Biafra: A byword for freedom and justice – VALENTINE OBIENYEM
The Republic of Biafra was proclaimed on May 30th, 1967. It was consequent upon the failure of Lt. Colonel Gowon to implement the Aburi agreements. With this, and the attendant threats of extermination from a section of the country, Ojukwu worked fervently for peace; yet he prepared for war. He gathered Biafrans, both military and civilians, to help him in administration and legislation. Igbos answered with one voice and rallied round him like antibodies gathering to attack an infection.
Igbo is one of the most distinctive and important of all African tribes. They are probably the healthiest and strongest and most exuberant people in Nigeria. They show great physical stamina, magnificent courage in the bearing of hardship and pain, an adaptability that enables them to prosper in almost every zone. Sometimes they are called “The Jews of Africa.” Igbos are individualistic, but know how to organize. They are peace-loving and hospitable by nature. They take the war part when freedom and justice are threatened.
In Igboland, every able-bodied male is a warrior. They are competitive beings, who stimulate one another through healthy rivalry. They have no other government than that of each family by its head. In the event of strife (as in the civil war), they choose their bravest warrior to lead them, and obey him strictly. But once the conflict ends, they literally send him about his business.
In Igboland salutation is cordial but simple. There is no bowing, genuflection or prostration, for that seems to the proud citizens a vestige of monarchy. The ability of the Igbos to recover from misfortune is one of the impressive wonders of history, part of that heroic resilience which men in general have shown after the catastrophies of life. Besides, Igbos are superbly intelligent and capable of innovative thoughts and endowed with imaginative and aesthetic sense.
With these mixed qualities, admirable and frightening, a genius would find it most difficult to lead them. Ojukwu knows Igbo psychology and, consequently, persuaded and showed them what was to be done. Sometimes, he urged and pressed them forward and made them submit to what was to their advantage. He was tenacious of purpose and served Ndigbo with devotion, with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength. He committed himself to the most advanced measures of the war, and seemed never to have betrayed any of its vital principles.
Ojukwu’s every move in Nigeria/Biafra war won him a lot of admiration from both friends and foes. The mere fact that for the first time, a Nigerian was singularly able to hold back Nigeria, the giant of Africa, for three years in a conventional warfare without being captured was astounding. Anthony Obi captures it thus: “The headlong assault of one man against the giant has captured the sensation of the people. It was among the most heroic deeds in Nigerian history.”39 This seemed enough to make him a hero and justified his military attributes more than what we have today as military men. One remarkable fact about him is that he projects a soldier in everything he does, in his movement, his speeches and even in his jokes.
In the absence of the much-needed weapons, he made his inspirational speeches his chief strategy. No other crusader in Nigeria has equalled him in clarity or force or style, in directness and pungency of phrases, in serious – sometimes hilarious – similes, in a vocabulary rooted in the speech of the people, and congenial to struggling minds.
Morale, he knew, wins half of the war. His long beard, half bald, facial movement that quickly reflected, if he wished, each turn of feeling or idea, made him look like a comic character to some persons. His ferocious temper, which he kept in check, his large brown eyes which sometimes appear to give off electric sparks, with a mind as penetrating as a sub-machine gun, and fiery words seemed to hypnotize those who listened to him. His speeches, given in a high pitched voice was sometimes so absorbing that one wished it would never end. One of the Biafran soldiers, when asked which of Ojukwu’s speeches he liked best, voiced in two words the feeling of the Igbos and the world when he answered, “The longest.”
History tells us that Alexander the Great helped to introduce into Europe the custom of shaving the beard, on the ground that whiskers offered too ready a handle for an enemy to grasp. But Ojukwu kept his beard. It grew so long that long beards became fashionable in Nigeria. He only wore his beard as a sign of protest against the inhumanity towards Biafrans. It, however, served other purposes. Even the newest recruits in the Biafran Army, who had not seen him for the first time, where able to recognise his presence in their training camps or war fronts unannounced.
