By Innocent Chukwunwike Odenigbo
Ndoo to Ndigbo;
For the loss of a great leader
Ndoo to Nigeria
For the loss of a patriot
Ndoo to All AfricaFor the loss of a legend
Ndoo to the international community
For the loss of a champion of justice, peace and freedom.
We thank God
For the gift of the life of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
“Like father like son”. In no instance is this saying more appropriate than in the story of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. By the age of twenty-five, his father, Sir Louis Philippe Ojukwu, had married, but it was a short-lived union. He and his young wife soon separated, but by that time the wife was with child. She was staying at Zungeru in Northern Nigeria when, in November 1933, a son was born. He was named Chukwuemeka. When he was three, the father came from Lagos and re-claimed the child. Once in the father’s household, the small boy came under the influence of his powerful personality.
Emeka became the pride of his father’s life and he sought to mold the boy into a mirror image of himself. Sir Louis was a man of iron determination, strong will-power and a patrician within his household. His son, following his example, developed much the same characteristics. In Emeka’s infancy, the father decided that his son should have what he had not had – a first-class education. The boy was sent first to St Patrick’s School in Lagos, the youngest of his year. From there he went to the C.M.S Grammar School, again at an age much younger than the rest of the boys. At the age of ten, in 1944, he progressed to King’s College, the Lagos public school modeled along British public school lines and became the youngest ever to attend King’s College.
By the time the boy attained the age of twelve in November 1945, the father was both immensely rich and respected. He decided that the boy should be educated in England. The college of choice was Epsom College in Surrey where the thirteen year old Emeka arrived to begin a program of schooling designed to turn him into an English gentleman . This was a time when it was rare to find a black boy at an English boarding school.
After six years at Epsom, Emeka proceeded to Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1952. His father wanted him to become a lawyer but he wanted to read Modern History. Emeka spent one year reading Law, then switched to Modern History. In 1955 he took his Bachelor of Arts degree, came home to Lagos, and later returned to Oxford to receive his Master of Arts degree.
There was not the slightest reason why this young dandy should not have become Nigeria’s playboy, enjoying a life of self-indulgence on the basis of his father’s wealth and eventual succession into his father’s shoes as head of all the Ojukwu companies. This was in fact what Ojukwu Senior wanted Emeka to do. But the young man wanted to prove himself in his own way, capable of doing things by his own talents, able to cut his own path in life. He told his astounded father he was joining the Nigerian Civil Service as an administrative officer. Even then, he could have used his father’s influence to jump the first few bottom grades and start half way up the ladder. His Oxford degree would justify such a leap. Instead, Emeka insisted on beginning as what was regarded as the lowest level of the administrative class – Assistant District Officer – with a posting in a bush village. It was an odd choice for a Master of Arts from Oxford and son of Nigeria’s biggest millionaire to make. Within hours of informing his father of his decision, Emeka had packed his bag and left the luxurious mansion in Lagos for a room in a small tin-roofed bungalow at Udi.
Emeka threw himself into the job he chose with ferocious energy. First he learned the Igbo language to be able to communicate with the peasants and villagers of the area he now had to help administer. He abandoned the routine paperwork in the office and went out into the villages and into the fields to work among the peasants, much to the displeasure of his boss, the British District Officer, Colonel William Stanley King. During that time at Udi, and later at Umuahia and Aba, his two other postings between 1955 and 1957, Emeka learned that Africa is the land and the people of the land, the teeming millions, poor, often sick, ill-educated, ill-fed, without a voice in the choice of their own destiny.
When Emeka was still at Udi, it was announced one day that the Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Sir Clement Pleass, was coming on a visit of inspection. For days before the arrival of the great man the District Office was painted and polished until it shone. On the morning of the visit, District Officer King and Emeka were standing rigidly to attention on the forecourt of the Office when the Rolls Royce from Enugu came rolling through the gate. Immediately, Colonel King threw up a quivering salute and held it there.
It happened that Sir Clement had known Emeka since he was a schoolboy, and Emeka had for years called him Uncle Clem. Sometimes on an evening, Emeka would take his sports car and motor over to Enugu for a game of tennis or a cool beer with the Governor. Unfortunately, Col. King knew none of this.
