Igba Boyi: A Panacea for Mentorship Growth and Development in the Legal Profession
A Text of Keynote Lecture by Dr. Sam Amadi, Director Abuja School of Social and Political Thought to the 2023 Endowment Launch of the Otu Oka-Iwu (Igbo Lawyers Association) Abuja on Thursday, September 14, 2023 at the NBA Auditorium, Abuja
First, let me express my delight and gratitude to the leadership of the Out Oka-Iwu Abuja for the honor of being asked to make this presentation at such an important and high-profile event. I am delighted as a lawyer who is also igbo to share my thoughts about ‘Igba Boyi’, an important aspect of our social capital that has received significant international acclaim, even from such reputable places like the Harvard University. It is reported that the concept has made an entry into the reputable Harvard Business Review on a discussion about enterprise and entrepreneurship. We should all be justly proud that an idea which our father conceived and practiced has become something to be emulated for business success across the world. This should not be only a matter of delightful reminiscences. It should also be a matter for deeper analysis as we seek to capture lost glory as a people and surpass the greatness of yesteryears.
We live in changing times. We live in a world much different from the one our forebears lived. But some things remain the same. There is wealth. There is poverty. There is wisdom. There is foolishness. There are destructive norms and conventions. And there are constructive ones. These things rarely change because they relate to what Plato called ‘the essence’ and not ‘the accidents’ of existence. Our parents dealt with a changing world with the changeless necessity of solving problems by thinking out ideas and implementing them in a way that can overcome the challenges they faced. Problems change their character. In the same vein, we also change the solution. It may be a radical change. It could be an adaptation of an existing solution. The key point is an awareness of the changing nature of the world we live in and a commitment to apply intelligence to deal with it.
We should start this discussion from the premise that our forebears must have thought about how to survive and flourish in a difficult world of scarcity and limitation when they conceived ‘Igba Boyi’. I do not know the origin of the idea of ‘Igba Boyi’. It may be as old as Igbo people, as part of their system of wealt creation through knowledge production and transfer. One thing is clear, after the civil war, when Igbos became poor and dispossessed, Igba Boyi was one of the instruments they used to create wealth by producing and diffusing knowledge. To me, the pursuit of the creation of wealth through enhancement of human capabilities is the most noble objective of social cooperation in a society. We must continuously invest time and resources in creating better ideas to solve the problems arising from scarcity and incommensurability in society.
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In this discussion, I will explain what the concept of ‘Igba Boyi’ means, how it helped in wealth creation in the past, what we can learn from this solution, and how feasible we can apply these lessons to the current practice of the law profession. I will reflect on where we are today in the law profession, and offer my insights on what we can do to make things better.
The Concept of ‘Igba Boyi” in Igbo Sociology:
‘Igba Boyi’ has many phrases and words that resemble it. Such phrases as ‘Imu Olu’, ‘Imu Ahia’, and ‘Igba Odibo’ are closely related to it. First, let us start with the etymological meaning of the phrase. ‘Igba’ would simply means ‘to play’. ‘Boyi’ will be a corruption of the eord ‘boy’. This will suggest that the origin of the phrase itself, maybe not the concept as such, dates to colonial period when the practice of being a ‘boy’ to another in terms of houseboys who served colonial officials became rampant. This is merely a conjecture. But one that has some persuasive force. And, I must add, has some scholarly support.
