REJOINDER – Aladimma: Developmental Trajectory of Igbo people

21st August 1976 - Traditional Rites and Coronation of Eze Eri 34th (Eze Aka Ji Ovo Igbo)
21st August 1976 - Traditional Rites and Coronation of Eze Eri 34th (Eze Aka Ji Ovo Igbo)

Aladimma: Developmental Trajectory of Igbo people is an interesting and fascinating 3000-word essay by Dr. Chimaroke Nnanami that takes a look at the economic and political way forward for the Igbo in Nigeria. Dr. Nnamani anchors the essay on a concept he refers to as Aladimma. Given his background as a physician, Dr. Nnamani sees Aladimma as a “prognosis of the would-be, …” In his vision, he would like Igboland to be anchored on the best from the past and hopefully also from the present. Very importantly, he calls on the Igbo to relegate to the background the flash points of conflict in Nigeria while not “bowing to the hues and cries for chiselling a people into one pattern of behavior.”

It does appear that Dr. Nnamani had an exclusive Igbo audience in mind since he might have taken for granted that the reader should understand what “Aladimma” means. It is not clear that this is a fair assumption in this global age.

As in many languages, many words can have multiple meanings depending on pronunciation and context. “Ala” in Igbo can mean “ground” or “land,” but I suspect in this context it may mean “nation,” or “country.” An equivalent word in other Igbo dialect could be “obodo” – “town or village.” Similarly, “mma” could mean “good” or “beauty.”

While I don’t know for a fact what Dr. Nnamani has or had in mind, in the context used, I suspect that “Aladimma” could refer to a framework to make the “Igbo nation good.”

But back to the essay. Generally speaking, this is a well thought-out essay. Dr. Nnamani recognizes the very difficult position the civil war forced the Igbo into. And very importantly, he noted that because of the war, “[t]he disruption of the social order was total, and the oddities were even surpassed in the proportion of injury by post-war state policies, such as the abandoned property, twenty Pounds limitation mockery, and indigenization [programs].” He went on to argue that “[s]ince these have yet to be removed, they have remained as strongest suggestions of a design to relegate and stunt the people already traumatized by war.”

But this was as far as Dr. Nnamani was willing to look back. His focus was on a forward looking call for the realization of “a fiscal Biafra,” and not “a physical Biafra,” as proposed by some. It is this forward looking emphasis that can endear many to Dr. Nnamani’s ideas. More often than not, many Igbo seem to be too-backward looking, quarrelling over spilled milk and always finding a reason why something can’t be done. In any event, while very encouraged by Dr. Nnamani’s positive vision, I’ll not hesitate to note where in my opinion, he may either have gotten his argument wrong or at least overlooked some key facts.

Dr. Nnamani contrasts physical Biafra which he sees as a “territory … restricted in geographical outreach,” against fiscal Biafra which he refers to as “individual and group economic culture, boundless in pattern, endless extent and outreach and capable of repetition, recreation and remodeling.” He goes on to argue that “… [t]he fiscal Biafra is not a negation of a possible physical type, rather, it is a consolidation of the foundation on which a reliable and realistic State can be constructed whether it is within or outside a particular State.”

A thought that Dr. Nnamani did not explore is whether those opposed to anything that has “Biafra” in it will see fiscal Biafra as a back door to physical Biafra; after all, Dr. Nnamani has conceded that the former is not a negation of the latter. And that is one of the shortcomings of Dr. Nnamani’s intellectual argument. He cites examples from “the Barcelona region of Spain, Scotland of the United Kingdom…” without at least recognizing the peculiar cultural and ethnic challenges that need to be factored into the Nigerian equation. It is not unheard of that policies are adopted whose sole unwritten aim is to stunt all initiatives from a certain part of the country. But again, I understand that Dr. Nnamani’s argument is that the Igbo should continue pushing forward in spite of what they may see as discriminatory policies.

Dr. Nnamani uses Nnewi as an example of a hub that typifies fiscal Biafra. He writes: “A good example of this was in the immediate post-war commencement of Nnewi as the nucleus of a commercial and industrial hub, which in a space of 45 years achieved the feat of the fastest developing single close-nit industrial/commercial town in Nigeria.” But even before Nnewi, there were “Onitsha and Aba commercial hubs, which though were laid to waste in the Nigeria – Biafra war, have continued to serve as vast and rewarding business incubation centers for all time.” In other words, Dr. Nnamani is making the case that Nnewi, Onitsha and Aba are doing well, and he wonders “why have Ndigbo not attempted to create another [Nnewi], even as they have remained the single largest group motivators of the economies of other parts of Nigeria?”

