Reno Omokri and the Celebration of Ignorance

Last week, Mr Reno Omokri, former social media aide of erstwhile president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, reacted to a 2014 comment the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Mr Nnamdi Kanu, made against Jonathan. In that comment, Kanu accused Jonathan of being weak, and said that his wife, Dame Patience Jonathan, was a stronger character. Someone looking for mischief republished the story as if it was a fresh comment, and many like Reno Omokri fell for it without asking questions.

However, the interesting thing was that Omokri did not respond to Kanu. He responded to the entire Igbo ethnic group, saying all kinds of uncomplimentary things about them. This is the way most Nigerians react to things involving an Igbo: they usually leave the culprit and attack the whole Igbo ethnic group. When an Igbo speaks, it is the entire Igbo ethnic group that has spoken, but when a Yoruba, or Hausa or Ijaw or Tiv speaks, people usually respond to the individual involved.

That was how the January 1966 coup was branded an Igbo coup. Consequently, Igbo civilians were massacred, even after the July 1966 coup-plotters had succeeded in killing the head of state and taking back power. Sadly, 50 years after that genocidal reaction to the Igbo civilians, those who carried out that cold-blooded mass murder as well as their children and the children of those who kept silent when the massacre of Igbo civilians took place are still justifying it with the argument that “the Igbo started it,” as if the killed Igbo civilians participated in the coup or were consulted by the soldiers during the planning of the coup.

In contrast, when the 1976 coup, which was masterminded by Middle-belt soldiers, was executed, the Middle-belt civilians were not massacred, neither was it labelled a Middle-belt coup. Nigerians focused on Lt. Col. Buka Suka Dimka and his co-plotters.

Similarly, when the 1990 coup led by mainly Middle-belt and South-south people (with Major Gideon Orkar, Col. Tony Nyiam and Chief Great Ogboru as arrowheads), occurred, Middle-belt and South-south civilians were not attacked or even blamed. It was seen purely as a coup by soldiers. And only those who had a hand in the coup paid for it.

In his article against Kanu’s 2014 comment on Jonathan, Reno Omokri tried to prove how tactless Igbo are with this example: “Nnamdi Azikiwe was at one time known all over Africa as Zik of Africa. It was a thing of pride and joy to pre-independent Nigeria. Everyone was proud of Zik including Northerners. This is a fact. But the story ended tragically. No matter what may have happened to him through his political choices and alliances, it was a very great disappointment that a man who reached the peak of his political career as Zik of Africa ended up allowing himself to be known as the Owelle of Onitsha, not even of Nigeria, or Igboland or even Anambra, but of Onitsha.”

About a month ago, in his article “Hegemony: What the Igbo can learn from Yoruba and Fulani about power,” Omokri said: “This humility is ingrained into Yoruba and Northern youths from infancy. In the North, youths squat to greet their fathers and their male elders. In the Southwest, children are taught to prostrate for their elders as a form of greeting. Banky W is an international star but when he met Dele Momodu, he prostrated before him. Long before him, Sir Shina Peters did that to King Sunny Ade. I doubt that an Igbo man can even muster enough humility to prostrate before his own father how much more an elder! He would consider that as foolishness.”

It was shocking that an educated person, a well-travelled person and a pastor like Omokri could wallow in such ethnocentric ignorance by using one culture to judge another. It is like a newspaper columnist denigrating the Warri people over the starch they eat by comparing it with the pounded yam the Yoruba eat, or a European writer ridiculing Nigerians for eating cow’s hide (kanda/kpomo) as a delicacy rather than using it for leather, or eating goat’s head, intestines and feet as a delicacy (isi-ewu and nkwobi) which the Europeans would usually throw away or use as feed for animals.

We should remember that Isaac and Jacob in the Bible married their first cousins. Many ethnic groups and races in Nigeria and across the world marry their relatives, but it is an abomination among the Igbo to marry somebody from the same umunna, which is a large family that shares the same progenitor dating back 10 generations or more. Now imagine an Igbo writer denigrating those who marry their first or second cousins because his own custom forbids it! This can only be acceptable if the writer is pointing out the health implications of marriage between people who are related.

In Igbo cosmology, prostrating or kneeling down to greet anyone is blasphemous. It is reserved for God Almighty alone. It is seen as ill-breeding for any Igbo person not to greet anyone who is older. Such a child is usually corrected verbally by the elder or even disciplined. However, no Igbo man or woman accepts another to prostrate or kneel down while greeting him or her. A friend of mine who did his National Youth Service Corps scheme in the South-west returned home and prostrated to greet his father, as a show of respect which he had learnt in the South-west. Rather than feeling happy, his father was shocked and angry. The father shouted at him to rise up immediately and never deify him again.

When commercial vehicle operators or motorcycle operators, who are known for their recklessness, hit the car of a person on a Lagos street, their usual action is to prostrate as a way to show that they are remorseful. However, if the owner of the car is a Yoruba person, the prostrating may touch him, but if it is an Igbo, such prostrating irritates him immediately and makes it more difficult to forgive the offender.

How then could an educated person like Reno Omokri want an Igbo musician to prostrate while greeting another older Igbo celebrity when the older person sees such an act as blasphemous?

