Friday, 05 June 2015 18:21

The Igbo People, Culture and Character: by Okoro Ojiaku, Book Review by Ozodiobi Osuji

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The Igbo People, Culture and Character: by Okoro Ojiaku, (Bradenton, Florida:, 2015), 178 Pages

This book is written in the best tradition of the social sciences. It reads like it was written by a political scientist. The language is measured, detached, dispassionate and impersonal; it reads like a paper presented by a professor of political science to his fellow social scientists.  The language is descriptive and not loaded with emotions (except in the last two chapters in which the author gave his personal opinions on how to preserve Igbo culture and language).

It appears that the author has a target market for writing this book, Igbos born to those Igbos living in North America and Europe; he appears intending to give diaspora Igbos objective information on their Igbo heritage. He knows that that market is a bit more sophisticated than many Igbos in Nigeria and therefore would not swallow mere propaganda masquerading as history of Igbos.

In Nigeria some Igbo historians essentially write fiction about Igbos supposed past glory; those folks write make belief, made up history that there is no empirical evidence for.

Whereas history as propaganda can improve the self-esteem of down trodden folks, yet such writing is not factual; fiction does not replace reality. Indeed, if you live too much in the world of fantasy you may become deluded!

If you told people that your people were a mighty race and a handful of Europeans conquered them, well, there is disconnect there, isn't there?

A powerful people defeats foreign invaders and it takes great efforts to defeat them. Frederick Lugard and his rag tagged West African Frontiers Army essentially waltzed through Alaigbo in 1902, defeated Igbos and thereafter imposed his masters will on Igbos.

Human beings may be prone to telling lies but a part of them want facts, nothing but facts.  Ojiaku knows that he could not whitewash certain issues that vex those who have detached approach to Igbos and ask serious questions about them. It is not enough to provide such persons with affective, self-esteem building propaganda of the supposed glory of Igbo past. He knows that his readers are aware that Igbos did not develop a political super-structure to rule all of Igbo land and ask why?

Why are Igbos called stateless people? It is not enough talking about Igbos being democratic and republican in character as Chinua Achebe did and leave it at that.

Because Igbos did not develop Igbo wide political structures and were essentially organized at the town or village level they had no mechanism to defend themselves; thus, slave catchers devastated Igbo land; slave kidnappers marauded all over Igbo land, catching Igbos at will and selling them into slavery to the Americas.

Clearly, if Igbos had a nation-state, a central government, a bureaucracy, including military that defended their territory what happened to them during slavery would not have happened to them.

Igbo land provided much of the slaves that were sent from West Africa to the Americas. In fact, Igbo country was considered slave country! Europeans came to Bonny and Calaba ports on the Atlantic coast to buy Igbo slaves (they said that they liked Igbo slaves because they worked very hard!).

This was not exactly a laudatory view of Igbos or was it? Simply stated, there was a problem and Ojiaku addressed the problem, squarely, and treated his reader like an adult by giving him satisfactory answers. The book did not run away from annoying questions; it tried to answer them.

They were answered descriptively but not always explanatorily  and thus the proffered answers still left the reader asking: why did not Igbos develop beyond where they were in space and time; why did they not attain the level attained by the Edo, Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, that is, feudal political system, which itself is not exactly something to be proud of (why not bourgeois  level, as the West currently is) but certainly much better than living at what Karl Marx called communal level (a fancy word for primitive level of social evolution). Why?

Jarred Diamond, in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel provided a more satisfactory answer; he showed how a simple matter as lack of horses prevented those lacking them from solving certain problems that needed to be solved before they could move on to higher levels of civilization.

Those with horses and other beasts of burden, such as donkeys, were able to get around easier than those who relied on foot walk. In the pre-modern world, those with access to horses were associated with civilization!

It was not the fault of Igbos that they were where they were when they encountered non-African civilizations in the fifteenth century but we must understand why for otherwise their absurd level of backwardness generates derision from onlookers.

Igbo women carried loads on their heads; why didn't Igbo men invent the wheel and used it to carry heavy loads about hence reduced their women's suffering?

A smart Alec once told me that one of the reasons that black women do not respect black men is that black men did not improve their lives or defend them from the ravaging hands of white men. Women do not respect men who do not defend and protect them; such men are perceived as powerless and useless by their women!

Why didn't Igbos develop writing to record their affairs; did knowledge about Igbos have to wait until it was written by an ex Igbo slave, Olaudah Equiano written in 1789?

The picture is absurd and begs for explanation and Ojiaku did his best to provide some explanations.

Perhaps, because of Igbos perceived backwardness and the shame that goes with that perception, some Igbos now claim to be Jews! They provide elaborate nonsensical write ups proving to their hearts content that their people left Israel a while ago and trekked to where Igbos currently are.

