Opinion: Reno Omokri and the celebration of ignorance

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By Azuka Onwuka

Last week, Mr Reno Omokri, former social media aide to the erstwhile President 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 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.

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 failed, 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, 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 earlier, 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 South-West, 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 a fellow like Omokri (who should depend on research and not assumptions) 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 Akpu the Igbo eat. 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. Imagine an Igbo writer denigrating those who marry their first or second cousins because his own custom forbids it.

In Igbo cosmology, prostrating or kneeling down to greet anyone is blasphemous. It is reserved for God Almighty alone. 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 learnt in the South-West. His father was shocked and angry, warning him never to deify him again.

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

On the issue of Zik dropping from being the Zik of Africa to the Owelle of Onitsha, this ridiculous point had been made in the past by some people out of ignorance, and Omokri simply rehashed that comment without interrogating it, because it suited his narrative about the Igbo.

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 after taking 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 was better known as the Oyi of Oyi, while Dr Chukwuemeka Ezeife is better known as Okwadike Igbo-Ukwu.

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

This is not even peculiar to the Igbo. Most Nigerians know the name Sardauna of Sokoto more than 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 localises the bearer.

Ironically, in spite of the so-called great love people like Omokri had for Zik of Africa, when Zik contested 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.

Nigerian ethnic groups have wonderful traits. There are few people who endeavour to celebrate 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 just to derive pleasure from ethnic superiority. 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). Punch

— Twitter @BrandAzuka

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