IGBO BU IGBO:
HOW NDIGBO CAN RESTORE THEIR LOST IDENTITY
Rev Fr Angelo Chidi Unegbu
1) The phrase _Igbo bu Igbo_ literally meaning ‘Ndigbo that are Ndigbo’ is usually used in addressing and greeting an Igbo audience. This three-word phrase, however, addresses a more fundamental issue, namely, the Igbo identity. Above all, it points out that though being born in Igboland or by (an) Igbo parent(s) or speaking Igbo or living in Igboland qualifies one to be an Igbo, it does not automatically make one a _bona fide_ Igbo. One rather becomes a true Igbo by acquiring certain characteristics in thoughts and character. These are the characteristics that have for hundreds of centuries defined the Igbo person and Igboland. Interestingly, these Igbo values were carefully codified in Igbo axioms and largely transmitted orally.
2) Some of these core Igbo values are: (1) _Igwe bu ike_ (unity is strength), (2) _Eziokwu bu ndu_ (truth is life), (3) _Egbe bere ugo bere_ (live and let live), (4) _Onye aghala nwanneya_ (be your brothers’/ sister’s keeper or do not leave your brothers or sisters behind in your march towards success), (5) _Ako na uche_ (possession of wisdom and knowledge) and (6) _Uchu_ (hard work). Other values such as the belief in God’s existence, belief in retribution/ karma, belief in the Afterlife and so on are taken for granted. The acquisition of all these features made, and still makes, one an _Igbo bu Igbo_, that is, an authentic Igbo person. Captain Hugh Crow one of the leading slave merchants of the 18th century had this to say about Igbo people: “The Eboes, who are also from a neighbouring country, have already been spoken of as a superior race, and the inhabitants, generally, are a fair dealing people, and much inclined to a friendly traffic with the Europeans, who humour their peculiarities.”1
3) It was the assimilation of these behavioral traits that distinguished the Igbo tribe from other African tribes. Apart from Captain Crow, other European slave merchants easily observed these qualities which put a high premium on Igbo slaves. Olaudah Equiano also called Gustavus Vassa the African, the author of _Equiano’s Travels_, noted this as well. He recalled that as a young Igbo slave in England, one of his duties was to single out those who were Igbo anytime a slave cargo landed from Africa.2 Crow, while speaking further about the Igbo people states: “They (Igbo slaves) are preferred in the West India colonies for their fidelity and utility... (they are) the most industrious of any of the tribes taken to the colonies.”3 It is on this note that some Igbo linguistic analysts hold that the word _oyibo_ which today refers to a European or a “white man or woman” was a nickname given to the European slave merchants due to the constant question they put up to enquire whether a slave was Igbo or not: _O bu onye I(g)bo_? (Is he or she an Igbo?), which the white man poorly pronounced _oyi Ibo_?
4) These Igbo behavioral traits that made one really Igbo were transmitted to children through parents and adults of the extended family and even of the community. Thus, Ndigbo say _obughi otu onye n’azu nwa_ (a child is not trained by one person but by the community). In those days, mothers had the special duty of training their girls to become real Igbo women, wives and mothers. The curriculum would include training in house chores, cooking, neatness, sexual morality, truthfulness, upbringing of children, respect for their husbands, general human relationships and so on. In the precolonial times, there was hardly an Igbo girl who married that was not a virgin.4 The boys on the other hand were groomed into manhood under the tutelage of their fathers who schooled them on hard work (especially farming and hunting), bravery, loyalty to Igbo customs, laws and traditions, integrity of character. The content of the lesson on integrity would include truthfulness, keeping to promises, keeping secrets, protection of their families and the society at large. These qualities were not only transmitted by parental example but also through organized tutorials that took place normally after night meals, and during farming or hunting periods. These tutorials were always embellished with adages, idioms, stories and folktales. In those days, education was not limited by time or space. Children who acquired these qualities became really Igbo in word and deed.
