Culture and Igbo business practices By Uche Nworah (uchenworah@yahoo.

com) The Igbos of South East Nigeria, otherwise known as Ndigbo remains one of Nigeria‟s major and most enterprising ethnic groups accounting for about 18% of Nigeria‟s estimated 150 million population. The website nationsencyclopedia.com gives the breakdown of the make-up of the other ethnic groups as follows; The Hausa, 21%;Yoruba, 21%; Fulani, 12%; Ijaw, 10%; Kanuri, 4.1%; Ibibio, 3.6%; Tiv, 2.5%; and others, 18.7%. These classifications may not be accurate as argued by some commentators, for example the website onlinenigeria.com has published a list of what it describes as 371 identifiable tribes in Nigeria with a statement that some of these tribes are present in more than one state in Nigeria. This may then suggest that contrary to popular belief that only about 250 ethnic languages are spoken in Nigeria; the number may well then be close to 400, including tribes not captured in the onlinenigeria.com list. Certain behaviours (social, cultural, economic and political) are known to be peculiar to each of the component ethnic groups in Nigeria, while some identifiable behaviour may be common to some or all of the groups as a result of long years of inter-ethnic co-habitations, associations, exchanges and marriages, certain behaviours have remained unique to each of the groups. Of particular interest to this writer are the Igbo ethnic group and the fascinating aspect of their culture known as „self-help and self-enterprise‟. This has become both an ideology and a mantra amongst Ndigbo. Referred to as „Igba Mbo’, Ndigbo would readily refer to any true Igbo son with a counter ideology as „efulefu‟. Perhaps other aspects of Igbo culture are worth discussing here, to enable a proper understanding of the Igbo race. Ndigbo are very traditional people, there is a strong pull towards preserving inherited ethos and values (also known as omenani or odinani). This manifests in the continued celebration and sustenance of cultural festivals and feasts such as Mmanwu or masquerade festivals in many towns and villages. Some other communities have more pronounced festivals such as the Imo Awka festival by Awka people of Anambra state, the Ikeji festival by Arondizuogu people of Imo state, the Ana Enugwu festival by the Enugwu-Ukwu people of Anambra state etc. According to the Eze of Enugwu-Ukwu, and Igwe of Umunri, HRH Igwe Ralph O. Ekpeh; “such festivals help to foster peace in the communities and are also ways of preserving our cultural heritage”. Ndigbo are known to be deeply religious, while majority may have converted to Christianity, there are still many following Igbo traditional religion which many refer to as idol worship. These people still observe the traditional pouring of libation as a mark of honour to the gods and late ancestors. The sacrificing of animals and the sprinkling of their blood on carved idols known as Alusi or Okpesi etc. Ndigbo still observe traditional marriage rites such as Ime ego (bride price), Igba nkwu (also known as „wine carrying‟). The kola nut still remains a significant aspect of Igbo culture; these are eaten at every formal gathering and during family and social visits. As Ndigbo would say, „He
1

Perhaps this is in fulfilment of the Igbo proverb that „Aku luo uno. adiro ere gbu ya (A child will not be scarred by the flames put on his palm by elders‟. the Owelle of Onitsha and Nigeria‟s first President who had cautioned that “those that do not respect greatness. ‘Igwebuike’ and ‘Nwanne di na mba’ philosophy (unity and strength in togetherness). „proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten‟. real and imagined 2 . will never live to be great”. Many towns where Ndigbo sojourn in the diaspora usually feel their absence during the festive periods of Christmas when they all go home to their various villages to celebrate with family and friends. it is common for Ndigbo. (PROVERBS 10:4) Another is the saying. usually the eldest person present unless he decides to designate the role to another. Perhaps this may be a way of fostering the „Umunna’. By their nature. These prejudices. Communities such as Enugwu-Ukwu observe a mandatory „mass return‟ every 3 years. Many argue that Ndigbo love money but I will argue rather that this is just a mis-interpretation of the highly ambitious and competitive spirit of the Igbo man which finds credence in the almost spiritual understanding that „Onye ruo. the late Rt. people are known and greeted mainly by their titles rather than by their given names hence Ndigbo will say – Nke onye chiri. In Igbo land. The designee in beginning will justify his rights to break the kola nut using the Igbo proverb that says „Oku agunyelu nwata. these have now been massively exploited by non-Igbos in Nigeria‟s political terrain to create a divide and rule situation that has led to Ndigbo’s perennial search for vibrant leadership. Nnamdi Azikiwe. ya rie’. This belief that Ndigbo have no central leader is far from the truth as it at the same time contradicts the Igbo belief that ‘Onye fee eze. get to know each other again and of course receive the blessings of our ancestors for the coming year‟s challenges”. ya zaa (let each person answer and live to his title). At such gatherings. Titles and title taking are still propagated in Igbo communities. Some negative aspects have also been observed about Igbo culture.who brings kola brings life‟. This according to Jude Ekwunife. Ndigbo are very hardworking and enterprising. only titled men are allowed to bless and break the kola nut. Though Ndigbo may be widely travelled. respect for elders is still very much observed by many in line with the admonition by one of Ndigbo’s most revered sons. While some may argue that the culture of respect for elders is waning especially as a result of the swagger life style of nouveau rich Igbo men and women. particularly titled and elderly men to speak using proverbs. Amongst the Igbos are also to be observed strong bonds of kinship and brotherhood as evidenced in the maintenance of cultural groups. they do have a strong home coming mentality. okwuo ebe osi’ (a call to take one‟s wealth home for use in developmental projects). propagated by Ndigbo themselves that „Igbo enwe Eze’. the President – General of Enugwu-Ukwu Community Development Union (ECDU) is “a chance for our people to take stock. This also finds credence in the biblical quote that „b e i n g l a z y w i l l m a k e y o u p o o r . b u t h a r d work will make you rich‟. Hon. As Chinua Achebe writes in the novel Things Fall Apart. Dr. Eze eru ya’ (Give honour to the deserving and you shall also be honoured). town unions and community development associations (CDAs) in distant lands where Ndigbo reside.

