Since the news of the death of the great soldier-statesman, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Dikedioranma Ndigbo, on Saturday, 26 November, 2011 in a London hospital was made public, the entire country has been thrown into mourning. The people of Nigeria, irrespective of tribe and religion, are united in their position that the country and indeed Africa has lost a remarkable political figure and leader.
The outpouring of emotions and condolences eulogizing the Ikemba Nnewi for what he stood for in Nigeria`s history have been understandably effusive. I join my colleagues in the National Assembly and millions of Nigerians and Africans all over the globe to mourn the transition of this political icon, who meant so many things to so many people.
The essential Ikemba was born with the proverbial silver spoon i in 1933 in the railway town of Zungeru, which at the time was the capital of Northern Nigeria. His father, Sir Louis Philip Odumegwu Ojukwu, a transport magnate, was known as the richest man in Nigeria then.
With his aristocratic background, he attended choice schools and was offered the best education that was available both in Nigeria and abroad. At the age of 13, he was sent by his wealthy and influential father to Epsom College, Surrey, England to complete his secondary education. From there he gained admission into Oxford University, considered the best in the United Kingdom, where he graduated with a Masters degree in Modern History.
As he was to prove later with the various roles he played in the life of the nation, the Ikemba did not allow his aristocratic background to blur his focus and vision. A man with strong convictions, he chose to lead an independent life in the service of the nation, away from the enchanting luxury which the family business empire offered him.
Equipped with very solid education, Ojukwu returned to Nigeria in 1956, and contrary to his father`s wish and expectations, took up appointment with the government of Eastern Nigeria as a District Officer in the Udi Division in the present Enugu State. Ojukwu had a choice to join his millionaire father in his chains of businesses and live a more luxurious and enchanting life, but instead he chose the path of sacrifice and service to his fatherland.
He ignored his father’s career preference for him and enlisted in the Nigerian Army, thus becoming one of the first university graduates to do so. A far-sighted and fore-sighted leader, this singular decision was later to properly position him for the frontline roles he played in the political history of Nigeria.
He rose quickly in the Army, attaining the rank of Lt. Colonel in 1964. He was placed in charge of the Fifth Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Kano as Commander.
When the Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu-led coup took place in January 1966, Ojukwu did not support it. Rather he rallied support for the then Head of the Nigerian Army, Major General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi to foil it. This amply testifies to his pan-Nigerian nationalist persona and not even the Biafra adventure can blur this inimitable fact.
With the emergence of Ironsi as the new Nigerian leader and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Ojukwu was appointed the Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, a position he occupied till the outbreak of the civil war in July 1967. The counter coup of July 1966 staged by Northern officers was targeted against the officers of Eastern Nigeria origin in revenge for the January coup. The Head of State, Major General Ironsi was assassinated and hundreds of many other Igbo officers serving in the North and West were hunted down and killed. This was followed by waves of massive killings of people of Eastern Nigeria in different parts of the federation, particularly in the North.
Overwhelmed by the pogroms, Ojukwu demanded from General Yakubu Gowon who had taken over from Ironsi as Head of State a halt to the killings and guarantee for the safety and property of Easterners in the troubled parts of the country. Unfortunately, the killings continued unabated.
A last ditch peace effort in Aburi, Ghana to halt the massacre and prevent the country from sliding into war could not pull through as different interpretations were given to the Aburi Accord which decided on a confederal status for Nigeria in line with Ojukwu`s position. On return to Nigeria from Ghana, the federal side reneged on the Aburi agreement while Ojukwu insisted on the total implementation of the Aburi Accord or nothing else. This was the last straw. The slogan, “On Aburi We Stand”, became the mantra for the people of Eastern Nigeria.
Following the failure of Aburi Accord and other negotiations for a peaceful settlement, Ojukwu, acting on the directives of the people of Eastern Nigeria, through the Eastern Peoples Consultative Assembly on 30th May, 1967 declared the Eastern Region as the sovereign and independent state of Biafra. This led to the 30 months Nigeria-Biafra civil war that claimed millions of lives on both sides of the war.
Like he noted in some of his interviews, the actions he took were in defence and protection of his people who at that material point in time had become endangered species in their own country. Perhaps, if the lives of Easterners outside the East were guaranteed and secured, the story would have been different. Again, if the federal side had honoured the Aburi Accord, Ojukwu might not have declared Biafra. But it is said, the rest is history. In the final analysis, Ojukwu will be remembered for his fearlessness, courage, outspokenness and belief in justice, equity and fair play.
The greatest tribute that we can pay to the memory of Ojukwu is to ensure that the present inequitable structure of our federation is seriously addressed to the mutual satisfaction of all ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.
Ojukwu is like an avatar that cometh once in a generation. His place in Nigerian history is already assured. Hate or like him, you cannot deny his forthrightness, courage, charisma, charm and unmatchable oratorical power.
Nigeria has lost a gallant soldier; Africa has lost a statesman of uncommon abilities. When next cometh another Ojukwu? Indeed, this is the end of an epoch.
As the body of this great visionary lies still and motionless in the cold hands of death, I join all well meaning patriots and compatriots to condole with the family, nation and Ndigbo for this epic loss. My prayer is that Nigeria should draw inspiration from the principles he stood for to right the wrongs of the past and present so as to move the nation along the path of equity and justice.
The truth of the matter is that Ojukwu`s death has left a huge void in the political leadership of Ndigbo nay the nation which may be difficult to fill. But God in His infinite mercy will help us to overcome the circumstance in which we have found ourselves. Adieu the great Ikemba Nnewi! Adieu Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu!! Adieu the Peoples` General!!!
—Ihedioha is the Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives