By Ayoola Olasupo\
The President-General, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, tells AYOOLA OLASUPO about his agenda for the Igbo, reports of marginalisation attaining presidency
As the President-General of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo Worldwide, what are your agendas for the Igbo?
I ran for the presidency of Nigeria three times but I didn’t get it. My colleagues at every level, either in secondary school or university, and people who have worked with me know my capacity and they know I’m qualified to be the president of Nigeria. I know that part of it is because of my ethnicity and that is normal. I still love Nigeria, and what I have decided to do as the president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo is for us to forget about this Igbo presidency. We have talked about it several times and we have decided to forget about it. I am on course of total transformation of Igboland. We have the capacity to develop our place, be it agriculture, education, culture and industry. We have the money and resources to provide that leadership in the next two years. The Igbo have what we call a town union culture, which is very important in Igboland. It means anywhere they are at the end of the year they have meetings during Christmas and they come home to deliberate on how to develop their place. We were trained by the town union and no brilliant Igbo son was allowed to be rusticated, because the community contributed to help them. That was the reason why by 1960, the Igbo had so many graduates and they were being trained by the community. In business, we have this process of parallel relations. For example, if an Igbo person is a trader, he takes about three or four assistants, they would work with him for about four years and at the end of everything he would give them money and each of them would go and establish and every one of them would also do the same. That is how we sustain the economic chain and that is why you find us everywhere. We have a very rigid apprenticeship system and it has placed us in a very high position today. The role of town union is very cogent. I will work on our education by developing our institutions and making sure that all Igbo are fully involved. We won’t leave that aspect to the government alone again. We will revert to how we started the magic and every stakeholder will be involved.
What do you think are the most pressing socio-cultural issues facing the Igbo community in Nigeria today?
The problem Igbo have is that we are very faithful to the constitution of Nigeria, which says every Nigerian is free to move, live and work peacefully and happily anywhere in Nigeria and make contributions to the development of such areas. That is what our constitution says. Since amalgamation in 1914, the Igbo have pursued this but because of their resourcefulness they have prospered wherever they go naturally, not only in Nigeria but all over the world. When people dominate or excel it attracts some elements of jealousy. For example, in 1914 when the Northern and Southern protectorate were amalgamated, the Igbo were very far behind in education. In fact, there was no graduate of Igbo descent in 1914. I’m not even sure if we had secondary schools, so the Igbo were low in education. By 1960, when we had independence, not only did the Igbo champion the crusade for independence but also occupied a reasonable position in education, the military, the police force, business and every aspect of life. The war was caused by circumstances beyond the control of the Igbo. The Igbo didn’t have any hand in the military coup, which was a very brutal one. The Igbo were very sad about it and if you remember it was an Igbo who actually stopped it. It was Aguiyi Ironsi who mobilised forces across the coast, which nobody talks about today.
But some people believe otherwise?
Everything they are saying will paint the Igbo as bad. Nobody has ever acknowledged that Ironsi was the person who was then the Commander of the Army and he mobilised forces and fuelled the goal. These are things that annoy us and Ironsi was given power not because he carried out a coup but because the political class, which everybody knows because it’s on record, mobilised and gave him power. He was not given power by the military but by the political class. What happened is that his colleagues from the North killed him in cold blood at a time the then Western Governor of Nigeria, Adekunle Fajuyi, was killed. We could see the type of hatred that was there as of then because many Igbo were killed, massacred in cold blood. It was never heard about in Nigeria but it did happen and the Igbo have to come back to Igboland. We wanted to be Nigerians. We went for the Aburi accord in Ghana. Odumegwu Ojukwu went to Ghana because he didn’t have any mandate for separation and he didn’t ask for secession. He was asking for the restructuring of Nigeria to make it possible for the Igbo to live in the country. He was conscious of the fact that the Igbo had made a lot of investments in Nigeria and they were everywhere, so he asked for restructuring in Aburi to make it possible for peace to exist. So, what were the plans in place to address the issue of ethnic profiling of the Igbo in other parts of the country? When people are determined and they know that their lives are battered they diversify. So, we said if you want us back then we want restructuring and they said no. We did not have any more ideas so there was war. It was completely forced on us because we didn’t actually want it. The Igbo have no reason whatsoever to pull out of Nigeria because we have invested so much in the country. Eventually, the war that people had thought would end in two weeks ended nearly three years and it ended in reconciliation.
