By Ikeddy ISIGUZO, Chairman Editorial Board

“There are reports of Ojukwu’s brief imprisonment at 11, when he slapped a white British colonial teacher who humiliated a Nigerian woman at King’s College in Lagos, where Ojukwu was a student”.  This is just a breezy run through Ojukwu’s life.

I MAKE no apologies about what I consider the place of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi, Dikedioranma, Eze Igbo Gburugburu in world history. Now that he is gone, I can share it without any of fears of being accused of currying Ojukwu’s favour.

At 33, he was the Head of State of Biafra, General of the Peoples Army, leading a war that saved the lives of millions of Ndigbo, who fled to the East, as Nigerians unleashed an unprecedented pogrom at them. The circumstances of the war may be garnished with controversy, but there have been no doubts about the facts that Ndigbo were massacred in the North, chased out of their holdings in nearby Port Harcourt, and made unsafe in most other parts of Nigeria.

Ojukwu, son of the wealthy and influential Sir Louis Philippe Odumegwu Ojukwu, a co-founder and pioneer President of the Lagos Stock Exchange (forbear of the Nigeria Stock Exchange), was one of the richest Africans of his time. Did the Stock Exchange say anything about Ojukwu when it turned 50 recently?

Ojukwu - A Hero Is Gone

The younger Ojukwu was hero to others. There are reports of his brief imprisonment at 11, when he slapped a white British colonial teacher who humiliated a Nigerian woman at King’s College in Lagos, where Ojukwu was a student. On completion of his education in Oxford, he worked briefly in the civil service before joining the army in 1957.

Whatever anyone may say about Ojukwu’s service in the army, he resisted the extension of the 1966 coup to Kano, where he was in charge of the 5th Battalion. Ojukwu supported the forces loyal to the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi.

Ironsi, the first military Head of State appointed Ojukwu one of the four regional Military Governors in January 1966. By 29 May, more Ndigbo were slaughtered in the North, the survivors fled to the East, putting lots of pressure on everything. Northern army officers in a counter coup two months later, killed Ironsi and chose Col Yakubu Gowon over Brigadier A. O. Ogundipe as Head of State.

Ojukwu resisted the appointment on two counts – nobody had given an account of what happened to Ironsi, hierarchy should be followed in replacing Ironsi. Ogundipe, Ojukwu argued, was the most senior officer and should be the Head of State. He refused to recognise Gowon’s leadership.

Several peace talks, the most important being the Aburi Declaration in January 1967 failed. Aburi proposed confederation, and more powers for the regions; terms acceptable to the East, Nigeria turned them down. Those promoting sovereign national conference should read the Aburi documents; Nigeria lost it then.

Ojukwu declared a sovereign state of Biafra on 30 May 1967. “Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra,” he said in the landmark speech.

By 6 July 1967, Gowon attacked Biafra. The war lasted 30 months. The East braved international gang up, starvation, blockade, surviving mostly on propaganda machinery that Nigeria could not match.

Ojukwu was my Head of State. My life was in his hands in my young years. He egged us on during the war. The mention of his name, the death of his half brother Tom Briggs in action in Omoba, minutes from Umuokegwu, my village, the military presence around us, were enough reasons to make my young war efforts.

After school under palm plantations, we gladly picked scrap metals, used batteries as contributions to the making of the dreaded ogbunigwe, Biafra’s locally produced arsenal. We fetched water for the soldiers. We lustfully sang Land of The Rising Sun (the Biafran anthem) without a clue what it was, except that our teachers told us it was an important song that made Ojukwu and our soldiers happy.

When young people from our villages were conscripted into the army and they died, we mourned them lightly. Our tears, if they run for too long, we reasoned, would please the enemy. We trusted Ojukwu to know what was best, in hunger and anger at the way, the rest of world treated Biafra.

Young as he was, Ojukwu managed an impossible situation; overcoming restrictions to get arms to defend Biafra, find medical help abroad (Gabon in particular) for child who went down with vitamin deficiencies. Kwashiorkor, seen these days as television images in Ethiopia and Somalia, was a reality in Biafra. We refused to surrender.

Ojukwu’s stirring speeches helped. Okoko Ndem (from today’s Akwa Ibom, he died in 2003 and received a heroic burial from Ndigbo) rendered these matters in emotion-filled Igbo on Radio Biafra, a mobile station, with its transmission run from equipment mounted on a jeep. We lived on Ojukwu’s words.

I cannot forget the injunction with which Okoko Ndem concluded the broadcasts. “Anyone surrounded by enemies must be vigilant. Biafrans you cannot afford to sleep.” We were so vigilant that when Aba fell (the euphemism for the vandals, as Radio Biafra called Nigerian troops, over running it), we lived for almost two years only 18 kilometres from the actions. We hung our lives on the fables of Ojukwu being in Aba, confronting the enemy. One of my uncles, Lawrence, died in action in Ngwa High School; it was part of the war. Another vibrant young Mike Onwueyi died in Ikot Ekpene, he was an only son of aged parents, we buried him proudly with full honours. Another of my uncles had a bullet wound in his biceps in 1968, 24 years after, the shrapnel that had lodged there dropped off harmlessly.

Every family has its war stories, somewhere Ojukwu is in it. Patrick, a beloved village never returned. We postponed mourning after tales that he went on exile with Ojukwu. On 9 January 1970, Ojukwu handed over to Chief of General Staff Major-General Philip Effiong, and left for exile in Côte d’Ivoire, where President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Biafra’s worthy ally since 14 May 1968, granted him political asylum. His opponents had a field day accusing him of cowardice, though some of them had advised this line of action to avoid annihilation of Ndigbo at the end of the war.

President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari granted Ojukwu an official pardon in 1982. His forays into politics remained unsuccessful, the first in 1983 suffering from a conspiracy by his own party members, who feared that his popularity might unsettle power calculations.

Where are his war memoirs? He kept promising to write one. “I do not misplace the need for memoirs… so I will not say I will not write any memoirs. In any case, how do you live out the boredom of old age if you are not writing memoirs?

Oh, I have been writing for the past twenty years. And anybody who knows me well will tell you that I am a wild note taker. Today, I do not 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,” he told Professor Nnaemeka Ikpeze and Nduka Otiono who interviewed him six years ago for the Chinua Achebe series Vanguard published.

Nigerians will have to live without those memoirs. If published, they will add to the blaze of controversies Ojukwu evoked and hopefully more understanding of what happened in Biafra which Because I was Involved, his 1987 book, did not cover.

We have lost a strong voice in the sustenance of debates that engender a sense of the possibilities of freedom. We have lost a major piece in the Nigerian puzzle. No denigration of Dikedioranma, a patriot, will diminish his role in Nigeria. Those who doubt his involvement live in denial and keep the realities of the Nigerian situation at bay.

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