The Igbo secessionist leader remains an icon to his peopleBy CIUGU MWAGIRU | Friday, January 20 2012 at 10:28
As 2011 ended, Nigeria was sizzling from deadly religious clashes, mainly in the northern cities, that have become a sporadic aspect of the country’s life.
This year, there have been skirmishes regarding fuel prices, a reflection of the poor management of oil, Nigeria’s major revenue earner that has also become its bane and the root of the massive corruption and political chaos that have for years bedevilled the country.
The event that is likely to hold the country’s attention in the coming weeks, however, is the burial on February 2, 2012, of Ikemba Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
The owner of that tongue-twisting name died from a stroke on 26 November 2011, aged 78. Renowned as one of Africa’s most legendary figures, his death in the United Kingdom was widely reported, and has been described in some quarters as “the passing of an age in the chequered history of the Igbo nation".
By all indications, Ojukwu’s forthcoming though long-delayed funeral is likely to become a major event in Nigeria. Remembered for his bearded macho countenance and fiery oratory, he was the military officer who won both adulation and notoriety for attempting to lead his Igbo people into an eventually abortive but secession attempt in the mid-60s.
Rising to become the undisputed leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra, he later became an icon of the ensuing Nigeria-Biafra war that cost more than a million lives and left hundreds of thousands displaced people. At its height the secession war became a frightful pogrom that left many people in the world agape at its sheer ferocity.
Formerly the military governor of the Igbo-dominated south-eastern region, Colonel Ojukwu cited massacres that had taken place in northern Nigeria, as well as an alleged electoral fraud, when he proclaimed the secession at the urging of the southern parliament. On May 30, 1967, he proceeded to declare the Republic of Biafra an independent nation. The declaration came with fitting rhetoric.
"Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic,” Ojukwu told his countrymen, “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."
Ojukwu consequently became the Head of State of the rebel republic and both the de jure and de facto leader of his Igbo people. As it happened, the events leading to that development had been rapidly unfolding since January 1967, when the top brass of the Nigerian military leadership had gone to Aburi in Ghana to participate in a peace conference hosted by the latter country’s then military ruler, General Joseph Ankrah.
After the secession, the bellicose Ojukwu was for years to be pitted against his erstwhile boss, the then Nigerian military ruler Yakubu Gowon, in a fierce war that held world attention for years and dominated world headlines. In the meantime, his Igbo people were pummelled into submission in what was described in some quarters as near genocide.
Having endured continuous fighting for nearly three years, the Igbo population was practically starving to death by the time it became clear that the secession cause was hopeless. As for Ojukwu, he was eventually convinced to leave the country to avoid certain execution, and so on January 9, 1970, he handed over power to his second-in-command, Biafra Chief of General Staff Major-General Philip Effiong.
The erstwhile Biafran leader then fled to Côte d'Ivoire, where he was immediately granted political asylum by President Felix Houphöuet-Boigny, who had joined a few other African heads of state to recognise Biafra, which his country had officially done on May 14, 1968. Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania had been the first African country to recognise the secessionist state, and had been joined, respectively on May 8 and 20, 1968, by Gabon and Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia.
Eventually the Biafra secession dispute escalated into a full-blown Nigerian civil war, which raged between July 6, 1967 and January 15, 1970. During that period the war developed into a major international conflict, with various countries covertly or overtly supporting the different belligerents.
When the figures were finally tallied, the Nigerian side had a military and civilian casualty list of 200,000, while the Biafra side had one of about 1 million. As for the dead on both sides, the figure was estimated at between one and 3 million.
Among the countries that supported the Nigerian side was Egypt, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and Syria. Also supporting it were Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and China. Biafra, on the other hand, enjoyed the support of Benin, Israel, South Africa, Rhodesia, France and Portugal. Instructively, it depended largely on hired mercenaries.
As for its indigenous commanders, the Nigerian side had major names like Yakubu Gowon himself, Murtala Mohammed, Olusegun Obasanjo and Benjamin Adekun. The Biafran assault was in the meantime led by Ojukwu himself, assisted by Philip Effiong, Albert Okonkwo and Jan “Johnny” Zumbach.
The latter was an adventurous Polish-Swiss World War Two ace fighter who patiently put together a rudimentary Biafra Air Force that proved critical for the short periods when it was airborne. Made up of outmoded aircraft acquired from clandestine arms dealers, the force depended on improvisation to remain operational. That task was a cinch for Zumbach, who in 1962 had set up a primitive air force for Moise Tshombe during the Katanga war in the Congo.
'Strength of the people'
Having control of the bulk of Nigeria’s oil revenues, one thing the secessionist Biafra state had in plenty was money. It eventually became useless, however, when the Federal side changed the Nigerian currency, allegedly on the advice of the British. But even before that, Ojukwu’s new state had been heavily blockaded, making it extremely difficult to obtain military equipment or even food for the population, which began to gradually starve.
It was when the odds were heavily stacked against him that Ojukwu was forced into exile, having realised that his nascent republic would inevitably come a cropper. In his later years, however, he was to return to his motherland, where he was active in Nigerian politics as the leader of the opposition All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).
After 13 years in exile, the Federal Government of Nigeria under President Shehu Shagari granted Ojukwu an official pardon, and he made a triumphant return to Nigeria in 1982. The people of his native Nnewi gave him the chieftaincy title of Ikemba (‘Strength of the people’), while the entire Igbo nation took to calling him Dikedioramma (‘beloved hero of the masses’).
Despite the adulation, many of Ojukwu’s admirers disapproved of his foray into the murky waters of Nigeria’s politics. Their view was to be proved right when, after the December 31, 1983 coup by the Muhammadu Buhari-Ibrahim Babangida-Sani Abacha trio, he was among the prominent Nigerians detained at the notorious Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos. Never charged with any offence, he was to be released by Buhari, alongside 249 others, on 1 October 1984.
The sojourn at Kirikiri and the vagaries of advancing old age did not deter Ojukwu from continuing to play major roles in advancing the interests of his Igbo community within the context of emerging democracy, however reluctant, in Nigeria. "As a committed democrat,” he told an interviewer, “every single day under an un-elected government hurts me. The citizens of this country are mature enough to make their on choices, just as they have the right to make their own mistakes".
In fact, Ojukwu in his later years had played a significant role in Nigeria’s return to democracy since 1999, when in the run-up to elections for the Fourth Republic he had contested as the presidential candidate of his party. This was the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA, whose leader he was, and which controls two states and is fairly influential in the Igbo ethnic area of Nigeria.
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