What is the difference between ‘Igba Boyi’ and these other related phrases? Let me start by quoting the views of Iwara. Amechi and Netshandama thus:
“This approach is known as Igba-boi. It is important to differentiate this framework from other Igbo schemes such as Imu-ahia (to learn a trade) or Imu-oru (to learn a craft), which are also common within the Igbo communities. However, unlike Igba-boi where mentees arrange a contract to have a complete training circle for free, imu-oru or imu-ahia is not done for free. In this, apprentice is expected to pay a ransom to their master to acquire skills. The contract is for a short period, often two years or less unlike the former which takes more years. This is significantly different from Igba-boi, which often lasts for many years. The term ‘Igba-boi’ in this context does not literarily mean “to serve another” in the literal sense of the word, whereby the only purpose is total servitude to the master. The Igbo Igba-boi model is a process whereby someone is being trained in the act of entrepreneurship (Agozino & Anyanike, 2007). Here, the family gives out their children to learn skills and startup their enterprises, having identified their talents.” (see Igba-Boi Apprenticeship Approach: arsenal behind growing success of Igbo entrepreneurship in Nigeria Igba-boiarticle.pdf)
This passage provides clarity about the difference between Igba Boyi and such other related concepts. Igba Boyi is not slavery. It is not just mentoring. And it is not just learning a trade (Imu Aka-Oru). Igba Boyi brings together several of these elements into one unique socio-cultural phenomenon. At the heart of Igba Boyi is a contractual relationship between one family and another to engage in knowledge and wealth transfer. The two key words are knowledge and wealth. The scheme is deeply rooted in Igbo Metaphysics and anthropology. It is part of how the Igbos see the world. First, Igbos believe that wealth has to be created. ‘Ikpata Ego’ disapproves the notion of sudden wealth. You do not just become wealthy by a sudden twist in fate or by the happenstance of luck. Yes, Igbos believe in destiny and the role of luck and unknowable divinity. But ultimately, they believe it is actually what you make of these uncertainties and divine unknowns that determines your fate in the world. Hence, they say ‘Onye kwe chi ya ekwe’. So, it is all about what we do. We are the architect of wealth and poverty.
For the Igbos, wealth comes from production. At the heart of production is knowledge- ideas and meta-ideas. It might be said that long before the second-generation economic growth theories on endogenous factor of growth by Nobel Economist, Paul Romer, the Igbos had cracked the code of economic growth. Economic growth comes from the explosion of knowledge, especially technological knowledge. Wealth-generating production requires great skills and techniques. It requires practical knowledge. There are two types of knowledge- general and specialized knowledge. You cannot create wealth in a sustained manner if you do not generate these two types of wealth. You need general knowledge about the universe, about the moral landscape of human life, about the natural laws that sustain harmonious social existence. But you also need specialized knowledge about how to bring down rain and stop it from falling when you do not need it, about how to reset bones, about how to make medicines from herbs and how to make people buy what you produce. This sort of knowledge is hidden and needs to be carefully extracted. They could make the difference between poverty and prosperity.
The poverty and wealth of a nation may depend largely on how it treats knowledge, what incentives it provides for continuous production of better and better ideas, and how it ensures that such ideas are utilized. The igbo society has prospered in all seasons because of the high premium it has placed on knowledge production and its utilization. In his book celebrating what he calls ‘The Jewish Phenomenon’, Steven Silbiger argues that “the real wealth is portable, it is knowledge.” In his view, the greatness of the Jewish people is tied to their love of education. “The Jewish secret is how they have come to fully embrace the idea of good education and execute it. As just one example, after World War 11 Jewish veterans took advantage of the GI Bill’s educational benefits at a rate twice that of the general population.” (Steven Silbiger, The Jewish Phenomenon: 7 Keys to the Enduring Wealth of a People (2009)). Igbos claims some kind of cultural and historical affinities with Jews. No matter how absurd this may sound to some people, at least we can point to some similar worldviews for Igbos who claim to be Jews of Africa.
So, the first important point about the ‘Igba Boyi’ scheme is that it is a knowledge production and transfer system. By it, the neophyte is yoked to a master who transfers the special technique for enterprise to him. Do not forget that it is usually boys who are involved in ‘Igba Boyi’. Another important point to emphasize is that the essence of acquiring knowledge is to produce something, namely wealth, to be wealthy. This is important to unlock the value of the whole scheme. Imagine if igbo society had accepted that wealth is reserved for the few bluebloods or for those destined for it. Imagine if there is a stigma to being rich as we have in some ancient cultures. How then would anyone engage in Igba Boyi? So, the heart of Igba Boyi is the democracy of wealth creation. Everyone can be wealthy; everyone should be wealthy. This democratic spirit is the foundation of the scheme. To understand it better let us do a thought experiment. Mazi Uka has made it big in Onitsha as a rich trader. He comes home for the Christmas celebration. Everyone in the village honors him for his accomplishment. There is great admiration for him. Maxi Ude and his wife has two grown-up boys. Mazi Ude is not rich even as he works hard to provide barely enough for his household. In the night after the big party by Mazi Uka for his kinsmen, Maxi Ude confers with his wife on what they should do with Uchenna, the younger grown-up who looks smarter than his brother. They want him to be as rich as Maxi Uka. So, they decide to meet Mazi Uka to take Uchenna as his boy, live with him, and teach how to be as successful as himself. That is the origin of Igba Boyi. It originates in admiration of wealth and a belief that there is a process and a technology for wealth creation. It is a social mimetic, a positive one that enables multiplication of wealth.
