KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (70) – Leader, Teacher, Icon
Culled from Think In Time – Essays and Encounters of the Last Quarter of the 20th Century, Peter Opara - Posterity Books – 1999
Monday, November 17, 2000
Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was the symbol of Igbo resistance to a clear and conspicuous attempt by the greater majority of Nigerians to decapitate and/or totally disable the Igbo race in Nigeria, an attempt borne out of deep-seated envy, hatred, and blame mongering.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu was born into wealth, just about the only so privileged Nigerian of earned wealth known, his father Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu having been the first Nigerian international transporter. In spite of his sterling background, Ojukwu sought satisfaction in ordinary public service, becoming the first graduate to join the Nigerian army then replete with illiterate soldiers. Odumegwu-Ojukwu suddenly had a monumental opportunity to not only serve his people, but to lead them in their most vulnerable and dangerous time as citizens of Nigeria. And serve, Odumegwu-Ojukwu did. None was better prepared and equipped mentally and spiritually to serve or lead the Igbo in those dangerous times than Odumegwu-Ojukwu even at the tender age of 33. Odumegwu-Ojukwu had the benefits of superior education and intellect. Above all, Odumegwu-Ojukwu possessed a rich spirit and psyche that could not be distracted from the job at hand; Odumegwu-Ojukwu had risen above wants that were frivolous having enjoyed those in his youthful days princely at Kings College, Epsom College, and then Lincoln College, Oxford. The job at hand was to resist a determined dismemberment of his people – the Igbo; this required a focused mind, a big mind and a mind with views beyond what obtained in the immediate troubled environ.
In the first phase of what was to become a precipitous conflagration for the young nation Nigeria, Odumegwu-Ojukwu sought to contain and assuage the physical and psychological wounds already inflicted on the Igbo in other parts of Nigeria. Secondly, Odumegwu-Ojukwu sought and fought to inject discipline and order in the Nigerian army to heal the institution’s fractured hierarchy. The highest-ranking Nigerian army officer had fled the country during a mutiny, and an officer not even next in rank to the Brigadier that had fled the country had assumed power. When Odumegwu-Ojukwu failed to contain the unbecoming factors and forces in the national polity, Odumegwu-Ojukwu had no choice but to act according to the dictates of the circumstances about him and his people. Odumegwu-Ojukwu had to enforce designs to protect the confine and the people under his care and responsibility as administrator. The confine in question happened to be his native area and the people in question happened to be his people – Igbo and other indigenous areas that are contiguous to Igbo areas. It must be noted that Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s position and place of responsibility at the time, geographically speaking, were officially designed and so were those of his colleagues.
Ndiigbo, Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s people, were chased and uprooted from all parts of Nigeria; they returned to their native area, only to be besieged and threatened with more severe damages to their lives and property. Pushed to the wall, in fact attacked, Igbo had no other choice than to resist, fight back to ensure their survival. And so Biafra was born. The young Biafran nation fought Nigeria, which was backed to the hilt by powers like Britain and Russia. As if Britain and Russia were not enough support in Nigeria’s attempt to destroy the Igbo, Arab nations threw their support behind Nigeria, and flew the jet bombers and fighters that menaced, killed and maimed innocent Igbo civilians.
The Biafran resistance lasted from 1967 to 1970 that was until the economic blockade against Biafra made it impossible for the young nation to sustain itself. Biafra was not defeated. Ndiigbo are not a defeated people, as some may feel or in fact believe.
What is not an important historical study in Nigeria that ought to be is the resourcefulness of the Igbo in scientifying and mechanizing their forces that resisted Nigeria, Britain, Russia and the entire Arab world for 30 months.
