The World Igbo Congress
IN OUR FATHER'S HOUSE:
The World Igbo Congress and Cultural Identity
By Ugorji O. Ugorji, Ed.D.
A Paper presented at Igbo Studies Association Conference
March 31-April 1, 2006
Howard University , Washington , DC
Founded and headquartered in the United States of America, the World Igbo Congress (WIC) lays claim to being the umbrella organization for Ndigbo outside of Nigeria. With over twenty affiliates, and now in its twelfth year of existence, WIC has captured the attention and imagination of a wide section of the Igbo world. The writer explores the history and activities of the organization since its inception to identity efforts at projecting a cultural identity for Ndigbo. Using a definition of culture influenced by Africa-centered scholars, the writer looks at WIC's cultural identity from three dimensions: historical, transactional, and spiritual. The writer concludes that while there is evidence of dual consciousness on the part of Ndigbo in WIC, the preeminent identity is Igbo. The writer also finds that the World Igbo Congress has done significant work in celebrating and advancing Igbo cultural identity in the global village.
The World Igbo Congress: A brief history
On August 27, 1994, a group of Ndigbo gathered in Houston, Texas for the expressed purpose of exploring the establishment of a credible and unified voice for Ndigbo outside Nigeria. The major impetus was the call by the Nigerian dictator at the time, General Sani Abacha, for a national constitution conference to draw up a new constitution for the nation. Convened by Ken Okorie, and with the likes of J.O.S. Okeke, Lucius Akuchie, Charles Onyirimba, Nwachukwu Anakwenze, Richard Nwachukwu, Ejike Nibo, Boniface Ezechukwu, Ebube Odunukwe, and George Udeozor in attendance, the initial gathering attracted Igbo activists, community organizers and academics from the Houston area and from around the United States of America.
With apparent admiration for the World Jewish Congress, those who gathered in Houston later chose from among many suggestions World Igbo Congress as the name of the emerging entity. The organizing document would later be drawn by a committee set up to put together a constitution.
Choosing to be organized by way of affiliates across not just the US but across the world, the World Igbo Congress limited membership in it to Igbo community organizations. Individual participation in the Congress was designed to come through the affiliated organization by way of the affiliates sending Delegates to the House of Delegates and Board Members to the Board of Directors. The head of the organization was referred to as the Chairman, with J. O. S. Okeke, a physician based in Houston, Texas, designated as the first Chairman of the organization, and Ken Okorie, a lawyer also based in Houston, as its Secretary General. Nwachukwu Anakwenze was designated Vice Chairman, Lucius Akuchia as Treasurer, and Richard Nwachukwu as Public Relations Officer. The organization was incorporated in the state of Texas.
From an initial six affiliates, the World Igbo Congress has grown to twenty-two (22) affiliates as of the last election of the body held on September 4, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. Perhaps the most significant annual event of the Congress is its convention, which has now been held every year since the initial gathering in Houston in 1994. The convention has rotated to Los Angeles, California (1995); Atlanta, Georgia (1996); New York, New York (1997); London, United Kingdom (1998); Dallas, Texas (1999); Chicago, Illinois (2000); New Orleans, Louisiana (2001); Houston, Texax (2002); Nashville, Tennessee (2003); Newark, New Jersey (2004); and back to Los Angeles, California in 2005. The next convention of the World Igbo Congress is scheduled for Boston, Massachusetts, to be hosted by Richard Obilor and the Igbo Organization of New England, Boston, Massachusetts.
The World Igbo Congress lays claim to being the umbrella organization of Ndigbo outside Nigeria and there has been no reasonable argument against that claim since 1994. In its constitution, listed as one of its goals, is "to promote, protect and advance Igbo culture and civilization" (WIC, 1995). And in furtherance of this goal, the organization established as a standing committee on "Igbo civilization and culture."