Now, this is the point. Societies that will be economically successful must accept the morality of wealth and the necessity of wealth creation. This is how Deng Xiaoping reset China. After the end of Mao Zedong’s (alias Chairman Mao) disastrous Cultural Revolution and the terror of the reign of the Gang of Four. He started with an ideological shift by emphasizing the value of making money. He captured it in a memorable phrase “Wealth is Good”. He replaced the bad ideological mindset with a pragmatic mindset by emphasizing that ‘it does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mouse”. He believed that the path to escaping poverty will be through a scientific mind that focuses on material reality. He counseled Chinese to ‘seek truth through facts”. All these constitute what he summed up as ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
This simple shift in moral valuation unleashed entrepreneurial energy that gave China outstanding average growth rate of more than 6% for more than three decades from 1978-2000. The first black (and perhaps the only) Nobel winner in economics, Arthur W. Lewis, who is reputed as the father of development economics, made this point clear in his classic text on development economics when he argued that when people place an intrinsic value on being rich, they are more likely to experience sustained economic growth. He makes the important point that ‘economizing’, which is the behavior of trying to produce more with less, occurs when people actually desire to be rich. If people do not accept that wealth is good, and good for them, they may not make the extra effort to create wealth.
Now, we know that it takes a special cultural soil to think out the innovative scheme of ‘Igba Boyi’. The Igbo who sends his son to serve a wealthy entrepreneur in a such system of reciprocity and the entrepreneur who accepts to lead a new lad towards the secrets of wealth creation both inhabit a socio-cultural system that has its fundamental values. We often talk of the individualism and egalitarianism of igbo society that make it always ahead in material advancement. The typical igbo is an individual who believes that he or she is the equal of any other person. ‘Igbo eweghi eze’ is a popular political war-cry. Yes, in Igbo society, everyone is king. Everyone can make it. But Igbos are also communitarians. They believe that the essence and the source of their personhood is the community. ‘Onye aghala nwa nne ya’ is not just a rhetoric. It is deeply rooted in an ontology and a metaphysics that construct personhood as an important element in an integrated whole. The radical liberalism that defines a person in extreme singularity is strange to Igbos. We are a person. But each of us is also a person. We achieve our personhood collectively. But each of us must also fight to be a successful part of the whole. The best illustration of the Igbo worldview is a concentric circle. Each circle is in another circle, encircled by another circle ad infinitum. I exist as a whole inside another whole- the Umunna, which is in another whole- the kindred etc.
This is the second point. Wealth creation is not a solitary, individualistic pursuit. Wealth creation is communal. The reason the Oga accepts the apprentice is because he wants to spread the knowledge of wealth creation to the community. There is no hoarding of knowledge. There is just good husbandry for the common good. Now, you do not need to have a community of saints to have such social altruism. All you need is a worldview, a comprehensive moral doctrine that informs social practices, what you may call ‘Omenala’: the people’s way of life. The Oga has been socialized to believe he has a responsibility to assist the deserving in the community to find the path to wealth. The poor parent of the deserving student wants their ward to be rich. They enlist him in the school of entrepreneurship to learn the secrets of wealth.
What is evident from the above is that it is insufficient to describe Igbo as individualistic and republican. They are also communitarian and solidarist. As Ndidi Nnoli Edozien argues “The Igbo attitude to the ownership and management of wealth and property exposes a deeply spiritual, yet secular understanding of the interconnectedness of the ‘universal destination of the created good’. The traditional igbo interplay of the secular and the sacred ensured that ethical considerations were an intrinsic part of the economic life for the Igbo” (see Ndidi Nnoli Edozien, Ownership and Management Structures in the Economy: African Traditional Values Applied to Modern issues of Sustainability and the Corporate Governance Function (CIDJAP, 2007). One of those ethical considerations is that “an individual exists in a community and being its member, is indissolubly linked to the destiny of the community and society (public interest)”. This is the concept of solidarity which finds expression in our slogan, “Onye aghala nwa nee ya’ or the Swahili word, ‘Ubuntu’, or as expressed in motto of the United States ‘e pluribus unum’, out of many one.
