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Thursday 16 April 2015

MY most vivid memory of Biafra was in its dying days

MY most vivid memory of Biafra was in its dying days. I was barely three years. It was January of 1970. My uncle, now a Professor of Geophysics, but then the platoon commander of the Biafran suicide squad, a task force under Tim Onwuatuegwu’s S Brigade, had found a little time in the raging battles at Owaza to be present in his elder brother’s wedding. I remember because of the ululation that went up that evening, as the sun sank under its balconies, when my uncle drove into my maternal grandfather’s compound, battle-drunk, with some of his boys. They bore strange names: "khaki," "Man-die-go," "kill-and-bury." They seemed like giants out of the book, the Grimm’s Tales that my mother found time to read to us, which still echoes deeply in my mind’s eye. I remember that evening, mostly because my grandfather’s compound shook with volleys of gunshot in the air. Then the song that broke out "Ojukwu wu Eze Biafra…" It was a heady song. It was a song of innocence. It was a hymnal of faith.

My family was in that war: my father, an operative of the Biafran Civil Defence forces. My uncles in the Biafran combat zones. My mother, the school mistress, a local organizer of the land army. Even my aged maternal grandfather, a knight of the church, a volunteer for the refugee camps, working with Caritas - the Catholic aid group - to feed the displaced from all over the Eastern region - from as far as Abonema, Opobo, Ikot-Ekpene, who came in search of safety and security in this town secured by ancient forests in Mbaise.

Somehow, the stories of the war came to me, because my house seemed always to be the gathering of many people, my father’s friends, mostly displaced from the rest of the federation, who came to share platitudes, and speak "great English." I heard tit-bits that have framed my consciousness in particular ways. I always sat to listen. One man was usually at the centre of much of that discussion: Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Commander-in-chief of the Republic of Biafra.

It seems such a long time now. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu entered the realm of myth through the front-door, by a single act of will: he chose to stand by the people whom he swore to serve, and to lead. It was an oath he took when he was sworn in, a young man of 32 years, as the military governor of the old Eastern region in January 1966 by the late supreme commander, General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojuwku had hardly settled into his role, had not even defined his political and developmental agenda when the events of July 1966 opened up what might easily be his most defining moments. What we can glimpse from Ojukwu’s first acts was the frame of mind of a young, radical officer prepared to act with clarity and without fear. His first action spoke clearly: he removed Mr. Jerome Udoji, an Igbo and close friend and associate of his father’s, as the Secretary to the Government of the Eastern Region, and replaced him with Mr. N. U. Akpan, an Ibibio from the Eastern minority. There is the view that Ojukwu’s action was predicated upon the fact that Mr. Udoji was too entangled with significant foreign interests which Ojukwu thought to be too distracting and too deleterious to the administration of the East. Udoji’s accounts of that moment of course indicts Ojukwu as "too power-hungry."

Most people in Nigeria have been fed a distorted version of the story of events in Nigeria in which Ojukwu has been painted in various colours: as an arrogant, power-hungry monster who deceived an entire people into a tragic war (never mind that the Igbo, especially, are not people you lead easily by the nose.) He has also been painted as the arch-rebel who wanted to destroy and disintegrate Nigeria through secession. There is also the story of Ojukwu the tyrant, who did not take the Eastern minority elements into confidence before he committed them to war. In one particularly amusing example, one of those minorities had argued the basis of Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s evil against the minorities to be because he ordered the evacuation of the civilian population when the federal forces and the British mercenaries paid for by Shell bombarded Biafra from Bonny. For that act, Ojukwu is said to have committed sacrilege against the Eastern minorities.

But let us now put Odumegwu- Ojukwu in his proper historical context. Any serious scholar of modern Nigerian history will not fail to conclude that there have been three most definitive figures of modern Nigerian history since 1914: Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. These individuals defined the character of their generation in far more significant ways than any of their contemporaries.

Around them and their actions, and the unique aura of their presence, we can tease out the very conditions which frame the basis of modern Nigerian history. In Ojukwu’s particular case, he has managed to convoke post-colonial Nigeria as a problematic space. Born to wealth, shunning wealth for service, and choosing the path of stone rather than the paved way which providence prepared for him, Odumegwu-Ojukwu is atypical of any leader ever born in Nigeria.

Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s father, Sir Louis Phillipe Odumegwu-Ojukwu was the wealthiest Nigerian of his generation: a multi-millionaire businessman, who had been chairman of UAC (West Africa), the Nigerian Stock Exchange, director of Shell-BP, had vast investment in property in Lagos, Kano, Port-Harcourt, Enugu, Onistha and other places and owned controlling shares in many of the top blue-chip corporations that still operate in Nigeria today, Emeka Ojukwu could have walked naturally to a life of ease and indolence. In actual fact, by today’s value, Sir Louis Ojukwu’s wealth would be in the range of about ten billion in proper sterling. But returning from Oxford University, where he had taken an Oxford M.A. in Modern History from Lincoln College, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu turned his back to all that, and chose service- because it was his own path to freedom, and to greatness, on his own terms.

Helpless father

His biographer, the English writer Frederick Forsyth has given an account in the book, Emeka, of how Ojukwu’s helpless father had tried to lure his Oxford-educated son to become a director in his company in 1956, and about how his restless son chose instead to enter the civil service. Seeing that his mind was made, Sir Louis goes to his friend, the British governor-general, Sir James Robertson to try and convince Emeka Ojukwu. The governor-general offers Emeka any job he wanted, including as senior assistant secretary in the governor-general’s office. Ojukwu rejects the offer, and on his own terms secures a rural posting to Udi, in the Eastern regional civil service. We have also come to know how Ojukwu entered the Army as the first Nigerian university graduate to earn a commission. At a time when the military was not too sexy, Ojukwu, apparently with an eye on history, sought a commission. His influential father once again intervened to stop his son, using the governor-general once again to block Ojukwu’s commission. Failing to earn an officers commission, Ojukwu decides to go through the lowly route - he joins as an other rank - a private with a Master’s degree in History from Oxford. This is hardly the act of an arrogant, power-hungry person.

It is apparent that Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was driven by a sense of destiny. He was in any case, a child of destiny. For those who are wont to see something magical and symbolic in coincidences, it is not for nothing that the two greatest leaders from among the Igbo in the 20th century - Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu - were born in the same month of November, in the same little town, Zungeru. It was as though Chukwu had forged a generational baton. Ojukwu’s political consciousness evolved very early, and very quickly. As a ten-year old boy in form one at King’s College in Lagos, in 1943, he too had already joined the anti-colonial struggle. That year, he joined senior students like Tony Enahoro and Ovie Whiskey among others, to stage an anti-war, anti-colonial protest against the colonial administration, for which some of the students were reprimanded, others conscripted to fight, and from which people like Enahoro emerged into national limelight.

Ojukwu was tried as a juvenile in the courts in Lagos for his participation, and two pictures essay that moment: when he lay sleeping at the docks, and when his father, Sir Louis, carries him still sleepy, on his shoulder at the end of proceedings. Ojukwu’s radicalised consciousness was possibly sharpened when his father sent him off to school in England, to Epsom College, soon after the King’s incident. Black, stubborn, and opinionated, Ojukwu might have earned himself some unsavory record. But he was a sportsman. He was brilliant. He was a rich boy. He was inevitable. In Oxford, Ojukwu joined the socialists, even though he rode about in a Rolls Royce.

Vanguard (Nigeria), November 02, 2003

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