Throughout the Biafra/Nigeria inferno, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was to me a distant figure. I never set eyes on him but on official photographs. Not many could boast of seeing Odumegwu-Ojukwu in person then either. But his aura was ubiquitous, his aura was palpable and, not in the least in a threatening manner. Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s aura was instead that of a people’s leader, an inspiring leader. No ordinary Biafran thought of Odumegwu-Ojukwu in any sense other than with respect and admiration.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu was to the Igbo what Winston Churchill was to Britons during the 2nd World War, when German war machine ravaged Britain and Britons.
I had heard Odumegwu-Ojukwu's voice once on the radio as he spoke about the war. I had also heard his voice over the radio prior to the beginning of the Biafra/Nigeria inferno, a voice that was subdued, measured and tempered amidst a boisterous crowd loudly screaming War! War! War!
The crowd consisted of recent high school graduates, university students who demanded from their leader to let them do whatever was necessary to defend their native enclave, defend their lives, their way of life, their property, even if it meant war. This was early in 1967. Their leader, Odumegwu-Ojukwu, in a measured and confident Churchillian tone, lectured the crowd on the consequences of war, the suffering - "in war the grass will fight" "Blood, toil, tears and sweat." War! War! They chanted and demanded.
The war did explode. I saw the war, hell that war is. I experienced the war first hand, under the guidance of a brave young officer Captain Gilbert Obi, a friend of my brother's Captain William E. Opara, who commanded the Rocket and Missiles Company of Odumegwu-Ojukwu's Special Brigade (S. Brigade). I walked up straight while bullets flew and mortar bombs exploded around me. If you heard the sound of bullets or bombs prior to explosion then they were not meant for you, they flew by you. Young as I was, I heard bullets whiz by and bombs explode up close and around me.
When the inferno ended abruptly in 1970, I had lost three years of my life dodging British bombs, Arabian jet fighters, Russian tanks; most saddening, as the war ended my father lay critically ill, and died on January 22, 1970.
Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu took flight to the West African country of Ivory Coast. There he maintained a dignified and quiet presence, he engaged in transportation business, a trade formerly of his father’s, Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu became a millionaire doing that. I had not seen Odumegwu-Ojukwu yet in person. Not that I longed to see him or to meet him.
I had in the heat of the war seen up close, Biafran war heroes such as Col. Timothy Onwuatuegwu, who commanded the Special Brigade and later the Special Division. I had also seen other prominent war giants, such as Col. Nwawor, Col. Ochei, Col. Asoya, Lt. Col. Okoi, Major Atumaka, and a brave young Captain Emeka Nwokeji (alias Double Trigger), now a friend.
Having reflected on Odumegwu-Ojukwu and observed him over the years albeit from a distance, I came to the conclusion that Odumegwu-Ojukwu is a unique individual. When time came for Odumegwu-Ojukwu to put his uniqueness to use for Nigeria his country and for the Igbo, his kinsmen, Odumegwu-Ojukwu rose to the occasion. I refer specifically to Odumegwu-Ojukwu's exemplary performance amongst his mates - army officers and colleagues - military administrators at Aburi, Ghana, prior to the Biafra/Nigeria war. In fact records show that Odumegwu-Ojukwu's mates, his fellow military administrators including Yakubu Gowon, the man who had assumed Nigeria's leadership concurred entirely with Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s position and prescriptions throughout the deliberation. The only question posed to Odumegwu-Ojukwu or disagreement with him if one would describe it as such was from Hassan Katsina (then governor of northern Nigeria), who asked Odumegwu-Ojukwu "are you the only one who went to Oxford?"
At the Aburi deliberations, Ojukwu presented in clear and uncertain terms what he thought were the problems of Nigeria, problems he thought needed solutions immediately, else Nigeria would remain a troubled nation.
When Nigeria and two major powers -- Britain and Russia, besieged the Igbo -- Odumegwu-Ojukwu led the resistance backed fully by his people. Odumegwu-Ojukwu and his people weathered the storm for three continuous years. Odumegwu-Ojukwu was only in his early 30s.