Nwabueze‟s 1985 postulations still ring true as recent political developments in Nigeria suggest that Ndigbo may have finally lost out in the power equation in Nigeria. In his 1985 Ahiajoku lecture. September 1999) writes that “the Igbo. He argues further that “so intense indeed is the fear. can today expect to command nationwide acceptance as a leader in the government and politics of the country. their people decided to take their faith into their hands forming and funding many militant organisations which has finally gotten the world‟s attention. “as a people. In present-day Nigeria.may have unwittingly made Ndigbo objects of envy and fear by their Nigerian brothers. Ndigbo have always relied on self-help and self-enterprise in their business endeavours. Prof. Prof. The Igbo Entrepreneur in the political economy of Nigeria (African Study Monographs. Ben Nwabueze argues that Ndigbo must admit that. we excite fear. Ndigbo predominantly undertake their entrepreneurial activities outside of the Igbo states. Olanrewaju Akinpelu Olutayo in his paper. exploring new frontiers in trade and finance and the exchange of culture and ideas. The people of the Niger Delta have found sympathy amongst Nigerians and the international community due to the long years of neglect and environmental degradation they suffered at the hands of the Nigerian government and by oil companies operating in the region. It is thus only a people or group equipped and empowered with the necessary tools in the new knowledge economy that can take advantage of the new emerging opportunities. Perhaps to force the issue. no Igbo man can last as head of the federal government”. with the people of the Niger Delta region (South South) increasingly edging them out to become the 3rd most influential ethnic group in Nigeria to be reckoned with politically after the Hausas and Yorubas. His every action and utterance will be misunderstood and misrepresented. that is a terrible position for any of its groups to be in. Their case was also emboldened by the regrettable Ken Saro Wiwa murder. especially in the informal sector”. This perhaps may have been as a result of the victim mentality created by the losses they suffered during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Dike (1956: 28) adduces such diasporan business lifestyle to land hunger. are in the forefront of entrepreneurial activities. resentment and hatred in other Nigerians. Dike writes. which will be sooner than later. opportunities that were previously unimaginable have thus become available in both business and other aspects of human endeavours. Though we are now in 2011. until he is got rid of. to seek other avenues of livelihood outside the tribal boundaries. “(Igbo) pressing against limited land resources had. not even Zik. He will be hounded from pillar to post. the widely acknowledged father of Nigerian nationalism. It is therefore worth analysing further the competitiveness of Ndigbo’s prevalent business practices in an increasingly networked and globalised world. however good his credentials. when compared to the other major ethnic groups in Nigeria. of necessity. resentment and hatred of the Igbos in Nigeria that no Igbo man. In a multi-ethnic society such as Nigeria is. 20(3): 147-174. As the world gradually converges in cyberspace. Olanrewaju Akinpelu Olutayo also writes that “One major and unique trait of the Igbo entrepreneur is the 3 . There are improved possibilities for creating new partnerships.

