The Blogazette’s guest OLU OGUIBE reminisces on the remarkable, extraordinary life of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Army General and Head of State of the Republic of Biafra (November 4, 1933 - November 26, 2011). This article first posted on Oguibe’s Facebook page to mark Ojukwu’s 79th birthday is in itself an event. At a time that Ndi Igbo are under siege in Nigeria, this article reminds us of the many reasons Ojukwu will forever remain a hero, and not just to Ndi Igbo, but to every Nigerian who stands on the side of truth. TB
By OLU OGUIBE
Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was born to an Igbo father from Eastern Nigeria and a Northern Nigerian mother in the historic town of Zungeru, in what was then the Northern Region of the British Protectorate of Nigeria. This fact is often lost on so many Nigerians. Zungeru was also the birthplace of Nigeria's first President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, himself an Igbo.
Like Azikiwe and many other early Nigerian leaders and intellectuals of Igbo extraction, Odumegwu-Ojukwu spent his early life in Lagos, Western Nigeria, where his father, a haulage and real estate mogul who earned himself a British knighthood, owned a vast portion of Victoria Island and other parts of the burgeoning colonial metropolis. The young Odumegwu-Ojukwu briefly attended Catholic Mission Grammar School and King's College, Lagos. At the very young age of 13, he was sent to boarding school in England where he continued his studies at Epsom College, Surrey.
As the only Black child at Epsom, Odumegwu-Ojukwu developed an inner steel and fierce drive. He was sociable and very athletic, his favorite sports being rugby and discus. He would set a junior record in the later at Epsom that held for decades.
After Epsom, he gained admission to Lincoln College, Oxford University where he studied law for a year before changing to modern history, against his father's will. He graduated with a bachelor degree in 1954. It is often claimed that Odumegwu-Ojukwu earned a masters degree at Oxford, but that is inaccurate. He returned to Nigeria and sought a civil service position in his birthplace in Northern Nigeria, but the Nigeria that he returned to after almost eight years in England was already a changing Nigeria. By 1954, Nigerians of Eastern extraction were already being excluded from the civil service in the Northern Region. As a result, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was posted instead to the Eastern Region where he'd never spent any part of his life prior. There he began as Assistant Divisional Officer (DO), becoming the youngest "native" Assistant DO in the Nigerian colonial civil service. He served till 1956.
In 1956, Odumegwu-Ojukwu left the civil service and enlisted as the first trainee officer in the Nigerian Armed Forces with a university degree. He was sent back to England for officer training, first at Eaton Hall, and later at Hythe and Warminster. Unlike most colonial junior military officers, he did not attend Sandhurst. (It is noteworthy that many colonial military officers trained at Sandhurst eventually became coup leaders and military dictators in their home countries after Independence.)
Upon return to Nigeria in 1958, Odumegwu-Ojukwu finally received posting to Northern Nigeria as a junior military officer with the 5th Battalion, Kano. In 1960 he was transferred to Lagos as a Captain, before taking a brief position as a tutor in tactics and military law at the West African Frontier Force Training School, Teshie, Ghana where his top student was a trainee officer from Nigeria named Murtala Muhammed. It would be recalled that Odumegwu-Ojukwu studied law at Oxford for a year.
As an interesting historical aside, Murtala Muhammed would later play a significant role in a counter-coup by Northern Nigerian junior military officers in 1966 in which General Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria's Head of State after the collapse of the First Republic was assassinated, and thousands of officers and men of Igbo and Eastern Nigerian extraction were purged from the Nigerian Armed Forces, and many of them murdered. He would also be responsible for a series of incidents in which several hundred civilians were rounded up in public squares and massacred in a number of Midwest Igbo towns during the Biafra war, among them Asaba and Okpanam. Murtala Muhammed overthrew Nigerian war leader General Gowon in a bloodless palace coup in 1975, but died less than a year later in a bloody coup attempt. He was executed in traffic on his way to work by junior officers from his region.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu returned to Nigeria later in 1961 and was posted to Kaduna as a Major. He then served with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Kasai Province in the Congo following the Katanga crisis. In 1963, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and became the first indigenous Quartermaster General of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
As the first indigenous Quartermaster General and in the heady spirit of newly gained Independence, Odumegwu-Ojukwu questioned Nigeria's continued and complete dependence on Britain for all armaments, munitions, and sundry military supplies at prices that were not competitive, and at the risk of compromising the security and independence of the Nigerian military. As a result, he cancelled several contracts with Britain, and opened the requisition process to more competitive and state of the art armament sources including Germany, Holland, Belgium and Italy. That policy decision would have historic consequences a few short years later.