Nigerians respect and fear Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu at the same time. Odumegwu-Ojukwu is as much a Nigerian patriot as he is an Igbo patriot, this, for the information of those who deem Odumegwu-Ojukwu solely an Igbo leader. Ojukwu, at his level, is a glow of honesty, enlightenment and progress in the Nigerian polity. At his level in the Nigeria’s leadership category, Odumegwu-Ojukwu is the only one who says what he means and means what he says. Odumegwu-Ojukwu is the freest of them all. Odumegwu-Ojukwu is the only one in his category who goes to Abuja not to seek contracts or any manner of appointment, ministerial or whatever. Odumegwu-Ojukwu goes to Abuja often to deliberate on national issues; he goes to Abuja often to assuage Nigerian Nation Tribes, when they boil, as they often do. What Odumegwu-Ojukwu would do for Igbos, he would certainly do for Nigeria. The man is too enlightened to be a sectional leader or to be deemed as such in the world of Nigeria.
Since his return to a tumultuous welcome in 1982, controversy has stalked Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s every move, controversies that are based on perception, controversies that have nothing to do with the man’s substance. Whether Odumegwu-Ojukwu made a move for personal interest, regional interest or national interest, it was controversial. Odumegwu-Ojukwu should not have entered politics; Odumegwu-Ojukwu should not have married so and so; Ojukwu should not have associated with so and so. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the republican that he is, risked losing control of his life to others, even to his enemies, those who in truth hate him. Then certain Ndiigbo, Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s own people attempt to minimize him and his accomplishments. What a pity. The young Igbo who attempts to minimize Odumegwu-Ojukwu, do it for lack of proper information, lack of context, and lack of perspective. I have heard one of these young Igbo, state in a display of utter ignorance, “I don’t even know why we had to fight”. The elder Igbo detractors of Odumegwu-Ojukwu simply muddied the water of information if you will, for the young. These elder Igbo have their problems, and those problems are not unconnected with envy, inferiority complex and selfishness. Often in the young and elder Igbo’s tantrum against Odumegwu-Ojukwu, it is easy to see that their arguments have no basis in fact. Unfortunately these Igbo, a negligible minority I must say, seem incapable of comprehending that Odumegwu-Ojukwu is the sole symbol of the Igbo experience in Nigeria, the Igbo baptism by fire. To minimize this symbol, Odumegwu-Ojukwu, is to minimize the Igbo experience; a tremendous and horrific experience from which all Nigerians should learn important lessons of nationhood, but have not, unfortunately. Nigerians other than Igbo who minimize Odumegwu-Ojukwu or at least attempt such, do it insidiously and for divisive reasons aimed at Igbo. And with some of these non-Igbo, I have observed a hateful streak, such that I see a fine line between hate and neurosis. But that Odumegwu-Ojukwu is beloved by his people, Igbo, in the majority is without question. And so is without question, the genuineness of the respect, reverence and awe, if you will, accorded Odumegwu-Ojukwu across Nigeria.
Nonetheless the rise of Odumegwu-Ojukwu will in many ways mean the rise of Nigeria. Nigeria can do a whole lot better by tapping Odumegwu-Ojukwu's thoughts and idea - which I am certain he will gladly and generously offer. Consider that Odumegwu-Ojukwu is the only Nigerian, in fact the only African who has a thoroughly articulated idea of government and governance. I am not talking about Marxist idea, Marxist wool that had been pulled over lots of eyes in Africa. I refer any who doubt this assertion to Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s “Ahiara Declaration”, a superlative proof of the man’s intellect and his understanding of people, and the mechanics of government and governance. But think for a moment that in Biafra, under fire, mail were delivered; buses ran on time as they say. Now think of today’s Nigeria, what runs in today’s Nigeria at all?
