Reviewing culture related Igbo business practices
‘Self-help and self-enterprise’, both has become an ideology and a mantra amongst Nd'Igbo. Referred to as ‘Igba Mbo’, Nd'Igbo would readily refer to any true Igbo son with a counter ideology as ‘efulefu’.
Nd'Igbo are very traditional people, there is a strong pull towards preserving inherited ethos and values (also known as omenani or odinani). This manifests in the continued celebration and sustenance of cultural festivals and feasts. According to the Eze of Enugwu-Ukwu, and Igwe of Umunri, HRH Igwe Ralph O. Ekpeh; “such festivals help to foster peace in the communities and are also ways of preserving our cultural heritage”.
Nd'Igbo are known to be deeply religious, while majority may have converted to Christianity, there are still many following Igbo traditional religion.
The kola nut still remains a significant aspect of Igbo culture; these are eaten at every formal gathering and during family and social visits. As Nd'Igbo would say, ‘He who brings kola brings life’. At such gatherings, only titled men are allowed to bless and break the kola nut, usually the eldest person present unless he decides to designate the role to another. The designee in beginning will justify his rights to break the kola nut using the Igbo proverb that says ‘Oku agunyelu nwata, adiro ere gbu ya (A child will not be scarred by the flames put on his palm by elders’. Titles and title taking are still propagated in Igbo communities. In Igbo land, people are known and greeted mainly by their titles rather than by their given names hence Nd'Igbo will say – Nke onye chiri, ya zaa (let each person answer and live to his title).
While some may argue that the culture of respect for elders is waning especially as a result of the swagger life style of nouveau rich Igbo men and women, respect for elders is still very much observed by many in line with the admonition by one of Nd'Igbo’s most revered sons, the late Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha and Nigeria’s first President who had cautioned that “those that do not respect greatness, will never live to be great”.
Amongst the Igbos are also to be observed strong bonds of kinship and brotherhood as evidenced in the maintenance of cultural groups, town unions and community development associations (CDAs) in distant lands where Nd'Igbo reside. Perhaps this may be a way of fostering the ‘Umunna’, ‘Igwebuike’ and ‘Nwanne di na mba’ philosophy (unity and strength in togetherness). Though Nd'Igbo may be widely travelled, they do have a strong home coming mentality. Many towns where Nd'Igbo sojourn in the diaspora usually feel their absence during the festive periods of Christmas when they all go home to their various villages to celebrate with family and friends. Perhaps this is in fulfilment of the Igbo proverb that ‘Aku luo uno, okwuo ebe osi’ (a call to take one’s wealth home for use in developmental projects). Communities such as Enugwu-Ukwu observe a mandatory ‘mass return’ every 3 years. This according to Jude Ekwunife, the President – General of Enugwu-Ukwu Community Development Union (ECDU) is “a chance for our people to take stock, get to know each other again and of course receive the blessings of our ancestors for the coming year’s challenges”.
Some negative aspects have also been observed about Igbo culture, these have now been massively exploited by non-Igbos in Nigeria’s political terrain to create a divide and rule situation that has led to Nd'Igbo’s perennial search for vibrant leadership. Many argue that Nd'Igbo love money but I will argue rather that this is just a mis-interpretation of the highly ambitious and competitive spirit of the Igbo man which finds credence in the almost spiritual understanding that ‘Onye ruo, ya rie’. By their nature, Nd'Igbo are very hardworking and enterprising. This also finds credence in the biblical quote that ‘being lazy will make you poor, but hard work will make you rich’. (PROVERBS 10:4)
Another is the saying, propagated by Nd'Igbo themselves that ‘Igbo enwe Eze’. This belief that Nd'Igbo have no central leader is far from the truth as it at the same time contradicts the Igbo belief that ‘Onye fee eze, Eze eru ya’ (Give honour to the deserving and you shall also be honoured). These prejudices, real and imagined may have unwittingly made Nd'Igbo objects of envy and fear by their Nigerian brothers. In his 1985 Ahiajoku lecture, Prof. Ben Nwabueze argues that Nd'Igbo must admit that; “as a people, we excite fear, resentment and hatred in other Nigerians. In a multi-ethnic society such as Nigeria is, that is a terrible position for any of its groups to be in. He argues further that “so intense indeed is the fear, resentment and hatred of the Igbos in Nigeria that no Igbo man, however good his credentials, not even Zik, the widely acknowledged father of Nigerian nationalism, can today expect to command nationwide acceptance as a leader in the government and politics of the country. His every action and utterance will be misunderstood and misrepresented. He will be hounded from pillar to post, until he is got rid of, which will be sooner than later. In present-day Nigeria, no Igbo man can last as head of the federal government”.
