Ojukwu’s Burial Intellection Rites, Biafran Transcendence and Nigerian Unity

by Patrick Iroegbu

From the 14th of January 2012, the official cultural and state activities and rites around the burial and memorial of the late Chief Emeka Ojukwu, the Ikemba of Nnewi and Eze Ndi Igbo of Nigeria, were flagged off. Since the 14th of January therefore, different activities planned to mark the elaborate burial of Ojukwu have been going on despite the horrible experiences of the fuel subsidy removal, including its challenges, protests, crises and pains to Nigerians as entire that stood orchestrated and unmitigated by the Federal, State and Local Governments in the country. It must be noted that Nigeria’s economy came to a terrible stand still following the critical challenges of some two weeks of dusty and windy street protests against the fuel subsidy removal. Deeply painful as the cost of living turned out to be unaffordable, Nigerians have endured the serious pains of this development, which indeed, should have been avoided with some simple common sense application by the leadership of President Jonathan and his all knowing economic management team and chain of advisers.

One strong thing which is good about this fuel subsidy removal conflict following the Arab Spring pattern of uprising is that it has helped Nigerians to unite and mobilize to exercise their rights to demand not to be sabotaged, unconsidered and inflicted with a broken hope and economic pains they are not ready to live with. It also helped to open up critical avenues to understand the Nigerian economic issues underlying why things do not change for the better and why corruption is consistently affixed to the danger of less economic opportunity and growth. Desperate with life by the Nigerian common masses, it has become imperative to question again and over what is fuel subsidy, how much is subsidized per pump price of one gallon or litre. In addition, it equally helped to engage the labour unions and the civil society to send voices and point “T” and “F” fingers where they are needed to the government to stop playing on the public interest and intelligence.

Having said that, it is important to note that there are activities lined up around the burial of Ojukwu; and these activities cannot be delayed or demeaned in view of the fuel subsidy crisis in Nigeria. One of such activities, which did draw my attention for this article, is the intellection of the rites of Ojukwu and Biafra as it pertains to Nigerian unity. Founders of Nigeria who agitated for Nigeria’s self determination following the events of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights did understand that forging a nation is forging a collective vision and public behaviour of self identity and immersion for everyone. From the struggles to wrestle Nigeria out of colonialism, Ojukwu emerged in the 1960s as one of the leaders and shapers of Nigeria of the time. Ojukwu’s entry into Nigeria’s public life and governance raises questions for everyone, in particular when the issue of Biafra comes up. How do scholars understand what Ojukwu and Biafra meant for Nigeria’s unity? Has history questioned and answered enough of the development of Nigeria through the Igbo migratory and participatory experiences? What actually compelled the intolerance and killing of Igbo people in Northern parts of Nigeria in the 1960s? Were the Igbo faster at championing and calling every area they spread and lived in Nigeria a home? Why is it so difficult to understand the Igbo by other communities in Nigeria in practicing communal Nigerianism for everyone?

But again why has the Igbo themselves been constantly maligned in the centrality of the presidential office holding and charisma for Nigeria? Why have the Igbo leadership in itself failed up to today to achieve what they first taught other ethnic communities in Nigeria to belong and lead from the topmost office of the presidency? Now the question of Ojukwu being celebrated for his life and sacrifices to Nigeria brings again the question of Nigerian unity and growth. How does the Igbo intellection focus on Ojukwu and Biafra in the context of forging and representing Nigerian unity and advancement? Is there a story line behind Ojukwu and Biafra we need to know that has not been highlighted? There is probably more to the issue of Ojukwu and Biafra in the meaning and significance of Nigerian unity and development than we know already. There should be some surprises when the gathering for Ojukwu and Biafran intellection rites will be finished.

Let me therefore share with you the presentation of the launching of Ojukwu and Biafra’s dream for Nigeria by the Igbo intellection as organized in memory of Ojukwu, the Ikemba of Igboland. Below is therefore a full text of the gathering of the Igbo for the Igbo and Nigeria on the question of Ojukwu and Biafra – in the making and fostering of Nigerian consciousness for unity. It also follows that events of a time will either promote or complicate human understanding of ourselves and the realities we draw from such events in the making of our own history.

