Born on November 4, 1933, in Zungeru, a town in today Niger State, Nigeria, which was the capital of the British protectorate of Northern Nigeria from 1902 until 1916, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was the son of a successful Igbo businessman, Sir Louis Philip Odumegwu Ojukwu—founder of Ojukwu Transport, Ojukwu Stores and Ojukwu Textiles. And at his peak was also the first and founding president of The Nigerian Stock Exchange as well as president of The African Continental Bank.
Ojukwu after graduating from the University of Oxford in 1955, he returned to Nigeria to serve as an administrative officer. After two years, however, he joined the army and was rapidly promoted thereafter. In January 1966 a group of largely Igbo junior army officers overthrew Nigeria’s civilian government but then were forced to hand power to the highest-ranking military officer, Major General T.U. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi (also an Igbo); he appointed Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu as military governor of the mostly Igbo Eastern region. However, Hausa and Yoruba army officers from the Northern and Western regions feared a government dominated by the Igbo, and in July 1966 northern officers staged a successful countercoup in which Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon was installed as the new head of state. Under Gowon’s rule, Ojukwu retained his command of the Eastern region. Meanwhile, the rising tide of feeling against the Igbo in the Northern region led to large-scale massacres of Igbos by northerners in May–September 1966.
The Eastern region felt increasingly alienated from the federal military government under Gowon. Ojukwu’s main proposal to end the ethnic strife was a significant devolution of power to the regions. The federal government initially agreed to this solution at a conference in January 1967 but then rejected it soon afterward. Ojukwu responded in March–April 1967 by separating the Eastern regional government’s administration and revenues from those of the federal government. Mounting secessionist pressures from his fellow Igbo finally compelled Ojukwu on May 30, 1967, to declare the Eastern region an independent sovereign state as the Republic of Biafra. Federal troops soon afterward invaded Biafra, and civil war broke out in July 1967. Ojukwu led Biafra’s unsuccessful struggle to survive as an independent state throughout the civil war, and on the eve of Biafra’s surrender in 1970, he fled to Côte d’Ivoire, where he was granted asylum.
Ojukwu remained in exile until 1982, when he was pardoned and returned to Nigeria. He joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in January 1983 and subsequently attempted to reenter politics; his bid for the senate representing the state of Anambra was unsuccessful. He was detained for 10 months following a coup that brought Muhammad Buhari to power at the end of 1983. In 1993 he once again joined a political party, this time the Social Democratic Party, but he was disqualified from running for president.
Additionally, a great many Nigerians, new generation Nigerians especially, very unfortunately and sadly, have very shallow, and usually very erroneous views about Ojukwu. A lot of such persons have no knowledge about Ojukwu’s manifold capacities. Such people almost always think only about the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970 when Ojukwu is mentioned. But that was not all. Ojukwu recorded several achievements, individually and for those he led and served. For instance, in 1963, as the first indigenous Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army, Ojukwu modernised the Nigerian Army uniform and also started the production of the uniforms in Nigeria, the Nigerian soldiers having before then been wearing colonial uniforms that were made in Britain.
Chukwuemeka Ojukwu was also a skilled orator who had a great command of the English Language. A lawyer, Barr. Kenneth Ikonne (SAN), once wrote about his experience with the great Ikemba of Nnewi.
‘THE UNFORGETTABLE LION!
Some humans exude imponderable aura. Ikemba Ojukwu certainly did. When I was a student at Ife, he once came to deliver a lecture at the University’s iconic Oduduwa Auditorium. It was packed full, and the audience was hostile, as we waited. There were sporadic taunts of “Biafra”, “Biafra”, in apparent jest at the visitor’s failed effort to found a Republic. It continued even after the unfazed warrior had walked into the auditorium, accompanied by the Vice Chancellor, Wande Abimbola and Arthur Nwankwo, the latter now, like the Ikemba himself, of blessed memory. But all the tumult was soon to dramatically turn to pin-drop silence once Ojukwu walked up to the lectern. Eyes blazing with imponderable fire, and with a face that combined the aura of both a Greek god and a lion-king, he cast a kinetic gaze at each of the three sections of the tumultuous auditorium. The effect was melodramatic. Each section went deathly quiet as the muscular lion stirred them down. Having achieved attentive silence, Ojukwu then proceeded to thrill his hypnotized audience with the kind of oratory not seen since Cicero’s time.
“Mr. Vice Chancellor,” he bellowed, in a tone that was rythmically perfect, if not lyrical. “I have never before now been to your magnificent citadel of learning, but I have been vicariously present. I say vicarious because, several years ago, within the ancient portals of Oxford, the very first Vice Chancellor of this great institution, Professor Hezekiah Oluwasanmi and I, were inseparable friends. I have not been here before, but today, as I stand on thy hallowed grounds, I am breathless—the sheer suzerainty of the atmosphere; the sheer harmony of man and nature; the sheer lustre of your greenery; the sheer architectural indulgence; all are worthy of Oxymandias. And all these bear vivid testament to the truism that Baba (Awo) loved his children.”
At this point, the once hostile predominantly Yoruba audience exploded in paroryxms of ecstasy. “Ojukwu ni alagbara”, the electrified audience, now on their feet, chanted in a frenzy!
The fiery orator then paused, and let out a wry smile. In that instant, he looked disarming, and dark – ruggedly handsome, like the lion in this post! He then continued:
“The theme of this talk, is, in a sense, a toast to the sustainability of the unity of Nigeria. I know that some people in this hall might be bemused at the choice of Ojukwu to propose a toast to the unity of the Federal Republic.”
At this point he paused again, dramatically, eyes blazing. He then leaned toward the microphone and roared:
“But if not me, who uuuuu?”
The ‘who uuuu’ boomed in the amphitheatre in a reverberating echo. Then he paused again, and began to brag:
“I have been an ex-rebel, ex-soldier, ex-citizen, ex-head of state, ex-warlord, and ex-military governor. I have been in dungeons where the dark walls of gruesome trenches were my most distant horizon, and from whence I heard my brothers’ bullets whistle past my ear in a murderous staccato. I have also been in ornate corporate boardrooms where the only language of discourse was high finance. And I have even survived the schizophrenia of “a little to the left, and a little to the right.”
The wowed audience of students, academics and professors roared in thunderous applause!’