any ideas of business collaboration are not entertained with the resultant consequence that the businesses as individual units rather than composite wholes are not sustainable over the long term. Others thrived in industry and real estate such as Chief John Anyaehie. My view is that day to day management does not necessarily have to reside in the hands of family members. and determination with which they carry on in spite of the bad experiences and losses during the Nigerian civil war from 1967 to 1970”. Chief D.O Nkwonta and Chief F.N Okoye. These matters should be settled in the wills of the founders and family patriarchs before they pass on to avoid long drawn litigations as we are currently experiencing in the cases of some prominent Igbo families. This ingroup survivalist thinking may have served Ndigbo right in post-civil war Nigeria when the exigencies of the time required that one only trusted people of his race. they could not salvage the businesses or even grow them further as are the cases with family owned businesses in America and in other parts of the world. the complete business unit is shared out amongst the children. It is my view that Ndigbo should learn their lessons from some of these experiences. The times are different now. it is important that such businesses look outside the family and hire professionals to run the business. irrespective of the fact that some. Chief Nnana Kalu.G. perseverance. and why despite the Ivy league MBA degrees their children possess. Nkwocha. Most Igbo owned businesses perpetually battle with succession planning. Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Chief Onwuka Kalu. In cases of sudden death.E Chikeluba and his partners at the GMO Group. The world over. Chief Ferdinand Anaghara. 4 .O. most of these worthy pioneering Igbo sons have all passed on. Chief Augustine Ilodibe was easily Nigeria‟s biggest transporter with his Ekene Dili Chukwu transport business. and with each side distrusting the other.courage. The post-war era witnessed many successes especially amongst Igbo business men who despite the trauma and losses still managed to build large enterprises relying on self-help. There were others that built large scale contracting and construction enterprises such as Chief R. Daimler Benz etc have since become publicly owned enterprises. the estates and business empires they left behind have also crumpled thus begging answers to the questions of what went wrong. Unfortunately. Sadly. called „sabos‟ (saboteurs) may have played into the hands of the enemy during the war for selfish reasons thereby contributing to the destruction of the Igbo race. Those that focused on commerce (import and export) thrived as well. such as Chief G. The Polygamous lifestyles lived by the patriarchs also compound the problem. the tendency is always for each surviving wife and her children to go after any part of the late patriarch‟s business they could access. This results in mismanagement and eventual demise of these businesses. many businesses which began as family businesses such as Ford. The practice is usually to transfer control to the eldest male child who may be the least competent. they bring in new ideas and capital thus enhancing further the chances of survival. When new shareholders and investors are allowed to come in. all from Enugwu-Ukwu. In the end. The other siblings are sometimes sidelined and they then move on to other things. If Igbo businesses are to survive in the long term.

and then a change in government policy comes and everyone is back to square one. Barth Nnaji.state transport businesses have since seen their investments depreciate in so short a time due to the adverse effects of wear and tear on the vehicular assets as a result of the poor conditions of Nigerian roads. such that they were adulated by a popular Highlife music singer who sang that „Ewe ruga Agulu. Awka people are known for blacksmithing. They have also not been helped by cheap imports from China and other countries. Ndigbo should also endeavour to learn to swim against the tide. Perhaps Ndigbo should pick cues from Prof. Bobo Obidigbo Nkwonta argues however that Ndigbo should backpedal from their business sojourning ways and think more of investing in their homelands. Scanning the environment will also help in pointing the way to global business trends and opportunities. especially looking at the abandoned property issue in Port Harcourt that occurred after the Nigeria/Biafra war”. a worthy Igbo son who has excelled in scholarship and innovation as against the traditional bricks and mortars business endeavours of Ndigbo.Some of these businesses have also been negatively affected by environmental factors. Nkwonta warns. Those that went into industrialisation have been affected by the power situation. This is because while our contemporaries are equipping themselves with knowledge to face the future. lack of raw materials. The businesses built on imports and exports have suffered at the hands of fluctuating exchange rates and unfavourable government policies. Igbo ebulu onu’ (Ndigbo will starve without Agulu people). “Experiences of the past should have taught us to think home. For instance those that launched inter . The rush to go to Idumota or Alaba market to begin apprenticeship or to get a shop without at least completing secondary education will come back to hunt Ndigbo.25) can be limiting and counterproductive. This approach or what Rohit Deshpande calls the provenance paradox in his Harvard Business Review essay (2010. Agulu people in Anambra state are known for bread making. Illiteracy may need to be tackled amongst today‟s Igbo entrepreneurs. the supply outstrips demand and the prices crash. import and export complexities and other government policies. It is common for certain Igbo communities to be renowned by particular trades and businesses. Abiriba people are known for importing Okirika (used clothes) while Nando people in Anambra state are known for retailing pharmaceutical drugs. by refusing to be guided by the herd mentality which sees Ndigbo competing against one another by engaging in similar and related businesses. the Igbo businessman today cannot be forgiven for failing to empower himself using education and other freely available information and knowledge on the internet. p. If the illiterate ones cannot do this. The information could also be shared through the channels of town unions etc. The lessons here for Ndigbo are for them to aim to diversify into other areas and not to build one-channel/one-income enterprises. his neighbours though without any knowledge and competence of candle importation then abandon whatever it was they were dealing in and now focus on candle importation. our folks are more interested in 5 . It is such that if for instance a neighbour imports candle and makes some money. Whereas the pioneering and successful businessmen of the past could be excused due to the state of education during their time. such information should be provided by the state governments and respective states‟ chambers of commerce. Suddenly everyone begins to import candles.

