Saturday 26 November 2011
A Monody for Emeka Ojukwu
(Ikemba Nnewi and Eze Igbo Gburugbru)
(4 November 1933 26 November 2011)
Tributes in exaltation, inquisitiveness and in enigmatic fogginess will flow for Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who passed away on 25 November 2011, in London at the righteous age of 78 — three scores and ten, plus eight. Only two weeks ago his 78 birthday was celebrated with fanfare.
Until his death, Emeka Ojukwu, as he was fondly called by his peers and close friends, was an elder statesman, a point some may still dispute as they do on whether he should be addressed as a General or a Colonel; but indisputably, he was the former Biafran leader, the leader of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) and a renowned Igbo leader. Furthermore, he was to many a War Lord, with the adjectival qualifications of a hero or a villain.
Conventional wisdom has it that some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. For Emeka Ojukwu, all three processes applied because he was involved rom the womb. Ojukwu was born great with the proverbial “silver spoon” in his mouth; he achieved greatness, choosing his own career path to fame or infamy, and he had greatness thrust upon him, when at the youthful age of 33, he led the Biafran secession effort from Nigeria only to return many years to vie for the Nigerian Presidency.
Emeka Ojukwu was an iconoclast; cerebral, erudite and fearless. He was articulate and undoubtedly, a skilled debater and negotiator, a fact made manifest during his negotiation missions in Aburi, Ghana, in bid to preempt a civil war. Ojukwu also had pedigree, which most of his peers both civilian and military –did not. Although he was raised in the best schools in Nigeria and England, he was well grounded in the traditional culture and meekness of his parents, who hail from Umudim, Nnewi and Ochuche Ogbakuba, in the present Ogbaru LGA.
Nonetheless, those who have encountered Ojukwu and brushed his wrong side know fully well that he can be caustic, and unwilling to suffer fools. Hence, some have branded him narcissistic, insensately ambitious, arrogant and rebellious. The latter characterization is traceable to his involvement as a ten year old student in the famous King’s College Lagos strike, during which he impetuously slapped an English school master, Mr. Sleigh. The encounter landed him and his fellow students in court, and their trial would become a cause célèbre in the Nigerian media.
Nonetheless, Emeka Ojukwu was a patriot of the first class order. This would explain why he elected to serve as District Officer upon his return from England, before embarking on a career that he believed called for a greater order of patriotism, diligence and service, which was service in the Nigerian military. As a civilian and a soldier, Emeka Ojukwu excelled. As a politician he lived up to his personal mission: Clearly I intend to use every ounce of energy to nudge Nigeria into the right way.
More often than not, Emeka Ojukwu will be best remembered by his admirers and detractors for leading the Biafra-Nigeria war from 30 May 1967 to 12 January 1970, in which over one million lives were lost. For his unapologetic leadership role, he was forced into exile and lived in Ivory Coast for 13 years, returning only after receiving a full official pardon from President Shehu Shagari, in 1982, in the spirit of the no victor, no vanquished doctrine enunciated by Gen. Yakubu Gowon at the end of the civil war. Unlike many ex-Biafran soldiers, Ojukwu was initially not remanded in detention upon his return.
Being the political animal and tactician he was, Ojukwu entered partisan politics, hoping to use the process to personify the full re-integration of the Igbo into the Nigerian mainstream; or alternatively prove that the Igbo remained marginalized despite the platitudes. His decision irked many Igbo and non-Igbo alike- but Ojukwu, ever stubborn and determine forged ahead. Those against him for different reasons conspired to ensure that he lost the Anambra senatorial seat, which he ran for under the ruling NPN ticket. The alternative choices for Ojukwu were to stay out of partisan politics or join an opposition party. Joining the ruling PDP, gave quid pro quo coloration to his pardon, reportedly engineered by late Senator Chuba Okadigbo and his aide, Dr. George Obiozor, both of whom served in political unit in President Shagaris office. Unknown to many while in exile he had been visited by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a presumed adversary and architect of the Biafran strangulation policy.
Several years after his return and following a military coup in 1984, the leadership of the military regime, who were mostly junior Nigerian officers and therefore subordinate to Ojukwu when the civil war broke out, got their ways. Believing that Ojukwu had committed treason, and should have been tried both for his presumed inaction during the January 1966 coup and his eventual action of leading Biafra, he was clamped into detention for several months, at the infamous Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos, largely on trumped up charges. He regained his freedom in 1985.
