From Zungeru To Nnewi – Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu

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Yesterday, a swashbuckling odyssey came to a final end at Nnewi, in Anambra State, when the remains of Dim Emeka Ojukwu, ex leader of defunct Republic of Biafra and erstwhile iconic leader of Ndigbo was in his final resting place – a marbled mausoleum – in a national ceremony with full military honours. LOUIS ACHI captures the highlights of the exhilarating life journey of the bearded, fearless hero.


“You were 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. But unlike the history books, you defied all preconceptions. You made me cry from laughter with your jokes, many irreverent.


You awed me with your wisdom. You melted my heart with your kindness. Your impeccable manners made Prince Charming a living reality. Your fearlessness made you the man I dreamt of all my life and your total lack of seeking public approval before speaking your mind separated you from mere mortals….”
– By Bianca, widow of late Dim Chukwuemka Odumegwu-Ojukwu


What does Qunu, a small village in a narrow valley in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa have in common with Nnewi, a small town in Anambra State of Eastern Nigeria, noted for the entrepreneurial energy of its folks have in common? Both are ancestral homelands to two renowned warrior-icons.


But whereas the patriarch of South African liberation and former president, Nelson Mandela returned to Qunu, his roots, late last year, to await his ancestors, Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu returned to his Nnewi roots to join his ancestors.


Yesterday, at Nnewi, Ojukwu’s fairy tale life came to a final end with the placement of his remains in a mausoleum prepared for that purpose. For Ojukwu, the world gathered.


An iconic rebel powered by deep conviction for much of his life, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the defunct secessionist Republic of Biafra and the opposition All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) succumbed to death on 26 November 2011 after almost a year of hospitalization in the UK.


A greatly moved President Goodluck Jonathan yesterday described the warrior-statesman Odumegwu-Ojukwu as a leader raised by God for a specific assignment in Nigeria. Speaking at a requiem mass in honour of the ex-Biafra leader in Nnewi, Anambra, Jonathan said Ojukwu was not raised for the Igbo alone but for the entire country.


He said no Nigerian leader had been accorded the respect by Nigerians as Ojukwu had received since he passed on adding that his popularity could be discerned from the way his body had been taken round the south eastern states.


For a grieving Governor Peter Obi of Anambra, Ojukwu fought against injustice so that Nigeria would be liberated from oppression and noted that late leader was a man who lived the life of service for the people and called on leaders in the country to follow Ojukwu’s example so that a better future would be built for Nigerian children.


An appreciative Obi praised Jonathan for his love toward the late Ikemba, observing that by the president’s deep courtesies and personal concern and support he had ended the Nigerian civil war and integrated the Igbo into the mainstream of Nigerian politics.


In his sermon, the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi, Most Rev. Gregory Ochiagha, expressed the hope that by what Ojukwu lived and died for, the current Nigerian leaders would see leadership as a means of service and not an avenue for the acquisition of material wealth.


“Nigerian leaders should show love and concern for the people. Anybody who does not have the virtue of goodness, gentleness and self-control should not aspire for leadership position,’’ Ochiagha noted at the requiem mass. He noted with regrets that what was happening in the country was not corruption but gross selfishness.


The requiem service was attended by the president, his wife, Dame Patience, the governors of Anambra, Abia, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Ondo and Kaduna as well as Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, House Speaker Aminu Tambuwal and hordes of top government functionaries.


Even in her deepest loss, his heart-broken widow, Bianca compellingly captures the essential the Ikemba Nnewi in full flight: “Every year that I spent with you was an adventure – no two days were the same.


With you, I was finally able to soar on wings wider than the ocean. With you I was blessed with the best children God in heaven had to give. With you, I learnt to face the world without fear and learnt daily the things that matter most.


“Your total dedication to your people – Ndi-Igbo – was so absolute that really, very little else mattered. You never craved anybody’s praise as long as you believed that you were doing right and even in the face of utmost danger, you never relented from speaking truth to power – to you, what after all, was power? It was not that conferred by the gun, nor that stolen from the ballot box. No. You understood that power transcended all that. Power is the freedom to be true to yourself and to God, no matter the cost. 


“It is freedom from fear. It is freedom from bondage. It is freedom to seek the wellbeing of your people just because you love them. It is the ability to move a whole nation without a penny as inducement nor a gun to force them.


When an entire nation can rise up for one person for no other reason than that they love him and know he is their leader – sans gun, money, official title or any strange paraphernalia – that is power.” 


