The life of General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu is typically resourceful, a reflection of the complexity and dialectical tension of human beings. Ojukwu the man had a humble beginning as a Nigerian of Igbo ethnic descent. Born into a prominent, wealthy Ojukwu family in Nnewi in Anambra state, the baby Ojukwu was a child considered born with a “golden spoon in his mouth.” The father was one of the Nigeria Millionaires, an indigenous entrepreneur known for his ownership of Ojukwu Transport Service, a business entity based in the former Eastern region. Ojukwu’s early life was exemplary and revealed many enviable achievements; he was a graduate of Oxford University in England.
Surprisingly, for a graduate of one of the world’s renounced institutions of higher learning and a man born into a rich family, Ojukwu chose an unconventional career path by first joining the Nigeria civil service, later the country’s military service. My interest in writing about Ojukwu arose from the fact that I belong to the war generation who witnessed first- hand the historic civil war in 1967 – 1970. More importantly, in 1970, I knew of Ojukwu through, Ojumu, a labor officer at the Federal Ministry of Labor in Lagos, who was a senior of the secessionist leader at Oxford University. In telling Ojukwu story, the official said that Ojukwu studied History in order to practicalize what he studied. Still, at the family level, the General consummated a marriage of plutocracy when he took Bianca Onoh, a woman of beauty from another rich family as his wife.
When the annals of Nigerian history is written, a chapter would be devoted to Ojukwu’s unique role in the country’s inter- ethnic political struggle in the post colonial period. In fact, the name, Ojukwu is synonymous with secessionism in Nigeria. In my view, Ojukwu contributed to modernity in Nigeria. How? Truth be told, one could argue here that he deployed the rudimentary African scientific and technological means of empowering himself and his people during the Civil War. He and his advocates saw modernity in his strategies and activism during the crisis. For example, the Biafran invented a weapon known as “ogbunigwe”(an indigenous bomb developed to kill the enemies en-mass).
Again, one can maintain here that the general was a regional leader whose rhetoric and activism made him opposed to the legacy of the British colonial government. The creation of the political-geography of Nigeria was attributed to a bias of the colonial administration, which to a certain degree is responsible for the contemporary challenges facing Nigeria as a nation since independence. The 1914 Amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates under the colonial governor, Lord Frederick Dealtry Luggard was a marriage of convenience to serve the political and economic interests of the British. Overall, the British Nigeria policy sowed the seeds of discord among ethnic groups in the country. Hence, Nigeria is faced with its political structural imbalance problem. Some people attributed Ojukwu’s joining the Army as a preparatory step in anticipation of what he perceived as the future challenges facing the country and the role of the military in the Nigeria government. It is hard to believe that Ojukwu with strong educational background will enlist in the Nigerian army. This action of Ojukwu in the army uniform has raised and provided for many riddles and puzzles as to why he joined the army, more so, according to the past thinking- that the military profession was considered a dumping ground for the less educated children from poor, illiterate families.
Before the outbreak of the civil war, Ojukwu as a senior Nigerian army officer, he gallantly and professionally served his country in various military assignments. In Africa and at the international community of nations, he served as a member of the UN Peace Keeping force in the Congo. In the domestic affairs of Nigeria, Ojukwu provided military leadership in 1964, as the commander of the 5th Battalion of Nigerian army in Kano. Similarly, in January 17, 1966, the federal military government under General Yakubu Gowon appointed Ojukwu as the military governor of the former Eastern region.
It is an intriguing question for this author to ask of the location of Ojukwu among the Igbo ethnic group? Based on discussions with some Igbos, it is my understanding that Ojukwu benefitted immensely from his association and mentoring relationship with the undisputed political leader of the Igbos, former President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe in the immediate post- colonial Nigeria. It is also stated that Ojukwu fed on and took advantage of the cultural belief that “we are all Igbo” which provides the basis for Igbo solidarity, particularly in the face of external aggression such as the massacre of the Igbos in September 1966 (20,000 Ibo massacred, The Washington Post, November 30, 2011, P. B5) in the northern region and estimated 2 million people (Michael R. Stafford, Major, U.S. Army, “Quick kill in slow motion: The Nigerian Civil War” Marine Corps and Staff College, April 1, 1984) in the subsequent Biafran war. It is therefore not unreasonable to credit the presence of these two factors for the rapid rise of Ojukwu’s leadership among the Igbos. It is appropriate to characterize Ojukwu’s leadership role in the breakaway of Biafra as legendary in the cause of Igbos. But, with the demise of Biafra, and in the aftermath of the disagreement between Ojukwu and his political mentor, Azikwe, his influence among the Igbos waned.
