Fifty years after the civil war ended, Igbos do not yet feel a sense of belonging, acceptance or safety in the Federation called Nigeria. The sad part is that this belief is shared not just by the generation that witnessed the war and its deadly consequences, but Igbos across all generations, including the millennials who have been socialized into believing that there is a gap between their people and other Nigerians.
Let us not deceive ourselves about certain plain truths. The civil war is perhaps the most remarkable incident in Igbo history in the last century. The pain, the loss, all about it, is deeply imprinted in the Igbo consciousness. Whereas the Igbo nation has shown great resourcefulness since the war, and its people have proven to be enterprising and determined to hold their own in every sphere of life, including outstanding contributions to the making of the Nigerian state, there are Nigerians who still regard and treat the Igbo suspiciously.
Anti-Igbo sentiment may not be so openly expressed, but it is usually something beneath the surface. There are landlords in many parts of Nigeria, for example, who will never rent out their property to an Igbo man. The Igbo tenant is easily stigmatized. I have heard people complain that Igbo tenants are too stubborn or that when you rent a room to an Igbo man, he will end up sub-letting that one room to all kinds of persons from his village, putting pressure on the property’s limited facilities.
Some landlords insist that an Igbo tenant could even start eyeing the property, to buy it off the landlord, or if it is a shop, the Igbo trader would end up renting the entire street, and could turn the street into an Igbo neigbourhood. This stigma has been a source of agony for many Igbos seeking accommodation, particularly in Lagos, but it is of course completely baseless stereotyping. There are good and bad persons from virtually every Nigerian ethnic group.
The stereotyping of the Igbo person can also be found in the political arena. It is assumed by some persons, and such statements have been made to my hearing, that the only reason an Igbo man cannot be President of Nigeria is because every Igbo man sees himself as a potential President, and should the Presidency be zoned to the South East, the struggle for the ticket could result in inter-community strife in Igboland. The name of the group is Igbo, but when other Nigerians want to be mischievous, or perhaps out of ignorance, they refer to Igbos as Ibo, and when you try to correct them, they may insist you don’t seem to understand. It is I-Before-Others (IBO).
Igbos have also been held responsible for all sorts of things, kidnapping, drug trafficking, child trafficking, armed robbery – even when there are criminals from virtually every community in Nigeria. Meanwhile, they are one of the most vertically educated ethnic groups in Nigeria, and the most enterprising in all fields. A friend once said that if you enter any community in Nigeria and you don’t have an Igbo man running a small shop there, or engaged in some other kind of business, then you have no business staying in that community. Igbos are also obviously the most integrated ethnic group in Nigeria, which is why it is ironic that they are also the most vilified.
I wrote what I considered a harmless piece recently in which I referred to the declaration of Biafra in 1967 and quoted excerpts from the Ahiara Declaration. I got a phone call from a friend who declared that I should stop encouraging these “Biafrans”. Nothing I said made sense to him.