In 1975 my family relocated from Ibadan, Western Nigeria, to the East – or what was then the East Central State.
First was the one year detour in rural, hilly Aro-Ndizuogu, where my father with the American Dr Ford and a few others had tried to establish the Ojike Memorial Medical Center.
At the end of one year in Izuogu, the late L.N. Obioha tried to entice my father to stay in Aro-Ndizuogu with a generous job offer at what was then called NIPROC, a most foresighted rural industrial concern of that period.
But my father was a dyed-in-the-wool civil servant and he wanted to get back into his game, and so took a job instead with the Health Management Board of the newly created Imo state, and was sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Umuahia.
For six months in Umuahia, my family lived in a rambling colonial-style cottage at the edge of Okpara Avenue at the Umuahia GRA, just by what was then known as the Government Field, and across it, the Ridge Club.
It was transitional housing in what I understood was the official quarters of the Station Master of the Umuahia Railways Station on a short lease to Queens. In any case, after six months, we moved for the more permanent arrangements to live on 99 Aguiyi-Ironsi street in Umuahia.
That too was a rambling double flat whose key feature as I remember was a wide, end-to end-Glass front that let in a lot of light. And we lived there until 1979/80 when we moved to the Queens Quarters. Umuahia was a lovely place then; big trees; very well-paved streets; good drainage.
It was designed like an English town, with its beautiful, low-walled cottages; mom-and-pop shops; and pubs almost on every street and interconnected alleys.
It was a city designed for biking and walking. Its model was the English town of Surrey.
There was no sense of the garrison because it was open. People threw greetings to each other from their homes across the streets; gossiped; chose their fights.
Across my home on Aguiyi-Ironsi street was the home of a young businessman and transporter, whose fleet of cars for public transportation bore the hopeful title, “More Days, More Hope.” Next to him was another, who called his own fleet, “Otigba International.”
They announced their advents with unique horns. People lived publicly, but not noisily; besides, there was due respect and deference.
Just directly in front of my house, crossing the alley to Nkwerre Street, was the Town House of the late General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi. It was modest and almost nondescript. But it was well-kept, and fiercely so by his widow, Lady Victoria Ironsi.
It was in this period that I got to know her son Johnny, the General’s last son, who was barely six months old when his father was assassinated in Ibadan.
It was easy to become friends with Johnny Aguiyi-Ironsi. He had a carefree generosity and a great appetite for life.
A thorough gentleman. I spent many an afternoon in his living room on Nkwerre street flipping through the album of his father, the late General Ironsi.
I may not be too sure of it now, but something may have awakened my sense of history and curiosity about Nigeria in those moments looking through the pictures of the tragic General.
Johnny was also one year my senior at the Government College Umuahia, but of his classmates at Umuahia, Johnny Aguiyi-Ironsi was, the jolliest of the lot, and along with two of his best buddies in Umuahia, Greg Onyeocha and Kenneth Onyejiaka, very cool cats who had nothing to prove.
Johnny’s life in a very significant way reflected his mother’s iron will. John Ironsi was born with sickle cell anaemia.
He did go into occasional crisis, and he was under the care of Dr J.O.J Okezie. But I never saw his mother go into a spin.
Mrs Ironsi was a solid woman: stoic, unpretentious, hardy – a true soldier’s wife. As everyone knows, her husband was the first Nigerian General Officer of the Nigerian Army, and Nigeria’s first Military Head of State and Supreme Commander.
When he was killed in Ibadan by Northern troupes in July 1966, her world was supposed to fall apart. It did in fact fall apart.
But she buried her husband; picked up the pieces of her life, and got on with it. At the time I got to know her, I saw a woman whose fierce will came to the fore. She was a real force of nature.
Those days, she owned a 404 Pick-Up van with which she ran her business. But I never saw her inside it.
My memory of Mrs Ironsi was always her determined walk. She had no stoop on her soldiers; nor hesitation in her gait. She was a most courageous woman.
If she harboured any bitterness against those who had murdered her “Johnny,” there was no hint of it in her demeanour. She was a Catholic.
And she was of Christ. That was all there was to it. Lady Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi was the example of one of those whose providence threw lemons, and she turned them into lemonade.
She saw, with her iron will, that her children had the protection of the fierce mother hen, in the absence of their once-powerful father.
She was that calibre of Igbo women whom folks called “Agu-Nwannyi” – the regal lioness. She lived to see many suns rise and many sunsets, and her children all amounting to something.
That was her promise, she once said in an interview, to Johnny. Her son, Thomas, became Minister of Defence; sadly, her son Johnny- named also for his father- died two years ago, preceding her in death.
The last time I saw Mrs Victoria Nwanyiocha Aguiyi-Ironsi, she was in a video dancing joyously; as though she was saying, “it is done! It is done! Thank God, it is done!” Last week, she died peacefully in her sleep.
She was 93. On that day, time had also unfurled her tapes to another of her finest swimmers.
Mrs Adanma Okpara – widow of one the greatest Igbo men that lived – Dr Michael Ihenonukara Okpara, was also called home last week. Adanma Okpara trained as a teacher, and those who knew here say she had a very formidable intellect and moral fibre.
As the first lady of the former Eastern Region of Nigeria, Mrs Okpara was clearly at the centre of her husband’s political life, and it was one of commitment to the highest values of service.
There is not much more to say about the years the Okparas held sway at the Government House in Enugu: the East was in a state of rapid development.
Then came the coup of January 1966, and the government of the East under the premiership of Dr Okpara was overthrown.
Then came the war, and Dr Okpara was appointed adviser to Ojukwu. Then came the war’s end, Michael Iheonukara Okpara was forced into exile, first in Germany, and then in Dublin, where he returned after years of distinguished political life, to lowly medical school.
They were broke. They did not steal from the public treasury of the East. They could not even afford rent in Enugu, not to talk of rent in Dublin. Dr Okpara had also been too absorbed with public service that he was unable to build a house for himself in his country home in Okpuala Nkwoegwu, Ohuhu Umuahia.
This situation would have driven many a frivolous, faithless woman into a paroxysm of regret and anger. But Adanma Okpara took it all in her stead: while her husband was in lowly exile in Europe, Mrs Okpara stayed in Umuahia, making certain that her children had a coherent, and steady life.
She was the heroine of that story, because she moored her family, and kept it going till her husband’s return from exile on 10 October 1978.
On 17 December 1984, just a week to his 64th birthday, Dr, Michael Iheonukara Okpara died suddenly in his country home. It was a devastating blow, but Adanma Okpara had been forged in the very fire of political battles and personal adversity.
In the years following her distinguished husband’s death, Mrs Okpara had sat through military rule, and the return to democratic life, but she seemed to have kept her peace, and stayed above it all. She devoted her life to serving her local community, her Methodist church, and the Girl’s Brigade of which he was a patron.
There could have been a Dr Okpara without Adanma Okpara. But he may not have been the same, and this is because, Adanma Enyidia Okpara, clearly was not only his devoted wife, she was his moral anchor and compass.
These two great women, who died within hours of each other, were the companions of two of the most powerful men in our time.
If the life they lived does not teach us anything, it ought to teach us the power of forbearance and humility. They were women of substance. And their lives were magnificent.