Driven by a mule-headed tenacity and innate rebelliousness, even against his prominent father, Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Ikemba Nnewi and Ezeigbo Gburugburu (King of the Igbo worldwide) breezed into life’s stage after benefiting from some of the best academic and social preparations accessible by wealth and privilege. This background played a crucial role in shaping his eventful life.


His Life And Times…
Ojukwu was born on 4 November 1933 at Zungeru in Northern Nigeria to Sir Louis Phillippe Odumegwu Ojukwu, a businessman from Nnewi in the South-east. Ojukwu’s father was in the transport business. He took advantage of the business boom during the Second World War to become one of the richest men in Nigeria.


He began his educational career in Lagos. In 1944, young Emeka was briefly imprisoned for assaulting a white British colonial teacher who was humiliating a black woman at King’s College in Lagos, an event which generated widespread coverage in local newspapers.


At 13, his father shipped abroad to study in Britain; first at Epsom College, in Surrey and later earned a Masters degree in history at Lincoln College, Oxford University. He returned to Nigeria in 1956.


Early Career
He joined the civil service in Eastern Nigeria as an Administrative Officer at Udi, in present-day Enugu State. In 1957, within months of working with the colonial civil service, he left and joined the military 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).


Ojukwu’s background and education guaranteed his promotion to higher ranks. At that time, the Nigerian Army had 250 officers and only 15 were Nigerians.


There were 6,400 other ranks, of which 336 were British. It is not surprising that at N/29 the army found invaluable training resources in the young man. (W.U. Bassey was N/1, while JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was N/2; the first Nigerian to be commissioned as an officer, Lieutenant L. V. Ugboma, left in 1948.


After serving in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the Congo, under Major General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ojuwkwu was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1964 and posted to Kano, where he was in charge of the 5th Battalion of the Nigerian Army.


1966 Coup, Nigeria-Biafra Civil War
Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu was in Kano, Northern Nigeria, when Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu on 15 January 1966 executed and announced the bloody military coup in Kaduna.


It is to his credit that the coup lost much steam in the north, where it had succeeded. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu supported the forces loyal to the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironisi. Major Nzeogwu was in control of Kaduna, but the coup had flopped in other parts of the country. He surrendered.


General Aguiyi-Ironsi took over the leadership of the country and thus became the first military head of state. On Monday, 17 January 1966, he appointed military governors for the four regions. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu was appointed Military Governor of Eastern Region. Others were: Lt.-Cols Hassan Usman Katsina (North), Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (West), and David Akpode Ejoor (Mid West).


These men formed the Supreme Military Council with Brigadier B.A.O Ogundipe, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Chief of Staff Army HQ, Commodore J. E. A. Wey, Head of Nigerian Navy, Lt. Col. George T. Kurubo, Head of Air Force.


By 29 May 1966, things quickly fell apart: There was a planned Pogrom in northern Nigeria during which the Igbo were targeted and killed. This presented problems for the young military governor, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu.


He did everything in his power to prevent reprisals and even encouraged people to return, as assurances for their safety had been given by his supposed colleagues up north and out west.


On 29 July 1966, a group of officers of Northern origin, notably Majors Murtala Ramat Rufai Muhammed, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, and Martin Adamu, led the majority Northern soldiers in a mutiny that was later tagged “counter-coup.” The Supreme Commander General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host Colonel Fajuyi were abducted and killed in Ibadan.


First, he insisted that the military hierarchy must be preserved; in which case, Brigadier Ogundipe should take over leadership, not Colonel Gowon. But Ogundipe no longer had the stomach to deal with the army; he was easily convinced to step aside and was posted to the Nigerian High Commission in London.


Leader Of Biafra
In January 1967, the country’s military leadership went to Aburi, Ghana for a peace conference hosted by General Joseph Ankrah. The implementation of the agreements reached at Aburi fell apart upon the leadership’s return to Nigeria and on 30 May 1967, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state to be known as Biafra. Part of his famous broadcast read:


‘Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”


On 6 July 1967, Gowon declared war and attacked Biafra. For 30 months, the war raged on. Now General Odumegwu-Ojukwu knew that the odds against the new republic were overwhelming.


After three years of non-stop fighting and starvation, a hole did appear in the Biafran front lines and this was exploited by the Nigerian military. As it became obvious that all was lost, Ojukwu was convinced to leave the country to avoid his certain assassination.


On 9 January 1970, General Odumegwu-Ojukwu handed over power to his second in command, Chief of General Staff Major-General Philip Effiong, and left for Côte d’Ivoire, where President Felix Houphöet-Biogny-who had recognized Biafra on 14 May 1968—granted him political asylum.
Source: Leadership, 3rd March 2012.

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