Old Crucible for New Igbo Trajectory

By Okey Ikechukwu

As Lead Speaker at the Ohaneze Ndigbo Retreat which ended a few days ago in Enugu, I saw the gathering as part of the cocktail of measures being put in place by the current leadership of Ohaneze to ensure greater group cohesion and more strategic engagement, going forward. As Ndigbo would say, the mother hen that does not bring its chicks together from time to time to educate them about their environment, to warn them about the dangers in that environment and also to explain to them how to successfully navigate the environment, has laid a solid foundation for their eventual decimation by hawks and other predators. Ndigbo say that it is by coming together to review existential issues that a family can periodically re-ignite and strategically address its interests in a lasting and sustainable way.

I had the option of giving the theme of the retreat, “Ako Bu Ije” a purely academic treatment. I could have delved into the foundations of this deep philosophical concept, its meanings, its implications for social morality and cohesion, and how this could be used to carry out a review of the Igbo worldview as a whole. But the clear and present existential dangers facing Ndigbo as a people ruled out that option. It was better to use the occasion to trace the possible root causes of these dangers and propose viable remedial actions; weaving same around the concept of Ako Bu Ije; as the essential philosophical, and even spiritual, underpinning of a way forward.

It is a matter of record that some of the problems of Ndigbo today are self-inflicted. It is also a matter of record that many of these problems have been externalized in such a way that others are being blamed for them. The factors undermining Igbo collective political and even spiritual well-being revolve around a mercilessly conspiratorial (and not objectively competitive) political environment that the people do not seem to fully understand.

I touched on the significance of the kolanut, on the essence of the ritual of the breaking of the kolanut and on why the kolanut is a symbol of communion and not a snack in Igboland. The full spiritual meanings, and implications, of the statement “He who brings kolanut brings life” was explained. The ceremonial consecration of the kolanut by Ndigbo was represented as no empty social gesture, but as a very important step of first calling on the forces of nature for protection and guidance in support of all that is good.

The bringing of the kolanut is, first and foremost, an opportunity for prayers for life more abundant. Since prayers bring blessings and is meant to strengthen life, whoever brings and offers the kolanut has brought an opportunity for life to be enhanced through prayers; hence the call at the beginning: “He Who lives Above, the Giver of life, protect us”.

The kolanut ceremonies also emphasize the interdependence in the community of all living things. That is why it is said: “May the river not dry up and may the fish not lack water to swim in”. The river looks more beautiful because of the fish, while the life of the fish depends on the steady flow of the river. Ndigbo also pray this before and after eating the kolanut: “Elders shall live and the young shall live. Our harvest shall be rich and none shall pray for the misfortune of another, lest his farm be the only patch of earth without rain’, etc.

From the foregoing, a proper understanding of who the Igbo man really is, is central to any attempts at finding a lasting solution to any, or all, of his problems. The average Igbo man likes to be consulted, noticed or at least taken into account as part of what is going on around him. He does not like to be hurried to a decision, or asked to simply comply with what has been decided upon. He would rather be involved in events he can influence to some extent. He likes to air his opinions and be acknowledged as a person, a contributor, or facilitator. He loves fair competition and visible, effective and sometimes dramatic performance.

Many proverbs bring out these points about the Igbo essence. He will proudly declare: “Onye aju na-ebu anaghi aza ide ji uno” (A person who is unsteady on his feet, drowsy, or staggering, is never given the title of “The pillar that holds the edifice). Ndigbo will also tell you: “Onye nmanya na egbu anaghii aza akwaa akwuru”. (A drunken person is never hailed as the unshaken, and unshakable, one)”. No family or kindred sends out its mad offspring to represent it in the village square as “Onu na-ekwuru oha” (Voice of the people).

These proverbs point to core values that make a clear distinction between the appropriate and the inappropriate, between the absurd and the norm, and between the sublime and the ridiculous. It was with this last observation in mind that the discussion dovetailed into the notion of Ako Bu Ije.

The deeper “sense” of Ako bu ije literally means “Wisdom and deep insight into the core values of life gives you the true path to anything lasting in the journey of life”. We can describe “ako” as “having deep inner promptings”, or knowing how to navigate life in a sustainable way and without undermining yourself or harming others in the long run. The Igbo saying “Agbusi gbaa otele, ya amuru ako’ (when the buttock is stung by an ant, it learns the wisdom of paying close attention before choosing where to sit) bears this out.

