Ojukwu and the True Nigerian Spirit By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala


One of the best things about the passing of Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is the kind of tributes which the news of his passing has elicited across the country. The former leader of Biafra has enjoyed the distinction of being eulogised across the political, ethnic and religious spectrum. From every part of Nigeria, Nigerians, high and low, prominent and ordinary, old and young have stepped forward to honour him with moving tributes. For a man whose life was defined by the role he played in the turbulent three years of the Nigerian Civil War, a man for whom the prefix “rebel” was once de rigeur, this was quite an achievement.   The praise is also very well deserved because the life of Ojukwu exemplifies what can happen when principled courage meets patriotism. Here was a man who went to war out of conviction but who also, out of conviction, decided to stop fighting and come home to contribute to achieving the purposes for which he went to war, this time through civil and democratic means. The Eze Igbo Gburugburu was indeed a rare man who without giving up his principles, made peace with his enemies and joined hands with other patriots to seek solutions to the challenges of nationhood.

For me, and I am sure many other Nigerians of my generation on the Biafran side who are old enough to remember the cataclysmic events of the Civil War which largely defined our youth, the wave of tributes triggered by Chief Ojukwu’s passing has evoked a sense that things have come full circle. Many young Nigerians do not know that the Nigerian Civil War was one of the most tragic landmarks of the 20th century, a conflict whose horrendous human suffering inspired the founding of one of the most important humanitarian organisations in the world, Medecins san Frontierres (Doctors without Frontiers). In all, an estimated one million persons perished in the war; some estimates cite double that figure.

The response to Ojukwu’s passing has, simultaneously, recalled the nightmare years of war and also acted as a balm of healing for those deep pains of yesterday. The memories are many. I remember helping my mother and a collective of other women in Port Harcourt cook for Biafran soldiers, making “dry packs” of preserved foods to feed soldiers at the war front. I remember my father, a Brigadier in the Biafran Army and head of the Biafran Organisation of Freedom Fighters (BOFF) in his uniform. I remember young men relatives, friends, and neighbours – who waved goodbye as they went off to war – and never came back.

It is against this background that one can best appreciate the balm  the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Ojukwu’s death. The man whose name some saw as a symbol of division has, in death, done so much to unite Nigerians. That is the spirit that I want us to celebrate and share with our children. It is the positive spirit of renascent Nigeria, a spirit that acknowledges the problems and the pain, yet refuses to give up on the shining possibilities of a brighter future. It is the spirit that refuses to be defined by glib negatives, a spirit that insists on  doing the difficult but necessary work of building a strong foundation for a better future, even as we learn from the mistakes of the past. It is this kind of spirit that inspires hope for Nigeria. It is the spirit of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.   Thank you, Ikemba, Eze Igbo Gburugburu, thank you for sharing your strong but resilient spirit with us. Thank you for teaching us how to fight and how to make peace while standing strong. Thank you, Bianca for being there till the end, thank you Odumegwu-Ojukwu family for your great gift to Nigeria. And thank you Nigeria for celebrating and honouring our remarkable brother and son.

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