Africa’s Entrepreneurs: The Igbos of Nigeria
The Igbos are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria and are celebrated for their successes in entrepreneurship and academia. The Igbos’ success extends outside the borders of Nigeria and cannot be considered a fluke. To account for their accomplishments, anthropologists have conducted several studies to ascertain the factors responsible for the outlier performance among the Igbos. Interestingly, cultural profiles often reveal the Igbos to be an achievement-oriented, individualistic, and adaptable group. Combined, these traits best explain the Igbos’ progress.
Profile 1: Achievement Orientation
The Igbos are community-oriented individuals with a passion for investing in social networks; however, they greatly value individual achievement and upward mobility. Achieving material prosperity is crucial to the Igbo community, so for many, becoming successful is about self-actualization and demonstrating commitment to community goals. In Igbo societies, community members motivate people to set aims and achieve them for the glory of the individual and his community. Excelling in life is a cultural value for the Igbos that can be likened to Brazil’s devotion to dominating football.
Describing their penchant for success, John Ugochukwu Opara writes: “Even though the Igbo as a people enjoy a communitarian spirit, yet a great premium is placed on individual achievements because the Igbo society is a success-oriented society, a society that appreciate both communal and individual achievements…. Ernest Ruch and K C Anyanwu observe that when a member of the family or a clan is honoured or is successful, the whole group rejoices and shares in the glory, not only psychology, as one would rejoice when one’s local team has won a match, but existentially since each member of the group is really part and parcel of one another.”
Also, unlike other ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbos give greater credence to self-made entrepreneurs than elites who inherited wealth. Membership in honor societies like the Ozo is based on merit and good character, rather than the status of one’s family. According to Simon Eboh, Igbos are unlikely to rely on family wealth and prefer to achieve through their own toil. In contrast to the Yorubas, the Igbos are less dependent on family wealth. Unlike some Hausas, Igbos are also unwilling to solicit traditional rulers for meals. Anthropologists also marvel at the fact that in Igbo society prestigious titles are nonhereditary, indicating the premium the Igbos bestow on individual merit.
Moreover, as an achievement-oriented group, Igbos invest seriously in the acquisition of human capital to boost their competitiveness and abate the effects of discrimination. Children are encouraged to be industrious so that in adulthood they will be equipped to seize opportunities. Additionally, it is the norm for parents to instruct their sons to migrate to more promising regions to unlock new opportunities and improve themselves. Usually, when they return home, village elders reward them with political posts and titles. Ambitious young men’s upward mobility is a common theme in Nollywood movies. And like most successful people, the young men featured in these movies are risk takers who venture into unknown terrain without the assistance of family and friends. Hence, we should not be surprised that the Igbos are the most mobile ethnic group in Nigeria.
In a study on Igbo entrepreneurship in Nigeria, P. Igwe nicely sums up the culture of achievement with a quote from a former politician: “The society recognizes individuals who are successful and wealthy. This drives entrepreneurship in Igbos more than other tribes do. If you go to the North, West, or South-South, Igbos have the highest business investment outside the indigenes of those regions. We not only know how to do business but also how to be successful.”
Profile 2: Individualism
Although some Igbo groups created kingships, on average the Igbos have built decentralized societies that do not require monarchs. The paucity of centralized institutions in Igbo territories has nurtured a culture emphasizing individualism, democratic politics, and independence, as Ikenna Ukpabi Unya explains: “The Igbo never evolved centralized … institutions, thus, every village in Igboland considered itself autonomous with great respect for the independence of other villages. This semi-autonomous outlook with less emphasis on kingship made the Igbo to be individualistic, competitive, and highly egalitarian, unlike their neighbours that were encumbered by traditional hierarchies.”
In researching the Igbos, anthropologists have discovered that in Igbo society, ordinary people think that they are just as valuable as kings. This has led to the famous saying that in Igbo society “every man is a king.” Because all men are as valuable as kings, people prize personal autonomy and self-expression and are hesitant to sacrifice happiness for the benefit of hierarchical institutions. Admittedly, Igbos respect the community, but they also possess an intrinsic desire to distinguish themselves from the community. Due to reverence for individual agency, Igbos view personal achievement as an expression of autonomy.
Reporting on Igbo individualism, P. Igwe quotes the powerful observation of a retired judge: “Igbos tend to live individually and hustle individually. Everyone wants to be great and powerful. No one wants to have a king, but everyone wants to be king. Our families provide the support to achieve this greatness. Everyone wants to be independent and wealthy. This is possible through finding business opportunities and exploiting them.”
Accordingly, the ethos of individualism propels entrepreneurship by motivating Igbos to chart their own course in the quest for self-actualization. Entrepreneurship provides an opportunity for individualistic Igbos to prove their self-worth by deviating from the norm and achieving the unthinkable. On the other hand, the Igbos’ physical environment is littered with environmental woes, making development difficult, so, as Damian Mbaegbu and Ehijiele Ekienabor submit, Igbos’ individualism is useful in an environment of hostility:
The culture of individualism among the Igbo is understandable. With a background of hard environment, the Igbo must secure him[self] first before becoming his brothers’ keeper. It is this culture of personal interest first that helps him nurture his business from a micro and humble beginning to a Small or Medium Enterprise (SME) and lastly to a large enterprise. Secondly, seeing that there may be no help coming from elsewhere the Igbo develops an internal locus of control that makes him daring and achievement oriented.
Profile 3: Adaptability
Adaptability could be the most fascinating trait of the Igbos. Classical and contemporary sources depict Igbo culture as flexible and amenable to changes. During the colonial era, Igbos embraced Western education at a pace that surprised many; they were even responsive to market institutions, which is unsurprising considering their culture of individualism and their achievement orientation. But the shocking part of this story is that the British struggled to subdue the Igbos even though they were quick to embrace elements of Western culture.
Understandably, one would think that it would be easier to subjugate the Igbos, since they were interested in Westernizing, but the Igbos’ inability to submit to Western authority should not surprise us at all. The Igbos were quick to appropriate Western ideas because they are an achievement-oriented people; hence, if adopting Western education enabled greater levels of material prosperity, then the Igbos would embrace Western learning. However, because Igbos are individualistic, acquiescing to foreign authorities would be a challenge for them.
In describing the Igbos’ tenacity, Elizabeth Isichei shows that the Igbos posed a vital threat to Britain’s colonial efforts:
No Nigerian people resisted colonialism more tenaciously than the Igbo. The great Emirates of the North, once conquered, supported the British, with the minor exception of the Satiru uprising. The conquest of Igboland took over twenty years of constant military action. What is unquestionable is that the Igbo resisted colonialism, not for months, but for decades, with courage and tenacity of purpose which were undeterred by disaster and by extraordinary inequality in arms and resources.
From the perspective of the Igbos, it’s indeed possible to learn from oppressors and resist their advances with venom. After all, an appetite for achievement can make people responsive to useful ideas even when such ideas are cultivated by enemies. Because of their adaptability to new environments, the Igbos have operated successful businesses in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The Igbos’ success demonstrates that despite obstacles, progress is possible when people set high standards, execute, and adapt to change. Groups targeted by class warriors in America will achieve more if they follow the Igbos’ path and ignore the politics of grievance.