PROFILE: What do you know about the man that started it all, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu?

Born in Zungeru – Modern day Niger State on November 4, 1933, at Zungeru in northern Nigeria to Sir Louis Phillippe Odumegwu Ojukwu, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was a Nigerian military officer and politician who served as the military governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria in 1966 and the leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra from 1967 to 1970. Colonel Ojukwu began his educational career in Kings College, Lagos in South-Western Nigeria where he made news headlines for assaulting a white British colonial teacher who humiliated a black woman. This event generated widespread coverage in local newspapers. At 13, his father sent him to Britain to study at Epsom College, England. He left Epsom at 18 for Lincoln College, Oxford. At Oxford University, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in modern history. After graduate studies in 1956, he returned to colonial Nigeria

Expected to take over the transport business his father – Sir Louis Philippe Ojukwu – was running and subsequently made him one of the richest men in Nigeria, he decided to join the Civil service as an Administrative Officer at Udi, in present-day Enugu State. After a few months in the Civil service, Ojukwu joined the Nigerian Army as one of the first and few university graduates to join the army; O. Olutoye (1956); C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1957), E. A. Ifeajuna and C. O. Rotimi (1960), and A. Ademoyega (1962). As an officer, Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s rise in the army was nothing short of meteoric with his popular background and sound education pushing him further than his peers.

After he got appointed as military governor of the Eastern region in 1966 by General Aguyi Ironsi, his actions drove him into the limelight. A military coup against the civilian Nigerian federal government in January 1966 and a counter coup in July 1966 by different military factions, resulted in multiple reported Igbo casualties based outside of the Eastern Nigerian region. The coup d’etat of January 15, 1966, which was led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu resulted to the death of the Sarduana of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello; the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Tafawa Balewa; the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Ladoke Akintola and the Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie Eboh and this sparked outrage against the people from Eastern Nigeria.

He took part in talks to seek an end to the hostilities by seeking peace with the Nigerian military leadership in Aburi, Ghana, with Chairman of the Ghana National Liberation Council -Lt.-General J.A. Ankrah-Chairman, Lt.-Col. Yakubu Gowon; Head of State, Major Mobolaji Johnson – Governor Lagos State, Lt.-Col. Hassan Katsina – Governor Northern Region, Lt.-Col. David Ejoor – Governor Mid-Western Region, Commodore Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey – Vice President of Nigeria, Colonel Robert Adebayo – Governor Western Region, Alhaji Kam Selem, Mr. T. Omo-Bare, N. Akpan Secretary to the Military Governor-East, Alhaji Ali Akilu Secretary to the Military Governor-North, D. Lawani Under Secretary, Military Governor’s Office-Mid-West, P. Odumosu Secretary to the Military Governor-West and S. Akenzua. However, the Aburi Accord was broken and when he returned back to Nigeria, the Eastern region had 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 afterwards. Ojukwu responded in March–April 1967 by separating the Eastern regional government’s administration and revenues from those of the federal government. he declared the Republic of Biafra and this prompted Gowon on July 6, 1967, to declare war and attack the Republic of Biafra.

The war lasted for 30 months with heavy casualties from the Eastern region of Nigeria. Within a year, the Military Government of Nigeria led by Gowon surrounded Biafra, capturing a lot of oil facilities and the city of Port Harcourt. The government also instituted a blockade to deny passage of food or aid materials into the eastern region. This blockade imposed during the ensuing stalemate led to the severe famine that was set up deliberately as a war strategy. In the 30 months of the war, there were roughly about 100,000 military casualties and it has been reported that close to 3 million Biafran civilians died from starvation. The famine gained world recognition in mid – 1968 when images of malnourished and starving children filtered out of Biafra and made way into the mass media of Western countries. The plight of the starving Biafrans became a global sensation especially in foreign countries, leading to a significant rise in the funding and prominence of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Britain and the Soviet Union were the main supporters of the Nigerian government in Lagos, while France, Israel and some other countries supported Biafra with weapons.

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, a Professor of history and politics argued that the Biafran war was a genocide, for which the Nigerian government and army had not been held responsible for. However, other parties hold the position that Igbo leaders had some responsibility, but acknowledge that starvation policies were pursued deliberately and that accountability had not been sought for the actions and inactions. While arguments against the government of Nigeria are made, it can be argued that during wars, parties involved rarely stick to rules of engagement in wars. Other parties argue that this was not a Civil War, but an international war much like the world wars fought between two sovereign states. The then United States President, Richard Nixon while vocally supportive of Biafra didn’t interfere as the United States had established a neutral stance to the war which greatly affected the outcome of the war.

After carefully considering his options, Ojukwu left command of Biafra to his second in command Major-General Philip Effiong and fled for Côte d’Ivoire, where President Felix Houphöet-Boigny who had recognised Biafra granted him political asylum. After 13 years away, the Federal Government of Nigeria under Democratic President – Alhaji Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari granted an official pardon to Odumegwu Ojukwu and allowed him to return to Nigeria. He returned in 1982 and the people of Nnewi as well as the entire Igbo nation celebrated him giving him titles of Ikemba and Dikedioramma. After his pardon, he was involved in tussles with the SSS with a high point being his international passport getting seized at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in November of 2004. He contested as the presidential candidate of his party; the All Progressives Grand Alliance up until his illness. He was a member of constitutional conferences in 1993 and again from 1994 to 1995.

Along with other former Nigerian leaders, he was consulted in 1998 by Abdusalam Abubakar; the military head of state, as Nigeria, once again began the process of converting from military to civilian rule. In 2003 Ojukwu, representing a new political party that he helped form, the All Progressive Grand Alliance, unsuccessfully ran for president. He ran again in 2007 but was defeated by the ruling party’s candidate, Umar Yar’Adua, in an election that was strongly criticised by international observers as being marred by voting irregularities.

On 26 November 2011, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu died in the United Kingdom after a brief illness, aged 78. The Nigerian army accorded him the highest military accolade and conducted funeral parade for him in Abuja on the day his body was flown back to Nigeria from London. He was buried in a newly built mausoleum in his compound at Nnewi with former heads of States and military heads present at the ceremony.

He was survived by his wife; Bianca Onoh, the Nigerian 1989 Miss Intercontinental Pageant. Up until his death, he maintained his primary residence in Enugu.

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