Max Siollun

Max Siollun

Max Siollun is a historian and commentator on Nigerian political and governmental issues, with a focus on those pertaining to Nigerian history and the Nigerian military’s participation in politics. He has written a number of articles and critiques regarding Nigerian history, politics and its military coups. He is also the author of a forthcoming book on the origins of military engagement in Nigerian politics. Mr Siollun welcomes reader feedback on his articles and may be contacted by clicking here. His website

Saturday, 26 November 2011 22:36

Odumegwu-Ojukwu: Hero or villain

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is a man that inspires conflicting emotions in people.  To some he is a born leader and hero.  To others he is an ambitious man that tried to break up the federation of Nigeria.  Where Odumegwu-Ojukwu is concerned, no one is a neutral.  The conflicting opinions on him are consistent with his inconsistent personality and history.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu is an educated man that entered a profession that many Nigerians regarded at the time as a profession for the uneducated, a southerner born in the north who fought a three-year-long war against the north, a man who once led an attempt to secede from Nigeria, but later ran for President of Nigeria.

A leader must be judged by what benefits or misfortune he has brought to his people.  The question to be asked is: has Odumegwu-Ojukwu brought anything positive to the Igbo?  His record is grim.  The "accomplishments Odumegwu-Ojukwu  has brought his people are as follows":

·         Dragging them into a brutal civil war they had no chance of winning, and which resulted in 1 million of them dying.

·         Even when it became clear that his people were starving to death in massive numbers, he continued the war which was doomed from the start.

·         He fled and left his people after the war.

·         The civil war caused his people to be stereotyped as disloyal and led to an unwritten discrimination against them.

It is remarkable that a man who has brought few tangible benefits to his people is so revered by them.  Although Igbo by parentage (his father was the millionaire businessman Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu), Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was born in Zungeru in the north and attended Nigeria’s most prestigious school Kings College, before later graduating with a degree in History from Lincoln College, Oxford University (where he joined the communist party) in the UK prior to joining the Nigerian army.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu was the first university graduate to enlist in the Nigerian army.  Intellectually, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  was in a different league to many of his peers.  Joining the army in an era of political crises and increasing officer politicization of the army, Odumegwu-Ojukwu found his niche.  During the 1964 federal election crisis, the President and Prime Minister jockeyed for control and loyalty of the army.  In the heat of the crisis some of Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s colleagues alleged that he approached them with a plan to overthrow the civilian government and replace it with a military government.  The matter was reported to the army’s then commander Major-General Welby-Everard. 

If Odumegwu-Ojukwu  harboured political ambitions, he was given a chance to showcase his political acumen when a group of young army majors overthrew the democratic government in January 1966.  Contrary to what has been written in some quarters, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  refused to cooperate with the majors – including Major Nzeogwu.  When Nigeria’s first military government emerged, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  was appointed the Military Governor of Nigeria’s Eastern Region.  His appointment to be the East’s Military Governor was also ironic as he had spent very little of his life in the East.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu  was the most politically active of the four military governors.   By mid-1966, the army was imploding and another army coup was staged by northern soldiers during which hundreds of Igbo soldiers (including General Aguiyi-Ironsi) were killed. 

A central plank of this coup was the elimination of Odumegwu-Ojukwu.  The ‘pointman’ who was to execute the coup in the Eastern Region was a young Lieutenant named Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (the older brother of Nigeria’s current president).  A  middle-ranking, northern officer (Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon) was chosen by northern soldiers to replace Aguiyi-Ironsi, despite the objections of Odumegwu-Ojukwu who insisted that the most senior officer Brigadier Ogundipe should succeed Aguiyi-Ironsi.  In the aftermath of the coup, northern soldiers and civilians carried out gruesome pogroms against the Igbo, and tens of thousands of Igbo were murdered.  As decapitated and badly mutilated corpses began arriving back in Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s Eastern Region, there was a sense of insecurity and revulsion.  Separatist sentiment increased in the Eastern Region and many Igbo and other easterners began to call for the Eastern Region to secede from the Nigerian federation which could no longer guarantee their safety. 

Contrary to what is widely believed, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  was actually a moderating voice in a sea of Igbo hawks who wanted immediate secession.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu cooperated with Gowon as he (Odumegwu-Ojukwu ) was anxious to limit the bloodshed and to protect the lives and property of Igbo still remaining in the north.  He also ordered all northerners resident in the east to leave for their own safety, and brokered a ceasefire deal with almost 1000 northern soldiers in Enugu which allowed the northern soldiers to leave unharmed with their weapons.  However there were limits to Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s cooperation with Gowon, and he was still refusing to recognize Gowon as Nigeria's Head of State.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu  defiantly continued to address Gowon as the "the Chief of Staff (Army)" (the post which Gowon occupied before the coup that brought him to power).

