Last week’s verbal attack on the Igbo by a Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. James Anelu, from Edo State, brought the issue of Igbophobia to the fore once more in Nigeria. As if on cue, the next day, a deputy commissioner of police, Mr Ibrahim Babazango, from Adamawa State, was reported to have threatened the life of one Igbo man, Mr. Vincent Umeh, for buying the property next to his residence in Yola, the capital of Adamawa State.
For Rev. Fr. Anelu, the Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Enu-Owa, Ikorodu, Lagos State, the trigger was that the choir was singing “too many” Igbo choruses. It was reported that he stopped the choir midway and outlawed the singing of Igbo songs in the church. That was not all. He went into the usual ethnic tirade of how Igbo people liked to dominate everywhere, citing the example of an Igbo person being the bishop of his home diocese (Benin Diocese), and other stereotypical statements.
From his speech, captured on camera, it was obvious the singing of Igbo songs was not his main problem. The Igbo were his problem. Even though that parish was highly populated by Igbo people, for the sake of integration and inclusiveness, songs sung at such a church should reflect the ethnic diversity of Nigeria. A Roman Catholic head of a parish wields enormous power. He can sack the entire choir. If Anelu’s concern was truly the need for inclusiveness, he could have invited the leaders of the choir to a private meeting and explained to them the need to sing more songs from other ethnic groups and English. After that, if the problem persisted, he could apply punitive measures to the leadership of the choir or the lead vocalists with the sole aim of correcting the problem.
He could also take other practical measures to change the situation like encouraging more non-Igbo people to join the choir. He could also encourage non-Igbo to teach the choir more non-Igbo songs to deepen their repertoire. But the words of Fr. Anelu showed that his primary concern was not to promote inclusiveness but to express his views about the Igbo. The Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos quickly intervened by suspending him.
In the case of Babazango, Sahara Reporters had reported that he was caught in an audio warning Umeh to reverse the land purchase deal or face some consequences, including no guarantee of his personal safety.
“We’re a homogeneous community, I don’t want you; you can’t be my next-door neighbour, I swear. What sort of insult is this? Can any northerner move now to the South-East, say Onitsha, and just bump into any neighbourhood to buy a property just like that?” the senior police officer had allegedly said to Umeh. Sahara Reporters reported that when it contacted Babazango, he maintained his stand on the issue.
A follow-up news story by Sahara Reporters said that the Nigeria Police Force described the accusation as false, stating that Umeh never reported such a case to them as he claimed. However, Sahara Reporters confirmed that Umeh reported the matter to Zone 3 Police Command, Yola and also the office of the Department of State Services in December 2021.
These cases only became points of interest because of the status of those involved and because they were brought to the media space. But they are not unusual. They are only part of a bigger and deeper problem. In the recent past, some prominent Nigerians like the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.); Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu; Senator Oluremi Tinubu; Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, etc, have been caught on camera displaying Igbophobia. However, most non-Igbo, who don’t experience Igbophobia, would easily dismiss any claim that Igbophobia is systemic in Nigeria. But that should not be surprising because they are not involved. It is said that whoever feels it knows it.
There are two types of Igbophobia in Nigeria: the brazen and the subtle. Brazen Igbophobia is what usually attracts national attention. Conversely, subtle Igbophobia usually goes unnoticed. It is so deep in the system that it is taken as normal. In fact, those who engage in it do not realise that they have such a problem. It manifests in different ways like giving the Igbo a different standard or condition that is not given to other ethnicities or always believing that there is “something” wrong with the Igbo.
Many nice, urbane, educated, supposedly detribalised, open-minded Nigerians don’t even know that they have Igbophobic tendencies. They will swear with conviction that they are not Igbophobes. But once you hear someone say: “Igbos are great people but…;” “I have many Igbo friends. I have nothing against Igbos but…;” “The problem with Igbos is…,” you see a subtle Igbophobe.
If you discuss the issue further with such people, their next line is that they are speaking the truth and that one problem with “you people” is that you don’t like the truth.” Then you hear something like: “You people are too emotional.” To such people, they are merchants of truth and rationality, while the problem is with “you people.”
Whichever way the Igbo act, such people find something wrong with it. For example, if the Igbo vote for their kinsman, the accusation is: “You people are clannish.” If people from the North or South-West or South-South do the same, the music changes to: “They are politically strategic.” If the Igbo vote for non-Igbo people, the same people say: “Igbo people don’t speak with one voice. They don’t love one another.” If people from the North or South-West or South-South do the same, the narrative changes to: “They are politically sophisticated.” Then, if the Igbo vote massively for one candidate, the accusation becomes: “Igbo put their eggs in one basket.” If the Igbo spread their votes between two candidates, the accusation changes to: “Igbo scatter their votes unwisely. They are not politically sophisticated.” Head or tail, there is always something wrong with “these Igbo people.”
Without knowing it, these nice people who harbour unconscious Igbophobic feelings regularly set different standards for the Igbo, standards they don’t set for their own folks or other ethnic groups: “You guys must come together and present one presidential candidate with integrity.” If you ask them which ethnic group has ever done that, they bring up another blackmailing line about “you people not liking to hear the truth”, and then jump to another topic.
There is also another dangerous group: internal Igbophobes. These are Igbo people with low self-esteem who have been buffeted with the narrative that there is something wrong with the Igbo people for long that they have accepted it as the truth. They usually want the endorsement of their non-Igbo friends. They want to be called “detribalised.” They feel good when they are told: “You don’t behave like Igbos”, without realising that they are being insulted. The day they see the other side of their so-called friends who heap praises on them for insulting their own people is any day they criticise an action of a non-Igbo or a non-Igbo group. The same people who praise them would immediately unleash their venom on them.
The biggest challenge facing the Igbo is their large numbers in other parts of Nigeria. They are usually the second largest population after the indigenous people. They usually control the retail business wherever they are. Therefore, if the indigenous people want to buy a malaria drug, it is an Igbo person they go to. If they need a spare part for their motorcycle or motor vehicle, it is an Igbo person that sells it to them. If they need a shirt, an electric bulb, a tin of milk, a loaf of bread, a bowl of rice or a mobile phone, it is an Igbo person that sells it to them. Consequently, the Igbo unconsciously assume the image of an army of occupation, which attracts resentment towards them. This is compounded by the aggressiveness with which the Igbo buy parcels of land and erect houses wherever they are. It creates a convincing narrative that the Igbo have a long-term agenda of taking over the communities where they reside, which worsens the resentment towards them. Being a loud and proud people does not help the case of the Igbo. Therefore, if the economy tanks and prices of goods go up, the Igbo get the blame for that because they sell most of the goods the indigenous people use. If there is a riot, their goods and investments become easy targets.
The Igbo are not saints or angels. They have weaknesses and strengths like any other ethnic group. But the problem lies in always concentrating on their weaknesses or using the bad acts of individuals to judge the entire ethnic group or setting an impossible standard for them. Nigerians have an Igbo problem, which they do not realise, but which they need to solve, if the claim of national cohesion and unity has any sincerity in it.