By Hakeem Baba Ahmed
‘’If only youth had the knowledge; if only age had the strength’’-Henri Estienne, 1531 – 98, French writer
THIS piece was written a day after Ojukwu died. I have decided to have it published after his burial because the issues raised by the article are even more relevant today than when he just died. The reader also does not need to be reminded of the views expressed by the Igbo people, his former adversaries, enemies and friends, many of them sincere, many expressed just to capture a mood.
The positive views about the life and times of Dim Ojukwu represent one version of history, and it is fair to say that they represent the verdict of history that Ojukwu himself would value above all others.
For a man who made the full circle, from a soldier sworn to protect and defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nigeria; to a rebel who took up arms against it; to a politician who failed to find a fitting place in an emerging democratic system; then back to a leader of a tribal political party in a nation where tribes have failed to yield grounds for emergence of citizens, Ojukwu’s life is a study in the challenging history of the Nigerian nation.
Ojukwu made history; and was made by Nigerian history. A tribal hero when he made the decision to pull the Eastern Region out of Nigeria, history will also remember him as a villain whose ego and tragic miscalculations brought his people to their knees, instead of freedom. He was not part of the reconciliation and reintegration process: that part has been assigned by history to federal leaders who defeated him.
He was not part of the incredible pace of rehabilitation and re-integration of Igbos and other Easterners into the rest of Nigeria, which showed that his rebellion had little organic foundations. That part of history has been credited to leaders who had vision and statesmanship, and who understood that Nigerian unity was a lot more resilient than Ojukwu himself believed.
History, a leader and his people
But history will have a place for Ojukwu as a leader who stood for his people when they appeared to have fallen victims of the destructive ethnic-motivated political events which changed the course of the history of the young Nigerian free nation.
Many innocent Easterners, which included many non-Igbos, were killed in the North in what appeared to be a reaction to a perceived Igbo or Eastern coup which killed Northern and Western leaders. Many Northerners were also killed in the East.
A young military leadership which found itself thrust into power with huge sectional influences tried to keep the nation afloat without success. Ojukwu’s solution was to pull Igbos and other Easterners out of Nigeria into a new nation, Biafra, in spite of many attempts to dissuade him.
A democratic process which was being severely tested by strong ethnic pulls had collapsed on the head of young military officers who had very clear ideas about the need to keep the nation’s unity intact.
The cumulative effects of the Action Group’s earlier betrayal of Azikiwe which forced him to retreat to the East and wear his Igbo tribal toga as politician; the crises in the West when Awolowo’s larger-than-life image brooked no dissent, and whose political empire was being assaulted by the Northern People’s Congress from within; the crisis with communities in today’s Middle Belt which showed that even the Sardauna’s fabled grip on Northern politics was largely exaggerated, had eroded the foundations of unity among the political elite in the build-up to the 1966 coup.
By accident or design, the 1966 coup was seen as an Igbo or Eastern agenda to achieve a regime change in its favour. Northern officers fought back with their own coup; and it all proved too much for Ojukwu, who then said that secession was the only solution, since Igbos were not wanted in Nigeria.
For thirteen years, from 1966 until 1979, the nation lived under the rule of the Military, which fought a civil war; engineered a remarkable reconciliation and reintegration; received unprecedented revenues and began to administer a government with huge resources in a poor country; then lost the battle against corruption and its own cohesion and integrity.
Those 13 years severely stunted democratic values and institutions. A hesitant and weak effort at democratisation was again aborted just four years after the military withdrew; but not before Ojukwu was pardoned and returned to the country to join the ruling party, NPN.
In a way, it was his own personal re-integration with his fatherland, and the beginning of his involvement with a political process which had little room for former tribal heroes. Another 15 years would be spent by Nigerians under military governments, during which corruption grew while politicians shrank in stature and influence in the hands of the Military.
Ojukwu took his place as a has-been, in a system in which the military decided who became billionaires, and who were friends or enemies. He was part of the Nigerian older generation which saw the West move into virtual rebellion after Abiola’s election was aborted.
NADECO and OPC must have reminded him of the feelings of injustice following the May and November 1966 killings of Easterners. He had a stint as a head of a militia he formed, and he was never too far from other Igbo tribal groups such as MASSOB and Ndigbo.
A retreat to tribal enclave
The political contraption which produced a Yoruba President in 1999 specifically as a response to the reaction of the West following Abiola’s sojourn had little room for Ojukwu. Unable to win elections or find a befitting national position in a major party, he retreated into his tribal enclave and floated a political party that is almost purely Igbo.
This gave him a political platform and an asset, but reinforced him as a leader good enough only for the Igbo people. But he was in good company here. The ANPP and AD were virtual tribal parties. The CPC which emerged out of the shadows of the ANPP and the fragmenting fortunes of the PDP in the North is limited to the far North.
The former AD is an uncanny reincarnation of the old Action Group, so the Yoruba people, like many Igbo people, have scurried back into tribal holes. The South South is holding on to the PDP as its strongest base, and the party is increasingly looking like a South South people’s party.
The North is divided between an ethnic and religious minority which will go anywhere other than where the majority goes, and a majority which has lost real power quite possibly for the first time in its history.
The pervasive and decisive influence of ethnic politics which indirectly produced Ojukwu is today, even more pronounced. The most consistent clamour for the Igbo in Nigeria is to be accorded full rights and dignity, for a people who must live substantially outside Igboland.
This demand is being checkmated by a Yoruba mentality which sees survival in Nigeria in terms of locking up its doors to the rest of Nigeria, or more specifically, competition. The demand is being suspected by a mentality in much of the South South which resents the historic subordination of its people under Igbos, and which prefers to keep Igbos outside its newly-found assertive mentality and huge resources.
The demand is being frustrated by policies which deny and deprive Igbos full rights and privilege in many parts of Nigeria where they live; and in periodic crises which target Igbo property and lives even when they are not part of the problem. There is much in the life history of Ojukwu which is still a major problem in Nigeria.
His death has provided Igbo people one more opportunity to re-visit age-long sentiments around their unity and pride. Today, much of the Christian north has a severely stressed relationship with Muslim north; and the unending conflicts in Plateau, Bauchi and Kaduna States may just be the modern manifestation of old conflicts.
The West went into virtual rebellion in the 1990s to protest what it saw as the denial of a Yoruba man’s legitimate mandate to govern. Today, almost the entire West is a monolithic political enclave, and there is increasing tendency to think that it can be structured into as a future State. The South South has received a bountiful reward for its insurgency around natural resources.
The far north is split between a part which is yet to come to grips with the loss of political control of the centre; and a dangerous insurgency in the name of a non-secular State. On the whole, the nation is made up of tribes and ethnic groups as building blocks, and not citizens with equal rights. No one can say whether the nation is stronger or weaker today than it was in 1967.
Historians will wonder what Ojukwu would have thought, in his last days, of the nation he served, then fought, then served again as a politician with a mixed past. But in his life, history will remind Nigerians of the pitfalls of inept leadership and crass political opportunism. Much of the past captured in the life and times of Ojukwu are very much part of the present in Nigeria.
This is tragic for a nation which should have learnt many lessons about the dangers of mismanaging its plurality and diversity. If Nigerians could take a step back and critically examine the life of Dim Ojukwu, they may yet learn why some people think our nation will not survive the next five years as a united country. And perhaps we may produce the type of leadership that will make sure that we do, and not descend into a conflict that will produce no winners.