Before he died in 2011, leader of the Biafran secessionist movement, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, had assumed four personalities: he was a hero, a villain, a rebel, and even a ‘one-Nigerianist’.
When Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared Biafra’s independence from Nigeria in May 1967, he became a well-known but contentious figure and the subject of numerous debates. To some, Ojukwu’s decision was inevitable as the aftermaths of two coups in 1966 posed an existential threat to the people of Nigeria’s Eastern Region. To others, by challenging Nigeria, the largest and most promising of Britain’s colonial legacy in Africa, Ojukwu attempted the unthinkable. But a blend of Ojukwu’s past and his choices after declaring Biafra a republic, succeeded in making him one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Nigerian history.
Before he died in 2011, Ojukwu had assumed four personalities, some distinct, some overlapping. He was a hero, a villain, a rebel, and even a ‘one-Nigerianist’. While his rebel personality seems to have stuck, the fact that he flipped sides to become one of the major promoters of ‘one-Nigeria’ is interesting though clouded by his much earlier reputation. His ‘wrongs’ reverberated so much that it ridiculed his attempts to right them. Yet, at his prime, he was cherished by some, just as he was despised by others. The most interesting aspects of his personality lie, however, not in his reportedly brash persona but in his courage to apparently mend fences. The latter, however, remains a neglected theme in the discourse on Ojukwu’s legacy. Who, therefore, was Ojukwu?
OJUKWU’S EARLY YEARS
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was born on 4 November 1933 in Zungeru, northern Nigeria, into a wealthy family. His father, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, had amassed great wealth from business ventures across the agriculture, mining, transportation, and banking industries. Sir Louis is said to have, intermittently, served as a board member in various establishments, including African Continental Bank, United African Company, Shell BP, and the Nigerian Coal Corporation. He wanted his brilliant son to study law as a probable succession plan. But the younger Ojukwu wanted more than law and business could offer. After studying at Catholic Mission Grammar School and Kings College, both in Lagos, he proceeded to Epsom College in the United Kingdom before joining Lincoln College at Oxford University, where he studied and graduated with a degree in History. Ojukwu, his academic and career choices would suggest, wanted to make a name for himself that was independent of his father’s hovering influence. His studies at Oxford had exposed him to rhetoric, historical figures and routes to power. That he joined the communist party while in the UK, moreover, suggests early interest in a revolutionary route to power.
Ojukwu returned to Nigeria in 1956 and after working briefly as an assistant district officer in the Eastern Region’s civil service, he joined the colonial armed forces. Ojukwu was one of the first university graduates to become a commissioned officer in the Nigerian Army. Ojukwu, of course, was not oblivious of African political trends, the rising frequency of putsch in African polities and the opportunities that coups presented. He never foreclosed the chances of benefiting from coups but was very shrewd in his role as an accomplice. As such, in Why We Struck: The Story of the First Nigerian Coup, one of Ojukwu’s contemporaries, Major Adewale Ademoyega, described Ojukwu as ‘both crafty and selfish and would never give nor withhold his loyalty. He was running with the hare and chasing with the hounds.’
But there was more. In Oil, Politics and Violence, historian, Max Siollun, noted that Ojukwu (along with Lt Colonel Victor Banjo) was accused of ‘showing a greater than average interest in political matters’, and that ‘during the 1964 election crisis, Lt-Colonel Ojukwu approached them [Lt Col. David Ejoor and Yakubu Gowon] with a plan to replace the government with a military regime.’
When Nigeria eventually experienced its first military coup on 15 January 1966, Ojukwu was not one of the ‘Five Major’ plotters. Instead, he played a major role in aborting the coup, becoming a military governor in its aftermath. In The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend, Frederick Forsyth argued that among coup plotters, ‘[Ojukwu] was regarded as too much an “establishment” figure’. According to Forsyth, ‘it was known [by the coup plotters] that his legalistic turn of mind would make the idea of rebellion against legally constituted authority repugnant to him’. But Ademoyega, one of the plotters, argued that Ojukwu was incredulous and neither sanctioned nor discouraged the coup. According to Ademoyega, Ojukwu was ‘unsure and preferred to adopt the “if you boys succeed we shall go along with you” attitude’. However, in Because I Am Involved, Ojukwu’s memoir, Ojukwu re-echoed the ‘constituted authority’ narrative of his attitude towards the coup by suggesting that he joined the subsequent military regime led by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi because the regime ‘did not revolt against any constituted authority’, but ‘was legally and formally vested and given specific order to restore peace’.