The anchor of ‘Igba Boyi’ is a shared understanding in the pursuit of wealth. It is the cultural commitment to the pursuit of the common good which passes through individual commitment to hard work, integrity, compassion, intelligence, and wisdom. The Igbo speak of ‘ako na uche’, which translates to ‘knowledge and wisdom’, as the most important resource a person must have. It is ‘onye- ako na uche’ who would accept to serve another for a fairly long period in order to discover the secret of wealth creation. The ethical considerations of wealth creation immanent in the ‘Igba Boyi scheme include the humility to endure and suffer several indignities for the later pleasure of escaping ‘ogbenye’- poverty. It is said in the classic novel by Chinua Achbe, Things Fall Apart, that Okonkwo, the son of a poor lazy man, Unoko, was obsessed by the urge to escape poverty that he became a tragic hero. It is common amongst Igbos for one to work hard to escape the poverty trap by sojourning with a wealthy entrepreneur, even to the point of near servitude.
What is the Igbo business worldview that created and sustained Igba Boyi? This is what Prof Aluko said about it: “The Igbo culture is receptive to change and is achievement-oriented. The work those idealizes egalitarian, individualistic and anarchic pursuits with respect to age and tradition. The struggle for survival is characterized by fierce individualistic struggles and ruthless determination to succeed. A certain boisterous aggressiveness is expected at work. The energetic and industrious person who achieves greatness and fame in his choice of vocation is admired” (M.A.O Aluko, Impact of Culture on Organizational Performance on Selected Tertile Firms in Nigeria). This is largely true except that it omits the cooperative, solidaristic nature of Igbo entrepreneurship.
Let us reiterate the nature of ‘Igba Boyi’ as an entrepreneurial scheme and its core function in Igbo business culture. Igba Boyi is a process of multiplying wealth through knowledge transfer. The heart of it is the willingness of the igbo youth to travel the path of hard work, patience, and resilience in search of community transforming wealth, coupled with the social altruism of the successful Igbo entrepreneur to spread the secret of wealth creation. The journey begins with the recognition that wealth is created through enterprise; and enterprise is built through specialized skills that can be transferred through apprenticeship. The apprentice lives with the master so he can observe at close quarters some of the unspeakable moments of genius in how the master handles complexities and chaos, two elements of the world of business. The period of apprenticeship is not just a time to learn hard skills. It is also a time to learn soft skills which are the bedrock of enterprise. The apprentice faces severe difficulties and temptations in the house of his master, just like Joseph, in order to test his patience and wisdom in making sacrifice and placing value on the long term rather than the short term. This sort of knowledge, which the Yale Anthropologist, James Scot, called ‘Metis’ are not readily mass produced. They are retailed through a sort of ‘master-apprentice relationship’.
Now that we understand the nature and virtues of ‘Igba Boyi’, what are its social functions in the business environment? The most important social function of Igba Boyi is that it helps to create new wealth. but in doing so, it helps to overcome some critical constraints to business development and economic growth. Across the world there have been many unsuccessful efforts to grow the economy by enhancing the success of small and business enterprises. This has resulted in many capacity-building trainings for individuals who want to start new businesses. In times of severe economic crisis when there is massive job loss in the formal sectors, governments usually resort to retraining persons who have lost their job to be employed in the booming industry. If the banking sector fails and a new sector emerges, we usually feel the need to retrain dislocated workers to learn new skills to fit into the booming sector. These programs fail largely because they are not attuned to the true need of industry. Experts advise that the best way to implement capacity building programs for entrepreneurship is to annex them to industry. Allow the industries to train because they understand the need of industry. By asking the man in the business arena to train the young aspirant to entrepreneurship, Igba Boyil ensures that the knowledge being transferred is relevant and effective in creating and sustaining wealth.