he takes care of his well being. power and gas sectors. this scheme has been subjected to various abuses by both the „oga‟ and „boyi‟. the apprentices are actually undergoing practical training and acquiring needed skills in customer service. healthcare over the period. furniture. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Owelle Onitsha). the concept of „Igba boyi‟ or trade apprenticeship should be fundamentally reviewed. information etc. oil. perhaps it may help to design some kind of enterprise curriculum for such schemes and for the apprentices to be formally enrolled in the books of relevant government agencies and institutions so that on completing their apprenticeship. Such arrangements should guarantee the „boyis‟ some form of education even while they are „serving their ogas‟. Ozumba Mbadiwe 6 . hair styling and so on. At the end of the agreed period.chasing peanuts at the markets. There may be a need to review the tenure as some have been known to last up to 10 years. We should begin to tap into the opportunities for SME funding and Industrial Training Fund (ITF) support which abound. accounting and finance. Some perpetuate quarrels with their „boyis‟ as they near their „freedom‟ by concocting stories of theft. the „oga‟ settles the „boyi‟ with an amount that will enable him to begin his own trade. The „boyi‟ on his part undertakes to serve his „oga‟ diligently. accommodation. Those with knowledge today will be the millionaires of the future. These kinds of support may include but not limited to access to business funding. This could also be reviewed to make the „ogas‟ receive some kind of support from the government for giving the opportunities to the „boyis‟. there are not usually written terms of engagement. I think of Rt. stock keeping and logistics etc. housing. This is because while their mates may be studying theoretical aspects of Business in the universities. some „boyis‟ are known to have stolen from their „ogas‟. Ndigbo must also seek collaborative partnerships from within and outside. However. K. On the part of the Nigerian government. Because this scheme is semi-formal relying on existing family ties and relationships. In this regard. We should re-direct our search for heroes and role models from both the living and dead. something that should actually be government‟s responsibility. (Hon) Chief Dr. In the context of today‟s world. Others receive practical training and gain much needed experience in trades such as plumbing. It is not surprising that only a few Igbos are major players in contemporary Nigerian business landscape especially in the lucrative telecommunications. there is therefore a strong argument for the formalisation of these types of apprenticeships to prevent abuse so that the relationships can add more value to the lives of both the „ogas‟ and the „boyis‟. business management. insubordination etc against them so that they won‟t settle the „boyi‟ as agreed. clothing. Each of the parties interprets the relationship as they deem right. The business mentor or „oga‟ undertakes the responsibility to teach the „boyi‟ the rudiments of the trade. Critically. they get some kind of credit hours or certification. Chief Dr. This ingenious scheme sees a young man being attached to a business mentor over a period of 4-6 years as may have been agreed by both families. As we seek knowledge. shown acts of disloyalty and even sometimes contributed to major financial setbacks for their „ogas‟. We should also begin to set up mentorship schemes from among our people. Some „ogas‟ have been known to abuse their „boyis‟ treating them like domestic slaves. On their parts. The „Kill We Nwachukwu‟ era where businesses go it alone is over.

) Akanu Ibiam (Ezeogo Uwana). Ben Nwabueze. Chief Dr. Dikedioramma Ndigbo). Nworah is the author of The Long Harmattan Season. 7 . Chief Dr. Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (Ikemba Nnewi. Chief (Dr. Dr Michael Iheonukara Okpara (“M.) Nwafor Orizu. Dr.(Agadagbachiriuzo Arondizuogu). Maazi Mbonu Ojike. I. Alvan Ikoku. Power”). Chief Ralph Uwazuruike. Chief Emeka Anyaoku and many others we can learn from. Sam Onunaka Mbakwe (Dee Sam). Dr. Eze (Dr. Alex Ifeanyichukwu Ekwueme (Ide Orumba).