What do you make of the outcome?
We are very happy and proud of the leadership at that time. We were very happy that a man like General Yakubu Gowon was in charge because he was able to bring peace to Nigeria. There was no other way to bring peace apart from renegotiation because to the Igbo it was a struggle for survival and a life and death situation; you surrender and die or you fight and live. But Gowon, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ojukwu all worked together and the war ended. The Igbo were promised again that never would this happen again and within a short time we spread all over the country even though during the war they were all dispossessed of their money. After the war, the richest Igbo man, no matter the money he had in the bank, was getting only £20. Even if people had a million pounds, they were restricted to only that amount. It was part of all the limitations and today again they are everywhere. In those days when the Igbo were dominating in education and other areas, people were saying there was Igbo domination, but it was not. Our people were simply doing well, which was why we said let us have federal character. We were of the position that it would help if federal character was adopted at the national level where the Igbo had been deprived of positions at the highest level since 1979 to when General Ibrahim Babangida handed over power when that presidential election was won by Moshood Abiola and he was denied the victory. The man was my very close friend, and I supported him and even when Abiola didn’t get it, Ernest Shonekan was made the head of the Interim National Government. When the military eventually continued, the next civilian government was headed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, and from him to the late Umaru Yar’Adua before it came to the South-South (Goodluck Jonathan). Yemi Osinbajo was also the vice president. When it was zoned to the South this time round, the Igbo rightly felt it was our turn.
How did you feel that the Igbo didn’t get it?
The Igbo who played a major role in the economy of this country have not held any of those positions. When it comes to the Gross Domestic Product, I think the Igbo are major contributors. So, we felt sad. We are very grateful to leaders like Pa Ayo Adebanjo of Afenifere, Chief Edwin Clark and even some leaders in the North who said the Igbo have larger contributions in Nigeria and that with their loyalty and faithfulness to the constitution if this thing comes to the South we (South-East) should have it. The truth of the matter is that unless this thing is zoned to geopolitical zones, and we have been saying that there is no geopolitical zone that cannot produce a president in Nigeria for the sake of equity. If we do it North and South, people who have religious sentiments will profile the Igbo as Christians and that they should not give them, which will make it difficult for the Igbo. Ohanaeze Ndigbo is the umbrella body for all Igbo and we don’t belong to any political party. Ohanaeze supported Peter Obi not because he was the only candidate but because he showed capacity and promise, and we believe that if he is given power he would do well. That doesn’t mean that Ohanaeze Ndigbo has any interest in the Labour Party.
There have been allegations of ethnic profiling, what are your thoughts about this?
The Igbo have spread their business capacity not only within their geographical area but all over the country and we already are virtually in every part of Nigeria. Now obviously these things attract jealousy and wherever they go they prosper. Today, for example, the Igbo (arguably) contribute more to the Gross Domestic Product because they live in virtually every local government in Nigeria. Wherever they live, they build houses, start businesses, pay their taxes and contribute to the GDP of the country. They have been doing that, very faithful and loyal and that is why most of us get worried when some Nigerians profile the Igbo that we are continuously looking for positions. No, The Igbo are not. We believe that if Nigeria is a corporate body we are major shareholders because we have investments everywhere. If any ethnic group can claim an affiliation to Nigeria, the Igbo can. Why should they profile the Igbo who only want to succeed? Every agitation was caused by circumstances beyond their control. The Igbo have spread their business capacity not only within the geographical areas but all over the country and already we are virtually in every part of Nigeria. Now, obviously these things attract jealousy and wherever they go they prosper.
What is Ohanaeze doing about this, especially looking at the uproar generated by your comment about the Yoruba during the electioneering?
