Nigeria: Odumegwu Ojukwu - End of an Iconic Warrior
By Louis Achi
Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra and the opposition All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), succumbed yesterday to the ravages of stroke, after almost a year of hospitalization at Royal Berkshire Hospital in the UK. Just 22 days earlier, on November 4, his well-attended 78th birthday ceremony was marked with compelling fanfare at his Enugu residence. But the ailing revolutionary was absent on account of ill-health, a condition that finally claimed his life yesterday.
Driven by a mule-headed tenacity and innate conviction for much of his life - even against his prominent father Ojukwu, the Ikemba Nnewi and Ezeigbo gburugburu (king of the Igbo worldwide) breezed into life's stage after benefiting from some of the best preparations accessible by wealth and privilege. This background played a crucial role in shaping his eventful life.
His Life And Times...
Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was born on November 4, 1933, at Zungeru in northern Nigeria to Sir Louis Phillippe Odumegwu Ojukwu, a businessman from Nnewi in the south-east.
Ojukwu's father was in the transport business. He took advantage of the business boom during the Second World War to become one of the richest men in Nigeria.
The younger Ojukwu began his educational career in Lagos. In 1944, the young lad was briefly imprisoned for assaulting a white British colonial teacher who was humiliating a black woman at King's College in Lagos, an event which generated widespread coverage in local newspapers. At 13, his father shipped him abroad to study in Britain first at Epsom College, in Surrey, and later he earned a Master's degree in history at Lincoln College, Oxford University. He returned to Nigeria in 1956.
He joined the civil service in Eastern Nigeria as an administrative officer at Udi, in present-day Enugu State. In 1957, within months of working with the colonial civil service, he left and joined the military as one of the first and few university graduates to join the army: O. Olutoye (1956), C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1957), E. A. Ifeajuna and C. O. Rotimi (1960), and A. Ademoyega (1962).
Ojukwu's background and education guaranteed his promotion to higher ranks. At that time, the Nigerian Army had 250 officers and only 15 were Nigerians. There were 6,400 other ranks, of which 336 were British. It is not surprising that at N/29 the army found invaluable training resources in the young man. (W.U. Bassey was N/1, while JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was N/2; the first Nigerian to be commissioned as an officer, Lieutenant L. V. Ugboma, left in 1948.
After serving in the United Nations' peacekeeping force in the Congo, under Major General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ojukwu was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1964 and posted to Kano, where he was in charge of the 5th Battalion of the Nigerian Army.
1966 Coup, Nigeria-Biafra Civil War
Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu was in Kano, Northern Nigeria, when Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu on January 15, 1966, executed and announced the bloody military coup in Kaduna. It is to his credit that the coup lost much steam in the north, where it had succeeded. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu supported the forces loyal to the supreme commander of the Nigerian armed forces, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironisi. Major Nzeogwu was in control of Kaduna, but the coup had flopped in other parts of the country. He surrendered.
General Aguiyi-Ironsi took over the leadership of the country after the failure of the Nzeogwu-led coup, and thus became the first military head of state. On Monday, January 17, 1966, he appointed military governors for the four regions. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu was appointed military governor of Eastern Region. Others were Lt.-Cols Hassan Usman Katsina (North), Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (West), and David Akpode Ejoor (Mid West). These men formed the Supreme Military Council with Brigadier B. A. O. Ogundipe, chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters; Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, chief of staff, Army HQ; Commodore J. E. A. Wey, head of Nigerian Navy; Lt. Col. George T. Kurubo, head of Air Force.
By May 29 1966, things quickly fell apart: There was a planned pogrom in northern Nigeria during which the Igbo were targeted and killed. This presented problems for the young military governor, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu. He did everything in his power to prevent reprisals and even encouraged people to return, as assurances for their safety had been given by his supposed colleagues up north and South-west.
On July 29, 1966, a group of officers of northern origin, notably Majors Murtala Ramat Rufai Muhammed, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, and Martin Adamu, led the majority northern soldiers in a mutiny that was later tagged "counter-coup". The supreme commander-general Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host Colonel Fajuyi were abducted and killed in Ibadan.
First, Ojukwu insisted that the military hierarchy must be preserved; in which case, Brigadier Ogundipe should take over leadership, not Colonel Gowon. But Ogundipe no longer had the stomach to deal with the army; he was easily convinced to step aside and was posted to the Nigerian High Commission in London.
Leader Of Biafra
In January 1967, the country's military leadership went to Aburi, Ghana for a peace conference hosted by General Joseph Ankrah. The implementation of the agreements reached at Aburi fell apart upon the leadership's return to Nigeria. On May 30, 1967, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state to be known as Biafra. Part of his famous broadcast read:
"Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic; now, therefore, I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra."
On July 6, 1967, Gowon declared war and attacked Biafra. For 30 months, the war raged on. Now General Odumegwu-Ojukwu knew that the odds against the new republic were overwhelming.
Most European states recognised the illegitimacy of the Nigerian military rule and banned all future supplies of arms, but the UK government substantially increased its supplies, even sending British Army and Royal Air Force advisors.
After three years of non-stop fighting and starvation, a hole did appear in the Biafran front lines and this was exploited by the Nigerian military. As it became obvious that all was lost, Ojukwu was convinced to leave the country to avoid his certain assassination. On January 9, 1970, General Odumegwu-Ojukwu handed over power to his second in command, Chief of General Staff Major-General Philip Effiong, and left for Côte d'Ivoire, where President Felix HouphÃƒÂ¶et-Biogny - who had recognized Biafra on May 14, 1968 - granted him political asylum.
After 12 years in exile, the Federal Government of Nigeria under President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari granted an official pardon to Odumegwu-Ojukwu and opened the road for a triumphant return in 1982. The people of Nnewi gave him the now very famous chieftaincy title of Ikemba (Power of the people), while the entire Igbo nation took to calling him Dikedioramma (or beloved hero). His foray into politics was disappointing to many, who wanted him to stay above the fray, joining the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) while the majority of Igbo were in the Nigeria People's Party (NPP) led by the great Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria's first president. He lost the Senate seat he craved to Dr. Edwin Onwudiwe of the NPP.
The Second Republic was truncated on December 31, 1983 by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, supported by Generals Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida and Sani Abacha. The junta proceeded to arrest and keep Ojukwu in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos. In 1985, General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew General Buhari and reviewed Ojukuw's prison term and charges. The charges were reviewed and many were dismissed or drastically revised.
After the ordeal in Buhari's prisons, Dim Odumegwu-Ojukwu continued to play major roles in the advancement of the Igbo nation in a democracy because, "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 own choices, just as they have the right to make their own mistakes." He played a major role in the 1995 Constitutional Conference, which gave birth to the present geopolitical structure.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu was married to former Bianca Onoh, the first Miss Intercontinental 1989, a union blessed with children. Before Bianca, he had divorced his first wife and mother of his grown-up children. His death opens up questions as to the fate of Ndigbo in Nigeria's intrigues-laden political arena.