I don’t know the answer to the above question. But in any event, it is important to note that those three towns before the civil war occupied the positions of envy they are occupying today. So one wonders whether things naturally continued from where the war interrupted them. But a very important omission in Dr. Nnamani’s list is the city of Owerri. By some metrics, Owerri has become the fastest growing city in that part of the country. In fact, people have forecast that Owerri will become Nigeria’s Las Vegas (entertainment) in the not too distant future. A city that many fear may be lagging in one way or another is the one Dr. Nnamani governed — the city of Enugu. Needless to recall that Enugu was the birthplace of Biafra and remains the nerve center of all that is Igbo.

One of the more curios arguments Dr. Nnamani made was when he asserted that “Right ‘before our very eyes’ the State of Lagos, Nigeria, has proven the viability of a region of Nigeria despite all odds.” I am not sure what odds Dr. Nnamani is making reference to. With all due respect to everyone who has worked hard for the progress of Lagos, it is totally wrong to compare Lagos with any other city or state in Nigeria. In a relative sense, until “yesterday,” Lagos was synonymous to Nigeria. Lagos inherited all the enabling infrastructure that was put in place when it was the federal capital. Lagos retains the only seaport and the biggest airport in the country. These were put in place by the federal government. A valid argument is that those who inherited Lagos have built on it and they must be commended for that. Unfortunately, this is quite unlike some other states where the new governments destroyed or mismanaged what they inherited. But regardless of who built upon or destroyed what was inherited, it is a non-starter to blame Enugu or Owerri for not competing with Lagos.

In a civilized environment, decongesting Lagos should have been a priority. These days, almost every kilometer of road in Apapa, Lagos is taken up by trucks parked on the road and waiting to get into the Apapa wharf. Everybody knows that it doesn’t make sense. That’s not how a country progresses. Yet that appears to be preferred than developing new seaports in other parts of the country for political and ethnic reasons. We can loosely ask states to go ahead and develop their own ports, but that is an insincere viewpoint. The states don’t have the resources to do that. Even when we cross the resource hurdle, who knows if a bureaucrat will claim that states don’t have the right to do international trade or that such a seaport might become a route for importing arms into Biafra. This is an aspect of the problem that Dr. Nnamani either knowingly or unknowingly avoided.

Dr. Nnamani touched on something that has become part of the Igbo way of life; having a home in one’s village. I did a quick google search and determined that given his date of birth, Chimaroke Nnamani might just have been able to extend his right hand over his head to touch his left ear at the time the Nigerian crisis was brewing. For those unfamiliar with this practice, it was the test that indicated one was ready for elementary school.

But given his education and later achievements in life, I wouldn’t dare suggest that an ex-governor of Enugu state doesn’t know anything about the war. As federal forces overran major Igbo cities such as Enugu during the war, many Igbo had challenging experiences as to where to run to. These people did not have any homes to run to in the village. And for some, even members of their extended families did not have either. The point became that once the war was over, building a house in one’s village became a necessary first task.

It would have been nice if the ex-governor had shown more understanding to this situation. And if he did, it did not show in the way he discussed the topic. But in any event, given his past position in government when the probability of running into a corrupt embezzling government official is as certain as the probability of night following day, one can understand the governor’s frustration or is it mindset? But be that as it may, not everyone who builds a house in the village got the money as his or her share of the Nigerian loot. It is thus quite a discomforting notion to think that anyone who builds a house in the village is guilty of “ostentatious display of affluence … [seeking] village endorsement, spelling affluence and proclaiming opulence [and] social prestige.” But this does not in any way suggest unawareness of the numerous 419ers, drug dealers and corrupt government officials who correctly fit the picture the governor painted.

Dr. Nnamani proposed the establishment of some commercial hubs and raised three key questions over the viability of the propositions.

“(1) Are territorial specializations possible in these? (2) Which area should engage in what or undertake the one? (3) What is the role and where is the blame of the “docile elite” class?”

