Imu-Ahia: The apprenticeship system building wealth in Eastern Nigeria

Jun 11, 2018|Oluwatosin Adeshokan

It’s a Monday evening in Oke-aro, a small town just North-West of Lagos. John Onyebuchi, an electronics salesman, alternates between Igbo and Yoruba as he haggles with a couple over the price of a generator.

Besides a generator, the customers also want to purchase a washing machine. But Onyebuchi doesn’t have that in stock. He complains that it’s too expensive and the demand for it in the Oke-aro, Agbado region is low, so he doesn’t bother with it, but for the right amount, he’ll have it in his shop by the morning. 

Onyebuchi, 28, opened up his shop on Oke-aro road five years ago. Before that, he was in Ikotun with a man he addressed as nwanne nna, Uncle, for eight years.

During that time, nwanne nna served as his "master", and he learned business under him. Nwanne nna dealt in clothes and cloth materials, and for a short while, manufactured clothes. Onyebuchi was introduced by an extended family member.

Before their introduction, they had never met and hailed from two different villages in Anambra state. Then 15 years old, Onyebuchi’s only goal was to get a good Oga, move to Lagos, learn a trade and start his own business. 


Imu Ahia, the Igbo Apprentice 

In Eastern Nigeria, young men like Onyebuchi are called Imu-Ahia, referring to an Igbo apprenticeship system which gained prominence in the Eastern region after the Civil War of 1967.  

By the end of the War in 1970, the region was so devastated that money and human capital were scarce. Thousands of people were unable to return to homes they previously owned in other parts of Nigeria. Not only was the hope of Biafra lost, but livelihoods were also halted. Petty trade became one of the few ways money could be made.

As terrible as the situation was, it was perhaps the infamous £20 policy, which further stifled the war-ravaged East that accelerated the need for an economic culture like Imu-Ahia. The policy, proposed by Obafemi Awolowo, ensured that Biafrans were not allowed access to their pre-war savings and were given a mere £20 each to survive on. 

Today, Imu Ahia has grown to become a cultural heirloom in the Eastern region of Nigeria.

“Imu-Ahia started because Igbo people needed to take back their futures – futures that were already truncated by the war,” Jim Nwankebie, a retired civil servant, tells Stears Business. “When the war ended, people couldn’t go back to school or their homes outside Biafra. Petty trade was the only way to build back destroyed communities. Farming was another alternative, but it required time that was not readily available. In the absence of money in the Eastern region, that was the only way money could flow.”

The premise for Imu-Ahia was simple – business owners would take in younger boys, house them and have them work as apprentices in business while learning the ropes. After the allotted time for the training was reached, 5-8 years, a little graduation ceremony would be held for the Imu-Ahia’s. They would be paid a lump sum for their services over the years, and this money went to starting a business for the Imu-Ahia’s. 


Remembering Home 

However, a message that has been lost over time is lekọta nwanne gị nwoke  translated to “take care of your brother”. Nwankebie affirms that beyond being a business mentorship, Imu-Ahia existed to build Igbo wealth.

This sense of camaraderie is seen in Nnewi, an Anambra town built on trade. A Forbes Africa report showed that Nnewi has more naira billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. The success of Nnewi has seen the development of many more “Igbo trade” hubs in Nigeria. In Lagos, the Idumota market is home to Igbo traders with their Imu-Ahia’s

The repatriation system was built and still runs partly on Igbo fear. “If war breaks out today, I will not go back to my village and live in a hut. Igbo people probably own a lot of houses in Lagos, but first, there must be a house back at home in the East. I built my first house in 1994 in Orumba, Anambra state and I own two houses in Lagos,” Chief Richard Ezike, a spare parts dealer in the Oke-aro area, asserted. 

There is almost always talk of secession from the East especially through the radio station, Radio Biafra. Added to that, the Nigerian economy is still at a low. “But there are bigger problems now. The economy is terrible, so a lot of people can’t afford to take in new boys.” he finished.


Trade First, School Second  

“Imu-Ahia is important because, before the war, many parents believed in school, but even the school is not working out for anybody. We are taught to trade, to look for quality, we operate cooperative societies here in Idumota, and we are reminded to send money back home to have our house in the East,” Festus Nworah, an electronics salesman in Idumota, explains.  

Even as Imu-Ahia grows and is now getting adopted by other tribes in Nigeria, there have been calls for Imu-Ahia to be a route to university credit. This is a sentiment shared by Stears Business journalist Aisha Salaudeen. “There might be arguments that these people have made lives for themselves without the need for University, but as the world changes, so do the dreams of people. An academic program will provide a young Igbo boy that has completed Imu-Ahia choices – the ability to go to the university or a polytechnic while crossing entrance hurdles will provide better quality and well-rounded people.” 

For people like Onyebuchi, formal education will always be secondary to Imu Ahia. “This is what I feed myself with, and it’s from here I send money back home. When I start my family, my children will do Imu Ahia. If they want to go to school after, they are free,” Onyebuchi concludes. 


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