Ojukwu’s knowledge of any subject he chose to discuss was always amazingly encyclopaedic and largely accurate. He poured in a torrent of words. His vision was enormous. The world rallied round him for quotable quotes. In the words of Nosa Igiebor, “Ojukwu is the intrepid man of Biafra, around whom the world media prowled in the late 60s for quotable quotes.”40
If you read the history of Greece thoroughly, you will discover that their heroes are not saints, or artists, or millionaires, but those who fought for her freedom and her sages. Her most honoured sages were not theorists but men who had made their wisdom function actively in the world. The sayings of these men became proverbial among the Greeks, and were in some cases inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. People liked to quote, for example, the remarks of Bias: “The most unfortunate of men is he who has not learned how to bear misfortune,” and that “Wisdom should be cherished as a means of travelling from youth to old age, for it is more lasting than any other possession.”41 They seemed to posses amazing knowledge of the world and amazing memories.
In his own case, Ojukwu’s wealth of information comes from his phenomenal memory, without parallel in Nigeria. His comments about life show evidence of deep reflection. Reading through a speech once, he could immediately grasp the substance of the speech. He used Gowon’s statements and beliefs to whip him and was able to win considerable support from the world that seemed apathetic to the black man’s success. He wanted Gowon to explain what he meant by the statement he made in his maiden broadcast. Gowon said:
Putting all considerations to test – political, economic, as well as social, the basis for unity is not there or is so badly rocked, not only once but several times. Therefore I feel that we should review the question of our national standing and see if we can stop the country from drifting away into utter destruction.42
The statement is as explicit and valid today as it was in the sixties, though Gowon denied its meaning when he was further manipulated like a pawn in the chess board by the imperialists, notably, Britain. Till today, some might still argue that the basis for unity does not exist, because each of the groupings that make up Nigeria is sovereign in the real sense of the word. Until the various sovereignties are prepared to negotiate freely in order to obtain a superior Nigerian sovereignty, the question of unity will always remain wishful thinking.
Following these, and other controversies of the time, Gowon dismissed Ojukwu from the Nigeria Army, even as his colleagues were promoted to the rank of Brigadier Generals with Gowon himself assuming the rank of a Major General. Thus, Generalship, the rank that used to be a reward of experience and hard work in military circles, became politicised and reduced to a mere title. Through coups and counter coups, it has been further ridiculed and divested of prestige, dignity and influence. The voice of Biafra was characteristically impertinent and resentful of Gowon’s action and answered him in the abusive manner of those polemic days. It said: “Ambitious Gowon, not even ranking seventh in line of promotion in the Nigeria Army, suddenly shot up to the post of a Major General.”43
Some serving and retired members of the Nigeria military called Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu many things. Some say he is ambitious, others call him arrogant, but none has suggested that he is weak or stupid. They know that he is honest and that not even friendship can turn him aside from what he thinks is right and a course he knows is noble. Despite the conflicting representations of his person, there is one point in which there are no dissenting voices: that had Ojukwu been in Gowon’s position, he would have crushed Biafra in two weeks. All agree that he is a cold-blooded calculator and strategist: brilliant, slippery, and in military term, a first rate brain. Even his most virulent critics concede to him a potent knowledge of the field and an infinite capacity for surprises. In the assessment of the war, the likes of Lt. Colonel Hassan Katsina (later General) said:
If the Commander-in-Chief, who is a man of the highest integrity, every inch a soldier and who is working hard for the survival of his country, were to give the order, it would take only hours to subdue Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu and remove the cause of the friction.44
Conversely, the Ikemba’s strategy sustained Biafra for three years. Later, Nigeria acknowledged that Ojukwu who was resourceful and knows how to work around problems faced it. What are the peculiar military qualities of this soldiers’ soldier?
Ojukwu is an expert in tactics. He taught tactics to most of the Generals that fought him; therefore he knew the workings of their minds. In his training, he learnt to keep himself fit in any weather or place, to think clearly at any hour or day, or night; to distinguish fact from desire, to see terrains as possibilities for the open and hidden movement of men; to anticipate enemy movement and prepare to counter them; to expect the unexpected and meet it unsurprised; to inspire individual souls by addressing them en masse; to anaesthetize pain with glory, and make it sweet and noble to die for one’s country, and for a noble course. Ojukwu had this peculiar character of winning his soldiers’ minds and hearts by being close to them, recalling their heroic struggle against slavery, inquiring about their families, and listening to their complaints.