In 1965, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was made Commanding Officer of his old battalion, the 5th Battalion in Kano. When Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and others led a coup d'état in January, 1966 in which Nigerian Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and the Premier of Northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello were murdered, Odumegwu-Ojukwu moved quickly to protect the Emir of Kano and his court, and ensure that the rebellion did not extend to Kano. Within hours, he also pledged the full loyalty of the 5th Battalion to the provisional leadership of General Aguiyi-Ironsi, First Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Armed Forces, in Lagos. Because the coup leaders had already failed in Lagos, denying them the collaboration of the 5th Battalion effectively crushed the coup d'état because it meant that they had no full command of any region. Between Aguiyi-Ironsi and Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the coup plotters were soon persuaded to lay down their arms and surrender, which they did.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu was appointed military administrator of Eastern Nigeria as Aguiyi-Ironsi scrambled to restore order with a post-coup unitary military government. In July, 1966, however, the General was assassinated in a second coup while visiting the military administrator of the Western Region, Col. Fajuyi. The second coup was organized by junior military officers from the Northern Region who then, quickly initiated a bloody ethnic cleansing of the Armed Forces. Months earlier those junior officers together with several politicians had persuaded people in Northern Nigeria that the earlier coup was an attempt by the Igbo to take over the country, although the President of the Republic and the First Commanding Officer of the Armed Forces were already Igbo. Together, the officers and politicians masterminded a series of massacres of thousands of civilians of Eastern Nigerian extraction in the north, beginning in May, 1966. Many surviving Easterners fled the north following the pogrom, abandoning their homes, jobs and businesses. As already noted, many of them were born in Northern Nigeria and had lived there all their lives.
Back in Eastern Nigeria after the May massacres, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was visited in Nsukka by Emir Ado Bayero of Kano who assured him that the massacres would cease, and that Easterners should feel safe to return to their jobs. The Emir intimated that he shared in the belief that the ethnic cleansing was unjust. However, the mass exodus of surviving Easterners had also suddenly had a huge negative impact on the economy and civil service in the north in the same way that the forced exodus of Asian Ugandans would negatively impact Uganda five years later. As military administrator, Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu persuaded several thousand Easterners to return to their homes, jobs and businesses on the word of the Emir and other Northern leaders who condemned the massacres. Most of those returnees would equally be slaughtered in subsequent massacres later that year. That turn of events would leave a lasting mark on Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
After the assassination of General Aguiyi-Ironsi in the July 1966 counter-coup by Northern officers, the coup leaders were persuaded by Britain to cede leadership to Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi's Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Jacob Gowon, who was himself a northerner. However, prior to the coup and the General's disappearance, he had assigned Lt. Col. Gowon to conduct a preliminary investigation into the first massacres of Easterners in May, 1966, and to present a report to a Commission of Inquiry set up by the Federal Government. The General, it ought to be mentioned, had served as head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in the Congo where ethnic massacres had also taken place. He was, therefore, conversant with international procedures for addressing possible crimes against humanity. He was equally keen to see that justice was done, so that citizens would be reassured. The preliminary investigation assigned to Lt. Col. Gowon was never conducted, no report was ever made, no prosecutions were ever initiated, and nobody was ever held accountable for the massacres. Instead, after he assumed the seat of his missing boss, and pronounced himself Head of State, Lt. Col. Gowon dismissed the Commission of Inquiry. Like the massacres of May, 1966, none of the subsequent massacres would ever be investigated, nor would the ethnic cleansing of Easterners from the Armed Forces in Northern and Western Nigeria while Lt. Col. Gowon was Head of State. Not to this day.
The series of massacres, the ethnic cleansing in the military, the assassination of the Head of State and accession of his Chief of Staff to his office, and most significantly, the fact that Lt. Col. Gowon and the Federal Government that was now under his leadership and the rest of Nigerians turned a blind eye to these tragic developments and made no effort to either contain or redress them, not only undermined the faith of the surviving Easterners in Nigeria, but also deeply astounded Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the former Oxford law student and tutor in military law. The developments as well as documented pronouncements by Nigerian leaders in the North, proved to the Easterners that their lives were considered worthless and could be taken at will without repercussion or justice. The evidence was there in thousands of lives already taken, for which the government made no effort and showed no willingness to hold anyone responsible.
