By Pini Jason
A GREATER part of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s life was full of drama and the man himself filled and electrified his stage in a way only he could. Born into one of the wealthiest families at that time, with onomatopoeic names that evoked awe, he brought panache to whatever he did.
He, it was, who brought our attention to graduates in the Army and removed its starchiness. He made the trademark feathers on his peak cap look like it was specially designed for him.
He walked with his arms folded behind him as if he was born that way. When we first heard him speak, he seduced us with his Queens English delivered with enchanting oratory and seductive sonority. When he stood up to Yakubu (he called him Jack) Gowon, the nation held its breath. When he dragged the Supreme Military Council to Aburi Ghana, another enchanting scene was added to the drama.
When he said “no force in Black Africa can defeat Biafra” and that he would litter the shores of Biafra with the debris of Nigeria “Navy of fishing trawlers”, the drama was getting to its crescendo. It was from him we heard of “shore batteries”. When the going was getting tough in Biafra, he raised the morale of the fighting forces by promising that “every grass in Biafra will fight”. When he left for exile, it was “in search of peace”.
And when he returned from exile he took chieftaincy titles with onomatopoeic effect more resounding than the military rank stripped off him by Nigeria: Ikemba Nnewi; Dikedioranma; Dim; Ezeigbo Gburugburu! He excavated a clichéd ordinary statement: The best President we never had, penned it to Awolowo’s condolence, and an all time profound statement was born! Ojukwu, indeed was drama and charisma personified!
Frenetic and effusive elegies
It is not surprising that his death has generated frenetic and effusive elegies. The immediate post-independence crises and the civil war, for me, IS NOT history gleaned from literature.
It is current affairs which I still live through. I read in a newspaper that some people were opposed to giving Ojukwu state burial because, according to them, he tried to break Nigeria. Such people are simply living the illusion that makes Nigeria walk backwards while we pretend that it is “moving forward” or that it can “move forward”. Nigeria is still broken up not by Ojukwu or because of him but by Nigeria’s persistent and consistent pursuit of injustice, obsessive corruption and promiscuous national indiscipline.
In his beautiful article: “We Loved Him, We Hated Him”, in Thisday Tuesday 29 November 2011, my brother Simon Kolawole, SK, wrote that “we went to war in 1967 because our leaders were too young, too immature to manage the crises that followed the failed coup of 1966”.
Well, well, what I have always reminded Nigerian youths is that some of those who gave this country incredible leadership did so when, in our estimation today, they would have been considered “too young, too immature”. Check the ages of Zik, Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Tony Enahoro, Mbonu Ojike, Bode Thomas, Dennis Osadebe, Alvan Ikoku, Aminu Kano, Ernest Ikoli, Herbert Macauley, etc, when they played leading roles in the independence of this country. Compare that with the performance of Nigerians of similar age today.
More important than being “too young, too immature” is that at that time, there were enough elders to guide the young men away from the impending doom. And some of them did.
Nigerians went to war because others who were in a position to advise the actors or raise their voices against injustice, simply exploited the moment, the vacuum and vacancies created by the exit of Easterners to promote personal and group interest. Some of the elements who became the new boys on the power block, have since come full circle to fight the same injustice Ojukwu stood up against, even nudging the nation to extreme ethnicity!
Nothing has changed because politicians have found those fissures in our national life as first class ticket to power. Let us not forget that before the war, Nigeria operated largely on merit.
As Ojukwu once said long before the advocates of “resource control”, the war “is a struggle for freedom and equality among Nigerians. It will end whenever Nigeria is able to accept the equality of all Nigerians to share in the control of and running of the affairs of this country”.
As usual, many commentators, especially his opponents during the crises that led to the civil war, wore blinkers or deliberately put a veil of deceit on themselves and their listeners by insisting that Ojukwu went to war because of an inordinate ambition for a Republic of his own. Such a spin discounts the duplicity of the time: the pogrom, and that it was Nigeria that attacked Biafra when it fired the first shot at Gakem on July 6, 1967.
Biafrans fought back because their tormentors invaded their homeland. They fought back to defend themselves in a territory where they felt safe from inhuman treatment. They fought back because their values and beliefs were wantonly desecrated.
It is therefore wrong to even say that Ndigbo went to war because they were not getting their fair share from Nigeria. The truth is that until Ojukwu asked all Easterners to return to the East, they were very competitive in a meritorious Nigeria and did well for themselves provoking the emotive talk of “Igbo domination”. The war was simply to resist callous massacre of unarmed Eastern Nigerians by fellow Nigerians!
Be that as it may, it is a measure Ojukwu’s prowess and the ingenuity of his people that he ran a Republic on the run; being sacked from capital to capital and yet being able to establish his government in a new capital within 24 hours; refining petrol and diesel in every backyard; distilling red wine; manufacturing household consumables and above all, fabricating armoured cars, gunboats, rockets and Africa’s first weapon of mass destruction, the Ogbunigwe.
Again, choosing to live in denial, Nigeria turned its back on the essence of Biafra, renamed the Bight of Biafra as Bight of Benin in a classic ostrich inanity, dismissed Biafran inventions as “crude” instead of building and improving on them, took over the Products Development Agency, PRODA, created by Ukpabi Asika from the Biafran Research and Production, RAP, and injected it with the Federal virus and killed it! Today Nigeria cannot refine its own petroleum needs. Nigeria is an importer of everything imaginable (including toothpicks) with waiver! You can now see that it is Nigeria that lost the civil war, not Biafra!
If you ask yourself why a “defeated” people still romanticize the war and lionize Ojukwu, the answer is that Biafrans don’t feel defeated because the war was more about values held dear than mere territory. Biafran territory is in the exploits of the Biafran Airforce and Army at Abagana/ Nkpo Junction, the inventions and survival ingenuity which still live in the hearts of Biafrans.
But I must warn that in recent times, the Igbo have started a process of losing the war as all those values we held dear are being desecrated. Today money rules, giving rise to vices like kidnapping and ritual killings. These are unBiafran!
Femi Kusa and Alex Ibru
I READ Mr. Femi Kusa’s “Alexander Uruemu Ibru… Publisher, The Guardian” in the Nation newspaper of Thursday November 24, 2011 and I was astonished by the sheer insensitivity of the article. Mr. Kusa has every right to write a memoir about events in The Guardian, but there should be appropriate time and forum for that.
Alex Ibru’s death is not one. For sure, there were many intrigues in The Guardian, including a cult of Grail Movement devotees who intimidated and frustrated staff who did not or refused to belong.
But to turn a supposed tribute into mocking the memory of Alex Ibru was in very bad taste and disrespectful to Alex Ibru and family. Kusa did not exercise appropriate restraint.