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The Great Igbo Debate: Homo Economicus vs. Homo Politicus

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There are divergent political tendencies in Igboland regarding how to engage the Nigerian hegemonic powers. These divergences centre on differing views about the nature and value of Man, economic vs. political; and they dissipate Igbo political energy. It is only through a radical convergence that the progressive forces can hope to bring about meaningful change to Nigeria’s political system.

By Chudi Okoye

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus enjoined the multitudes, “and all [else] shall be added unto you.” Kwame Nkrumah, the late Ghanaian statesman, had no truck with that stock Biblical injunction. In a 1963 speech in Addis Ababa, the iconic pan-Africanist urged Africans to seek first the “political kingdom” and socio-economic development would follow. Osagyefo Nkrumah’s rallying cry roused many in the heady days of African decolonization, with keen debate about which path was proper as primary concern for a newly independent continent – economic cooperation or political integration.

We find a hint of such infernal debate in the mental dispositions of the Igbo people of Nigeria.

There is an unspoken but deep divergence among Igbo people on what constitutes the nature of Man and the value of a human being. We don’t always think of it in these terms, but the tension in Igbo philosophy of Man (and in Nkrumah’s exhortation) relates to an ancient debate about Homo Economicus (Economic Man), as conceived by the English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill, versus the idea of Homo Politicus (Political Man) as originally conceptualized by Aristotle. Some Igbos think the paramount goal of life is to maximize economic utility, and so they lean toward the conception of Man as an economic animal. On the other hand, some Igbos conceive of Man mainly as a political animal imbued with certain natural rights which must be valued above all else and protected by all means.

Igbo culture is associated with two fundamental dispositions: an instinct to materialism, and an instinct to democracy. These innate dispositions, I argue, to a great extent explain the dichotomy in Igbo thinking as to their place in, and expectation from, Nigeria; and thus the divergences in their political tendencies.

The foregoing may sound all highbrow and theoretical. Well, to some extent, they are. But I am sure that you have encountered the jesting stereotypes about the ethnic majorities of Nigeria: the insinuation, often, being that the Hausa/Fulani are motivated by religion, the Yoruba by politics, and the Igbo by money.

At the risk of offending the squeamish, let us take a few of these hilarious nuggets:

An Igbo man, a Yoruba man, and a Chinese were having a group discussion. A big housefly flew into the room. The fly flew past the Yoruba man and the Igbo man, but just as it was about to fly by the Chinese, he caught it and put it in his mouth. Although they were astounded, both the Igbo man and the Yoruba man said nothing. A few minutes later, another housefly buzzed joyfully into the room. It went past the Yoruba man, but just as it was about to pass the Igbo man, he caught it. Then turning to the Chinese man he asked: “How much will you pay for it?”

An Igbo man fell into a well and was screaming for help. His wife came with a rope to drag him out. The drowning man took one look at the rope and yelled: “Nwanyi, how much did you pay for that rope?” The wife said she paid ₦1,000. Horrified, the man screamed: “What! Return it right now! Go to Papa Emeka’s shop, he sells his rope for ₦300. Hurry up before I die here!”

An Igbo man bought a new car and wanted to show it off to his friends. So he drove it to a popular watering hole. As he parked the car and opened the door to alight, in his excitement he failed to check for traffic. A lorry speeding down the road barreled into the car’s door, knocking it off the hinges. The horrified Igbo man jumped out of the car and screamed at the lorry driver: “Look at what you have done, you idiot! Do you know how much this car cost me? This is a brand new car and it cost more than you can make in a decade!” The lorry driver looked at the Igbo man in astonishment. “Sir,” he began to say, “you are shouting about your car. Haven’t you noticed that your arm came off with the car door?” The Igbo man stared at his arm in horror and disbelief, and then as loudly as he could muster his voice, he said: “Chineke nna! My Rolex! I was wearing my Rolex on that arm!”

Without question these stereotypes are simplistic and even offensive. Folks often go for the jugular with the jocular. But stereotypes are usually not without a hint of truth to them. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not here to moralize on such characterization, merely to use them to show that the hypothetical points I am making have echoes in popular consciousness.

If Igbo worldview bends toward the material, which some may find either appalling or enthralling, the Igbos do have a supremely redeeming quality, a deep democratic intuition. Much unlike the other major ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, and despite the absurdity of monarchism now creeping across Igboland, traditional Igbo society has an egalitarian DNA.

