Prior to the 1966 coup which ushered in General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, very few people in Nigeria had ever seen soldiers before. They were mostly confined to the barracks. Most of us in those days did not even know that Nigerians soldiers were sent to the Congo. Even now, most history books never recorded the exploits and bravery of Nigerian soldiers in the West African Auxiliary Force who distinguished themselves in the First and Second World Wars on the side of the British colonial masters in Burma and East Africa. That is another story.
Then came the first time I saw soldiers in 1966 on TV, and one of them was the face of a young Colonel called Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who at the time was named the Governor of the Eastern Region. The name, Ojukwu, itself connotes some kind of force, some authority, some discipline and romanticism to me, at least. To make it more intriguing to me, I had never before seen a soldier who has a full beard as this man. The perception then, to us civilians, was that soldiers are not allowed to grow beards as part of their service; and that Ojukwu was given special dispensation by the Nigerian Army to do so because the beard just wouldn’t go. This further reinforced my belief that this was a hard, stern, disciplined man, and to me as a Yoruba man, further confirmed to me that the Igbo were a tough and hardy people.
Throughout his tenure, and before and during the civil war, I never saw Ojukwu smile. He was always taciturn, serious, stern, and hard-faced, another feature that convinced me of his being a man of sterner stuff; a man not given to trivialities or nonsense. It was therefore no surprise to me, even at that very young age of mine, after the large scale massacre of his people and his disaffection with the Military Government of General Yakubu Gowon, who was his (Ojukwu’s) junior in the Army, that he felt he had to secede from the Nigerian nation to save and protect his people.
With the benefit of hindsight, and considering the current and increasingly violent fractious situation of Nigeria, who can blame him? I feel in fact that the Ikemba, as Ojukwu’s title is called, is now wholly vindicated.
I do not need here to recite a long biography; his birth, school; army career and his infamous war with Nigeria are well documented. Suffice it to say he was born into a rich family, well educated both in Nigeria and in the UK and in 1957, within months of working with the colonial civil service, he left and joined the military as one of the first and few university graduates to join the army: O. Olutoye (1956); C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1957), E. A. Ifeajuna and C. O. Rotimi (1960), and A. Ademoyega (1962). (Wikipedia)
His popular background and sound education guaranteed his promotion to higher ranks. Besides, as at 1956, the Nigerian Military Forces had 250 officers and only 15 were Nigerians. There were 6,400 other ranks, of which 336 were British. It is not surprising that he is N/29 (W.U. Bassey was N/1, while JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was N/2; the first Nigerian to be commissioned as an officer, Lieutenant L. V. Ugboma, left in 1948) Odumegwu-Ojukwu has an understandably fast rise in the military, eventually becoming the Quartermaster General. (Wikipedia)
Ojukwu served in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the Congo, under the legendary Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1964 and posted to Kano, where he was in charge of the 5th Battalion of the Nigerian Army. He was in Kano, northern Nigeria, when Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu on January 15, 1966 executed and announced the bloody military coup in Kaduna, also in northern Nigeria. It is to his credit that the coup lost much steam in the north, where it had succeeded. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu supported the forces loyal to the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironisi. Major Nzeogwu was in control of Kaduna, but the coup had flopped in other parts of the country. He surrendered. (Wikipaedia)
General Aguiyi-Ironsi took over the leadership of the country and thus became the first military head of state. On Monday, January 17, 1966, he appointed military governors for the four regions. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu was appointed Military Governor of Eastern Region. Others were: Lt.-Cols Hassan Usman Katsina (North), Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (West), and David Akpode Ejoor (Mid West). These men formed the Supreme Military Council with Brigadier B.A.O Ogundipe, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Chief of Staff Army HQ, Commodore J. E. A. Wey, Head of Nigerian Navy, Lt. Col. George T. Kurubo, Head of Air Force. (Wikipedia)
By May 29, 1966, things quickly fell apart: There was a planned pogrom in Northern Nigeria during which Nigerians of South-Eastern Nigeria origin were targeted and killed. This presented problems for the young military governor, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu. He did everything in his power to prevent reprisals and even encouraged people to return, as assurances for their safety had been given by his supposed colleagues up north and out west.
