By Goddy Uwazurike
THE birth of the man, known much later as Ikemba in Zungeru (present day Niger State) was a remarkable event. Even more remarkable was the arrival of Sir Louis Phillip Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the then richest man in Nigeria in his Rolls Royce, to take him away to Lagos.
The man, Ikemba, was given the name , Odumegwu— Ojukwu at conception, given the name Chukwuemeka at birth and then at his own time he acquired the names: Ikemba Nnewi, Dikedioranma Ndigbo, Dim Eze Igbo Gburugburu, Amumana Egbe Igwe, Udo Eji-Akpu Agu, Asika Agbalu Agbala, Ikenga Ngwo, Ogwu N’ Okilika.
Ikemba was a man who stood out right from his childhood. Prof Kalu Ogbaa, the author of the book, General Ojukwu, gave an account of how Ikemba’s father did not as a habit pay his children’s school fees on time. When Ikemba and his siblings will go to demand for their school fees every one of them would hesitate because they knew what to expect. Ikemba would summon courage to go to his father’s office to make the demand. Ikemba’s father would grab him and give him six strokes of the cane before giving him the school fees for everybody. As a full grown man, he asked his father why he was flogging him before paying their school fees. Ikemba’s father, Sir Ojukwu, said that was to teach you that money is not easy to come by. He had enough money to “spoil” his children but he wanted them to know that “money hard O!”
As a student of King’s College, Lagos he stood up against injustice and paid the penalty. He went to England where he got the best of the British education (Oxford). Remember that the British colonialists expelled him at King’s College but unwittingly exposed him to the best liberal university education in the world. Ikemba’s father had wanted him to read law but he chose to read the type of course upper class read in Britain. It is important to understand that he was doing what his Epsom College class mates were doing since they were the children of the rich and blueblood.
Ikemba, on return to Nigeria joined the then Colonial Service. He was a district officer. But he was not satisfied with the humdrum nature of her Majesty’s Colonial Service. He quit and to the consternation of all joined the colonial Nigeria Army, not as an officer trainee but as a bloody recruit. Ikemba had suspected that his rich and influential father would block his admission as an officer in training so he opted to become a recruit like any lightly educated young man. An incident occurred when he arrived the recruitment ground in his sports car. The welcoming sergeant saluted him and inquired what his mission was. Ikemba parked his car and introduced himself as a recruit reporting for training. The sergeant promptly ordered one of his assistants to march this “bloody recruit” to the assembly point.
The turning point came when the training officer, a sergeant, was teaching them the names of the various parts of a rifle. He pointed at one part and called it “Sepulka”. All the recruits chorused “Sepulka” except one – Ikemba. He asked Ikemba to do the same. Ikemba pronounced it as a “safety catch”. The training officer promptly marched him to the white colonial officer for punishment for insubordination.
The officer, out of curiosity, asked Ikemba his level of education. Ikemba told him Masters degree from Oxford. The astonished white officer promptly moved him to the officer training academy where he became the first graduate to enroll into the Nigerian Army. That was how a grammar war became the opening for joining the army officer corps in 1957.
I will dare to suggest that the man Ikemba was conditioned by his childhood experience and military training for the role he played in the affairs of Nigeria, Biafra and Nigeria again. The other important development in Ikemba’s life was that his father accepted and approved of his choice to join the army when he became a major. Sir Ojukwu respected anybody with the rank of “Major” because when he, Sir Ojukwu, was a young boy he witnessed how a white man Major Morphet in the colonial army flogged and humiliated well respected men in the town for not paying the tax he demanded.
Sir Ojukwu was extremely proud of his son, Major Chukwuemeka Odumegwu— Ojukwu and indeed popped some bottles of champagne in his honour.
The calamitous events that cascaded the young Republic of Nigeria are too well known for me to recount here. The key events are the misrule, the military coup, the counter coup, the various pogroms directed at Ndigbo and the Biafra war.
Ikemba Nnewi was a charismatic figure. He was so enigmatic that I can only compare people’s hero worship of him to that of Chairman Mao Tse Tsung of China. In Biafra, to be called an enemy of Ojukwu was unthinkable. He spoke in measured tones.
He had some characteristics which some of the Biafran military officers had imbibed and exhibited to all and sundry. Captain August Okpe of the Nigerian and Biafran Air force gave a good description of this syndrome in his book, “The Last Fight”.
The Biafran Scientific Group was known as RAP- Research and Production. The scientists believed in Ikemba and produced spectacular results which were destroyed at the end of the war. Some of these feats and the men and women involved are recounted in the book Technological Innovations In Biafra by Felix N.C Oragwu.
When people engage in the argument about importing petrol and subsidy, I refer them to Biafra where the refineries were producing till the end of the war. Biafra never imported fuel because it was totally blockaded. Today, we find it difficult to maintain refineries built by the white engineers after destroying the ones built by Biafra at Uzoakoli and Oparanadim Mbaise. RAP is also just a shadow of its Biafran self.
Ikemba, like all mortals, had his faults. The mistakes he made were also documented in many books, including Raph Uwechue’s “Reflections On The Nigeria Civil War”. There is no person in whom a warm blood runs who would not be inflamed by the death of Ironsi, the pogroms, train loads of dead bodies being transported to the Eastern Region on daily basis and finally the attack on Biafra at Gakem (Cross River State) where the war actually started.
During the war itself, not many advisers of the Head of State of Biafran, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu were as committed as Ikemba himself. Dr Okechukwu Ikejiani described some of these questionable loyalties in his book “My Journey Through Life”. Ikemba was prone to the faults of all men, number one of which was how to handle sycophants. At a point in Biafra, there was a constant jostle for influence between the politicians/academics on the one hand and the military officers (some whom were older and senior to then Ikemba) on the hand. As any one knows, no amount of passion can be a substitute for experience. Wisdom goes with experience. This was why in the bible; David prayed that God should turn the wisdom of Ahitophel into foolishness.
Biafra’s survival for almost three years was remarkable because Biafra was outgunned, out manned and outspent by the bigger Nigeria. Ojukwu made the difference.
Ikemba’s years in exile were well spent. That January 1970 move saved many lives. There was wisdom in knowing when to say it was over. He returned in 1982 and joined the National Party of Nigeria which many Igbos did not support.
During the Mkpoko Igbo conference of 1994 Ikemba had metamorphosed into a politician. Ikemba at the 1995 Constitutional Conference, along with the other Igbo leaders canvassed the six zonal structures which we are practising today. I still have the picture of Dr Alex Ekwueme being heckled at the conference and Ikemba marched to his side and bellowed” Go on, we are here, go on, Alex!” That is the stuff of the man, Ikemba.
Ikemba was and still is the symbol of APGA, the party whose flag he carried in his presidential quest. Even in the last few years when his health had deteriorated, Ikemba was never tired of campaigning for APGA, he still lives.
His death is a monumental loss not just to Bianca and her children but also to Debe, Emeka and his siblings, brothers Prof Joseph and Lotanna or nephew, Jimmy Davies. The loss is ours. The pain is ours. The vacuum is obvious. But the memory will last even for generations unborn.
Fare thee well, Ikemba!
Chief Anayo Goddy Uwazurike (Ide) KSM, lawyer, is a member of Aka Ikenga