His People’s Army loved him so much because he participated physically in the battles and often outdid them in bravery. In Colonel Achuzia’s judgement, his presence in the battlefield was worth twenty thousand men. Achuzia was a Biafran Commander whose courage equalled his piety. Before every battle he prayed like a saint, but in the hour of battle, he was like a lion in his rage. He liked hard work and dangerous enterprises, and could not bear to rest. In a sentence, his resourcefulness represented partly the Biafran ingenuity.
The final test of a general is in tactics – the disposition and manoeuvring of his soldiers. Ojukwu trained his soldiers with severe discipline to immediate and precise obedience, to march steadily towards the opposing line without firing a shot till ordered to change direction, and manoeuvre quickly, under fire. Ojukwu took the lead in charging soldiers wherever the battle was toughest. But since the plan of operation, and its quick adjustment to the turn of events, depended upon his continued and concentrated attention, his safety was of prime consideration. But whenever he thought it necessary, he did not hesitate to expose himself. More than seven times we saw men killed at his side. Even when those around him panicked, he always maintained Olympian calm. The reason for these was to incite others to the performance of brave and virtuous actions. Through this strategy he kept the spirit and morale of his soldiers up, even when their fortunes were low. In the face of danger they were all courage.
Beyond inciting his soldiers to perform heroic deeds, Ojukwu subjected himself to widespread deprivation. He reduced his sleep to Buddhist minimum of two to three hours daily. This enabled him undertook in conscientious detail issues relating to the state and war. His first rule in case of unforeseen emergences was to attend to them immediately, at whatever time of the day or night. He left permanent instructions with his aides concerning the two to three hours of sleep that he had. “Do not wake me when you have good news to communicate, with such there is no hurry. But when you bring bad news, rouse me instantly, for then there is not a moment to loose.”45
As he worked hard, he expected no less from his aides. They were always ready to give him precise up-to-the-hour information in any matter falling within their jurisdiction. He did not consider his day finished until he had read the reports, memoranda and documents that almost daily came to him from war fronts and from the departments of government.
Ojukwu’s character harmonizes with that of Alexander the Great, Charles de Gaule, Napoleon Bonaparte, Philip of Macedon and Pericles. Most of all, however, Ojukwu, like Julius Ceasar, is fiercely grandiose and spectacularly courageous. Like Philip of Macedon, he pursues his goals unrelentingly and would not bear to rest. As Napoleon Bonaparte, he possesses a penetrating judgement of men.
After the capture of Napoleon, he was able to re-take France without guns and a standing army. The forces sent by the French government to capture him were converted to his side by the sheer power of oratory. Ojukwu, during the war, and till now, could silence opposition by the hypnotic power in words – spoken words. Martin Odika, a lawyer, spoke eloquently of him:
Ojukwu is great, not because he has trodden the rosy and cosy path while on the throne; not because he was not mocked, buffeted or had no thorns inserted into his crown; but because he had many a sleepless night and was near hypertensive in steering the ship of the state (Biafra). He sacrificed his comfort and possessions that we would be comfortable and grappled with near insurmountable difficulties to ensure the security and well being of his people.46
All in all, Ojukwu’s exploits showed him to be a soldier and a general, not in the least inferior to any of the greatest and most admired commanders who had appeared at the head of armies. Individually, each fought heroically to the limit his arms could carry him. He has what Cato thought a great point in a soldier: not only his strength of hand and stroke, but his voice and look are themselves as terrifying to the enemy as a tomahawk.
Ojukwu’s leadership qualities were equally appreciated during the war. Biafra is often likened to a man with a machete that put up a heroic fight against an enemy armed with fighters and tanks. Biafrans withstood the Nigeria assault in the words of Ojukwu, “With nothing other than our stout hearts and barehands.”47
Notwithstanding being out-gunned, he seemingly agreed with Billy Graham that: “Sometimes it becomes necessary to fight the strong in order to protect the weak.”48 Therefore, the war was a revolution within the law – the keeping of the law when government broke it, the prevention of the total extermination of Ndigbo whom Ojukwu was entrusted to protect. His was the action of a patriot.
There is no doubt that Ojukwu loves Nigeria as his polity and Ndigbo as part of that polity. His love for his people was demonstrated in the type of leadership he gave them. It will be recalled that he spent all the money he laid his hands on in defence of his people. The one way he was able to acquire his machetes (arms) against bombers and tanks was to mobilize Biafrans painfully for the manufacture of those ammunition, and through personal sacrifice.
