Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu in Conversation with Professor Nnaemeka Ikpeze and Nduka Otiono
By the 1950s, the legendary Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu had established himself as arguably West Africa’s pre-eminent businessman. Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu owned a successful transportation company and served severally on the boards of diverse corporations such as UAC (West Africa), the Nigerian Stock Exchange, and Shell-BP. He also had extensive investments in real estate, the agricultural and banking sectors, and played a sentinel role in the development of Nigeria’s pre-independence economy.
Into this upper crust environment, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was born, on November 4, 1933, in Zungeru, in northern Nigeria. Educated at Kings College Lagos, Epsom College, England, and the University of Oxford, Ojukwu returned to Nigeria to serve in government, but after two years, joined the army, and was rapidly promoted thereafter.
“Following the Nigerian census crisis of 1963-64, the Federal election crisis of 1964 and the Western Nigeria election crisis of 1965, factors widely believed to have precipitated the military coup of January 15, 1966, led by Kaduna Nzeogwu, a young Igbo military officer,’ Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu was appointed military governor of the Eastern region, under the new military government.”
The coup was initially met with excitement and jubilation for its “anti-corruption resolve.” That perception, recast and disseminated rapidly, many believe, by a segment of disgruntled former colonialists, as an “Igbo coup,” quickly changed the political dynamics amongst the Hausa-Fulani ruling classes and would trigger a series of events that would alter Nigeria’s future forever.
“On May 29, 1966, an outright pogrom was unleashed on unsuspecting Igbo business men, students and families in northern Nigeria, following the coup, in ‘retaliation’ for the deaths of the Sarduana of Sokoto, seen as the spiritual leader of the Muslim North and Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first republic prime minister, both of whom were killed in the January, 1966 coup. This purge that would result in the murder of between 10,000 to 30,000 Igbos and the mass migration of about one million more from all parts of the country back to Eastern Nigeria; would serve as a major catalyst for the establishment of the breakaway state of Biafra.”
“In July 1966, a countercoup in which Colonel Yakubu Gowon became the new head of state, retained Ojukwu as the military commander of the Eastern Region.
The Eastern Region felt increasingly isolated and alienated from the federal military government. Ojukwu’s main proposal to end the interethnic strife was the creation in Nigeria of a weak federation-type government, which would permit the Igbo and the other principal ethnic groups substantial political autonomy. The federal government tentatively agreed to this solution at a conference in January 1967, but then rejected it soon afterward. Ojukwu responded in March-April 1967, by separating the Eastern regional government’s administration and revenues from those of federal government.”
“Mounting secessionist pressures from his fellow Igbo finally compelled Ojukwu on May 30, 1967, to declare the Eastern region an independent state under the name of the Republic of Biafra. Federal troops soon afterward invaded Biafra, and civil war broke out in July 1967.The resulting Nigerian Civil war that raged between secessionist Biafra and Nigeria from July1967 to January 1970, resulted in 100,000 military casualties, and between 2 and 3 million Biafran civilian deaths from starvation and disease.”
“Ojukwu led Biafra’s unsuccessful struggle to survive as an independent nation throughout the civil war (1967-70), and on the eve of Biafra’s surrender, emigrated to Côte d’Ivoire, where he was granted asylum.”
“Ojukwu remained in Côte d’Ivoire until 1982, when he returned to Nigeria. He joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in January, 1983, and subsequently attempted to re-enter politics by standing as an NPN candidate for the Senate in Onitsha, but he was unsuccessful. Today, Ojukwu continues to play a prominent role in Nigeria’s political life and as a critic and commentator on public policies.”
THE AFRICAN CONUNDRUM
As an historian, do you subscribe to the view that sustainable progress in Africa is impossible without accounting for the repressive aspects of its history: the slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonialism and racism?
