Was Ojukwu really a patriot? – Ola Balogun writes in The Punch

Could an independent Igbo homeland have actually thrived as a landlocked entity, cut off from the oil-rich riverine areas inhabited by hostile minority tribes?

In the course of his life time, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (aka Ikemba Nnewi) was a man who had an unmistakable flair for dramatic gestures, coupled with an interesting tendency to indulge in rhetoric, grandiloquence and hyperbole. 

If Ojukwu could have witnessed the grandiose funeral that he was accorded by the large crowd that gathered to pay him homage as he was being buried recently, he would certainly have loved the drama of the occasion. He would have been even more delighted by all the display of emotion and the outpouring of rhetoric that his funeral provoked! 

Interestingly enough, a much overused quotation from William Shakespeare’s classic, Julius Caesar, that speaks of comets “blazing in the skies” when great men pass away kept cropping up like a bad coin in many articles and speeches inspired by the Ikemba’s demise. 

Apparently, hardly anyone was inclined to remember what might perhaps have been a more apt quotation from a different play by Shakespeare (“Macbeth”), wherein it is reported of the unlucky Earl of Cawdor (who lost out in the bitter power struggle that ensued from his ill-starred rebellion against the king of England) that: “Nothing in his life/ Became him like the leaving it.”

 The fact remains that whether one liked him or not, none can deny that Ojukwu appears to loom greater in death than in life. Justifiably or not? 

Certainly, some of the encomiums that have been heaped on the late Biafran warlord might appear somewhat puzzling to some of those who actually witnessed the events surrounding the Nigerian Civil War a few decades ago. 

For instance, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings surfaced from Ghana to declare to the entire world that the late Ikemba Nnewi was a “great African”, even though he willingly confessed that he knew nothing about the Civil War years beyond the fact that Dick Tiger (his boxing hero) was said to have fought in the ranks of the Biafran armed forces! 

Quite bizarrely, Rawlings (whose knowledge of contemporary African history appears to be quite sketchy) does not appear to have ever heard that the dauntless fighter whom he generously described as “a great African” somehow managed to maintain an open-ended alliance with some of the worst enemies of the peoples of Africa at the time of the civil war, notably the apartheid regime in South Africa and the fascist leadership in Portugal, which gladly supplied Ojukwu with weapons and ammunition on a large scale, in a somewhat similar fashion to their dangerous romance with the late Jonas Savimbi of Angola (who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to Ojukwu, oddly enough). 

Some have sought to excuse Ojukuwu’s dalliance with the forces of oppression in apartheid South Africa and the fascist Portuguese African colonial empire on the grounds that he was forced to that extremity by the burning desire to ensure that Biafra survived at all costs. 

A plausible defence perhaps, even though it is rather difficult to conceive of a supposedly “great African” wining and dining with such clearly avowed enemies of the peoples of Africa! 

Be that as it may, while it may be conceded that Ojukwu’s ill-considered alliance with the very people who were torturing and killing millions of Africans in South Africa, Rhodesia now Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola at the time might be overlooked as a case of desperate expediency, it does sound rather jarring to hear an overt fellow-traveller on the apartheid side of the great contest for the liberation of Southern African being described a few decades later as “a great African”. 

Ditto for Ojukwu’s secret agreement with Gen. Charles De Gaulle of France to grant the French oil company, Elf, extensive access to the oil resources of the Niger Delta in exchange for weapons and diplomatic support from a French Government that had only recently emerged from decades of ruthless warfare against the peoples of Algeria and Cameroun. 

Thus, under the assumed guise of seeking to aid the “starving children of Biafra”, the same forces that had heartlessly massacred hundreds of thousands of Algerian and Bamileke children emerged to pose to the world as champions of “humanitarian aid” to Biafra, with Jacques Foccart (the ubiquitous head of the French Secret Services) toiling tirelessly to mix arms shipments with Red Cross supplies that were flown under cover of darkness into the Biafran enclave nearly every night from staging points in Gabon and the Island of Sao Tome. 

Again, the odd role that was played by Foccart and his cohort of secret agents and mercenary soldiers in prolonging the Nigerian Civil War can quite possibly be forgiven to some extent as another instance of desperation on the part of Ojukwu (who appeared to believe that Biafra needed to be preserved by all and EVERY means available), but can Ikemba Nnewi justifiably be described as “a great African” after all that? 

Was Ojukwu a patriot in terms of the Biafran nation from which he escaped at the bitter end, allegedly to go and conduct a shadowy “peace negotiation” with invisible protagonists in Ivory Coast, leaving General Philip Effiong and others behind to sort out the legacy of defeat? 

Or could Ojukwu have been better described as a patriot of an entity that can best be defined as Igboland, which he eventually came back to Nigeria from exile to lead as self-proclaimed “Eze Gburugburu” of Ndigbo? 

In all objectivity, it might conceivably appear to be more appropriate to define Ojukwu as an unreconstructed Igbo patriot who never really thought in terms of Nigeria as a whole, which makes it all the more puzzling to hear some apparently well-intentioned folks declare that “Ojukwu sacrificed himself for the sake of Nigeria” or (in a more extreme formulation) “Ojukwu died so that Nigeria and Africa might be saved”. 

