Answering Buhari’s Question: What Do Igbos Want?


One of the buzz generated by the December 30, 2015 presidential media chat hosted by the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari at the Aso Villa in Abuja was when he asked the rhetorical question, “What do Igbos want?”

In responding to a question directed to him as regards the continued protests and struggle for the realization on Biafra Republic in parts of the South East and South South, PMB insisted that Igbos were not maltreated, and so, they should stop screaming marginalization.

In his own words, the president said:

“Why does it have to worry me, when I have militants, Boko Haram and other. They said they are being marginalized but they haven’t defined the extent of their marginalization. Who marginalized them? How? Where? Do you know?,” he queried.

“Who is the minister of state for petroleum, is he not Igbo? Who is the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria? Is he not Igbo? Who is minister of labor, science and technology? What do the Igbos want?”

But even though, a rhetorical question is one that does not necessarily require an answer, Obi Nwakanma, a journalist, biographer and literary critic, has taken the pains to write a very long article in response to the presidents’ rhetorical question. The article (as can be seen below), captures the reasons, according to the Obi Nwakama, why the Igbos are agitating for their independence.

Enjoy your reading:

“In Biafra, under three years, they were making their own rockets and calculating its distances; distilling their own oil and making aviation fuel, creating in their Chemical and Biological laboratories, new cures for diseases like Cholera, shaping their own spare parts, and turning the entire East into a vast workshop, as Ojukwu put it.

“At the end of the war, the Ukpabi Asika regime brought together these Biafran scientists and set up PRODA. The initiative led, in the first five years between 1970-1975 under the late Prof. Gordian Ezekwe and Mang Ndukwe, to designs of industrial machinery models and prototypes for the East Central State Industrial Masterplan, which remain undeveloped even today. The Murtala/Obasanjo regime took over PRODA in 1975 by decree, starved it of funds, and basically destroyed its aims.

“Secondly, Federal Government policies centralized all potentials for innovation and entrepreneurship. Before 1983, states had their Ministries of Trade and Industry. These were charged with local business registration, trade, and investment promotion, and so on. But today in Nigeria, if you wish to do any business, you’d have to go to Abuja (it used to be Lagos) to register under the Corporate Affairs Commission. It used to be that local business registration was state and municipal functions. The concentration of the leverage for trade utterly limited Igbo entrepreneurs, particularly in the era of import licensing, once your quota was exhausted, you could not do business.

“This affected the old Igbo money in Aba and Onitsha, who were the arrow-heads of innovation and traditional partners in the advance of Igbo industrial economy. It is remarkable that as at 1985, a least by a book published by the Oxford Economist, Tom Forrest in 1980, The Advance of African Capital, the Igbo had the highest investment in machine tools industries in all of Africa, and the highest depth of investment in rural, cottage industries. In his prediction in 1980, if that rate of investment continued, according to Forrest in 1980, the Igbo part of Africa would accomplish an industrial revolution by 1987. Now, by 1983/85, Federal government policies helped to dismantle the growth of indigenous Igbo Industry through its targeted national economic policies. As I have said, there is a corollary between industrial development and innovation.

“Thirdly, the severe, strategic staunching of huge capital in-flow into the East starved Igbo businesses and institutions of the capacity to utilize or even expand their capacities. There were no strategic Federal Capital projects in the East. There were no huge infrastructural investments in the East. The last major Federal government investment in Igbo land was the Niger Bridge which was commissioned in 1966. Any region starved of government funds experiences catatony and attrition. Private capital is often not enough to create the kind of synergy necessary for innovation. Rather than invest in the East, from 1970 to date, the Federal government has strategically closed down every capacity for technological advancement in the East and stripped that region of its capacity.

“By 1966, the Eastern Nigerian Gas master-plan had been completed under Okpara. But in its review of a Nigeria gas master-plan, the Federal Government strategically circumvented the East. Oil and Gas are under Federal oversight. The Trans-Amadi to Aba Industrial Gas network/linkage had been completed in 1966, to pipe gas from Port-Harcourt to Aba. The Federal Government let that go into abeyance and uprooted the already reticulated pipes. The East was denied access to energy with the destruction of the power stations during the war.

“The (Sam) Mbakwe government sought to remedy this by embarking on two highly critical area of investment necessary for industrial life: the 5 Zonal water projects, which were 75% complete by 1983, and set for commissioning in 1984, which was to supply clean water for domestic and industrial use to all parts of the old Imo state, and the Amaraku and Izombe power stations, under the Imo Rural Electrification Project. These were the first ever massive independent power projects ever carried out by any state government in Nigeria which would have made significant part of Igbo land energy independent today. The supply of daily electricity was possible in Imo as at 1984. The Amaraku station had come on stream, and the Izombe Gas station was underway, when Buhari and his men struck.