Sir Clement got out of his Rolls Royce, nodded and smiled, said ‘Good morning’ to Col. King and then turned to Emeka.
‘Hello, Emeka my boy,’ he said.
‘Hello, Uncle Clem,’ said Emeka.
‘Now,’ said the Governor, putting a friendly arm round Emeka’s shoulder and leading him away, ‘you must show me where you live and how you are getting on.’
They had walked a hundred yards before Emeka felt obliged to remind the Governor that Col. King was still standing at attention, one arm up in salute.
‘Good God,’ said the Governor, ‘he isn’t, is he?’
With that he went back across the parade ground to dismiss the outraged District Officer. After the visit was over, the District Officer confronted Emeka.
‘I didn’t know you knew the Governor,’ he said. ‘You never told me.’
‘You never asked,’ said Emeka.
What the good colonel thought of his subordinate who called the Governor ‘Uncle Clem’ and spent his time digging ditches with the peasants was never put on record. From Udi Emeka went for a spell to Umuahia and then to Aba, completing his education in the understanding of those he now regarded as his people, the Igbos. From Aba he was posted to Calabar.
Now it happened that there was a superstition connected with Calabar. It was that the Efik women of the town were able to cast a spell on a young man and completely bewitch him. For all his wealth and position, Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu, it would appear, believed this. So, on learning of the posting, he simply picked up the telephone and rang his good friend, the Governor-General, Sir John MacPherson, and within an hour the transfer was canceled.
For Emeka this was the last straw. He had joined the Civil Service to try to get away from his father’s influence, but he was sent to the East, where the Ojukwu name was everywhere and the father in Lagos cast a very long shadow. Now with a single phone call that father had canceled his transfer. Emeka realized that if he was ever to be free to make a career for himself on his merits, it would have to be in the one institution left in Nigeria that was truly non-Regional and where his father’s name, wealth and influence would simply count for nothing. Frustrated and angry, in the autumn of 1957 he applied to join the Nigerian Army.
Those who applied to enter the army, even as commissioned officers, were inevitably those with a primary education and perhaps a smattering of secondary. So, the arrival of an M.A. from Oxford shook the Governor-General, the army High Command all of whom were English officers, and most of all, Emeka’s father. Sir Louis was livid with anger and there was a big row between father and son, but as usual the son refused to back down. As a result he was banned from his father’s house and for three years his father refused to talk to him or communicate with him in any way.
Unable to prevent his son from applying, Sir Louis hatched a scheme. Through his friendship with the Governor-General, Sir John MacPherson, Emeka’s father brought pressure to bear to ensure that his son was refused entry as an officer cadet. He would never enter as a private , both men thought, and even if he did, he would never stick it. They did not count on the will-power of Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Unable to gain a cadetship, he joined as a private. For three months Emeka stuck it out. He did his square-bashing with the rest, ate like them with his fingers and like them kept the barracks swept and spotless with broom and swab-cloth. For light relief he was put to scraping clean the insides of toilet bowls with an old razor blade. The British officers knew who Emeka was, and that their orders from the Governor-General were to make it rough for him so that he would quit. He refused to quit. In the end, the Depot Commander said, ‘I have had enough of this comic opera. Governor-General or no Governor-General, you are applying for an officer’s commission and that’s an order.’
It took a month for the papers to come through. From Zaria the new cadet went first to Teshie in Ghana and then to Officer Cadet School at Eaton Hall in England in 1958. From Eaton Hall Emeka went straight to the Infantry School at Warminster and after that to Small Arms School at Hythe. He then returned to Nigeria and to his first posting with the Fifth Battalion at Kaduna. In the summer of 1959 Emeka was sent away to the Teshie Frontier School in Ghana to lecture in Infantry Tactics.
In December 1960 Emeka returned from Ghana to learn that he had been promoted to the rank of captain and six months latter he was promoted to the rank of Major. This led to a strange development. Emeka was celebrating the promotion with a group of fellow officers in his quarters in Lagos when a huge black limousine drew up. Out stepped his father, carrying three bottles of champaigne. This was the father who banned him from his house when he joined the army as a private soldier, who had not spoken to him for more than three years. Sir Louis entered the house.
‘Will you drink with me, Emeka?’ he asked.