You cannot know where you are going or coming from, if you’ve no sense of history…no sense of direction. I find the peculiarity of our experience very accidental, indeed. We are not backward because of whom we are; the tendency, I believe, is to subscribe to that view. I shall give you an instance. If one allows that we can only be the product of our history then we shall continue to dwell on as well as in that history. Once people have reasoned beyond their histories, no matter how unfortunate… What I think we should be trying to do, at this point, is leave behind the confinement of slavery, repression of any kind; live beyond it, as we indeed have! All the terms — colonialism, imperialism; all these are vicissitudes of life. But really, we should always attempt to surmount those could-be obstacles.
Now, we know that slavery ended some 200 years ago. Are we maintaining that we are permanently crippled by slavery, unable to accomplish anything, because of an event that occurred in our past? There is no justification; you can show why you are late in arriving, not why you are not on the job!!!
THE TROUBLE WITH NIGERIA
Which of these factors, in your view, constitutes the greatest danger surrounding Nigerian politics? A defective government structure, a muddled inseparable constitution, or a corrupt, visionless leadership?
You could just simplify the question. Once you’ve factored corruption into the equation, you have your culprit! How does one describe it? Corruption is visionless, the very worst thing. We must be determined to uproot it. I say this, because, sadly, I have to accept that I haven’t seen an incorruptible polity anywhere in the world; so it’s a question of reduction. Corruption eats into everything, destroys everything. It destroys vision, hope, and preserves nothing.
THE ANAMBRA CRISIS
If corruption destroys everything then what about godfatherism…especially in your own home state, Anambra?
Well, you cannot sidestep the fact that godfatherism is corruption. I don’t see any difference. Get me a dictionary of political thought and behind that word is corruption.
What are your feelings about the recent events in Anambra State?
You are persistent, aren’t you? (LAUGHTER)
We will not be forgiven if we do not ask such a crucial question!
Well…there is no real problem in Anambra. The problem I find in it — that I tell fellow Nigerians — is that for some unknown reasons, non-indigenous leaders and rulers have found it necessary to vest political authority on certain indigenes of Anambra State lacking political address (LAUGHTER). People who have no experience, an incredible lack of knowledge; people whose most recent address was in prison or some such place; and, of all places, Anambra – a state teeming with intellectuals!
And then, unforgivably, the intellectuals are subordinated to these people without address. That is simply a case of government going to the dogs. What you see in Anambra State is a reflection of what people with vested interest produce: chaos – that’s what they have done. The situation in Anambra raises the issue of political will.
LEADERSHIP, CORRUPTION AND THE NIGERIAN ELITE
In a sense, this is analogous to the larger situation in the country where you have individuals who, on their own, exhibit excellence; tragically, however, Nigerians collectively seem unable to accomplish much that is of great merit…
The problem with Nigeria is one of ethnicity. Somehow, if we can solve that problem… if the various ethnic groups are made comfortable in Nigeria, there will be less tension. And it seems to me that this is the reason why no graduate has ever led Nigeria. Clearly, whoever leads the country becomes the apex of whatever ethnic group, interest, he represents.
This is the only way, then, that these leaders may excel in a country where a great many are graduates of often great intelligence. This is their only chance to subordinate; this matters a great deal to such leaders.
Is this not partly the result of the failure of the elite to which you belong? We imagine the elite as a constituency – perhaps, in the same way we may view the military and other groups?
No, no, no; but let us talk about the so-called elite. You cannot have a class of elites at the national level when there is no nation to speak of; that’s the genesis of our problem. What we actually have is a show of elitism; pseudo-elites, pseudo-intellectuals, pseudo- this and that…to a great extent. Once we, indeed, build a nation, there will be proper national elite, and they will come into their role, which is leadership.
Your political tenets in the book, Because I am Involved, include statements like: “Sovereignty and power belong to the people (p.53)” and “Leadership is the true vocation of elitism (p.146).” Some might see this as evocative of incongruence in your vision of functional politics; would you please explain to us this structural and ideological paradigm?
I would like an example of the conflict you refer to; I, actually, don’t see that there is one.
Well, we refer to your addressing the question of the elite and the sovereignty of the people…you have tried to explain that ethnic tensions have largely made it difficult to have a broad elite, a national elite structure in Nigeria. But when one talks about sovereignty and power, and, on the other hand, the true vocation of elitism, there seems to be conflict between the people and a privileged class?
