By Ochereome Nnanna
IT is not my usual wont to write tributes on this page. Today, I make an exception as I dedicate this space to one of Nigeria’s most unusual personalities, the retired Commodore Okoh Ebitu Ukiwe.
To most Nigerians who are 40 and above, he was former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida’s Chief of General Staff (or Deputy) who preferred to leave his high office rather than keeping quiet or allowing himself to be used by those who eventually frayed the fabric of national cohesiveness in their pursuit of selfish and clannish interests.
As a Royal Naval College (Dartmouth, England) -trained naval officer, Ukiwe was one of the victims of Nigeria’s political history. When the coup and counter-coup of 1966 pushed Nigeria towards the eventual civil war, he was forced to retreat to the East and fight for Biafra.
On returning to the Nigerian Navy after the war, he had lost a lot of ground in that many officers who were his junior were now wearing superior ranks. This became a major problem for him throughout his career. Due to his exceptional naval skills he often found himself going on sea drills in command of warships in the company of officers wearing superior ranks who saluted him as their captain.
It was this attribute that got him appointed as the first Igbo officer to be a member of the Supreme Military Council in 1976 and the first ever Igbo military officer to govern a Muslim-dominated Northern state (Niger State) that same year.
His keen awareness of the fact that he joined the Navy before some of his seniors and received superior training in a prestigious naval institution that trained scions of the British Royalty (as opposed to many of his colleagues who were trained in India) coupled with his own self-assured personality often put him out to others as a proud person.
He did not believe that the regional and religious supremacists that held the post-war reins of power were leading Nigeria aright, and he never failed to state his considered opinion.
Ukiwe never agreed with the notion that Nigeria belongs to any part of the country more than the others, or that the religion or culture of any part should be imposed on the rest.
This was the main reason the parting of ways with the Babangida regime started when he told the media that the regime’s plot to sneak the country into the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) was never discussed at the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) on any other decision-making forum.
When he left government in October 1986, Ukiwe decided to devote himself to efforts to restructure Nigeria and put an end to sectional domination. By the middle of the 1980s, the Northern domination of Nigerian politics was in full spate.
The West was well represented in the military and federal bureaucracy. It even dominated the economy, but it had no voice politically. The East was treated like a conquered people.
The Igbos had no political or economic clout and had to content themselves with commerce. Even though the Eastern Minorities participated in the war that put the Igbo out of contention, they also had no voice. The oil from their soil was being exploited with impunity, and the post-war leaders regarded the oil wealth as their war booty.
Ukiwe realised that the only way to address these anomalies was to awaken the various elites to take action. He kicked off a series of meetings with the Igbo elite, sensitising them to the need for more states to be created in Igboland.
Later, the meetings were extended to build cooperation between the Igbos and their Minority neighbours, and soon enough, the Council for Unity and Understanding (CUU) was formed to unite the elites of the East, West and Middle Belt towards the push for national restructuring.
Ukiwe was the pioneer brain behind the concept of what is now known as South-East and South-South political cooperation. The campaigns for restructuring and power shift were originated from his efforts.
In fact, it was the CUU that transformed into the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), even though he later disagreed with the style of approach employed by its leaders such as Chief Anthony Enahoro.
It was Ukiwe that persuaded Chief Moshood Abiola to return from his brief exile and pursue his mandate, and he was also the key factor in getting the Chief Michael Ajasin-led Yoruba mainstream, Afenifere, to support Abiola’s quest to reclaim the annulled mandate. Before this, many Awoists were still angry with Abiola over his pro-North roles during the Second Republic.
When the North eventually ceded power in 1999, Ukiwe resumed the meetings between the Igbo and Southern Minority elites under the aegis of the Council of Eastern States (CES) which later became the council of South East and South-South (COSESS). His efforts contributed in no little measure in getting Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu and Bayelsa states created in the former Eastern Region by the military regimes of Generals Babangida and Sani Abacha.
In 2007, Ukiwe was among the presidential aspirants of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), but it was an ailing Governor Umaru Yar’ Adua that President Olusegun Obasanjo chose to succeed him. Since then, he has been living a quiet life, minding his business and keeping fit by playing golf.
Some fight the ills of our society on the pages of the newspapers and television screens. Ukiwe, a deep strategist, chooses to fight silently because he believes that noisemaking will alert the opponent to block your efforts.
For this, very few people know the quantum of his contributions to the remaking of Nigeria from what the colonial masters made of it to what it needs to be in order to start the journey to greatness. For many, he is not only a source of inspiration but also a teacher and a well-appreciated phenomenon.
Happy birthday, Ochiagha, and may your days be long!