5) Meanwhile, those who did not succeed in acquiring these core values were referred to as _efulefus_. The _efulefus_ were detested by Ndigbo not only because of their inability to imbibe the core Igbo virtues but because they could become avenues through which the Igbo society could be invaded by enemies. _Efulefus_ could easily reveal vital information to the enemy in exchange for a box of snuff or a bottle of palm wine or even for nothing. When they get married, _efulefus_ hardly fend for their families or properly train their children. Even though they were allowed to live freely in the society, they were not desired because they were likely to give birth to their kind. At death, they were in most cases buried in the evil forest so that they do not reincarnate. The Igbo evaluation of _efulefu_ was confirmed during the colonial invasion of Igboland when the colonial masters installed a good number of _efulefus_ as warrant chiefs who were used in penetrating, subduing and destabilizing Igboland. During the Nigeria-Biafra war, the _efulefus_ were also used by the enemy camp in working against their own people. This time, they were nicknamed saboteurs or ‘sabo’ for short. Till date, the _efulefus_ still militate against the Igbo unity, peace, progress and survival.
6) It was the bid to rid the society of criminals and _efulefus_ that Ndigbo placed high premium on morality, made no laws against slavery and human sacrifice. Slavery was among other things seen as a licit way of getting rid of them. There were not a few parents who sold their naughty or ‘efulefued’ children into slavery. Today, one still observes some elderly people recalling with nostalgia the days when _efulefus_ were sold into slavery, whenever they were confronted with the menace of a naughty child.
7) It was the crave for a perfect society guided by justice, peace and progress that led Ndigbo to the perpetration and legalization of some heinous crimes (even against innocent children), especially when judged from today’s standard. If in any way, either through physical signs or divination, a child was seen as a potential agent of misfortune for the society, that child was thrown into the evil forest. Should a child grow the upper teeth before the lower, it would be interpreted as a sign that the child will bring calamity, disorder or corruption of morals to the society. Thus, such children were thrown into the evil forests where they were allowed to die. Twins were also seen in the same light and were not spared. These gory and condemnable acts were latter used especially by missionaries and colonizers as reasons for seeing all Igbo behavioral traits as evil and satanic. This, of course, is a failure of the rules of logic and discernment.
8) Despite the _Umunna bu ike_ philosophy of _Igbo bu Igbo_, they have always remained open to other cultures and peoples. Being a people that are versatile and enterprising in trade and commerce, Ndigbo treasure and maintain intercultural, social and economic relationships with the outside world. Thus, they welcome visitors especially when they are peace-loving and progressive-minded. Ndigbo easily make wherever they find themselves their home, even in the land of their enemies. Their gregarious or community spirit makes it easy for them to partner with others in executing herculean tasks. The successful coalition with their neigbours to carry out the Aba Women’s War (Riot) (1929) is a good example.
