Ohanaeze Ndigbo is the apex socio-political pressure group of the Igbos. It was formed after the Biafrian war to unify the third largest ethnic group in Nigeria and to harness the potentials of the Igbos-in-Diaspora to present a common socio-political front. Dr Akanu Ibiam and other prominent Igbos saw the need for the unity of the Igbo after the civil war. It was also an attempt to bring back the unity of the Igbo, which was enjoyed during the brief years of the Igbo Federal Union (IU)and the the Igbo National Assembly (INA).
The first unifying platform was the Igbo Federal Union, an unofficial collective of the Ndigbo which saddled itself with the social and infrastructural development of Eastern Nigeria. The Igbo Union was established in 1944 before the civil war and was led by Chief Z. C. Obi, and later Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe (1948-1952), Dr. Amanze, among others. The IU and all ethnic unions across the country were banned after the successful coup of January 1966 for fear of working against the federation. The January 1966 violent coup had set the stage for a chain of events that were precursors to the Nigerian Civil War. With the crises that preceded the war came
the need for solidarity amongst the Igbos, and a rallying point was the resurgence of the group called the Igbo National Assembly (INA). But the INA was also banned by the Federal Government for fear that the Igbos may be plotting a grand agenda to disrupt the federation.
In 1976, there was ‘The meeting of Igbo Elders and Chiefs’ where the idea of a socio-cultural group which would rebuild communities was mooted. Sir Francis Akanu Ibiam, Governor of the Old Eastern Region subsequently formed the Ohanaeze Ndigbo with the support of prominent Igbo leaders including Dr. Micheal Opara, Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe, Chief M.N. Ugochukwu, Dr. Pius Okigbo, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, and Sir Onyensoh Nwachukwu. Sir Akanu Ibiam became President-General of the group.
The Ohanaeze Ndigbo have members in all the states of Eastern Nigeria, and in Rivers and Delta States, among other places. However, its primary financial contributors are the eastern states. Its core objective was not wound around any ideological context. It was set to unify all Igbos to be better represented in the Nigerian political space.
By 1984, The Ohanaeze Ndigbo had become torn because of choosing sides between the NPN and the NPP. Subsequently, however, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, one of the founding fathers and the Executive Secretary at the time tried to resuscitate the group. But it did not gain much traction largely because the Igbos were traditionally disinclined to any semblance of monarchy and they saw the group as a subtle monarchical system which reminded them of warrant chiefs, who used their positions to negotiate wealth for themselves during the colonial era. There was an admixture of suspicion and disinterest from various quarters.
During the years of military rule, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, like many pressure groups, had to become a mere social group without any political contribution. It was the obvious thing to do at that phase as the country was no longer governed by any semblance of the rule of law.
A scholar, Ebenezer Oluwole, had noted in his paper, “June 12 Saga and the Re-visitation of Igbo-Yoruba Cold War in Nigeria,” that the Igbos did not participate in the fight for the return to democracy through any socio-cultural group or group activism because of the cold war it had with the Yorubas who they believed were in the good books of the Northern ruling class. Only a few of their leaders engaged in some pro-democracy activities on their own volition.
As soon as democracy returned, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo restructured itself for political relevance and power. It gained a lot of traction during the first four years of President Obasanjo because many politicians in Igboland were striving for political power at the centre and in the states through the PDP, and later through the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), a party that was almost exclusively controlled by the Igbos. The nature of APGA gave credence to the ‘elder’ status that the Ohanaeze Ndigbo needed to plot political direction. However, neither APGA nor the Ohanaeze became successful at the centre. Things began to fall apart again as many rich Igbos began to assert themselves without any recourse to the reconciliation of the elders. The Ohanaeze Ndigbo began to have factions that made many Igbos in the city disregard them. This is the reality of the current Lagos State Branch of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo. Their leaders have lamented that the seeming egalitarian posture of the Igbo seem to go against the collectivism that it needs to present a strong socio-political force. The organisation through its Chapter
President, Solomon Ogbonna Aguene, in an article, noted that some ‘modern Igbos’ renege against collective decisions of the group and disregard their ‘elders’ based on the fact that the Ohanaeze do not pay their bills, therefore cannot have control over them.
Many Igbos who hold on to the dark nostalgia of the Nigerian Civil War, who constantly educate their wards on their own version of events and who assert marginalisation within the polity remain resolute about the prospects of the Sovereign State of Biafra. These organisations, The Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigineous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) have always expressed suspicion, disgust and vitriol against the Ohanaeze Ndigbo. They believe that the Ohanaeze constitutes a stumbling block to the unity needed to secede from Nigeria. While the MASSOB had taken the Nigerian government to the International Court of Justice over Biafra, and the IPOB had ordered the boycott of elections and shutdown of commercial centres in the eastern part of Nigeria during the 2019 elections, the Ohanaeze had on many times shifted goalposts in support of MASSOB, and had been silent on many of the actions and inactions of IPOB.
