When I look at Nigeria, I find that my countrymen and women tend to suffer certain common ailments. We suffer from ‘selective amnesia’--we conveniently forget certain unpleasant facts about our journey through life as a polity . When we look at the landscape of our journey into nationhood, we discover that, by and large, we suffer ‘selective myopia’…our vision skips areas we find unpleasant no matter how recent. If we look at the distant past, then we find we are afflicted with the same degree of ‘selective myopia’--we perceive and draw lessons only from convenient happenings in our history and from convenient sources of our national chronicle…
--Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu in his book, ‘Because I am Involved’
Ordinarily, it would not have mattered that most members of my generation were either not born during the civil war or that we were too young to comprehend what was going on if the real dramatis personae had told their stories. Unfortunately, up till now, then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, has not given his account and his body language doesn’t suggest he is inclined to ever doing so. What we have therefore been reading thus far on the civil war from the Nigerian side are the accounts of part-players. On the Biafran side, it has been a similar tale of the supporting cast fretting their hours upon the stage.
It is therefore in that context that many Nigerians can appreciate the death last Sunday of Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who promised us the Biafran ‘Book’ he probably never wrote. Yet as is typical of this season, so much is being said and written of Ojukwu such that what we now have in the public space are the memories of a myth and not the man. We now read about his patriotism (of both Biafra and Nigeria in equal measure!) and there is also the usual cliché of his death being the end of an era. In Nigeria, whenever a big man dies so does the era in which he lived!
Yet Ojukwu was a man who needs to be properly interrogated in the context of the role he played not only in shaping our country but also in the contradictions that are yet to be resolved as we search for peace and prosperity. Courtesy of one of his friends and ‘Biafran compatriots’, Senator (Comrade) Uche Chukwumerije, I have sufficient materials for a serious disquisition by way of a long paper on Ojukwu which is, however, a project for another day. What is important for now, however, is that care be taken by his family and those to whom he was very close not to mismanage his transition.
At this period, every prominent Igbo man (including those who never really liked him) would want a piece of Ojukwu because it is a politically correct thing to do and many will be ready to pay any price for that cause. Already, there are tales of some political scavengers descending on London to demand for Ojukwu’s corpse while back at home a people known for their industry are being asked not to work again because Ojukwu is dead. Yet it would be tragic if those who would want to use Ojukwu’s demise to advance their own career do not pay him the proper honour he deserves. And that honour will not be in turning his burial into the banality of ferrying his corpse across four countries as I read somewhere. No, that would be debasing the memory of Ojukwu who, whatever else you may say about him, was a man of ideas and very intellectual. What would be befitting for a man like Ojukwu is a properly run Centre, probably located in Ahiara, where some of his ideas and mementoes can be preserved for posterity.
During the week, Senator Chukwumerije kindly obliged me several literatures on Ojukwu and while I have just started reading, I am amazed at the profundity of his thoughts and the force of his argument that Nigeria could not possibly work under the current arrangement. The sad aspect for me, however, is that he never wrote his memoir or perhaps he did. We will find out very soon. In his foreword to the book, Emeka, a short biography of his, written by his friend and famous British novelist, Frederick Forsyth (author of ‘The Day of the Jackal’ among others), Ojukwu had written: “Much has been written about me over the past 15 years, and a great deal has been, alas, quite inaccurate…At certain times, friends have suggested that I should write my autobiography, telling the story of my life in my own words. But I always felt that the moment was not yet right; that the hour has not yet come when I could tell the whole truth of the tumultuous events in which I played some small part”.
In the current matter of his burial, Anambra State Governor, Mr Peter Obi, who in the last couple of years, has played the role of a son to Ojukwu can lead the charge but he should work with other South East Governors. That is all the more appropriate because before Ojukwu led Biafra, he was Governor of the entire Eastern Region. So they all have a stake in preserving Ojukwu’s legacy and they don’t have to look far for a worthy example to emulate. The Shehu Yar’Adua Centre in Abuja has become a reference point in how to immortalise a loved one. It is becoming perhaps the only private institution in memory of any Nigerian that is not only professional and well-run but also has an intellectual content.
If my hunch is right, I would want to bet that Ojukwu indeed wrote ‘the book’ and kept the publication as a post-humous offering to Nigeria. He was too much a serious man not to have something documented when he had the presence of mind to write ‘Because I am Involved’ which recounted some of his exile-years’ experience. Interestingly, in the collection of books and journals given me by Chukumerije is this copy titled ‘Biafra: Selected Speeches and Journal of Events’, authored by a certain C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, ‘General of the People’s Army’, it is highly revealing of events during the war in Ojukwu’s own words. In the blurb to the back cover is also a quote attributed to Richard West, who wrote for the Sunday Times of London: “Biafra is more than a human tragedy. Its defeat, I believe, would mark the end of African independence. Biafra was the first place I had been to in Africa where Africans themselves were truly in charge.”
So much has been written about Ojukwu’s competence (or lack of one) as a war leader but going through his speeches and the insights provided in the diary, there can be no doubt about the fact that he would have made a very good peace-time leader given his oratory and capacity to rouse his people to action. That perhaps explained the ingenuity of the Biafran scientists which the Nigerian authorities unfortunately failed to nurture after the war.
All said, I find Ojukwu a very fascinating character worth studying and I intend to read more about him with the collections from Chukwumerije. I will also seek out my long-lost brother, Kanayo Esinulo, who was with Ojukwu throughout his exile years in Cote D’voire as his personal secretary and must have interesting recollections. But whatever anybody may say about Ojukwu, what was never in doubt was that he had a strong conviction that Nigeria can never be sustained by the current structure that neither takes into account our diversity nor the potentials of what each can bring to (not take from) the table under a more equitable union. Can we in all honesty say he was wrong?
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 1st December 2011