I will waive hands over the first two by saying that no one woke up and decided to make Nnewi an automobile center or decree that Owerri should turn into the entertainment center it is becoming. These things have a way of evolving; “… water finds its level as it sweeps the plain and ditches.”

The third question appears more interesting; the docile elites. Dr. Nnamani argued that “[t]he docile elites, rather than erecting mind blowing palaces which elicit derision in the locales in Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere, would commence in development of their ultimate Aku luo uno.” And for non-Igbo speakers, “Aku luo uno” suggests that the wealth (“Aku”) one has acquired elsewhere, probably in the big city or in diaspora, has reached home (“luo uno”).

Here again, we are forced to argue that the governor’s arguments are undermined by his generalizations. The governor did not take the time to differentiate between 419ers, drug dealers and corrupt government officials from hard working Igbo investors and entrepreneurs in Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere. We read stories of Igbo with Olympic size swimming pools in their houses. We have heard of those with countless private jets. Good for them.

But I am more interested in those working hard to earn their money. I wouldn’t characterize the hospitals or industries they built as “mind blowing palaces.” These are investors investing in places where they expect the highest return on their investment. It has nothing to do with “Aku luo uno.” So the challenge is what can be done to attract to Igboland, investments that will yield good returns for the investors. We just can’t ask investors to invest in Igboland if there’s no chance for a good return on their investment. It is not going to happen.

In a sense, that is the crux of the discussion. The governor has articulated his vision by the call for the explicit establishment of commercial hubs in Igboland. My problem is that while it sounds good on paper, it’s not clear how it can materialize. I am tempted to look at the governor’s bold economic and commercial hubs as no different than the bold Universities and International airports in scores of villages in Nigeria. Declaring a building a University doesn’t make it a University. Same goes with every village wanting its own International airport.

So here’s what I think. Let’s start from the basics and the rest will follow. I would rather call for the establishment of basic infrastructure and framework conducive for business development. Once there is an environment conducive for business, then businesses will follow naturally.

Although I don’t claim to be an expert on entrepreneurship, but I suspect that in Igboland these three conditions are necessary for a good business climate.

  • Steady power supply; (2) Good roads, and (3) Safety.

I have omitted water supply because I believe that the water problem, though not completely solved, is largely mitigated by the existence of boreholes and other mechanisms widely available in towns and villages.

One can wonder why I am opposed to economic hubs while proposing conducive business climate. My answer is simple. In every developed economy, government provides the climate for business and then investors come in with their money. That is the way it is done. In Igboland, people are bogged down with the so called “BYOI” – Bring Your Own Infrastructure. As a result, the young entrepreneur planning to set up a hospital in Owerri is bogged down thinking about a generator to power the hospital, a good road to the facility, safety for himself and his staff, etc. So the investor spends nearly all his or her energy on things that should be taken for granted.

And unlike wishfully hoping that some abstract or unnamed Igbo investors can come together and create commercial hubs, we can concretely hold our governments responsible for creating the business climate. Our governments are not abstract or unnamed entities. Let them do their part, then we see what happens next. Otherwise, everything is simply academic.

Nigeria’s problems are complex. When the youths are unemployed or underemployed, safety in the country will remain a mirage. When politicians who should utilize available resources to create the business climate prefer to embezzle the money and put away in foreign banks, then we can’t make progress; we can only publish wonderful ideas on paper and the ideas end there on paper.

Corruption is not unique to Nigeria. There’s actually corruption and embezzlement all over the world. What makes Nigeria’s case particularly unique is that those who embezzle the money do not reinvest (or launder) the money in the country. Such reinvestment or laundering could have been a source of employment and development.

In conclusion, Dr. Nnamani should be congratulated for his contributions to this very important debate. And I end by restating my key opinions.

  • Dr. Nnamani’s call for the establishment of commercial hubs while good, remains abstract and lacks tangible actionable steps that can get us from where we are to where he wants us to be.
  • Investors invest where they expect good returns on their investment. Igbo investors and indeed others, will invest in Igboland when they see the chance for a good return on their investment.
  • A primary duty of any good government is to provide its citizens the environment on which to thrive. This is the climate that will enable these commercial hubs to evolve.

Cyril U. Orji, PhD, is a Research Scientist. He writes from Jackson, NJ, USA. He is the author of “Lamentation: An Immigrant’s Dilemma.” He can be reached at cyorji@yahoo.com.

Photo Credit: ERI Kingdom

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