ENUGU (AFP) – Soldiers fired a 21-gun salute at the funeral of Odumegwu Ojukwu on Thursday as Nigerian leaders paid final respects to the man whose 1967 declaration of Biafran independence sparked a civil war.
Forty-five years after he tried to split Nigeria asunder by proclaiming the Republic of Biafra, Ojukwu’s coffin was draped in the national colours of white and green at the funeral service in the city of Enugu, attended by thousands.
Ojukwu died in November in Britain at the age of 78 but his body was only flown back on Monday.
Hundreds of armed police and security forces were deployed on the streets of Enugu during the funeral in a reminder of the continuing sensitivities around the cause for which Ojukwu became famous.
Around a million people died in Africa’s most populous country during the 1967-70 conflict, mainly from disease and starvation. The images of starved children made Biafra a by-word for famine.
Ojukwu, then military governor of the eastern region, had accused the federal government of marginalisation and killing of thousands of Igbos.
Ojukwu went into exile in Ivory Coast after the Biafrans surrendered in 1970, and did not return until after a presidential pardon 13 years later. He ran for president several times following his return.
He remained a revered figure in eastern Nigeria, where the Igbo people dominate. His declaration of independence for Biafra came largely in response to the killing of large numbers of Igbos in the country’s north.
President Goodluck Jonathan was represented at the funeral by his deputy, Namadi Sambo.
Other mourners in attendance included the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, ex-Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings and former Commonwealth secretary general Emeka Anyaoku.
Jonathan is expected to participate in Ojukwu’s burial in his native southeastern hometown of Nnewi on Friday, according to his spokesman.
Ojukwu’s body was greeted on arrival at the service in Enugu with a 21-gun military salute. The Catholic Bishop of Enugu, Callistus Onaga, presided over the service.
Soyinka was expected to deliver a funeral oration titled “My friend” at the ceremony, attended by about 2,500 people.
The writer and playwright was detained during the civil war by the government of General Yakubu Gowon over his alleged support for the Biafran cause.
Hundreds of participants in the ceremony wore traditional dresses or tee-shirts on which Ojukwu’s portrait was emblazoned with inscriptions such as “You Live In Our Heart,” “Great Leader” and “National Hero”.
“Ojukwu was a great leader who stood with and fought for Ndigbo (Igbo people). His contributions will not be forgotten,” Professor Alphonsus Nwosu, a former minister and ethnic Igbo told AFP at the funeral.
A spokesman of a group that seeks to keep alive the spirit of “Biafra”, Uchenna Madu, said “Ojukwu lived and died for the emancipation of Igbos”.
“We shall continue the struggle. This is the only way he will be happy that all he stood and fought for was not in vain,” he said.
Authorities in Enugu state declared Thursday a public holiday in honour of Ojukwu. The Oxford-educated colonel died on November 26 in London where he had been receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment.
Ojukwu’s body was flown from Britain to Nigeria with full military honours on Monday.
“Today’s event is a national one and we are not leaving anything to chance security wise,” said Enugu police spokesman Ebere Amaraizu as he gave details of the security operation for the funeral.
“We have deployed hundreds of security personnel, including police anti-bomb squad and men of the state security service,” he added.
Nigeria has seen a string of deadly bomb and gun attacks in recent months, claimed by the Islamist Boko Haram sect, in which hundreds of people have been killed in Abuja and and some states in the north.