Remembering Ojukwu, rebel and pacifist
By Emmanuel Obe
Those of us who grew up after The War had a picture of a scary and fearsome Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The image was not helped by the wild thick beards the Biafran General and Head of State wore and for which he was better known. In fact, anyone who wore similar beards was immediately nicknamed Ojukwu. One politician from my hometown, who we are burying later in the month was well known as Ojukwu, so also was one Igbo corps members at our NYSC camp in Abuja in 1990, who we nicknamed Ikemba because of his beards and outspokenness.
Maybe because Ojukwu lost the war, his image in the Nigerian media wasn’t quite pleasant. So, it looked like it was indiscipline to wear bushy beards like Ojukwu as much as it was villainous to be called a rebel. One of the war literature I feasted on while in elementary school was Peter Obe’s photo book on the war. A lot of the pictures of Biafran soldiers and Biafrans came in ugly defeatist images. I retain the image of the picture of an abandoned ragged boot on a lonely path that the photographer said was left behind by a fleeing rebel soldier.
Ojukwu however did little to cut out that fearsome image that scared kids and awed adults. When I got into secondary school in Port Harcourt, I learnt of a deity called Ojukwu Diobu. That was it. Ojukwu was indeed a deity. I was even surprised to meet a boy in school whose surname was Ojukwu. Wasn’t he afraid that he could be persecuted as a rebel? Then in 1982, Ojukwu returned to Nigeria after spending 12 years in exile and was wildly celebrated. I recall my father and his friends speaking excitedly about him and how he spoke the Queen’s English. They also regaled the fact that he read at Oxford University, which seemed to be the topmost university in the world.To the surprise of a lot of his admirers, Ojukwu opted to join politics and with the ruling party in Nigeria then, the National Party of Nigeria and not the Igbo-dominated Nigeria People’s Party led by Nnamdi Azikiwe. The declaration, which I watched live on TV took place in Aba in 1983 seemed like an anticlimax in the long running celebration of his return. Though his reason that he needed to get the Igbo to join the mainstream politics of Nigeria did not impress many of his enthusiastic supporters, his charm remained strong among them.That charm caught me when I read THE MAKING OF AN AFRICAN LEGEND: THE BIAFRA STORY, a book authored by Frederick Forsyth on the Biafra war. Frederick Forsyth, the Reuters correspondent that covered the war, apparently fell in love with Ojukwu as he played out his role as Biafra Head of State and could not hide it in the book. Frederick made me fall in love with Ojukwu and turned my scare of him into admiration.
After Ojukwu returned to Nigeria, Forsyth did EMEKA, a biography on him. I picked up a copy in Aba where I had gone to check my JAMB result at Ogbor Hill. Coming after I had read Martin Luther’s biography, the rebel in me was activated but put on the silent mode. Like Martin Luther, Ojukwu had revolted against his father and the establishment. Luther’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer, he turned them down and chose to be a priest. Ojukwu’s father wanted him to read law, he changed his admission and studied modern history instead.
Martin Luther went ahead to revolt against the all-powerful Catholic Church, an act that split the Church till date. Ojukwu on completion of his MA at Oxford, turned down an offer by his rich father to work in his firm and preferred to join the civil service. When he was transferred to Calabar fearing that he could be bewitched by Calabar women, his father objected and influenced the revocation of the transfer. Ojukwu got angry, resigned and headed straight to join the army. His father also stepped in there to stop him, insisting that if the army must take him, it shouldn’t be as a cadet but as a private. Ojukwu said so be it. He eventually rose to become a colonel in the Nigerian army and a general in the Biafran army and head of state. The story of Biafra secession and the war that followed is well known.It’s difficult to establish why the military government detained him in 1984, when he did not play a major part of the previous civilian administration. But he was eventually freed from Kirikiri Maximum Prison, where he spent time with other politicians like Sabo Barkin Zuwo, the popular and comical former govenor of Kano State.
If he had lost his mojo when he joined the unpopular NPN in 1983, Ojukwu regained his popularity when he staged a one-man protest against the Lagos State Government over the abandoned property of his father at 29, Queen’s Drive, Ikoyi. He sat out many days at the gate of the house during the protest that the media so well celebrated. He won in court and moved into the house. It was a case that settled the issues about abandoned properties in Lagos State. After he moved into the house, Ojukwu barred precocious journalists from visiting him at home and placed a ‘Beware of Snakes’ notice on the gate.I did not get to see Ojukwu until 1987 when he came in as a guest at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, UNILAG for the Second Okoye Memorial Lecture. His silence and mien spoke more eloquently than his speech. And he hardly spoke much. I got to speak with him on phone for the first time in 1999 when I was covering Onitsha for Punch newspapers. The experience was surreal. Rather than a harsh commanding tone at the other end, Ojukwu’s voice was caressing, kind and polite. “The reason why I would not talk with you now is because I am in the middle of a meeting,” the general softly told me. I thanked him respectfully and hung up feeling very excited that even though I could not have the interview, it was enough that I had had a one-on-one communication with my teenage hero. I eventually got to interview him in 2002 at his Isi-Uzo St. residence at Independence Layout, Enugu. This time, he had become more subdued with age and was bringing up a young family with his young wife, Bianca a former Nigerian beauty queen. His beards had also been tremendously trimmed and were not scaring anymore. He spoke lovingly of Bianca, who he said was not only a wife but a daughter to him.