No; it’s a necessary part of the people.
Even in terms of the interests each group represent?
The interests that the elite serve is that of leadership and guidance; that is its vocation in the national structure, and there is no organization, ethnic group that does not develop an elite class for that purpose. One of the things that became very apparent in communism is that, in every state, the party created a political class of elites… And it could not escape doing so, because, actually, the market cannot lead a nation. Power belongs to the people, but to be able to use that power properly, an elite group evolves that devotes its time to helping out, leading, and creating a vision…
In other words, elitism is not a dirty word per se?
No, certainly not. It is, in fact, one of the most envied positions in every organisation in society.
We have been talking about the burden of corruption, and as Prof Ikpeze had indicated earlier, this project is aimed at articulating a problem solving dialogue. On the issue of corruption, Transparency International has rated Nigeria very poorly, what in your opinion do you believe should be done to arrest this blight on the nation?
I really do not think we are serious about arresting the scourge of corruption.
In spite of the exploits of EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and ICPC (Independent Corrupt Practices Commission)?
Corruption continues to stare us in the face, and we turn away from it; yet you mention EFCC…or what?!
But let us not forget the case of Tafa Balogun, the Inspector-General of Police…
Is he the only corrupt policeman in the nation?
And Dariye, the governor of Plateau State?
Is he the only politician ever to be accused of corruption?
There are some other recent examples like Prof. Osuji and Chief Wabara; but we see where you are going with this…So what systemic approach do you suggest?
We must, as a people, learn to ask questions and in the process end up with the right questions. Someone is accused of being corrupt; yet we permit him absolute freedom to benefit from the proceeds of corruption?
That means there’s no deterrence?
Of course, not!!! Listen; my attitude is this — basically, many Nigerians are corrupt in their search for luxury and for privilege…yet when I observe someone building a mansion of marble, his or her lavish lifestyle, and I do not readily see any reasonable sources of income; should not the first thing to come to my mind, be the question: How did you make, how are you making your money?
“Oga…how come, now?”
You can then say to me: “Foolish man, haven’t you heard about that tree in my garden?”
“Ah, that special tree, that juju tree. All the leaves are N500 notes.” (LAUGHTER)
But, we never ask that. We must all understand that asking that question is no accusation. Asking such a question is purely seeking enlightenment.
Your reply should not be to then accuse him of being corrupt; what you do first is say to him:
“Ahh…come show me the tree.” When you get there, if indeed you see the tree, and the leaves are all N500 notes, you can then make sure that nobody is listening before begging him: “Please give me a seed, now…”
There is nothing wrong in that; you have done nothing wrong. But if you get to his house, and there is no such tree, you should be strong enough to accuse him, publicly, of a corrupt means of livelihood. Because obviously, there is some other method of getting money that he is reluctant to reveal, and that is where you exercise moral judgment.
Why should we be afraid to ask him, can I see your tax returns for last year? And so on. Every American is afraid of the IRS, because it can land on anyone’s doorstep, at any time…and the experience can send you straight to jail. The IRS examines someone’s lifestyle then asks the person to explain his or her source of income.
Why can’t we do this in Nigeria?
If we are really keen on cutting down on corruption, we can. Nigeria, today, is mired in corruption. We know people of varied investments, we do. Why don’t we question these over the top investments? But we don’t. And yet we say we set up this, we set up that…we are fighting corruption. We are not. There are people whose backgrounds we know, their antecedents; we know what jobs they’ve pursued the whole of their lives, certainly the resources they manage, and which bear no relationship to what is obvious. So why don’t we ask the necessary questions? This is serious business. These are the issues we are tackling here.
The military and politics
Would you describe the incursion of the army into politics as part of the intractable political problems of Nigeria?
I have never agreed with the army going into politics. And you know that coming from a very prominent member of the first military government of Nigeria, this is very serious. It’s unfortunate; this situation destroyed the army, and destroyed Nigeria as well. What we are trying to do, I hope, all of us — is to create a Nigeria where the military will not need to step into politics again, never again.