The Igbo have always obeyed the constitution of Nigeria everywhere they are. They are always in pursuit of happiness and have never been to someone else’s land and snatched it. The Igbo acknowledged that anywhere they go belongs to somebody. If they come to Lagos and want to develop they will rather buy the land. Let’s talk about what Lagos will be without the activities of the Igbo and other tribes. Lagos cannot develop without the tolerance that the Igbo have. I think indigenes must have it in mind that Lagos was developed by outsiders. I know some of them are young and didn’t know that even Lekki was a bush and water was everywhere but it was developed by people who came there, invested their money and developed the place and they were able to do that because some of them were even born in the state. Most of them have even accepted Lagos as a home because they have friends and family there and because of that there is intermarriage between them and the Yoruba. For example, one of my adorable daughters is married to a Yoruba man in Ibadan. That means I have my blood in Ibadan and there is nothing anybody can do about it. In my culture, my son-in-law is considered to be an Igbo and an automatic member of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. In Igboland, our culture is that we accord such a person all respect and he even earns more respect than the indigenes. If he has any problem anywhere, he can come to the village for assistance because that is how the culture is. The Igbo have already mixed with the Yoruba so much that it is very difficult to separate us. It is real. The late Maryam Babangida was also an Igbo, making Ibrahim Babangida himself and his children automatically Ohanaeze’s members. During the elections, the Igbo in Lagos State said they wanted to vote for the governor of the state and I gave them the go-ahead because we never had any issues with the man and we never interfered with whom to vote for. It is just like when there was governorship in Osun State and many Igbo there also said they were going to vote for Ademola Adeleke and we all know the man is also our son.
What step do you want to take to address the ethnic conflict in Lagos during the last elections?
I’m going to visit Lagos and I plan to have a meeting with the governor in one or two weeks’ time so that we can also look at some of these problems together. Ohanaeze believes our relationship is strengthened in Lagos. There is no problem at all. What is happening there is nothing and I have told our people they shouldn’t worry about it. For the development of Igboland, we are going to embark on massive infrastructure and whoever is the president of Nigeria must show us the faithfulness we have also shown over the years. There is no functional railway in Igboland but we hope to see Igbo businessmen who can take this up. Fortunately, power has been removed from the exclusive legislative list. It is now on the concurrent list, so our businessmen can now invest and I’m sure they will invest in most of these things by the grace of God if these initiatives I’m bringing are sustained. Igboland will develop for all to see.
Some of your people worked against some candidates you anointed during the elections, how does that make you feel?
I don’t want to go into this. I’m a Nigerian and I have been honoured by Nigeria two times. I have the honour of a Member of the Federal Republic, and Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic and I’m grateful to Nigeria. So, I have to be careful with what I say. All we could do was to support a candidate and we supported Peter Obi during the presidential election. Now, we are not the ones in court; it’s he and his party. People have made comments about the election, but I will not allow my office to make a comment I cannot substantiate. I want to mention that Bola Tinubu, the President, is a friend to many Igbo including me. I used to visit him even when he was the governor of Lagos State. What we are saying is that this is our turn and many right-thinking Nigerians also believe it. Whatever happens, we will obey the Federal Republic of Nigeria and remain law-abiding, especially if whosoever is the President comes to say we didn’t vote for him and he wants to turn against us. That was what happened during former President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. We didn’t support him that time and he turned against us, saying we didn’t vote for him. But I have noticed a different approach by Tinubu. For example, he has appointed an Igbo man as the Chief of Naval Staff. Obviously, that is not enough. We require more. Towards the end of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure, he became good to Igbos. He did a number of things and supported projects in Ebonyi State. In Imo State, he actually brought the medical school to the federal university and approved the dredging of some rivers, among other projects. We have no reason to say we are not friends with Tinubu’s presidency. He is a friend to many Igbo and there are so many Igbo in APC, so it won’t be right for them to say the Igbo didn’t support them. In the South-East, APC won many seats. The Peoples Democratic Party got the governorship in Enugu State, LP got Abia State and APGA got Anambra State. We are watching to make sure that Igbo sons and daughters in the APC who worked very hard for them are also considered for appointments. Tinubu doesn’t have any reason whatsoever to say the Igbo didn’t support him.
