- Prof. Kenneth Amaeshi
Although the Nigerian civil war ended with no victor and no vanquished, it left many people and families, in the then Biafra, in deep distress and penury. With the inhuman devaluation of the Biafran currency and with little to fall back on, there was no cause for joy. Sadness and gloom covered the land.
Nonetheless, “man must wack; man must survive”.
Arguably, it is this survival instinct that has continued to propel the average Igbo person, especially in a country where he rightly or wrongly feels marginalised. The survivalist finds a natural home in the market of goods and services – an arena for private entrepreneurship – outside the seemingly lucrative space of the public sector. Some Igbos really work hard to re-establish themselves through genuine entrepreneurship.
However, this survival instinct also pushes a few over the cliff of morality and reasonableness. For this few, the quest for survival gradually transforms to wanton quest for materialism and all it brings. Success is subsequently redefined as the amount of money one has access to and control of. Eventually, this financial success through entrepreneurship inadvertently starts to question and challenge the need for schooling and the legitimacy of formal education amongst the Igbos. As such, formal education is not only subtly undermined, but also ridiculed in some quarters.
Given the vicious absence of the government in most of the towns and cities in Igboland, many of them resort to self-help to provide local infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, pipe borne water and other social amenities. This self-help is often through voluntary donations and communal levies. Obviously, the money bags are usually the highest donors.
Overtime, money gains legitimacy and appears to be the sole signifier of social status and achievement. It attracts worshippers. Everyone now wants to be rich at all cost – even at the expense of good education. As such, the quest for money eventually takes a questionable turn.
The Eze-ego (the king of money or money king) now trumps the teacher – a person who impacts knowledge. In community gatherings, the Eze-egos are hailed and celebrated. Musicians, who also do not want to be left out of this milieu of questionable largesse, convert to praise-singers. It is not difficult to see how the money bags are now the role models for many.
The societal tolerance of this triumph of questionable money over education is the beginning of the dismantling of good values in Igboland. People have stopped asking questions about people’s sources of wealth. They have set aside an ancient tradition of societal scrutiny and accountability. Anything now goes as far as it makes money.
It is exactly this drop in value that opened the floodgate to what is generically and metaphorically described here as the yahoo boys business. These are simply fraudsters who dupe people (their mugus) while promising them bogus business opportunities – e.g. the phantom oil wells and other dodgy transactions. They mainly target the rich western world, but the locals are occasionally not spared of their vicious reach. The gullible ones in the global West are easy preys. Their gullibility outsmarts them and they fall on their own sword, so to speak. There are also some innocent victims of these callous yahoo boys.
A good number of the yahoo boys start in Lagos, which has good telecommunications, an international airport, and a seaport – things you can only dream of in the South East. Lagos also offers a much better business-like environment and a convenient background to defraud the targets of the yahoo boys. It was then a fax, as much as it is now a fast, business.
The yahoo boys really make money. The time investment is much shorter than going through the odd 16 years of the 6-3-3-4 system of education (assuming the 4 years of university education does not become 8 years due to incessant university lecturers’ strikes). In less than a year, one can hit it big. Millions of American dollars. A lot to spend on flashy cars, choice properties, and women – the envy of any young man.
They have money and life in abundance. The culture of “spraying money” at ceremonies, or at the least provocation to display stupendous wealth, trails this living large syndrome.
It is important to note that the yahoo boys are not only Igbos. They are not only from the South East. They cut across all ethnic groups and regions in Nigeria. Nonetheless, the prominence, prevalence, and pervasiveness of this group is very significant in some parts of the South East of Nigeria.
With the acquisition of money also comes the temptation to control power. This is exactly what has happened in the politics and governance of some States in the South East. Allegedly, the yahoo boys have hijacked both the formal and informal political apparatus. This is not too difficult to apprehend in an era of money-bag and stomach infrastructure politics. In some States in the South East, the political machinery of the formal and traditional governance is proudly and boldly controlled by the Lagos boys. It is all an open secret.
The sad reality is that the people mostly affected by the incursion and onslaught of the yahoo boys syndrome have collectively lost the moral courage to question people and their ill-gotten wealth. The yahoo boys have found a more legitimate source of looting the common treasury through political offices. It is now easier to perfect and legitimise the thuggery and thieving behaviours of the yahoo boys. The electorates and citizens have, in turn and inadvertently, become their new mugus.
This account of social and political change in Igboland is one way to understand the cultural transformation of some South Eastern States in the last 50 years. This has been the scourge of the Igbos – a self-inflicted wound by a people who in the true quest for survival set aside the values that held them together as a good society over the years. The collective muteness and the blatant acceptance of the yahoo boys politics and culture in some South Eastern States will continue to haunt the Igbos.
Societies are often destroyed when the quest for survival becomes a quest for excessive materialism. The Igboland, with its fair share of extremely bad governance and politicians, remains a quintessential example of this. Until the Igbos are prepared to collectively challenge this ugly culture, they will continue to bear the gross burden of its consequences.
As ridiculed as education has been, it still remains a true source of enlightenment and societal emancipation. Knowledge is power, as they say, and true knowledge liberates the soul from the inglorious shackles of excessive quest for materialism.
The Igbos should go back to their roots, rediscover their values, and embrace true education (not just certificates). Only that truth can set them free!
Amaeshi is a policy analyst and professor at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. He tweets @kenamaeshi