When most Nigerians think about the South East, they think of a people who are mostly traders. Most Nigerian narrative describe the Igbo as traders or at best as business men. They may be right. But that is really not the whole story. The Igbo are more than traders.
Those who are old enough and who are familiar with Nigerian history before the Nigeria- Biafra war and whose minds have not been biased by the trending characterization of the Igbo as itinerant traders in Nigeria, will admit that among the Igbo were the earliest political and Nation Builders who fought and brought Independence to Nigeria. The Story of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe is fairly well known. Perhaps not as much are the contributions of Dr Akanu Ibiam,Dr. Michael Okpara,Dennis Osadebay, Louis Mbanefo, Mazi Mbonu Ojike, Alvan Ikoku, Kingsley Ozurumba Mbadiwe, Abyssinia Nwafor Orizu, Jaja Nwachukwu, Aja Wachuku and Mbazulike Amaechi( the boy is good).Great Nationalists who were ably succeeded by some of the finest political actors such as Sam Mbakwe, C.C Onoh, Chuba Okadigbo, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Sylvester Ugoh,Ihechukwu Madubuike,Ojo Maduekwe, Ike Nwachukwu, Ogbonnaya Onu, Onyema Ugochukwu, John Nnia Nwodo etc
The Igbo were top on the list of distinguished intellectuals in the first Republic and occupied commanding heights in the Nigerian University system. Names like Professor Eni- Njoku, Professor kenneth Dike, Prof Chike Obi, Prof Kalu Ezera, Prof Adiele Afigbo readily come to mind and these were followed by names like Prof Kodilinye, Prof Anya O. Anya, Prof Uzodinma Nwala, Prof Okoro Ijoma,Prof Felicia Ekejuba, Prof Titus Okereke, Prof Maurice Iwu and so many others.Even today, the Igbo have a fair representation of great intellectuals all over the World- And in the Professions- Medicine, Pharmacy, Engineering, Architecture, Geology, Accountancy, Law etc, the Igbo are well represented. Professional & Business giants like Dr Alex Ekwueme, Prof Njoku Obi, Joe Irukwu,Rufus Obi, Chris Efobi, Fabian Udekwu, Nath Okoro,Dozie Ikedife,Simeon Okeke, Gordian Ezekwe, George Obiozor,and Felix Oragwu have begotten an array of professionals like Prof Bath Nnaji,Philip Emeagwali, Aghaji,Okenwa Nwosu, Chris Aniedobe,Emenike Anyiwo, Pat Utomi, Dora Akunyili, Stella Okoli,Nath Aniekwu, Greg Ibe, Leo Stan Ekeh, Ambroise Orjiako,etc that hold their own all over Nigeria and in the diaspora. Economists like Pius Okigbo,Uma Eleazu, KU Kalu and KI Kalu preceded the stars of Today- Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chukwuma Soludo, Oby Ezekwesili, Osita Ogbu etc. In Literature and the Arts the Igbo have distinguished themselves with giants like Ben Enwonwu, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, Laz Ekwueme, Flora Nwapa, Onuora Nzekwu etc, leaving a thriving genre of exciting talents like Chinweizu, Jemie Onwuchekwa, Chimamanda Adiche, and the pioneers of Nollywood - Amaka Igwe, Chico Ejiro, Zack Orji, Pete Edochie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Patience Ozokwor (Mama G), Genevieve Nnaji, Stephaine Okereke etc. Do we begin to talk of great Musical talents like Chief Stephen Osita Osadebay, Eddie Okonta, Zeal Onyia, Celestine Ukwu,Oliver De Coque, Sir Warrior, Onyeka Onwenu and the latter day P-Square, Phyno & Flavour. The Igbo have been active in Sports producing the likes of Onyeanwuna, Onyali, Dick Tiger, Power Mike, and the latter day Sam Okwaraji, Christian Chukwu, Nwankwo Kanu, Chioma Ajunwa, Jay-Jay Okocha, John Mikel Obi, Chidi Imoh, Francis Obikwelu, and Christine Ohuruogu etc. In the Public service and in the Military, the Igbo occupied commanding heights. And that is why the characterization of the 1966 Coup as an Igbo coup is a misnomer. It is absurd to see how the Igbo organized a coup to dethrone themselves. That explains really why it was the Igbo that helped to foil the coup. Admitted though that the pattern of killing of key political office holders (which was due to the failure of the assigned troops), may tend to support this mis characterization. Anyone who reads Adewale Ademoyega, one of the five Majors who led the coup in his book" Why we struck" will know that the January 1966 was not an Igbo coup.
So the Igbo have always not been largely traders as the popular Nigerian narrative implies. Yes, since the War ended, largely because of limited opportunities in the public sector and glass ceilings placed on them by the Nigerian establishment, the least line of resistance for Igbo was in private endeavors - Entrepreneurship: providing goods and services to fill needs and solve problems. That endeavor has taken them to all the nooks and crannies of the Country and this has exposed them to all the indignities and hostilities they face even today.