Although the millions of Ndigbo who gathered on the streets of Awka, Enugu, Onitsha, Owerri, Nnewi, and Umuahia to pay homage to their departed “Eze Igbo Gburugburu” (a rather strange sounding title that has no historical precedent in Igboland) were genuinely convinced that Ojukwu was one of the greatest leaders that Africa has ever known, it is highly improbable that this was actually a widely shared perception in the rest of Nigeria, particularly among the peoples of the present Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states, who claim to have been unwilling captives in the Biafran entity that emerged from the ill-fated declaration of secession. 

At the risk of appearing to swim dangerously against the tide, one cannot help noting that the vast outpouring of grief among the general Igbo population all over Nigeria on the occasion of Ojukwu’s demise inevitably presents some puzzling aspects to those Nigerians who were already adults at the time of the Nigerian civil war. 

To some extent, one does understand that the genuine sense of bereavement experienced by the quasi-totality of Ndigbo springs from the widespread nostalgia that many continue to feel for the failed dream of Biafra as an independent Igbo homeland, with which the late Ikemba is closely associated. 

Could an independent Igbo homeland have actually thrived as a landlocked entity, cut off from the oil-rich riverine areas inhabited by hostile minority tribes? To what extent were the Ijaw, Annang, Efik, Ibibio, etc. have been expected to buy into the concept of Biafra? 

If not, would it have been truly possible to construct Biafra on the basis of massive regimentation and oppression of the minority non-Igbo tribes by the majority Ndigbo? 

And how long could that kind of situation have been sustained, once the creation of the new twelve state structure by General Yakubu Gowon had given the original COR (Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers) population states of their own? 

More intriguingly, one notes with some degree of amazement that the rewriting of history has been carried so far by some people (including a number of prominent non-Igbo citizens) as to suggest that the late Ikemba was actually some kind of proponent of a new revolutionary entity that was supposed to replace the Nigerian state that was in existence of the time on the basis of the Aburi Accord (which he apparently suckered his less well-educated military colleagues into signing).


Dr. Balogun, a film maker, wrote in from Lagos via [email protected]

View full report here: http://www.punchng.com/opinion/ojukwu-between-general-amnesia-and-mass-hysteria/


Comments (9)

  1. you may not understand until people try to take out your life after they must have killed your kith & kin before your very eyes, and suddenly, someone saves you from their hands. Being the voice of the Igbos is enough.

    if our leader was that patriotic, why go to Aburi for a meeting,make an agreement and suddenly come back to pronounce that you disagree?

  2. I've always wondered what made Ojukwu so special and why he was regarded as a national hero. He tried to divide Nigeria. How is that patriotic

  3. its quite unfourtunate that someone rises from the blues and decides to write via his heart. I'm so dissappointed with this article writer. why do you have to wait till his death to write this article? when he came out to run as a president, were you on exile? abeg stop writing rubbish about the dead. ojukwu played his part, Mr. article writer Balogun, go and play yours. Abiola that sank Holy Bible, how far?. Mtchewwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. This is a really stupid piece by a lazy writer. What should Ojukwu have done when moslem murders were killing Igbos in their thousands? Prayed to God to deliver them? Should the rest of Europe have refused assistance from the US during the 2nd World War due to racial discrimination? Did Nigeria not accept weapons from Russia that was killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan? What do you have to say about that, Mr article writer?

  5. Very well written, Dr. Balogun. At some point in the course of reading this piece, I was afraid you would omit what I regard as the "blackmail of the Biafran initiative;" when Ojukwu returned to Nigeria and got back all his estate seized by the Federal government during the war following concentric negotiations with the powers-that-be. This is a slight on morality in my opinion. These were properties he was very willing to let go when he believed Biafra will succeed and he would become a revered King of oil. But what about those who followed him and lost everything? What about the unsung heroes who followed him; died on the battle fields and have never been commemorated?

    As clearly pointed out, the greater ill of Ikemba was coercing several ethnic groups to join a war they had no business with and they were unwilling to fight. This, of course, was made possible because of the regional structure of Nigeria at the time which put him in command of the entire Eastern region.

    Unfortunately, the society we belong to is won by emotional appeal not rationality which is why people will kick against this truth – a piece of beautiful, factual writing. Ikemba was a man who was very dramatic; who knew how to play to the gallery. That is enough for the majority of Nigerians and Ndigbo.

  6. It is in poor form to speak ill of the dead. It amazes me that so many praises were heaped on him in death yet the history books do not paint such a flattering image of the Ikemba of Nnewi

  7. Please no one should talk about what they do not know.Do not give us facts and figures you got from the library when you did not witness the spirit of Biafra.Simply put,for does who do not know and for does who want to know,Ojukwu is the first and I dare say,only Igbo man who has ever selflessly fought for the interest of Igbos.When we were being slaughtered unjustly like chickens,he spoke up when no one would and bravely fought back.If not for someone like him,Igbos would probably have become extinct.Maybe you guys would have been hearing from your fathers or telling your children that there was once a tribe called Igbo.Terrorism was staring Igbos in the face and this terrorists are the most dangerous kind – terrorist that have no demands.They were killing Igbos from pure beef and hatred and everyone formed not seeing but Ojukwu spoke up for Igbos.That is what Igbos will remember not all that academic stuff you are writing up there.Ojukwu may not be your hero or Nigeria's hero but he will forever remain our hero.The selfless lion who fought for his people.The only king that the Igbo's ever had, EZE IGBO GBURU GBURU ! Shikena.

  8. wow! I need to get some history books about this war. Had the basic info but this is deep! Someone pls let me know if there's a book about this war out there.

  9. Thank God someone understands Nigeria better than our hypocritical government. Ojukwu will never be a hero

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