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Meditations on Awka Leadership Crisis

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Awka polity is going through a serious leadership crisis. The pursuit of power, prestige and perquisites among elite factions has led to a rupturing of local leadership institutions. This threatens Awka political stability and undermines its relevance in Anambra State politics.

By Chudi Okoye

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Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle once proclaimed, in his acclaimed ‘Great Man’ theory, that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” That theory was later quite forcefully rejected by the English polymath, Herbert Spencer, who argued that those Carlyle considered “great men” were merely products of their social environment. Be that as it may, Awka history appears to have surged or plunged in consonance with the nature of Awka leadership in any given era.

History has bequeathed Awka society a variety of local leaders. Some were known for their sobriety, others for their notoriety. Some have been hesitant, sought out to be anointed; others agitant, all but self-appointed. Some have been voluble and strident; others unflappable and silent. All told, Awka leaders have come in different packages, travelling with their varied appendages. And there is today a whole muster of them, a variegated cluster. With the profusion of ‘leaders’ comes some confusion of values and the absence of a leadership agenda, making the town’s future somewhat slender.

Leaders versus Leadership. Not always fungible, these terms. One term refers to mortal beings in formal or informal roles trying to represent, direct or guide a group in pursuit of some private or social goals. The other refers to the presence of certain metaphysical qualities such as charisma, confidence, vision, nobility, decisiveness, authority – all of these qualities needed to nurture, coach, motivate, innovate, influence or otherwise inspire social groups and move them to achieve collective goals.

Leadership is kinetic. But not so in contemporary Awka society.

Over a generation ago the redoubtable Chinua Achebe declared that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Achebe’s piercing critique of Nigeria could well have been written specifically about contemporary Awka town. For, surveying the scene today in the decaying capital city of Anambra State, it feels for all the world like a rudderless hulk in need of bearing and masterful steering. But where are the dedicated leaders to revive the desiccated town?

The leadership crisis in Awka has never been more acute than it is at present. And it is time to really interrogate the issue – from a non-partisan perspective, as we do in this maiden edition of Awka Times.

Some key questions to kick off: What is the real problem with leadership in Awka: Is it that the town’s leadership is incapable, or that Awka community itself is ungovernable? Are the town’s leaders simply unremarkable, or the followers themselves unbiddable?

Awka énwé ézè! is an age-old maxim which once denoted the rejection of a centralized kingship system and the abhorrence of entitled leadership in Awka culture. This adage shows that although classical (i.e. precolonial) Awka society had its own political hierarchy, Awka political organization was highly decentralized and participatory. Awka did not abide any sense of entitlement among its leaders. This attitude persists to this day even as Awka fumbles with a newfangled monarchy and an experimental town union administration attempts to manage the town within the democratic superstructure of modern of Nigeria.

Awka énwé ézè! has turned into Awka énwéré ézé! In the time when Awka was an autonomous village republic, with a pastoral simplicity to community life, it did not see a need for a formal architecture of leadership. But as colonialism and postcolonialism ensued, Awka came to be subsumed into the larger political framework of Nigeria. A need thus arose for a formalized hierarchy of leadership to represent Awka in the new political entity. But this new hierarchy has remained somewhat exotic, constantly colliding with the republican instinct in Awka political DNA. It has resulted in recurrent eruptions of leadership crisis which render Awka a toothless juggernaut in its environment. In this way, alas, does Awka énwé ézè! translate into Awka énwéré ézé! A once formidable republic has become toothless with the adoption of kingship.

It is undeniable that habits of leadership and followership are yet to be properly cultivated in Awka, (though, with economic distress making a mistress of many, sycophantic self-abnegation is on the rise). This is evinced in the persistent crisis of leadership in the town. The triggers for these tensions can be found in growing elite power struggle and increased civic mobilization that are the reality of modern Awka society. But the root causes relate to deeper historical, cultural and structural factors in Awka society. Resolving the crisis requires a change in elite behavior, but also a reform of Awka governance structures to reduce the institutional frictions that exist today. Institutional reform is necessary for Awka to move from the current instability to political order.