9) The result of the high moral and behavioural standard of Ndigbo was that they became one of the first human societies that succeeded in developing an economically buoyant and ‘safe’ society. Ndigbo became the first recorded humans that succeed in establishing a crime-free society without policemen, no prisons and no capital punishment! Court cases did not last long because no one told a lie under oath! Taking bribes to conceal truth or to bear false witness was unheard of. Many may not believe that there were no prostitutes in Igboland before the colonial invasion of Africa. Ndigbo had no specific word for rape, pedophile, incest and other sexual vices because these rarely happened. These would belong to ‘alu’ (taboo) which was highly detested. According to Olaudah Equiano, there were also “no beggars” in Igboland in his time because Ndigbo were “unacquainted with idleness”!5
10) No Igbo political leader, judge or anyone in the precolonial time was paid for services he or she rendered to the people. Priests, like political leaders and judges, had other jobs that secured their livelihood. People saw it as an honour being requested or chosen to serve their community. The Igbo people are believed today to be the first in the history of humanity to have developed the most functional and least expensive democratic system of government. According to Crow, “their general honesty, …affords a favourable prognostic of what the negro character would be if placed under the restrains and precepts of an enlightened system of jurisdiction.”6
11) The success of Igbo democracy was based mainly on their system of governance, namely, republicanism, which detests any form of authoritarianism, dictatorship or tyranny be it political, economic, religious or otherwise. Thus, Ndigbo remains the only known organised human society that has no history of kingship (_Igbo enwe eze_). Till date, they are a people that cherish freedom and autonomy above all things. Thus, during the colonial era, “no Nigerian people resisted colonialism more tenaciously than the Igbo”.7 Even when it was clear that they lacked what it took to face the military onslaught of the British with sophisticated weapons and ammunitions they fought anyway. The eventual “conquest of Igboland took over twenty years of constant military action.”8 According to Elisabeth Isichei, “what is astonishing, is not that Igbo resistance was unsuccessful, but that the Igbo, in the teeth of all these difficulties, resisted at all.”9 For daring to wage war against the all-powerful Britain, the British hatred for Ndigbo began. Even after the conquest, the two remained suspicious of each other. Britain was convinced that Ndigbo would never give up on their fight for freedom. They were right. It was not surprising that Ndigbo remained at the forefront of the agitations and struggles for Nigerian independence that was granted in 1960. Britain left but the enmity for Ndigbo remained till date. In their quest for freedom, the Christian foreign missionaries were also not spared. Thus, during the clamour for political independence the Igbo people were also agitating for an ecclesiastical independence. They wanted their own people to be in charge of their churches too. Mazi Mbonu Ojike’s slogan captured vividly the yearning of the majority of Ndigbo at the time: “to boycott all boycottables” which means to be Igbo, eat Igbo, dress Igbo, speak Igbo and govern Igbo – to be Igbo in word and deed. One may cage the Igbo people or even kill them but nothing can cage or kill their innate desire to be free from external dominion.
12) The source of Ndigbo’s resilience in resisting any form of dominion especially before and during the colonial invasion of Igboland was not based on the strength of their ammunitions or wealth but on the power of their unity. Igbo alliance made Igboland formidable, impenetrable and unconquerable by intruders, until the British found willing partners in the _Efulefus_ of Igboland, from whom they appointed warrant chiefs. Consequently, titled men, priests and revered elders that were the custodians of Igbo unity lost their positions. Eventually, Igboland capitulated together with most of its agelong values. More so, with commercialization of politics, being an _efulefu_ became lucrative and attractive whereas being an Igbo bu Igbo became infamous and primitive.
13) Without intending to do so, Christian missionaries also contributed, unfortunately, to this division. Ndigbo were further grouped between Ndi Uka (considered to be a derogatory word given to Christians, literally meaning ‘trouble makers’) and Ndi Obodo (Non-Christians); Catholics and Anglicans and so on. Brothers and sisters were taught in Church literally to segregate among each other. And with the influx of Pentecostal churches, Igbo Christians were further divided between ‘born again’ and ‘non-born again’. Yet the God all of them professed lives in an undivided Trinity. The cacophony became louder with the boom of Western education. Literates were separated from illiterates, white collar jobs were separated from the traditional jobs, and elites from commoners. The Igbo battered unity collapsed on the weight of all these. It was these events that Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart captured when Obierika told Okonkwo: “Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”10 With the puncture of Igbo unity the inversion of Igboland and the erosion of morals was launched.