How does Ohanaeze Ndigbo collaborate with other sociocultural groups to achieve common goals?
The problem is that this is the very golden time in the life of southerners, because for the first time, the three major cultural groups in the south are collaborating very strongly. We have Afenifere led by Pa Adebanjo, a great leader. He is a very fair and honest Nigerian, a typical example of what a leader should be and we are very proud of him. We also have the South-South, led by Edwin Clark. He is also a very reliable and honest person. I am the youngest of them. We respect their age because they are older than us, so we accept them as our leaders. I can tell you that in southern Nigeria we are together and you could see that during the election. Pa Adebanjo openly showed who he was supporting and he was doing that not because he was against Tinubu, it was a decision we took in the southern Nigerian alliance that it was the turn of the South-East and Adebanjo was a good ambassador of the Yoruba. He made Yoruba look credible and reliable and he supported an Igbo. The same thing happened with Edwin Clark. We will also extend our hands to the Middle Belt and Arewa, the northern elders and I am sure we can form a strong catalyst. If we all come together, Nigeria is together and then we would form a group of elders so that most of us who have retired and experienced can be able to see another force in handling issues. I think we are going to have a very beautiful space ahead. I can tell you that Nigeria will soon be a very great place by the time we bring all of these ethnic groups together.
A Niger Deltan, Asari Dokubo, recently asked the President not to release Nnamdi Kanu. What are your thoughts about this and how best do you think the sit-at-home order in the South-East can be put to rest?
Tinubu is my friend and a friend to the Igbo and he should know that there is a thing in Igboland. When a child is crying and is pointing somewhere, definitely the child is seeing something. He should know that we are not fools and nobody can tell Igbos what is happening in Igboland. The release of Nnamdi Kanu is very important to us and if Tinubu releases him it would make him highly respected in Nigeria and in Igboland. He has not killed anybody and he has not been charged with murder. Kanu should have in fact been released since and right now he is sick. The family and the lawyers have been crying for his release. I’m begging that Tinubu should help Igbo secure the release of Nnamdi Kanu. He should not listen to anybody and do just that for us. Kanu hasn’t done badly. These young people felt the Igbo were not treated well, so they started the agitation. They also saw all the ethnic profiling and the secession agitation became worse, so they (government) decided to take the man who is their leader. The young people regard him as their leader and hero because they believe he is fighting for their freedom but we the elders are begging that Tinubu should do the correct thing. I know that he has started well because he has not made any pronouncement. He is more concerned with bringing the country together. We are not saying if we have an Igbo President everything is going to be sweet for us. Frankly speaking, a non-Igbo president might even do more than an Igbo president. We have succeeded in business and everything and the successes will help. That was why I said the presidency should be zoned according to the geopolitical zones. I will keep telling the younger Igbo to believe in Nigeria and that they should know that they have a future here. At the moment I have been able to convince them because some months ago they were worried. I have been able to convince those in Lagos too that there is no cause for alarm. The Lagos State governor, I must tell you, has been very progressive in the state.
What advice would you give to young Igbo people looking to get involved in sociocultural activism and advocacy?
I will tell the Igbo young people to always study in any environment they find themselves in. They have to study and know Nigeria very well as it comprises of different religions and cultures and all these places have different cultures and things they like and dislike. We have to do our best to respect one another’s beliefs. People like Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and others did it by having respect for one another and they were able to succeed. They should try to understand and respect other people. We should also know that the Igbo are republicans by nature because they are brought up by their families to ask questions and demand answers. It is just a thing that is part of our culture. We just have to respect that too. Ohanaeze has also brought those youths into the organisation but some of them have broken away to form other groups and they are just embarrassing us all over the place. They are even releasing statements that are against the position of our organisation but we have been drawing the attention of Nigerians to it.