I remember the shock I had the first time I met the Ezeigbo of New York City. I was at an event at the Obi Igbo (Igbo House) in New York City. It was not an Igbo association event but a private one by someone close to me. You can imagine my surprise when someone wearing some elaborate traditional regalia made his way up the high table and the master of ceremony announced that the Ezeigbo had arrived.
Ezeigbo? In New York City? I asked myself. When did this anomaly reach New York City?
I observed quietly as the man made his way to the high table with the pomp and pageantry associated with such overinflated position. When he got close to where I was sitting, I looked hard at him. Despite the heavy beads around his neck, oversized fan in his hand, shining crown on his head, colorful gown screaming at every beholder, I could see that he looked like a man I used to know. Upon inquiry from a fellow sitting beside me, I discovered that he was truly the guy I used to know, a regular guy like me.
I asked what happened? When did he become Ezeigbo of New York City? What did that title mean? As strange as it sounded coming from me, a man that the Ezeigbo supposedly represents, I finally got someone to explain it to me.
The explanation I got was that the poor fellow was just elected the leader of the Igbo association of New York City and by virtue of that he adopted the title of Ezeigbo. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was comical after all.
As he walked past where I sat, he stopped by to greet me. He could see that I was not a titled man, so he did not give me three strikes of the hand as he did with other men beside me. He just shook my hand. I debated whether I should call him Ezeigbo or his real name. When I could not recall what his real name was, I had no option but to join others in humoring him - Ezeigbo gburugburu, I greeted him.
When he walked away, I could not contain my amusement. “That’s how we cajole life,” a man beside me, equally bemused, said in Igbo.
But that was New York City - a city of over eight million people where every language in the world is spoken and translated daily. With traditional dancers on the dance floor, masquerades in display, assorted food served, I did not have the luxury to wonder what would have happened if such a display had taken place in an ancient town like Kafanchan or Akure. But apparently, this phenomenon that I observed in New York City has been spreading across every city and town in the world where Igbo people reside. It appears that when two or more Igbo are gathered, one is the Ezeigbo or Eze Ndigbo.
Eze Ndigbo literally means the Igbo king. For such republican-minded people who pride themselves in not having kings or revering such institution, this must be a borrowed regalia - and the joke is on those not in the know.
In some quiet corners of Igbo society, there is the sadness that concepts like Eze Ndigbo are manifestations of the accelerating acculturation of Ndigbo to Nigeria. For those who see this and then observe the headache that comes with it, it becomes yet another cost that the Igbo have to bear for embracing Nigeria.
There must be something big lost in translation in the encounter between Eze Ndigbo of Akure and the Deji of Akure. Like all mistranslations, there is tendency for confusion and dangerous assumptions.
It was not the decision to dethrone the Eze Ndigbo of Akure that is troubling. It is not even Afenifere’s demand that all traditional rulers in Yorubaland, as well as state governments, derecognize Eze Ndigbo that is disturbing. Those are all possible reactions in a confused state of affairs. What is rather of great concern is the reasoning behind the arguments.
The Nigerian project arguments are like recurring decimals. They come up again and again, in different situations, and until we address them, we are going to be marking time in one spot.
The arguments are steeped in simple questions that become complex depending on who is asking them, when they are being asked and why they are being asked. They can easily become emotional. In a society like Nigeria where law has little meaning, subjectivity trumps objectivity. And you can only blame people to a certain extent. Despite years as a nation our primordial parliament with its panache is still paramount. Is Nigeria a nation yet?
The wider question to ask to frame the arguments in their proper context is the one Langston Hughes asked in his poem, “What happened to a dream deferred?”
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
Like a syrup sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
What happened to a dream not explained to the inheritors of the dream? Does it chain the dreamers to a palm tree and shoot them? Or does it grow legs and relocate? What happened to a dream not voluntarily subscribed to by the actors in the dream? Does it morph into a nightmare? Or does it drown everyone in its pus?