Crisis of Political Transition

A sixty-year process of political transition (1959 to 2019) has been afoot in Awka. In this period, Awka governance function has come to be fully integrated into the Nigerian governance system through the establishment of a statutory chieftaincy rule (later monarchy) and town union administration. This transitional period has seen the ascendance of the statutory leadership institutions in Awka and the gradual marginalization of their primordial counterparts. The decline of the older leadership organs as Awka transitions from a segmentary lineage-based village republic with achievement orientation to an increasingly stratified society with ascriptive orientation is becoming evident (see Want a King. Won’t Kiss His Ring! in this edition of Awka Times). It has added to the crisis of leadership, marked by institutional and personal rivalries, instability and generalized sense of leadership failure in Awka town, as shown by the Awka Times survey published in this edition.

Leadership failure is the bane of modern Awka polity. We see it in the deleterious effects of elite power struggle and institutional rivalries which have intensified recently. We see it in the seeming inability of the political and elite social classes in Awka to articulate a hegemonic vision for Awka ascendancy; their lack of internal class consensus and inability to mobilize the mass of Awka indigenes around a set of shared community objectives; their apparent lack of will or political resources to impose order on a restive, crisis-ridden society in which they have class advantages; and their lack of technocratic competence to engage external actors or mobilize external resources to deliver good governance, peace and prosperity in Awka. This depiction indicts the Awka governing elites as a social class, although I do recognize and salute the patriotic and philanthropic efforts of leading members of the elite acting in their individual capacities to uplift their hometown (see Awka Times Person of the Year, 2019). Our focus in this edition of Awka Times is on the failure of the ruling elites as a class, to document their rivalries since the onset of monarchic transition in Awka, and to explain why, as Achebe would put it, the elites have failed to rise to their leadership responsibilities.

Aspects of The Leadership Crisis In Awka

The grim evidence of leadership crisis in Awka abounds. Almost all of the local governing institutions in Awka are infected by the crisis – from Ọzọ Awka to the beleaguered Awka traditional ruler (Eze Uzu) institution and the Council of Kingmakers, to the Awka Development Union Nigeria (ADUN). Even Izu Awka, the Awka general assembly, and the semi-spiritual offices of Ọtọchal Awka and Eze Imoka, have not been spared the contagion. There are also village-level reverberations and, no less, a denominational dimension with an inexplicable stand-off between Awka community and the Catholic Church over burial rites (see On Dust-to-Dust).

Much of the crisis currently convulsing Awka has festered for years, seemingly intractable, and it is approaching volatile levels. As things stand now, Awka appears to have two de facto monarchs: the incumbent Eze Uzu II Obi Gibson Nwosu and the challenger Ọzọ Augustine Ndigwe, apparently crowned “Eze Uzu III”; there are two Presidents-General of ADUN: Engr. Tony Okechukwu and Chief Amobi Nwokafor; and two distinct Ọzọ groupings: the established Ọzọ Awka Society and the nascent groupoid, Ọzọ Ivbe. Many other cultural institutions in Awka appear also entangled by the rigid logic of rupture and cleavage in the apex institutions. The inescapable consequence of the crisis is that Awka sovereign institutions are beginning to ‘decay’ and are facing a loss of legitimacy. On the whole, Awka polity is experiencing an unprecedented level of instability and political disorder.

But the evidence of the crisis is not merely turmoil and stalemate in the political arena, grim as this has proved to be. There are inevitable reverberations in other social domains, including many cultural spheres as well.

Like many other towns Awka had its share of communal crisis in the past. But on the whole Awka had avoided the type of violent conflagrations that had torn other towns apart. Now, however, Awka itself appears to have succumbed to similar contradictions of local governance that afflicted other towns.

Awka Leadership Crisis and Government Neglect

With Awka politics in turmoil and the town’s political leadership weakened by partisan exertion, Awka barely registers in the hallways of power in Anambra State. Divided, distracted and demobilized, the hierarchy of Awka leadership is unable to compel authoritative allocations in behalf of the town (see Policy Failure and the Slumification of Awka and Road Infrastructure Decay in Awka Capital City). As a sad testament to the town’s political weakness, a state government seated on Awka ancestral lands in large part feels utterly distant and unresponsive to Awka strategic interests, with those in its high command – aliens, no less, from once-inconsequential townlets under Awka tutelage – exploiting (and possibly stoking) the partisan rivalries in Awka. You can feel their disdain in interactions with Awka community.

