By Ikeddy ISIGUZO, Chairman Editorial Board
THERE is more to Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu than the civil war and his leadership of Biafra. In the consistent prosecution of the war by other means, 41 years after it ended, pillorying Ojukwu has become a passion, almost a profession for some, who use it in the larger fight for group relevance in Nigeria.
Ojukwu had privileges only a few Nigerians of his days had. They were in his education in some of the best schools – King’s College, Lagos; Epsom, and Oxford. His father, Sir Louis Philippe Odumegwu-Ojukwu was too wealthy that his son could have lived off his resources. Ojukwu would not. His decision to join the civil service after such education and later the Nigerian Army, were some of the initial shocks that Ojukwu served a society that was iron-cast in class-consciousness.
History tends to blame the other side. Ojukwu has enjoyed an unfair share of blames for the war. He has been dubbed ambitious, arrogant, power-hungry, and too young to appreciate the greater good when he announced the sovereignty of Biafra on May 27, 1967. Such positions suffer from distortions that are available weapons for justifying the unreasonableness of wars.
They are unhelpful too as they address neither the effects of the war nor the implications of muffling discussions of Nigeria’s future. These are the facts. Discontent trailed results of the 1963 census, the general elections, and regional election in the West. The military stepped in with Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’s 10 January 1966 coup, accusing politicians of corruption. Top politicians from the North, including the Prime Minister Mallam Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the Sadunna Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, died in that coup.
Major-General Thomas Nnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi became Head of State. Anti-Igbo riots started in the North. Igbo army officers were accused of staging the coup to further interest of their nationality.
General Aguiyi-Ironsi died in a counter coup of July 27, 1966. Gowon became Head of State and Ojukwu refused to recognise his leadership, demanding the whereabouts of General Aguiyi-Ironsi and why Gowon was promoted above his seniors, among them Brigadier A. O. Ogundipe, the most senior officer, who was shipped off to Britain as High Commissioner. Massacres of Igbos continued and Ojukwu asked them to return to the East since Nigeria would not protect them. Amazingly, Ojukwu saw to the peaceful evacuation of non-Igbos out of the East. Many peace talks, notably the one in Aburi, Ghana, failed to resolve the conflict.
In Aburi, Biafra wanted more powers for the regions, Nigeria insisted on a stronger central government. On May 27,1967, Ojukwu promulgated the Republic of Biafra, and the Federal Government on July 6, declared war against Biafra. The tragedies were particularly telling in Biafra where cases of malnutrition were acute.
Important issues on the Civil War remain stymied in the refusal of Nigerian leaders to address numerous agitations about Nigeria. They persist. Later day references to true federalism and devolution of powers are circuitous cravings for pre-Civil War federal and regional constitutions that provided more autonomy for the federating units.
Critics of Ojukwu are mainly jealous of his important contributions to the development of Nigeria. Some ignorantly join these criticisms, including some Ndigbo, whose state in Nigeria, if any, would have been worse without a resistance to the massacres that precipitated the war. The war remains the excuse for curious constitutions we have had since 1979. These contraptions constrict development, making every village to hinge its future on decisions made in Abuja far away in mind and mood from the people.
Legacy of service
Who remembers the legacy of service the Ojukwus provided for Nigeria? Sir Louis was co-founder of the Lagos Stock Exchange. Hundreds of his kinsmen in Nnewi benefited from apprenticeship under his businesses. The younger Ojukwu spent his life protesting injustices – from ordinary folks killed in the North because of their origin to Ogundipe who lost his seniority in the Nigerian arm again because of his origin.
Nigeria has not only given up on protecting the poor and the weak, the Constitution under nebulous provisions makes us less Nigerians and more of the things that will divide us. Ojukwu went to war in 1967 to protect his people. Who is protecting Nigerians today? How far is he willing to go? We cannot answer these questions without giving Ojukwu credit for his sense of service. The challenge his service presents is possibly the biggest source of the criticisms he faced. Nigerian leaders abhor sacrifice and service: Ojukwu is a reminder of the things they have failed to do or unwilling to attempt.