By Chido Nwangwu; Special and Exclusive interview of July 1999 for USAfrica The Newspaper (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com . First posted to USAfricaonline.com on February 14, 2003 www.usafricaonline.com/ojukwuchido.html and updated upon his death today Saturday November 26, 2011 www.usafricaonline-com/ojukwu-biafra-interview-july1999-by-chido-nwangwu
The man attracts extreme, fanatical devotion as well virulent dislike across Nigeria’s political spectrum. He led Igbos, Ibibios, Annangs, and millions of other citizens of the then Eastern Nigeria in the bloody but failed quest to establish the Federal Republic of Biafra, away from Nigeria.
At the time, especially beginning in 1966 until the declaration of Biafra in May 1967, the man whose name and presence exudes charisma and catalytic influences, Ikemba Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (former Head of State of Biafra, 1967-1970) told me during an exclusive interview that “we, the leaders of the Eastern Region, acted based on the decision expressed by millions of our people through their elected representatives in Enugu, capital of our region (at the time).”
Their message? The lives of Christian Igbo and other Easterners were no longer safe inside Nigeria, especially in the Islamic North, in face of waves of pogrom unleashed against Igbos and other Easterners since 1966; which got worse in 1967.
Despite the torrent of lies and distortions of Nigeria’s recent history, I believe, as do a majority of other informed Nigerians and international observers, that an incontrovertible fact of the 1967-1970 war remains that Biafra was not declared to fulfil the foolish talk about an alleged manaical ambition of Ojukwu to become head of state .
Instead, Biafra as a geo-political quest, although unfulfilled at the time, reflected, in my opinion, the will and natural inclination of any people, a traumatized group, courageous folks, proud and determined people to fight for self-defense against a zealotry of religion, ethnocentric prejudices, and a militarized expression of anti-Igbo pathologies.
The man still argues that many lessons of Biafra seem to have been forgotten, reiterating that his people will never chose “slavery” over their natural tendency for freedom.
Accordingly, USAfrica The Newspaper and USAfricaonline.com sought and got an exclusive July, 1999 interview with Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, former General and President of the defunct Republic of Biafra.
It was my third major interview with Ojukwu; the first being in his house in 1988 when I was assistant editor of Platform magazine and Lagos and London-based journal, Africa and The World Journal. In our team (and our publisher at the time) was one of Nigeria’s scholar-politicians, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, and the effortlessly lucid literature and English scholar Dr. Chidi Amuta who was editor (in 1999, chief editorial and managing executive of the Post Express newspapers in Lagos).
Interviewing Ojukwu reveals the man’s oratorical flourish as well as some ill logic on certain issues. His knowledge of history as well as his irreverence is evident. He dismissed my question about U.S President Bill Clinton’s policy toward Africa by stating, with a deafening clarity “he has none!” Republicans will be thrilled. But I disagree with Ojukwu’s view on this point. I traveled with Clinton’s delegation to parts of Africa, March-April 2, 1998, and have read and following definable, even if sometimes muddled efforts in Africa; regardless, Clinton has a policy on Africa. May be Clintonesque, in its execution.
In 1988, I once identified Ojukwu as the Lion of Biafra. Some disagree(d); millions agree with my description and adjectival flourish on the man. It’s understandable. Why? There may never, essentially, be the Ojukwu without the vigor of contentions and passion of intense admiration. He’s always, and all ways the subject of oppositional and fanatical pulls. There exist, rarely, gray areas about this man. For example, reminds us that those who think he’s “stubborn” should know it’s part of the mark of great leaders. Go figure.
For those who wonder why he offers an Igbo-first perspective, he appeals to them to “get your own Ojukwu.” Some of his fellow Igbos criticize the “quality and direction” of Ojukwu’s leadership of Biafra. Others applaud him for “drawing a line in the sand” -a zone of safety for Biafrans, Ibibios, Ikwerres and such other Eastern Nigerians, who at the time, championed and sacrificed for Biafra. Part of the realities of war is that many deny their roles in it.
Ojukwu embodies the failures and success (survival) of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. Since the end of the war in 1970, there has been a retinue of paper tigers and phantom commanders of the war, fantastic claims about military feats during the war. There are over a dozen books on the war. Also, I have personally encountered post-Biafra war weasels, malice-filled hagiographers and cowards who even deny their roles in defending their children in Biafra from an advancing, and certain killing machine of the “federal troops” of Nigeria.
To be sure, War is not pretty. It’s lessons must be learned for posterity. Hence, my yet-to-be-published book, BIAFRA: History Without Mercy, will deal, without equivocation on such issues and personalities such as the subject of our interview, Ojukwu.
