Professor George Obiozor, Ohanaeze Ndigbo President General
Forty-five years since it was formed in 1976, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, a pan-Igbo socio-cultural organization, has come a long way. Conceived to take after the pre-war Igbo State Union which was proscribed by the military on coming to power in 1966, Ohanaeze Ndigbo aims at championing the Igbo cause and serving as rallying point for the Igbo, both in Nigeria, and in the Diaspora.
In the early 1930s, some Igbo people living in Lagos had come together to form an association for purposes of promoting the Igbo identity, flowing from the fact of a common language, common culture and a shared values.
At the dawn of colonial rule in Nigeria, the Igbo had occupied lowly positions in the scheme of things. Those who went to Lagos to seek for means of livelihood were mostly employed as labourers, houseboys, cooks and stewards to the Europeans, the Indians, and even the Yoruba. They were thus looked down upon as people from the backwaters, and were derisively called “omo kobo kobo aje ayo”, the equivalent of cannibals. This had deflated their ego and made some of them to dissociate, or even refused to identify themselves as Igbo, while some even changed their names to camouflage their Igbo identity.
In course of time, however, some few educated Igbo migrants in Lagos began to kick against such degrading and humiliating remarks and the menial and lowly jobs reserved for their people. They then decided to come together to form an association, later known as Igbo State Union.
With Dennis Osadebay as first President, and Henry Kanu Offonry as General Secretary, among other officers, the Igbo Union was formally inaugurated in Lagos in 1934, following a reception organized for the first Igbo graduates namely, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Simeon Onwu, and Dr. Francis Ibiam.
Apart from encouraging various Igbo communities back home to embark on massive education of their youths that would enable them assume responsible positions in a future independent Nigeria, the union actively identified with the Igbo cause, expressed by the dominant political party that represented the Igbo interest at the time, the NCNC.
At the 1948 Port Harcourt conference where Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was elected President, along with other principal officers, like A.C. Nwapa, R.A. Njoku, Jaja Wachukwu, Nwafor Orizu, Mbonu Ojike, K.O. Mbadiwe, Francis Ibiam, B.O.N. Eluwa, etc., the Igbo State Union vowed to galvanize all segments of the Igbo society to counter any virulent attack on any of their leaders by other ethnic groups.
When Zik later resigned as President of Igbo State Union to pursue bigger positions in the larger Nigerian society, he was succeeded by Z.C. Obi, who held forte until the military came in 1966 and banned all tribal associations, including the Igbo State Union.
At the end of the civil war in 1970, some Igbo leaders came together to form another association, called the Igbo National Assembly. The military government at that time was however not comfortable with the group, and banned it.
Following the lifting of ban on political activities in 1976 preparatory to handing over of power to civilians in 1979, Igbo leaders once again came together and formed Ohanaeze Ndigbo. Among notable personalities that championed and supported the organization were Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe, Dr. M.I. Okpara, Dr. Pius Okigbo, Chief Jerome Udoji, who served as its first Secretary General.
As the military was on the verge of vacating the political scene and handing over to civilians in 1979, Ohanaeze Ndigbo found itself in a dilemma regarding what would be its possible position in the emerging scheme of things.
The problem was whether Ohanaeze Ndigbo should align itself with the Igbo solidarity and team up with a predominantly Igbo political party, the NPP, led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, just as the Igbo State Union did for the NCNC in the First Republic, or to seek for the integration of the Igbo into the mainstream of Nigerian politics, and join forces with a perceived pan-Nigerian political party, the NPN, which had even offered one of their own, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, its Vice Presidential ticket.
After weighing the two options, Ohanaeze Ndigbo settled for the latter, and thus alienated itself from the mass of the Igbo population, who belonged with the NPP. Members of Ohanaeze Ndigbo were then pooped or caricatured as stooges of Hausa/Fulani oligarchy.
At the tail end of the military regime, Ohanaeze Ndigbo however came out forcefully to canvass for creation of more states in Igboland, which resulted to the creation of Enugu, Abia, Delta, Rivers and Ebonyi states.
Presently, the perception of Ohanaeze Ndigbo in many quarters is that the group is undemocratic and elitist, made up of people with established interests. It is also claimed that the organization was not doing enough to fight for the Igbo interests, particularly with regards to the alleged hatred of the Igbo by other ethnic groups, the issue of power shift, or the Igbo Presidency project, etc.
Furthermore, Ohanaeze Ndigbo is not known among the mass of the Igbo population because it is claimed that the group does not fight for their interest. Also, Ohanaeze Ndigbo is not popular among majority of the educated elites who see it as one the parastatals of the governments of South East States.
In addition, Ohanaeze Ndigbo preaches “turning the other cheek”, even when the Igbo are openly persecuted, maligned, robbed and denied of their rightful positions in the scheme of things. Some critics simply termed Ohanaeze Ndigbo, a Trojan horse, which neither barks nor bites.
Defending itself from these allegations, one-time President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Professor Joe Irukwu, said Ohanaeze Ndigbo “is driven and guided by the ako-na-uche philosophy, which is less confrontational, subtle, tactful and democratic”.
According to him, ako-na-uche calls for sound judgement in dealing with issues and situations. It also symbolises the value of approaching issues with the ancient wisdom of Igbo ancestors, dressed up with a lot of tact, diplomacy and respect for the interests and intelligence of others.
No doubt, majority of those who constitute membership of Ohanaeze Ndigbo are those who saw and fought the Nigerian civil war, who suffered and experienced the war, and hence would not want a repeat occurrence. Besides, many of them have various investments scattered all over Nigeria and therefore, would not want to rock the boat.
In other words, Ohanaeze Ndigbo believes in the concept of “one Nigeria”, though in a restructured form, to make for true federalism, which most of the young Igbo elements are strongly opposed to, due to their ugly experiences and frustrations in Nigeria.
According to the immediate past President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, “no ethnic group has more stakes in the Nigerian project than Ndigbo, and as such, cannot consider break up as a viable option. There is no part of the country where Ndigbo have not invested their resources even without any corresponding investment from others in Igboland”, he stated.
But the young brigades do not want to hear about this. They want outright separation of the Igbo from Nigeria due to what they perceive as injustices, denials and humiliations being suffered by the Igbo in a country where they are treated as strangers or as second class citizens.
Now that a new Ohanaeze Ndigbo executive has been elected, with erudite Professor and diplomat, George Obiozor, at the helm of affairs, even if the processes that threw them up were being questioned by some people, all eyes are now on the organization to chart a proper course for the Igbo, which would enable them navigate through the murky seas around them.
Coming at a time when the Igbo are divided as has never been before, across age brackets, across ideological lines, across political parties, across economic bases, the new Ohanaeze Ndigbo executive has many daunting tasks. The group should not just aim at building a united Igbo, or Igbo solidarity, but equally should ensure that the Igbo will take their rightful position in the scheme of things, and also that the much talked about Igbo President in 2023, does not become a chimera, a willo-the-wisp, a wild goose chase.