As reported by Journalist Emmanuel Uzor from Onitsha in Anambra State of Nigeria, on Monday, January 16, 2012, Igbo leaders have launched Ojukwu’s dream on this day in Ahiara of Imo state of Nigeria at the same place Ojukwu declared the dream of Biafra in 1969 to reflect the ills in Nigeria and its leadership failings, lack of will and strategy to protect lives and property of the Igbo in Nigeria. Here we see the temptations and frustrating development of loss of lives of the Igbo that rallied the entire Igbo population to rise to the challenges to defend themselves from their terrorist killers in Nigeria of that time. We need to appraise the lessons of the time as we reflect on the tragedies of Nigeria’s development curve.

With the start of the intellection events, Emmanual Uzor reports that as Igbo leaders converged on Ahiara, Imo State, the historic site of the famous declaration of the philosophy and vision of the failed state of Biafra on June 1, 1969. The Ohanaeze President General, Chief Ralph Uwaechue articulated the new Igbo struggle anchored on the dreams of the late Biafran leader, Ikemba Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.

This speech like the one offered by Ojukwu himself in 1969 is not only reflective and symbolic but also historically informative. As the speech in question by Chief Ralph Uwaechue shows, it is stunningly contextualized in the history and development of Nigeria through the lenses and sacrifices of Igbo population group that needs to be reflected on as we mourn and bury Ojukwu. We will never let Ojukwu’s dream down or go unrecognized and lived with in the annals of constructing and reconstructing the unity of Nigeria, today, tomorrow and ongoing.

Chief Ralph Uwaechue spoke with the following themes:

The Ahiara Declaration and Ndigbo

“Today, Monday January 16, 2012 in Ahiara, Imo State, we are comemorating an epochal event that marked the unflinching determination of Ndigbo to resist oppression and persecution unleashed on them in Nigeria. With the Ahiara declaration of 1st June 1969, the Igbo Military Leader, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, rallied Ndigbo behind a common cause – the struggle for their survival in dignity and security as an ethnic group.

The Biafran secession bid, aimed at securing that objective, failed militarily, but the spirit which propelled it remained in the minds of many, symbolized in the towering personality of Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. His enduring message to Ndigbo, now a most treasured legacy, is that they must always be courageous and united in their legitimate struggle for political and economic survival within the Nigerian nation.

In furtherance of the actualization of that unmistakable admonition and as an abiding tribute to this great Igbo leader, Ohanaeze Ndigbo following wide consultation, is launching a determined bid to fulfill Ojukwu’s cardinal dream – a Nigerian president from his home base, the South-East geopolitical zone.

Recent developments on the national scene have made it mandatory for Ohanaeze Ndigbo to step out promptly and nip in the bud, the incipient but potentially divisive controversy, involving some highly placed Igbo political office holders, vis-à-vis the position of Ndigbo on the vexed question of South-East presidency.

Six Zonal Structure

There is today ample evidence that Nigerians, irrespective of their political affiliations, have accepted the six zonal arrangements and not a Sudan-type, conflict-prone, bi-polar demarcation of North and South. This fact came clear in 2007, when the elective headship of the two key arms of government – the Executive and the Legislature emerged from North-West (President Umaru Yar’Adua) and North-Central (Gen. David Mark). At the same time the third arm of government – the Judiciary – was headed by Justice Legbo Kutigi also from North Central, although by existing convention, succession here has been by professional seniority.

Nobody, anywhere in the country, complained that the “South” was short-changed and deprived, simply because what the vast majority of Nigerians saw in the situation were two contiguous but separate zones, North-West and North-Central. They did not see a “North” having it all and the entire “South” going empty handed. For them our country has six geo-political zones, not two, vis-à-vis the distribution and rotation of key national offices. At Independence in 1960, what our founding fathers settled for was a full-blown Federal Structure, with three Regions, East-North-West as the federating units of our nation.

