EVERY beginning anticipates an end. Even the holy book underlines extensively that there is time for everything. And so the reality has dawned on all of us that Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu has bowed out as the curtain fell on him in this world which to him has been a massive stage on which he played out his part with an impact unignorable.
Destiny at times thrusts responsibilities on some people, but not many acquit themselves to the satisfaction and admiration of the majority, including enemies. Some people make history, while some others are mere pretenders and passengers in the mammy wagon of history. It is a difficult task to pen a tribute to this rare being at this time without sounding repetitive of what has already been said about him by many in the past three months.
The history, person and character of Ojukwu inhere complexities that in some cases verge on contradictions. For instance, what was the son of the richest man in the country in the 1950s looking for in the Colonial Service? My father, a retired school principal repeatedly told us about how Ojukwu appeared in Alayi, one of the rural communities in the Old Bende Division in the present Abia State in a glittering black Mercedes Benz. What was a young man who owned such a car doing in the civil service? He had come as a young District Officer, in his 20s then, to supervise one of the elections preceding Nigeria’s independence in which my father worked as a returning officer.
The general elections must have been the ones that followed the 1956 London Conference that, among others, consolidated the Federal Constitution of 1954 and paved the way for Nigeria’s independence in 1960. My father was enthralled by the man’s level of professionalism and penchant for detail and aptness. He emitted intimidating authority far more than even the colonial masters. His command and rendition of the English language was so impressive to my father that I am still longing for an opportunity to ask him, now an elder statesman in his own right, whether that encounter informed his choice of discipline when he entered the University of Ife a few years later to pick up a degree in English Language and Literature.
As if joining the civil service was not enough diversion for a man whose father owned a famous and humongous business empire, he went ahead to enlist in the military not even as a subaltern, but an ordinary soldier. Ojukwu’s life in the military both in Nigeria and the defunct Republic of Biafra is common knowledge. But what made him think of joining the military in the first place? In the biography of the late foremost businessman and conservationist Chief S. L. Edu, entitled The Journey from Epe, it was hinted at that Ojukwu had foreseen the prominent role the military would play in the affairs of the nation and had always thought of positioning himself strategically right from childhood. Chief Edu told a story of how he visited Ojukwu’s father, the late Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu, at his Queen’s Drive, Ikoyi, Lagos residence in the 1940s and saw the then young Chukwuemeka playing in the sitting room. He was asked what he would like to become in future when he grew up. He replied pointedly that he would like to become an army officer and in future rule Nigeria. The two business partners must have gotten more than they bargained for or should I say may have disregarded the young boy’s response.
While the rest is now history, the question still remains as to whether Ojukwu had the precognition of what the future held for him before getting himself grounded in the study of history, practical administration and government bureaucracy and military professionalism. While the trajectory of his life somehow suggests that much, it is not as important as the admirable manner in which he has brought to bear all he had or was endowed with on every responsibility thrust upon him. When erudition mattered he dramatized it, youthful energy he unleashed it, negotiation he scooped it, compassion he poured it out, bravery he belittled it, courage he redefined it, oratory he elevated it, and love he poeticized it profoundly. His failings as a human being have been by far eclipsed and outstripped by his numerous good qualities principal of which was life-long selflessness.
Ojukwu has been the most misunderstood individual that has walked the Nigerian political space. While his enthusiasm and love for a united Nigeria where justice and equity reign remained unswerving, he was always misunderstood by those who have refused to accept the truth or have been victims or willful audiences of the age-long negative propaganda against his person. He became a rebel for asking for the whereabouts of his boss and insisting that military hierarchy and tradition be respected in his succession. He became persona non grata for organising the protection of his people in the face of evident genocide, even while occupying a position to which he neither stood for an election nor appointed himself. The fact is that history is not written hurriedly and those who ignore this fact are condemned to not only repeating past mistakes, but to continuous groping in the dark.
Nigeria and its peoples have been almost interminably locked at a crossroads, perpetually in a quest for nationhood even after more than 50 years of political independence and almost a hundred years centralized political coexistence. Nigeria as a nation needs a lot to learn from the matrix of Ojukwu’s vision of a country where existential gaps are narrowed, where the supposedly high and mighty identify with the downtrodden, a society where every sector and section know justice and equity and is given an unquestionable and unqualified sense of belonging. Ojukwu’s vision has been encapsulated in various publications, such as The Random Thoughts of the People’s General, The Selected Speeches of the People’s General and Because I am Involved, among several others. But, most remarkable to me has been the lecture he delivered more than 15 years ago at the Annual Lecture of the defunct The Sunday Magazine, TSM, co-founded by Mrs. Chris Anyanwu and Ms Comfort Obi. The theme of equity and justice for all resonates piquantly in that lecture.
It is instructive that in Biafra, under Ojukwu’s leadership, the effectiveness of the country’s peripatetic administrative machinery has remained unmated till date even when it operated under extreme difficulties. It was devoid of “standing” committees in search of “sitting” allowances. “Quota system” and “catchments area” were alien to the country’s lexicon. Petroleum refineries functioned without bogus Turn Around Maintenance. Not even one air mishap was recorded under rudimentary and makeshift aviation mechanics
Mr. PADDY EZEALA, a social critic, wrote from Dakar, Senegal..