Most ancient Igbo societies were an acephalous republic with a segmentary social structure. They had a lineage-based leadership system with autonomous constituent villages and weak central institutions. It is widely attested in the anthropology of Igbo societies that they were, up until the arrival of colonialism, largely stateless societies, having few central governing institutions with power diffused to village structures. Community life was based on a kinship rather than a kingship norm. Moreover, leadership was based on an achievement ethos rather than ascription. Anyone with means and motivation could make their way into leadership positions. Communal laws were binding and sacrosanct, but at the same time there was a strong sense of individual self-determination. Chinua Achebe, in his essay “Chi in Igbo Cosmology”, argues that Igbo political individualism emanates from Igbo ontological beliefs:

The idea of individualism is sometimes traced to the Christian principle that God created all men and consequently every one of them is presumed worthy in His sight. The Igbo do better than that. They postulate the concept of every man as both a unique creation and the work of a unique creator. Which is as far as individualism and uniqueness can possibly go! And we should naturally expect such a cosmogony to have far-reaching consequences in the psychology and institutions of the people… [W]e should… notice… the fierce egalitarianism… which was such a marked feature of Igbo political organization, and may justifiably speculate on its possible derivation from this concept of every man’s original and absolute uniqueness.

Ancient Igbo communities had a fierce disdain for monarchic or oligarchic rule. All on their own, not being familiar with the Athenian notions of democracy and completely unaware of the revolutionary upheavals that had led to the establishment of the English Magna Carta (1215) and Bill of Rights (1689), French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and United States’ Bill of Rights (1789), Igbo antiquity autochthonously developed a culture that upheld the values of individual liberty and political democracy. These values were not codified in any written document resembling the classical documents of Europe and the United States. But they were deeply embedded in Igbo cultural precepts and unwritten laws. They were embedded in the hearts of the people and evinced in the confidence and assertiveness of a proud people who did not accept the superiority of other cultures or communities.

That was who the Igbos were. This is, even today, who the Igbos are. They believe in embracing the material abundance of nature, and they believe in unfettered freedoms to pursue their destiny. To a considerable extent it is these two innate compulsions, materialism and liberty, that shape Igbo political character. We must consider these fundamental facts in order to understand the current political divergences among the Igbo.

The materialist instinct of the Igbo propels them to adopt a transactional relationship with the broader Nigerian formation, with a willingness, it seems, to tolerate political marginalization in so far as there is opportunity for individual economic advancement. This instinct can often induce a consciousness that Igbo identity is subordinate to Nigerian citizenship. Or it may be based on a belief that the Igbos should seek economic ascendancy first, which then provides a pedestal for future political ascendancy. Whatever the thinking, there is a willingness here to subordinate the political to the economic, at least as a short- to medium-range strategy.

Conversely, the Igbo libertarian cum democratic instinct does drive a yearning for self-government, for the repatriation of power to the primal ethnic community, to institutions that will be regulated by Igbo native norms in addition to the constitutional norms. The desire for regional autonomy finds expression in varying forms and tendencies, as I argued in a recent Awka Times piece, including: (1) the moderate types whom I called “dauntless devolutionists”, seeking the transfer of more powers to states, the current federating units of Nigeria; (2) a more radical cohort of “Restructurists” which wants a reconfiguration of Nigerian federalism towards regionalism; and (3) a revolutionary fringe which wants nothing short of total separation from Nigeria. All these tendencies stand in contradistinction to the politically conservative types prioritizing economic prosperity.

The question now is what to do about these deep divergences in Igbo political outlook.

I think the immediate task for all who seek political justice for the Igbos is to work towards fusing these disparate views. There will be no victory without such political and intellectual fusion. None of these varying tendencies – on their own, vitiated by internal contradictions in Igboland – can take on Nigeria’s hegemonic juggernaut. It is only by recognizing the common desire for radical political change, and then ironing out the tactical differences so they can work together, that the progressive forces in Igboland can achieve their goal.

There is no need in the interim to engage the conservative Igbos who, for various reasons, seem to be willing to play second fiddle in the firmament of Nigerian politics. They will most likely come around when the Igbo political project overcomes frictional force and gathers momentum. So, for now, let’s focus on the crucial task of strategic consolidation.

There are many, especially Igbo intellectuals and political leaders, who are privately enraged by Igbo political marginalization and are even disposed to its confrontation but who despair at what they consider the crude extremism and exhibitionism of Nnamdi Kanu and the rest of the revolutionary separatists. They tend therefore to recoil from the political arena.

I think this attitude is unfortunate and, in fact, historically illiterate. History shows that whatever the level of revolutionary fervor manifesting in the arena of political struggle, it is not the revolutionary fringe but informed statesmen and intellectuals who in the end are called upon to articulate an enduring political settlement. The revolutionaries serve a purpose in galvanizing the legions, but it is usually cooler heads who attend the constitutional conferences where ultimate political settlement is hammered out. Nnamdi Kanu and his kind will have their well-deserved place in history, but they will not be in the halls of power where constitutions are designed.

Let us therefore not despair. Eventually, I believe, the various political tendencies in Igboland will gravitate towards the radical centre which demands, with insistence, the political restructuring of Nigeria.


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