They did not, in their wisdom, opt for two regions – North and South. All three regions were constitutionally equal in status. A fourth Region – the Midwest, was created by regular constitutional amendment in 1963. Alongside the subsequent creation of states by abrupt military fiat in 1967 and thereafter, the democratically conceived regional option remained very much alive and soon metamorphosed into the current six geo-political zonal arrangements. This equilibrated political zonal structural adjustment, now serving as the basis for the distribution and rotation of key national political offices, was informed by the glaring need to better accommodate the interests of our nation’s numerous ethnic groups, large or small.

The primacy of regional control over the federal in our country’s power equation was dramatically demonstrated by the choice of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the charismatic and powerful leader of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) to head the government in Kaduna as the regional premier and send his deputy Sir Abukakar Tafawa Balewa to head the Federal government as Prime Minister in Lagos. Thus, the national master plan adopted by our founding fathers at Independence was pure federalism. There was an agreed specific power sharing formula between the federal and regional governments.

For our recently recovered democratic dispensation to stabilize and endure, we should not perpetuate the autocratic military deviation from the unambiguous terms and intentions of this zonally based socio-political contract, which brought us together as a modern nation, without first of all properly consulting and securing the clear consent of the inheritors of that sacred agreement – the Nigerian people.

Those who are still preaching the antiquated, if not unpatriotic, North-South political doctrine with regards to power shift should stop to reflect on the fact that of the fifty-one years since Independence, the geographical area which they designate as the North has produced civilian and military rulers of Nigeria for some thirty-eight years, leaving in the process a most significant stamp on the crucial configuration of our State and Local Government structure. Although we admit that some of them, proved to be leaders of good polish and nationally acknowledged integrity, like Gen. Yakubu Gowon, Alhaji Shehu Shagari and lately Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua.

The so-called South by contrast has so far clocked less than fourteen years in the presidential saddle. If therefore, the two-zone North-South concept were to prevail, and strict equity were to apply vis-à-vis power shift, when then is the South due to hand over the presidential baton? Is it after completing its own equalizing stint of thirty-eight years? Surely, in the interest of national cohesion and socio-political stability, we must recognize the fact that our country simply cannot progress steadily, to the desired benefit and comfort of all the component groups, while operating an unstable elastic zoning system, which either shrinks to two or expands to six as and when it suits the sectional interest of any part of this vast and variegated nation.

Igbo role in Independence

Igbo political role in Nigeria has been consistent in the pursuit of national unity and inter-ethnic cooperation. Under the leadership of the late Owelle of Onitsha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwwe, the Igbos played the role of bridge builders in the fledgling Nigerian nation. Zik, as he was fondly called, accepted the leadership of the legendary Yoruba political activist, Herbert Babington Macauley to form and direct the first truly significant national political party – National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC).

With respected and nationalist Yoruba leaders like Dr. Ibiyimka Olorun–Nimbe, the first and only Mayor of Lagos, Sir Odeleye Fadahunsi, the first national vice president of the NCNC and second indigenous Governor of Western Region, Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, the lion of Ibadan politics, and others including Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Chief Mojeed Agbaje and Otumba T. O. S. Benson, the then Igbo leadership forged a political alliance which cut across ethnic boundaries. Such was the extent of their success that Zik was poised, after the regional election of 1951, but for a last minute hitch, to become the Premier of the Western Region, the home ground of the Yoruba nation.

The party which he led, NCNC and its allies won a majority of seats in the Western House of Assembly. Similarly, in the Eastern Region, the Igbo-dominated NCNC, true to its pan-Nigerian orientation and commitment, elected as the first mayor of Enugu metropolis, Mallam Umaru Altini, a moslem from Katsina, North West Nigeria.

Furthermore, in 1957 when the British colonial Government, under intense pressure from southern politicians pressing for Independence, attempted to uncouple the union between the North and the South forged through Lord Lugard’s Amalgamation of 1914, with the offer of Independence to the three Regions individually, provided any two accepted the offer, a political crisis loomed large on the national horizon. The Northern Region, led by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) took the position that the North was not ready for that level of political and economic Independence. The Western Region, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) promptly declared its readiness to accept the offer. It was the Igbo-led NCNC that held the balance. It was an issue that could make or break Nigeria if the three Regions chose to go their separate ways to Independence. The NCNC leader, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, took the stand that although the Eastern Region was ready to assume the responsibilities of Regional Independence, its attainment without the North would lead, in his own words, to the “Balkanization of the Nigerian Nation” and conceivably a break-up of the country. The Eastern Region would rather suppress its appetite for Independence and the obvious gains it would entail until the Northern Region was ready. That was how Nigerian Independence was delayed until 1960. In short, the Igbo–led Eastern Region would rather forgo the advancement of its own political and economic interests, than risk the break-up of Nigeria. Similarly, when Zik moved to the Federal scene as Governor-General and later titular President of Nigeria, the NCNC, under the dynamic leadership of Dr. Michael Okpara, continued faithfully.

