By Anthony Akaeze and Sebastine Obasi/Newswatch
Contending groups in the larger Ojukwu family make claims and counter claims over ownership of properties and the paternity of a member allegedly born out of wedlock.
He walked into Newswatch office that May 14, betraying no sign of anxiety. But it was soon clear, once the interview began, that the man was much eager to dispute or refute some of views contained in a recent interview granted Newswatch magazine by another member of the family, Debe Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Ike Ojukwu, son of Joseph Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who is the first son of Louis Philip Odumegwu- Ojukwu, said most of the views of Debe as contained in the May 7, issue of the magazine were either factually incorrect or did not reveal the true situation of things in the family. Although he acknowledged that there was a lingering court case involving members of the family over their patriarch’s property, he did not consider it unusual because disagreement is common among families. To that extent, “there’s no war with anybody.”
But Ike, who is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, took exception to the words “natural child” as expressed by Debe during the interview.
In the interview, Debe, in reply to a question said that his father, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and former Biafran leader, was the “only natural child of Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu.” This claim, Ike said, is far from the truth. On the contrary, Ike said that his father’s position as first son of the late Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu has never been in doubt even while his grandfather was alive. He brought to the interview documents showing that his father, Joseph, had been a board member of his father’s company since the 50s.
Beyond that, Ike said his father enjoyed the best care and upbringing from their father and that his grandmother, Ogbenyealumalize, was his grandfather’s first wife. “My father was born here in Nigeria. I don’t remember his primary school, but I know he went to King’s College. He not only went to King’s College, he went to Cambridge; my grandfather paid his school fees. This company we are talking about, he’s been a director since 1952…now I don’t know anywhere in Nigeria where somebody will send you to King’s College in the 30s, send you to Cambridge in the late 30s, and you’ve been a director of the company for 60 years, this year and you are the only son that’s an executor of his will” and not considered his natural son.
Ike added that, if there’s anything as unnatural son, it best fits Debe. Debe, he said, contrary to his claims, was never acknowledged by Ojukwu, the late Biafran leader, as his first son. He alleged that Ojukwu, the Ikemba Nnewi, some years ago, told his extended family members called Umunna, that his first son is Emeka Jnr.
Ike also addressed the issue of his grandfather’s property many of which are sited in Lagos. He said that, although the late Ikemba Nnewi lived in Villaska Lodge, the property and others do not belong to him. “Not one of these properties belong to Emeka Ojukwu, my uncle. They belong to the company, Ojukwu Transport Company and the gazettes prove this and he acknowledged that…It’s a family thing. Everything belongs to the family,” he said.
But the family properties have since been a subject of litigation in the law court and the parties involved are Debe Odumegwu-Ojukwu on the one hand, and Ojukwu Transport Limited, represented by the children of Sir Louis Philip, on the other.
How did things get to this point? Newswatch learnt that Debe, who’s a former police officer and lawyer, was the person in charge of managing the family’s property until things suddenly fell apart between the two parties. Ike told Newswatch that the Ojukwu Transport Company engaged Debe to manage the family’s property with the agreement that he would take 30 percent of the proceeds, but that, Debe, till date, had not remitted any money to the family. He stated that it was Emmanuel Odumegwu Ojukwu, his uncle, who offered Debe the opportunity to take charge of their father’s property but that he has since failed to fulfill his own part of the agreement. Evidence of this strained relationship came to public light in an advertorial that appeared in February 22, 2008, in the Daily Sun newspaper asking tenants in the houses managed by Debe, to desist from dealing with him. “The general public and particularly the tenants occupying the following houses owned by Ojukwu Transport Limited…by this notice… are warned that the company has, by resolution, appointed the firm of Massey Udegbe & co to manage the above listed properties. Any person who deals with any other person and more particularly, the firm of Mrs Ogbonna Ojukwu & associates and or Debe Odumegwu-Ojukwu in respect of the above mentioned properties, does so at his own risk,” the disclaimer read.
One of the properties in question, which according to a source, has remained unoccupied till date is located at 29 Queens Drive. The property is called Villaska Lodge, and was where the late Biafran leader lived before he relocated to Enugu. According to Lotanna, one of the sons of Sir Louis Philip Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the property had remained uninhabited since the late 1990s that Ojukwu moved to Enugu. Lotanna told Newswatch that he visited Villaska Lodge some months ago, and that when he got there, the gateman was not there. So he went inside. But the gateman, he said, soon appeared and locked the gate, leaving him trapped. Lotanna asserted that he and his driver and one other person who accompanied him, now had to force the gate open for him to come out. Following that, Lotanna said the gateman contacted Emeka Jnr and Bianca who now mobilised members of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, to guard the place. He noted that the house requires renovation and that it would better benefit the family if repairs are carried out on it.