Many of his admirers would have preferred the Ikemba stayed out of the murky waters of Nigerian politics. But I do not know why he persistently offered to play in there. Though he explained at the Aba declaration in 1983 that he wanted to bring the Igbo into the mainstream of Nigeria’s politics, not a few believed him. The feeling was that he wanted to show gratitude to the NPN government that pardoned and allowed him to return to Nigeria. Some others thought he wanted to hit at Nnamdi Azikiwe, the leader of the Igbo-dominated NPP, who abandoned the Biafra ship in 1969 and landed in Lagos.
Ojukwu played a diplomatic role in getting international recognition for the military government of Sani Abacha in 1994. He participated actively in the 1995 Constitutional Conference that created the processes that led to Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. He was a father figure to the delegates from the present Southeast region in that conference and physically secured the floor for former Vice-president Alex Ekwueme to move the motion that gave birth to the present six geopolitical structure of Nigeria today.
When new political parties were formed in 1998, Ojukwu was made the Chairman of the board of trustees of the All Peoples Party, one of the three parties that met the registration conditions. A split in the party a few years later kept him out of political activity until the All Progressives Grand Alliance was registered in 2002. The promoters of the party led by Chekwas Okorie handed over the party to him as its national leader. Ojukwu embraced APGA and allowed the party to use his name as a brand to mobilise for membership.
Ojukwu stood behind Peter Obi to secure the candidacy of the party in the 2003 governorship election in Anambra State despite being a late joiner. Obi rode on Ojukwu’s back to win the election. When the protracted fight over the leadership of APGA between Okorie and Victor Umeh became intractable, it was Ojukwu that stepped in and got INEC to recognise the Victor Umeh-led leadership shortly before the 2010 governorship election in Anambra State.
In 2003, when the agitation for Igbo President of Nigeria reached a crescendo, Ojukwu offered himself. I watched him as he sat alone in the corridors of the 7 Park Avenue secretariat of Ohaneze Ndigbo in Enugu while elders and statesmen of Igbo nation tried to agree on a consensus Igbo candidate. They failed to agree. But Ojukwu went ahead to contest on the platform of APGA. He came third behind President Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP and General Muhammadu of the ANPP.
Ojukwu might have led the secession of 1967 and stood out as the icon of subsequent struggles against primordial dominations, but he had always been a more pan-Nigerian than many other Nigerian leaders. As brigade commander in Kano, he stood his ground against the 1966 coup and held out till the coup failed. He took into the military barracks for protection prominent Kano leaders including the Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, who remained one of his closest friends for life.
He often made it clear that the war was unnecessary and that the East had no choice but to secede when the Nigerian government failed to guarantee the safety of Easterners in other parts of the country. His active participation in the national politics of Nigeria was a clear indication of his belief in a united Nigeria but had insisted that his position on a united Nigeria would not have deterred him from going to war if the same conditions that precipitated the 1967 secession presented again.
The Nigerian government reciprocated his patriotic zeal by according him a state burial in March, 2012. His casket was draped in national colours and his remains were carried by Nigerian military officers at Abuja, Enugu and Nnewi where his relics were lain in-state. This probably explains why Goodluck Jonathan, who was Nigeria’s President at the time became popular among Ojukwu’s native Igbo and his supporters.
Being a trained historian, people expected him to have penned down his own version of the events and stories that dictated Nigeria’s worst political and humanitarian crises. That fact was not lost on him as he stated in the only book he wrote, ‘Because I am Involved.’ He promised to write the book. But he never did. That denied the world the opportunity to hear from the one that was at the heart of Biafra.
Ojukwu was indeed a rare Nigerian elite. Despite his pedigree, he led a modest life after public service. His father was on record as the richest Nigerian of his time. Ojukwu was the governor of the former Eastern Nigeria and later Head of State but he did not live in opulence except during his student days at Oxford. He lived in his father’s compounds in Nnewi and Lagos and resided in a rented apartment in Enugu until a few years to his passing when he moved into his own house, Cassabianca in Enugu.
Yesterday, November 4th was his 88th posthumous birthday. Tomorrow is the governorship election in Anambra State, where he held so much influence. But not much was celebrated about him as politicians and non-state actors are outwitting themselves over the polling that was gripped by terror and bloodletting in the days leading to it. When he was around, just a word from him would have calmed the situation. In December 2009, Ojukwu told the people of Anambra State that he had one last wish; for them to reelect Mr. Peter Obi as the governor of the state. The voters obliged him and Obi was reelected. Two of the frontline candidates in tomorrow’s election, Chukwuma Soludo and Andy Uba contested in that election.
The Igbo are not noted for their kingships, being republican traditionally. But in Ojukwu, they saw a king who would not covet their inheritance. So they named him Eze-Igbo Gburugburu, that is, the Global King of the Igbo.
Emmanuel Obe, an Eleme, Rivers State-based journalist, can be reached at email@example.com