By the way, at the urging of leaders from the different regions whose democratically elected governments and legislatures had been abolished following the chaos of the first coup, Lt. Col. Gowon and his Supreme Military Council convened an Ad hoc Constitutional Conference which opened in Lagos on September 12, 1966 to determine the future of the country. In a written memorandum submitted to the conference, the Northern delegation noted that "The hard fact which we must honestly accept as of paramount importance in the Nigerian experiment, especially for the future, is that we are different peoples brought together by recent accidents of history. To pretend otherwise would be folly." In the memorandum, the delegation proposed that Nigeria should be composed of a Union of autonomous or confederate states, and that the constitution of the Union should include a secession clause. According to the written memorandum, "Any member state of the Union should reserve the right to secede completely and unilaterally from the Union, and to make arrangements for cooperation with the other members of the Union in such a manner as they may severally or individually deem fit." This obviously contradicted the strong central structure earlier implemented by the late General Aguiyi-Ironsi and for which, according to some, he was assassinated.
However, on September 14, the military administrator of the North, Lt. Col. Katsina arrived at the conference and withdrew the Northern delegation for consultation. When the delegation returned a few days later, it also withdrew the proposal in its initial memorandum, and instead put forward a new proposal for a strong, central government with a multiple state structure. Gone was the idea of a Union of autonomous states and the right to secede. In the confusion that ensued, the delegation left again on September 18. A new wave of massacres of Easterners had broken out again in the north, and the Ad hoc Constitutional Conference was adjourned indefinitely.
Anyone who is interested in learning about the scale of the massacres that resumed on September 18, 1966 is free to read the contemporaneous reports in the London Daily Telegraph, October 6, 1966; Time magazine, October 7, 1966; the London Observer, October 16, 1966, or any archival news sources. There is no point trying to describe them here. Suffice it to say that any living being who finds it fit to dismiss or ignore the fact of those massacres and their significance in the subsequent decision of the Easterners to leave Nigeria is unworthy of a response. There was no precedent on that scale in the history of the continent, and there would be none until Rwanda in 1994.
On September 29, 1966, after almost two weeks of continuous hunt and slaughter of Easterners by Northern Nigerian soldiers and civilians, Lt. Col. Gowon finally addressed the nation, noting in his radio address that the massacres were "now going beyond reason" and were "now at a point of recklessness and irresponsibility." Apparently, the massacres up till that point were conceivably within "reason". At any rate, the killing continued regardless, and those Easterners who had been unable to make it across the rivers and went into hiding instead, were eventually flushed out and finished off, hence the reports from well into October.
Meanwhile, the nearly two million survivors who flooded back into the east from both the north and the west where Northern soldiers had equally freely harassed and murdered Easterners, quickly created a considerable humanitarian crisis which the Federal government made no effort at all to address or help alleviate. Many were civil servants and the Eastern Region had no room to absorb what was in effect a substantial percentage of the Federal civil service on top of its own. Since those refugees were still Nigerians citizens, and the civil servants among them were still employees of the Nigerian government, Odumegwu-Ojukwu felt compelled to demand that the Federal government take responsibility for their resettlement and relief. Also, convinced of Lt. Col. Gowon's complicity in General Aguiyi-Ironsi's assassination and the former Chief of Staff's collusion in the long series of events from the failure to investigate the first pogrom of May 1966 to condoning the purge of the military and the subsequent massacres, Odumegwu-Ojukwu refused to acknowledge Lt. Col. Gowon's claim to General Aguiyi-Ironsi's position as Supreme Commander. He would accede to the authority of the Supreme Military Council earlier established by the missing General, and to Gowon serving as Chairman of the Council despite his obvious misgivings, but he would not recognize Gowon as Supreme Commander until the whereabouts of the late Supreme Commander were established, and his murderers brought to justice.
When Lt. Col. Gowon proposed to reconvene the Ad hoc Constitutional Conference in November, 1966, Odumegwu-Ojukwu declined to attend on safety grounds. He also declined to attend the meeting of the Supreme Military Council in Lagos on same grounds. Mind you, by then, all Eastern military officers and men had been purged from the Nigerian Armed Forces except those who escaped murder and fled back to the East. Odumegwu-Ojukwu had also just witnessed thousands of the Easterners whom he encouraged to return to Northern Nigeria after reassurance from his guest and friend, Emir Bayero, and other Northern leaders, perish in subsequent massacres. It simply follows reason that anyone in his position would be wary of any promises of safety outside Eastern Nigeria. This was the background to the decision to hold the Supreme Military Council meeting on neutral territory in Aburi, Ghana in January 1967.