Had the Eastern Region opted for Independence at that time, the territory under its control would have comprised in today’s terms the following nine states with their enormous human and natural resources: Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra, Bayelsa, Cross River, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, and Rivers. It would also have included in all probability (as was the case with then Northern Cameroon, which became today’s Adamawa and Taraba States) what was then Southern Cameroon, with the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula well in the middle of a distinct, sovereign and Independent Eastern Nigeria. By 1960, the three Regions would have become separate sovereign states. There would have been no question of Biafra’s attempted secession in 1967 from a non-existing Nigerian federation, nor indeed, the ferocious and devastating civil war fought to stop it.

The role of Ndigbo in socio-economic front

On the socio-economic front, the Igbo played and are still playing a leading role in the promotion of national integration. Today, there are several millions of Igbo people living, working and helping to develop significantly parts of Nigeria outside Igboland. They are in remote villages and towns nationwide. Be it our country’s commercial cities of Lagos or Kano, heavy Igbo presence attests to Igbo people’s belief and commitment to pan-Nigerian nationhood. For the Igbos, anywhere in Nigeria is home. Indeed, a few years ago, the former FCT Minister, Malam Nasir El-Rufai, was quoted as saying that Igbo investment in indigenous private property development in the Federal Capital Territory, accounted for some seventy percent of the existing structures. Clearly, the Igbos put their money where their heart is – Nigeria’s centre of unity.

It is therefore clear that all this long, since the British colonial administration put together this vast country, the evident role of Igbo people in the political, economic and social history of Nigeria has been that of bridge builders and nation builders. The desperate resort to Biafran secession in 1967, following successive massacres and tearful exodus of Igbos from Northern Nigeria the previous year, and its subsisting residual echo in the emergence of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), are clearly an aberration, not an Igbo hallmark, emanating from a sudden sense of rejection and persecution of a people who have given their all, in spirit and material resources to the concept and construction of a truly united, prosperous Nigerian nation.

Cruel Irony

There is today therefore, the cruel and bewildering irony that a people who have done so much to keep Nigeria alive as one nation are being systematically denied their rightful “Federal Character” turn at producing a president for this country. The negotiation for Nigeria’s Independence from Great Britain, though with the strong support of the smaller ethnic units, was masterminded by the leadership of the three largest ethnic groups – Hausa/Fulani (Sir Ahmadu Bello); Igbo (Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe); Yoruba (Chief Obafemi Awolowo). Apart from the minorities who have been presidents of our country, two of these three bigger groups – Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba – have already had their turns of the presidential slot several times over.

How to balance the imbalance

To rectify this stark and totally unfair anomaly, virtually perpetuating the exclusion of our country’s largest ethnic group from its rightful share of political power at the centre, must now be clearly perceived and resolutely accepted as the priority task of the leadership of the Igbo nation in charting a new course for Ndigbo in the Nigerian polity. The attainment of this objective will restore the confidence of the Igbo nation, severely bruised by the civil war and its debilitating aftermath, both in itself as a people and in the Nigeria project, where it once held an indisputable pride of place.

Ndigbo, apart from their demographic weight are exceptionally resourceful as evidenced by their outstanding achievements in various fields of human endeavour both at home and abroad. Now is the time to put these impressive attributes to work and make the desired political impact at the national level, where team work is crucial for our collective success. Hence Ohanaeze Ndigbo, is putting great emphasis on uniting our people and guiding them towards a common political and economic agenda. The attainment of South-East presidency demands all hands on deck as it will not be handed over to Ndigbo on a platter of gold.