Lotanna is one of the defendants in the pending court case at a Lagos High Court. Others are Ojukwu Transport Limited, Professor Joseph Ojukwu, Emmanuel Ojukwu, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Massey Udegbe. Listed as claimants in the case are Ogbonna Ojukwu and Associates, Debe Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Silver Convention. One of the lines of the suit with No: LD/794/2011 dated 6 October 2011 read: “… despite the fact that there was an agreement between the Claimants and the 1st Defendant to manage the properties listed in the schedule of the Management Agreement dated 1/6/1995, most of the rents were either collected by the 1st –5th Defendants personally despite the 2nd Claimant’s protest that some of the properties in question were never released to the Claimants as they were personally occupied by some of the Defendants herein.” Part of the claimants claim is that “most of the properties in contention were derelict and dilapidated and taken over by known and unknown persons before the Claimants were engaged whilst various sums of money were expended to recover and put them in tenantable situation without being reimbursed by the 1st Defendant for that purpose.”
That Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s name appears on the list of defendants might be only due to the fact that he’s a director in Ojukwu Transport Company as some of the expressions tend not to only exonerate him, but give the impression that it is his interest that is being championed: “Rather than for the Defendants, excepting the 3rd, (Emeka Ojukwu) to see reasons why terminating the management agreement would be unjust and inequitable in the circumstance, they went ahead to appoint/nominate the 6th defendant to take over the management functions from the 1st claimant thereby jeopardising the financial/vested interest and equitable right of the claimants in the said properties.” Furthermore, “the actions of the defendants, excepting the 3rd, in deliberately denying the claimants of their dues and returns on investments is also actuated by malice, ill feeling and family vendetta against the 2nd claimant (Debe) and his father the 3rd defendant.”
Apart from Villaska Lodge, some other houses cited in the suit include: 132 Agege Motor Road, Lagos, 19 Mekunwen Street, Ikoyi, Lagos, 15 Oshodi Street, Lagos, 32 Commercial Road, Yaba, Lagos, 388B Herbert Macaulay Street, Yaba, Lagos, 32 Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, 13 Hawksworth Street, Ikoyi, Lagos, and 4 Macpherson Road, Ikoyi, Lagos. All these constitute just a fragment of Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s properties, a man whose story and wealth would have been something of a fable were they not identifiable. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu once revealed, in an interview that his father owned 29 houses.
Although Ike Ojukwu himself admitted that court cases involving the Odumegwu- Ojukwu dynasty predated this current one involving Debe, the case offers an insight into the extent of the disagreement within the family over family property. It appears deep rooted. Although Ike doubts Debe’s claims to being Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s first son, he didn’t categorically deny that he’s the man’s son. Debe is a split image of Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and if looks were the criteria to determine paternity, he would have no difficulty convincing anyone that he’s Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s son. And the fact that he was contracted by the Ojukwu Transport Company to manage the family’s property is another point that is hard to ignore.
Also, during one of the family meetings held January 13, 2009, in the family compound in Nnewi, Debe was invited by the family to participate. The question then is, if Debe were not the son of Odumegwu-Ojukwu, why was he invited to the meeting? Again, Newswatch can confirm that even the law firm of Andrew N. Anyamene and Company (SAN), acknowledged Debe as a member of the Odumegwu-Ojukwu family. In a letter written to him to render the management account of the Ojukwu properties, the law firm referred to him as the grandson of late Louis Philip Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Most significant, in 2009, the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, in a letter, thanked Debe, his son for the role he played during the burial of Chukwuma Onoh, former governor of old Anambra State, who was Ojukwu’s in-law.
Newswatch also learnt that Debe was conferred with the Nnewi traditional title, Akpunwa, meaning strong son. He is also the president-general of Umudim Nnewi, both home and abroad and is seen by some as a popular figure due to his humanitarian activities in Nnewi.
But based on Ike’s claims, Newswatch sent one of its reporters to Nnewi to find out from some of the extended family members what they think of the matter.
Greg Ojukwu, a retired civil servant in his 80s and a senior member of the family, told Newswatch that there was never a time the late Ikemba introduced Debe as his first son throughout his life time. “There was no time the late Ikemba introduced Debe to the family as his first son. Not to my knowledge. We know Emeka Ojukwu Jnr. as Ikemba’s first son going by the tradition of the land. In Igboland, we count mother and child together (Nwa na Nne yi) as we say in our local parlance. So, who is Debe’s mother?” he queried.
Anthony Ude Ojukwu, a lawyer and another senior member of the family, also told Newswatch that the late Ikemba never identified Debe as a son, let alone the first. “Have you seen any event, political or social, where Ikemba introduced him as his son? His was only given a contract to manage based on professionalism and at the expiration of the contract, he went to court to make some claims. Nothing stops him from going to court on that basis. Nobody can stop him from making claims in the court of law. Sylvester (Debe’s English name) was never told to withdraw any case before he could participate in Ikemba’s burial.”