The Aburi meeting, hosted by Lt. General Ankrah who had just deposed Ghana's founding President Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, lasted through two days of exhaustive discussion, the full, unabridged transcripts of which are publicly available. Those I can post here upon request. But briefly, the discussions centered on three broad topics, namely, the organization of the Nigerian government, the reorganization of the Nigerian Armed Forces, and the issue of so-called "displaced persons".
The transcripts make compelling reading, and take the reader right into the conference room. There are several things worth taking away, some of which are eerily uncanny and quite prophetic. One of the most uncanny is that the one and only time the word "secede" was uttered during the discussions, it was by the military administrator of the North, Lt. Col. Katsina, who told Odumegwu-Ojukwu that if the East wanted to secede, it should do so and leave the rest alone, but if the Easterners wanted to come in, they should do so. That prompted Odumegwu-Ojukwu to remind him that Eastern Nigeria was still part of Nigeria. Recall that at the Ad hoc Constitutional Conference earlier, Lt. Col. Katsina's Northern delegation had submitted a memorandum proposing that the right to secede be incorporated in any future constitution, before withdrawing from the conference.
Another is how often some of the attendants repeated the phrase, "the past is the past, let us forget the past and think about the future", a rather uncanny phrase that Nigerians repeatedly parrot today whenever the issue of the slaughter of Eastern Nigerians or the subsequent death of millions of children in Biafra come up. In Aburi, the "past" that the members of the Supreme Military Council were referring to was the recent murder of their Supreme Commander only six months prior--in fact till then, the official line from the Federal Government was that General Ironsi was missing, and his whereabouts was still unknown, although his Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Gowon, had already assumed his position, and not in an acting capacity--although the officers who murdered the General, including Lt. Col. Katsina, were sitting at the table. The "past" was three waves of massacres of more than ten thousand Easterners by Northern soldiers and civilians, the most recent of which happened barely three months prior. The "past" was the ethnic cleansing of the Armed Forces which had just been carried out by the very same officers sitting at the conference table. Each time any of those was mentioned, they quickly urged that the conference should not return to "the past" or it would last forever. In other words, the thousands of lives that had just been deliberately taken were not important and did not matter, and therefore could just be easily consigned to the past so the talks and the country could move on. Practically mere weeks after the atrocities took place.
Still more interesting are these words by Odumegwu-Ojukwu. After enumerating the chronology of events that had occurred since January, 1966, he added:
"By September the molestations and the killings of Easterners had assumed such large proportions that Easterners everywhere outside the East lost complete faith in a Federal Government that could not offer the basic need to their citizens, that is to offer the citizens protection. The citizens from the East, therefore, sought that protection within their ethnic groups in the East. Contrary to sentiments and all advice, everybody thought the East was going to revenge.
I will say this here because it is no boast, that, but for my own personal intervention in the crisis, the East would have thrown itself completely into revenge. I halted it because I foresaw that anybody that started an inter-tribal civil war would never be able to control it. I was absolutely certain that once we get into civil war it would take us at least 25 years to sort out."
So many have pontificated so long on how the Biafra war was started by Odumegwu-Ojukwu because he wanted war, or for personal glory, or because he was egotistical, or he should have known what he was getting into, and so on. Those last two sentences uttered in Aburi in January, 1967, deserve to be remembered.
And so should the fact that the structure that Ojukwu proposed in a circulated paper at Aburi regarding the central command of the Armed Forces and for military administrations, namely that they should be headed by a Commander-in-Chief answerable to a Supreme Military Council, with a Federal Executive Council and a consultative Council of State, would become the standard structure of all military administrations in Nigeria hence. The proposal was opposed by Lt. Col. Gowon who insisted that the previous post of an all-powerful Supreme Commander created by the "missing" General Aguiyi-Ironsi must be retained. This was initially supported by other attendees, but Odumegwu-Ojukwu insisted that "centralization is a word that stinks in Nigeria now" and that any leadership must be by consensus rather than be vested in a Supreme Commander. At any rate, since Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi was still officially missing, to Ojukwu he remained the Supreme Commander untill the nation was told what happened to him.