On July 29, 1966, a group of officers of Northern origin, notably Majors Murtala Ramat Rufai Muhammed, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, and Martin Adamu, led the majority Northern soldiers in a mutiny that was later tagged “counter-coup.” The Supreme Commander General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host Colonel Fajuyi were abducted and killed in Ibadan.
First, Ojukwu, to his credit, insisted that the military hierarchy must be preserved; in which case, Brigadier Ogundipe should take over leadership, not Colonel Gowon. But Ogundipe no longer had the stomach to deal with the army; he was easily convinced to step aside and was posted to the Nigerian High Commission in London.
They ended up in Aburi, Ghana in January 1967 for a peace conference hosted by General Joseph Ankrah. Three days later on May 30, 1967, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state to be known as BIAFRA:
"Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra." (Wikipedia)
The rest is history. Of course, as we know, Ojukwu was officially pardoned by President Shehu Shagari and after 13 years in exile, returned in triumph to Nigeria. At the time, it was felt that Ojukwu was used as a political pawn used by the ruling NPN of Shagari, to get the Igbo vote and was then dumped unceremoniously. A political naivety for the Ikemba, I’d say.
I have always felt that this hard, intelligent and well-educated Nigerian eventually succumbed to the Nigerian disease called sycophancy and flattery. He was severally mis-advised and fed wrong information as to the real vagaries of politics in Nigeria. Of course, being a military man, he would always be found wanting when it comes to immersing himself in that deadly unique Nigerian partisan politics, and it was no wonder his name was smeared several times, not only by the rest of Nigeria but significantly by his own people, the Igbos.
To me, Ikemba (Dim) Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu remains a Nigerian icon. He might not necessarily be seen as hero to many Nigerians, but he was one of those leaders, worthy, who shaped Nigeria. Methinks it was unfortunate he was born in this era, and probably a younger Ojukwu today, or in the last decade would have made very significantly positive contributions to the progress of this country.
To me, I will never lose respect for him. It is often the case that when people like Ojukwu die, all kinds of encomiums and eulogies will be written. Nobody will ever see him in a bad light.
To me he was a Liberator of his people; to me, he was the “Rebel Leader of Biafra”, as we used to hear in those days of the Civil War; but he was not a tribal leader, never a tribal leader. The man was too liberated, too intelligent and too educated to descend that low. This I hope we will all agree on. He did all he could to keep Nigeria one but under a very different and difficult circumstance when he could no longer see any alternative.
A privileged upbringing and best education with one of the then richest men in Nigeria as a father, Odumegwu, rather than rely on the wealth of his father, chose to enter the common workforce by joining the Civil Service and was then inclined to join the Army, all against the wishes of his father.
Mind you, Ojukwu was not a Hero, but an Icon; the reason being that it is difficult and not appropriate to label him such because, ultimately, he should take and share the blame for the millions of Igbos and other Nigerians who lost their lives as a result of the Biafra War. This is purely my opinion, and I am sure others will not agree with my use of those nouns, but one thing is that I have never perceived him as a villain of the piece. He will always be my hard-faced, bearded, strong and intelligent leader. He did what he felt he had to do then.
I have no doubt that in a different age; Ojukwu could have been the type of leader we yearn for in this confounded country of ours. Not only to the Igbos but to all who call themselves Nigerians.
When we look back and forward to the present day Nigeria and how it is being run to the ground by the corrupt, hypocritical, religious and tribal fanatics, then perhaps it is time we started looking at Dim Ojukwu in a new light.
I am never one to heap praises and eulogies on our leaders, but this is a time I have to change my stance.
A true Nigerian Icon has gone.
May his soul rest in perfect peace.