If you have the opportunity, would you define the role of the army in Nigeria power structure, and a strategy for putting the genie back in the bottle and keeping it there forever?
The first duty of the army is to protect the sovereignty… Those who did that before us, had this to say — that once that power is used against civil authority, it becomes ruthless; the only answer is the total disbandment of that body of armed forces. The problem of Nigeria is this constant attempt to patch up. The term ‘Nigerian army’ should have been dispensed with a long time ago.
And what would happen to the country’s security?
Reconstituted…it would be reconstituted. I was part of the little team that was sent to hold Tanzania together when the army mutinied. Yes, I was part of the contingent. So there are pertinent roles for the armed forces. All we need is the political will. The problem lies in trying to patch things up…find a different role, build up an entirely new force; we shouldn’t try to patch anything up. That has been the problem of Nigeria.
Sort of putting old wine in new bottles?
There is the criticism of your relationship with the late dictator, Sani Abacha; do you reflect on that with any fondness?
No…but I liked and understood Sani Abacha. I also discovered that most people are cowards. A lot of people never made up their minds about Sani Abacha; they simply reflected the likes and dislikes of other people. He is someone I had interesting discussions with. I have often been told that I am that man every Nigerian officer loves and admires… You see, even though he was a dictator, Abacha addressed me with the utmost respect. To the end, he respected me…and he asked me a great many questions, some of which were personal…even down to politics. I was never his adviser, no; but he showed great trust in my judgment. You understand that we are from two different sides, but…I certainly prefer him to a number of wishy-washy people we have in Aso Rock now.
ETHNICITY, ETHNIC RIVALRY AND POLITICS
Ndigbo have contributed maximally to the development and building of the Nigerian nation; why have other hegemonic ethnic nationalities been reluctant to allow Ndigbo access to power at the centre.
Well, if you understand human nature, there’s nothing people are more suspicious of than success. When one is successful, what one generates is jealousy, even within one’s own family. So we should not be surprised by that. If one is beaten down on all sides, yet continues to make great success, people fear that they will become slaves once such a person takes on leadership. It is easier simply to hold one down. You should know this, actually, that if you lock people up in a room, and tell them to choose a leader, invariably, the man who will emerge is the weak one…
He’s the least threatening to them…
And the strong ones will be busy fighting one another, seeking dominance?
Yes all our neighbours are afraid of us…I was in Sokoto [a couple of months ago] speaking to a gentleman who was part of the planning committee for their bicentenary celebration. I told this man… “Oh wonderful; congratulations…the records are there, for while you are celebrating a bicentenary, we are going to invite you and the whole of Nigeria and the world for our millennial celebration. We’ve been here for more than a thousand years; at least the artifacts that come from Igbo Ukwu say so.” And that ended the conversation.
The poem cited in Because I am Involved talks about no man being an island. But a recurring controversy, as it were, concerns the Igbo around the issue of the Nigerian civil war; her relationship with her neighbours? Could you comment on this?
I have studied the Igbo, and I have found that an Igbo man is really two men in one. There is the inner Igbo, which is guarded jealously. He alone knows the truth about himself. He is his own authority. He subscribes to this, and that is it. He does not want you to know this; in fact he resents your discovering this. The Igbo man, if he knows that you know certain things about him, becomes angry; not because he hates you, no; he becomes angry, because he feels he has been denuded of his essence. (LAUGHTER) Basically, he examines every situation he finds himself in then tries to blend into the situation. What he doesn’t want actually is to stick out …Everywhere in the world you’ll find him. The thing that is unique about the Igbo man is that he blends into any society he lives in.
As a matter of fact, when I was traveling to begin my national youth service, my father told me that if I did not find an Igbo trader wherever I was posted, I should leave the place, because it meant that it was inhospitable to human beings. (LAUGHTER)
Are you implying that?
That is true…he is right. When you see an Igbo man he must be a hard worker. What I know of the Igbo man, too, is that wherever he is — like a man I used to know who lived in Alaska — he still maintains he is a ‘Chief,’ but is married to two Eskimos and has fully adapted to their values. All the way…
That is essentially an Igbo man. Once you like to blend in, you are known for something…and what is that? Enterprise. In Brazil, descendants of the Yoruba nation maintain their values, speak Yoruba, worship Sango – which is a very good thing in itself.
