BY VINCENT UJUMADU
THE death of Ikemba Nnewi, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu on November 26, 2011 marked the end of an era.
The defunct Biafran leader was loved by his people and to immortalize him, the then Anambra State government headed by Mr. Peter Obi named the state-owned university after him. Thus the university, with campuses at Uli, Igbariam and Awka, became Chukwuemeka Odumehwu Ojukwu University.
To further make him live in the minds of the people, the present administration of Governor Willie Obiano instituted an annual lecture series in memory of Ojukwu, who until his death, the leader of the ruling All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, in the state.
On November 4, 2019, the second Ojukwu Memorial Lecture was held at the Igbariam campus of the university, with the former deputy senate president, Ike Ekweremadu as the chairman, while the former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, and presidential candidate of Young Democratic Party, YPP, in the last general elections, Professor Kingsley Moghalu was the keynote speaker.
The Law Faculty lecture theater of the university, venue of the lecture, was packed full and people from the five Igbo –speaking states were fully represented. Among those present were the deputy governor of Anambra State, Dr. Nkem Okeke, who represented Governor Obiano, the governor of Enugu State, Chief Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, who was represented by the secretary to the state government, SSG, Professor Ortuanya, former governor of Anambra State, Dame Virgy Etiaba and of course the wife of the late Ikemba Nnewi, Ambassador Bianca Ojukwu. There were also traditional rulers from various parts og Igboland.
Delivering the keynote speech on the theme ‘Ndigbo in the Contemporary Nigeria Politics: problems, prospects and way forward’, Moghalu described Ojukwu as a product of his time, just like all the major actors in the Nigerian civil war. In the words of Moghalu, who also hails from Nnewi as Ojukwu, the late Ikemba must therefore be judged in history strictly in the context of what happened during the 1966 pogrom in the north and the civil war that followed. To him, without the large-scale massacres of lgbo in the Northern region of Nigeria after the July 1966 counter-coup, there would have been no Biafra and there would not have been the civil war that lasted from 1967 -1970.
Similarly, he added, without the controversial failure of the Aburi Accord in early 1967, there also likely would have been no Biafra, arguing that the two factual points were important because Nigeria had continued to wrongly hold Ndigbo as a people collectively guilty of the secession attempt, as if the Igbo woke up one bright morning and decided to leave Nigeria.
He said: “Clearly, those who blame Ojukwu for the effort by Igbo, under his leadership, to break away from Nigeria at that particular time and in the prevailing circumstances, are those who thrive in self-serving historical narratives. The reality of the time was that, owing to an unfortunate set of circumstances, the security of the lives and property of lgbos in Nigeria could no longer be guaranteed. Ojukwu simply answered the call of duty.
“He rose to the occasion as a result of the weight and burden of historical responsibility upon his soldiers. The real and relevant question, looking back now, is: could the war have ended earlier in a negotiated settlement rather than the military collapse of Biafra and the short-lived republic’s ultimate surrender? At any event, we must recognize that President Shehu Shagari’s noble decision to officially pardon Ojukwu — even if there were clear domestic political calculations embedded in it — and the former Biafran leader’s return to Nigeria in 1982, 12 years after the civil war ended, was one of the most remarkable attempts at nation building in Nigeria.
“The narrative that the January 1966 coup was an “lgbo” coup has largely framed the lgbo in contemporary Nigerian politics, in particular the relations between the lgbo in the Southeast and Northern Nigeria. I believe the January 1966 coup was, looking back, a big mistake, but not because it was an “lgbo” coup, because from the historical accounts, it was not conceived as such.
“It was a strictly military affair, within the armed forces, and its planners and participants included several non-Igbo military personnel. There was no known, concerted group ethnic Igbo effort in its planning even inside the military, let alone outside the armed forces. Indeed, indications from some historians are that the main purpose of the coup was to release Chief Obafemi Awolowo from prison, where he was serving his sentence after conviction on treasonable felony, and install him as Prime Minister. A whole ethnic group cannot bear the responsibility for the actions of a few individual members of it, just as, for example, all Fulani in Nigeria today cannot bear responsibility for the criminal and terrorist acts of herdsmen who may happen to be Fulani.”
“In any case, the Nzeogwu coup was frustrated and defeated by military officers of Igbo origin such as Gen. Thomas Aguiyi-lronsi and Col. Emeka Ojukwu, although the genie was already out the bottle. The lopsidedness of the execution of the Nzeogwu-led coup, in terms of high-level casualties, cannot also be glossed over.
Understandably painful as it was, however, we have to tell ourselves the truth that the reactions to it, which continue to this day, have been extremely disproportionate. The January 1966 coup was a mistake (just as the July 29 coup was a second historical error, and two wrongs don’t make a right) because it was deeply naïve and was unnecessary. The civilian politicians of the time would ultimately have resolved the political crisis in the country if there had been no military intervention. If the frustration was about the corruption of the politicians of the time, well, Nzeogwu would turn in his grave if were alive today, and would doubtless have concluded that he made a big mistake, for the corruption then was a kindergarten class compared to what obtains in Nigeria today!
“But we need to heal, forgive collectively and move on as a country. Difficult as it might be, the Igbo should not remain permanently bitter about the loss of the lives of our loved ones. If we remain permanently bitter, we can’t heal. And if we can’t heal, we can’t compete effectively in the political terrain in Nigeria. But, realistically, the burden is far less on the Igbo who were the main victims of the tragedies of war but nevertheless have largely integrated back into Nigeria since the war, except, I would argue, in the political terrain, than it is on non-Igbo Nigerians who continue to resent the Igbo based on distorted historical narratives.
“I believe that the class of today’s military generals who fought to keep Nigeria one, and who later emerged as military-political leaders, bears an even heavier burden of history to close this horrible chapter by putting it in its proper and more accurate perspective. Among this class, Gen. Gowon as Commander in Chief and Head of State during the civil war is uniquely placed to speak directly about the war, acknowledge the pain of the loss of millions of lives, and express regret for the loss of so many lives.