By Kester Kenn Klomegah
As a successful Igbo business entrepreneur residing in Swaziland, the southern tip of Africa, Kenneth Onyekachi Ihemekwele has a clear logical mind, practical approach to solving problems and a drive to see things through to full-fledged completion. With years of experience in managing and leading teams across multiple sectors with a genuine interest in continental business and contributing to success in organizations, have helped him in many aspects of life.
Today, he is one of the founding partners of Imo State Indigenes Association, a pan Igbo socio-cultural organization, the Executive Secretary of the Association of Nigerian community, the General Secretary of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra aka IPOB in Swaziland. In this interview discussion, Onyekachi Ihemekwele expresses his objective views about the current political situation in his native Federal Republic of Nigeria, pertinent problems and unprecedented challenges that are still worrying and, most importantly, the future ahead.
Here are the interview excerpts:
Let us begin to talk about the Igbo dominated Eastern Nigeria. Often times, experts have spoken about political pluralism, ethnicity and federal governance, how inter-connected are these issues?
Igbos people originally from southeastern Nigeria. The Igbos are now widely spread inside the country, while some have moved abroad. Before colonization, the Igbos were very united, lived in autonomous local communities. By the mid-20th century, however, a sense of ethnic identity was strongly developed and the Igbo of the eastern region of Nigeria tried to secede from Nigeria in 1967 as the independent nation of Biafra. By the turn of the 21st century, the population of Igbos about 40 million by then, which was higher than the population of many European countries.
The Igbos have strong passion for trade and commercial activities. However, their trade and commercial influence extends to the whole of African continent. By nature, they are adventurous, love education and highly enterprising.
Most Igbos traditionally have been subsistence farmers. Land is owned communally by kinship group, and is made available to individuals for farming and building. Their principal exports are palm oil and palm kernels. Trading local crafts are also important in the Igbo economy and a high literacy rate has helped many Igbos become civil servants and business entrepreneurs. Notably, Igbo women engage in trade and also very influential in politics.
Therefore, when talking about political pluralism, it is important to note that the present government does not recognize such things as political pluralism in Nigeria. Instead, what is seen today is plain bigotry and nothing more. Ethnicity and federal governance are simply interpreted as one ethic group. Currently, Islam has spread to the Christian dominated Eastern and Southern regions of Nigeria. Right after the Nigeria – Biafra civil war and until now, the Fulani people have dominated the military and politics in Nigeria, all is done for and by the Fulani for Fulani ethnic group.
In your view, it means marginalizing the Igbos in federal political system in Nigeria?
In my view, it simply means marginalizing the blessed and gifted people in the sphere of politics in Nigeria. It further limits them from showcasing their God-given talents in the federal political system. The lgbos fought Nigerian independence starting from the efforts of late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Mbonu Ojike, along with Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the western region, leading the movement of the Eastern and Western region, what was the called the southern protectorate. By 1958, the Eastern region were ready for independence but the northern protectorate were not ready until 1960.
The negotiation to form a federal state by the three regions made for regional autonomy with a weak center. Each region controlled its resources, police and had their diplomatic consulates in Britain. After independence following the military take-overs, the negotiated Constitution has largely remained unimplemented document.
The Eastern region of Nigeria and its people have remained marginalized from developmental programs. Subjected to hardships with all their ports and airports closed to international flights and international maritime. Their children given different cut off points for admission to institutions of higher learning though having the highest literacy level in Nigeria. The armed forces command portfolio, to be shared among the three regions, has become exclusive reserves for the northern region and so is the federal ministries and parastatals.
Currently, there have been armed attacks, violence and destruction of property over decades. There have been a periodic killing of lgbos in the country so-called Nigeria. Mention must be made of over 30,000 people of Eastern region, massacred in Nigeria in 1966. The then Governor of Eastern region, Chukwemeka Odumegwu Ojukwe, recalled all Easterners back home to the East, as their safety could no longer be guaranteed in other parts of Nigeria. This led to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra.
In a desperate bid to keep Nigeria as a nation of the Federal Government led by Gen. Yakubu Gowon unleashed a three-year brutal civil war on the people of Eastern region of Nigeria. Over three million Biafrans were killed. Hunger was used as a weapon of war as the Federal Government of Nigeria blocked all ports in the east. Fifty years after the war, seaports in the east have remained blocked to international maritime.