But the Ndigbo? Your fellow Igbo will call you quietly, and tell you, “biko a laputa kwan anyi” (Please, don’t betray us). Because that is the thing; don’t focus attention on us. We want to do whatever we want to do quietly. I say to people, it’s not accidental that the greatest beast in our mythology is the tortoise (mbe). It doesn’t matter how you get there, the important thing is that you do get there. The thing about the tortoise is that he measures success, no matter what, with patience. The Igbo man is confident that he will get there, and will get there before you. For good or bad, that is Ndigbo.
How has this profile you outlined affected the political prospects of Ndigbo in Nigeria of today?
One thing I note, because of my own position, is the struggle between the inner Igbo and the public Igbo. There are many Igbo who feel it is wrong to proclaim your Igbo ethnicity, because it might attract enemies. And this affects our politics. Today, for example, a lot of people still wonder… Ojukwu, right; he’s gone round and round and he’s still succeeding. The very, very good Igbo would do anything, make any sacrifice to the Igbo cause, but they don’t think it should be proclaimed.
In refusing proclamation, then, they don’t understand how, to that extent, they have abdicated their leadership rights, because the people you are leading need to see you out there, proclaiming it. We have a great deal in us, and I am very proud of…in fact, there is nothing I love more than provoking somebody to say, “I am an Igbo.” And I say, “No, I’m not. I am the veritable Igbogboligbo!”
What does that mean? You wouldn’t know. We won’t tell you that, but that remains the core of the Igbo man. They are a few of us like that. You should see the look of my Yoruba peers when I say that (LAUGHTER). My Hausa friends are not so shocked. The word might be more difficult for them to pronounce, but they seem instinctively to know where one is going.
This is the current edition of a national daily on Biafra, and a quote here says: “Ojukwu’s name is still revered in Igbo land. It is a name that represents Igboland, thus making him chairman of the Board of Trustees of a faction, is to relegate him.” How do you react to this perception of you as a sacred Igbo man held in high esteem, but unavoidably has to participate in day-to-day politics?
Certain issues will always be in conflict. I am, above all things, indebted to Ndigbo, Ndi Nnewi. Their generosity towards me, self-sacrifice…in fact; it would be wrong if I deny serving them in any capacity, the Igbo…the second part of your question?
The fact that the Igbo revere you…
As for my people’s reverence for me, well; I have a line I use. I beg people, “Please, please, don’t choke me with so much love, because it’s almost desecration if you breathe like a human being, and people don’t want you to do that. I say very often; always remember that when you are in a crowd, and someone is striving through the crowd, and he is given space to come to the fore, that disheveled, even maimed, man you see, mud all over him, perspiring, is a hero; for he has been through battles and come out victorious. It is better than having a statue erected in one’s honour. I prefer to be continuously part of the fight for emancipation than staying behind to be revered and having chickens slaughtered in my honour. Let me be revered when I’m dead and gone, because there’s nothing else left, but encouraged while I am alive. That’s my attitude to life.
One nagging problem is the question of a Pan Igbo group, and its political positioning. Given their experience, world view, etc, why has it been difficult to form a pan Igbo solidarity that will produce a political leader for the country?
In the first place, this country does not belong only to the Igbo, and is not made only of the Igbo; bear in mind that all politics in Nigeria is ethno-centric. The way we look at things in this country is — what you gain, I lose. No matter how brilliant you are, as long as you are an Igbo man, you will not be the choice of the Hausa, or the Yoruba, for that matter. You are brilliant, but an Igbo man. Everybody looks upon leadership as subordinating oneself to another. Even I have sent for, and said to at least, five people: “How can you work as a Personal Assistant to somebody like that? I know…I say that, as well. It’s a difficult thing to get around…
Is it a question of pride?
