By: Law Mefor
The Igbo term for apprenticeship is ‘Igba Boi.’ It involves learning a trade or craft under someone who is already well-established in the field and is now a master in his own right aka ‘Oga’ in local parlance. Though Igbo apprenticeship had been around for a while before the Biafra war, its significance resonated in addressing the Igbo people’s debilitating poverty resulting from the war.
The war brought hunger and sickness that ravaged the whole Igbo world, and those who had been prosperous before the war had all fallen into poverty. Men who survived had to start from scratch. The number of widows and orphans as well as stranded men was overwhelmingly so large. The much the Federal Government could offer was a paltry twenty pounds to a few who had proof of holding bank accounts before the war.
As a result, ‘Igba Boi’ rose to become a critical social intervention and soon evolved into an indigenous business start-up and incubation engine to be used by Ndigbo to address generational poverty transfer, spreading of wealth, and income redistribution. The system planted riches where they might not otherwise be easily possible. That is the key economic justification for its introduction.
‘Igba Boi’ has grown as a key indigenous business incubation tool that has drawn attention from around the world and has been examined by one or more universities, including Harvard Business School and Nnamdi Azikiwe University as well as the Anambra state government. It is the contribution of Ndigbo to the business world.
I had the honour of chairing the Inclusive Growth subcommittee of the Governor Chukwuma Soludo Transition Committee (TC). One of the issues the subcommittee teased out about how to create an inclusive Anambra under Soludo was ‘Igba Boi’. The Anambra Vision 2070 document and the governorship manifesto of Chukwwuma Soludo both made heavy mention of it and they were some of the subcommittee’s working documents.
The Inclusive Growth subcommittee learned that the practice was gradually dying due to the preference of business owners for sales girls over apprentices (‘Umu Boi’), as many Igbo youths lack the patience to go through the slow mill called apprenticeship, which takes five years or longer. Today, the majority of Igbo boys seek immediate and big money. We also found that even after patiently serving out, a sizable portion of the masters (‘Ndi Oga’) are unwilling to settle many of the apprentices who managed to go through the apprenticeship system. The boys would sometimes face accusations of one sort or another, and many are forced to leave empty-handed. This often happens more than halfway into the settlement date.
To deal with the trend, we then proposed that the Anambra State House of Assembly pass legislation to govern ‘Igba Boi’ and establish the obligations of parties. By making the engagement formally contractual, a breach on either side becomes actionable, and the Traders Associations, Town unions, Ndi Eze, and Anambra state government can then mediate and intervene, and enforce where necessary.
I remember what the TC chairman Dr. Oby Ezekwesili had to say about corruption and an overreliance on the government. The former federal minister of education had recommended the subcommittee should place more emphasis on inclusive growth strategies that would be self-sustaining, driven by the private sector, and involve only minimum government. She and the majority of development experts, including yours sincerely, believe that the government shouldn’t be involved in business since it has proved more of a disabler than an enabler in the country.
This raises the question of whether the ‘Igba Boi’ system, which originated as a private sector initiative developed a life of its own and gained prominence with time and practice, can be enforced through the use of law. The argument made by those who oppose systemic government control is that once you make the Igbo apprenticeship system formally enforceable you destroy its essence as a form of social capital.
Nonetheless, I firmly believe that ‘Igba Boi’ needs to be established somehow without hurting its essence. It won’t have an impact on it as a social capital as long as involvement is voluntary. It’s similar to putting certain safety nets in place for house helps and their masters. To maintain its viability and preservation, it must be urgently modernised. It is a reliable business startup engine that has produced big businesses owned by millionaires and billionaires. If nothing is done, it falls extinct in a decade or so and thus becomes a sad footnote in history.
Yes, one agrees that social capital is not explicitly enforced but is instead supported by informal activities and evolves. They become laws and rules when they are formalised. I think a compromise can be achieved between controlling the system as a formal social institution and leaving it as an informal social capital.
The benefits of properly regulating ‘Igba Boi’ will enable the enforcement of the social contract and guard against the exploitation of the apprentice in roles undertaken in exchange for some sort of deferred compensation. While learning the skill, the apprentices provide services that expand their master’s enterprises and they are therefore entitled to something worthwhile as a reward. Equally safeguarded from belligerent apprentices who would like to reap without sowing are the masters. The best course of action is to create a semi-formal social institution with little involvement from the government that is not more than oversight and counterpart funding.
I’m suggesting a type of counterpart fund where the government and the masters each contribute a portion of the startup cash. In this way, the government and the masters share the responsibility for placing a graduated apprentice.
The goal is for the two to work together to create a roadmap for an Igbo youth to become self-sufficient, not necessarily for the government to send a belligerent apprentice or his ‘Oga’ to jail for default. It is one methodical approach to empowering and inspiring the current and future generations to follow this respectable process to a meaningful life and a gloriously assured future.
Many believe that bringing government into it will spoil an effective system. But the Igbo Apprenticeship system (‘Igba Boi’) needs to be saved because it is already dying. Additionally, the government is already supporting youth-founded enterprises as a method of empowerment. Therefore, it is suggested that the government include ‘Igba Boi’ in its empowerment programmes.
To ensure that the institutionalisation of ‘Igba Boi’ does not go beyond providing regulations that will deal with the contractual obligations of all parties, it has to ensure that the mechanism for ensuring compliance is in place, avoid or reduce the usual contamination by government, provide part of the startup capital, and keep government involvement to a minimum.
‘Igba Boi’ has been diminished in the modern day, and the damage comes from both parties – the Oga and the Boi, and this has primarily caused its steady decline. The system first became most noticeable in Anambra state before spreading to Enugu and Ebonyi. Many may be unaware that the incredible wealth seen in the state of Anambra can be linked to the Igbo apprenticeship system. Most Igbo millionaires and billionaires of Anambra origin were once someone’s apprentice (‘Boi’). However, for the previously mentioned reason, young ones are no longer as drawn to it as they once were.
Along with raising the initial capital for the graduating apprentices, government counterpart funding will also act as an incentive for the Igbo youth who would have something to look forward to at graduation if they join the scheme. Like the scholarships provided by numerous state governments, which have helped to keep many students enrolled and stay in school.
Such creative ideas have to be deployed to save the lovely master wealth planter, ‘Igba Boi’ (Igbo apprenticeship) from dying altogether.
· Dr. Law Mefor, an Abuja-based forensic and social psychologist, is a fellow of The Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Drlawsonmefor.