At the time of Ojukwu’s death on 26 November 2011, his name resonated across the world. But, unlike in June 1967, when his declaration of Biafran independence led to civil war in Nigeria, his passing away evoked widespread feelings of sadness and regret among Nigerians. Our associate editor Mercy Eze looks back on Ojukwu’s legacy and enigmatic life.
Never in the history of Africa has the death of a “rebel” provoked such a wave of reaction as that of the former Biafran war leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who passed away in a London hospital on 26 November 2011, at the age of 78, having suffered for almost a year after a massive stroke. He had been evacuated from his native Nigeria to the UK on 23 December 2010.
Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike have diverse memories of Ojukwu. He was adored and loathed in equal measure, not just for his failed attempt to cede Biafra from Nigeria, but also for his struggle for principles.
His eldest son, Debe Odumegwu Ojukwu, could not have said it better when he attested, at a memorial service in London, to what he described as “an avalanche” of feelings and condolences from across the world since his father’s death.
Ojukwu was buried in Nigeria on 1 March. Before the burial, weeks of memorial activities had been staged at different locations across the world, by the Igbos in the diaspora. On 21 January, eminent Nigerians and foreign sympathisers, including scholars, historians and political stalwarts, filled London’s Westminster Cathedral to capacity during a requiem mass in Ojukwu’s honour.
Speaker after speaker explored his life, his Biafra cause, and the 1967-70 civil war that tore Nigeria apart. Nigeria’s deputy high commissioner to the UK, Dozie Nwanna – himself an ex-conscript of the war – paid a moving tribute to Ojukwu, exalting him as a remarkable personality whose impact would continue to be felt in the country.
The officiating bishop, Allan Hope, in his homily, described Ojukwu as the “John the Baptist of Nigeria”, adding that the occasion had offered Igbos in the diaspora a forum to share their pride and grief.
As the head of the Nigerian chaplaincy in the UK and Ireland, the Rev. Albert Ofere prayed that Ojukwu’s death would bring lasting unity among the Igbos.
In a groundbreaking speech before a hushed audience, Ojukwu’s son, Debe, dwelt extensively on what his father stood for. Later, in an interview with New African, Debe (a lawyer who is widely seen as a replica of his father in oration and personality), presented Ojukwu as a man of conviction who wanted the best for his people.
Ojukwu was born on 4 November 1933 at Zungeru (now Niger State) to the multimillionaire business tycoon and Britishknighted Sir Louis Phillip Ojukwu of Anambra State, eastern Nigeria. He started formal education in Lagos, and came to England when he was 13. He attended Oxford University where he obtained a Masters degree in Modern History.
After his return to Nigeria in 1956, he worked as a civil servant before joining the army. He served in the UN peacekeeping force in DRCongo, and was later posted to Kano in northern Nigeria as commander of the 5th battalion of infantry. He was appointed the military governor of Eastern Nigeria in January 1966 after the military took over.
But a rising military career was marked by a serious crisis after Ojukwu’s politically-minded spirit stirred his passions to formally declare Biafra independent of Nigeria in May 1967 following a pogrom against Easterners living in Northern Nigeria. This forced the then head of state, Gen Yakubu Gowon, to declare war on Biafra in July 1967. Biafra had some notable successes during the war but was finally defeated in 1970. Ojukwu hastily handed over power to his deputy, Major-Gen Philip Effiong, and fled the country.
The Ivorian president, Félix Houphöet-Boigny, granted him political asylum in his country, where Ojukwu lived for 13 years before returning home, following an unconditional pardon in 1982 by the government of President Shehu Shagari.
Ojukwu soon went into active politics and co-founded the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), under which he sought twice without success to become Nigeria’s president, in 2003 and 2007.
Ojukwu endured suffering and enjoyed life in equal measure. His strong personality was defined by courage, forthrightness and resourcefulness. In a tribute, Nigeria’s current president, Goodluck Jonathan, said Ojukwu’s memory would live forever. “Given the uncommon quality of the leadership he gave to his people, his place in history is assured,” said Jonathan. “It was Ojukwu’s immense love for his people, justice, equity, and fairness that forced him into the leading role he played in the Nigerian Civil War.”
“His death marks the end of an era in Nigeria,” added former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who Ojukwu served alongside in the army until the civil war forced them to different sides of the divide.
The Igbo caucus, Ohaneze Ndigbo, and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MOSOB) bemoaned the death of their great leader. Before Ojukwu, the Igbos already had a voice, but it is his untiring efforts to push their issues onto the national agenda that amplified their empowerment. As the Rev Innocent Ezeonyeasi aptly noted in a homily, “Ojukwu would have had
something to tell the whole world about this critical time of social, economic, and political development in our nation.”
Even his foes now accept that “nobody in Ojukwu’s position would have stood aside and watched his people killed. The situation in 1966 would have pushed anybody to do what he did, especially after the retaliatory coup of July 1966”.
Paying tribute to his departed colleague, the former Nigerian military head of state, Gen Muhammadu Buhari, said: “In the course of these years, we came to understand ourselves well and respected each other deeply as compatriots searching for solutions to the problems confronting our country.”
Ojukwu’s former arch-rival, Gen Yakubu Gowon, said the fact that Ojukwu valued peace and had helped build a united Nigeria made him pray that Ojukwu would return home after receiving treatment in London, so “we could continue the struggle to keep Nigeria as one indivisible entity. But I am happy that Ojukwu died as a Nigerian and not as a Biafran”.