To understand why Akure people panicked over Eze Ndigbo of Akure, the Igbo have to understand what happened in Ilorin in 1880s. For the Yoruba, there is a real fear of what outside domination could do. That is why Afenifere called the concept of Eze Ndigbo, “an expansionist agenda.” Though there are other factors responsible for the resentment of Eze Ndigbo, this one is major. It does not help that this is happening when the activities of some Fulani herdsmen are a major concern across a large swat of Southern Nigeria as highlighted by the recent kidnapping of Olu Falae.
The question then is how does one define the Nigerian project to take cognizance of these challenges? How could there be peaceful coexistence and tolerance in an evolving nation state made up of evolving people who are not supposed to be limited by boundaries except the ones drawn by the laws? What is the end game of the Nigerian project? Is it one that is perpetually drawn to the fault lines of its formative stage or the one that takes bold and steady steps towards a new horizon? How many generations are we willing to waste before we arrive at what it is that we want?
There are Hausa and Yoruba people who call Igboland their home. They may not be many but where they live, they form a community. Each of these communities has its own head. There is the Sarkin Hausawa in Enugu who is also referred to as Eze Awusa. It cannot be right if the masses of Igboland are afraid that the Hausa and their Eze in their midst would take over Igboland? It would not be right, either, if the Igbo elite encourage such fears where they exist. Doing so will amount to us all deceiving ourselves about the Nigerian project.
What makes us a country? Can we be a country without losing something that makes us individual parts of that country?
Nobody wants to lose something but in a marriage someone has to leave his or her parents’ home to go and live with another and form a new family. The person who moves changes and so will be person to whom he or she moves in with.
In a marriage of a nation like Nigeria, the person who moves is often determined by accident of history. In an alternate history, had Nigeria’s capital remained in Calabar or Port Harcourt, everyone would have moved there, the same way everyone is now moving to Abuja. But it happened that the formative 50 years of Nigeria as a nation had the capital situated in Lagos. As a result, everyone had to move to Lagos and its environ.
Each time arguments like this come up, we often hear the charge that the East is not hospitable to people from other parts of the country but that the people in the East get hosted in other parts of Nigeria. The truth is that the reason why so many people do not go to the East to live and call it home is the same reason why people from the East do not live there - there is chronic lack of opportunities there.
The lack of federal presence in the East makes it unattractive to the youths. A youth corper from the West or the North who served in the East quickly returns to his or her part of the country for the same reason a youth corper from the East who served in the West or the North stays there. It is not the fault of the West or the North that the East is the way it is. Part of the blame is on the people who have governed the East since the end of the civil war. But in general, governance across Nigeria has been so poor that the places where federal oil dollar power has been exerted are the places where one finds any semblance of prosperity.
Programs like the National Youth Service Corps have not accomplished the goal of fostering understanding amongst different people in Nigeria. The Igbo live in several parts of Nigeria but have not understood very well the places they live and the idiosyncrasies of the people of those areas. Or maybe they do. Maybe they just assume that they live in a Nigeria that was or a Nigeria that has not yet come into existence. If that is the case, they have simply chosen to ignore these peculiarities at their own peril. As gut-wrenching as it is, the price of such disregard is their constant and unending sacrifice at the altar where the new nation may be born.
Having said that, nation building is not a project for the faint-hearted. Across the world those who have managed to do it successfully are those who have placed their bet on the ideals. It doesn’t make it easy. It doesn’t guarantee that it would be smooth. But such brave men and women push their nations beyond the platitudes of their founding fathers’ preface. They ensure that the anxiety of today does not paralyze the dreams of tomorrow.
The crisis associated with Eze Ndigbo has the tendency to become the ogbwunigwe (dynamite) of peacetime. It has the capacity to destroy not just those who are targeted but also those who are launching the weapon.
It is easy to diffuse the apprehension surrounding Eze Ndigbo by just re-translating it to recapture the things that were lost in translation.