When Ojukwu’s wealthy father died, he left an estate of many millions of pounds; some of these safely banked in Europe. Ojukwu exhausted all in the purchase of arms. In all he does, he thinks his obligation to Ndigbo stronger and more important than other considerations. Thus, his unalloyed commitments to the Igbos, and his resolve not to be repaid for it, is the reason why any sacrifice by Ndigbo for Ojukwu’s welfare is not only needed, but somehow mandatory.
It is on record that he received no salary as the Head of State of Biafra. During the war, Igbos looked on him as a messiah. They always shouted at him thus: “Power! Power! Power!” He rebuked them and humbly told them that all his concern was for their freedom; that his name was not “power” but Emeka. Whilst he was a servant, he said, Biafrans were the masters, the sovereign at the name of whom every knee should bow. In doing this he had unwittingly reconciled with the great writer, William Hazlitt, remembered above all for his essays, which are of permanent value for their humanity. Hazlitt said that the love of liberty was the love of others, while the love of power was the love of ourselves. Ojukwu has always loved liberty and his aims have been as consistent as the Northern star: to speak for the oppressed, carry the cross of the persecuted, and fight for their freedom. In the affirmation of the driving passion of his life, he made a frank confession:
Throughout my life, personal comfort has never been my priority. If it had been, I would not have left my director’s suite in Lagos to go into the bush as a district officer tramping across the Nigerian wilderness on foot and abandoned my luxurious Chevrolet Impala. I would not have left the administrative cadre to enlist as a recruit in the Nigerian Army. I would not have chosen to resist Gowon instead of the easy way of acquiescence chosen by my colleagues.49
Most confessions are camouflage, but there is in this one, like the confession of St. Augustine of Hippo, a sincerity that shocked most people. Nobody doubts the opportunity he forsook for the service of his people. This was the action of a patriot.
Ojukwu talks frequently of virtues and practices it. He is stern and obdurate in public. In his private relations he is compassionate and always willing to serve. Throughout his painful but joyous romance with Biafra, he manifested a freedom far superior to corruption, and base consideration of money. When I remember this saying of Thomas Edison: “Remember you are the servant of the public and never let the desire for money or power prevent you from giving to the public the best work of which you are capable,”50 my mind turns to Ojukwu as a living embodiment of the immortal lines. When in a demonstration, a youth was seen carrying the portrait of Ojukwu simply inscribed: “The incorruptible,” no one seemed to have challenged the term. He is a character deserving our high admiration, not solely for the modesty he showed in all the affairs of his life, but mainly for the feeling and the thought of his people which made him to regard it nobly that, in the period of his statesmanship, he never had gratified his passion through bad conduct.
In Ojukwu is the true foundation of sovereignty to be seen, a nature born to rule, and a genius to gain obedience. His trial is reminiscent of Demonsthene’s, a statesman recognized as the greatest of Greek orators, who assiduously cultivated his speaking skills. Being a logographer, he persuaded his fellow citizens to pursue not that which seemed more pleasant, easy or profitable. He declared, over and over again, that they ought in the first place to prefer that which was just and honourable before their own preservation. Similarly, Ikemba persuaded his people to rise up and secure freedom and dignity and contribute their own quota to the struggle of the blackman against being relegated as culturally, morally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically inferior to other races. He possessed the people with great hopes, and he himself entertained yet greater, and the utmost bound of his ambition was but mere outset of his expectations.
The Eze-Igbo Ggurugburu believes in many wise sayings ascribed to Socrates. Of his many quotes, perhaps, the most important and outstanding ones are: “Know thyself,” and “An unexamined life is not worth living.”51 The Socratic dictum, “know thyself” is an ancient wisdom written in about 600 B.C. over the door of an antiquated Greek temple at Delphi. Anyone who went to seek help of this oracle at Delphi was first and foremost given this command: “know thyself”. For Socrates, the ideal ethos of the good life resides in the knowledge of self, which is philosophically called “self mastery”.