Whether Ojukwu was privy to the 1966 coup remains a debate. More importantly and ominously, many political and military elites believed the 1996 coup was led by Ojukwu’s ethnic group, the Igbos, to engender Igbo domination of Nigeria.
By 29 July 1966, when a countercoup targeted easterners, Ojukwu grappled with the dilemma of either resisting a ‘non-constituted’ authority or constituting one to protect easterners. He likely became ambivalent of his celebrated role in thwarting the January 15 coup and, as Siollun explains, in Oil, Politics and Violence, felt guilt and distraught for the massacred easterners whom he had convinced to return to their Nigerian homes after successfully escaping the initial pogrom. Unlike the first coup, which targeted soldiers and politicians across all regions of Nigeria, the July coup unleashed terror and mayhem on every easterner residing in the Northern Region and Western Region. The atmosphere is best captured in the twelfth chapter of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, in which Adichie illustrated the coordinated murder of Igbos at the airport in Kano. According to Emefiena Ezeani’s In Biafra Africa Died, during a pogrom that followed the July 1966 coup, between 30,000 and 50,000 eastern civilians and about 200 eastern officers were murdered. It was the decisions Ojukwu consequently took as a military governor before the war to protect easterners, and those he took after the war to demonstrate his commitment and loyalty to the Nigerian project, that shaped the diverse perceptions of Ojukwu’s personality.
OJUKWU, THE HERO!
As Nigeria became increasingly hostile towards easterners, Ojukwu provided leadership and created a ‘sanctuary’ for easterners in Eastern Nigeria. He mobilized for support and challenged the then-status quo, which spelt doom especially for the Igbos. His quest to secure Eastern Nigeria fuelled his boycotts of several federal military council meetings. In January 1967, the same quest bolstered his insistence on the confederation that was conceded to him at the Aburi Convention in Ghana. Ojukwu sought a system of government that would concede more powers to the regions, making them autonomous of the federal government. When the Nigerian government later reneged on the agreement and insisted on a unitary system, Ojukwu responded by advancing the Biafran secession and coordinated efforts to sustain the new Biafra republic. Along with declaring independence, such efforts included acquiring arms and developing defence troops; establishing diplomatic relations with friendly states such as France; as well as producing and distributing Biafran currencies and state’s insignias. In his memoir, Ojukwu noted envisioning Biafra as a beacon of hope, harbour and shelter for the hated and persecuted.
To the average Igbo person who experienced or heard testimonies of the pogroms of July 29 and their aftermath, Ojukwu was a messianic figure. He was a hero with rare courage. Many still believe there could have been a genocide against the Igbos if not for Ojukwu’s interventions. The secession, to this group, was necessary to survive the abhorrence which Nigeria represented to easterners at that time. Ojukwu, thus, became a symbol of hope, courage and freedom. That people died in the war is viewed, by this group, as a noble sacrifice to the Biafran nation than a loss. To many in this group also, Biafra’s defeat to Nigeria on 15 January 1970 is a truism within the context of battle—the war, they believe, is ongoing and will end with the restoration of the Biafran republic.
The fact that Biafra achieved, in 30 months, more technological advancements and social cohesion than Nigeria is yet to achieve and successfully experimented the Raelian Geniocracy (a government based on merit and ingenuity), cysts the Biafran nostalgia which has in its heart, the portrait of Ojukwu. Today, Ojukwu is arguably the most loved, cherished and celebrated figure in Nigeria’s South East. Many, such as Ben Nwazurike, Nnamdi Kanu, and other secessionist leaders, have ridden on his legacies to gain popularity and power for themselves. To most, even outside of his Igbo ethnic group, Ojukwu remains a hero. No wonder, a former first lady of Nigeria averred that ‘Ojukwu is a great man,’ and that though he died, ‘his manhood lives on’.
OJUKWU, THE VILLAIN!