The increasing display of unity by South East Governors and other well-meaning Igbo sons and daughters in pursuit of a common political and economic agenda is a welcome step in this direction. The virtually unanimous Igbo support for President Jonathan at the elections of last April is such instructive evidence that our people are coming seriously together and can use their collective demographic weight to influence national affairs significantly. This is a healthy departure from the hitherto individualistic, rapacious and opportunistic approach prevalent amongst those struggling for political office in total disregard for collective legitimate Igbo interest at the national level.

How to achieve Igbo Presidency in 2015

In pursuit of the objective of South-East presidency in 2015, Ohanaeze Ndigbo has put forward a case and is canvassing for the rotation of the office of the president among the six geo-political zones of our country. The rallying cry for Igbo support for President Jonathan during the general elections of last April was clearly based on this particular premise. It was essentially support for a South–South presidential slot, with Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, already in the saddle at Aso Villa, as a lucky, credible and worthy beneficiary. This patriotic political Igbo gesture extended to the South-South zone in 2011 is characteristically consistent with the massive Igbo support similarly given to Chief M.K.O. Abiola’s South-West zone in 1999 cited earlier, with Chief Obasanjo triumphing over his kinsman Chief Falae, in a distinctly intra South-West presidential contest.

In line with this thinking of Ndigbo, all five governors of the South-East zone in an impressive and patriotic display of unity, irrespective of their different political party alignments, spoke with one voice and acted in unison in support of the South-South presidential candidate and selflessly abstained from the presidential and vice presidential contest. So did a good number of erstwhile South-East aspirants to the presidential seat equally abstain? So also did support for the South-South come from our respected traditional rulers, revered religious leaders of all denominations, major political stakeholders and the masses of the Igbo nation, who came out to register and support a South-South presidency at the election proper last April. They all expect the South-East to have its turn in 2015 President Goodluck Jonathan has publicly declared and emphatically assured our nation that he will not seek re-election at the end of his current tenure in 2015. To every politically conscious Nigerian, who believes in true and demonstrable federalism and wishes to see the strategic office of the president go round the various geo-political zones of our great country, this is the opportunity to complete the first round of zonal presidential representation, hence the South-East should take its rightful turn in 2015. Thereafter, and only thereafter, will it become fair and proper, if considered necessary, to change the extant rules of engagement, certainly not in the course of an on-going game?

By the time President Jonathan completes his tenure, South-East, the once hallowed political base of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, generally acknowledged as perhaps Nigeria’s foremost founding father, the placidly intrepid Dr. Akanu Ibiam, the indomitable Dr. Michael Okpara, the indefatigable Igbo Union leader, Chief Zacchaeus Obi and lately our legendary Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu, all of blessed memory, now sticking out in unenviable political solitude, will distinctly remain the only zone that has not held the top-most executive office in our country since Independence in 1960.

Producing the next president by the South-East, a zone replete with outstandingly capable hands, is therefore, not a favour waiting to be granted, but a logically due and legitimate political right justly accruing to it within the Nigerian family in a true ‘federal character’ setting. Ndigbo worldwide fervently and fraternally urge all Nigerians and our various political parties to see the case of South East presidency in this equity-generated light. End of speech.

To conclude this article therefore, one will notice from this presentation the wonderings of the Igbo in Nigerian leadership phenomenon of political experiences. As we mourn Ojukwu, we re-usher in his dreams for Nigeria and for Igbo people in promoting the unity of everyone and every part of Nigerian – circumstances such as the fuel subsidy and Boko Haram imbroglios notwithstanding.

Burying Ojukwu with lined up activities is not burying what the Igbo hold dear to their history and contributions to Nigerian unity and advancement but to re-echo all there is to refer to the dreams which Chief Ojukwu left behind for re-shaping the present Nigeria of our time.

When the Igbo of Nigeria are considered to be a group with resilient talents and restless psychology for adaptation and survival, history as it is revealed by this speech proves that mantle, social value, impeccable sacred virtue and identity characterization of their political immersion and behaviour for Nigeria’s unity.

Ojukwu will be buried with all the youth, elderly and communal obligations, reciprocities and critical fan fares and lessons for Nigeria to adjust, promote and secure lives.

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