What Ojukwu’s life and work meant remain challenges for Nigerians, others
By Prof. Okey Ndibe
Alive, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu had a charisma and commanding presence matched by few men anywhere. In death, he surpassed himself, inspiring a degree of reverence that approached cult dimensions. It is safe to suggest that no Nigerian personage or hero ever received a final send-off that
approached Ojukwu’s in scale, grandeur and drama.
Friends as well as erstwhile foes came together to testify, not to the absence of frailty in his character, but to a certain gravitas, a passionate engagement with the big issues of his time. Ojukwu, it was chorused, evinced willingness to rise – when history called – and meet head-on with a historical burden.
In a country where the denial of facts and the rubbing out of memory have become industries, Ojukwu’s death encouraged a season of truth-telling. Remarkably, a northern governor conceded that Ojukwu’s role in leading Biafra’s secession bid was wholly understandable. If he were in Ojukwu’s place in the mid-1960s, said Governor Muazu Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, he would have done the same thing: taken up arms to defend his embattled people.
It was as if Nigeria could not quite make up its mind about the significance of the life and politics of this complex, infuriatingly confounding figure called Ojukwu – until the man breathed his last. Then, as if nudged by the cathartic effect of his passing, Nigerians took yet another measure of the man. They realized that, his shortcomings notwithstanding, he’d stood up to be counted. Born into spectacular privilege, he’d sacrificed his preferment in order to stand with his threatened people. That theme of monumental sacrifice, so rare in Nigeria, forms an essential element of Ojukwu’s allure, in life and – even more saliently – in death.
Of all the gushing encomia for the fallen general of the Biafran War, the most stirring tribute, in my view, came from his widow, Bianca Ojukwu (nee Onoh). Over the years, many had wondered why Ojukwu had sought to marry the ex-beauty queen, a woman young enough to be his daughter – and why Bianca had acceded to his courtship. In her oration, widely circulated in the print media as well as Internet forums, Ojukwu’s last wife offered what amounted to an eloquent, moving explanation. In what is bound to endure as a classic of spousal eulogy, she celebrated the multiple ways in which the ex-Biafran was present in her life. She invoked him as “my husband, my brother, my friend, my child.” She hailed him as “the lion of my history books, the leader of my nation when we faced extinction, the larger-than-life history come to my life – living, breathing legend.”
She touched on his personal attributes – an extraordinary sense of humor witnessed by those fortunate enough to be in his company, a quality of wisdom that came from clear and deep thinking, and a habit of candor. Then she pointed us to his indifference to material accumulation: “Your disdain for money was novel – sometimes funny, other times quite alarming. It mattered not a whit to you.”
Such self-disregarding temperate explained why, in his last days, felled by a major stroke, he depended on charity for the payment of his medical bills. Most Nigerian politicians of his stature would have godfathered their way to an oil bloc or two, or to several jumbo contracts, the monies collected for work not done. But not Ojukwu.
I counted myself lucky to have known him quite closely in the 1980s. I treasured frequent visits to see him at his Queens Drive home in Ikoyi, sometimes alone, but often in the company of friends: C.Don Adinuba, Willie Nwokoye, Nnamdi Obasi, or the late Chike Akabogu. We would spend long hours asking questions on a wide range of subjects in an informal setting. Sipping cognac and often smoking a cigarette, he’d weigh in on such matters as the reasons the Biafran struggle could not be sustained; why he’d thrown his weight behind the National Party of Nigeria (in my view, then and now, his most controversial, and questionable political move); his responses to the spate of civil war literature, especially those that judged him harshly; and what it would take for Nigeria to rise to its promise.
Sometimes, when we probed into certain aspects of the Biafran puzzle, Ojukwu would demure, pleading that he would address the matter in his memoir. He was insistent that he would write one, confiding his deepest thoughts on the vexed issues of the Biafra to the document.
Such a memoir, should it exist, would be a veritable gift not only to Nigerians but to the world as a whole. If he never managed to get to it, I would consider it a major disappointment, even disastrous. The last time I saw him, at his Enugu home in April 2008, I had meant to ask him whether the manuscript of the memoir was in place. And if he hadn’t done it, I was going to propose that a team of scholars be recruited to exhaustively interview him and produce his account. But when his wife led me past his capacious living room into a much smaller room where he held court, there were too many guests with him that neither the question, nor the proposal, could be voiced.
In the days after his burial, we must await his family’s word on whether the memoir was written – with instructions, perhaps, for posthumous publication. In the event of its non-existence, then his widow and larger family ought to seriously consider opening up his archive (letters, speeches, diaries, photos, recordings etc) to a select group of scholars to commence the task of producing impressions of the Biafran War as seen from the perspective of the man who wore the title of “the people’s general.”
Such a project would serve a Nigeria that – despite the formal cessation of the Biafran War – has yet to find a way to resolve the contradictions that led to that war. Worse, Nigeria is flirting, once again, with re-experiencing the catastrophes of war. The belligerent tone that defines national discourse, the rampant dispossession of the many by the few, and the spate of violent attacks on innocent targets, forewarn of a slide to the calamitous night of war.