Ojukwu remains a contentious figure and, as such, many equally believe he was more of a villain than a hero. In this group was the British government, which was only interested in a unified and single Nigeria. Not only did the Harold Wilson-led British government support the northern soldiers that carried out the July 1966 countercoup, Britain convinced them to shelve their secession plans which had fast matured. As Chinua Achebe noted in his memoir, There Was a Country, many among Britain’s ruling elite believed Ojukwu was obstinate, condescending and had to be stopped. They questioned the source of his audacity and did everything to convince the world that he was a problem, not a solution. Sharing this sentiment, too, were some of the elite in northern Nigeria who blamed Ojukwu (as a proxy for easterners) for the January 1966 coup. Whatever the easterners suffered during the war, they concluded, was a consequence of a perceived Igbo quest to ‘dominate’ Nigeria.
It was rare to encounter voices condemning the pogrom in northern Nigeria. At that time, anything was necessary to destroy the hovering ‘Igbo planet’. The pogrom, thus, was a consequence of the supposed easterners’ role in the January 15, 1966 coup that culminated in the death of prominent Nigerian leaders. Lt Col. Hassan Katsina, the military governor of the Northern Region from 1966 to 1967, was an example of those with this perspective. To him, as Siollun has described, Ojukwu was a cunning and ambitious easterner who ‘loved to show how much English he knows’. Katsina questioned Ojukwu’s insistence on confederation at the Aburi convention and, according to Siollun, dared him to secede. For ‘threatening’ Nigeria’s sovereignty, Katsina contended, Ojukwu was a villain. To him, the only heroes were those who sought solutions to the pogrom without challenging the continued existence of a united Nigeria.
Even in the Eastern Region, there was growing animosity towards the Igbos. The fear of Igbo domination also existed in the Eastern Region and could be traced to the ‘politics of majority’ that, in May 1953 replaced Professor Eyo Ita (an Efik) with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (an Igbo) in the Eastern Assembly. In May 1967, when General Gowon isolated the Igbos from other eastern ethnic groups by carving out Rivers and Cross River as federating states, many non-Igbos welcomed this new arrangement. To them, Ojukwu and all that Biafra represented were antithetical to their political victory. Many from minority ethnic groups, thus, resented Ojukwu and became the major subverting arm of the Nigerian troops during the 30 months of the Nigeria-Biafra confrontations. The brutality perpetrated against non-Igbo easterners by the Biafran forces further cemented their hatred for Ojukwu. To most of them, as Arua Oko Omak has documented, Ojukwu was domineering and was a ‘war criminal’.
Ojukwu’s characteristic intransigence, moreover, resurfaced within the administrative and military ranks of Biafra. His brilliance and administrative dexterity notwithstanding, Ojukwu paid little attention to counsel that ran contrary to his sentiments. This was not only a setback to the Biafran military campaign, but also to administrative and diplomatic breakthroughs. For seeking alternatives to his preferred solutions, some of Ojukwu’s finest soldiers, such as Victor Banjo, received capital punishments. Some of the intellectuals, whose ideas Ojukwu never considered, got frustrated and withdrew their support to his administration. Among these was Ralph Uwechue, a Biafran diplomat, who in his memoir, Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: Facing the Future, condemned Ojukwu’s prioritization of Biafra’s sovereignty over broader eastern civilian security.
To the anti-Ojukwu group, therefore, Biafra may not have been the only solution to guaranteeing the safety of easterners. By directly suppressing logical and pragmatic alternatives to war and curtailing the Eastern Region’s chances at achieving peace at a lesser cost, they imply, Ojukwu was equally responsible for the deaths of Biafrans.
OJUKWU, THE REBEL!
Ojukwu was a polarizing figure. Regardless, he was interested in politics even before the January 1966 coup. The testimonies of the January 1966 coup plotters also suggest that he did not necessarily conform to civil institutions and was inclined to altering the civilian-military power balance. Although he frustrated the first coup attempt led by the ‘Five Majors’, he accepted a political role in the subsequent Ironsi regime—a move Ojukwu justified as legitimate since civilians welcomed the administration. However, the Ironsi administration was not formed by civilians ceding power to the military. Rather, the military squeezed power from civilians to preclude another coup or the worsening of insecurity. Ojukwu’s justification was, therefore, questionable.