14) From the colonial times till date, enemies of Ndigbo have realized that disunity was and remains the only way to subdue Igboland. This belief influenced the tactic adopted by the enemy forces in subduing Ndigbo during the Nigeria-Biafra war. It also informed the creation of states thereafter, which geared towards making sure that Ndigbo do not unite again to agitate for their freedom or to fight another war. Thus, Igboland was bitterly dismembered with military fiat, setting them against each other. Some found themselves in Delta, others in River, Benue, Cross River and so on. Many Igbo towns and villages began mutating or changing their Igbo names. The cliché that “Ndigbo ahughi onwe ha n’anya” (Ndigbo hate themselves) was also injected into the minds of Ndigbo to poison their minds against each other. For any politician to succeed in Igboland today, he must profess directly or indirectly his or her aversion to or at least disinterestedness for Igbo unity. Sadly, not a few Ndigbo today are ready to sacrifice the Igbo unity at the altar of political office or appointment. In all these, one sees the handwriting of the efulefus and why the efulefus were dreaded by Igbo forebears. It is only now that one understands the wisdom of Igbo forebears in making sure that the society was free of efulefus.
15) In order to restore the lost golden ages of Ndigbo, I mean that exemplar of Igbo society bound in love, justice, peace, progress and unity, nothing new or extra-ordinary needs to be done. Ndigbo require only to unite and then become Ndigbo in words and deeds. With that, Igboland would retrace their steps on the path of progress. This is not a call to a complete restoration of the past, since the obnoxious practices of the past like human sacrifices, killing of twins, slavery and so on should remain condemned. It is rather a re-appropriation of the great positive Igbo values, the values that made Igbo truly Igbo (Igbo bu Igbo)!
16) As we wait for the emergence of a regional government or sovereign nation, which remains the only foundation upon which Ndigbo and Igboland will blossom once again, let us for the meantime do the following:
a) The same way Ndigbo unite in building churches, market and transport unions; the same manner they plan and organize festivals, August meetings; the same manner they form Igbo/ town meetings everywhere they are, the same way should they also come together to sponsor infrastructural developments like roads, electricity (solar), refuse management, hospitals, quality schools, pipe borne water and so on. To have an endurable system, they should establish lasting structures comprising of men and women of integrity. Effort should be made that the efulefus are not part of it. They do not need any foreign assistance from any government or loan from China or engineers from England to do any of these because Ndigbo “zuru ka emee”. If transparent enough, the Alaigbo project is one laudable example. The case of how Ndigbo were able to bounce back economically and otherwise shortly after the Biafran war, that left the region in dust and ashes, without external help tells one how tenacious and gifted they are.
b) Furthermore, Ndigbo must be ready to forget their differences created by bitter past experiences, and unite. Once this unity is achieved, progress will follow. Unity will also help restore our relationship with our estranged brothers and sisters. Caveat: Every Igbo man or woman knows an efulefu when he or she sees one. Every effort must be made to make sure that they do not occupy leadership positions or political offices.
c) Water on the soil brings life and joy but blood on the same soil brings curses and woes. The soil of Igboland is saturated with the blood of her sons and daughters. Ndigbo must map out a day on which to remember all their brothers and sisters who have been murdered in the cause of defending Igbo unity and freedom. We must unite with them in our struggle for peace, progress and freedom.
d) All traditional rulers must unite. All Igbo religious leaders of all denominations must unite. Nothing whatsoever should ever divide Ndigbo again, not politics, not religion, not worldview. Our strength is not in our wealth or military prowess but in our unity, and the beauty of this unity lies in our individual and collective differences. However, Ndigbo must be watchful because Igbo unity is the biggest monster that all their enemies, both local (including efulefus) and foreign, dread.
Igbo bu Igbo, ekenee m unu oo!
1. Hugh Crow, The Memoirs of Captain Hugh Crow: The Life and Times of a Slave Trade Captain (London: Longman, 1830), 197.
2. Paul Edwards ed., Equiano’s Travels: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauda Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African (Long Grove: Waveland Press, 2006), 7.
3. Hugh Crow, The Memoirs of Captain Hugh Crow, 199.
4. Edwards, Equiano’s Travels, 7.
6. Crow, The Memoirs of Captain Hugh Crow, 197.
7. Elisabeth Isichei, A History of the Igbo People (London: Macmillan 1977), 119.
9. Isichei, A History of the Igbo People 122.
10. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Penguin, 1959/2017), 152.