Several agreements were reached in Aburi that would form what became known as the Aburi Accord. However, on January 26, nine days after signing the Accord, Lt. Col. Gowon made a national broadcast reneging on the terms of the Accord while citing it. Quite tellingly, Lt. Col. Gowon would later state in a radio interview in 2004 that Odumegwu-Ojukwu's "insistence on the Aburi Accord caused the Nigerian Civil War." In other words, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was to blame for insisting on the terms of the signed Accord, and not the Nigerian government under his leadership for breaking the terms. Some of the terms in question referred to the core issues of the structure of the Federal government, the organization of the military, and responsibility for displaced persons, their safety, continued payment of Federal employees, and securement of the properties that they were forced to abandon. The Gowon government went back on all questions, citing misinterpretations. He never addressed the nation on the whereabouts of the erstwhile Head of State, either, as he promised in Aburi.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu was forced to issue a now famous declaration, "On Aburi We Stand", pointing out that after his people had been let down again and again with false assurances and promises, Lt. Col. Gowon's falsification of the facts and terms of a formal Accord signed to bring resolution to the crisis in the country was simply unacceptable. He refused to attend any further meetings until the terms of the Accord were fully implemented.
As military administrator, Odumegwu-Ojukwu had reconstituted the civilian House of Assembly in the East which was abolished together with all institutions of the First Republic by General Aguiyi-Ironsi and the Supreme Military Council. As a young colonial Assistant Divisional Officer in Aba, famous for a women's poll tax revolt in 1929, the first of its kind against the British colonial government in Nigeria, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was sensitive to the Igbo aversion to government without representation. In place of the defunct legislature, he requested the 29 Divisions in Eastern Nigeria to select and send ten representatives or delegates each to a new Consultative Assembly. He also requested the Teachers Conference, the Civil Service Union, the different professional associations, and the Market Traders unions which remain powerful in Eastern Nigeria today, to send representatives to the Consultative Assembly. A higher but solely advisory camera of the Assembly akin to the British House of Lords was formed as the Council of Chiefs and Elders, which is emulated in several states in Nigeria today. The bicameral body held its first meeting on August 31, 1966. Of the 335 members, 169 were Igbo and 165 from minority groups, although the membership was drawn from existing colonial administrative Divisions and the trade organizations, rather than along ethnic lines.
After the Nigerian government reneged on the terms of the Aburi Accord early in 1967, the people of Eastern Nigeria concluded that they could never again trust the Federal government even for their lives. In May, 1967, having debated the status of the region and its future, and having concluded that in order to survive the people would have to take responsibility for their own lives, set up their own economy, and make urgent arrangements for their own self-defence, the Council of Chiefs and Elders, and the Consultative Assembly unanimously mandated Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu to declare the region independent of Nigeria.
On May 30, 1967, the Republic of Biafra was born, with the 33-year old military administrator as Head of State. The Assembly recommended that Odumegwu-Ojukwu be promoted to the rank of General, and that the existing regional Executive Council be formalized as the cabinet of the new Republic.
Again, a great deal of wilfully fantastical gibberish is often written about the secession of Biafra and Odumegwu-Ojukwu's ego and how there was no such thing as consultation or a mandate. Some of this ignorant nonsense has been loudly repeated in recent weeks by the likes of the poet and critic Odia Ofeimun. The fact, however, is that unlike any other region under military administration in Nigeria, the Eastern Region under Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu had a representative civilian Consultative Assembly. One of the members, Okoi Arikpo, was the author of a proposal to restructure the administrative Divisions along ethnic lines, which was debated and passed by the Assembly, and implemented. Arikpo eventually defected to become Nigeria's Federal Commissioner for Information. So, there was a representative Assembly, there was a legislative process, and there was a mandate.
Nigeria declared war on Biafra on August 6, 1967. Odumegwu-Ojukwu led the Republic until it collapsed under full economic and humanitarian blockade in December 1969. Early in January, 1970, he went into exile in Ivory Coast. Soon after, on January 15, 1970, five senior Biafra military officers including Odumegwu-Ojukwu's Chief of Staff and successor, General Phillip Effiong, surrendered to the Nigerian government, bringing thirty months of the worst civil conflict in Africa's history to an end. The Biafrans had lost an estimated three million people, including about two million children who died through starvation and disease.
After years in exile, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was invited to return to Nigeria in 1982. Although he never again held political office, he remained active and visible in Nigerian public life for another three decades.
Known to millions of Biafrans as The People's General, the Oxford-trained historian and former military officer died in England on November 26, 2011 after a period of illness. He was 78. He body was received by the President of Nigeria upon return, and interred with military honours.
He would have been 79 years old today.
Olu Oguibe is a Professor of Art, Art History, and African American Studies at The University of Connecticut, USA.