By Ochereome Nnanna
We knew the day would come. It would have happened this time last year when he was hit by a catatonic stroke. But, just like the great warrior that he was, he fought death for another year and bowed as all mortals eventually must.
When last I met him, it was at the Hotel Concorde, Owerri in November 2009. While humorously referring to his bout with ageing, the partially blind Ikemba Nnewi, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, told me in his suite: O na ekili m, mu na-ekili ya. “It is staring at me, and I am staring at it”. Ojukwu has finally blinked.
There is a reason for which God the Almighty sent every human being. If you are lucky you will discover yours and leave the world different than you met it. If not you will come and go and none will know. Ojukwu was lucky. He found his reason for being sent to Nigeria.
My interpretation of it? He was sent to expose the treachery of the British colonial masters which amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914, thus creating one of the most potentially beautiful and prosperous political entities that the modern world may yet see. Britain later decided to inject poison into the veins of this entity, making sure to punish those who were eager for them to grant Nigeria independence quickly and go home.
Born into the household of Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, one of the richest Nigerians of his time, Ojukwu was given the best education a multimillionaire’s favourite son could ever have. Egged on by destiny, he did not do many things his father wanted him to do. After bagging a Master’s Degree in Oxford, he wanted to serve the nation, so he went into the civil service briefly before enrolling in the Royal Nigerian Army. He was thus perched on the threshold of his historic duty post.
Throughout his eventful life, Ojukwu maintained he was a patriot and a nationalist even though he led a secessionist war against Nigeria and pitched his leadership activities in his native Igboland. Going by the positions and principles he stood for when the going got tough, his claim was justified.
He was not one of the plotters of the military coup that ushered the military into the political arena in January 1966. If anything, he commanded his unit to ensure the coup did not succeed in the Kano area, while in Lagos the General Officer Commanding, GOC, the Nigerian Army, Major General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, coordinated efforts to prevent the takeover of government by the Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu-led group of young military whippersnappers.
It was not until the assassination of the first military Head of State, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, by Northern officers that Ojukwu’s mission to Nigeria started showing.
In the brief moments when there was a vacuum following the death of Ironsi, Ojukwu, as a member of the Supreme Military Council, argued that the order of succession should be followed, whereby the next most senior officer should take over power. He took this stand irrespective of the fact that the next most senior officer after Ironsi was Brigadier B.A.O. Ogundipe, the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, a Yoruba.
However, in spite of the fact that Southern officers dominated the SMC (Lt Col Adekunle Fajuyi, Military Governor of the Western Region; Lt Col David Akopde Ejoor, Military Governor of Mid Western Region; Ogundipe; Commodore JEA Akinwale Wey, head of the Navy and Lt Col George Kurubo, head of the Air Force) as opposed to two from the North (Lt Col Yakubu Gowon, Chief of Staff, Army Headquarters and Lt Col Hassan Usman Katsina, Military Governor of the Northern Region), Ojukwu’s motion was not acted upon. Ogundipe himself played safe, because according to him, Northern officers who staged the counter-coup would not allow him to assume leadership. The North and their technical advisers, the British authorities, asked Gowon to take over and he did.
This incident was the beginning of the collapse of professionalism in the Army and the beginning of its ethnicisation. Ojukwu firmly continued to oppose this outrage and refused to recognise Gowon’s authority because Gowon was a junior officer to him and many in the SMC.
But as time went on, history’s revisionists started portraying Ojukwu’s stand as a personal grudge against Gowon. If Ojukwu’s principled stand was adhered to, it would have helped preserve the professional integrity of the Nigerian Army.
Ogundipe, as a third and neutral party outside the Igbo and Northern tango, could have conducted a brief transition to civil rule while the injustices committed in the wake of the two coups d’etat would be ameliorated in the spirit of national reconciliation.
But the then united North was allowed to force its way to power and started taking steps that diminished the Igbo stake in Nigeria and thus forced them to take up arms to defend themselves and seek a safe haven in a separate republic known as Biafra. The failure of Ogundipe to succeed Ironsi entrenched the Northernisation of the Nigerian Army and the perpetuation of the North as Nigeria’s political overlords in the place of the former British colonialists.
During the total of 27 years when the military dominated the political space of Nigeria the power struggle was no longer between North and South or North and East. It was now between North and North, particularly between the Muslim North and the rest of the North, with the latter (Gowon’s people) increasingly taking Ojukwu’s place as the “rebels” who plotted so many failed bloody coups against the Fulani establishment.
There was a total breakdown in discipline, as non-Muslim Northerners in the military as well as their Southern counterparts were often ridden rough-shod by less fancied junior, well-connected Northern Muslim officers. The height of it was in 1987 when General Sani Abacha was in power. Major Hamza Al Mustapha openly toyed with Yoruba generals such as Major General Abdulkarim Adisa, Major General Tajudeen Olanrewaju and the Chief of General Staff, Lt General Oladipo Diya when they were caught in coup plot against Abacha.
It was only after Olusegun Obasanjo took over in 1999 as elected president that he put a halt to this sectional madness by retiring 93 politically-exposed military officers. Thus resumed the process of re-professionalisation and re-nationalisation of the Nigerian Army. We will continue on Monday, God willing.