Ude Ojukwu argued that it is a father that identifies his son and not the child that claims to be the son of the man. “In Igbo culture, it is only when a man acknowledges his son that he will be able to say the position of that particular son. Somebody has to be identified as a child of a man before his position can be ascertained. But all his life, Ikemba never identified Sylvester (Debe) as his son, not to talk of being the first son,” he told Newswatch.
If that is the case, why then does Debe bear Ojukwu and why was there no disclaimer to that effect? Ude Ojukwu said nobody raised an eyebrow because they have no monopoly of the name Ojukwu. “It is a common name. Anybody can answer any name without interference. But the bottom line is that Ikemba did not marry his mother. The customary law says that for a man to claim ownership of a child, he must have the consent of the mother. The mother should be able to identify the father of her child; after delivery, the man is expected to pay the hospital bill; if the child is staying with the woman, the man should pay some allowances for the upkeep of their child; pay his school fees and at the age of 15, give him accommodation.”
But some others have a contrary view. Innocent Okafor, who describes himself as a “member of the Ojukwu family” said that he was not aware that Ojukwu ever said Debe was not his first son. “Where and who did he call to tell them that. Can you deny your son? Who was there when he said it? It’s all hear say.” He added that he was not unaware of the bad blood among some members of the Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s family and that, that was the reason why he advised Debe to distance himself from the burial activity of his father in Nnewi to give peace a chance.
Ofili Nwosu, the prime minister of Nnewi, said that “ in the tradition of Igbo land, it’s who a man wants that he makes the first son” but added that “there’s no doubt about the fact that Debe’s the son” of Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
Comfort Ukwu, (nee Ojukwu) who is the first cousin to Ikemba, said that the question of who is the eldest child of Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu has never been in doubt. “The person born in 1956 and the one born in 1965, who is the senior?” Debe was born in 1956. Ukwu, who says that “a man knows who his children are” said that Debe always played the role of a son to his father. “When my brother was in hospital in London, Debe went to see him a number of times. During the burial of Onoh, Debe played an active role.” She described the whole hoopla over property as embarrassing, considering also that her cousin was not known to be materialistic.
Emmanuel Nwobosi, who, as a Biafran soldier, was chief of operations during the Nigerian civil war, said he was not aware that Ojukwu denied Debe as his first son. “Ikemba was my very close friend, he was my boss. He never said such a thing to my hearing. From time to time, when I visited Lagos with Ikemba, Debe would always visit Ikemba, and a number of times, with his wife, would bring food and Ikemba never indicated to me that he didn’t like what he was doing. It was all appreciation on his part. So this story, if you ask me, I will say that Ikemba never hinted it to my hearing. I am friendly with both Debe and Emeka Jnr,” he said.
Debe, in an affidavit, deposed that he was “practically raised by my loving but poor mother and later by fending for myself until I joined the Nigeria Police as a constable in 1976…” At this time, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was still in exile. Perhaps the hardship he experienced as a young boy is the reason why he describes himself as a “self-made man.”
In his book, Emeka, Frederick Forsyth, the former BBC reporter in Nigeria and a friend of Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu wrote: “I have watched him walking by the crocodile pool in exile, abandoned and alone on learning that yet another Biafran he trusted had betrayed him for money; smiling with pride when his son did well at school…” There is no proof to show which of Ojukwu’s sons, whether Debe or Emeka jnr, is being referred to at that time. The book was published in 1982.
However, according to a source who wishes anonymity, the issue of what a man does or says at times is dictated by circumstance or state of mind and relationship at every given point in time. “Anyone can make a pronouncement or declaration and later change his mind; it all depends on the individual and the person involved.”
Newswatch learnt that Ojukwu met Debe’s mother while he was an Assistant District Officer at Udi but that their union was not formalised. Apart from that relationship, Ikemba married four wives: Elizabeth, a nurse, between 1956 and 1959 who had no child; Njideka, his second wife, who’s the mother of Emeka Jnr.; Stella, and Bianca who’s the fourth and only surviving widow.
But beyond that, there are those who desire to see the feud resolved amicably, given the reputation of the Odumegwu-Ojukwu family. Sir Louis was a man of means who epitomised the Igbo entrepreneurial spirit as seen in his numerous achievements, which included being the first president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Emeka, his son, on his part, is famous for the role he played in the 60s which culminated in the declaration of secession, a move that his admirers say, proved his love for his people. “My advice to the family is that they should take things easy,” said Nwobosi.
Okafor on his part, is optimistic that the matter will be resolved peacefully. “We shall settle the matter,” he said.
Not a few friends and admirers of the family will love to see that happen.
Reported by Dike Onwuamaeze, Victor Ugborgu, Anayo Ezeugwu, Ojima Achimugu and Endurance Akoro.