Among the several stories that have been written about Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the piece I found particularly compelling was an archive interview republished after his very unfortunate death on November 26, 2011. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Ojukwu’s reply was poignant: “I would like to be remembered as a statesman; not just as a rebel leader.”
Indeed, in a world increasingly obsessed with labels, we could so easily become defined by a single action that is by no means a true reflection of our outlook. So, it was common to find Ojukwu’s name almost always preceded by words such as “warlord,” “rebel leader,” or “secessionist.”
These words do little justice to a man who was the first Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army, a man who distinguished himself as a member of the Nigerian contingent to the United Nations peace-keeping effort in Congo, a man born into immense wealth and privilege but who never allowed that to dull his humanity and his appetite for service.
Those unflattering labels are products of a gross misunderstanding of the core values that define Ojukwu’s personality. The values were forged in humility, the sort that led the young Oxford Alumnus to take up the job of an administrative officer in the colonial government – a rather humbling career start for the son of a millionaire!
Another value that resonates in Ojukwu’s remarkable life is the virtue of selflessness, a philosophy that recognizes the imperative of service. That is the essential statesmanship; the capacity to place the common good above self, the capacity to stay dignified even in the face of adversity, the capacity for compromise and bipartisanship.
Above all, statesmanship requires an understanding that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually-exclusive. It is indeed difficult to say these of anyone else without tongue-in-cheek. But these values were embodied by the late Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu, Dikedioramma (beloved hero of the masses).
Given the very fickle nature of humans and often unrealistic expectations, remaining a hero in the eyes of one’s people, for a lifetime, especially in our clime, is a near impossibility. It’s, however, gratifying to note that Ojukwu did not only draw accolades in death; he was just as well loved and idolized even more while he was alive.
But he didn’t achieve that feat by being eternally politically-correct. In fact, I doubt there was any conscious effort on his part to be seen as an icon; he emerged a hero by living by his convictions and demonstrating sufficient empathy for the people.
His foray into politics upon his return to the country in 1982 may have fallen short of the expectations of those who wanted him to stay out of politics, but his contributions to the rebirth of democracy and its sustenance cannot be contradicted.
His belief and commitment in the capacity of Nigerians to grow their own democracy without let and hindrance was underscored by his irritation at the military intervention that toppled the Shehu Shagari government in 1983 and led to his brief incarceration.
“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 said.
Today, the imperative of the handshake across the Niger he spoke so eloquently about still strike a resonant chord across the country. It’s a call that evidently repudiates all those hurtful stereotypes, which some tend to readily invoke when discussing the larger-than-life personality of Ojukwu.
The handshake across the Niger was a call to peace, a call to dialogue and a denunciation of hubris in all its form. We owe it as a duty to his memory to strive to enthrone those values that unite us. But, ultimately, this should not be at the expense of justice. It is a right to which we are all entitled.