The other officers made their excuses and left. The father and son finished the three bottles of champagne. When they had done so, Emeka asked his father why he had changed his mind to heal the breach between them. Sir Louis stared back into the past.
‘Do you remember,’ he said, ‘how I once told you the story of my own father, and how he was humiliated at the Nkwo market place on the orders of a British Officer back in 1913? Well, that officer was a major. For years I thought a major was the biggest and most powerful thing in the world. And now, don’t you see, my son is a major.’
So the rift was healed, and the two men never quarreled again.
Emeka was posted to the First Brigade in Kaduna and served with the Nigerian contingent with the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in the Congo. From the Congo he was whisked off to Latimer in England to attend the Joint Services Staff College. He returned home in January 1963, both to promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and to appointment to the post of Quartmaster-General of the Nigerian Army, the first Nigerian to hold that post. At the end of the year, Emeka’s tenure as Quartermaster-General ended. He was posted to the 5th Battalion Kano, his first independent command. He held that position until January 1966 when he was posted to the East as Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria.
I was a civil servant then, and was privileged to be posted to the State House, Enugu, by the Secretary to the Military Government, as one of Ojukwu’s personal assistants. Working in Ojukwu’s State House was a completely new experience for us, not business as usual. The vehicle would pick us up from our homes at about 7 a.m. and send us home only when Ojukwu was done with the business of the day at 9 or 10 p.m. He was a hard worker who kept his staff on their toes.
The first test of strength for Ojukwu was on May 29th 1966, when an insurrection broke out in the North and thousands of Igbos and other Easterners were hounded and slaughtered without warning. Thousands fled to the East as refugees with tales of unspeakable atrocities. Ojukwu made it a point of duty to go to the Enugu Railway Station to receive and console the refugees some of whom were maimed or wounded. Many eminent Nigerians both in the North and South condemned the killings, and after receiving assurances from Northern leaders that the killings would not happen again, Ojukwu convinced the refugee Easterners to return to their stations in the North, asking them to believe that the killings had been ‘part of the price we have had to pay for the ideal of One Nigeria’.
But on July 29th 1966, the country witnessed another military coup in which the Military Head of State, Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi and his host and Military Governor of Western Nigeria, Lt.-Col Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, were killed by Northern Officers. The country was thrown into chaos and confusion as the Federal Radio continued to broadcast martial music for days without any announcement. It was clear that the country had descended into anarchy. As we sat in our offices at the State House, Enugu, wondering what was going on, the commanding officer in charge of the Second Division of the Nigerian Army, Major Ogunewe, rushed into the State House and made straight for Ojukwu’s office. We did not know what conversation took place, but we later learned that Major Ogunewe advised Ojukwu to evacuate the State House immediately for his own safety and that of his entire staff. The Second Division of the Nigerian Army was only a few blocks from the State House. Major Ogunewe had just managed to forestall an attempt by some eight hundred soldiers of Northern Nigeria origin to gain access to the armory. Working under orders from Lagos, these Northern soldiers in Enugu intended to attack the State House and topple Ojukwu. At first Ojukwu resisted the idea of leaving the State House but when he realized that Major Ogunewe was unrelenting, he ceded to the major.
The State House was quickly evacuated to the Eastern Nigeria Police Headquarters where, for several days, Ojukwu and his staff including my humble self squatted as Ojukwu tried to establish communication with Lagos. On August 1, 1966, Gowon made his famous declaration: “Fellow countrymen”, he said, “We have pretended for too long; the basis for Nigerian unity does not exist…” Meanwhile, mass killings of Igbos and other Easterners in the North resumed with greater intensity. Military officers of Eastern Nigeria origin who escaped the systematic massacres in the North, West and Lagos managed to find their way to Enugu with chilling stories of atrocities committed by Northern soldiers. As waves of refugees started streaming to the East, Ojukwu was hard put resettling them without any assistance from the Federal Government. As Ojukwu and his personal staff hunkered on the top floor of the Eastern Nigeria Police Headquarters, crowds of people – civil servants, teachers, market men and women - lined the street below, looking up to Ojukwu for answers to unanswerable questions. Dejection and despair were written on their faces as they yearned for hope and direction at a time their survival as a people was under real and imminent threat.
