Ring fence development and the South East question, By Eberechukwu Okonkwo

As I made my way out of the arrival lounge of the Sam Mbakwe Airport in Obiangwu, at about half past One O’Clock, I was hit by the now rare mild Hamartan haze. Right at the entrance, a gathering of ‘just arrived’ passengers stood forlorn like protesters on one side of a wide chasm, separating them from the taxi drivers on the other side.

The arriving passengers had just been hit with the shock that a taxi ride into owerri would cost at least twenty thousand Naira. Nothing prepared them for such sad and discomfiting news. Many were making frantic calls in last-minute effort to have someone come to the airport and pick them up. The monetary calculations made the NPV of such an option positive.

The fortitude of the drivers and their unity of purpose in this carefully choreographed play act was palpable in their unified defence that fuel was now selling at N340 per litre at the Gas Stations, up from the N240 per litre of last week. The culprit they said was the Petroleum Marketers Association, which had been making arbitrary increases as if petrol was on an exclusive auction of an antiquated artifact with daily increases of 20 Naira from the 20th of December.

I finally got a taxi at N15,000 for a ride that was about 20 minutes into Owerri. I didn’t have any special bargaining powers, I was only lucky I was wearing a knee brace for the fracture I was carrying on my knee cap. the driver said he only pitied me for how long I had been standing with that brace.

Tellingly, as we made our way through the usually busy Aba road into Owerri, there was sparse traffic save at the military checkpoint at Akachi Road Junction. It appeared that many people had made the decision to limit expenses by staying away from the roads. I asked the driver as we slowly wriggled our way out of the long queue, if these soldiers had at anytime at this stop and search checkpoint found any cache of arms or arrested any terrorists by this stop and search? It did appear that the presence of the soldiers was only for toll collection. I had to mind my business as we passed by, mournfully remembering the sad incident involving a colleague in Lagos on Christmas Day.

As you enter any city in the south east of Nigeria and engage the city you find with palpable sobriety that the cost of living is excruciatingly high, the temperature and pressure on life and living is crushing, but what is most damning is the normalcy with which the average resident accepts this reality. It’s almost as if you need to be baptised into the South East if you have been away for a few days, talk less of a few weeks.

I had just left owerri on the 20th of December 2022, and the airport taxi was at the then all time high of N10,000, which was attributed to the festive season but to return a week later and find a hundred percent increase in the rates was worth an inquisition.

I recall that last week, fuel was selling at the NNPC filling station somewhere between Enyiogugu and Nguru Mbaise for N240. I recall the joy I had while driving to my village to see an NNPC filling Station with very little queue, and quickly made to fill the tank of my V8 engine SUV, in the hope of an NNPC pump price, only to see the price at N240, just N10 different from what I bought at Ukoromi station at Uratta road in Owerri. I quickly readjusted my joy and bought as I could afford in the circumstances.

As I sat with friends over drinks in Prefab, Aladinma Owerri, I began the inquisition. I had just got off the phone with my friend who works in the succeeding entity of PPPRA, the Petroleum Products Pricing regulator. I asked why fuel will travel in tankers all the way from the south to Abuja and other parts of the North, and be sold for N180 and at the worst in clandestine fashion N220 but be selling in the south for N250 at the pump? The sum total of his explanation was, ’na Naija be that o”. My friends across the table began to tell stories of how the marketers in Owerri kept testing new prices and finding demand elasticity until they reached the ridiculous price of N250 and there is promise of more increases.

One burly fellow sipping comfortably from his glass of Hero beer spoke authoritatively about a marketer, NEPAL, who is being queried by the marketers union for retaining her price at N220. Another marketer, Empire Energy, refused to join in the arbitrary increases led by the COCEAN and Ukoromi stations. I asked some questions, but not all I wanted to ask. To speak openly to our people these days, you have to know where they stand on issues. Otherwise, you could end up in a deadly affair.

You see, this piece could have had a slightly different title. The actual title has ‘Biafra’ replacing, ‘South East’ in it, but discretion they say is the better part of valour and these days, as I get baptised more and more into politics, I get to chose what I say and how I say it, but let’s get back to the discourse.

The question I wanted to ask, which I didn’t ask there, but which I have had the boldness to ask in my own organised boots on ground events is “ is this the Biafra that we will get?” Where do we draw the line between entrepreneurship enterprise and exploitation? And before you judge me for drawing a wide and wild conclusion from a narrow incident, let me clearly state that as a governance professional, incidents and incidences mean pretty little to me compared with paradigms. What you find in the racketeering of Petrol Marketers is the same for Airport Tax Drivers, is the same for every single operator or union in the system including the man at Douglas house, and the Soldier at Akachi junction.
Everyone is there to milk and squeeze the highest arbitrage from the man next to him even if life ebbs away and bodies start dropping right next to us.