Anthropologists use "culture" to describe the habits and customs of a particular population (Menashi, 2002). Green (1982) defines culture as elements of a people's history, tradition, values, and social organization that become meaningful to participants in an encounter. The founder of Kwanza, the African American cultural celebration, Kerenga (1980) identified seven constituents of culture: History, religion, motif, ethos, economics, politics, and social organizations. Molefi Asante (1990) defined culture as the cognitive concept about how humans or a group of people interact, create, maintain, and develop institutions.
For the purposes of this paper, this writer uses the assertion by Ugorji (1992) that culture has three dimensions: Historical Dimension; Transactional Dimension; and Spiritual Dimension. The historical dimension of culture refers to oral and written records of events and accomplishments in a people's existence, that are part of their collective consciousness. The way a people interact with each other and negotiate their society, through language, economics, politics, and social institutions constitute the transactional dimension of culture. The spiritual dimension encompasses a people's mode of relating to the cosmos, through such concepts as religion, motif and ethos.
WIC and the Historical dimension of Igbo Culture
The history of Ndigbo, particularly the more contemporary aspects of that history, has been a central issue since Ndigbo started gathering under the auspices of the World Igbo Congress. The origins of Ndigbo and the experiences of the people during the Nigeria-Biafra war have been constant among the topics of discussion at WIC's conventions. Speakers have advanced the theory of the Hebrew origins of Ndigbo at WIC conventions in speeches (Rochas Okorocha at the LA Convention, 2005) and in 2006 (Governor Orji Uzo Kalu at the WIC Board meeting in New Jersey). However, WIC has never undertaken a critical look at the subject to arrive at an organizational position.
Within the context of historical links, the World Igbo Congress is on record as recognizing part of what is referred to as the Niger Delta as part of the Igbo world. As such, in its dealings, particularly with respect to its scholarship program, WIC includes present-day Delta and Rivers states as Igbo states.
Our more contemporary story, particularly as it concerns our experiences during the Nigeria-Biafra war, has formed the basis of several papers and presentations at WIC conventions. Presenters that range from scholars to Neo-Biafran activists have used the stages at WIC conventions to speak about our collective experiences and to point to directions for the future.
Even the politics of leadership in WIC has witnessed the use of our history by candidates to advance their positions. In 1999, Austin Egwuonwu of the Igbo-USA New Jersey affiliate of WIC trumpeted his military experience during the Nigeria-Biafra war to gain support for his bid to become the Chairman of WIC. While this part of his credential was not the only reason for his victory in that election, there was no question that his photograph as a young man in Biafran uniform resonated well among the Board members of WIC, all of whom had one experience or another in that war. In 2005, Chibuzo Onwuchekwa and his handlers borrowed a leaf from Egwuonwu in sharing the story of his own experience as a soldier during the war. The fact that Onwuchekwa also won lends credence to the notion that our history and the roles some people have played in that history have affected the choice of leaders in WIC. Each time there was a Biafran veteran in the race for WIC chairmanship, a Biafran veteran had won.
In 2004, WIC established the Philip Efiong Leadership Lecture Series to address contemporary leadership issues on the continent (WIC Press release, 2004). The lecture series was named in honor of the late Major General Philip Efiong who was second-in-command to General Ojukwu towards the end of the war, and who served as head of government for a few days leading to the surrender of Biafra. This gesture from WIC was in recognition of our history and the positive roles some members of other ethnic groups have played in that history (see Effiong, Jr., 2004; and Onu, 2005).
Thus, this writer submits that the World Igbo Congress has remained connected to the historical dimension of the Igbo cultural identity. The one regret is that the organization has never published a collection of the papers and speeches made at its conventions and meetings.
WIC and the Transactional dimension of Igbo Culture
As stated above the transactional dimension refers to the ways a people interact with each other and negotiate their society, through language, economics, politics, and social institutions.
With respect to language, the use of the Igbo language during events and meetings of the World Igbo Congress has been an important aspect of the history of the organization. There is virtually no meeting of WIC at which someone does not admonish all to speak in Igbo. As such, many of the speakers and presenters at the conventions of WIC have managed to speak both in English and Igbo in the process of delivering their remarks. In 2002 Chief Mike Ahamba became the first speaker to present a paper entirely in the Igbo language, when he delivered "Agwo no n'akirika: Onye ga egbu?" (Ahamba, 2002).