The differences between the two Igbo political and military giants resonated in and had ripple effect in the larger Igbo community which polarized and divided them into Ojukwu and Azikwe camps respectively. Ojukwu’s leadership was further eroded and in some quarters, openly challenged because of his self- inflicted wounds, by politically engaging in and forming alliance with the northern oligarchy-Hausa –Fulani, who are known to be the historic rival and sworn enemy of the Igbos from political and religious perspectives in Nigeria. For example, in 1983, Ojukwu, a popular former secessionist leader ran for the Nigeria senate but he was defeated in his home state of Anambra. Is this to say that Ojukwu, the “lion” of the Biafra movement has lost his importance among and the support of the Igbo people? Or what is the explanation for Ojukwu’s political irrelevancy in the heart of Igboland?
What is Ojukwu’s secessionist legacy in Nigeria? As much as I am opposed to and condemned secessionist tendency in Nigeria, I strongly believe that there are some lessons learned, also there are some “silver linings” in the civil war experience in the country. The freedom for minority groups (Calabar, Ogoja, Rivers, etc) was attained through the creation of 12 states in 1967 in Nigeria (Gowon’s broadcast to the nation, May 27, 1967). Today, Nigeria has 36 states, an indication of progress in political restructuring of the pre-civil war ethnic arrangements in the country and a form of ethnic integration. Moreover, it helped to alleviate the fear of minorities in terms of political domination and marginalization by the former “Big 3”, Northern, Western, and Eastern regions. The Nigerian “Tshombe” employed a radical and revolutionary approach to resolving the ethnic conflict and military government crisis in the country, more importantly to protect his Igbo people. Ojukwu’s action fundamentally shaped and changed the internal geography of Nigeria and its domestic politics. Another benefit of the war was reflected in the area of Nigeria national security with the creation and institutionalization of training in civil defense and evacuation planning (Michael R. Stafford, Major, US Army, April 1, 1984).
However, some critics accused Ojukwu of stubbornness, selfishness and belligerency with a parochial interest of protecting the Igbo people. Ojukwu rejected Gowon’s Decree No. 8, which essentially decentralized the government of the country in order to meet one of the secessionist leader’s demands for Eastern Region to remain a part of Nigeria. Many observers of the Nigeria civil war questioned Ojukwu’s patriotism, loyalty as a high ranking Nigerian military officer and his genuine commitment to the survival of the country. He declined to accept the Aburi Compromise plan. Nonetheless, the civil war helped to galvanize and brought to the attention of the international community the state of poor ethnic relations, religious disharmony and unhealthy competition among various ethnic compositions in the country.
It is an irony that forty-one years after the Biafran war, the 1967 prevailing ethnic animosity and conflict which led to the killings of Igbos and other non-Muslim religious groups of southern origin are still alive. For example, the recent threat from Boko Haram, a Muslim terrorist sect who undertook the slaughtering of innocent Igbos and Christian groups has brought back echoes of the civil war. The issue of northern domination is raised in the context of the political notion of north-south dichotomy, which has brought about the political behavior of the “giant” north going after the “pigmy” of the south. And once again, it seems that history is repeating itself. The Igbos in the north, are making the reverse journey back to their homeland. President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and our national leaders in the National Assembly owe it to all Nigerians irrespective of their ethnic and religious background, to ensure peaceful co-existence among the diverse ethnic groups across the country.
Considering the current atmosphere of ethnic drift, there is a need for urgent action to transform the ethnic landscape of the country. It seems the united Nigeria for which many lives were lost, a goal of the Nigeria civil war, is elusive and unattainable bearing the existence of the on-going brutal attacks by the extremist Boko Haram in the northern states of the country. In 2001, Ojukwu again warned Nigeria that Biafra is still an option for the Igbos to consider. The death of Ojukwu is a vivid reminder of ethnic injustice as a fungal force with the potency of destroying the unionism and stability of Nigeria. The important question for Nigerians is, where do we go from here? Obviously, with Ojukwu in death and the Biafran war in the history book, yet Nigerians continue to wrestle with the sobering question about the future of Nigeria and its survival as an indivisible nation.