Lord Alfred Tennyson, often regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian Age in poetry, beautifully put it this way: “Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control, these three lead life to its sovereign power.”52 According to the ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao Tse, “He who knows others is learned; he who knows himself is wise.”53
These views of Socrates, Tennyson and Lao Tse were exemplified in the life of the wise Biafran leader. If he had not known himself, if he had not known his course, he would not have been able to withstand (and still withstands) series of campaign unleashed against him by Nigerian politicians. Remember the celebrated case of Villaska Lodge against the Lagos State Government. The case has become a classic in Constitutional Law. Remember the unscrupulous manner in which he was rigged out of victory in the Second Republic, and the manner the victory of his party, All People’s Grand Alliance (APGA) was upturned, especially in Igbo states. Remember his disqualification from contesting for the Presidency for no just cause. All in all, he always receives them with philosophical calmness. At the worst of times, when in the midst of his perils and sufferings, he steals himself with words that the ancient Socrates loved to quote: “Be patient now my soul; thou hast endured still worse than this.”54 The admiring posterity will certainly call him, “Ojukwu the Great.”
The above presentation of the sequence of events clearly shows Biafra as an accident in one sense, and in another, a deliberate human creation involving people in a self-conscious and forced expression of their preference for liberty, self-actualisation and the pursuit of happiness. In the early period of the USA history, a similar situation plunged the entire nation into turmoil and instability. Oriental China would have decreed such a state as having lost the “Mandate of Heaven.” The occidental Greeks of old, faced with a similar situation would have fought not only with spears but also with battle-axes. However, Biafrans tried their best to assert their protest against slavery to the best of their abilities. If the Igbos had not defended themselves, what would have happened?
We do not know and can hardly guess what would have happened if the Nigerian Armed Forces had not been repelled and were left to carry out their programme of extermination. But there are lessons to be learnt from the study of that feared catastrophe which was once so close to fulfilment.
The Nigerians with their clear-cut pogrom plans, their unruly juggernaut of an army, would have effaced the Igbos from the face of the earth. As if in pursuit of that, the army killed indiscriminately. But it would of course be absurd to expect soldiers to be saints; good killing requires its own unique virtues. Igbos were virtually defenceless, and to all appearances Biafra was doomed. It must have seemed to Gowon and Hassan Katsina only a matter of weeks or months for Biafra to be annihilated. But appearances were deceptive. What saved Biafra was the courage of its people, the charisma of Ojukwu and the conviction that their defence was in their own hands. Before Nigeria would carry out her plans, the world had been alerted on the barbaric intentions of certain elements within the leadership.
There is no doubt that Ojukwu would have won the war had he fought with Gowon’s type of disposition. Had he agreed to concede some parts of our oil rich territory in return for ammunition. True to character, he showed enough will power, which could not permit our erstwhile colonial masters to push him about like a pawn on a chessboard. Though he lost, one would have personally preferred his position to a phoney victory that is pregnant with question marks anytime the question of “Bakassi” and other things come to mind.
Other unsavoury opposition led to the defeat of the revolution, which, despite its shortcomings, still left a powerful impression upon the memory, emotions, aspirations, and the art of the Igbos. The greatest obstacle to the revolution was neither Ojukwu nor the direction and contents of the revolution, but the antics of Western Nigeria. It would be recalled that on May 1, 1967, the region’s most prominent politician and leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, told a major gathering of Yoruba elite that “If the Eastern region by acts of omission or commission secedes from or opts out of Nigeria, then the Western region and Lagos must also stay out of the Federation.”55 Responding to Awolowo’s remark, “The Western Leaders of Thought”, the most representative body of Yoruba opinion then in existence, passed a resolution declaring that “If any region seceded, the federation as we know it shall cease to exist,” and that “Western Nigeria shall automatically become independent and sovereign.”56
As the crisis raged, Chief Awolowo categorically ruled out the use of coercion, but when later the East was forced out, nobody knew what prevented the West from fulfilling its promise. Regrettably, Chief Obafemi Awolowo joined the succession of men whom Gowon gravely addressed as his Ministers. In the course of the war, Awolowo had reason to say: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. We should not feed our enemies fat in order to fight us harder.”57 When first I heard these words, I wanted to cry. The word is BETRAYAL. The Western leaders compromised their stand with posts in the Federal Cabinet, including the Finance Ministry.
