Ojukwu: the man died but his spirit lives on By Mohammed Haruna



In his 1982 hagiography of Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, EMEKA, the famous British novelist Fredrick Forsyth (Dogs of War, Odessa File, Day of the Jackal, etc), said he never knew of an African who had charisma “Till Emeka.”

The publishers, Spectrum Books based in Ibadan, described Forsyth in the book’s blurb as a “friend and confidant” of Ojukwu but still asserted that EMEKA was “a straight forward objective account about a human being with all his strengths and weaknesses.”

Spectrum’s claim that EMEKA was a straight forward objective account of the life of Ojukwu was obviously stretching it a bit; friends and confidants are much more likely than not to be subjective in their assessments of each other.

In the case of EMEKA this was clearly so if only because Forsyth’s claim that Ojukwu was the only African with charisma he ever met was either sheer propaganda or he never met enough Africans to make a tenable judgement on the subject.

Without doubt Ojukwu was hugely charismatic; the widespread killings of Igbos in the North, first in May and then in July 1966, may have provided the push for them to seek for safety in their own Eastern Region for which he had been appointed military governor following the first military coup in the country on January 15, 1966, but without his power to inspire admiration and enthusiasm in his Igbo compatriots his rebellion against his country might never have lasted as long as it did. Without his charisma it might even have suffered stillbirth.

Even then Forsyth could not have been right to suggest that Ojukwu was the only charismatic African leader. So on that ground alone one could say that EMEKA was more propaganda than fact. That, however, was not the only ground to question the claim that the book was “a straight forward objective” account of the man’s life.

Another ground was the timing of its publication. EMEKA was published in December 1982, barely six months after Ojukwu received his unconditional pardon by the Federal Government over his leading role in the country’s civil war between 1967 and 1970, a war which reportedly claimed at least two million lives, mostly in the rebel enclave of the Republic of Biafra which he had declared on May 30, 1967.

That unconditional pardon by the government of President Shehu Shagari sparked one of the biggest political controversies in the country. Most Nigerians had no quarrel with the pardon as such. What they quarrelled with was its unconditional nature which many saw as a ploy by the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) to tap into Ojukwu’s charisma and thus secure the Igbo vote ahead of the general elections that had been scheduled for late 1983.

The timing of EMEKA’s publication was obviously meant to secure a leading role for Ojukwu so soon after his return from self-exile in Cote D’Voire. The military establishment, among them many retired generals like T. Y. Danjuma that had fought in the civil war, thought this was in bad taste – and said so.

The NPN remained undeterred. The man grabbed the offer with both hands and plunged straight into politics. Predictably, he soon made it abundantly clear that he had only returned to reclaim his position as THE pre-eminent Igbo leader; in a speech under the auspices of the Political Science Department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, (UNN), barely five months after his return from self-exile, he said, “Today I stand before you humble and bowed by the heavy responsibility which our entire people have thought fit to impose on my modest frame. Fifteen years ago, in this very campus, you urged me to lead the brutalized and intimidated Igbo people out of Nigeria. I accepted. Today I return to you this time to urge you to return to Nigeria. The war is over, let us work together to ensure peace.”

What these words clearly showed was that the one thing you could never accuse Ojukwu of was modesty; obviously along with his charisma the man possessed a huge ego.

It can be argued that this, perhaps even more than the Igbo pogrom of mid-1966, led to the three-year civil war that nearly broke up Nigeria.

In paying tribute to the great man several Nigerians, more specifically the governor of Niger State in which lies the railway town of Zungeru where Ojukwu was born in 1933, have said Ojukwu had no option but to rebel against his country. I am not so sure.

True, when a country does nothing while a section of its citizens are being killed, as happened to the Igbos in 1966, it might justify rebellion based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) and also based on the recurring section of all our constitutions since before independence in 1960 which says the primary responsibility of government is the security and welfare of the people.

The fact, as opposed to the propaganda, however, was that neither the authorities in the North nor those at the centre looked away while Igbos were being killed. For evidence I refer the reader to the 2010 autobiography of Malam Magaji Dambatta, a veteran journalist and diplomat who was involved in the critical events of those trying times as they unfolded.

His account of how the authorities in the North tried to stop the July killings of Igbos showed clearly that the authorities in the region risked their lives to stop it and eventually succeeded.

According to Malam Magaji the July killings started in Kano and were instigated by, among other things, Ironsi’s Unification Decree 34 which many in the North saw as an attempt to permanently subjugate the region. There was also the general’s appointment of a judicial panel to look into the May riots in the region while he took no action against the officers who virtually wiped out the entire military leadership from the region and killed its premier and the country’s prime minister.

The July riots, said Malam Magaji, became worse when soldiers of the 5th Battalion mutinied, killing one, Captain Audu Auna, and another, RSM Abdulmumini, both of them Northerners, in the process of their attempt to stop the mutiny.

Shortly after the riots started, the regional governor, then Lt.Col Hassan Usman Katsina, the regional commander, then Lt.Col Muhammadu Shuwa and the secretary to the regional government, Alhaji Ali Akilu, drove all the way from Kaduna, the capital, to Kano. On arrival they held a meeting at the residence of the provincial commissioner on how to bring an end to the riots.

Thereafter Shuwa dispatched some loyal troops to round up the mutineers who had joined the rioters in various parts of the city. Eventually the loyal troops succeeded and assembled the rioters at Bukavu Barracks parade ground.

They were then addressed first by the governor and then by Shuwa, both of whom upbraided the mutineers for unbecoming conduct. Present along with the top government officials and military officers was the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero.

After upbraiding the mutineers, Shuwa instructed the most senior sergeant major to order them to disarm. The sergeant major did but they refused to disarm. A furious Shuwa took over and asked them to disarm. Again they refused. Three times he asked them to disarm and three times they refused.

Shuwa then reverted to Hausa and abused them as being unworthy soldiers. He then asked them one more time to disarm. To everyone’s great relief they obeyed this time.

“Slowly, reluctantly,” said Malam Magaji in his autobiography, “they started laying down their rifles on the ground, one after the other, to the relief of everyone, especially those of us ‘bloody civilians’ who throughout the proceedings were frightened to death about the possible consequences of such wilful disobedience under the circumstances.”

Such rare act of courage by the region’s military and civilian leadership showed clearly that the authorities in the North did not look the other way when Igbos were being killed in the region.

However, by then Ojukwu had apparently made up his mind to take the Igbos out of Nigeria. All attempts to assure him of their security and safety in Nigeria, including negotiations in Aburi, Ghana, failed to persuade him. He went to Aburi, he said, “(not) to seek power for myself…I went to save Nigeria from disintegration.”

Needless to say, he did not try enough, at least from the point of view of the Nigerian authorities. Fifteen years after he failed to divide Nigeria and after he jumped the sinking ship of his Republic of Biafra, he was given an unconditional pardon to return and contest for the country’s leadership.

He tried several times and in spite of his great charm he could not win an election until he died on November 26 last year. However, in spite of his failure the man remained one of the greatest and most influential leaders in the country.

It is perhaps a mark of his influence in Nigeria’s politics that today, twenty two years after his rebellion ended, for which he remained unrepentant right up to his grave, the spirit of Biafra has refused to die. Instead the spirit seems to be alive and kicking, and with the Boko Haram and MEND insurgencies, not to mention the threats of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Nigeria may yet succumb to that spirit and breakup.

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