On Sunday, January 10th, Prof. George Obiozor emerged as the new President-General of Ohaneze Ndigbo, the apex socio-cultural body of an estimated 40 million Igbos at home and in the diaspora. The change of guard was a somber ceremony following an election held earlier that day at Dan Anyiam Stadium in Owerri. The day also marked the end of a pivotal era that started in January 3, 2017. The Dramatis personae of that epoch was no other than the Ike Ukehe, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, a man whose vision and charisma brought not only transformational consciousness but injected vitality to what was before now a lackluster organization.
The period after the Biafra civil war was particularly painful for Ndigbo. The feeling among those that survived the pogrom where an estimated two million lives that included sons, daughters, husbands and wives got wasted was that of utter hopelessness and desperation. The economic hardship and emotional trauma were pervasive and the people yearned for an urgent reintegration in the larger Nigerian society. Competing in sports and participation in the communion of club membership offered a viable path towards achieving that goal.
Enugu Rangers was founded in 1970 and within a space of one year qualified for the 1972 African Cup of Champions Club. Though the team’s first international tournament ended in defeat, having lost 0–3 to ASEC Mimosa of Ivory Coast in the quarter final, the outing nonetheless, was a huge morale booster for a summarily conquered people. At about the same period, precisely in 1971, People’s Club of Nigeria was born in the commercial city of Aba by a group led by Chief Titus Ume-Ezeoke with a founding principle that stated “Be your brother’s keeper.”
One of the biggest task of what was left of Igbo leadership of that period, was how to articulate Igbo position on issues and bring the people together, many of whom were displaced as the 30-month old war raged on. Ohaneze Ndigbo was formed in 1976 by notable personalities including the respected constitutional scholar, Prof Ben Nwabueze, a world famous economist, Dr.Pius Okigbo, former premier of Eastern region, Chief M.I Okpara, a renowned bureaucrat, Chief Jerome Udoji, among others. Before Ohaneze was the short-lived Igbo National Assembly (INA) which was disbanded by the Gowon-led Federal Military Government out of a misplaced fear of what the group stood for.
The challenges facing Ohaneze today has been there right from inception, the biggest of which is the struggle for acceptance by the very people the body is meant to represent. Though some of her bruises were self-inflicted, it turns out that leading Ndigbo is not a game for the faint-hearted. Those Igbos that historians, the likes of G.T.Basden and J.B.K.Onwubiko romanticized as deeply religious and culturally rooted people that allow themselves to be led by the elders are no more. They have now been replaced by those with no qualms vandalizing the reputation of even her most worthy ambassadors. Yes, those are the same ones Chinua Achebe cautioned to”learn less abrasiveness, more shrewdness and tact and a willingness to grant the validity of less boisterous values.”
The modern Igbo pride himself as fiercely self-sufficient and tend to resist any suggestion that another human being is in a position to tell him how to act or what to do. We have a tendency to reject authentic leaders and embrace fakes that traffic in deception and lies, marching us inexorably to the path of extinction. That is the new reality of the people Ohaneze seeks to lead.
John Nnia Nwodo was elected the 9th President-General of Ohaneze in 2017, following an election that he won by a landslide. He polled 242 against 13 to defeat his opponent, Prof. Chinweyete Ejike, a university don and the former Vice Chancellor of the Anambra State University of Technology (ASUTECH). Prior to that, Nwodo a lawyer and an alumnus of the London School of Economics had had a distinguished career both in the private and public sectors. He cut his political teeth as the first Igbo president of the Students Union Government at the University of Ibadan. He would later serve as a minister under President Shehu Shagari and later on General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
Having witnessed the robust press coverage of the recent election and the flurry of congratulatory messages to the new President-General, it’s safe to say that the apex Igbo socio-cultural body has effectively repositioned under Nwodo. Regardless of what the future verdict of his stewardship would turn out to be, Nwodo and his team without doubt have succeeded in bringing relevance and radically salvaging a body that before now was seen as a transactional platform where political jobbers show up to curry political favor from the center in a manner detrimental to our collective interest.
Another area that Nwodo towered above his predecessors was the clarity with which he articulated Igbo position and communicated such in an unambiguous manner. Whether he was making the case for restructuring or addressing a federal allocation formula that is heavily skewed in favor of the north, he delivered like a seasoned technocrat schooled in the finest art of sophisticated oratory. Where possible, he showed no hesitation in crossing the bridge of ethnic and political divide to reach out to our other compatriots across the geo-political zones. He understood the imperative of nationalizing the struggle instead of giving tribal coloration to what is otherwise a Nigerian problem.
Not too long ago, Ohaneze under his leadership debuted the idea of Alaigbo Stabilization Fund. In pursuant of that initiative, a 50-man steering committee made up of experts and professionals in various spheres of life was constituted. Their mandate is to come up with a blueprint on how to jumpstart the economic engine of the region and make Alaigbo a favored destination of new capital. The hope is that the new leadership will build on that effort.
Despite Chief Nwodo’s best effort however, the Igbo nation continues to be consumed by the crisis of leadership. As the Owerri event was unfolding, one splinter faction of Ohaneze produced Chief Chidi Ibeh while another led by one Basil Onyeacholam Onuora declared that there was no vacancy to begin with.
Unity has continued to elude us as our rank and file remains distrustful of those who should lead but instead are busy lining their pockets. Our youths are restive and increasingly falling victims to the empty promises of manipulative demagoguery. The new leadership should be clear-eyed and laser-focused on her goal. The first order of business should be an effort to reconcile with these other factions in other to forge a united front. We are living in interesting times and Uncle George for sure has his work cut out for him.
Nwodo defended Biafra with his life during the brutal Nigeria civil war and stayed in the trenches till the very end. As the president of Ohaneze, he fought the tough fights and in the process made powerful enemies that at some point called for his head. In the midst of such gargantuan challenges, he was still able to hand over a repurposed Ohaneze which has become far more focused and relevant than the spineless organization he inherited in January 2017. Ndigbo owe him a debt of gratitude.
In Igbo mythology, the Ijele is the indisputable king of all masquerades. His size is as intimidating as the myth is wholesome. Many other masquerades are represented as figurines seen on top of his head as he makes the grand entry in regal steps to climax an entire performance. Connotatively, the Ijele is a metaphor for respect, dignity, honor and grace.
Thank you Ijele Ndigbo and may history be kind to you.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]