By Dons Eze
The recent appointment of Major General Leo Irabor as the new Chief of Defence Staff, and the controversy that trails that appointment, has made us begin to examine the relationship between those who live in border areas, otherwise known as the periphery Igbo, and those who live in Igbo mainland.
While some Igbo people are hailing President Muhammadu Buhari for including an Igbo man in his security team this time around, others are knocking him, insisting that there is nothing to celebrate, because the person so appointed is not from the core Igboland.
While some people tend to regard only those who speak the Igbo language, or who live in the five South East States of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo, as core Igbo, we however do not consider these as sufficient criteria for determining the Igboness of a person.
This is because there are people who do not speak the Igbo language, but are Igbo, while there are others who speak the Igbo language, but are not Igbo. In the same vein, there are people who live in these five South East States who are not Igbo, while there are other people who live outside these five states, but are Igbo.
Therefore, apart from speaking or not speaking the Igbo language, living or not living in mainland Igbo, the Igbo are generally resourceful, enterprising, hard-working, forward-looking, ingenious, creative, resilient, brave, strong-willed, and take great deal of risks. They also travel and take residence outside their home land.
An Anglican prelate, G.T. Basden, in his book: “The Niger Ibos”, wrote that the “Igbo are very cheery, intelligent, virile and lovable people, with a wonderfully patient persistence to attain any desired goal”, while a 19th century former Igbo slave boy, Olaudah Equiano, in his memoir, described Igbo people of his days as “happy clean people, without unemployment, without prostitution, without drunkards, and without beggars”.
These are enviable qualities or characteristics, which both the mainland Igbo and the periphery Igbo, possess. There is therefore no original or counterfeit Igbo. What, however, seems to divide the people is orientation or outlook, due no doubt, to historical circumstances.
Since after Biafra was defeated following the Nigerian civil war, many of the Igbo periphery, those who live in border areas, began to distance themselves from the mainland Igbo. They would not want to be identified with the core Igbo who waged war of secession against their fatherland, to carry the cross with them. They would want to gain acceptance or accommodation from the larger Nigerian society.
Before the war, the Igbo were a dominant group in the country, and a lot of people sought to identify with them by learning to speak the Igbo language, to marry their people, and to give their children Igbo names.
But with the defeat of Biafra, many of these people in border communities began to assert their separate existence. They began to adultrate or change the Igbo sounding names of their towns and villages, to make them look different or distinct from mainstream Igbo towns.
Towns like Umuokoro, for example, was charged to Rumukoro, Obigbo becomes Oyigbo, while Igbuzo was charged to Ibusa, and Igbo-Akiri to Igbanke, etc. Some of the people were to outrightly deny their Igbo identity, no doubt, to curly favour from those who hold the yam and the knife.
Though there may be variants of the Igbo language spoken by those who live at the border towns, as there are also variants of the language spoken among the Igbo who live in the mainstream Igboland, these are not enough to separate the Igbo from themselves, brothers from brothers. Perhaps, God did not make mistake when He made all the people to belong to one language group, called the kwa group, and to equally possess the same qualities or characteristics as Igbo people.
It may be necessary to note, however, that some forerunners of Igbo people, whether they came from across the River Niger, or from the mangrove forests of the Niger Delta region, or from the the Igbo mainland, always saw themselves as one, and had worked together for the purpose of Igbo unity and progress.
For instance, the first President of the Igbo Union, as far back as 1934, was Dennis Osadebay from Asaba. Also, the man who carried the first military coup in Nigeria,
Chukwuma Nzeogwu, was from Okpanam, after Asaba, and he was embraced by most Igbo people, as one of their own.
When, in 1966, thousands of Igbo people living in Northern Nigeria, were massacred, the aggressors did not ask whether one came from the border areas or from the core Igbo states. Nobody was spared so far he or she was Igbo. Everybody who spoke the Igbo language was a target. They were maimed and butchered.
In the same vein, Nigerian soldiers who invaded Asaba in October 1967, saw everyone of them as Igbo, as a common enemy, and proceeded to massacre hundreds of them.
Apart from Dennis Osadebay, mentioned above, who was the first President of Igbo Union in Lagos in the 1930s, there were also some people across the Niger, who openly took side with the mainland Igbo during the Nigerian civil war. Among them were Colonel Conrad Nwawo, Colonel Okonweze, Joe Achuzie, Col. Okwochime, etc. They fought along Biafran soldiers.
For the present generation of Igbo people, whether they are the Igbo periphery, or the core Igbo, to begin to see themselves differently, is very unfortunate. Perhaps, this may due to the handwork of some external forces working to destabilize Igbo people, as well as the selfish interest of some Igbo people, hoping for their political eldorado. We should not allow this to continue.
*Dr. Eze, KSJI, a veteran journalist, lives in Enugu