By Churchill Okonkwo
In his book, America in retreat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens said that “No police or fire department would wait until a house is consumed in flames before it started putting it out.” I have been ignoring the recent distraction urging Ndigbo to “go home” and invest partly because I know that we are smart enough as a people to individually make forward-looking decisions. But when a columnist I had followed as a young writer, Mr. Ocherome Nnanna, now chairman Editorial Board of Vanguard Media decided to add burning coal (rather than a big wedge ) to a fast moving train (with failed breaks, heading towards a thatched house), I know I had to jump in as a firefighter and police combined.
In his provoking piece, “Yes, Ndi Igbo ‘go home’” published in Vanguard Newspaper, Mr. Nnanna wrote that. “Igbos must “go home”, develop Igboland, build up its economic infrastructure and make it a destination not only for the Igbos but also other Nigerians and even foreigners to live, work and thrive. That is the meaning of “go home”. Igbos will never live in dignity outside Igboland until they have done this.”
While the piece raises several questions, I will in this rejoinder focus on what constitutes, “home”, dignity and smart investment in a globalized village. But first, I must state that Mr. Nnanna’s voice adds to the seductive but destructive whisper that is pushing Ndi Igbo to the false comfort zone of isolationism. I am thus not waiting until my people are pushed into the backward mentality of false comfort of isolationism before reminding them that we are in the 21st century. How far can we go in pushing ourselves deep into the mud (individually and as a group) all in the name of “dignity” and attempt to save ourselves from imaginary monsters?
Starting with the investment question, I will like to be educated on, what drives investment decisions? Is it hardcore data about actual operating conditions or sentiment? If the result of your cost benefit analysis is telling you that the best location for your investment is Lagos or Cotonou, will you listen to your heart and move your investment to Nsukka or Iheagwa? If the investment potential index that is objective and data driven- labor, infrastructure, economic conditions, political stability and governance – makes Lagos the best location to build a private refinery; will you listen to your heart and move the refinery to Kano or Enugu?
By Mr. Nnanna’s re-definition of dignity, it is only when I contribute to the economic and infrastructural development of my village in Nsukka that I will begin to see myself as living in dignity in Kano or Calabar. Really? How realistic is this redefinition? How many Ndigbo (‘home’ and abroad) can afford to do this in the present economic realities of today?
I guess Mr. Nnanna lives in Lagos and may not have gone “home” to help make Igbo land the “destination for foreigners to live and thrive” and therefore is most likely not living in dignity in Lagos (by his own standard). That leads to the question, what is dignity? What does it mean to live in dignity? Should turning Igbo land to Dubai a precondition to living in dignity?
To live in dignity, MUST you uproot your business (and soul) from the coast of one of the busiest commercial centers of the world and replant them at the banks of the dry river in the hinterlands? Only for you to make those treacherous and costly journeys back and forth to the investment hub you just turned your back on? This is a warning that we should avoid falling into the “false comfort” of isolationism in a “globalized interconnected world.” As we navigate this complex socio-political-cultural-religious-ethnic terrain in Nigeria, Ndigbo cannot shirk the mantle of engagement. We cannot be isolationist. It is not possible in this globalized interconnected world.
Even though it is tempting to pull back in the current political atmosphere in Nigeria, we should remain steadfast and positive. The true quality of a champion is in seeing challenges as opportunities. Faced with a plethora of hurdles, a warrior does not build walls around himself. Rather, he engages and develops a positive mental state that will lead to new discoveries of inner strength. He builds an intellectual and psychological outlook that enables him redefine goals and ultimately opening up new doors and windows. Windows that will let in refreshing fresh air driving away fear and uncertainty.
You can choose to live like a slave in a rented flat in Lagos with your family your entire adult life while paying hundreds of thousands as rent per year. Or you can grab that land in Lagos (if you can afford it), build a comfortable home for your family while investing back “home” (if and when you can afford it) as a necessary part of “think home philosophy” we are known for.
Alternatively, you can “go back home” and build a mansion (a vacation home) where you sleep for less than one year (cumulatively) your entire life, meanwhile renting it out to local tenants for few thousands per year (sometimes for free, to make sure it is occupied). The choice is yours!
First, I ask you to define where your home is? Is it your “Ime Obis”- a divided house full of sycophant “leaders” that cannot pay salaries in Owerri and Umuahia? You want to go and invest in such a home? A “home of three days’ work week? How can you get returns on your investment is such homes? Will going home mean being within reach of your diabolic uncles and cousins and the pit of hell in your villages. Hell that pushed you to exile in the first place? Again, the choice is yours!
Let me end this piece on a positive note; after a careful analysis of latest political development in Nigeria, I can optimistically declare that Igbos across the globe and particularly in Nigeria are not in decline and that we must not go “home” in order to live in dignity. Here is why: in the 2015 national election, PDP through the overwhelming support of Ndigbo won several House of Representative slots in Lagos State. One Oghene Egboh, from Delta State, won in Amuwo Odofin, Mrs. Rita Orji in Ajeromi/Ifelodun, Tony Nwoolu in Oshodi/Isolo and Mr. Tajudeen Obasa (a Yoruba man) in Igbo-dominated Ojo.
Close your eyes and look around Nigeria and see if such political feat was achieved anywhere else by another ethnic group. This is a classic case of standing your ground and insisting that where you are is your “home.” It is also a pointer that positive attitudes can open doors through political alliances resulting in a stake in governance at state and local government levels at your domain. If that feat didn’t make you have a sense of dignity and a feeling that Lagos is your “home,” I hope it at least made you feel like Lagos is your ‘hood. As Onye Igbo, if where you are feels like a ‘hood but you want to make it home, what you should do is to sit-in and work it out. NEVER embark on self-exile by going “home.”