Meanwhile, fearing for the safety of northern soldiers in the East, Gowon reached agreement with Ojukwu for the safe return of northern troops from the East to the North. When the northern soldiers left Enugu, Ojukwu and his staff including my humble self returned to the State House, knowing that the Easterners and indeed all Nigerians were being dragged unwittingly into a period of crisis, a crisis of unimaginable proportions.
The July massacres were followed by three other waves of killings in August, September and October 1966. Let me allow three European eye witnesses to tell the story of what they saw:
The correspondent of Time magazine, October 7, 1966:
The massacre began at the airport near the Fifth Battalion’s home city of Kano. A Lagos-bound jet had just arrived from London, and as the Kano passengers were escorted into the customs shed a wild-eyed soldier stormed in, brandishing a rifle and demanding ‘Ina Nyamiri’ – the Hausa for ‘Where are the damned Ibos?’ There were Ibos among the customs officers, and they dropped their chalk and fled, only to be shot down in the main terminal by other soldiers. Screamingthe blood curses of a Moslem Holy War, the Hausa troops turned the airport into a shambles, bayoneting Ibo workers in the bar, gunning them down in the corridors, and hauling Ibo passengers off the plane to be lined up and shot.
From the airport the troops fanned out through downtown Kano, hunting down Ibos in bars, hotels, and on the streets. One contingent drove their Landrovers to the rail-road station where more than 100 Ibos were waiting for a train, and cut them down with automatic weapon fire.
The soldiers did not have to do all the killing. They were soon joined by thousands of Hausa civilians, who rampaged through the city armed with stones, cutlasses, matchets, and home-made weapons of metal and broken glass. Crying ‘Heathen’ and ‘Allah’ the mobs and troops invaded the Sabon Gari (strangers’ quarter) ransacking, looting and burning Ibo homes and stores and murdering their owners.
All night long and into the morning the massacre went on. Then, tired but fulfilled, the Hausas drifted back to their homes and barracks to get some breakfast and sleep. Municipal garbage trucks were sent out to collect the dead and dump them into mass graves outside the city. The death toll will never be known, but it was at least a thousand.
Somehow several thousand Ibos survived the orgy, and all had the same thought: to get out of the North.
Mr. Walter Partington of the Daily Express, London, October 6, 1966:
But from what I have been told on my journey by chartered plane to towns to which the North civil airline would fly, and hitching a lift through this desolate land, the horror of the massacre at times seems to equal that of the Congo. I do not know if there are any Ibos left in the Northern Region…for if they are not dead they must be hiding in the bush of this land which is as big as Britain and France.
I saw vultures and dogs tearing at Ibo corpses, and women and children wielding matchets and clubs and guns.
I talked in Kaduna with the Airline Charter Pilot who flew hundreds of Ibos to safety last week. He said, ‘The death toll must be far in excess of 3,000…. One young English woman said, ‘The Hausas were carting wounded Ibos off to Hospital to kill them there.’
I talked to three families who fled from the bush town of Nguru, 176 miles north of here [the dispatch was datelined Lagos]. They escaped in three Landrovers from the town where about fifty Ibos were murdered by mobs drunk on beer in some European shops. Another Englishman who fled the town told of two Catholic priests running for it, the mob after them. ‘I don’t know if they escaped; I didn’t wait to see.’ … A lot of the massacred Ibos are buried in mass graves outside the Moslem walls.
In Jos charter pilots who have been airlifting Ibos to Eastern safety talked of at least 800 dead.
In Zaria, forty-five miles from Kaduna, I talked with a saffron-robed Hausa who told me: ‘We killed about 250 here. Perhaps Allah willed it.’
One European saw a woman and her daughter slaughtered in his front garden after he had been forced to turn them away.
Mr. Colin Legum of the Observer, London, October 16, 1966:
While the Hausas in each town and village in the North know what happened in their own localities, only the Ibos know the whole terrible story from the 600,000 or so refugees who have fled to the safety of the Eastern Region – hacked, slashed, mangled, stripped naked and robbed of all their possessions; the orphans, the widows, the traumatized. A woman, mute and dazed, arrived back in her village after traveling for five days with only a bowl in herlap. She held her child’s head, which was severed before her eyes.