The themes for WIC's eleven conventions to date have first been conceived in Igbo and then translated to English language for the uninitiated. While there has been very little correlation between the stated themes and what actually happens at the conventions, the fact that the themes emanate from Igbo consciousness is significant in terms of cultural identity. The theme for the convention, which is scheduled for Boston, Massachusetts, is "Igbo kwe, Igbo enwee." (When Igbo believes, Igbo will posses).
Igbo language has been the language of the ritual of the kola nut each time this fruit of Holy Communion was introduced at WIC events. From its presentation to its blessing, audiences have insisted on the use of the Igbo language.
Various affiliates of WIC have had classes developed in several cities in America to teach our children the Igbo language. In 2005, the Education and Youth Development Committee began a collaborative effort to produce a CD of instructions on Igbo Language for beginners. When finalized, it shall mark the formal entry of WIC in the quest to introduce and teach the language, particularly to the children who were born outside Igbo land.
Economics refers to transactions aimed at meeting material needs. The gatherings of the World Igbo Congress have provided opportunities for Ndigbo to do business with one another. Vendors ranging from authors and publishers, to merchants of clothes have found ready customers among participants at WIC conventions. Regrettably, however, Ndigbo spend over one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) each year in transportation, hotel rooms, hotel banquet halls, security and other amenities at WIC conventions, an amount that Ndigbo have not yet figured out how to channel to themselves or to enterprises owned by them.
Ndigbo in the Diaspora send a lot of money from virtually all corners of the globe to folks at home. There is a notion that in the current economic hardship that has befallen most of Nigeria, the families that have members overseas tend to have coped much better. To the extent that the World Igbo Congress represents all Igbo in the Diaspora, the case can be made easily that members of its constituency have been formidable economic players in the economy of Igbo land and will continue to be so for a long time to come.
The economy of the Eastern region of Nigeria, where Ndigbo call home, has also been an important topic of discussion during WIC events. Proposals and strategies for economic advancement in sectors such as energy, agriculture, trade, transportation, manufacturing, and services have been presented and discussed at various gatherings organized by WIC. Implementation, however, has been negligible, if not altogether absent. Even the well-intentioned building of a toilet paper manufacturing plant for Biafran veterans at Oji River area, which was started under the Egwuonwu chairmanship, has failed to get off the ground. The one exception is Geometric Power Limited (GPL), headed by Professor Bart Nnaji. A frequent presenter at WIC conventions, Nnaji had a dream of building power generating plants in Nigeria to help the nation's need for energy, with the East as central in his vision. The result is GPL, which is currently building a gas-powered independent power plant in Aba, with the reported enthusiastic cooperation of the Abia state government (see geometricpower.com).
Perhaps the most widely known aspect of WIC's cultural identity is in the area of the politics (how power and authority are acquired and used). The major impetus for the formation of WIC was the need to have credible Igbo voice during the constitution conference of 1995. WIC did, in fact, present recommendations for the conference, and ever since that event, politicians of Igbo heritage have come to see the WIC convention as an important stage for their ideas and quests. All major political contests in Nigeria since WIC's formation, from local governments to states and to the federal government, have somehow found interest and contributions from the constituency of the World Igbo Congress.
The yearning of Ndigbo, for instance, for an opportunity to serve the nation at the highest level of the Nigerian Presidency, has found currency and support from the
World Igbo Congress. While WIC has always fallen short of coming behind one candidate, it has nonetheless attracted all serious contenders for the position from Igbo land over the years. Alex Ekwueme, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, Chuba Okadigbo, Kalu Idika Kalu, Rochas Okorocha, and Orji Uzo Kalu, have all brought their cases for the presidency to WIC. And funds from individual members of the Congress have also gone to support several candidates and political parties in Nigeria.
