By Tony Edike
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu came into national prominence upon his appointment as military governor in 1966 and his actions thereafter.
A military coup against the civilian Nigerian Federal Government in January 1966 and a counter coup in July 1966 by different military factions, perceived to be ethnic coups, resulted in pogroms in Northern Nigeria in which Ibos were predominantly killed.
Ojukwu was not an active participant in either coup but was appointed the military governor of Nigeria’s Eastern Region in January 1966 by General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi. He led talks to seek an end to the hostilities by seeking peace with the then Nigerian military leadership, headed by General Yakubu Gowon (Nigeria’s head of state following the July 1966 counter coup). The military leadership met in Aburi Ghana (the Aburi Accord), but the agreement reached there was not implemented to the satisfaction of the parties.
The failure to reach a suitable agreement, the decision of the Nigerian military leadership to establish new states in the Eastern Region and the continued pogrom in Northern Nigeria led Ojukwu to announce a breakaway of the Eastern Region under the new name Biafra Republic in 1967.
These events sparked the Nigerian Civil War. Ojukwu led the Biafran forces and on the defeat of Biafra in January 1970, and after he had delegated instructions to Philip Effiong, he went into exile for 13 years, returning to Nigeria following a pardon.
Sir Louis was in the transport business; he took advantage of the business boom during the Second World War to become one of the richest men in Nigeria. Ojukwu began his educational career in Lagos, southwestern Nigeria.
In 1944, he was briefly imprisoned for assaulting a white British colonial teacher who was humiliating a black woman at King’s College in Lagos, an event, which generated widespread coverage in local newspapers. At 13, his father sent him overseas to study in the UK, first at Epsom College and later at Lincoln College, Oxford University, where he earned a master’s degree in history. He returned to colonial Nigeria in 1956.
He began his early career by joining the civil service in Eastern Nigeria as an Administrative Officer at Udi, in present-day Enugu State. In 1957, within months of working with the colonial civil service, he left and joined the military as one of the first and few university graduates to join the army: O. Olutoye (1956); C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1957), E. A. Ifeajuna and C. O. Rotimi (1960), and A. Ademoyega (1962).
Ojukwu’s background and education guaranteed his promotion to higher ranks. At that time, the Nigerian Military Forces had 250 officers and only 15 were Nigerians. There were 6,400 other ranks, of which 336 were British. After serving in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the Congo, under Major General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ojukwu was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1964 and posted to Kano, where he was commanding officer of the 5th Battalion of the Nigerian Army.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu was in Kano, northern Nigeria, when Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu on January 15, 1966 executed and announced the bloody military coup in Kaduna. It is to Ojukwu’s credit that the coup lost much steam in the North as Ojukwu stood against the coup and threw his support behind the Commander of the Nigerian Army, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi. Major Nzeogwu was in control of Kaduna, but the coup had failed in other parts of the country.
Aguiyi-Ironsi took over the leadership of the country and thus became the first military head of state. On Monday, 17 January 1966, he appointed military governors for the four regions.
Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu was appointed Military Governor of Eastern Region. Others were: Lt.-Cols Hassan Usman Katsina (North), Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (West), and David Akpode Ejoor (Mid West). These men formed the Supreme Military Council with Brigadier B.A.O Ogundipe, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Chief of Staff Army HQ, Commodore J. E. A. Wey, Head of Nigerian Navy, Lt. Col. George T. Kurubo, Head of Air Force.
Towards the end of May 1966, targeted killings of Nigerians of South eastern origin commenced especially in the North. This presented problems for Odumegwu Ojukwu. He did everything in his power to prevent reprisals and even encouraged Ibos who fled home to return upon assurances given by his colleagues in the North and in the West.
On July 29,1966, a group of officers, including Majors Murtala Ramat Rufai Muhammed, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, and Martin Adamu, led a mutiny against the Ironsi leadership resulting in the killing of Ironsi and Fajuyi who refused to surrender Ironsi to the mutineers.
Ojukwu insisted that the military hierarchy must be preserved; in which case, Brigadier Ogundipe should take over leadership. However, the instigators of the counter-coup insisted that Colonel Gowon be made head of state a development Ojukwu rejected.
In January 1967, the Nigerian military leadership went to Aburi, Ghana for a peace conference hosted by General Joseph Ankrah. The Aburi accord ended with both parties agreeing to the sustenance of the federation but with a greatly weakened centre.
The implementation of the agreements reached at Aburi fell apart upon the leadership’s return to Nigeria and on May 30, 1967, as a result of this, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state to be known as BIAFRA:
“Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”
On July 6 1967, Gowon declared war and attacked Biafra. For 30 months, the war raged on. Now General Odumegwu-Ojukwu knew that the odds against the new republic were overwhelming. Most European states recognised the illegitimacy of the Nigerian military rule and banned all future supplies of arms, but the UK government substantially increased its supplies, even sending British Army and Royal Air Force advisors.
After three years of non-stop fighting and starvation, a hole did appear in the Biafran front lines and this was exploited by the Nigerian military. As it became obvious that all was lost, Ojukwu was convinced to leave the country to avoid his certain assassination.
On January 9, 1970, General Odumegwu-Ojukwu handed over power to his second in command, Chief of General Staff, Major-General Philip Effiong, and left for Cote d’Ivoire, where President Felix Houphöet-Biogny – who had recognised Biafra on May 14, 1968 — granted him political asylum.
However, after spending 13 years in exile, the Federal Government of Nigeria under President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari granted Ojukwu an official pardon which made way for his triumphant return in 1982. Upon his return to Nigeria he joined politics and identified with the then National Party of Nigeria, NPN but his political life was seen my many as very rough as he could not succeed in realizing his ambition to return to power. Apart from winning the election into the National Constitutional Conference in 1994, the late Ikemba never had the opportunity of winning any elective position.
He was the presidential candidate of APGA in 2003 and 2007 presidential polls but his performance in those elections left much to be desired.