Men, women and children arrived with arms and legs broken, hands hacked off, mouths split open. Pregnant women were cut open and the unborn children killed. The total casualties are unknown. The number of injured who have arrived in the East runs into thousands. After a fortnight the scene in the Eastern Region continues to be reminiscent of the ingathering of exiles into Israel after the end of the last war. The parallel is not fanciful.
Those bloody events were a life-changing experience for Ojukwu and all Igbos and other Easterners. The Igbos who had been the vanguard of one Nigeria now felt a deep sense of disappointment and rejection by Nigeria. The famous Aburi Accord hammered out with the moderation of General Ankrah of Ghana was the best last chance for Nigeria to stabilize itself and avoid further bloodshed. On January 4 and 5 1967 there was a meeting of the Supreme Military Council of Nigeria in Aburi, Ghana under the auspices of General Ankrah. The purpose of the meeting was to let the military governors and Yakubu Gowon iron out solutions that would help to hold Nigeria together. The main question was the form of Nigeria and of its army in the immediate future. It was agreed, as Ojukwu suggested, that “as long as this situation exists, men from Eastern Nigeria would find it utterly impossible to stay in the same barracks, feed in the same mess, fight from the same trenches as men in the Army from Northern Nigeria. …For these basic reasons the separation of forces, the separation of population is, in all sincerity, in order to avoid further friction and further killing”. There was also agreement on the provision of relief to refugees in the East by the Federal Government. The idea was that it was better to slightly pull apart to let tempers cool in the hope that Nigerians would appreciate the need for each other and forge a more meaningful union.
But when Gowon decided to trash that agreement reached between him and Ojukwu in Aburi Ghana, it was clear that secession was the only viable option for the Igbos and other Easterners who felt rejected by Nigeria. For Nigeria to think that all the bloodletting from May to October 1966 could be swept under the carpet was the height of arrogance of power or downright insensitivity to human feelings. And this was unacceptable to the Igbos and Ojukwu. That was the breaking point. Even before the Aburi Conference, almost all the communities in Eastern Nigeria had led a delegation to the State House praying Ojukwu to pull the East out of Nigeria. But Ojukwu, still believing in one Nigeria, exercised super human restraint, hoping that somehow, Nigeria could be saved. Despite the fact that most of his multi-millionaire father’s assets were in Nigeria, when the crunch came, Ojukwu stood with his people through thirty months of absolute hell as world powers including Britain and the then Soviet Union in a marriage of the strangest bedfellows, shamelessly ganged up with Nigeria to bring down the already battered Igbos. They hid behind the bogus idea of ‘preserving the territorial integrity of Nigeria’ to do their dirty job. To the British Government, the territory of Nigeria was sacrosanct; the people living in it can be dispensed with. To the British Government and its Nigerian allies, to keep Nigeria one was a task that must be done even if it was over the dead bodies of millions of fellow Nigerians.
Detractors have called Ojukwu various names in order to denigrate him. They called him ‘rebel leader’ and ‘war lord’, and branded the Igbos as rebels for fighting to defend their lives and property against an invading force. And these were people who claimed and still claim to be civilized proponents of human rights. Apparently the Igbos did not deserve human rights. These same people recognized Eritrea, accepted the balkanization of Yugoslavia as well as the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, recognized the independence of Southern Sudan, and very recently fought on the side of the ‘rebels’ in Libya in order to remove a murderous dictator. Currently, there are plans for Scotland to vote on independence and break away from Great Britain. The reason for these actions was to bring freedom, justice and democracy to oppressed people. These were the principles on which Ojukwu led the Igbos. And for this, Ojukwu deserves a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.
Ojukwu was not just a great leader and statesman: he was also a great humanitarian. When his father, Sir Louis Philippe Ojukwu died in the middle of the Nigerian crisis in 1966, Ojukwu was devastated. It was the first and last time I saw him shed tears. Beyond the military looks and paraphernalia, Ojukwu revealed a deep seated humanity which I believe was the source of his strength. It was difficult for us to bear seeing this powerful man break down in tears! We all broke down in tears as well.
