The image so often associated with Africa – a child with stick-thin limbs and swollen belly – dates back to the first televised famine, the Biafra war. The man who understood the power of that image was an Oxford-educated Nigerian soldier, Emeka Ojukwu.
Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, to use his full name, proclaimed the short-lived Republic of Biafra in 1967. His demeanour of a gentleman-rebel standing up to the Nigerian Goliath appealed to western intellectuals such as Frederick Forsyth and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. A Swedish count built and flew planes for the Biafra country’s air force and its struggle for independence inspired the French humanitarian Bernard Kouchner to create Médecins Sans Frontières.
The son of one of Nigeria’s most successful transport entrepreneurs, Ojukwu was from the Igbo tribe born on November 4, 1933, in Zungeru, the northern part of Nigeria. He received the best education – King’s College, Lagos; Epsom College, Surrey and Lincoln College, Oxford, where he graduated with honours in modern history in 1955. He refused to go into his father’s business and instead spent two years as an unglamorous administrative head officer in the Eastern Nigerian public service.
In 1957, Ojukwu joined the Royal West African Frontier Forces as a recruit. He rose rapidly through the ranks, ending his training at Sandhurst at the time of Nigerian independence in 1960. Under British indirect rule, Nigeria had been crudely divided along tribal lines: politics was for the northern Hausa tribe, commercial clout was the preserve of the supposedly industrious Yorubas on the south-western coast and education was for the administratively inclined Igbos in the east of the country.
Unhappy at northern heavy-handedness and discrimination, Igbo officers staged a coup in 1966 and installed Ojukwu as governor of the Eastern Region, which includes the oil-rich Niger Delta. When the counter-coup came six months later, Ojukwu refused to step down.
As the Eastern governor, Ojukwu sought peacefully to resolve matters. He tried to maintain military hierarchy by insisting that Brigadier Ogundipe took the mantle of leadership instead of a junior officer, Col. Gowon but Ogundipe was convinced in London to step into the Nigerian High Commission.
On 29th September, a fatal pogrom with beastly brutality was carried out mostly against the Igbos and other ethnic groups in the Eastern region by the northern elements. Maimed, bruised Biafrans returned en masse, yet Gen. Ojukwu never abated his quest for peace having previously made futile attempts for a badly damaged unity that has become irreparable. He proceeded to Aburi, Ghana on 4th January, 1967 for a peace conference with Gowon, Gen Joseph Ankarah was the host. There, Ojukwu succeeded in getting Gowon to sign a peace treaty called “Aburi Accord.”
Upon return, Gowon reneged on the agreement reached at Aburi. He split the Eastern region into three states. He was solely responsible for the war. Gen. Ojukwu from Nnewi, Anambra state, left with no other option, declared the defunct nation of the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967 with the mandate of the Eastern Nigeria Consultative Assembly. Three days later, Gowon declared war and besieged Biafra. The diplomatic war in the present day Nigeria is a replica of what Biafra has continously faced in the past.
Under pressure from Igbos in the military, he declared independence for the 29,000 square-mile region of Biafra on 30 May, 1967. A flag was designed, featuring a rising sun. A currency(in pounds and shillings) was issued and the beginnings of a welfare state were put in place. Ojukwu personally chose a movement from Jean Sibelius’s Finlandia as the tune to the national anthem, in reference to the Nordic country’s resistance to foreign domination.
But the region’s oil wealth made Biafran independence intolerable to Nigeria and the international community and as a result, in July 6, 1967, then Nigerian Military Government headed by Col. Yakubu Gowon declared war and attacked Biafra. He besieged an already wounded people. He came with international support from thirthy countries, and for thirty months Biafra under the leadership of Gen. Ojukwu persevered against all odds.
A futile and avoidable two-and-a-half-year war cost millions of innocent Biafran lives as Nigeria created famine conditions and enlisted British and Soviet support against a ragtag army equipped with home-made military hardware.
The scar of that war is ever green in our minds — It was characterized by genocide of sorts and these included wanton killings, molestation and rape, blockage of food and aids, over three million Biafrans, men, women and children died. Many got displaced till date in foreign lands.
By 1969, Biafra was on its knees and Ojukwu fled into exile in Ivory Coast, handing over the baton of leadership to his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Philip Effiong from Itshekiri, present day Akwa-Ibom state. President Felix of Ivory Coast had recognized Biafra and offered asylum to him. Twelve years later he was granted a pardon and returned to Nigeria where he formed the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA and ran for president in 2003 and 2007. In 2008, he received his military pension from the Nigerian government but complained complained that it ranked him as a lieutenant-colonel rather than as a general, his rank in the Biafran army.
Vonnegut described Ojukwu as Biafra’s George Washington. He wrote: “When we met General Ojukwu, his soldiers were going into battle with 35 rounds of rifle ammunition. There was no more where that came from. For weeks before that, they had been living on one cup of garri a day. The recipe for garri is this: Add water to pulverized cassava root. Now the soldiers didn’t even have gari anymore. General Ojukwu described a typical Nigerian attack for us: ‘They pound a position with artillery for 24 hours, then they send forward one armoured car. If anybody shoots at it, it retreats, and another 24 hours of bombardment begins. When the infantry moves forward, they drive a screen of refugees before them. If we go forward, we die. If we go backward, we die. So we go forward'”.
The American writer was among a dozen intellectuals invited by Ojukwu to witness the Biafran war in a bid to influence western public opinion and secure airlifts of food. Another was Forsyth whose biography of him, Emeka, was published in 1982.
In Nigeria, Ojukwu’s legacy is largely viewed as positive for having stood up for his ethnic group, having proved incorruptible and having essentially personified the country’s view of itself as constantly riven along ethnic lines. After his death in November 26, 2011 at the Royal Berkshire Hospital – where he had been admitted following a stroke in December 2010 – President Goodluck Jonathan paid him a glowing tribute: “Ojukwu’s immense love of his people, justice, equity and fairness forced him into the leading role he played in the Nigerian civil war.”
Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB leader, today, represents the adage: “He who runs, lives to fight another day.” Presently, the Nigerian government under President Muhammadu Buhari and his Army Chief, Tukur Yusuf Buratai have killed, maimed, incarcerated, kidnapped and illegaly imprisoned and denied release even against court orders. In all these we must not relent. Our hitherto inner conscious mind have been awakened by Nnamdi Kanu. We must not relent but fight on until Biafra is restored.
We must not forget nor relent!
Adieu Gen. Ojukwu!
Long live Biafra!