Though we are now in 2013, Prof. Nwabueze’s 1985 postulations still ring true as recent political developments in Nigeria suggest that Nd'Igbo may have finally lost out in the power equation in Nigeria, with the people of the Niger Delta region (South South) increasingly edging them out to become the 3rd most influential ethnic group in Nigeria to be reckoned with politically after the Hausas and Yorubas. The people of the Niger Delta have found sympathy amongst Nigerians and the international community due to the long years of neglect and environmental degradation they suffered at the hands of the Nigerian government and by oil companies operating in the region. Their case was also emboldened by the regrettable Ken Saro Wiwa murder. Perhaps to force the issue, their people decided to take their faith into their hands forming and funding many militant organisations which has finally gotten the world’s attention.
As the world gradually converges in cyberspace, opportunities that were previously unimaginable have thus become available in both business and other aspects of human endeavours. There are improved possibilities for creating new partnerships, exploring new frontiers in trade and finance and the exchange of culture and ideas. It is thus only a people or group equipped and empowered with the necessary tools in the new knowledge economy that can take advantage of the new emerging opportunities.
It is therefore worth analysing further the competitiveness of Nd'Igbo’s prevalent business practices in an increasingly networked and globalised world. Olanrewaju Akinpelu Olutayo in his paper, The Igbo Entrepreneur in the political economy of Nigeria (African Study Monographs, 20(3): 147-174, September 1999) writes that “the Igbo, when compared to the other major ethnic groups in Nigeria, are in the forefront of entrepreneurial activities, especially in the informal sector”. Nd'Igbo predominantly undertake their entrepreneurial activities outside of the Igbo states. Dike (1956: 28) adduces such diasporan business lifestyle to land hunger. “(Igbo) pressing against limited land resources had, of necessity, to seek other avenues of livelihood outside the tribal boundaries, Dike writes.
Nd'Igbo have always relied on self-help and self-enterprise in their business endeavours. This perhaps may have been as a result of the victim mentality created by the losses they suffered during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Olanrewaju Akinpelu Olutayo also writes that “One major and unique trait of the Igbo entrepreneur is the courage, perseverance, and determination with which they carry on in spite of the bad experiences and losses during the Nigerian civil war from 1967 to 1970”. This in-group survivalist thinking may have served Ndigbo right in post-civil war Nigeria when the exigencies of the time required that one only trusted people of his race, irrespective of the fact that some, called ‘sabos’ (saboteurs) may have played into the hands of the enemy during the war for selfish reasons thereby contributing to the destruction of the Igbo race.
The post-war era witnessed many successes especially amongst Igbo business men who despite the trauma and losses still managed to build large enterprises relying on self-help. Chief Augustine Ilodibe was easily Nigeria’s biggest transporter with his Ekene Dili Chukwu transport business. There were others that built large scale contracting and construction enterprises such as Chief R.O. Nkwocha, Chief D.O Nkwonta and Chief F.G.N Okoye, all from Enugwu-Ukwu. Others thrived in industry and real estate such as Chief John Anyaehie, Chief Nnana Kalu, Chief Ferdinand Anaghara, Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Chief Onwuka Kalu. Those that focused on commerce (import and export) thrived as well, such as Chief G.E Chikeluba and his partners at the GMO Group. The times are different now. Unfortunately, most of these worthy pioneering Igbo sons have all passed on. Sadly, the estates and business empires they left behind have also crumpled thus begging answers to the questions of what went wrong, and why despite the Ivy league MBA degrees their children possess, they could not salvage the businesses or even grow them further as are the cases with family owned businesses in America and in other parts of the world.