Another problem of start-ups is getting the finance to start. Without access to capital through angel investors or hedge fund or public funding mechanisms, the smart entrepreneur may be hindered. It is not enough to be smart and determined. You must have access to a start-up fund to create wealth. Igba Boyi solves the problem of lack of funding through the generous provisions of the master. Igba Boyi is anchored on the expectation that the obligation of the master is to transfer knowledge and capital to the apprentice. As the apprentice learns the secret of business success, he is also accumulating start-up capital that will enable him to execute what he has learnt from the master. Allied to this is that by his service to the master he acquires access to important networks for supply of goods, credit, and customers to his business. This is one of the most important benefits of the scheme. It enables the intending entrepreneur to inherit important networks from his master.
There is yet another important social function of Igba Boyi to business and entrepreneurship. It is an incubator of business ethics, of virtue. The apprentice does not just learn trade secrets, he also learns virtue. That is why he lives with the master, to be monitored and disciplined to be virtuous. It was Aristotle who first gave us the concept of virtuous life as the excellence that is human flourishing. The good life is the virtuous life. Virtue is not just beautiful. It is effective. It leads to business success. The trustworthy entrepreneur is the one that will retain the trust of clients. What the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet teaches is what the Igbos long recognized and incorporated in Igba Boyi scheme. Without virtue you will not succeed in creating wealth in a sustainable way.
Application of the Virtues of Igba Boyi to the Legal Profession:
How do we apply the concept of Igba Boyi to the legal profession. First, we note that the legal profession is a knowledge-based profession. Lawyers are knowledge workers. Lawyering is a craft. A craft is based on specialized skills and techniques that are not readily open to outsiders. Generally, crafts are like esoteric societies, societies for those initiated through acquisition of special knowledge. Lawyers are supposed to be skilled. The process of acquiring such skills and techniques requires something close to Igba Boyi. In the past, before legal education became formalized, lawyers were educated through a form of apprenticeship called ‘pupillage’ in the Inns of court.
Today, Nigerian lawyers first attain general knowledge in universities and proceed to the Nigerian Law School for what looks like special (technical) training. By definition, it is at the Law School that Nigerian lawyers are trained to become professional lawyers. This will suggest that the sort of practical legal training that is assorted with Metis and prudence is attained at the Nigerian Law School. But this is a plain fallacy. Nothing in the curriculum of the Nigerian Law School and its management looks anywhere close to what you get in the Igba Boyi scheme. In the Igba Boyi scheme, the novice lives with the master, serves the master, and has practical exposure to the business of the master. That proximity creates an opportunity for close monitoring and effective coaching. Effective coaching requires what Phil Rosenzweig calls ‘deliberate practice’. In his book, Left Brain Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decision, he argues that mastery requires deliberate practice which creates a process to identity shortcomings and overcome them through continuous and focussed training. Such training cannot take place in conventional law schools. it can only happen in a form of pupilage in a law firm or corporate offices or such other places of real work.
The point is that the proper setting for the kind of technical mastery expected in the legal profession cannot come from the law school. It can only come in the form of Igba Boyi where the new entrant into the legal profession gets an opportunity to serve the master who undertakes to guide him through the labyrinth of practical knowledge. This is the reason it is often said that law is practiced in the chambers. The law chamber is the foundry of the great lawyer. But to create the ideal setting for the transfer of useful skills and techniques for legal practice the setting has to resemble the elements of Igba Boyi to achieve the kind of result Igba Boyi achieves for entrepreneurship in Igbo land.
The first condition for a successful transfer of knowledge is a commitment to pursue knowledge. This is based on an understanding of the importance of knowledge in becoming a successful lawyer. The family of the novice approaches the accomplished business leader in the community for an opportunity for their son to commence the journey of Igba Boyi because it acknowledges that the only path to wealth and success is through acquiring practical knowledge. If they do not believe in the knowledge economy, they would not subject their ward to such sacrifice and service to the master. Another condition for the Igba Boyi scheme is the generosity of the master entrepreneur. If the master does not believe in shared prosperity and does not feel a responsibility to support knowledge transfer through structured learning, there will be no opportunity to replicate the success of the Igba Boyi scheme in the legal practice.