Using eminent domain powers, Anambra State Government brazenly impounds choice lands in Awka, offering grudging compensation to voracious village speculators while its functionaries orchestrate the redistribution of same lands to their own compatriots. They announce grand plans to turn Awka into a South Eastern ‘miracle’ – dazzling announcements designed to impress the locals and their political representatives. But these announcements are seldom supported with meaningful budgetary appropriations, as Awka Times found in interviews with the leadership of ACTDA. Because there is little coordination among Awka  representatives, because these representatives – emerging from largely unmeritorious political party recruitment processes – lack the requisite technocratic and political skills, they can be – and are – easily manipulated, easily fobbed off with gratuitous patronage from government high command. These representatives often return ‘triumphantly’ to Awka assemblies with the measly handouts eked out from the halls of power, to be proclaimed instant heroes by an achingly credulous community.

Authoritative allocations at any level of government are a game of power. What a community or any group secures through statutory allocation is directly proportional to the political forces that it can muster, and as well to the political skills of its representatives. If a local community is divided, with factions working against one another and its larger strategic interests ill-defined or left unattended, such a community stands at a distinct disadvantage in bargaining against more adroit communities whose representatives in any case dominate the commanding heights of government. Such, sadly, is today the fate of Awka with its lingering leadership crisis.

From circumstantial evidence, Awka seems to be so thoroughly neglected by the resident government that it is often considered the least developed state capital in the South East, if not Nigeria. For, after nearly three decades carrying the cross as capital city for Anambra State, Awka is groaning under the weight of that responsibility, lumbered with little but chaotic urban development, poor infrastructures, dearth of educational opportunities, high unemployment, youth marginalization, community unrest, insecurity and cultism – all these maladies underpinned by a constricted and prismatic local economy teetering between primitive subsistence and unplanned modernity.

The full cost to Awka community of the ongoing leadership crisis has not yet begun to be calculated. It is a matter that we will explore in a subsequent edition of Awka Times. But here we outline some of the obvious costs of the crisis. There are: the lost or pared allocations from government; neglect or disdainful treatment of Awka by the authorities; the social and economic costs of infrastructure decay; the loss of investment opportunities; the breaking of social bonds and erosion of social harmony; the loosening of norms and loss of cultural identity; and even – something that nobody is talking about – the issue of brain drain resulting from the alienation of Awka intellectuals who recoil from the atavistic animosities in their town, thus failing to avail talents that could help to drive Awka modernization.

Alas Awka, once a leading Igbo town with a storied antiquity (an Awka that figured in Igbo creation legend!) is today flagging and dragging, sagging under the weight of its unfulfilled promise and now distressingly lagging behind less comparable towns with perhaps more enlightened leadership. This indeed is a low point for Awka, a dismal conjuncture in its long history.

How did Awka come to such a sorry pass?

Leadership Crisis and Awka Development

There are many factors which might explain why a town, state or country may suffer socio-economic stagnation or decline. Such factors have been documented in the extensive literature on development and underdevelopment. It will be futile to try to reduce all explanation to one single factor. However, there is often a correlation of political culture and socio-economic condition in most analysis of the rise and fall of social systems. There is theoretical disagreement on the direction of causality – with classical Marxian sociology emphasizing economic determinism while its neoclassical counterpart, built on Weberian sociology, asserts the overriding salience of cultural and political ethic for economic outcomes. But whatever the theoretical tendency, a relationship between political culture and socio-economic condition is established in social theory.

On the strength of such theoretical consensus, then, I argue that there is an intricate causal connection between the poverty of political leadership in Awka and the condition of socio-economic malaise evident in Awka society today. I argue further that the causal relationship is bi-directional, with political leadership failure further dislocating the economic system which spawned it in the first place, thus leaving Awka trapped in a vicious cycle of political, cultural and socio-economic degeneration. Even worse, I argue still further, there is not at present the precondition for transformational change: such is the state of settled anomie in Awka that we do not have sufficient class consciousness among the governing elites to impose a coherent and cohesive agenda of enlightened class dominance on Awka society; nor, alas, do we have revolutionary pressures arising from the bottom of society – from the lumpen mass of dispossessed indigenes – to force a radical overturning of their oppressive social conditions. A revolution from the top or the bottom of Awka society is desperately needed to redress the dire societal conditions, but there is not sufficient consciousness or readiness among the social classes, at the apex or the rump of society, to drive such a correction.

Left on its own therefore Awka society – like the conceptual “object at rest” in Newton’s First Law of Motion – will continue to drift, wallowing in the immutable logic of its own underperformance. Clearly, something needs to be done, a radical intervention to force a change in the course of Awka history, in line – shall we say – with the principles of Newtonian physics!

