By Douglas Anele
That Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of defunct Republic of Biafra has died is no longer news.
That he was born into great wealth and privilege, attended elitist schools both in Nigeria and Britain, was the first Nigerian university graduate to join the Nigerian army and was one of the finest soldiers ever to emerge in these climes – these are information anyone casually acquainted with what I call the Ojukwu phenomenon is already aware of.
It is not gainsaid that the former Biafran leader is one of the iconic figures in post-independent Africa. Going by the status of Nigeria as one of the greatest countries in the continent, Ojukwu carved his name in granite by leading Ndigbo, one of the most gregarious ethnic groups on earth, through a war of survival. Therefore, for millions of Igbo people, the late IkembaNnewiis an embodiment of Igboness per excellence.
Judging by the quantum of tributes (even from former enemies) that have poured in since Ojukwu died, it is very easy to gloss over some bitter truths which his demise should bring to our consciousness as a people.
In that connection, let us begin our engagement with the Ojukwu phenomenon by looking retroactively at the reasons that compelled him to lead Ndigbo to war with the rest of Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. Without a doubt, one of the most crucial proximate causes of the civil war was the senseless massacre in the mid-1960s of the Igbo living in the North by their Northern compatriots.
Chuks Iloegbunam has, in the compelling work, Ironside, documented the heinous complicity of prominent Northerners, including AminuKano, in the pogrom against the Igbo shortlybefore the Biafran war began. Up till now, no prominent Northerner, to the best of my knowledge, has apologised to the Igbo for the atrocity.
The remote cause of the war has military, political and socio-economic dimensions. On the military side, the relatively few number of military officers and politicians of Igbo extraction killed in the January 15, 1966 coup led to the revenge counter coup by Northern military officers in July the same year spearheaded by late Murtala Mohammed and TheophilusDanjuma – and, as Iloegbunam indicated in his book referred to a moment ago, former military head of state, Rtd. Gen. Yakubu Gowon, was complicit in that coup. Now, before, during, and immediately after the revenge coup, cries of “araba” or secession were ringing all over Northern Nigeria.
But when Gowon and his cohorts realised that the landlocked, educationally and economically backward Northern Nigeria will be crippled if it secedes from Nigeria, they backed down from theirill-conceived secessionist agenda and began subterranean moves to monopolise the highest political and military positions in a unitarist arrangement contrary to the Aburi agreement Gowon reached with Ojukwu.
As a corollary, the Unification DecreeNo. 34 of 1966 enacted by the first military head of state, J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, to halt the centrifugal forces pulling the country apart was misinterpreted outside Igboland, particularly in the North, as an instrument for actualising (imaginary) Igbo ambition for national domination – ironically, it was the same decree that Gowon used later to consolidate his stranglehold on power. As the late Biafran leader asserted, in Karl Maier’s interesting exposé on Nigeria entitled This House has Fallen, “Under the British [the problem with Nigeria] was how to accommodate the uppity Igbos.
Then after independence it was how to accommodate these Igbos who don’t stay in their area but wander around everywhere. That is why it was easy to think that the answer was to kill them off and prevent them from ever coming back.”
Regarding the socio-economic component of the civil war equation, Illoegbunam quoted Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe who intimates that: “…the presence in the North of nearly 1.5 million Igbo immigrants, many of who ran successful commercial, medical, educational and leisure enterprises, was often seen by the northern leadership as a ‘symbol’ of national Igbo ambition and versatility.”
In human affairs the benefit of hindsight allows us to speculate about the possibility of alternative outcomes giventhe same scenarios if the major actors in a landmark event had made choices different from the ones they actually made.
For instance, I am convinced that the civil war might have been avoided, despite the cruel and wicked pogrom against Ndigbo, if Gowon had sincerely implemented the terms of the Aburi accord he reached with the Biafran leader in 1966. I also believe that, as the military governor of defunct Eastern region, Ojukwu was under tremendous pressure from his people for the region to secede because of the bloody massacre of their kith and kin.
Sometimes, however, I cannot help but wonder about what would have happened had Ojukwu explored the conflict resolution instruments of the defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations Organisation (UNO)to actualise his dream of an Igbo nation.
I know that heneeded superhuman resilience to resist the strident calls of Nidigbo to do what he did. Even so, Gowon would not have allowed the Eastern region to pull out of Nigeria without a fight. At any rate, since I am a firm believer in the theory that nothing about human affairs has been fated to happen “come what may,” Ojukwu and Gowon could have taken other decisions that might have obviated the bloody civil war.
More importantly, for the fact that Ndigbo were victims of hate crimes by their Northern compatriots, Gowon, if he really was motivated by genuine pan-Nigerian interests, should have used his position as head of state to pacify the Igbo by stopping the senseless killings and destruction, giving them adequate compensation, and bringing perpetrators of the mayhem and their highly-placed godfathers to justice. As events later turned out, it appeared that Gowon had other priorities.
To be continued
Now, having argued that, despite its apparent inevitability the Biafran war could have been averted, let us turn our attentionto the responses of highly placed Nigerians to Ojukwu’s death as reported in the Nigerian media. Not surprisingly, tributes to the fallen hero of Igbo renaissance have been mainly hypocritical, especially the ones from “VIPs” eulogising him to high heavens, whereas a feware quite revealing. It is fitting to begin with what Gowon, said about his former enemy numerouno. According to Gowon, late IkembaNnewi was a reliable friend: “The passing away of this man of excellence is shocking. Whether we like it or not, Ojukwu was a man who tried to have a country of his own and when he couldn’t succeed returned and joined in moving Nigeria forward.” Now, if Gowon truly believes that Ojukwu was a man of excellence, why didn’t he allow the Biafran leader to demonstrate his excellence by creating a viable Biafran nation, or at the very least pardonedhim during the nine years he was in power so that the latter would have returned much earlier from exile to contribute in moving Nigeria forward? Did Gowon actually distort the spirit of the Aburi accord, as Ojukwu alleged in May 30, 1966? On what basis did Gowon accept to be head of state and commander-in-chief over and above his senior,Brigadier Ogundipe, at whose behest, according to illoegbunam, he (Gowon) went to Ikeja barracks to negotiate with the July 29, 1966 coup plpotters? Gowon should face the truth: there are skeletons in his cupboard relating to the assassination of Aguiyi-Ironsi, his emergence as head of state shortly after, the secessionist agenda of the North, and the outbreak of the civil war. Until he exorcises those skeletons, he will never rise to the pantheon reserved for great Nigerian leaders. To be concluded.