The true question is, if we naturally treat ourselves and our people in this way, inflicting maximum damage for gain, and seeking to obtain exit from the pain by passing on our pain in greater measure, what will actually change in the secessionist nation that our people clamour for? The eternally sobering question is, who will the operators of the governance of the new entity be?Where will they be imported from? What philosophy is at their core? Do they have a discernible progressive approach to leading? Have they been shown to be inflicted with empathy, which is the irreducible minimum for progressive leadership? How have they exemplified the Igbo values of Igba mbo, Egbuna ochu, Aku ruo uno, and Ikwuba aka oto, in their public dealings? What will we do with the army of young people who have stained their hands in the blood of brothers all in the name of the exigency required to obtain this our Golden Fleece?

What will happen to our constantly disappointing political leaders of Igbo extraction whose chameleonic abilities are legendary, and who can hijack just about anything to keep the system subservient to them?

All things considered, I have since come to the conclusion that the Igbo intelligentsia must begin to embrace the Biafra of Philosophy. We must begin to define Biafra in its truest and purest sense as the idea that ‘left alone, we can do better”. But then we must go beyond the mundane to understand that being left alone does not need to be physical or locational. We must like our intelligent forbears and sages of our past to understand that our people must journey, first in their minds before they journey with their legs. It is true that people can be lonely in a crowd and people can be joyful in solitude too. Nigeria can be both a burden and a blessing.

Once we begin this inquest, we will do well to be true to ourselves in accepting that even in the areas we have been ‘left alone’, we have not done better than the Nigeria of our spite. We can look at the ricketty and much vilified Nigerian constitution and still find in the concurrent and residual lists the areas where we have been “left alone” and discover that we haven’t done much being left alone. We must tell ourselves the truth that the foundational basis for our agitations have hardly been met, that our internal due diligence of legitimate leadership is not in place and that our struggle must first start with instituting Igbo centric legitimate leadership in the South East.

As we progress in the inquest, we will quickly find that we have been guilty of short term thinking and that since the days of the golden generation of the Okparas, Akanu Ibiams and Mbakwes, we have failed ourselves woefully in articulating any agenda for Igbo development other than our constant substandard politicking of cloak and dagger and high stake betrayal of our collective destiny.

We will also find that we have wasted any miraculous unified mass movements with our lack of strategy and have consistently failed to read the times like the children of Issachar of our jewish similarity. When we are not talking down our greatest opportunity, like in the case of the Mr Peter Obi of divine providence, we are distracting ourselves with a well worn but self defeating campaign of Sit at Home.

The few times we have had any critical mass of Igbo unity, we have frittered it away, chasing emotional shadows rather than taking the strategic steps to move our region forward.

Two examples lend themselves to us readily. We had Mazi Nnamdi Kanu who led what is arguably the greatest aggregation of Igbo consciousness that could easily have translated into a change of guard in Igbo political leadership and governance, since the days of Zik, Okpara and their peers. Many voices spoke about how this success could be managed strategically to mint a new dawn for our people in terms of leadership, and therefore provide us a unified platform for engaging the Nigerian state, but hey, we are not any different, from Nigeria. We completely mismanaged that opportunity of having a people based empathetic crop of legitimate governance in the South East. Rather, we are the ones today in the center of a cacophony of confused commune. One says no election in the South East when our son has a chance at the Presidency!

The second example is the extensive steps being taken by the ‘Judases’ of Igbo history, the traders of our patrimony, and violators of our ancient Igbo Obi in efforts to thwart the presidential movement embraced by Nigerians in backing Mr Peter Obi, by the usual suspects. These people (now appropriately dubbed “mini Amadiohas”) like the Athur Eze’s the Ihedioha’s, and the Ekweremadu’s of this world would have been retired as our representatives if we didn’t fail with the MNK movement.

Today, Obi’s most vociferous opposition are persons from his own household, and once again, it is Igbos who are telling the rest of Nigeria that it is not our turn, even when people who have no turn have turned all turns to theirs.

This piece did not set out with the intent to be heavy on emotive politics, but you have to pardon me. Being Igbo is a burden. Your famed smartness often proves to be your undoing!