Ojukwu until his death remained an outspoken person both as a private citizen and when he served in several elected capacities. He gave many pointed interviews during which he spoke on critical national issues and often reminded his compatriots that the mistakes that lead the nation to a civil war in 1967 should not be repeated. He warned also, that if the mistakes reoccurred, the Igbo reserved the right of defending themselves as they once did. It was in this context that he made the controversial remark “Biafra remained an option, leading some to brand him a warmonger, unrepentant traitor and unpatriotic. Nonetheless, his credentials as an officer and a gentleman remained intact as did his polish, unsullied manners and cosmopolitanism.
Emeka Ojukwus role in partisan politics is unprecedented in history for anyone who once took up arm against his fatherland. He was a member of the 1995 Constitutional Conference, which gave birth to the present geopolitical structure. He even vied for the presidency of Nigeria and until his death led a registered political party. Once when he was asked to reflect on his seemingly unprecedented political role, he proclaimed: “As a committed democrat, every single day under an un-elected government hurts me. The citizens of this country are mature enough to make their on choices, just as they have the right to make their own mistakes.” All said Ojukwu remains an epitome of a post-conflict reconciliation process, when nationally owned.
Ojukwu will be missed for many reasons. An undisputed newsmaker, he was also a reputed ladies man. He was a great conversationalist and as such a great catch for an interview. At any time, Emeka Ojukwu could wax philosophical bringing into full play, his background in history and classics. Neither was he shy about his Socratic bent of turning him answers into questions. When he turned seventy, he was asked to assess his place in time. He merely responded with the quip: Seventy for me means total liberation from myself . At seventy, I am not in competition with anybody. I am totally what I am. For him, both the foreboding title of a rebel and the noble title of a dissident had been earned with the attending risks and sacrifices, not merely claimed.
Much has and much more will be written about Emeka Ojukwu. For his part, he wrote his memoir, Because Im Involved, in which he offered sketchy insights into the whereof and why of the civil war, but more about his life, thinking, observations and passions. It is believed that his complete memoir on the Nigerian civil war is done but yet to be published. If so, it would be published posthumously and would surely be revelatory. Nonetheless, Ojukwu gave a synoptic assessment of his role and conduct of the civil war. His words:
Well, as I look back, I would say yes. I would have for those battles I lost; but for the ones I won, I would not change anything. One of the things that I would like to do since I came back from exile is that I would like to hold a plebiscite, not that it would have changed much, but that it would have shown it was the wish of the entire people of the southeast.
Encomiums continue to pour in for Emeka Ojukwu. None may be truer than that from General Olusegun Obasanjo, who said, In a way, his death marks the end of an era in Nigeria.
Misunderstood as he was, it is to the greater tribute of the Nigerian nation that General Yakubu Gowon his erstwhile adversary would describe Ojukwu in death as a great Nigerian who believed so much in the unity of the country. Whereas some, with a jaundiced perspective might see Ojukwus passing as mainly an Igbo loss and therefore inconsequential, this is not so. In more ways than one, he was the ubiquitous reminder to one and all that for the Nigerian project to be a reality, the interest of every stakeholder must be respected and protected; and that the failure to do so was an invitation to internecine conflict.
Emeka Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi, a legend in his lifetime lives in history and posterity. His place in history is assured and will supplant a billion footnotes. Now that he has been called home to his maker, he will have a chance to implement these fateful words of his: I will retire a few months after my death. Adieu Ikemba. You remained unbowed and a valiant soul to the end!
Mr. Oseloka Obaze is a co-founder of the Kwenu.com Book Review Forum, which is dedicated to the promotion of books with Igbo and Afrocentric themes. He is also a supporting Member of the African Writers Endowment (AWE). From 1999 to 2005, he served on the editorial board of INYEAKA, the journal of Songhai Charities, Inc., a New Jersey community-based charity founded and run by Nigerians based in New York Tri-state area in the United States, first as its founding Publisher and later as the Editor-At-Large. He is also on the editorial board of The Amaka Gazette, journal of the Christ the King College, Onitsha Alumni Association in America. His collection of poems, “Regarscent Past: A Collection of Poems” was second among the top three finalists in the poetry category in the African Writers Endowment Publishing Grant Program for 2004. He is working on a novel titled “Happy Eulogy. He reviews books and arts strictly as a hobby. © Copyright 26 November 2011.