But what can be done? The irradicalism of the lower classes renders them unreliable agents of social change. A better approach to Awka social transformation, I argue, is to mobilize the Awka governing classes, to radicalize the elites and turn them into a revolutionary force, to pluck the elites from their apparent lethargy, liberating them from whatever constraints – intellectual, cultural or institutional – that prevent them from playing their historic role. We must re-edify the Awka governing elites, and empower them through aggressive constitutional and institutional engineering to play their historic role in Awka social transformation.

We should also consider civic leadership training for those at the helm of Awka affairs. Ancient Awka, as we know, was an acephalous republic with a segmentary social structure. It had a lineage-based leadership system with autonomous constituent villages and weak central institutions. Awka political organization was diffuse and non-hierarchical. Moreover, leadership was based on an achievement ethos rather than ascription. Anyone with means and motivation, regardless of their technocratic or political skills, could find their way into leadership positions. This phenomenon endures to this day, with the result that leadership incumbents and aspirants in Awka tend to have highly uneven levels of political skills and acumen. This is the case with regard to the traditional title institutions (Ọzọ Awka, Ndichie etc.) and the statutory bodies (ADUN, Eze Uzu). Civic consciousness is still lineage-oriented, and political leadership skills are not deeply ingrained. Perhaps this affects the quality of leadership available in Awka. We see a lot of leadership jostling but little display of leadership vision or skill. It may be necessary therefore to improve the quality of leadership with tailored training.

Awka also needs to consider setting up a community advocacy group to undertake the strategic work of interest articulation and interest aggregation on behalf of the town. This group, transcending local and state administrations, should probably be named Awka Capital City Development Task Force or simply Awka Policy Advocacy Group (APAG). Its role will be to articulate Awka strategic interests and lead the effort to aggregate such interests into formal government policies that will benefit Awka. It should harness Awka political resources in a systematic way, working with various Awka leadership bodies. This will make Awka political lobbying effort more effective, avoiding the disaggregated and uncoordinated approach we have now which is often counter-productive.

The establishment of such a body is critical especially in light of the current trajectory of the Anambra state government’s Awka capital development initiatives. Since Awka became capital in 1991, as we show in this edition of Awka Times, two significant changes have occurred that seem detrimental to the town. One, the original capital development philosophy adopted by the Abulu government, which planned for development to radiate outward from the Awka core, was later rejected for a centrifugal model when Governor Ezeife came in.

Then, later in 2015, Governor Obiano changed the name of Awka Capital Development Authority to Awka Capital Territory Development Authority.

These two events imply a decentralization of development initiatives, probably with a lesser focus on the Awka core than might otherwise have be the case. Capital territory development fund is a finite resource. Any deflection to the peripheries is evidently an opportunity cost for Awka.

The constitution of this task force is extremely important given the political efficacy of competitive communities with better representation in the government and administration of Anambra State.

The aliens running the state government resident in Awka often proclaim their intent to turn Awka into a Dubai-like miracle. It is all largely empty political talk, of course. But that does not prevent the Awka governing elites from seizing that vision to devise an indigenous growth agenda for Awka.

Resolving the Leadership Crisis

Admittedly, the suggestions we offer above deal with medium to long-term strategies to resolve the leadership crisis in Awka. There is yet another dimension to the issues related to the question of crisis resolution. Grand plans are needed for the long-term transformation of Awka leadership. But there is an urgent need for intervention strategies to resolve the current leadership contentions confronting Awka community.

The need for immediate solutions is more acute given the well-meaning but ultimately failed or failing interventions led by several crisis mediation groups and individuals. There is, for one, Awka Pacesetters Club which made serious efforts, undertaking an elaborate scheme of conference and shuttle diplomacy to resolve the leadership crisis. There is the earnest effort by another informal group, the “True Awka People” (TAP), organizing largely through social media. After two years of trying, TAP is still slugging away at it but the group has yet to achieve concrete results. There have been many other interventions.

The leadership crisis in Awka has persisted, and is now even calcifying, for many varied reasons. These reasons range from the intricacies of the issues to the peculiar constellation of forces and, not least, the quality of intervention strategies (see Options for Viable Peace in Awka in this edition).

There is a need to rethink the models of crisis resolution so far attempted because they have clearly not been effective. Awka has faced deep fissures and testy convulsions in its internal politics before. But it has always managed to pull back from the brink.

The occasion calls once again for the intervention of Awka statesmen, if any still exist, to rescue the town. Smart, statesmanlike solutions are needed to stem the current crisis, so that the real work of long-term transformation of community leadership can begin.


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