“Ground had already been acquired and cleared on the Umuahia-Okigwe road to commence work by the South Korean Auto firm, Hyundai, under a partnership with Imo for the Hyundai Assembly plant in Umuahia, to cater to a West African market. The first order of business under the Buhari government in January 1984, was to declare all that investment by Mbakwe “white elephant projects.” They were abandoned, and left to decay. The equipment at the Amaraku power station was later sold in parts by Joe Aneke during Abacha’s government. Some of the industries like the Paint and Resins Company, and the Aluminium Extrusion plant in Inyishi were privatized, and sold. Projects like the massive Ezinachi Clay & Brick works at Okigwe are at various stages of decay, as memorial to all that effort.

“Fourthly, you may not remember, but Odumegwu Ojukwu founded and opened the first Nigerian University of Technology – the University of Technology, Port Harcourt in 1967, under the leadership of Prof. Kenneth Dike. He had also compelled Shell Petroleum to establish the First Petroleum Technology Training Institute in Port Harcourt in 1966. All these were dismantled. The PTI was take from Port Harcourt to Warri, while University of Technology, Port Harcourt was reduced to a campus of University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), until 1975, when it became University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT). You will recall that for years, up till 1981, the only institutions of higher learning in Central Eastern Nigeria were the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Enugu and Alvan Ikoku College of Education, in Owerri. There is no innovation without centers of strategic research.

“Mbakwe and Jim Nwobodo changed all that in 1981, when they pushed through their various states Assembly, the bills establishing the old Anambra State University of Technology (ASUTHECH), under the presidency of Prof. Kenneth Dike, and the Imo State University (IMSU), with its five campuses under the presidency of Prof. MJC Echeruo. The master plan for these universities as epicenters of research and innovation in the East were effectively grounded with the second coming of the military in 1984, and the diminution of their mission through under funding, etc.

“As I have said, I have given you the very short version. After a brief glimpse of light between 1979-83, Igbo land witnessed the highest form of attrition from 1983 to date, and the destruction of the efforts of its public leadership to restore it to its feet has been strategic.

“Some have been intimidated, and the Igbo themselves have grown very cynical from that experience of deep alienation from Nigeria. I think you should be a little less cynical of Igbo attempts to re-situate themselves in the Nigerian federation: starved of funds, starved of investments, subjected to regulatory strictures from a powerful central government which sees the East in adversarial terms, and often threatened, the Igbo themselves grew cynical of it all. You may recall, the first move by the governors of the former Eastern Region to meet under the aegis of the old Eastern Region’s Governors Conference in 1999, was basically checkmated by Obasanjo who threatened them after they called for confederation in response to the Sharia issue in the North.

“Their attempts to establish liaison offices in Enugu and create a regional partnership was considered very threatening by the federal government under Obasanjo, that not too long after, they abandoned that move, and that was it. If people cannot be allowed to organize for the good of their constituents, then it only means one thing: it is not in the interest of certain vested interests in Nigeria for a return of a common ground in the Eastern part of Nigeria because establishing that kind of common ground threatens the balance of power. It is even immaterial if such a common ground leads to Nigeria’s ultimate benefit. There are people who just find the idea of a common, progressive partnership of the old Eastern Region threatening to their own long term interests. This is precisely what is going on – its undercurrent. This of course cannot be permitted to go on forever. A generation arises which often says, No! in Thunder.

“Igbo population is quite huge, and people who truly know understand that the Igbo constitute the single largest ethnic nation in Nigeria. Much has been made about how this so-called “small” Igbo land space could accommodate the vast Igbo population. But people also forget that Igbo land accommodated Igbo who fled from everywhere else in 1967. So, the question of whether Igbo land is large enough to contain the Igbo is a non-issue. In any case, Biafra is not only the land of the Igbo. It goes far beyond Igbo land. But even for the sake of building scenarios, we stick to Igbo land alone – the great Igbo cities of Enugu, Port Harcourt, Owerri, Aba, Onitsha, Asaba, Abakaliki, Umuahia, Awka and Onitsha are yet to reach even 30% of their capacities.

“New arteries can be built, facilities expanded; there are innovative ways of moving populations through new transportation platforms – underneath, above, on the surface, and by waterways. The East of Nigeria has one of the most complex and connected, and largely disused system of natural river waterways in the world. New, ecologically habitable towns can be expanded to form new cities from the Grade A Townships – Agbor, Obiaruku, Aboh, Oguta, Mgbidi, Orlu, Ihiala, Amawbia/Ekwuluobia, Elele/Ahoada, Owerrinta, Bonny, Asa, Arochukwu, Afikpo, Okigwe, and so on. The Igbo will be fine. The Japanese and the Dutch, for example, have proved that there are innovative ways of using constricted space.