Back to our ring fence development. Discerning Igbos must now, therefore, prepare for a future in which our central thought will be to evolve a paradigm for Igbo advancement.
In the book, “Startup Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Israel the Jewish Nation by introspection constantly sought to turn what is intrinsic Jewish thought and attitude to work in a general way for the benefit of the new Jewish state. Take an instance, the quote “ a nation of immigrants is a nation of entrepreneurs” . It was on the basis of this thought that Israel sought the emigration of Jews of all places back into the homeland. In some cases, the nation of Israel paid to ransom monies to have Ethiopian Jews ferried back into Israel. Israel recognizes the impact of diaspora Jews in the fantastic progress the nation has made in its development.

To bring this home, the Igbo nation must understand the realities of its locational existence, the resource in its people exemplified by the cosmological truth of “Igba mbo” with its attendant expansionist rather than constricted ideology. This means that in the mind of the Igbo, a thriving locational homeland will be a good place to start but will be grossly insufficient for the full expression of his entrepreneurial capacity.

In understanding the similarities between the Igbo Nation and the Jewish nation of Israel, we must also recognize the dissimilarities. We are already part of a larger nation with our people fully diffused into it. We also within that nation, have a fairly clear locational boundary, which means we have a homeland. The competitive thought for the Igbo today is whether we have a homeland to develop or a homeland to liberate.

To be very honest, we have spent an unhealthy volume of time bellyaching about a homeland to liberate. We have described Nigeria’s federal government as a limiting chain and spread the dampening and depressing blanket thought that no progress can be made under this system.

Unfortunately, we have not shown the spirit of Biafra even in our dealings with the Nigerian construct. We have neither been examplary nor done any better than the Nigerian state. Every evil in Nigeria is doubly found in our communities.

If we truly had a “homeland to develop” mentality, we would have jealously guarded our political leadership and prevented the hijack of our states in which the worst of us lead the best of us.

If we had a homeland to develop mentality, we would start from our communities resisting the rise to prominence of people with questionable character and sources of wealth. Yet we are the ones who postulate about a pristine eldorado, which must now be secured with the force of guns and the never-ending blood of our people.

I want a developed Igbo Homeland, and I differ on the route to it. I think that every Igbo must now have a homeland mentality for starters, but that mentality must be development driven. Aku ruo uno must have an altruistic motive rather than an oppressive controlling and domineering one. Igbo land has at this Yuletide period the highest number of sirens and convoys all in an unending competition of imakwa ndi anyi bu, driving the now pliable ordinary citizen into a deppressive state, where he however prays and longs for the day when he will become the oppressor.

We must now ringfence the South East in our minds and endeavours and begin to take deliberate steps to develop it, as an example to the Nigerian construct of what is possible. In fact, this thought and approach holds the key to the development of Nigeria because the nation is sorely in need of positive direction, examples, and values.

The ringfence of my mind is not one of military defense but of political reform. The Igbos must insist on each of the opportunities to choose its local leadership that the best of us must begin to lead.

This fixation with leading Nigeria will hopefully abate with one or two terms of a president of Igbo extraction but the task of developing the south east will be the function of the political leadership and the environment they create for the entrepreneurial quests of our people.

Today, no one in his right senses will bring new business to the South East. This is sponsored by the amorphous security situation, which the political class created to further political ends.

This political leadership in the south east cannot produce the type of environment for homeland development. Yet our people will at each electoral opportunity continue to reinforce failure.

The homeland will only become great, not by war, nor by blood, but by concerted communal consensus of the five governors of the south east pressured by a critical mass of new Igbo development thinkers

I have spoken with a group of Igbo strategists who have a master plan to place rail infrastructure through and round the five south eastern states. With improved quality of political leadership will come improved quality of developmental thought. That is why every election in the South East must now be approached as a referendum. I hope you get the pun.

Our people say no election, only referendum, and I say, use this elections as a referendum for the type of leadership that should take you to the Nigerian table.

Use the elections as a referendum on the people you say are sabotaging Igbo interest! Clean your house first because that’s where charity begins.

When we have the right type of leadership in the south east, our engagements with the Nigerian construct will be more strategic, but much more than that, we can begin the journey of homeland development in such a way that resource from our diaspora community will coincide with opportunities in the homeland giving us the opportunity to show Nigeria what can be.

Other than this route, enjoy the hot air, the conflict, and avoidable blood shed!

-Ebere Okonkwo is a governance expert and a public affairs analyst, and he writes from Abuja.

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