There are obvious challenges to the Igba Boyi scheme that needs to be addressed in any effort to transplant it to legal practice. First, because it is embedded in Omenala, it is supported by a network of norms and relationships which is difficult to recreate in legal practice. Igba Boyi applies within the network of Umunna, which means it is nourished by trust founded on consanguinity. We don’t have that in the legal profession. Even with consanguinity we have seen instances of breach of trust where the malevolent master refuses to settle the young apprentice after the end of his learning. This destroys a cardinal value of Igba Boyi, which is that it provides easy access to start-up capital. This sort of breach has led to call for institutionalization of the scheme in such a way that government can police the boundaries of the agreement. But such institutionalization risks destroying the scheme since it is a social capital that thrives on voluntariness and self-enforcement through norms. The times have changed. The bonds that hold the communities together have been weakened by secularization and urbanization. So, Igba Boyi has come under inclement social weather.
There is a need to adapt to change. We do not have the same world where Igba Boyi thrived. But its elements can be incorporated into the management of legal practice. That is the essence of the program by the Otu Oka-Iwu Abuja in launching an endowment for training of young lawyers. It borrows from the ideas and practices of Igba Boyi but adapts it to suit the different contexts of law practice in Nigeria. But in spite of many differences between Igbo entrepreneurship and Nigerian legal practice, the fundamentals remain the same. We cannot have a sustained knowledge production and transfer when people do not believe in knowledge production as the gateway to wealth. Today, law practice has lost its nobility and dignity. Many lawyers are now very rich for very corrupt and oftentimes criminal actions on behalf of clients, oftentimes persons in political positions. Many Nigerians believe that senior lawyers are mostly responsible for the high criminality and corruption in the Nigerian society. Lawyers with little or no pedigree of excellence and hard work are becoming super rich because of association with criminals and corrupt leaders in Nigeria. In this circumstance, there is little incentive for the young lawyer to seek that kind of rigorous and long internship under a seasoned and respected senior lawyer. Young lawyers have lost the idealism of the law. All they see is the brutal reality of crony capitalism that thrives on audacious hustle, not on practical knowledge and prudence.
This is not restricted to Nigeria. The globalized new capitalism of financialization and financial engineering has created a bubble economy that has encouraged the death of professionalism as virtuousness. The former Dean of Yale Law School, Anthony Kronman made a similar point in his book, The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession. He lamented the fact that the American legal profession has abandoned the ideal of lawyer-statesman founded on a set of values that prides good judgment over technical competence and focused on the common good instead of personal material wellbeing. This can be said about Nigeria. Lawyering is now conceived mostly as deployment of technical skills ungrounded in any social commitment. This is contradictory to the ideals of the legal profession enunciated by Nigeria’s first lawyer, Sapara William, wo argued that the lawyer lives for the good of his society.
We must admit that the socioeconomic factors are harsh today. Without good financial support it will be difficult for young people to undergo pupilage for a long period of time. We have to financially support them to mitigate the financial crisis of contemporary Nigerian society if we really expect commitment to legal education post-university. Seniors have to be as generous and committed to community good like the famed Igbo entrepreneurs to help their apprentice with finances and networks. The level of greed and parsimoniousness of Nigerian senior lawyers in recompensing young lawyers does not encourage long pupilage. This is detrimental to the quest for excellence in legal education.
Rescuing Nigeria’s legal profession from its fallen state will require in the minimum revitalization of pupilage system in something resembling Igba Boyi. We cannot transplant Igba Boyi from its native soil of Igbo business culture to the legal profession without first taking cognizance of the different sociocultural contexts and the changing value landscape of Nigerian society and its practice of law. Selfishness, corruption, and rush for easy money are the characteristics of today’s Nigeria. Fraud and criminality have received the highest approval even by the leadership of the legal profession. It is doubtful if there is any appetite for pursuit of knowledge as a pathway to wealth creation that is at the heart of Igba Boyi.
Nevertheless, I will recommend that Nigerian leaders, that is those who still care about the future of Nigeria, should engraft elements of Igba Boyi into a revived and revitalized pupilage system. They should make professional ethics and prudence the heart of new legal education which purpose would be to produce more of the lawyer-stateman than the lawyer-technician. This may suggest an end to the concept of the Nigerian Law School because it produces neither enough general education nor enough special education.