It is my view that Nd'Igbo should learn their lessons from some of these experiences. The world over, many businesses which began as family businesses such as Ford, Daimler Benz etc have since become publicly owned enterprises. When new shareholders and investors are allowed to come in, they bring in new ideas and capital thus enhancing further the chances of survival.
Most Igbo owned businesses perpetually battle with succession planning. The practice is usually to transfer control to the eldest male child who may be the least competent. The other siblings are sometimes sidelined and they then move on to other things. This results in mismanagement and eventual demise of these businesses. My view is that day to day management does not necessarily have to reside in the hands of family members. If Igbo businesses are to survive in the long term, it is important that such businesses look outside the family and hire professionals to run the business. These matters should be settled in the wills of the founders and family patriarchs before they pass on to avoid long drawn litigations as we are currently experiencing in the cases of some prominent Igbo families. In case of businesses the Polygamous lifestyles lived by the patriarchs also compound the problem. In cases of sudden death, the tendency is always for each surviving wife and her children to go after any part of the late patriarch’s business they could access. In the end, the complete business unit is shared out amongst the children, and with each side distrusting the other, any ideas of business collaboration are not entertained with the resultant consequence that the businesses as individual units rather than composite wholes are not sustainable over the long term.
Some of these businesses have also been negatively affected by environmental factors. For instance those that launched inter - state transport businesses have since seen their investments depreciate in so short a time due to the adverse effects of wear and tear on the vehicular assets as a result of the poor conditions of Nigerian roads. Those that went into industrialisation have been affected by the power situation, lack of raw materials, import and export complexities and other government policies. They have also not been helped by cheap imports from China and other countries. The businesses built on imports and exports have suffered at the hands of fluctuating exchange rates and unfavourable government policies.
The lessons here for Nd'Igbo are for them to aim to diversify into other areas and not to build one-channel/one-income enterprises. Bobo Obidigbo Nkwonta argues however that Nd'Igbo should backpedal from their business sojourning ways and think more of investing in their homelands. “Experiences of the past should have taught us to think home, especially looking at the abandoned property issue in Port Harcourt that occurred after the Nigeria/Biafra war”, Nkwonta warns. Scanning the environment will also help in pointing the way to global business trends and opportunities. If the illiterate ones cannot do this, such information should be provided by the state governments and respective states’ chambers of commerce. The information could also be shared through the channels of town unions etc. Perhaps Nd'Igbo should pick cues from Prof. Barth Nnaji, a worthy Igbo son who has excelled in scholarship and innovation as against the traditional bricks and mortars business endeavours of Nd'Igbo.
Nd'Igbo should also endeavour to learn to swim against the tide, by refusing to be guided by the herd mentality which sees Nd'Igbo competing against one another by engaging in similar and related businesses. It is such that if for instance a neighbour imports candle and makes some money, his neighbours though without any knowledge and competence of candle importation then abandon whatever it was they were dealing in and now focus on candle importation. Suddenly everyone begins to import candles, the supply outstrips demand and the prices crash, and then a change in government policy comes and everyone is back to square one. It is common for certain Igbo communities to be renowned by particular trades and businesses. Agulu people in Anambra state are known for bread making, such that they were adulated by a popular Highlife music singer who sang that ‘Ewe ruga Agulu, Igbo ebulu onu’ (Nd'Igbo will starve without Agulu people). Awka people are known for blacksmithing, Abiriba people are known for importing Okirika (used clothes) while Nando people in Anambra state are known for retailing pharmaceutical drugs. This approach or what Rohit Deshpande calls the provenance paradox in his Harvard Business Review essay (2010, p.25) can be limiting and counterproductive.
