BY KANAYO NNABUCHI
November 4 2019 was the posthumous birthday of Dim Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu. The flurry of events and discourses around his birthday leave no one in doubt that even in death, Ikemba is still involved with the nation’s affairs. Expectedly, his roles, especially the events surrounding the civil war, are always a subject of debate on such occasions.
Because the victors write accounts of war, it is not surprising that the narrative that Ndigbo, nay Ojukwu, waged war against Nigeria persists among a section of Nigerians. Also, despite the benefits of commonsense as well as accounts by non-Igbo key players in the January 1966 coup like Major Ademola Ademoyega of “Why We Struck” fame or someone like Major-General Olufemi Olutoye, Rtd. (Oba of Ido-Ani who, though not a participant, was privy to the coup) that the objective of the condemnable multi-ethnic military putsch was to release Obafemi Awolowo from prison and install him as Prime Minister, the victors still tag it an Igbo coup. It does not matter that Ndigbo were too well positioned in the political and economic scheme of things at the time to want to upset the applecart. It does not also matter that it was Igbo officers – General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi, Col. Emeka Ojukwu, etc. – that foiled the coup.
While I readily admit that General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi’s delay in trying and punishing the coup plotters was very suspect and indeed a huge blunder that aggravated the hurts of other parts of Nigeria, which lost their cream of military and political elites, the victors would never see the failure of the General Yakubu Gowon-led government to protect the over 80,000 Ndigbo and their Eastern brethren (military officers and civilians alike), who knew nothing about the coup, but were nevertheless murdered in cold blood with about two million forced to flee back home, as the real cause of the war.
Charles Keil, an American author and ethnomusicologist, who also researched a lot about Tiv ethnic group, was visiting Nigeria at the time. He narrated how thousands of fleeing Ndigbo, who got as closer home as Benue, were slaughtered by their neighbours. His words: “The pogroms I witnessed in Makurdi, Nigeria (late Sept. 1966) were foreshadowed by months of intensive anti-Ibo and anti-Eastern conversations among Tiv, Idoma, Hausa and other Northerners resident in Makurdi, and, fitting a pattern replicated in city after city, the massacres were led by the Nigerian army. Before, during and after the slaughter, Col. Gowon could be heard over the radio issuing ‘guarantees of safety’ to all Easterners, all citizens of Nigeria, but the intent of the soldiers, the only power that counts in Nigeria now or then, was painfully clear. After counting the disemboweled bodies along the Makurdi road I was escorted back to the city by soldiers who apologised for the stench and explained politely that they were doing me and the world a great favor by eliminating Igbos”.
Yet, Nigeria would never accept there was genocide. Neither would the victors agree that with the influx of lucky survivors (my parents inclusive) with horrific tales, coupled with the subsequent collapse of Aburi Accord, duty called on Ojukwu to declare an independent Republic of Biafra and he inevitably did. Nor would they direct their minds to the fact that the Nigerian troops led by Col. Mohammed Shuwa launched the first offensive against Ndigbo at the Nsukka end on July 6, 1967 to signal the commencement of hostilities to compel back to Nigeria the same people clubbed, mauled, quartered, and practically chased out in the pogroms spirit of “araba” (meaning let’s separate). A war ensured. The rest is a horrible history I hate to retell. Or you want me to recall that on fateful Eke market day, in a war between brothers, a Nigerian warplane flown by a Whiteman, descended low and dropped bombs in the centre of my town’s market brimming with civilians?
No, what matters to me is for Nigerians, especially the younger generations, to recall the dire circumstances in which Ojukwu acted and why he remains a “god” among his people. Unlike the so-called Biafra “champions” of today, who grow stupendously rich on the contributions of their gullible followers, Ojukwu sunk his patrimony into Igbo’s survival. Therefore, that he fought a good cause is one thing virtually every full-blooded Igbo is ready to live or die defending.