“Ije”, on the other hand, literally means to walk. But its deeper meaning refers to the journey of life, or the way to go in what you are doing and maintain an edifying and sustainable trajectory.

From the foregoing, therefore, we said, for the purpose of the retreat, that ako bu ije simply means: Life is best guided by wisdom, insight, discretion and a deep sense of propriety. The question that arose therefrom was this: In what ways can ako bu ije now become the rousing bell for a gathering of wits in the form of an Igbo renaissance? The answer is simple. It means that deep thinking, patient understanding of the operating environment, commitment to lasting values, or strategic engagement and evidence-based decisions and alliances, offer the best foundation for lasting success in every sense of the word.

The dummy out there, that the Igbo society is always essentially atomistic, and in a way that makes it largely ungovernable, does not have a leg to stand on at all. This questionable thesis is sometimes justified by referring to the misunderstood saying: “Igbo enwe eze”. (Igbos know/have no kings). This assertion simply means that Ndigbo do not confer on any single feudal authority an unquestioned, and unquestionable, right to decree and overrule all and sundry. When the Igbo man says: “Agbara nyekaria nsogbu ezi ya osisi esi nweta ya” (literally “when the oracle, or your talisman, becomes so powerful as to even try to terrorize its owner, then it is time to take it outside and show it the tree from which it was carved”).

Ndigbo are simply saying that the collective right of the people should be invoked to remind anyone with tyrannical aspirations that a hero is always a people’s hero. That is also why Ndigbo say that “A masquerade that flogs its drummers and followers ceases to dance, because it walks alone”.

From the foregoing, it should be clear that the Igbo concept of power and authority rests more on respect for the laws of the land, than on personal whims. The true Igbo concept of success is always linked with respect for Omenala. The people, and the laws of the land, always determine the difference between right and wrong. That is also why Ndigbo say: “Asokalie eze anya ekpuchie nkata na iru wee gwalua ya okwu aru”.

The idea of covering the face with a basket is often assumed to be out of fear for the life of the person who decides to speak out before the king. But it is not! No one has the right to walk up to the community leader and insult him, for any reason. It is just not done, no matter how wealthy you are. To dare such, you must either be part of a select group sent to admonish the leader, or you are stepping forward as the messenger of the community – sent by the community.

Once you are sent in this way, you no longer represent yourself; just as a man is presumed to have transcended to the spirit world once he is dressed up as a masquerade. The covering of the face upholds the dignity of the office of Eze and affirms that no one may insult the office in his capacity as a mere mortal. But this mysterious being from the beyond, speaking for the gods and men (but using the voice of a man) may do so to any unworthy occupant of an office.

The major trade mark of the traditional Igbo charlatan is that nothing he does can ever lead to sustainable development, or a healthy communal, religious or Family life. He is dangerous to social morality and the economic life of the people; because of his ‘Okpata otitaa’ approach to life.  It is such charlatans who parrot the proverbs like: “Ewu na eso onye bu igu” (The goat runs after whoever has palm fronds – read ‘green leaves ‘)

This statement is true, but it applies only to goats and any other nonvolitional living thing that behaves like a goat. Such sayings were originally meant to warn people against thoughtless materialism and immorality as a philosophy of life. But today it is freely used to justify irresponsibility, unfaithfulness and every form of debauchery.

How can it be true that only the person who offers immediate material satisfaction deserves loyalty? In Igboland, where the cardinal communal philosophy says: “A human being is no goat’’ The fact that this proverb and others like it have become the most popular in Igboland in recent times shows that we Ndigbo are facing greater existential threat at the philosophical level of distortion of pristine concepts than at the purely material.

The road from this culture of leadership charlatanry lies in progressively creating and nurturing new values. If all the avenues and platforms for opinion molding machines are deployed in the right way, there should eventually arise the needed critical mass of Ndigbo who will one day say: “Thus far and no further”.

Ako Bu Ije can only hold true where reciprocity is nurtured alongside the need for self preservation.

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