It is also pertinent to point out that when Ojukwu had given a Yoruba, Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo, the command of the liberating Biafran Army, the appointment was in the hope of placating non-Igbos in the Midwest and facilitating a link up with Western Nigeria. According to Ojukwu, it was to signify an East/West disposition not only for himself, but also for the Biafran people for solidarity in the Nigerian crisis. This he presently calls “The handshake across the Niger.” But Lt. Colonel Banjo behaved in a way most unbecoming of a patriotic Biafran officer. Once in control of Benin, with the chasing away of Lt. Colonel Ejoor, Lt. Colonel Banjo announced that the Midwest would be independent of both Nigeria and Biafra, but first he would liberate Lagos and Western Nigeria from Northern domination. He was too talkative, too undisciplined, and had delayed fretfully to capture Lagos according to instructions. If that were done, the face of the war would have automatically changed.
When Ojukwu got wind of Banjo’s disloyalty, he by-passed him and sent a direct order to major Akagha, commanding the Point Battalion to push on to the West. There was still time. Akagha attacked on 16 August at the Ofosu river bridge, the border with the west. He broke the defences there and observed that the Nigerian troops were from Gowon’s own personal bodyguard, the absolute last reserves. These men fled after the fight, and Akagha moved on. The small town of Ore was reached on 20 August and another fight took place. Again, the Dodan Barracks guards were defeated, losing fifty dead and the rest fleeing into the bush. The road was open; there was not a fighting man between Ore and Carter Bridge.
The attendant panic caused by Akagha’s bravery could not be sustained because, Banjo, fearing his plans truncated, sent a squad to arrest him. Confused, Akagha left his command and went into hiding.
Ojukwu later contended that his single greatest mistake of the war was not to have rushed personally to Benin with his best battalion, remove Banjo and then head straight for Lagos. Suddenly when Biafran forces retreated to Onitsha, their Igbo brothers at Asaba and Agbor who could have shown solidarity in what had by then reduced to an Igbo affair, by organizing guerrilla warfare, denied their Igboness. It was tragic.
The Eastern minorities were another people who could not appreciate the taste of freedom in a war that was partly intended to free them. Had these small ethnic groups in the riverine areas, noted for their culinary skills, resisted the federal forces either directly or through aid and comfort to Biafran guerrillas, the resistance might have succeeded.
There, we let the golden flashes of opportunity slip by, the greatest opportunity of establishing a truly black independence that would have endured. This missed opportunity manifests today in the incessant cry of marginalization, exploitation, environmental degradation, endless offshore/onshore debates, the issue of littoral states, and fear of ethnic domination. Had the struggle succeeded, the issues that led to the death of Mr. Ken Saro Wiwa would not have arisen.
Most importantly and often the most regretted factor were the oppositions from within: the sheer pressure of another opposing polity led by an Igbo son, Chief Ukpabi Asika. Asika refused to align with his people in the defence against a common enemy. While Ojukwu called the Igbos to protect their rights, Asika was mad in love with the enemy. It was either that he believed in forgiveness and did not recognize self-defence as a virtue or he was gratified by privileges appertaining to his office.
It was for the sake of such people that the former Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin said: “If you love freedom, you must hate slavery; if you love your people, you cannot but hate the enemies that compass their destruction.“58 From all indications, Asika did not love his people. At once, he mounted a counter campaign and talked in terms of things being alright in Biafra, even when kwashiorkor ravanged the land and claimed many children as one of its culprits. If Biafra had succeeded, people like him would have been tried for treasonable offences.
For the sake of objectivity, one is forced to remember the role of the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, upon hearing, which any ear, including those of non-Igbos, will tingle. Ojukwu grew in the lap of Zik. Ojukwu’s Father, single-handed, financed Zik’s politics until he died, Ojukwu’s father stood by Zik in the moment of trial. Ojukwu himself had known Zik as a rare synthesis of ability and integrity. When he emerged during the spring of 1968, he was entrusted with the delicate task of diplomacy.