How do you estimate the real impact of current system of governance on the development in Eastern States of Nigeria?
Honestly speaking, I weep each time I remember the devastation and the underdeveloped Eastern part of Nigeria as a result of negligence from the Federal Government following the end of the Nigerian-Biafra civil war, the military regimes introduced series of decrees that ushered in policies that did not accommodate the development and political interests of the lgbo people.
The punitive economic disadvantages appeared to have persisted years after the civil war, as we speak now almost all the roads in eastern part of Nigeria are bad, out of order and in pathetic conditions. External borrowing is discriminately used to finance development projects in other parts of Nigeria, except the Eastern region where the vast majority of natural resources such as the oil and gas reserves.
The laws are now being made targeting successful Igbo businessmen. The lgbos are people with high aspirations and flair for decency, therefore need to shape their destiny in accordance with their natural ability and capacity. Mostly, armed Fulani men from northern Nigeria, wielding AK-47s and protected with the help of a few unpatriotic elements, have destroyed farmlands.
Do you also think development disparity is a factor creating tension and instability in the country?
Nigeria is one of Africa’s most diverse and deeply divided States in the world today. The decision to merge northern and southern Nigeria, largely for administrative purposes, created a single political entity from the two regions with limited common history, religious and cultural ties, the North is predominantly Moslem and the South predominantly Christian. Colonial rule exacerbated these differences, solidifying religious and ethnic identity as salient political distinction and creating conditions for persistent instability. The north-south divide continues and is marked by serious variations in economic development and access to basic social services. This divide has also fuelled competition between ethnic groups.
The designation of the Yoruba, lgbo and Hausa/Fulani as dominant ethnicities within their respective regions has generated tensions with minority ethnic groups. The strong association of communities with particular territory has also created conflict between indigenes claiming nativity within a given area. Worse is, other Nigerians viewed as internal migrants, are denied rights and granted limited access to land. Competition for control of state institutions, abetted by corruption, and conflict over the spoils of Nigeria’s natural resources, especially oil, have further contributed to these sources of instability. The level of development in the Eastern part of Nigeria can never, be compared with that of the West and North. The evidence is very glaring, it can be noticed, smelt and seen.
Let’s begin with what I call injustice done to the people from the Federal Government. The Southeast zone is the only political zone among the six political zones that has only five States, this I see as a strategy to slow their development by giving them the least amount of revenue allocation.
Secondly, the government has deliberately abandoned the seaports within the lgbo axis, completely ignored Port Harcourt, the second largest port after Lagos. The Government knows fully well that the lgbos are mainly businessmen and will benefit a lot if the port, situated at Rivers state, that’s the Calabar and Warri cities.
At least, the previous administration of President Goodluck Jonathan completed the facilities at Enugu (now Akanu Ibiam International Airport) in 2013, which enabled the first international flight led by Prince Arthur Eze, who on arrival said with excitement… “I don’t need to go to Lagos or Abuja to catch direct flight again, I can now go from my house to any place of my choice,” but what happened after that?
The Federal Government has not invested any money in upgrading the facilities of that airport, now t in a pitiable condition, very bumpy runner-away without lights, no water supplies, the cooling systems are not working, rather the Federal Government shut down the airport for some so-called security reasons. Meanwhile, Boko Haram is ravaging the Northern region on daily basis, kidnapping, maiming and destroying churches, mosques and communities.
Let me remind that the Southeast region has been the most peaceful region in Nigeria since the civil war that ended in 1970. The roads in the Southeast are nothing but deathtraps, unlike every other zone in the country, every federal road has been in shambles for ages and the government has not deemed it fit to do something about it. Do we talk about the electricity distribution situation, which we can hardly say we are part of? Unlike the North and the West, development in the East can never be compared to that of the North and West. It can be said that the Igbos have been subjected to a form of slavery via the feudal mentality of the Northern Fulanis.
In pursuit of broad based political participation, peace and integration, would the Igbos consider a change to the current constitution?
Considering what our fathers went through during the war, nobody prays for it to happen again. In as much as we want peace, the current constitution needs to be addressed properly, because that constitution was drafted without due consultations with the people of Nigeria. It is a one-sided constitution for the selfishness of certain group of people who call themselves the ruling class, or better still, the northern politicians, therefore there is a heavy call for restructuring of the country into autonomous regions.
