ISIAGỤ: Air Peace Flight and the Flight of Reason

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kidnapped in Nigeria
Nigeria

By Vitus Ozoke *

Lately, the national crisis in Nigeria has not been her disastrous leadership and the cratering economy; instead, it has been last Saturday’s historic inaugural flight by Air Peace, a Nigerian flag carrier, from Lagos to London. From all indications, there were two things that took flight out of Nigeria last weekend: Air Peace airplane took flight and so did our collective sense of reasoning as a people.

Air Peace had a meticulously planned and flawlessly executed flight from Lagos, Nigeria, to Gatwick Airport in London. To accomplish that fit, Air Peace management carefully but neatly and beautifully repackaged Nigeria, with all of her national flaws and international blemishes hidden in the cargo hold, while the world was introduced to what was possible about the country, and what could become a national rebirth. It was a great moment of pride and joy for every well-meaning and patriotic Nigerian – or so it seemed.

Unfortunately, that glorious national celebration lasted no longer than the click and shutters of the camera that took and recorded photos and videos of Chief Allen Onyema, Air Peace CEO, leading the gorgeous fight cabin crew in that graceful walk through the arrival lounge of Gatwick. So that just as that walk of swagger, which was witnessed around the world was unfolding at Gatwick, our national shame was also being uncrated and uncargoed, as our fault lines came tumbling through the swirling conveyor belts in a broken and open luggage.

The world saw us, not anew, but annoyed. The world saw the very worst of us rain on the parade of the very best of us. A graceful parade of what is beautiful about us got caught up in the tragic traffic of what is ugly about us – our shameful fault lines. Tụfịakwa! To be clear, there is nothing new about our fault lines. What appears new is how swiftly they jump out and ahead of us in the fit and frenzy of a contrived phantom crisis.

Isiagụ!

Really? For a people whose government has budgeted five billion naira for repayable student loan program, and ninety billion naira for nonrepayable Hajj pilgrimage subsidy, how did isiagụ become the number one issue trending as a national security crisis for Nigeria? Seriously, can we get any more pitifully ridiculous as a people, and when does our ridiculousness become a national ridicule? Are we so cognitively jetlagged that reason has also taken flight from us?

How, where, and when did a blazer jacket – because that is what I saw in those images – become an Igbo tribal outfit and identity marker? Would a babaringa-styled outfit be considered an Igbo attire, and no longer Hausa, just because the fabric used in making it has isiagụ motif on it? What about the agbada, an attire that is commonly made as part of a three-piece set that includes an oversized open-stitched full gown, a long-sleeved shirt, and pants fitted snugly at the ankle? Does the agbada cease to be a traditional Yoruba outfit, and become Igbo, just because the fabric from which it is cut has isiagụ on it? If a babaringa would still remain an Hausa outfit, and the Yoruba would still lay claims to the agbada as theirs, even with generous splashes of isiagụ, then a blazer jacket is no more Igbo than it is French – isiagụ or not.

Look, I can understand the predicament of anyone who, upon seeing those elegant air hostesses, and knowing that they came out of Nigeria, instinctively assumed that they were Igbo. That’s clearly and perfectly understandable. We are the handsomest and most beautiful species of black humans created by God. I get that. But even in such glowing light of flattery, the Igbo loathe to take credit for what is not legitimately theirs. So, a blazer jacket, worn over a knee-length skirt (for women) or worn over long pants and accessorized with a long neck tie (for men) is not Igbo even with the most generous embroidery and emblazonment of isiagu motif.

For any top-worn outfit for men to be traditionally and culturally Igbo, it has to be pulled over the head. Traditional Igbo outfits for men are not button-designed; they are pullovers. In the modern era, for any women outfit to be remotely culturally Igbo, a two-piece wrapper must be involved. There may be a headscarf to boot. What I see in the Air Peace cabin crew Gatwick Airport pictures are beautiful men and women dressed in Western-styled blazer jackets, knee-length skirts, long pants, and dress ties. Splashing a French blazer jacket with isiagụ motif does not make the outfit any less French just as the stamping of a Toyota Camry with isiagụ does not make it any less Japanese.

And isn’t it cruelly paradoxical that a subnational group that has been systematically schemed and marginalized out of power is now being culturally tied to the most powerful symbol of power, isiagụ (the lion’s head)? The mischief makers have outdone themselves this time. Otherwise, how could they in good faith have conceded the power, the prestige, the authority, and the pride that isiagụ signifies to the same people who have been denied all of that? All the contradictions just to kill a successful and high-flying Igbo business. Sad.

From a business and commercial interest, we must push back against isiagụ being Igbo. Any subnational group is free to make their outfits from materials cut from isiagụ fabric. To reduce and limit isiagụ to the Igbo is to limit the market for it. Those Igbo merchants who import the isiagụ textile will be the worse for it. If we allow the reductionists to stereotype isiagụ as an Igbo avatar, what other commercial interests will be next? Will isiewu (goat head) be left to the Igbo? Will the big isiazụ (fish head) pepper soup be left to the Igbo? Every ethnic group in Nigeria eats and enjoys isiewu and isiazụ delicacies. If any Nigerian subnationality can appropriate an animal as its cultural avatar, it is the cattle-herding Fulani. But you don’t see anybody stereotyping and associating cowbell milk with the Fulani even though it bears isiefi (cow head).

Allen Onyema and the resourceful crew of Air Peace have done a great job of building a world class airline. Air Peace has accomplished what the Nigerian national government has failed to accomplish. We should all join in support. Buy your ticket and fly Air Peace. Leave what is written on the bus and enter the bus. Leave what the cabin crew is wearing. Focus on what the air hosts and hostesses are bearing, not what they are wearing. They are bearing jumbo-sized in-flight meals of egusi soup, jollof rice, and isiewu. Unless of course, isiagụ is your meat of choice. Good luck finding that.

*Dr. Vitus Ozoke is a lawyer, a civil and human rights activist, and a public commentator based in the United States.

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