Ojukwu who was in the U.S regarding the birth of his son, Nwachukwu, by his wife, former Miss Nigeria, Bianca, does not look his 65 years of tempest and struggle in this life. From wealth and privilege to the combustion of war and wasted partisan political battles in different areas of Igboland (1982-1983), from His Excellency to a jailed political prisoner in Nigeria’s atrocious Kirikiri. he said Kirikiri had its “own unique lessons.”
We talked with the Ikemba on a wide-range of issues covering Kosovo, Biafra, AIDS scourge in Africa, Nigeria’s politics Nigeria’s President Obasanjo,
Prof. Wole Soyinka comments about his “direction”, Nelson Mandela, African-Americans and their heritage, international business, President Bill Clinton’s “policy towards Africa” and other issues.
In this First part of the interview, the Ikemba Odumegwu Ojukwu reveals he wants to “hand the baton over” to a new crop of leader(s). I had the following interview with him in the company of the Executive Editor of USAfrica The Newspaper, Chris Ulasi.
On balance, Ojukwu, however imperfect, remains hero for millions and a reckless villain for others. Love or hate him , no one ignores the active and properly focused Ikemba Nnewi Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Prologue by Chido Nwangwu
Dr. Chido Nwangwu, Founder & Publisher of USAfrica multimedia networks, first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com; 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
EXCERPTS from my interview with Ojukwu, July 1999, in Houston.
USAfricaonline: Why do so many people see you in different ways in Nigeria?
Ojukwu: My problem in Nigeria is that my line has been a strategy of love and friendship. When Ironsi died, (which is when I came out into the open politically), Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu did not want to take over.
I said that Ogundipe was the number-two, the rightful number two. Having signed for the army, you’ve must accept death whenever and however it comes. I think we need to get into a proper economic dialogue with the ones in America responsible for trade and economic relations. One thing worries me. We know that at least the cost of living and operating businesses is low in Africa, lower than in South East Asia, I am worried that America, rather than work with Africa, and help Africa develop its infrastructure and work with the U.S., America goes to the Southeast Asia.
We are allowed to focus on primary, agricultural products, while other countries are supported to add value to other aspects of economic production. Africa also need s a secure atmosphere for production. If we do this, it will improve our linking our states, countries with American companies, and government. We should do these without being exploited.
AIDS in Africa, is ravaging Africa. What should be done?
I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. It’s unfortunate. But we must know. Hence, in my little way, I’m trying to have an American firm do oral testing for HIV AIDS incidence in Nigeria. Nobody has truly found the answer to AIDS in Nigeria and Africa. The answers we have heard about largely favor the rich. Their methodologies are difficult for the poor folks to handle. We need to test everybody, school children, police, and army. Even if we’ve to quarantine certain persons, we will need to do same.
How do think Nigeria will be able to make its economy more indigenous?
I don’t know if I will be misunderstand when I give my answer from the heart. What I really do believe. Privatization could be an the answer if it is not a way of siphoning the country’s money into certain private hands. We can privatize to a point. But today, there’s nothing in the oil sector that privatization will put in the hands of Nigerians. What you’ll get will be Nigerians who largely front for international companies, mainly American companies.
There are areas of our economy where I will not support privatization. Certainly, when you’re dealing with the NEPA, we need competition.
Communications, create many competing units and privatize as much as you can; find Nigerians doing the business. But if it is having Ma Bell take over communication in Nigeria, then it is not what we should do!
Offer me a short response to these few names I’ll mention: President Bill Clinton?
I don’t know what you expect.
I don’t expect anything, your Excellency. How would you assess his policy toward Africa?
Policy on Africa? He has none. Why do I have to be rhapsodic about President Clinton’s policies toward Africa?
Why do you say so?
Because there’s nothing he has effectively done in Africa. He’s looking at Europe, NATO, Russia. Tell me, what has Clinton done for any part of Africa? What has President Clinton done for Africa, anywhere? Even South Africa has not benefited; their economy is sliding. On economic matters he has done precious little, but there is a lot of rhetoric.
Mandela, I grew up embracing as a hero; no matter what anyone says, he’s still a hero to me in my mind. But there’s something I find in the Mandela situation which is not unlike the Jomo Kenyatta situation (in Kenya).
After incarcerating somebody, you effectively remove him from the evolution of things and [later] suddenly put him in charge. Generally, when that happens, the [public] reflexes are those of gratitude. On the African continent, Anybody who can stay in prison for 27 years and come out still lucid, is a great man; I honor Mandela for that. But it appears to me that when finally the history of South Africa is written his period will be one of delay, rather than one of action and purpose.
