By James Eze
On a balmy evening in late October last year, I ran into the former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke as he was stepping out of the Governor?s Lodge in Amawbia, Anambra State. He had just rounded off a meeting with his friend, Governor Willie Obiano and was heading to his car. A brief exchange ensued. I had been a huge fan for so long and it was a gift to finally meet him, I said. A sunny smile lit up his face as he said, ?I have just told your principal what he must know. I told him that unless Anambra gets it right, the rest of your Igbo brothers will continue to search for a direction. I made him realize that this is his cross to bear.? After this comment, he quickly hopped into the open door of a black Toyota Jeep and slid noiselessly away into the gathering dusk, leaving me with a sinking awakening.
Now, it may be difficult to explain it but it would seem that Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State has finally got the message of the time. It just might be that ApkokuedikeNdigbo has risen to the call of history and begun to speak the language of the ages. Donald Duke?s didactic comment above offers a ray of light into Governor Obiano?s new awakening. Indeed, if Ndigbo have ever agreed on anything, it is on the incontestable leadership of the Igbo nation by Anambra State. No Igbo in his right mind would raise a voice in dispute against this truism.
However, many Igbo would deign to observe that in the recent past, Anambra had struggled to produce a leader that could impose himself in a comprehensive and awesome way as Nnamdi Azikiwe did, as Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu did and as his father, sir Louis did in commerce. Although Innocent Chukwumaof Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing, Cosmas Maduka of Coschar is Group, Prince Engineer Arthur Eze of Atlas Oronto Petroleum and a handful of other entrepreneurs have shown a great deal of promise, the inconvenient truth is that, as a geo-ethnic group, Ndigbo have had an impressive flowering of a thousand success stories but not a single group triumph. And it all boils down to political leadership and what we do with it.
It is against this seeming void that we have started to see the beginnings of a fascinating story of leadership; the story of someone who had all along looked very unlikely to provide Ndigbo with a purposeful and focused leadership that will finally herald their return to reckoning in Nigeria ?the story of Governor Willie Obiano, who at this moment in time, looks like the round peg we have all been looking out for to fill the round hole in Igbo leadership. And this is why?
History has shown that leaders who leave a mark on human memory have always done two things ? they either create the circumstances that define them or define the circumstances that create them. Willie Obiano, to my mind, belongs to the latter. Thrown into the vortex of a leadership dilemma indexed by high insecurity, plummeting morale and utter lack of group vision and aspiration, Willie Obiano is increasingly beginning to show that his reading of the socio-cultural temperature of Igboland is right. He is also gradually moving in to fill this void. Apart from his already acclaimed handling of the security challenge in Anambra, two things signpost his gradual ascension to the seat of Igbo leadership.
The first is Last Monday?s formal burial of Ndigbo who lost their lives in the Biafran war, the two world wars and the countless gales of violence that have repeatedly shaken the foundations of Nigerian unity. It was one event that nebulously connected Ndigbo across diverse geographies with one frail hope of unity and a rare sense of community. It was the first time in a long while that Ndigbo would come together for the purpose of our shared experience. Sensing the call of history, Obiano brilliantly rose to the occasion with a speech entitled Ozoemezina ? Memory and the Quest for Igbo Renaissance, in which he delivered the following punch line to buttress the near lack of common grounds amongst the Igbos unless there is a threat ofimminent extinction facing them ??We shall continue our bold efforts to ensure that we are not only united in times of adversity and grief but in times of victories and peace.?
Interestingly, unlike the Great Zik, Awo or even Nkrumah who overcame the challenge of leading their peoples out of the iron grip of ignorance and colonialism or even Winston Churchill who ensured that Britain never lost the psychological battle of the 2nd World War, Willie Obiano is facing a totally different challenge ? the battle to return self-belief to his people, to invoke the once famous can-do spirit of Ndigbo that says (onyekwe, chi yaekwe) and ignite the fire for the pursuit of group excellence. It is a known fact that since the smoke drifted off the last weapon in the Biafran War, Ndigbo have demonstrated mastery of individual success. Sadly, as an ethnic block in search of a vigorous voice in Nigerian leadership, failure has stared us in the face. While some people have sought explanation for this from the fierce struggle that ensued after every Igboman was reduced to a miserly 20 Pounds note at the end of the war, others believe that the famed Igbo unity that once saw town unions and associations awarding scholarships to promising youngsters in the colonial times may have been shattered with the lethal blasts of war cannons.
At the moment, Obiano seems to have found the missing spark in the emerging post-war Igbo storyline.Last Monday, he simply situated memory where it counted most when he rallied Ndigbo from across the five South Eastern states to bury their war dead. When his voice echoed in the valley of Alex Ekwueme Square on that fateful day, it touched the raw emotions of Ndigbo; the living and the dead. He strove determinedly to restore the long receded kindred spirit of his people when he observed that?hardly is there a family in this gathering without a story; a story of profound loss. But beside every story of loss sits a story of success; of glory and of abundance.?
Then, his voice rising to a crescendo, he invoked the trope of the single story made famous by ChimamandaAdichie, proudly declaring that – ?to the glory of God, we are not a people with a SINGLE STORY?we are a proud, intensely driven, hardworking, innovative, adventurous and forward-looking people with more gifts than the world can take!? In one breath, he stolidly engaged the large themes of loss and victory, pain and pleasure ? giving his audience a rich rhetoric to chew on a pointedly symbolic day.
Yes; leadership should be able to strain against the deluge of contending issues of governance to fish out some seemingly lost motifs, themes, ideas or leitmotif in the narrative of a people which when carefully invoked can renew their sense of worth and restore grace to a long history of wrongs. This was what Obiano has done with the memory of the Igbo war dead.
The second thing that signposts Obiano?s determined journey to Igbo leadership is a mesh of symbolic activities that might be seen as the soft issues of governance. In speeches and body language, Obiano has continued to announce himself as having risen above the savage passions of the average Nigerian leader. His full understanding of the concept of the leader as a symbol of the expressed and silent wishes of the people, his sense of aesthetics and style, his deftgrasp of the little things that matter and his uncanny ability to connect with just about anyone, mark him out as the unexpected leader of a sophisticated people.
He has shown a remarkable sensibility, a keenness to establish telepathy with the people and a boldness to demystify leadership and strip himself of the usual aloofness of many elected officers who place themselves above the echo of our common humanity. His ability to rally the people together for a common cause as he has shown with Ozoemezina as well as the fundraising he held in Lagos and Abuja to boost his efforts for a safer Anambra State also places Obiano in the front row of promising leaders.Indeed, each time his voice rises to sing the powerfully melodious Anambra Anthem which he gave to NdiAnambra to mark his first 100 days in office, Obiano surrenders his exalted office and melds into the audience in a manner that says, ?Yes; leaders are human. I am one with you!?
So, in connecting with the passions of his people, in drawing attention to things that ought to matter to them and in renewing their faith in their shared ability to triumph over tragedies, Governor Willie Obiano is redrawing the map of Igbo leadership and fixing the beacons where they should be.
Eze writes from Ifite, Awka, Anambra State.