Aburi

After Nigeria was dragged to the brink of the abyss by two military coups in 1966, and pogroms which followed them, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  had refused to attend any meetings of the Supreme Military Council and continually repeated his mantra that "I, as the Military Governor of the east cannot meet anywhere in Nigeria where there are northern troops."

ojukwu66Odumegwu-Ojukwu  finally agreed to attend an SMC meeting in the neutral territory of Aburi in Ghana in January 1967.  It was in the writer’s opinion, Odumegwu-Ojukwu ’s finest hour.  While the other delegates arrived at Aburi with a simple, but unformulated idea that somehow, Nigeria must stay together, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  prepared thoroughly and came armed with notes and secretaries.  In the words of one writer “Ojukwu was the only participant who knew what he wanted, and he secured the signatures of the SMC to documents which would have had the effect of turning Nigeria into little more than a customs union".[1] 

Some claimed that Odumegwu-Ojukwu  took the SMC for a ride by using his superior intelligence to trap the SMC officers into an agreement they did not understand.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu was engaged in a constitutional debate by himself against five military officers, and two police officers, yet still got his way.  He can hardly be faulted for outwitting opponents that outnumbered him by seven to one.  Questions might be asked of the other SMC members of greater numerical strength who allowed Odumegwu-Ojukwu  to extract such substantial concessions from them.  The agreement was never implemented as each side accused the other of bad faith.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu cannot be faulted for the failure to implement the Aburi decisions as it was the federal government that reneged on the agreement. 

The federal government attempted to implement the Aburi agreement in diluted form by enacting a modified Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree (Decree 8) which turned Nigeria into a de facto confederation.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu  declined to accept the initial draft and insisted on a full and complete implementation of the accords reached at Aburi.  Nonetheless as the weaker party he could still have showed greater pragmatism to spare further suffering for his people.  At this point Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s decision making must be questioned.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu would have saved many lives had he shown a greater degree of flexibility by accepting the Decree as it gave him 90% of what he wanted.  In the “winner takes all” mentality that is so symptomatic of Nigerian politics, Odumegwu-Ojukwu unrealistically held out for 100% of his demands and in the end, received 0%.  His intransigence placed him and his people in a worse position than they started in.  Rather than turning Nigeria into a confederation (which is what Decree 8 did), Odumegwu-Ojukwu ’s intransigence gave the federal government an opportunity to overrun the Eastern Region, carve the country into several states and concentrate massive powers in the central government.  Forty years later many Nigerians now call for the restructuring of Nigeria, and for devolution of power to its regions. 

Odumegwu-Ojukwu  had a golden opportunity to achieve this over 40 years ago but squandered it.  Had he shown some patience he may have achieved his objectives – albeit at a later date.  The old adage is that “the best comes to those who wait.”  Odumegwu-Ojukwu  could have taken a leaf from the book of another infant country named Israel.  For several decades Jews fought to be given their own state in what was then British Mandate Palestine.  In 1947, they were granted their state but only on half the land that they wanted.  Realizing that it is best to accept what is achievable today, rather than risk holding out for 100% and getting nothing, Israel’s first leader David Ben-Gurion accepted a state but cleverly did not enunciate the borders of this state – this leaving the door open to agitate for more land at a later date.  Today the “green line” borders of Israel encompass more land than it originally had at independence. 

The Biafra Story

When armed confrontation with the federal government was imminent, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  knew as a military man that the eastern region had absolutely no chance of victory in a conflict with the federal government.  Yet he declared the secession of the eastern region which he governed, in the knowledge that federal troops would invade immediately after the secession.  Although Ojukwu doubtless possessed outstanding leadership and motivational skills which he used admirably to pull his people solidly behind the war effort, it is uncertain exactly how he possibly believed that the eastern region (armed only with a few elderly World War 2 era rifles) could succeed against an enemy armed with limitless mortars, machine guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, trucks and air force jets.  One does not have to be a military strategist to see the folly of this decision.

At the time, there was a widely held belief (propagated by Odumegwu-Ojukwu  and other Biafran leaders) that defeat for Biafra would be met by mass indiscriminate massacres by the federal government.  If Odumegwu-Ojukwu  believed this, then his escape at the end of the war is deplorable.  After over a million Igbo were killed in the senseless war, Odumegwu-Ojukwu  fled in the last days of the war when his people were at their lowest ebb, despite repeatedly promising throughout the war that he would never leave his people to the mercy of the federal troops.  If he believed that all his people would be massacred then his flight to a luxurious exile abroad and refusal to stand side by side with them to finish a war he dragged them into, cannot be applauded.  Odumegwu-Ojukwu is an iconic leader for his people, but has failed to deliver the aspirations of his people.  The question remains – is Odumegwu-Ojukwu  a hero or a disastrous strategist?