Apparently, in seeing themselves as part of Jews, a people with four thousand years recorded history, such Igbos are giving themselves history and in the process feeling better than they currently do.

So, you are proud to be a Jew, eh? Are Jews proud to be Igbos? Do Jews run around saying that they came from Igbo land or Africa?  If not, why not?

Success has many friends and failure is an orphan. Jews would not derive a sense of pride by associating themselves with a people perceived to be primitive. Therefore, it is a simple matter why Igbos claim to be Jews. They want to derive pride from that association.

Are Igbos Jews? Is there any genetic marker to that effect?  Where is it? Show it and don't just claim it; science can do sophisticated DNA analysis and pretty much trace related people.

Igbos are not Jews, although they have certain cultural practices that seem like Jewish cultural practices. By the same token, Yorubas who claim origin in Arabia are not Arabs.

Ojiaku made a persuasive argument that Igbos, Yoruba's and other southern Nigerians belong to the same language group, the Niger-Congo (Bantu) language group.  This language group encompasses many languages in West Africa and all the way to South Africa; they are related.

Ojiaku said that five thousand years ago (I do not know how he came by that number of years) all the people that now speak the various Bantu languages probably spoke one  proto- language and as they moved away from each other differences emerged in their languages, but not enough differences to make them different languages.

For example, you do not have to be a rocket scientist to realize that Igbo and Yoruba languages are related. In fact, certain words are almost still the same. Igbos, for example, say Umu and Yoruba's say Omo, both mean the same thing.

Ojiaku provided some genealogical study of the origin of Igbos. He speculated that most Southern Nigerian ethnic groups at some point in the past lived in what we now call Sudan. This may or may not be true but there seem anecdotal evidence for that hypothesis. The jury is still out.

It seems that Southern Nigerians migrated from elsewhere and eventually settled where they are today. This is a heuristic subject and, hopefully, archeologists would throw more light on it; for now let us just say that Ojiaku said that many of the ethnic groups in Nigeria migrated from elsewhere to where they currently are.

So, how did the word Igbo come about? What Ojiaku said here may not make Igbo nationalists feel proud about the origin of their name. Ojiaku began his inquiry into the origin of the word Igbo by telling us that, by and large, most people were named by other people; apparently, he is trying to soften the blow he is about to land at the face of Igbos!

It was the Romans who called those living in what we now call Britain British. Romans came to that misty, emerald island, Albion and called it their province of Britannia and established their headquarters at a town they began and called Londonum. Today, British people call themselves by a name given to them by Italians and call their capital by a name given to it by Italians.

The word Europe was reportedly given to primitive tribes living above them by Greeks; that is, Europe was once a term for barbarians.

Ojiaku says that at some point those West Africans living in what we might call the savanna belt, grass land, called those West Africans living in the forested parts Igbos. He said that the term Igbo meant forest people. More importantly, the term Igbo meant less developed people.

As an aside, when I was a child in the 1960s growing up at Lagos I used to wonder why Yorubas called us, Igbos bush people; I did not see why they should do so for they were not more citified than us; now I get it! Apparently, Yorubas have been calling Igbos bush people for over four hundred years! No wonder Igbos do not like them; would you like a person who calls you a bush animal to your face? You try getting back at him by calling him Ngbati, Ngbati!

The term Igbo was employed as a look down just as the term Europe was a look down.  Europeans embraced their not so flattering name.

Igbos, Ojiaku said, at some point (less than two centuries ago) embraced a name other groups had given to them in an attempt to insult them.   And Ojiaku said that that should not bother Igbos. Why should it?

Consider that at various times Scandinavians, Teutonic (Germans) knights and Turks used to maraud through what is now called Eastern Europe capturing people and selling them to Arabs as slaves. It got to a point that the term Slav became synonymous with slave.  But Eastern Europeans are not ashamed to be called Slavs.

What Ojiaku is saying is that the name Igbo originated as a put down name for Africans living in the forested areas hence not as developed as those Africans living in the open savanna were (because they had horses) that there is no need to be ashamed of it.

The great Western African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai existed in the open Savana region of West Africa; here, movement of man and animals was easier than in the forested regions of the world  hence diffusion of ideas from one group to another hence civilization. Indeed, the later Bini, Oyo and Asante and Dahomey kingdoms of the 1400s were also facilitated by open lands; they came into being where the forests had been cut down making way for easier travel and the introduction of horses. Civilization, Jared Diamond told us, had a lot to do with the humble horses.

Ojiaku traced how the term Igbo was originally not meant for only those we currently refer to as Igbos but to many forest people, from Nigeria to Ghana.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176