Ojukwu would make us work very hard, but he took our welfare seriously. When for security reasons we evacuated the State House and took refuge at the Eastern Nigeria Police Headquarters there was an incident which I will never forget. On our first day at the Police Headquarters, lunch was prepared at the State House by the Housekeeper and brought to the Police Headquarters. After the Governor (Ojukwu) had had his share, the two ADCs had their share. When we, the civilian staff, asked for our own food, the ADCs told us that the food was for the military, not for us civilians. We took the matter to Ojukwu himself. He was livid with anger and immediately summoned the two ADCs and dressed them down. He told them that in an emergency situation such as we were in, it was silly to discriminate between military and civilians and that if there were a big table, he the Governor would like to eat from the same table with all of us. He then instructed the ADCs to arrange for food to be brought immediately for us from the State House.
In another incident, I was working late all alone in the State House one evening and suddenly the Governor’s chef appeared before me dressed in immaculate white. He told me that the Governor wanted to see me. As I followed the chef to the Governor’s Mansion I wondered what I had done wrong. I was scared that the Governor was going to dress me down. But on reaching the mansion, the chef directed me to a table where food and all complements were set, and told me the Governor wanted me to have some food. I could not believe my eyes and ears. Apparently, Ojukwu had sighted me in the office from the mansion and was concerned about me. As I finished the meal and prepared to go back to work, Ojukwu came downstairs to meet me. I said, “Thank you, Your Excellency” and he nodded his head in appreciation, smiling in his usual fashion. Ojukwu was a complete gentleman who cared a lot about others and I am privileged to be personally associated with him. In the words of Rudyard Kipling, Ojukwu walked with Kings but never lost the common touch.
Ojukwu had a somewhat mystical connection with the people. During his time at Udi, and later at Umuahia and Aba as Assistant Divisional Officer between 1955 and 1957, Ojukwu developed an empathy with the people of the bush, and of the villages, and of the small towns, that has never left him. They came to trust him, and that trust also never left them. Frederick Forsyth, in his book, Emeka, postulates that during the crisis of 1966-67 and the Nigeria-Biafra war, foreigners and even fellow Igbo of western education failed completely to understand how Ojukwu could carry the broad masses of the people with him, why they trusted him so completely, why they backed him to the bitter end; and why in twelve years of exile, no other Igbo has ever been able to supplant him. Forsyth believes that the answer lies in the fact that unlike so many of the ‘been-to’ Nigerians, Ojukwu never came back so full of his own importance. He always had time; time to listen, time to discuss, time to palaver. Even at the height of the war, trying to run the Biafran Army and the civil administration, conduct foreign policy and receive the endless delegations and press visitors from abroad, even when he was half asleep with exhaustion, he never refused to receive the delegates from the bush. No clan chief was ever refused, no village head, however obscure, was ever turned away.
Ojukwu was loved and respected by the people. As was his habit, he was out one evening driving around town, his chauffeur at the wheels, without the usual motorcade. At a check point, they stopped. The police officer manning the beat demanded that the driver and the passenger step out of the vehicle. The driver tried to draw the attention of the officer to the passenger, Ojukwu. But the officer, in a moment of arrogant display of power, retorted that he did not care who the passenger was even if it was Ojukwu. At that point, Ojukwu wound down his glass, and at the sight of him, the police officer took to his heels and threw away his weapon. The poor police officer did not take flight because he was afraid of Ojukwu but because he felt deeply guilty of sacrilege.
It does not matter what other people call Ojukwu. What matters is what the Igbo Nation calls him. What Churchill is to Britain, Ojukwu is to the Igbo Nation. What General De Gaul is to France, Ojukwu is to the Igbo Nation. What George Washington is to America, Ojukwu is to the Igbo Nation. He is the indomitable Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the compassionate General of the people’s Army, the Defender and Protector of the Igbo Nation, the rallying point for the Igbo race at the time of their greatest need, head of state, governor and philosopher.
Ojukwu was a man who, in a very special way, touched millions of lives in Igboland, in Nigeria and indeed throughout the world. When I remember the constant stream of foreign journalists who took personal risks just to come to the State House, Enugu, to catch a glimpse of Ojukwu and possibly interview him, I cannot but believe that Chukwuemeka-Odumegwu Ojukwu is indeed an African Legend.
Innocent Chukwunwike Odenigbo