The military had even begun exercising power before they eventually seized it from civilians. Ahead of Ironsi’s takeover, several ministers boycotted a meeting with Ironsi, fearing for their lives. According to Max Siollun, Alhaji Abdulrazaq, then minister for railway, recalled that ‘I was the only one who took notes at that meeting. He [Ironsi] told us that Major Nzeogwu had taken over power and threatened that if we did not cooperate with them they would kill all of us’. Thus, by once seeking the overthrow of the government and by actually benefiting from the proceeds of a successful overthrow, Ojukwu fit the description of a ‘rebel’ within the context of the military lexicon. To the plotters of the January 1966 coup, Ojukwu and the entire military cadre that profited from their ‘revolution’ were reactionaries who were worse than the coup plotters in multiple dimensions.
The same way Ironsi ignored ranking politicians to establish military rule in January 1966, the mutineers of July 1966 sidelined Ironsi and other ranking officers to establish Lt Col., Yakubu Gowon, as the new head of state. Following the assassination of Ironsi in 1966, Ojukwu rebelled against the Gowon regime and demanded that power be handed over to the next most senior officer after Ironsi, Brigadier Ogundipe. Ojukwu became the only tangible voice that questioned Gowon’s ascendency. But with some strategic decrees such as that which outlawed political public statements and that which created Rivers and Cross River states, Gowon’s administration began to garner people’s goodwill and manoeuvred its way to legitimacy. These tactics, however, did not deter Ojukwu from challenging Gowon’s administration. Thus, to anyone who was loyal to the Gowon’s regime, Ojukwu was a rebel in the sense that he did not just question orders but sought the replacement of Gowon’s regime. During the Nigeria-Biafra War, the ‘rebel’ tagline became very useful not just in demonizing Ojukwu, but in addressing Nigeria’s war propaganda. To the average soldier who fought on the Nigerian side, Ojukwu represented a super rebel with rare effrontery.
OJUKWU, THE NATIONALIST!
Ojukwu’s attempts at demonstrating his commitment to the Nigerian project are the least known of his multifaceted legacy. Post-exile, he rejected the notion that he was ever anti-Nigeria. His theory of nationhood, as described in his memoir, suggests that rather than being a separatist, he advocated for confederation and had pursued it on occasions such as the Aburi Convention. He explained his declaration of Biafra as an expedient move that was aimed at enshrining unity in Nigeria beyond what he termed the ‘unity of Jonah inside the belly of the whale’. Ojukwu, thus, conceived unity in Nigeria as reconciliation and harmony, and the absence of fear.
According to Ojukwu, the absence of the above-described scenario meant that the Eastern Region was already divorced from the Nigerian marriage. As such, his declaration of Biafra’s independence was a survival measure. Following the civil war, while he was in exile in Côte d’Ivoire, Ojukwu’s mind was home. He kept communications open with his compatriots. He lobbied for and was nominated in absentia by the Great Nigerian Peoples’ Party (GNPP) to run for the Federal House of Representatives for the Nnewi constituency in 1978. However, the Obasanjo military regime scuttled Ojukwu’s political ambitions by intimidating GNPP party stalwarts such that most changed course.
Ojukwu made several attempts at re-entering Nigeria’s political sphere but hit dead ends. Eventually, in 1979, power changed hands from Olusegun Obasanjo to Shehu Shagari, and Ojukwu courted the Shagari administration for an official pardon. In May 1982, the Shagari government granted him a pardon and he returned to Nigeria with a strong desire to shed his reputation as a rebel and create a new name for himself. He was not deterred by the harassment and months of unlawful detention he experienced following his return to Nigeria, under the military regimes that succeeded Shagari from 1983.
Ahead of Nigeria’s 2003 presidential election, Ojukwu made, arguably, his most considerable political push since the civil war. He founded a political party, the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), to test his popularity as a presidential candidate. Ojukwu even met with other running candidates such as Muhammadu Buhari who noted that Ojukwu had reassured him of his belief in a united Nigeria.
One could, therefore, argue that Ojukwu never gave up on Nigeria. In his memoir, Ojukwu considered himself ‘a complete Nigerian’ that would love to ‘be counted amongst the best citizens of Nigeria, capable and always willing to give Nigeria the best’. The civil war, he constantly reminded critics, did not make him less of a Nigerian. Instead, Ojukwu wrote, ‘I am a Nigerian …I refuse to accept any diminution of my Nigerianness… I consider myself more equipped to work for the country, serve her and even lead her.’
Following a stroke, he died on 26 November 2011, an undeniable force in Nigerian political history⎈
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