However, it is disturbing that many, especially the younger generation, who venerate Ikemba, do not know that he did not die a rebel. He died a Nigerian. Those who cash in on the mistreatment of Ndigbo, brainwash our people that they are out to complete what Ojukwu started. This shows the extreme harms Nigeria’s failure to teach history in our schools for many years has done to us. Going through picture and stories published on 2nd Ojukwu Memorial Lecture organised by the Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Igbariam, Anamabra State, to mark his posthumous birthday, one read some comments pouring invectives on the organisers for decorating the birthday cake in Nigerian national colours. Obviously, they did not know or remember that Ojukwu was not only buried in the same colours, but was given a state burial by the Federal Government. They did not know that on return from exile in 1982, Ikemba joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) viewed as a northern party instead of the Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe-led Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) viewed as an Igbo party. He also ran for the Senate on NPN platform. Ojukwu contested for the Nigerian presidency on the platform of APGA in 2003 and came third with 1,297,445 votes. He vied again in 2007. His wife was also Nigeria’s Ambassador to Spain.
Meanwhile, one does not think that Ojukwu nursed any illusions that the powers that be would allow him to rule Nigeria. His actions were more symbolic than political – to make a statement on his belief in Nigeria and to keep Igbo’s equal stake in Nigeria alive. Nearest to it in recent times was Senator Ike Ekweremadu’s decision to run for the Deputy Senate President in 2015 and 2019 when it became obvious that the APC had zone their Igbo APC members out of major political offices.
Ojukwu’s commitment to Nigeria could further discerned from his widow at the earlier-mentioned memorial lecture. During her glowing tribute, she read in full Ekweremadu’s tribute to Ojukwu during his funeral seven years ago. According to her, the tribute not only eulogized, but also captured the person, essence, and ideologies of the ex-warlord.
Excerpts of that tribute read: “Ezeigbo Gburugburu will forever be celebrated, not only among Ndigbo, but Nigerians and students of history the world over, as one of the few patriots in contemporary history, who rallied his people for self defence, yet mobilised them for a fast-paced reintegration into the mainstream social, political, and economic life of their nation.
“Our dear nation and her leaders owe it to the memory of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, therefore, to strengthen Nigeria as an indivisible political entity where justice, peace, love, and unity reigns; where national interest is supreme; and where every Nigerian is free and able to actualise his or her legitimate dreams and aspirations unmolested in any part of the country, irrespective of religious, political, and tribal affiliations and origin. This is indeed the greatest honour and tribute he can get from us”.
Also, Ojukwu left words on the marble at 2nd The Sunday Newspaper (TSM) Diamond Lecture, which he delivered on February 22, 1994. He said: “I do not deny the fact of secession in 1967 – this is a historical fact. What I deny is that the Igbo community to which I belong has been planning for SECESSION. Secession is not like COCAINE – it is not addictive. Today other people are feeling the pangs of what I felt some twenty-five years ago. These people have my sympathies. These people not having the guts to say so have continued to murmur the word in the hope that I will take up the refrain. I will not. Today I have more reasons to seek a better Nigeria”.
Nevertheless, Ojukwu preferred the type of unity obtained in holy matrimony, one based on social justice, not the unity of Jonah in the belly of the whale, as he described it. He said the former would lead to growth and happiness of citizenry, while the latter would only result in defecation – abortion of the nation. To him “Unity for Nigeria holds out the best chance for progress when that unity is a unity of purpose…. Nigeria can most certainly remain one if oppression ceases and if the Nigerian polity is adjusted to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of every group in Nigeria and if the members of every constituent group feel equal and secure in Nigeria”.
By an “adjusted” Nigeria, Ikemba meant a “restructured” Nigeria. Unfortunately, whereas Ndigbo have continually declared their readiness to work for a united and restructured Nigeria as we saw at the Awka Summit where they proffered a 10-point template to that effect, the laissez-faire and dismissive attitude of the Nigerian State to the sensibilities of Ndigbo and the urgent need to restructure for a viable nation popularise message and messengers of secession. But Ndigbo must ignore these messengers and fight for that which Ikemba believed in- a restructured Nigeria.
With Igbo’s investments and populations outside Igbo land unrivalled by any other tribe, with their enormous contributions to the development of parts of the country other than their own unmatched by any other, Ndigbo have nothing more to prove as to their acceptance of Nigeria and commitment to her. The bible says that where a man’s treasure is, there also lies his heart. The real question is whether Nigeria has accepted Ndigbo. And it is this feeling of exclusion among the Igbo masses that the pro-Biafra businessmen are feasting on. Instructively, Ndigbo do not demand a preferential treatment. All they demand is justice, equity, level-playing ground, true political reintegration, and an enabling federal system to pursue their happiness, actaulise their potentials, and contribute to national development- exactly what Ikemba wanted. Or is that too much for Ndigbo to ask for?