Many fighters and militia trained abroad are transported from northern Nigeria to eastern region to occupy farmlands and the federal machinery is put in place to acquire waterways. We cannot fold hands and watch people extinguished. A situation where one ethnic group is allowed to carry automatic weapons and move around in the area while people are policed by soldiers and money extorted on the roads by armed police and military in a subtle declaration of enslavement. We are a free people and have rights to shape our destiny. Our technological achievements are rubbished and inventions relegated to the background.
After the civil war, the technological breakthrough made by the Biafran scientists were destroyed by the Nigeria’s leadership. Our scientists designed the first locally made refineries used to refine crude oil into petroleum products, manufactured and built radio stations and above all produced the first scud missiles called ‘The flying Ogbunigwe’ converted Minicoin aircrafts to fighter planes and produced mines and bullets. The Nigerian leadership destroyed all these invention and returned the country to foreign dependency on imports for needed items.
The first locally designed car by Ezikel Izuogu was destroyed by federal security operatives masquerading as armed bandits. Finally, the Federal Government of Nigeria has shunned the adoption of Innoson Motors built by an Igboman as a national car in preference to foreign built vehicles just to discourage the growth of indigenous technology, particularly from the Eastern region. It is time for a reflection on how we can protect our people, our agricultural inheritance, our culture and our technology. Faced with this reality, the Constitution needs reviewing for the benefit of all regions, especially the Eastern part of the country.
Do you have any suggestions how to tackle rising ethnic attacks and violence in the country?
An inclusive economic and political system is the only solution. The current public discourse is focused on political restructuring along regional lines. The calls for a political arrangement where major ethnic groups will have control over their geographic areas as well as resources therein might help. The danger is that rather than unify Nigeria it would further divide the country along ethnic and religious lines. What is missing in the conversation is the fact that, the environment for violence and oppression of most Nigerians has come about because of the way in which the country’s economy is structured.
The elitist economy cuts across all ethnic groups, the disenfranchisement, marginalization and exploitation defy ethnic coloration. For restructuring to be meaningful, Nigeria must create an inclusive economic and political system where ethnic and religious affiliation will no longer be a defining factor in economic and political participation. What Nigerians need, and are clamoring for, is a country that will accommodate them regardless of ethnic or religious creed, but cannot be because Islam defines politics for the North and not development or merit.
Nigeria needs political, religious and ethnic tolerance. This will be the key to economic and political success, therefore economic and political inclusivity must account for greater tolerance for it to be effective, including addressing the legacy of past injustices and atrocities, rebuilding broken relationships arising from conflict, establishing and guaranteeing public safety in every facet of life, and the need for legitimate, effective political and administrative institutions. The uniqueness of every post-conflict society goes through these processes. The differences are only in terms of what comes first, what is needed at a particular point in time, who should do it, and how it should be done.
As a successful entrepreneur and leader of a Pan-Igbo association, together with other Igbo diaspora associations, how do you possibly intend to embark on a roadmap for reconciliation and restoration of the status of Nigeria, seen as the power and economic giant in Africa?
Sincerely speaking I don’t know why Nigeria is still being called the giant of Africa when the basic things of life is difficult to acquire, what are these basic things of life, good water, good roads, constant electric power supply, security of lives and properties, good hospitals, functional polyclinics, food etc. Whether you are poor or rich these basic things of life is your right but you can’t get them in Nigeria. Other African countries are doing pretty well in these areas.
Nigeria has fallen from grace and there is no remedy for Nigeria to regain this past glory. We had earlier called on restructuring, the need for the Nigerian government to agree to wholesome restructure without reservation or grant a referendum for the people in the South East to strive for self-rule or what is referred to as self-determination.
This would be ideal for returning the country to the era when the regions managed their economic and political affairs. But for now, I think it’s too late to start restructuring because from all indications the lgbos have reached their enduring limits. There are some funny games being mapped out by the northern zone to wipe out the lgbos and claim our ancestral land, of which we cannot fold our hands and watch them perfect their plans, so I suggest the only way forward is to disintegrate and each nation runs its own affairs.