Yes. Now this so-called objectivity… and we can use it, and say we are all the same… except that somehow, sooner or later…we choose sides. A lot of people will take exception to what I am saying, but then again, a great many will not; I think it’s the truth. I am first and foremost an Igbo man. God in his infinite wisdom created me so.
And why are you so proud of being an Igbo man?
Because I know that as an Igbo man, I excel. There are no two ways about it.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer, described language as the pedigree of nations. People who have lost their language have lost a moral, distinctive heritage. Ndigbo have not been investing adequately on the development and preservation of their language, and, indeed, in the cities, you find the increasing popularity of what is called Engl-Igbo (a combination of English and Igbo expressions).
Do you agree that Ndigbo should be investing on the preservation and strengthening of the Igbo language and culture?
Of course, I think so. I think so very much. And I will do anything again to increase the usage of the language, encourage its modernisation. There are too many things one loses when one is without one’s language. One loses, certainly, a large portion of his or her culture. And to prevent this loss of culture, we haven’t done enough. I remember reading the narrative of an Igbo slave – I can’t remember his name now, Gustav…
Yes…I initially found his description of his culture outrageous. But during my exile, after the war, I re-read the book, and behold — what he was talking about was something I knew, and had grown up with: “Ebilichie. Onye bilichie….” That this statement should have existed in his book, all these years, and we Igbo have yet to apprehend, and remark on it…
Can you suggest some practical ways in which Igbo solidarity and common interest can be restored or forged, beside the activities of political groups like Ohaneze?
That’s truly the function of Ohaneze … but I have my grudges. I don’t believe you can lead a people without knowing where the obstacles are. I’m not convinced that they know who their enemies are. And if you don’t know the enemy is, how can you lead me in a battle? You understand? The state executives cannot be nominated by agents of the enemy; our governors, even though they are not constitutionally agents, have opted to become agents of Obasanjo.
What do you mean by that statement, before you go on?
That is the way they look at their positions, that they are agents; they are people set over us by the Federal government, not as individuals mandated by the people to govern…to serve. In the agglomeration known as Nigeria, well meaning people have limited power, limited influence to effect change… You have two choices… to work for change and bear the consequences, or to appease the federal government. Many opt for the latter choice…the easier choice…
Would this imply the reasons for which you have openly supported MASSOB?
Yes, I refuse to be frightened by people or intimidated, because they have money. You need more than words to intimidate me. Eh… because they complain about BIAFRA, BIAFRA… therefore….go to hell. I can say it in front of you [angry]: BIAFRA, BIAFRA, BIAFRA, BIAFRA, BIAFRA, BIAFRA…If you want to burst with rage, go ahead. That word was in the lexicon of that particular area long before we were born. The Portuguese found the kingdom of Biafra…it’s the normal thing to call a spade, a spade. That’s all. There are too many things we are afraid of. One of the things that worry me is that we ended this war, the whole Nigeria/Biafran war, without a conference. I have continued to wait for that conference. Under Abacha, I watched for that conference, under Obasanjo, now, I am still waiting for the conference. When I go forward to “that Dialogue,” I go forward in the innate belief that finally, I am going to represent our people…at a peace conference.
Agitation for a sovereign national dialogue
Would you rather have a sovereign national conference being advocated by some groups?
I have always asked for a sovereign national conference!!! I have always been an advocate for it.
It never bothered you that the criticism against a sovereign national conference could lead to balkanisation of the country?
If it is necessary to split up the country — remember that the country is made for the people, not the people for the country. If, in the wisdom of Nigerians, they want to split up why shouldn’t they? One of the greatest assets God gave to human beings is choice. I feel that balkanisation is a very strong term, and I don’t know that many Nigerians truly know what it means… But it’s a word that is used to intimidate millions of Nigerians (LAUGHTER) It reminds me of the time when, on a campaign tour, the Great Zik was speaking — he was giving a speech in Onitsha — and he said : “…As a result of this, I can see clearly the day in which we will have an autobahn, when you’ll all wear jewelry; there will be schools everywhere, hospitals everywhere, we would have factories, and our children will go to work, and we will be rich. In fact we will have an AUTOBAHN.” The applause after that speech was heavier than any I have since heard. (LAUGHTER)
Meanwhile, nobody knew what autobahn meant…
And the people began to whisper: Biko, kedu ife bu autobahn? (Please, what is an autobahn?} Inuro ko kwulie? (Didn’t you hear when he said it?) (LAUGHTER) So this is the sort of thing they say to you, “balkanization… Hei.”