More important, not many are aware that the entity called Biafra, which began as a resistance, transformed into an IDEA and an EXPERIMENT. Thus Biafra became part of its citizens' chemistry and therefore their emotion. The credit for Biafra's transformation into an idea and an experiment and thus part of its people's emotion and chemistry - regardless of how this feat may be perceived - negative or positive - was due to none other than Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Odumegwu-Ojukwu talked and worked so that he may realize an entity where according to him, an Nnewi man could see an Ikot Ekpene man as a Biafran, nothing more and nothing less. Odumegwu-Ojukwu sought to build an entity where citizens were defined by country, not by tribe. Is this not what Nigeria and Nigerians long for, a nation where citizens are defined not by tribe, but by country?
During the Biafra struggle, Odumegwu-Ojukwu talked tough publicly, but desperately sought peace privately. This, people do not know and may never believe. "No Power In Black Africa Can Defeat Biafra" said Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Yet such Churchillian utterance was followed by private peace efforts by Odumegwu-Ojukwu. “This conflict can only be resolved on a mahogany table” – meaning peace talk. But Nigeria had a different agenda, to “crush” the Igbo or to trick Odumegwu-Ojukwu to a peace parley on a friendly territory to Nigeria and then seize him or dismember him somehow and with that bring the conflict to a screeching halt. The fact remains that if Britain, Russia, and the Arab world did not co-opt the fight on Nigeria's side, Biafra, the entity Ndiigbo fought to realize, will be a reality today. But Odumegwu-Ojukwu is at peace today as a Nigerian, and continues to speak fearlessly to the ills of Nigeria, the ills he spoke to more than 30 years ago, ills that have now crippled Nigeria. Among the ills were ethnic chicanery, lawlessness and indiscipline that had begun to descend on Nigeria from the army to the populace.
Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu remains as sharp of mind and intellect as he was thirty-two years ago, even better. Odumegwu-Ojukwu can do for Nigeria whatever he did for Biafra. Odumegwu-Ojukwu can assist to transform Nigeria into an idea, an experiment.
As I indicated earlier, I have read and heard minimizing and uncharitable comments about Odumegwu-Ojukwu. But none of the things I have heard even the most uncharitable of them all distracts or subtracts from Odumegwu-Ojukwu's substance. Odumegwu-Ojukwu is a substantial man. Odumegwu-Ojukwu is a principled man, an honest man. There is none in Nigeria other than Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who espouses the admirable personal philosophy - "to thy self be true." Odumegwu-Ojukwu as a person is beyond minimizing. If those who lead or seek to lead Nigeria were to adopt Odumegwu-Ojukwu's dictum "To thyself be true", a good many would be looking themselves in the mirror and mending their evil, destructive ways. Hopefully.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu is an asset to Nigeria, to Africa, to the black race. If only Nigeria and Nigerians can see him as such and seriously engage him on suitable tasks - tasks such as rallying the citizens within and positioning Nigeria outside. None can speak to matters pertaining to black race more eloquently and fervently than Ojukwu. Before the current crop of Nigerian leaders knew which way was up about race and racism, Odumegwu-Ojukwu had burnt his British passport, the passport of a country in which the frivolous leaders we have today would rather live and die.
Nigeria as constituted today is an entity of material and territory. These are the basis on which amalgamation occurred, the merger of the south with an already existing Nigeria, the north, by the British, for mercantile and profit purposes. Nationalism, patriotism are essential elements of a nation state that are non-existent in the Nigerian entity and polity. The transformation of Nigeria from an entity of material and territory, to an idea and an experiment would certainly move the country forward in profound and fundamental ways. It will involve a process that would infuse in Nigerian citizens the passion, the zeal to engage in the idea, the experiment that would be Nigeria. Nigeria can then be part of citizen's emotion and chemistry. How can this be accomplished? I do know how. But why not consult the man who has the experience, the know-how - Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
Peter Opara is a writer and communications consultant; his books include: Understanding the Nigerian Nation Tribes – why they boil – 1996; Think In Time – Essays and Encounters of the Last Quarter of the 20th Century - 2001; The Man of Biafra – in the city where America began - 2003.
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