There was a time when every man was a farmer, yes agriculture has been with man all through his different stages of civilization. Because from the basic survival instinct man has to look for food in order not to die of hunger. In fact history teaches us that among the earliest means of commercial exchange were farm produce through the means of trade by barter.
Not until men began to advance in industry, education, vocations/skills did we begin to witness diversions from farming. We cannot overlook the fact that agriculture will continue to stay with us as much as we stay with ourselves.
So also it was for precolonial Nigeria, everyone was into farming in one way or the other. At the coming of the white man with his trade, education, religion and politics, it became logical that just like the industrial revolution had changed mans subsistence living to an extent, the white mans influence and process will also change the colony’s way of life, maybe slowly but surely.
Informal history teaches that by the process of colonialism the Northern colony went the way of politics while the Southern part went the way of education. To be clear, going the way of politics or education does not mean that it was the only thing done in these separate regions, but that it was a major aspect of their lives. With politics the North still had its farming, trade and education/career, likewise the South. It could also be said that these traits were in the colony even before the advent of colonialism.
Continuing from our focus on the Igbo apprenticeship system, how did it come to take the form it took over time? What happened is that after independence in 1960, the country continued as normal until the civil war came 7 years after and lasted for 3 years.
The major part of the war, if not all, was fought in the south eastern region of Nigeria, and so it experienced more change than other regions after the war. Part of the change was that a lot of surviving people has lost their means of livelihood and the decision of the federal government to give each easterner a meager 20 pounds irrespective of what they owned before the war didn’t help matters.
During this period, there were still some Igbo men in trade who still had quite a means of livelihood even if not very rich. So the Igbos reasoned among themselves that those who were in this category could take and train their boys and young men even if not related by family ties in anyway. This line of thought came to be known as a culture thing codified as “Onye agha na nwanne ya” which when translated means that none should leave his brother behind in life’s journey.
It is very likely that at the onset the Igbos did not envisage the apprenticeship system to turn out the way it has today, maybe it was more of a short term plan for survival while they thought out ways to recover well from the ruins of the civil war.
Today in global business and entrepreneurship circles we talk about disruption in industries, market and the likes, we talk about how disruption is what can put a start-up company for example on the world stage profitably. The apprentice system can also be likened to a disruption though it was unintended as such and slow in eveolving into what it has become.
The apprenticeship system cannot in all honesty be said to be perfect, but it has caused more good than harm to a ratio of 90/10 percent, both to those who engage in it and to the Nigerian system in general.
Apprentice between the Igbos, Yorubas and the Hausas
It should be noted that the Igba Boi as a means of mere trading is not so special as we have seen from the preceding lines that every section of the country known as Nigeria also engages in trade, let’s not forget the groundnut pyramids of Kano or the international trade of cocoa controlled by the Southwestern region. What happened could be described as each region discovering its special skill in the process of time.
Another differentiating factor is the aspect of the apprentice living with the master like an adopted son and the settlement format. For example, the Yorubas also have a form of apprentice system where a master teaches a novice, but in this case the apprentice does not live with the master and actually pays his master for being taught by him. Unlike in the Igbo system where the master gives the apprentice start-up capital after completing his service time, in the Yoruba system the apprentice pays for his freedom and most times celebrates it with a (freedom) party.
We find another difference here, though not so obvious. In the Igbo system, it is expected (at least in theory) that the apprentice does not have a means of income while serving his master and so must be supported at the end of his service. But in the Yoruba system, in the process of serving his master, the apprentice has means of making his own money without conflict of interest with his master, which is why he can pay for his ‘freedom’ and even host a party.
The Hausa system also has its similarities and uniqueness. Here it is more of a communal style. In this style, a senior relative or even a random person has one or more apprentice working under him, they continue together not knowing how long it will be, terms of parting and they don’t have to live together as we see in the Igbo system.
The apprentice in the Hausa system can get married while still with his master; his wife and children along with him could also live with the master for a long time even unto old age. The children will either grow to join the business or find their own means through education, politics or whatever means.
So we see, the civil war brought untold burden on the Igbos, but in searching for a way out of the encroaching hardship he experienced a slow eureka moment through the apprentice system. One may then ask, could he have become the master salesman he is today without the civil war or was the trait in him already but was only refined and sped up by the aftermath of the civil war