By Obi Nwakanma
“Enyi O, Enyi O- Enyi Biafra Alaa la….”
General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu died last weekend. His death brings to a certain climax the drama of a true, modern Nigerian epic. Olusegun Obasanjo was right this time in describing Ojukwu’s death as “the end of an era.” At the passing of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu described Zik as “the Alpha and the Omega of modern Nigeria” just as he characterized Obafemi Awolowo as “the best president Nigeria never had,” thus melding paradox with hyperbole in an equal alchemy of mystery.
It was in true form. Ojukwu was like that – capable of wit and rhetoric. He was born to it. My first meeting with Ojukwu was as a rookie journalist in Lagos in 1990 at the then Holiday Inn in Ikoyi. He would grant no interviews he said. However, when I mentioned that I was writing the life of the Poet Okigbo, he looked me squarely in the face and said, “I cannot talk to you about Okigbo standing up.
Anyi g’anodu n’ani.”(We must have to sit down to it). He gave me the address to his office in Apapa and invited me to a chat, and thereafter, to the famous Villaska Lodge on Queens Drive, Ikoyi. A mighty head sat on Ojukwu’s shoulder and his eyes were then bold and penetrating, whenever he drove home a point. Years later, like Tiresias, those eyes became clouded, half-blind with cataract; the passage of time was upon them.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the lion of Biafra, had been touched by the hand of time. Time is the great leveler. In 1987, Ibrahim Babangida described Awolowo as the “great issue in Nigerian politics.” He was wrong. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu remains the central issue in modern Nigeria.
It was he who took Nigeria by the scruff of the neck and shook it out of its complacency. Ojukwu was born into great wealth. The second, but apparently favored son of West Africa’s wealthiest man in his time – Sir Louis Phillipe Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Emeka Ojukwu started school at the CMS Grammar School at ten in 1943- when most in his generation began secondary school at fifteen. He transferred soon to Kings College, Lagos, and was the youngest boy at Kings College in 1944. He was senior in class to people like Alex Ekwueme or the late Rex Akpofure (1945) or Allison Ayida and Asiodu (1946) –those were his contemporaries.
Ojukwu however was different in one respect: he was born to wealth and privilege. His father was a powerful mogul of finance and counted among his dinner guests, the British Governor-General of Nigeria as well as the likes of Nigeria’s leading anti-colonial nationalist figures, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who was his Godfather.
Perhaps his exposure by these vicarious contacts opened the young Emeka to the great issues of national and global politics which emboldened him far earlier than his peers, for even as a ten years he came to national and perhaps international attention by his actions in 1944 when he took part in the now famous Kings College students anti-colonial and anti-war protest against the British colonial administration.
One of the most damning pictures against colonialism, and perhaps an image which was fully exploited by the nationalists to mobilize public opinion against British colonial rule in Nigeria was of a ten years old Emeka Ojukwu standing trial in the Lagos courts and sleeping in the docks before an English judge trying a minor. His father of course hired one of the leading lawyers in Lagos; Ojukwu was freed. But he was soon sent away to boarding school in England. His father wanted him at Eton. Admission protocols took too long and he ended up at Epsom in Surrey. From Epsom College, where Ojukwu excelled in Sports – in Cricket, Athletics, Boxing and in Debate – he went down to Lincoln College, Oxford when he lived the life of youthful dissipation, took his degree effortlessly in History and later earned a Master of Arts in Modern History from Oxford in 1956. He returned to Nigeria in 1957, and against his father’s entreaties joined the Eastern Nigerian Civil Service, and in due course also against his father’s objection, joined the Queens Own Regiment as a private soldier. Afterwards, when it became clear that it was beneath his paces, he was sent to Eaton Hall for Officers Training in 1957. He was the first Nigerian University graduate to join the Army.
The rest is now history. Among his early jobs was as Military Instructor at Teshie, Ghana, where Murtala Muhammed and Benjamin Adekunle were his students in Military Tactics.At 33 years, he stood boldly against genocide and against the contradictions of the modern Nigerian state and declared the secession of the Republic of Biafra from the Nigerian federation. Civil war ensued, and he led the war as Head of State and Commander of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Biafra for three years from 1967 to 1970 when Biafra collapsed.
There is no question about Ojukwu’s personal human flaws; he had many of it, and he made his own share of mistakes, and he was prepared to acknowledge these. The question today however is no longer whether Ojukwu was right or wrong about Biafra. From all the tributes paid to him this past week, and from all that has happened in Nigeria, and continues to happen to this nation since 1970, it is apparent that Odumegwu-Ojukwu was right. He stands tall before the blind judge of history. He returned to Nigeria in 1982 from exile and re-embraced it, and talked from then about the “Biafra of the mind.”
The Biafra of the mind is the gift of memory and the gift of freedom from a man who rejected mere privilege in search of service and honor, and from a man who led and proved that it is possible to lead a productive African nation. Last week, the president of the Nigerian senate, Mr. David Mark said he still wonders how Ojukwu could mobilize the technological genius of an entire nation. That is the secret: Biafra was organized as a democracy.
It was a clarion call. Ojukwu’s greatest achievement is proof – that even in the most desperate and turbulent of situations, men led by example, can reach great heights.
As he himself said at the TSM Lectures in 1992, “while Biafra was a vast workshop Nigeria was a dumping ground” of all kinds of expensive toxins. Ojukwu led people with dignity; Biafra’s grassroots democracy thrived; men and women of ability were inspired to work; young men stood before their General and vowed to give their life to him and for the people he led. Why? How did Ojukwu achieve this among a most troublesome people like the Igbo? It is simple: he was their General, and he proved that he could be trusted.
He earned their trust. He inspired them by his own sacrifice. He led them – with the flag of the rising sun fluttering – to believe that they were that sun rising.
Nigeria lost the opportunity of Ojukwu’s sterling leadership.We who survived Nigeria’s darkest night yet because of Odumegwu-Ojukwu and all those who fought with him, must now send him to immortality as the sun rises. It is time to say Goodnight, my General, as you lie now rested in that eternal crypt: the soul of an entire people where gods are made and are reborn.