Illiteracy may need to be tackled amongst today’s Igbo entrepreneurs. Whereas the pioneering and successful businessmen of the past could be excused due to the state of education during their time, the Igbo businessman today cannot be forgiven for failing to empower himself using education and other freely available information and knowledge on the internet. The rush to go to Idumota or Alaba market to begin apprenticeship or to get a shop without at least completing secondary education will come back to hunt Nd'Igbo. This is because while our contemporaries are equipping themselves with knowledge to face the future, our folks are more interested in chasing peanuts at the markets. Those with knowledge today will be the millionaires of the future. It is not surprising that only a few Igbos are major players in contemporary Nigerian business landscape especially in the lucrative telecommunications, oil, power and gas sectors.
Critically, the concept of ‘Igba boyi’ or trade apprenticeship should be fundamentally reviewed. This ingenious scheme sees a young man being attached to a business mentor over a period of 4-6 years as may have been agreed by both families. The business mentor or ‘oga’ undertakes the responsibility to teach the ‘boyi’ the rudiments of the trade; he takes care of his well being, housing, accommodation, clothing, healthcare over the period. The ‘boyi’ on his part undertakes to serve his ‘oga’ diligently. At the end of the agreed period, the ‘oga’ settles the ‘boyi’ with an amount that will enable him to begin his own trade. However, this scheme has been subjected to various abuses by both the ‘oga’ and ‘boyi’. Some ‘ogas’ have been known to abuse their ‘boyis’ treating them like domestic slaves. Some perpetuate quarrels with their ‘boyis’ as they near their ‘freedom’ by concocting stories of theft, insubordination etc against them so that they won’t settle the ‘boyi’ as agreed. On their parts, some ‘boyis’ are known to have stolen from their ‘ogas’, shown acts of disloyalty and even sometimes contributed to major financial setbacks for their ‘ogas’. Because this scheme is semi-formal relying on existing family ties and relationships, there are not usually written terms of engagement. Each of the parties interprets the relationship as they deem right. In the context of today’s world, there is therefore a strong argument for the formalisation of these types of apprenticeships to prevent abuse so that the relationships can add more value to the lives of both the ‘ogas’ and the ‘boyis’. Such arrangements should guarantee the ‘boyis’ some form of education even while they are ‘serving their ogas’. There may be a need to review the tenure as some have been known to last up to 10 years.
On the part of the Nigerian government, perhaps it may help to design some kind of enterprise curriculum for such schemes and for the apprentices to be formally enrolled in the books of relevant government agencies and institutions so that on completing their apprenticeship, they get some kind of credit hours or certification. This is because while their mates may be studying theoretical aspects of Business in the universities, the apprentices are actually undergoing practical training and acquiring needed skills in customer service, accounting and finance, business management, stock keeping and logistics etc. Others receive practical training and gain much needed experience in trades such as plumbing, furniture, hair styling and so on. This could also be reviewed to make the ‘ogas’ receive some kind of support from the government for giving the opportunities to the ‘boyis’, something that should actually be government’s responsibility. These kinds of support may include but not limited to access to business funding, information etc.
As we seek knowledge, Nd'Igbo must also seek collaborative partnerships from within and outside. The ‘Kill We Nwachukwu’ era where businesses go it alone is over. We should begin to tap into the opportunities for SME funding and Industrial Training Fund (ITF) support which abound. We should also begin to set up mentorship schemes from among our people. We should re-direct our search for heroes and role models from both the living and dead. In this regard, I think of Rt. (Hon) Chief Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Owelle Onitsha), Chief Dr. K. Ozumba Mbadiwe (Agadagbachiriuzo Arondizuogu), Dr Michael Iheonukara Okpara (“M. I. Power”), Chief Dr. Sam Onunaka Mbakwe (Dee Sam), Eze (Dr.) Akanu Ibiam (Ezeogo Uwana), Maazi Mbonu Ojike, Chief (Dr.) Nwafor Orizu, Dr. Alvan Ikoku, Chief Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme (Ide Orumba), Dr. Ben Nwabueze, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (Ikemba Nnewi, Dikedioramma Ndigbo), Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, Chief Emeka Anyaoku and many others we can learn from.