(Sadly, even in this 2021, Reno Omokri and many Nigerians still wallow in this ethnic-induced generalisation and shallow assessment of issues.)

On the issue of Zik dropping from being the Zik of Africa to the Owelle of Onitsha, this ridiculous statement had been made in the past by some people out of ignorance, and Omokri simply rehashed that comment without interrogating it, just because he needed to find something with which to prove that Igbo are not as good as other ethnic groups.

Every Igbo man (as well as woman) is expected to rise from the name his father gave him to the name he gave himself or acquired through the acquisition of the ozo title (or honorary chieftaincy title nowadays.) That name is usually cherished by the bearer more than his given name, and it often overshadows his original name. Titles are given by the traditional ruler of a town, not the state or Igboland. Combining a title with the name of the town accords the title more authenticity and class. That is why Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is synonymous with “Ikemba of Nnewi.” Another man can be the Ikemba of Asaba or Abakaliki. Senator Chuba Okadigbo is better known as the Oyi of Oyi, while Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife is better known as Okwadike Igbo-Ukwu.

At the gathering of elders and titled men, they do not call each other by their given names. They use the salutation names. As a younger person, I dared not call Ojukwu by his personal name, but I hailed him “Ikemba Nnewi” anytime I met him, and he responded with excitement. If I wanted to show him that I knew him too well, I would hail him Odenigbo Ngwo (the title his in-laws gave him). That would immediately make him respond: “Onye na-akpo m” (Who is hailing me?) or “Onye ma m otu a?” (Who knows me like this?)

In Things Fall Apart, even though Chinua Achebe identified the title name or salutation name of most of the characters in the novel, he did not identify the title name of the hero of the novel, Okonkwo, who had taken some ozo titles and was the greatest wrestler and warrior of his clan. As a warrior, an elder and an ozo title holder, Okonkwo would not be addressed as “Okonkwo” except by his parents or elder siblings. He would be addressed by his title name. When Things Fall Apart was turned into a TV series by Nigerian Television Authority in the mid 1980s, the producers rectified that by giving Okonkwo the title “Ebubedike”.

When I call my father-in-law or mother-in-law on phone or meet them in person, I hail them by their salutation names. They love it. Sometimes they respond by hailing me too by my salutation name. Occasionally when I hail my father by his own salutation name, especially when he finishes the ceremonial breaking of the kola nut, he loves it.

That is how we roll.

If you hail a person by his salutation name and he fails to reciprocate, you remind him that he has “eaten” your own salutation name. If the person does not know yours or has forgotten, it is his duty to ask you yours. If the person is your father or mother or is much older and does not respond by calling you by your salutation name, you don’t take offence, neither do you withhold hailing him next time. It is your duty as a junior person to greet him or her by including his or her salutation name or title name.

As an author, Omokri should know that his greatest asset should be the word “research”, if he wants to be taken seriously. There is no room for assumptions. It is called research because you need to search and search again and continue searching. Before you write about a people, you visit them, ask questions, make observations, read about them. That way you see the reason behind actions and write like an authority, not a neophyte.

Combining title names with city names is not even peculiar to the Igbo. Most Nigerians know the name Sardauna of Sokoto more than his real name Sir Ahmadu Bello. Former Vice President of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, enjoyed being called Turaki Adamawa until he was elevated as Waziri Adamawa last month. Scholars of English literature know of the poet called Earl of Surrey and address him as such: His original name “Henry Howard” is rarely remembered. None of these titles with city names diminishes or localizes the bearer, except in the minds of mischief makers like Reno Omokri who must find a reason to denigrate the Igbo.

Ironically, in spite of the so-called great love people like Omokri had for Zik of Africa, when Zik contested for elections in Nigeria, after leading Nigeria’s independence struggle, Nigerians did not elect him in the First Republic nor in the Second Republic. So where is this wonderful love that Nigerians claim to have for Zik of Africa? Isn’t it hypocritical love or crocodile tears? Among Zik’s contemporaries in Africa – as well as non-contemporaries across the globe – the first elected prime minister or executive president of a country is usually the leader of the independence struggle: George Washington in the USA, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Sam Nujoma in Namibia, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Salva Kiir Mayardit in South Sudan, etc. But in Nigeria, the opposite was the case.

Given the type of person Dr Goodluck Jonathan is, he would be embarrassed by the attack on the Igbo by Omokri, even though Omokri’s mission was purportedly to defend him. It is sad that when the Igbo were supporting Jonathan and were even killed during the 2011 election, they were great people in the eyes of people like Omokri, because their support ensured that the daily bread of Omokri was not threatened. But since Jonathan is out of power, it is time for Omokri to show the world how he feels about the Igbo under the guise of giving them advice.

Nigerian ethnic groups have wonderful traits. There are people who make it their duty to celebrate these traits in other ethnic groups. But the majority of Nigerians usually try not to see the good in other ethnic groups but only look for negatives to highlight to show ethnic superiority. And that is why there is so much ethnic rivalry, suspicion, distrust, tension and clashes.

Those who have the power to write for the public must pocket their ethnic or religious bigotry and disdain and focus on issues (or offending individuals, if need be).

First published July 11, 2017