virtue of his credibility, good judgement and excellent performance. He
does not expose his umunna to ridicule by engaging in corruption,
immorality, or injustice. He does not let the Umunna suffer humiliation,
injury, injustice or other form of disability at community deliberations.
He will do anything and everything within legal limits to protect the
interest, rights and privileges of the Umunna and to ensure that their
voice is not lost at the Community Assembly. If he does this, his Umunna
will be very proud of him even when they lose a case. If for any reason
the diokpa consistently exposes the Umunna to ridicule, injustice,
humiliation, injury or other forms of disability, the power and authority
given to him could be taken away by the Umunna and handed over to another
person, who the Umunna believes is capable of protecting their interest.
Usually, it will be the next oldest person, but sometimes it could be a
younger person who may have proved his capacity to represent the Umunna
effectively. If the diokpa commits a minor infraction, or engages in
behavior unexpected of his elevated status, the Umunna will reprimand him
respectfully.

This same procedure of representation is repeated at the level of the
Town Union or Community Assembly. Each town is made up of several
villages. The Town Union government is made up of officers elected from
all the villages. Each village elects a stipulated number of
representatives to the Town government. In electing the representatives
to the town government, each village makes deliberate effort to have at
least one representative from each Umunna where possible. These
representatives know that it is their responsibility to project and protect
the interest of the village at the level of the Town government. They take
this responsibility very seriously aware that if they fail to project the
views of the village, they will not only be recalled but may also face
severe socio-psychological sanction such as shaming or even economic
sanction such as a fine. In addition to representing their village, they
are aware that they are ambassadors of their Umunna. Therefore they
strive very hard to avoid any actions that could portray their Umunna in
bad light e.g. taking bribes, being a drunk. Because of the importance
which Ndiigbo attach to the "representative" function or duty, they adopt
very stringent parameters in choosing these representatives. Such
parameters include demonstrated wisdom, knowledge, honesty, oratory, and
other achievement characteristics like bravery, wealth, titles, valor in
battle. It is important to emphasize that unlike what happens in Western
democracies where money and affluence seem to be the determining
characteristics for election to representative office, in Igbo culture,
the value or quality of a person is not determined in dollar and cents or
naira and kobo. It is determined by the individual performance on the
assigned task. Therefore money and material possession do not constitute
supreme parameters in selecting an individual to represent his Umunna or
Village. Because an individuals wealth or financial status does not play
an overwhelming role in determining an individual's suitability for
election to representative office, the group the individual is
representing does not feel overawed or intimidated to recall the
representative any time they conclude that he is not living up to their
expectation. In a similar way, the deference and respect accorded an
elder in the socio-political arrangement in Igbo Society is not seen as
willy-nilly obedience to the elder. No. The elder strives at all times to
earn, maintain and therefore retain this respect through exemplary
conduct at all times. Failure to do so might result in loss of respect,
status and withdrawal of this authority by the group.