To African-Americans: I believe that we in Africa must enter into dialogue with our brothers and sisters over here [in America]. Their economic situation is better than ours. We should create dialogue and the initiation should come from them. Black Americans can come to Nigeria, can call us by phone. I believe that somehow in trying to be American, African Americans have expended too much of their energy and have too little time to be African. I believe that they can be the effective motors of our economic liberation in Africa. I will like to see them as the key investors in Africa. And to invest you must have the money. I don’t how much money their situation in America allows them to invest internationally. But I’ll like to see them enter in joint ventures with us in Africa.
I’ll like them to help create the entrepreneurial situation in Africa, because they have been exposed. If they are serious about this, they can become our windows to the world. We must learn to accommodate them. We must encourage them to come back to their natural positions. We must learn to embrace them, because when they come back they will do so as Americans, first and foremost.
Tell us your views on the Nigerian Civil War, on Biafra.
I regret the disabilities of the war. The overall pattern and rationale was honestly … it was a choice: it was either to become a slave of the Hausas in that time, or to do what we did. And up till tomorrow, whenever I’m given the opportunity to choose choice between slavery and … (of course), I’ll reject slavery.
It was a Hobson’s choice for Igbos and other Biafrans. What else could we have done? Line up, bare our necks, shave it if possible, and say “come on” to the Hausas, Kanuris, Tivs, Fulanis and other members of the Nigerian army and civilians who were killing our people of Eastern Nigeria, later Biafra? No!
Who are Ndigbo (Igbos), and what’s their relationship with Blacks in the North American continent?
Ndigbo (Igbos) in the North American continent are a major part of the African-American population, who show the character of Ndigbo. They are those African-Americans who were brought from western Africa, those who landed on the eastern shores of the U.S. at a place called the Igbo beach; Ndigbo are those who, on landing in America, rather than accept to be slaves in America, walked backed to the sea and drowned; Ndigbo took over the entire island of Hispaniola rather than work in the fields of the U.S., as slaves. Some of them are in the Caribbean region.
These are the Ndigbo; and there are more. Who are Ndigbo? Ndigbo are a core part of the African-American community, today. And our Black brothers and sisters must know this.
Ndigbo are those slavers who were sold at a higher price. Everyone who has come in contact with Igbos have always noted our strong sense of identity, we value our individual identity, and we do not brook any nonsense or oppression from any anyone. The British advertisements for slave auctions who had all-genuine Igbos were those whose prices were doubled.
Who are Ndigbo, you ask? There are only a few Igbo slaves who worked in the fields, they are those who worked largely as storekeepers, domestic support persons.
We’ve placed among Black Americans, the stock of Igbos, valiant and strong.
You have started making this comment about transfer of the baton of leadership. What’s the deal, and what do you really seek to do?
Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu cannot save Ndigbo; it’s all of us who can save Ndigbo; my work is to assist. at 65, I think that I’ve assisted quite a bit. The time has come for the baton to change hands.
What are the other underlying reasons?
When I returned from exile, in 1982. I was like a man who had run the main portions of a relay race, I look to handing the baton to someone to continue the race. I challenge our people to take the baton, and continue the race.
How’re Igbos faring, today?
Igbos have survived. We’ve survived the 1967-70 war we fought defending ourselves against the rest of Nigeria. Yes; we’ve survived, for so many months we were able to withstand the tyranny and tirade of the whole world. We survived; proof of it? I’m here talking to you in Houston,
Texas. I’m the most free Igbo man in Nigeria because I speak my mind, entirely without fear or favor. And everyone knows this. We never declared war on anybody.
It has been said that Ojukwu’s major fault is that he does not take advice?
No no no, I’ve this love-hate affair, ongoing, with Ndigbo. Everybody advises Emeka Ojukwu until I don’t take their advice. Then they’ll say Ojukwu is stubborn.
There was in fact a point I said to some Igbos, “Go, and thank God you have a stubborn leader, otherwise we wouldn’t have reached where we did.”
I don’t make any apologies for that (being seen and operating as stubborn). Many great leaders are also seen as stubborn. For example, Napoleon was very stubborn. Charles DeGaulle of France was very stubborn, General. MacArthur, an American, too, was stubborn and arrogant. That’s the way [Ojukwu says, smiling].
I must thank you, Chido, and your team for your work, your love and dedication to our people and the progress of Nigeria, Americans, and Africans. May I extend my good wishes to your numerous readers here in the United States and in Africa.
Thank you, Sir.
Are we Igbos or “Ibos”?: The “Ibo” misspelling of the south eastern Nigerian Igbo ethnic nation of almost 32 million people reflect, essentially, a post-colonial hangover of British and Euro-Caucasoid colonial