“As for the economy: it is supply and demand. New economic policies will integrated Igbo economy to the central West African and West African Markets. The Igbo will create a new vast export network, unhindered by idiotic economic and foreign policies. The re-activation of the Port Harcourt port systems will, for example, open the closed economic corridor once and for all to global trade. As anybody knows, it might take a fast train no more than 45 minutes to move goods from the Warri or Sapele ports to Aba and even in less time to Onitsha. As Diette Spiff once observed while playing golf at Oguta, all it would take to connect Warri and Oguta is just a long bridge, and the vast economic movement will commence between Warri and its traditional trading areas of Onitsha and the rest of the East.

“The quantum of economic activity will see the growth of that corridor between Aba-Oguta-Obiaruku down to Warri as the crow flies. The impact of trade between the Calabar ports and Aba will explode. In fact, the old trading stations along the Qua-Iboe River (the Cross River) at Arochukwu, Afikpo, down to Oron and Mamfe in the Cameroons will explode and create new prosperity and new opportunities. I am giving the short version. So, the Igbos will be alright. They would simply be just able to define their own development strategies, deploy their highly trained manpower currently wasting un-utilized, and the basis of its vast middle class will create new consumers, and generate an internal energy that will thrive on Igbo innovation, industry, and know-how, which Nigeria currently suppresses. This is exactly one very possible scenario.

“So, Tanko Yakassi is wrong. May be if the Igbo leave Kano, the Emir will no longer need to buy his bulb from an Igbo trader in Kano. He will have to buy it either from an Hausa, a Fulani, a Lebanese, or some such person. But those will have to come to Igbo land to buy it first before selling to the Emir. There was a time when all of West Africa came to Onitsha or Aba to buy and trade because it was safe, and those cities were the largest market emporia in the continent. People came from as far away as the Congo to buy stuff in Aba and sell in the Congo. It could happen again, only this time on a vaster, more controlled scale. The network of Igbo global trade will not stop if they left Nigeria. In fact, they will have more access to an indigenous credit system that would expand that trade, currently unobtainable and unavailable today to them, because Nigeria makes it impossible for Igbo business to grow through all kinds of restrictions strategically imposed on it, including port restrictions.

“However, although I do think that the Igbo would do quite well alone, they could do a lot better with Nigeria, if the conditions are right. This agitation is for the conditions to be made right; for Nigeria and its political and economic policies to stop being a wedge on Igbo aspirations. And Igbo aspiration is quite simple: to match the rest of the developed world inch by every inch, and not to be held down by the Nigerian millstone of corruption, inefficiency, and inferiority. The Igbo think that control of their public policies on education, research and innovation, economic and monetary policies, and recruitment, control and deployment of its own work force both in public and private sectors will give them the leverage they need to build a coherent and civilized society.

“They point to the example of Biafra, where under three years, they were making their own rockets and calculating its distances; distilling their own oil and making aviation fuel, creating in their chemical and biological laboratories, new cures for diseases like cholera, shaping their own spare parts, and turning the entire East into a vast workshop, as Ojukwu put it, while Nigeria was busy doing owambe, importing even toothpick, and creating new wartime millionaires from corrupt contracting systems by a powerful oligopoly. It is a fallacy much driven by ignorance that Igbo will not thrive and that Igbo land will not accommodate Igbo population if they leave. That is not true. There is no scientific basis for it.

“The dynamics of human movement will take great care of all that. It’s a lame excuse. What people who wish for Nigeria to stay together should do is not to make such puerile statements, because it is meaningless. What we should all do is to find the strategic means of containing Igbo discontent by listening to the Igbos, and seeking peaceful and productive ways of fully freeing their energy to instigate growth both of themselves and of Nigeria within Nigeria for everyone’s benefit. Threatening them will not work. It has never worked, and it is important to understand a bit of Igbo cultural psychology: the more you threaten him, the more the Igbo person digs in very stubbornly. Igbo, with a long tradition of diplomacy, thrive on consensus not on threat of the use of force, or the like.

“Frankly, those who continue to think that the Igbos have no options are yet to understand the complexity of this movement as we speak. They still look at the surface of events while the train is revving and about to leave the station. We need to work very carefully on this issue. I myself, I prefer Nigeria. I like its color of many peoples and cultures. That in itself is the very condition for growth and regeneration. A single Igbo nation may be more prosperous, but will be less interesting, and that is the more valid argument.”