Many media reports show that the MASSOB and the IPOB had accused the Ohanaeze Ndigbo of greed, doublespeak and underhand dealings, especially as relates to political support and the proscription of IPOB in 2017. They had alleged that it helped the Federal Government push out Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the IPOB, into exile. Recently, the leader of IPOB had accused Ohanaeze Ndigbo of collaborating with the Miyetti Allah to bring the culture, people and safety of the Igbos to great risk.
‘When the history of Fulani terrorist conquest of Igboland is written in the next 100 years, it will be recalled that a certain group of men called Ohanaeze Ndigbo and a band of traitors working for the Caliphate sadly referred to as Igbo governors plotted the Islamic takeover of the land of their ancestors… Apparently, all the Fulani terrorists did was to promise each South-East state governor the same unrealisable slot of Vice President of the Nigerian Republic…. For this token promise, each governor is now falling over themselves to please the Caliphate by ceding our ancestral lands to the Fulani. These are the workers of iniquity some misguided people want us to regard as elders worthy of respect.’ Nnamdi Kanu had said.
With this, it is evident that the Ohanaeze Ndigbo do not share the same objective with the secessionist pressure groups. As much as they may have meeting points concerning issues of access to the commonwealth, they are all unwilling to shift grounds on the fundamental objectives of their groups for the Ohanaeze Ndigbo to have full authority. Recently, Chief Nnia John Nwodo met with the leaders of the IPOB to discuss matters relating to restructuring and the 2023 Presidency. Chief Nwodo came out of that meeting to say that Ohanaeze and IPOB are on the same page, but none of these groups have yet to submit its objective to the suzerainty of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. These groups therefore do not see the Ohanaeze as the apex socio-cultural organisation of the Igbo; they see it as a parallel group and are open to negotiations depending on the temperament of the leaders per time. Recently, the Director of Information in MASSOB had asserted that the Ohanaeze Ndigbo are not doing the will of the Igbos regarding the 2023 elections. He accused them of greed and selfish intentions. He said that instead of collaborating with the choice of the generality of Igbos for the sovereign state of Biafra, they are busy selling their souls for a possibility of having a shot at Aso Rock.
Chief Nnia John Nwodo, the current President-General of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo had gone through the throes of politicking to keep his red cap as the leader of the group. During the 2019 elections, a faction within his organisation claimed to have suspended him. This constant bickering within the group exposes it to disrespect and external intrusion. During election years, it seems like a trend for the Igbos to be divided across several political allegiances. It played out in 1984 and wreaked havoc on the Ohanaeze Ndigbo when the Igbo leaders were torn between the Presidential Candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe of the Nigerian People’s Party. It has played out again after then, and it seems like a vicious circle.
Since 2016, there has been an upsurge of factions in the Ohanaeze Ndigbo. In February 2016, Governor Rochas Okorocha had to intervene in brokering peace and unity between the two factions of the group led by Gray Enwo-Igariwey and Dr. Ralph Obioha.
Meanwhile, the Ohanaeze in Enugu rubbished the reconciliation claiming that the Governor had no authority to reconcile or reposition Ohanaeze Ndigbo. It also asserted that it was the turn of Enugu to produce the president of the group.
Fast-forward to 2019 and a faction of Ohanaeze Ndigbo led by Uche Okwukwu, the Secretary General of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, apologised to President Buhari for endorsing the Atiku/Obi presidential ticket for the 2019 elections. The apology followed comments credited to the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nwodo, who they claimed was suspended by a nine-man panel for ‘acts of misconduct and abuse of office as well as bringing Ohanaeze to public disgrace’. It was only reasonable that the Igbo socio-cultural group backed one of their sons as Vice-President on a strong platform, and as prelude to seriously contest for the presidency at the expiration of that ticket. But this did not gain the traction and acceptance of some Igbos.
Another faction of the Ohanaeze emerged recently. The Ndigbo General Assembly emerged to pursue the same objectives as the established Ohanaeze Ndigbo. It rose on the back of internal rancour expressed by Mazi Okechukwu Isiguzoro, who accused leaders of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo of ‘using their positions to advance for a failed 2019 Presidential Candidate.’ Recently also, a new Ohanaeze Ndigbo Movement emerged to assert itself as the apex body. It took great efforts of Chief John Nwodo to bring a semblance of peace and reconciliation back to the fold.
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Perhaps, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo embodies the notion of the ‘elders’ of a group who are cautious enough to remember the carnage of the war, and pragmatic enough to navigate political turbulence and negotiate political power for the Igbo. This should mark out the ‘mainstream’ Ohanaeze Ndigbo as different from the other groups that try to engulf the nation with hate speeches and violence. Though divided and wounded, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo continues to bear the brunt of its belligerent children, and the mother elephant seems perpetually beleaguered.