Last week (first week of March 2012), a friend sent me a question on Facebook: What were my impressions of Ojukwu’s funeral? I replied that the event was grand and moving, but risked becoming sheer spectacle if those who presume to be touched by his memory failed to immortalize him.
Ojukwu’s death triggered a rare moment of honesty in the often repressed discourse that is Nigeria. That repression must be forced to yield place to sustained honesty and openness. Many Nigerians believe as if any frank conversation is an invitation to fission. They forget that no nation is an inevitable organism. In recent African history, Eritrea had emerged from the navel of Ethiopia; just last year, Southern Sudan opted to divorce Khartoum. In the end, unless Nigeria begins to make sense for its constituent elements, its dismemberment would be a matter of time. That, or Nigerians would persist in an unhappy marriage founded on a lie, on a culture of abuse and on injustice.
In the days and weeks and months and years after Ojukwu’s death and burial, we will be challenged to prove that our effusive praises were heartfelt, not mere wishy-washy rituals. The proof will lie, ultimately, in our willingness to remember what his life and work meant at the deepest levels and – more fundamentally – in permitting the lessons of Biafra to inform every aspect of our progress. •Ndibe, a professor of English at Trinity College in Connecticut and a novelist, is a contributing editor of USAfrica multimedia networks since 1995. Follow him on twitter @OkeyNdibe
USAfrica: Ikemba ODUMEGWU OJUKWU’s farewell in Aba, today February 28, 2012, reflected a fitting tribute, historically meaningful celebration, proper regard and deserving appreciation of the greatest Igbo, in my opinion, to have ever lived (like him or hate him).
I SALUTE Aba (aka Enyimba city), the robust and fearless town I was born, bred and raised, for giving the Ikemba, our Ochiagha, Gburugburu, Oka oburu uzo, dike na ndu ma n’onwu, mgbadike anyi, a hero’s farewell.
To the Ikemba, may your valiant soul rest in peace and dignity.
We will, and I, Chido Nwangwu, will never forget to continue to tell my generation and the next about your towering courage through tempest and thunder; through sorrow, pain, tears, blood….
•Dr. Chido Nwangwu, Founder & Publisher of USAfrica multimedia networks, first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com; and recipient of several journalism and public policy awards, was recently profiled by the CNN International for his pioneering works on multimedia/news/public policy projects for Africans and Americans. http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/international/2010/07/29/mpa.african.media.bk.a.cnn.
• For seasoned insights and breaking news on these issues, log on to USAfricaonline.com and USAfrica powered e-groups including Nigeria360 at yahoogroups and USAfrica at googlegroups. Follow us at Facebook.com/USAfricaChido and Twitter.com/Chido247
WHY I CELEBRATE THE LIFE AND WORKS OF NELSON MANDELA. By Chido Nwangwu http://usafricaonline.com/2010/07/15/mandela-why-i-celebrate-his-life-works-by-chido-nwangwu/
Nigeria’s Federal Republic of Insecurity. By Chido Nwangwu, Publisher of USAfrica, USAfricaonline.com and the Nigeria360 e-group. http://usafricaonline.com/2011/12/17/nigeria-federal-republic-of-insecurity-by-chido-nwangwu/ : IF any of the Nigerian President’s 100 advisers has the polite courage for the extraordinary task of reminding His Excellency of his foremost, sworn, constitutional obligation to the national interest about security and safety of Nigerians and all who sojourn in Nigeria, please whisper clearly to Mr. President that I said, respectfully: Nigerians, at home and abroad, are still concerned and afraid for living in what I call Nigeria’s Federal Republic of Insecurity. FULL text of commentary at USAfricaonline.com http://usafricaonline.com/2011/12/17/nigeria-federal-republic-of-insecurity-by-chido-nwangwu/
Related insight: USAfrica’s October 17, 2001 special report/alert: Nigeria’s bin-Laden cheerleaders could ignite religious war, destabilize Africa. By USAfrica’s Publisher Chido Nwangwu. http://usafricaonline.com/chido.binladennigeria.html
310 killed by Nigeria’s ‘talibans’ in Bauchi, Yobe n Maiduguri; crises escalate. USAfricaonline.com on July 28, 2009. www.usafricaonline.com/chido.ngrtalibans09.html
Related and prior reporting on the Jos crises on USAfrica, click here: http://usafricaonline.com/2011/08/16/10-killed-in-renewed-violence-near-jos/
News archives related to Jos, here http://usafricaonline.com/?s=jos
USAfrica: As Egypt’s corrupter-in-chief Mubarak slides into history’s dustbin. By Chido Nwangwu. http://usafricaonline.com/2011/01/30/chido-nwangwu-as-egypt-corrupter-in-chief-mubarak-slides-into-historys-dustbin-egyptians-not-waiting-for-obama-and-united-nations/
Tunisia, Egypt . . . Is Nigeria next? By Prof. Rosaire Ifedi http://usafricaonline.com/2011/02/13/tunisia-egypt-is-nigeria-next-by-prof-rosaire-ifedi/