Why we rent houses in cities and build mansions in our villages –Igbo businessmen

’Nonye Ben-Nwankwo finds out why many Igbo choose to build mansions in their villages even when they don’t own houses in towns and cities where they fully reside

The one-storey building at Uga Village in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State belonging to Mr. Cosmas Obiukwu is a beauty to behold. The duplex has all known modern trappings of a building- fully equipped with gadgets like air conditioners, swimming pool, a big Lister generator and above all, a big wall marked off by an electric fence.

The building also has two security men, one who guards the house during the day and another who monitors movements around the compound at night.

Curiously, in spite of all these provisions, the building is virtually empty. There is no life in the compound as nobody stays in the building almost all-year round. The only time that there is sign of life in the premises is when the owner and members of his family visit home for one ceremony or another.

This is usually during festive periods like Christmas or Easter and even at that, Obiukwu and his family have never stayed more than a week on each visit.

In other words, in this massive structure, except for the intermittent whimpering of insects and animals as well as the whispering sounds from surrounding trees, there is no significant human activity in the compound in a greater part of the year.

Interestingly, Obiukwu, who owns this edifice, occupies just one-bedroom flat at his Surulere, Lagos residence. Besides his immediate family-his wife and three boys- he has other “big squatters,” whose Lagos residence offers a kind of refuge. In fact, one of the squatters, Obiukwu’s cousin, a banker in Lagos, also has an unoccupied five-bedroom apartment at his Awka, Anambra State hometown.

You would find them in virtually every village in Anambra State; imposing edifices with what could be considered stupefying perimeter fencing and costly gatehouses. These are homes or villas, as they are commonly referred to locally, of absentee owners, who though are indigenous to the villages, earn their living in far flung places like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and overseas.

For most of the year, the homes are locked, and in some cases, for many years as the owners hardly return to live in them. They are inhabited by security guards who act like dogs in a manger. In fact, some of the houses are completely uninhabited by human beings and are open only to reptiles and rodents.

From Nmiata Anam on the Northern bank of the Anambra River to Ogwuikpele on the southern fringes of Ogbaru along the River Niger, the well anointed homes are not difficult to locate. They indeed draw attention to themselves with their exotic looks and well-chosen locations.

You might get it wrong if you think that the home owners are well known political office holders and prominent businessmen. No! Majority of them are young enterprising businessmen toiling on the streets of Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, South Africa, Europe and other overseas countries to make ends meet.

There is a case of one young man, who lives in Abuja but built an expansive mansion in his village at Nibo in Awka South Local Government Area. He brought in a bishop from Abuja to dedicate the house way back in 2008. But till date he has never passed a night in that house, even though he has stocked it full with provisions for visitors.

Such similar stories and circumstances abound in the South-East. Cases and sights of large edifices lying fallow, as it were, are common in many parts and communities in the east, particularly in Anambra, Enugu, Imo and Abia states.

Again, such circumstances are not limited to Lagos, across the country- be it in Kaduna, Kano, Niger or Sokoto-many persons of Igbo extraction prefer to occupy small rented accommodation where they eke their living to building houses in the cities.

For an Enugu indigene, Mr. Eugene Ufele, who plies his business at the Trade Fair Centre, Lagos, the development is a reminder of the 1967-70 Civil War. According to the 48-year-old businessman, 43 years after the war, his family has yet to come to terms with the loss of their uncle’s property in Lagos and Port Harcourt.

Following the experience that befell his uncle, he added that no member of his family, at least for now, would think of building or owning a large property outside of their home state. Therefore, for the Ufeles, they are still “viewing” the Nigerian project with suspicion.

Ufele said he had no intention of building or even renting a ‘big’ house in Lagos.

“For what? Why would I even think of building a house in Lagos, a place that is not my village? I don’t mind that I am staying in a two bedroom apartment. I would rather use the money to build a mansion in my village than a kitchen line in Lagos or elsewhere,” Ufele said.

Ufele said he is not likely to forget what is happening in the North where many Igbo citizens had to return home ‘empty handed’ because of the crisis in the area.

“I am sure all of them built mansions in those places. Now that they have come home, did they carry the mansions on their heads? And now, these people don’t even have a ‘store’ in the village, yet they went all out to build ‘skyscrapers’ in another man’s home.”

Ufele said he believes in ‘one Nigeria’ but he cannot rule out the fact that ‘home is always the best.’

“I know I don’t live in the village but I know I will retire one day. I am not ready to spend the rest of my life in the city. Will I be sharing my father’s old house with him when I retire? It is ideal for any normal Igbo man to build a house in his village even before building in the city,” he said.

Some others who spoke to Saturday PUNCH, said the insults they received in 1966 when they returned home from the North and had no place to lay their heads forced them into taking such steps.

President of the Igbo Youth Movement, Rev. Elliot Ukoh, described the situation as not only a direct product of the pogrom of 1966, but also a hangover effect.

“It also shows a lack of faith in Nigeria, as every year they (the Igbo) are slaughtered in their hundreds,” said Ukoh.

He said, “So, at the back of their minds, they know that Nigeria will certainly implode and everybody will run back home. So, they need to have somewhere to run to.”

He also said, “Nobody is killed in Nigeria like the Igbo. A cartoon in Denmark resulted in the slaughter of over 300 Igbo in northern Nigeria.

“There are several issues that have led to the deaths of Ndigbo, which culminated in the need to return home. Was it the beauty pageant article on a national daily in 2002, or the announcement that the Independent National Electoral Commission had announced Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as having defeated Mohammadu Buhari in an election, among others?”

He added, “With all these, the Igbo long realised that it is a wiser decision to first build a house in the village, rather than build in another man’s land or waste the money renting big apartments in the cities.”

A trader at the Main Market, Enugu, Mr. Chimezie Okoli, said aside the experience of the 1966 pogrom, “There were several other issues that made Ndigbo realise the need to have a shelter at home first, before building on any other soil.”

He said, “Another major reason is to avoid misunderstandings with relatives when you have to put up with them, as the communal life of those days is fast becoming non-existent.

“Take the June 12, 1993 crisis as an example, when most Igbo had to return home. Yet most of them had to squat in homes of relatives and siblings, thereby often resulting to quarrels and misunderstandings.”

He said, “We also build mansions not because we are so rich, but because we must accommodate our parents and siblings who are not yet financially buoyant to build a house.

“For instance, as the first son of my family, I am currently building a house in my village in Ndiowu, Anambra State. I would have loved to build a small house, but I am building a duplex so that there would be enough rooms for virtually all my siblings, and one or two close relatives.”

Interestingly, some abroad-based Igbo think alongside Okoli.

Such people as Saturday Punch discovered, even live in squalors, asylums and shelters abroad but have mansions in their villages.

Mrs. Iruka Nodim, a nurse who lives in Maryland, USA, told Saturday Punch that she couldn’t think of getting a mortgage in the US but was better off building a seven-bedroom duplex in her home town in Orlu, Imo State.

“In the US, my accommodation is very small. There is no way I will suffer, make the money and spend it abroad. I know I don’t intend to live in the US all my life. You might see it as an ‘Igbotic’ mentality, but the truth is that I am a full blooded Igbo woman and that I live abroad will not make me change my roots.”

Mr. Anthony Okafor, a councillor at Anaocha Local Government Area of Anambra State, said he sees nothing wrong with anybody building a mansion in his village even when he is not inhabiting it. “The best thing should be in your village, including your house.

“In Igboland, there is an expression, Akul’uno. It is a title as well as a saying. It means wealth has to go home.

“Culturally, it is believed that the home in the village is the last place the man will be both in retirement and in death, so it is obligatory for him to build himself a house to his taste.”

He wondered why it should bother other people why a man should build a house he feels is befitting of him. “Are they complaining? It is wrong to say they don’t live there. If you are not there, you may invite your relations to ‘warm’ the house for you. He will go outside and one day come back home.”

Another indigene, Mr. Okechukwu Ogwu, said building a magnificent house in the village gives a man a sense of accomplishment. “Even if your father has a good house and you don’t have your own in the village, your age mates will taunt you. Where do you host your visitors during Christmas?” he asked.

Chief Alponsus Eze, an Onitsha-based businessman said where a man is buried is vital to him. “The man believes that ultimately, he will be buried there. If you build skyscraper in London and you don’t have a house in your village, Igbo people believe you don’t have a house,” he said.

But as Ukoh, Ufele, Nnodim and others hold this view, some others see the idea of building large houses in their villages from a different prism. In the thinking of Mr. Emeka Iwuagwu, there can be no faulting the proverb that east or west, home is the best. This, he said, explained why he first built a bungalow at his Mbaise, Imo State hometown. He said building first in his hometown had a socio-cultural implication. For instance, he notes that he stands in a better stead of being considered for marriage than one who claims that he has “unseen skyscrapers” overseas, just as it is a measure of success among one’s peers.

Mr. Vincent Madu, a civil servant, said it is expected of every Igbo on the attainment of manhood to have his own house. “But it is not mandatory that you must make it exotic. As you grow old, you discover that you do not really need the mansion, that you had wasted money building it when you could have built a smaller and more comfortable house,” he said.

Chief Rommey Ezeonwuka, proprietor of Rojenny Games Village, Oba, whose state-of-the-art residence is complete with a conference centre looked back at when he built the house in the 1970s and said he regretted it. “If it is now, I would not have built this house. I would have built a simpler house. I was just a young man then.”

However, Okechukwu Okwudili differs with the Iwuagwu and the Ufeles. Okwudili, who owns a three-storey building at Ikorodu, said he considers business interest first before embarking on any housing project.

He said, “I wonder the kind of arguments some people usually put up. If for example, I sited this building in my village, do you think that my children will ever recoup the money I put into it. It does not make any economic sense to build big houses in the village only for rats and other rodents to occupy them.”

Interestingly, Mrs. Oluchi Anyanwu, an architect, said that it is not always ideal to leave a house uninhabited for a long period.

“It is only when you live in a house that you would know if there is a leakage somewhere. The leaking roof would spoil the POP, the walls would become damp and before you know it, there would be foundation crack. Just like that, it would start looking like dilapidated structure. Some of these people have leather chairs in their homes. These chairs need airing. If you lock up your house for a long period of time, you come back and you would find that the chairs have peeled. Constant cleaning and dusting lengthens the life span of a building.

“Natural air that brings in life wouldn’t come into a house that is locked up. It would make the building to look dead. You wouldn’t even know how rodents get into the house. You would notice that any house that is locked up for a while has a kind of unpleasant smell,” Anyanwu said.

• Additional reports by Emmanuel Obe and Ozioma Ubabuko