Last week, the Business Development and Investment Promotion committee of the Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF) led a team of ADF members on a tour of Anambra State to evaluate the industrial activities in the State. Our tour took us from Awka to Ozubulu, Ukpor, Nnewi, Oba and Onitsha and what we saw and heard marvelled us. First I marvelled at the intensity of industrial activities in Anambra State in the last ten years or so. With all my assumed familiarity with the economic development of Alaigbo I was embarrassed to see the level of industrial activity in Onitsha of all places. If you asked me before the tour what was going on in Onitsha, I would have answered without hesitation “Trading and commerce". Who does not know that Onitsha is one of the biggest markets in West Africa?But Manufacturing ? That was for Nnewi or Aba. To my utter pleasant amazement, Onitsha is bristling with with Industries-Breweries and bottling plants, Vegetable oil processing and refining plants, feed milling plants,
Metallurgical plants, plastic plants, furniture making factories, pharmaceutical manufacturing, soap & cosmetics industries etc.
As expected and perhaps widely known, Nnewi is a beehive of Industrial activity. I salute the People of Nnewi who have long adopted the concept of Charity begins at home and the "Akuruo Ulo" philosophy. I felt really proud to see true Auto manufacturing in Nnewi. I had thought, that what was going on was auto assembly as elsewhere in the Country. In Nnewi I saw auto manufacturing- Auto Body parts being extruded from flat steel sheets. Motor cycle manufacturing, common home appliances and several consumer goods.
Secondly I have long advocated for the enthronement of industrial supportive governmental actions. Industrial growth in Nigeria has long been stifled by very adverse operating environment. But I found Anambra State to be an Oasis. Industry after Industry regaled us with testimony of what Mr Peter Obi did for them when he was governor of Anambra State. He made land procurement easy, provided infrastructure and built Industrial Estates. The industrial Estate by the shores of River Niger in Onitsha has 24-hour Electricity supply from the National grid through the intervention of the governor. The Auto manufacturer in Nnewi told of how Governor Obi helped to stabilize his business. He gave order for several hundreds of buses for all secondary schools in Anambra State, hundreds of Jeeps for all the traditional rulers and mobilized him with cash. When this man had problems with the customs, Mr Peter Obi went to the President to intervene and resolved his problem. The Furniture maker in Onitsha told of how Governor Obi gave him contract for all the furniture in the government house and paid him in advance, helping to overcome the problem of chasing the bank for the elusive loan! One of the manufacturers quipped that if Nigeria had 20 Peter Obis our problems would be solved and another added that If Mr Obi was the Minister of Industry, there would be industrial revolution in Nigeria. Well may be or maybe not, but there was overwhelming evidence that the government did so much to ignite what looks like a re- industrialization of Anambra State and the sustained effort at building good roads across the State and maintaining excellent security which has been sustained by successor governor till today makes Anambra state an investor's delight.
Thirdly, I was amazed that all the industries seemed to be doing quite well, despite the economic recession in the entire Nation. The Brewing Company told us that the volume they sold last year (2016) was the volume they had projected to sell in 2024! That is to say that they achieved their sales target, eight years earlier. Indeed I could not believe my ears when the MD of the company told us that when the brewery opened in 2012, they broke even within 6 months. A large manufacturing company breaking even in 6 months? I told them that should be in the Guinness book of records. Little wonder that the company was looking for room to expand. Unfortunately they could not get additional land around their current location in Onitsha and have decided to build a new plant in Sagamu- Ogun State and this plant when completed will be the biggest Brewery in Nigeria! I felt like begging them to come back and follow me to my State- Abia where I have been given an assignment by Governor Okezie Ikpeazu to help prospect for investments- Domestic & foreign. But they said, they were irrevocably committed to the Ogun site. Well this Ogun State seems to have become Nigeria's preferred investment destination, seriously attracting industries even from Lagos. We need to learn a thing or two from them..oo!
Many of the other companies we visited in Anambra State were expanding their production capacities and undertaking new projects. Even UAC has established a very big new manufacturing plant in Onitsha. To maximize space, they excavated the site and built four floors underground and I think have another six floors above the ground and are currently operating at full capacity and also had to outsource the packaging of their brand of vegetable oil to another plant which in turn is looking for additional space.
To be true, if I was not in the team that saw and heard these things first hand, I would really have doubted some of these. Here am I struggling with my business, cutting back on production and shrinking operations because of the economic recession and related challenges, and these guys in Anambra State seem to be making a kill and having a bull run. May be what I am looking for in Sokoto may just be in my sokoto!! My hope is that the other States in the South East are following the example set in Anambra State. If they do, then the re-industrialization of the South East may be on the way and perhaps someday soon, the characterization of the Igbo as essentially traders may be adjusted!
Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR