Back in Biafra, General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu wore an image not different from that of a god. His reputation always preceded him and at some point, during the war, it looked as if Biafrans could not even breathe without the man. Everything, good or bad, but mostly good, was ascribed to him and he totally personified the struggle.
The war propaganda on the Nigerian side didn’t seem to help matters either. Rather than diminish him, they lionised the man and so, on both sides of the conflict, he was a larger-than-life persona. For me as a young boy-soldier, (just like everyone else) that was also the image I had of the “People’s General” and the closest I ever came to seeing him, live, was during one of those his flash stopovers in different parts of Biafra, this time, at our Divisional Headquarters in Irele Owerri.
When the rumour of his being around spread like wild bushfire, I joined the rest of my colleagues in racing all the way from our camp to the Div. HQ, just to catch a glimpse of HE (His Excellency) as he was fondly called. but by the time we go there, he was gone again like a flash of lightning bolt…
Fast-forward from that point to almost a decade and a half later when as a young reporter, I stood up from my seat in the aircraft that was taking him back home from some 13 years exile to shake the legend’s hand. He was going round to meet the reporters, cameramen and photographers on board with him. Ojukwu seems to have a deep respect for newsmen, for a reason I later conjectured to be that he thought they play no small role in helping him the war and building the looming image that he had. But unlike many other even much lesser mortals he, a truly big man that he was, remained totally and eternally grateful for it.
I couldn’t help noticing, right away, the urbanity of his good breeding and aristocratic background, as we exchanged banters and greetings. We struck a rapport right away and I also later found out that he was the kind of man that never cared who you were; how old you were, what you owned, the kind of clothes you wore, or anything like that.
He seemed to just look out said, “You know I don’t grant anybody interviews”. He could have been talking to the walls, as that statement heightened my curiosity and my persistence. ‘
A few years later, as we cemented friendship, he had summoned me to his Villaska Lodge residence, Ikoyi to discuss a publication he was planning. Shortly after I pulled into the compound as if on cue, a heavy downpour that lasted for well over three hours trapped me in, giving us ample time to talk undisturbed by his usual endless stream of visitors. He was alone at home, with a few of his domestic staff. Then, I saw another Ojukwu I didn’t know could ever exist, a handyman. It was a total anticlimax.
At first, as I approached, I didn’t think it was him. He had his back against me and didn’t see me enter. He wore an African print ‘jumper’ atop a pair of black trousers that he half rolled up, as he mopped the floor, barefooted! Holy cow! What then, was the job of the domestic servants, I thought? He turned and smiled, as he waved me to a seat. I tried to hide my shock and he went on doing what he was doing until he finished. It looks like the lady who was doing the job earlier didn’t get it right and that upset him, as I later conjectured when he spoke to her.
As I sat back and analysed this little incident, I recalled two earlier ones in his Enugu home that gave me an insight into his personality. Someone had absent-mindedly sat on the remote control of the television and buried it deep inside a crevice, in the sofa. Others tried to retrieve it but failed because the crevice was too narrow for an adult hand. Ebele, his little daughter, was then about three years old and everybody felt her small hands were the best pair for the job of retrieving the remote-control.
Ojukwu would have none of that. What if the little girl got hurt in the process? He kept forcing his right hand which was, in fact, the largest one in the room, into the crevice, in his attempt to retrieve the remote-control, against all entreaties: “Ima na m’adi ekwe-ekwe,” he spoke out, in Igbo – “you know I never give up”. When he finally picked out the piece of tool, he raised it up, triumphantly for all to see, with the glee of a Richmal Crompton’s Lovable Little Rascal, after he finally found his misplaced catapult!
In yet another incident in the same Enugu home, the man was commenting on an intimate, personal matter in my presence. There were only the three of us in that room, that day: Ojukwu, himself, Stella Onyedor, his consort and Mr. Chris Offodile. Suddenly, Stella cautioned him to be careful, as there was a pressman in the room: “Don’t worry,” replied Ojukwu, “he is my colleague.”
The man was an enigma. He was wise, urbane, humble and deeply respectful of friendship. But he could also be more ferocious than a lion and it is that other side of him that one may not like to see and must never provoke. But above all, was his audacity, which personified the spirit of Biafra, one that enabled the fledgeling new Republic to survive an excruciating 30 months of a war of survival that captured the imagination of the world:
“I was the last person to leave Enugu,” said he, of the fall of his capital, to the advancing Federal forces. “As I was leaving, the Nigerian soldiers saw me, I saw them. We waved at each other, they didn’t think it was me.”
There was hardly anything this man could not handle with some degree of finesse, from housework and cooking to the intricate matters of state and the art of dealing with human beings. As I sat on that sofa, analysing the things I had taken in, in my mind, it dawned on me that it was not for nothing that we were meeting in life, to share each other’s experiences. We were merely pawns in the mighty hands of Fate, weaving its own plot, for humanity’s instruction. It was then for us, as individuals, to find out our respective missions and fulfil them.
Indeed, it was on that note of the art of man-management, how those skills came in handy in Biafra, that our conversation began on that June day, in 1983. He talked about how fate had prepared him for his later role, as a war-time leader; leaders and sycophants and how sycophancy could destroy leadership, among many other issues…
All my adult life, I have spent, handling human beings. As an army officer, the greatest attribute one can have is man-management, the ability to manage a number of human beings. As an Administrative Officer, I did nothing but that. And, oh well, as a Head of State, too – during the war. I have had some experience along this line. I personally keep my ears open to all manner of information that comes to me. But I only act on information that I have personally checked.
Actually, when you talk with some of my friends, you will find that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of friendship with me. A number of people come up to me thinking they are sufficiently intimate and once they have told me something, I accept it. But that is not possible. My instinct is to check. Sycophancy is a terrible disease of our society, today and I’m sure that most leaders find sycophancy one of their biggest problems.
People refuse to say things that are true and try to tell you those things they imagine you would want to hear. That is sycophancy. I personally prefer the man who tells me the truth. In my entourage, around me, there are always individuals that I would resent, even calling me Ikemba because once they move to that stage they seize to be objective friends. They become friends that are using me as ladders. My attitude is to maintain people, generally, who would tell me the truth.
And again I find, for example, that the biggest help my wife [Njideka Ojukwu] gives me is her posture, which is totally, diametrically opposed to sycophancy. She does not see me as anything, but Emeka, who wooed her and later proposed to her and married her. She would not change. And I value the last minutes of the day when she then tells me what she feels about certain performances.
If you look also at my crest, you will find a motto: “To Thine Own Self, Be True”. I seek friends that would help me be true to myself. Obviously, today, my position in the NPN [National Party of Nigeria] is largely honorific – National Vice-Chairman – so I don’t have as many sycophants, perhaps, as I had, when I was head of Biafra. I don’t have as many sycophants as I had when I was Governor of Eastern Region. Should I advance? I hope to God I do. I know there will be more sycophants, people who think they can make a career, standing on my shoulders or being carried across different and difficult paths on my back.
There was this strong rumour during the war and even now, that you were always too self-willed and that, that attitude largely misguided many decisions that affected Biafra negatively, even though you had a Consultative Assembly and a war cabinet that you always seemed to consult, regularly. It was even said that you delegated quite a lot to the late Dr. C. C. Mojekwu, your relative, prompting many to see it all as nepotism. What do you have to say about all this, were you just consulting merely to sound people out, knowing already, the direction you were headed?
Honestly, I cannot judge myself, I haven’t got that capacity. I do not think, actually, I am self-willed. And I remember, during the war many people, in fact, blamed me for being too soft and listening to too many people. No. That I have a general idea where I am going, yes. I think it is my function, actually, if I’m leading something, I must have an idea and I usually have. The point I’m trying to make is this: that should somebody convince me, otherwise, I accept it. I have no qualms at all about accepting advice.
Again, I have come back and people are amazed because I keep an open door. In fact, the people who get tired are those waiting, not me. For as long as there is somebody waiting in my ante-chamber, or in my sitting-room, I will be with them. I talk to everybody; I try to gather from them, their opinions. Now, a number of people, of course, try to peddle certain ideas about me. Perhaps, they believe that. But I suspect, actually, that the problem is one of giving a dog a bad name, once you have decided to hang it.
A lot of people, even on my return, were a bit nervous. They were very nervous because they knew what I knew of them. And they thought, of course, that my attitude would be anti. I watch them taking positions and posturing. I would like and I keep looking for somebody who could, in fact, give an objective assessment, with examples, of willfulness. I want to make this point that when I’m convinced about something, o gosh, I go ahead. And I make my point as forcefully, as I can.
I’m not unaware, also, that sycophants watching me in argument, might misinterpret the force of my argument and then withdraw, thinking I would not accommodate them with a contrary view…(chuckles). But the fault is actually theirs, not mine. When you sit with somebody, and this is the way I go, I permit anybody in-front of me, to say what they want and as forcefully as they can. I personally put my own case as forcefully as I can, then we try to balance out. But one thing is certain: I, personally, once I’m convinced, irrespective of what position I had taken, I have no qualms about changing.
Then, you talk about the late Dr. C. C. Mojekwu, my late uncle…
I think he was one of the most misunderstood personalities of the crisis period. I think that what had happened to him was the desire of a people to find a scapegoat. In my position, I symbolised the people’s resistance. In a way, I was sacrosanct and they looked behind me for somebody to hang, not for mistakes, as such, but essentially their frustrations.
I remember one conversation I had with Dr. C. C. Mojekwu, when he was so upset by the degree of opprobrium that was heaped on him and he didn’t know what to do, he talked to me about it and I said:
“C. C., it’s part of the struggle. I only appointed you a Commissioner for Internal Affairs, but everybody rushed to you with their problems, assuming that you were closest to me. In those days, when you passed by in a vehicle, people shouted, ‘power-power’. You were probably the only Commissioner of mine that received that type of ovation. This is the time to pay the price. And naturally, with our frustration, you have been selected and made a scapegoat. Try and understand our people. Don’t get so upset, understand and forgive.”
And I’m glad he took that advice because, right to his death, he did not seek to go into this whole business of self-justification. No. He understood, he smiled and bore it with fortitude. Delegation to him during the war? No. In fact, if you are looking for someone that received a lot of delegation…(pauses)…no, I suppose it’s too early to start talking in detail…but certainly, it wasn’t Dr. C. C. Mojekwu. There were others that acted far more on my behalf than he ever did. In any case, don’t forget he was mostly in Lisbon and only came in when I sent for him.
In other words, sir, you’re saying that what people said about him regarding funds and the purchase of arms, during the war, were just untruths?
No, talking about funds and purchase of arms, the one thing I made absolutely certain of was that C. C. Mojekwu did not handle funds. Oh-no! What he did was indicate what was required because he had personal code with me. He was in Europe, I would pass on the message to him; he would give the instruction. Oh-no, we had an officer in-charge of funds. That officer is in Lagos, actually, he is a top accountant in Lagos. He handled funds and, in fact, what happened was that C. C. would point, the officer would pay. So question of his handling funds did not arise.
How true is it that some people – including even a couple of prominent Igbo individuals – were quite nervous about your pardon and even resisted your return from exile?
From newspaper reports, since I have returned, it is quite clear that some people resisted my return – some people amongst the Igbo, some people, in other parts of Nigeria. And don’t forget, even Jesus Christ had some opposition, you know…(laughter).
Are you just conjecturing, sir, or you speak from a position of absolute knowledge?
I am absolutely certain that certain people opposed my return.
There must be a reason for this, or what do you think?
Don’t you think it would be better to ask them?
Can you give a clue to who these people could be?
I would be irresponsible if I answered that. You know. But the fact you have to understand is that there are vested interests. People, for example, are in positions. They are rather worried about the future, what would happen. There are people who actually believed a lot of the war propaganda, who thought I was their natural enemies. Naturally, both sides would resent my coming back. It’s only natural. I don’t need proof for this. I assume that some people would be.
Let us take a look into the past, once again and in this regard, I want to discuss what General Madiebo said…
(Cuts in)…No, no, no, no…look, on the question of General Madiebo, I honestly don’t think there is much to say. I have read a lot and what I find is that, normally generals, after a war, sing their victories. He is a unique one. He is the first general in history that sings his own defeat…
That is quite unique, indeed…
He is unique…(general laughter)…
You were quoted in a book by Frederick Forsyth and indeed severally, elsewhere, to have resisted the coup of January 15, 1966. Let us talk about that coup, why did you resist a coup like that? Was it your love for One Nigeria, or what?
I have always been in favour of One Nigeria. I had, at that time, also been aware of the difficulties. At the time things began to fall apart, I felt the only thing I could do was rather, not just to bemoan the fact, but to try my best to maintain what I considered the last bastion of nationalism – the army – intact.
If you want to understand my activity during that period, just see it in my interest to ensure that the army did not split apart. That was all…
It would have been better to find out from the five majors what their object was – I don’t know if you understand – because in a situation like that, telling me that, ‘our aim was to bring Nigeria together’…after the fact?
The Ahiara Declaration
And much more…