Essentially, the World Igbo Congress sees a monolithic Igbo nation, comprising a major zone of the Nigerian Federation. The nomenclature of states, while tolerated as an administrative concept, has not blurred the vision of a united people. WIC, however, does not go as far as the Neo-Biafran activists want. It remains anchored on one Nigeria, with justice and equity, in terms of its geopolitical leanings.
The World Igbo Congress has become an institution in its own right, and has continued to interact with existing institutions in Igbo land and in the United States, where it is headquartered. Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the self-styled umbrella organization for Ndigbo, has a direct link with WIC, as do Aka Ikenga. In 2004, Kalu Diogu led a delegation to the US Department of State and pressed for issues of economics, security, and liberty that of interest to Ndigbo. And in 2005, Diogu arranged a
meeting between WIC and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to press the same issues.
WIC and the Spiritual Dimension of Igbo Culture
Religion (the deification of a people's history), motif (the icons, symbols, and central themes in a peoples life), and ethos (distinguishing characters, sentiment, and beliefs of a people), are parts of the concepts that encompass the spiritual dimension of a people's culture. Perhaps it is in this dimension of culture that the dual consciousness of Ndigbo in WIC is most evident. By dual consciousness, I mean the balancing act of an Igbo cultural experience that date back to antiquity, versus the new and often different awareness and value system that came with contact with Europeans.
At WIC events Igbo religious rituals struggle for space with the Christian mode of worship and all of its ramifications. The presentation and blessing of Oji (kola nut) follow traditional paths. However, some have been heard to add the name of Jesus Christ towards the end of the ritual. It is either that Jesus Christ has been adopted or claimed and added to the revered pantheon of ancestors, or Ndigbo in WIC practice the doctrine of onye na nkeya (to each his own). The closest the Igbo in WIC at WIC events come to the practice of Igbo religion is in the use of language and during the presentation of Oji. Christian masses, however, have always been held on the Sunday of the convention weekend of WIC.
The dominating motif in WIC is Igbo outfits for men and women. European suits and bow ties, and even the North African motif of Babariga have been won by Ndigbo to WIC events, but the predominant mode of dressing is Igbo. In fact, Alex Ekwueme had to return to his hotel room and change from the suit he wore to the opening of the WIC convention in London in 1998, to a more acceptable and more dignified Isiagu. In so doing, he reminded Ndigbo that he took his oath of office as Vice President of Nigeria in 1979, clad in Isiagu.
The ethos of Ndigbo have always included hard work, industry, honesty, justice, liberty, and honor in one's words, whether the words are given publicly or privately. Education, as a valued avenue for uplift remains a priority in the World Igbo Congress. Both intellectuals and entrepreneurs have found a mutual comfort zone in WIC, even if both groups are yet to maximize the synergy of their resources.
To the extent that Igbo culture is seen as male-dominated, the World Igbo Congress has not deviated. It is indeed a man's world in WIC, despite the participation of a few women over years. However, the 2005 elections in WIC and the expanded membership of WIC's House of Delegates have brought several women of stature into both the Board of Directors, the House of Delegates, and in the Standing
Committees of the organization. Women such as Patience Oruh, Gladys Nwosu, Letitia Uduma, Anuri Nnodim, Grace Clerk, Josephine Okoronkwo-Onor, Ada Egbufor, and so many others have shown signs of ending the drought of significant participation of women in WIC's affairs. Oruh, for instance, was part of the WIC delegation that met with President Obasanjo in 2005.
The World Igbo Congress has not done as much as many people hoped it would have done by now, but there can be no question that the organization has celebrated Igbo cultural identity, and even advanced it. WIC has remained faithful to the history of Ndigbo and has contributed activities and events in that on-going history. WIC has also, to the extent of its resources championed the political aspirations of Ndigbo in Igbo Land, in Nigeria, and in the global village. And WIC has strived to remain linked to the religion and spiritual ethos of the ancestors, while embracing or accommodating the Christian faith.
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NOTE: Dr. Ugorji Okechukwu Ugorji is the chairman of the Education and Youth Development Committee of the World Igbo Congress, Inc .