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What Igbo Culture Teaches Us about Capitalism

Summary:
The Igbos are one of many ethnic groups within Africa. They consist of about 43 million people, 40 million of whom live within Nigeria.  They are widely successful in Nigeria and are considered by many to be the “Jews of West Africa,” partly because they tend to be more economically successful than their neighbors.  For example, according to some estimates, Igbo investments are a driving factor within Nigeria’s economy. By observing the culture of the Igbos, their phenomenal success in entrepreneurship appears unsurprising. The Igbos illuminate what economist Deirdre McCloskey refers to as “bourgeois dignity.” In Igbo culture, attaining wealth is perceived as a blessing to be cultivated and not an object of scorn. Unlike other cultures in Africa, the merchant occupies a sacred position

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The Igbos are one of many ethnic groups within Africa. They consist of about 43 million people, 40 million of whom live within Nigeria.  They are widely successful in Nigeria and are considered by many to be the “Jews of West Africa,” partly because they tend to be more economically successful than their neighbors.  For example, according to some estimates, Igbo investments are a driving factor within Nigeria’s economy. By observing the culture of the Igbos, their phenomenal success in entrepreneurship appears unsurprising. The Igbos illuminate what economist Deirdre McCloskey refers to as “bourgeois dignity.” In Igbo culture, attaining wealth is perceived as a blessing to be cultivated and not an object of scorn. Unlike other cultures in Africa, the merchant occupies a sacred position among the Igbos. Commerce is central to understanding the world view of Igbos.

In an article for the Journal of Philosophy, Culture, and Religion, Gregory Chinweuba and Everistus Ezeugwu submit that appreciation for commerce is embedded in the language of Igbos. They have a created an intriguing panoply of words to reflect their love for trade, such as imu ahia (learning a trade), oru (starting an enterprise), and igba oso ahia (indulging in trick of marketing of another’s good with his consent at a price that raises capital). Aside from valuing work, the last description reveals a sophisticated understanding of the middleman’s role in increasing capital. Scholars also contend that for the Igbo people entrepreneurship is understood as a quest for profit motivated by innovation, efficient utilization of assets, and acquisition of deliverables. The Igbos are not only entrepreneurial but quite Schumpeterian in outlook.

Like the Calvinists, who fashioned success as evidence of God’s favor, in traditional Igbo society financial success is inextricably linked to gaining favor from ancestral gods. According to Igbo philosophy, leading a worthwhile life should entail the accumulation of earthly riches. As such, no one who dies poor (i.e., enwe nta, enwe imo, the wretched poor) is entitled to a seat among the ancestors. One cannot divorce success from the identity of being Igbo. Therefore, to remind people of their purpose, children are often conferred with names predicting prosperity. Hence names like Ifeadigo (wealth is available), Ubaka (wealth is greater), and Ubanozie (wealth has taken its proper place) attest to the industry-oriented ethos of the Igbo.

Yet despite the passion for seeking wealth, Igbo culture is undergirded by ethical principles. Wealth obtained by fraudulent means is seen as unworthy of emulation by Igbos. Indeed, the Igbo proverb Aku luo uno okwuo ebe o si (when wealth gets home, it declares its source) illustrates the importance of ensuring that the community remains untainted by illegitimate sources of wealth. Similarly, the ethical world view of the Igbo people affirms acceptance of egalitarian individualism. Although the Igbos value community, there is a clear recognition in their tradition that strangers are not entitled to the fruits of others’ productive labor.

This arrangement can be described as the autonomous individualism of communal societies. Invariably, one is expected to invest in the well-being of his neighbor, but an obligation is imposed on beneficiaries to graduate from welfare by achieving individual goals. Notwithstanding their connection to the community, people are still seen as individuals with various desires and a capacity to succeed. To be a true citizen in Igbo society, one must exercise one’s duties by making society more productive. Without hard work, a man ceases to be Igbo. This is explained in a 2016 paper in the International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities Review by Oliver Onah, Hyginus Ezebuilo, and Theodora Ojiakor. The authors assert:

The traditional Igbo community had the pattern of an egalitarian society. This does not mean that there were no established ranks. There were ranks and positions or titles of honour. But everybody related freely with every other person without bureaucratic procedures. Every member of the community was accorded due respect and treated as a blood brother or sister. The implication is that the rights of each person were respected. Every individual also has responsibilities to the community. Positions or titles were mainly attained through hard work.

Moreover, because Igbo institutions were already compatible with the individualistic and achievement-oriented culture of capitalism, the emergence of market economies during the colonial and postcolonial eras gave Igbos an advantage over other ethnic groups like the Hausas and Yorubas, whose social structures privileged hereditary status at the expense of elevating individual ambition. Furthermore, like many entrepreneurial groups, the prosperity of the Igbo people can be explained by harsh environmental conditions. Stemming from the low availability of land resources, they were forced to specialize in professions outside of agriculture and would migrate to foreign lands, so their survival depended on being resourceful. Kenneth Dike writes in agreement:

Igbo pressing against limited land resources had, of necessity, to seek other avenues of livelihood outside the tribal boundaries. In the 19th century and earlier, the growth of a large non-agricultural population in areas where the land was too small or too poor to sustain the people gave rise to some measure of specialization among sections of the tribe: the Aros became the middlemen of the hinterland; the Ada and the Abam constituted the mercenaries; Awka men were the smiths and doctors, while Nkwerre people, in addition to their work in iron, played the role of professional spies and diplomatists. If we may judge from the 19th century records, in spite of this specialization over-population was the rule in all sections of the tribe.

Yet we cannot explore the success of Igbos without mentioning apprenticeship. For generations, the innovative training system known as the “Igba-Odibo” has equipped young men with the managerial expertise, business acumen, and social capital required to succeed in business. After serving his mentor for a period, usually seven years, the mentee is given the capital to launch his own business. This scheme has created several successful businessmen, including Innocent Chukwuma and Cosmas Maduka. For example, in a study of Igbo entrepreneurship, economists conclude that entrepreneurs who participate in the native apprenticeship program have higher rates of business survival, strong business growth rates, access to informal credit, greater customer acquisition and management skills.

The Igbo people of Nigeria can enrich our understanding of how certain cultural attributes can enhance economic growth and success in any setting, including outside European legal and cultural institutions.  

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The Mises Institute, founded in 1982, teaches the scholarship of Austrian economics, freedom, and peace. The liberal intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) guides us. Accordingly, we seek a profound and radical shift in the intellectual climate: away from statism and toward a private property order.

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