Zik led a delegation of well-known Igbos on a tour of African capitals in search of recognition. He composed the Biafran anthem, and associated himself with Biafra’s just cause. The same Zik vehemently denied Biafra at the time she needed him most: her trying times. He defected to the federal side and with a flurry of moves and interviews, shared in the betrayal of a child he ought to be proud of his paternity. This made the Igbos who held him in the highest esteem to (painfully) regard him as a traitor. They charged him with having led them to the brink, inspired them to jump, and ran away. In one of Zik’s caustic effusions, he thundered:
I was never a member of the Biafran Executive Council or its Civil Service or statutory bodies or its establishment. I was never consulted before any official policy is formulated or implemented, but occasionally, I was ordered to do certain things. For example, proceed on a mission abroad; join the delegation to Niamey and Addis Ababa. Of course, I had Hubson’s choice. In some cases, I had to read prepared statements, but by and large I always acted under duress.59
I often wonder how the young Igbos would react when they read the exploits of the great Zik and juxtapose it with such statements concerning his own kind. Late Pa Awolowo, who by all standards was pa Zik’s political rival, must have laughed at Zik during those tense days. The statement was a total confession of indifference and a denial of oneself. It is for posterity to judge – it has started judging.
Nevertheless, in the face of the above overwhelming odds, Ojukwu did not surrender but continued to resist federal injustices. The world was surprised by his steadfastness. People just wondered what he thought he was doing. J.F. Donceel was the one who answered them vividly when he said: “The test of will power is not found in the decisions the individual takes or in the eagerness with which he sets to work, but in the way he behaves when obstacles and other difficulties present themselves in his path.”60 On Ojukwu’s part, how did he behave when faced with Donceelian obstacles? Simple, he was unshakable in his choice, because the choice was founded upon knowledge and wise reasoning and could not be changed by disappointment, or suffer as to repent.
Throughout the crisis, Ojukwu was not averse to dialogue. With open heart, he or his delegates attended several peace conferences at Kampala, Addis Ababa and other places. In those conferences, he sustained his oriental subtlety that negotiations and strategy requires. He knew the facts to present and those to be kept in the interest of strategy. Once he was asked what his plans were for the day, he answered, “If a hair in my beard knew, I would pluck it out.”61
When he left Biafra for Ivory Coast, it was to consult with Biafran friends and work out modalities for peace. Accordingly, he ordered his Chief of General staff, the late Major General Philip Effiong, who had earned a reputation for authoritative and successful generalship throughout the war, to continue until he comes back. But his soldiers well knew that Ojukwu’s mind and will had been half their might, became panicky and Effiong surrendered. One of the Biafran soldiers who held on till the surrender explains the reason thus:
But the strength of a ruler is often the weakness of his government. Biafran government depended so much upon Ojukwu’s superior qualities of mind and character that obviously it would threaten to disintegrate at his absence.62
In the ecstasy of victory, Nigerian soldiers broke into Ojukwu’s bedroom. What they saw surprised them – a copy of the Aburi Accord tied to Ahiara Declaration and an automatic rifle as if to signify the goal and the instrument.
Immediately after the collapse, everybody tried to disassociate himself from Ojukwu and from Biafra. Ojukwu learnt of all these, but did not loose himself. Other great men suffered the same fate in the past. After the debacle at the “Bay of Pigs,” John F. Kennedy was similarly isolated. In his own reaction, Kennedy said: “There is an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”63
The story of Tinom of Athen also illustrates the fate of men when divorced from fortune. Receptive, flattering friends surrounded Tinom, an Athenian billionaire. When he lost his money, all his friends vanished overnight. He kicked the dust of civilization from his feet and retired to forest solitude, where, he hoped, he would find the unkindest beasts kinder than mankind. Suddenly he found gold. Friends appeared again. He drove them off with lashing scorn. With the capture of Biafra, even friends turned against Ojukwu; he became the sole father of Biafra.
The collapse of Biafra reminds us of the tragedies of Aeschylus, who was the first of great classical tragic dramatists of Athens. The hero was a figure of massive integrity and powerful will, a paradox of outer poise and inner passion who recognized the inevitability of evil, despair, suffering and perhaps loss. Choosing a perilous but noble cause of action despite the counsel of the Greek chorus, he struggled nobly, but vainly against fate. Enduring cruelty and ultimately defeat, his downfall being the consequence of a fatal deficit in the characters of his colleagues, which deepened by tumultuous events, eventually shattered him.
So it was with our own Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu: brave, brilliant and majestic. He was a colossus that bestrode Nigeria until the wicked seemed to have triumphed. Was this seemingly triumph not a transient victory of evil?
Culled from my biography of Ojukwu entitled “Ojukwu: The Last Patriot”