It sounds like a disease…
It doesn’t worry me; we have that choice, and we’ll get where we need to get.
THE CIVIL WAR
Nigeria’s post independence history is characterized by great upheaval and instability… much more so than in many other African countries except, perhaps, the Sudan. Why is this so?
The sheer size of Nigeria is a great challenge for management. That’s everything. We can’t escape it.
The civil war remains a key issue we keep returning to —
(cuts in), it’s not a civil war; it’s the Nigeria/ Biafra war. When you get back to your room, and you are writing this interview up, call it what you like; but with me, it’s the Nigeria/Biafra war.
The Nigeria/Biafra war remains a very big issue that has refused to go away; perhaps, will never go away. What is your contemporary perspective on it, leading to the national dialogue; is this experience one we can ever overcome, and achieve
(Pause) We will achieve full reconciliation when we can sit down and have an earnest discussion about the war…such a gathering will be of great advantage to Nigerians, not just Ndigbo. And I believe once we all go forward from such a discussion, the way Nigerians think about themselves will never be the same… it would be a great thing. Reconciliation – what is it? Just make Nigeria such a place that you’ll not be treading on my toes, that’s all…and that can be done. I can see a Nigeria where being President is not the only aspiration to have. I can see a Nigeria of self-realization where somebody would rather become the Archbishop of Lagos than the President of Nigeria, because there are other areas of self-fulfillment, not just greed. And so on and so forth.
When there’s justice for the federating units… Yes, it can be done.
Against this backdrop, was the war inevitable?
Events of the time made war possible…not me. My good friend, Jack; he was 33 then, and so was I. That, in addition, made war almost inevitable. My good friend, Jack, had a smattering knowledge of the eastern region, but I grew up in it, and that created its own conflict. And so on and so forth. There are so many things… My good friend, Jack; his people sent me a Christmas present of a headless corpse. He heard about it…I received it! There’s conflict even in that experience, and so on and so forth. But to be honest, war could have been avoided; after all, all you need to stop war is to say, I won’t fight! So it could have been avoided. But having fought it, my prayer is that we move forward, and learn from the past lessons of the war. We cannot wish it away. Whenever the history of Nigeria is written, whatever that is, there must be something written on the war. If you leaf through that book and there’s no mention of it, then throw the book away, because that is not the history of Nigeria… But you’ll draw from the book, the requisite lessons; if it has something on the war.
So what would you say is the most essential lesson?
(Long pause) Give and take! Whenever you go to take it all, you are in trouble…
Considering that it’s been almost forty years since the war, do you see the resurgence of agitations by ethnic nationalities as validation for going to war?
Put in another way, I find it very much a vindication of myself. I am a leader of the Ethnic Nationalities Forum…and its part of my constituency…I am who I am. God made me first onye Igbo (an Igbo person). If you are a Christian, you will understand that you cannot invalidate what God created. It serves one best to work with God’s creation to its best purpose…to better lives, that’s all.
Anyone reading your book, Because I am Involved, would clearly come to terms with your deep convictions and passions especially for Biafra. Why have you chosen to write a pungent book articulating issues from a philosophical perspective rather than a memoir, which would be longer, more robust and detailed, in nature?
I don’t misplace the need for memoirs… so I won’t say I won’t write any memoirs. In any case, how do you live out the boredom of old age if you are not writing memoirs?
Does that imply you are writing one at the moment?
Oh, I’ve been writing for the past twenty years. And anybody who knows me well will tell you that I’m a wild note taker. Today, I don’t see as clearly as I used to, but I assure you that when I leave you, I will sit down with my staff, and note a few things deriving from this conversation, enriched by my contact with you. Yes, I’ll do that.