Glowing tributes to the late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, which point to the fact that he was a great leader, reopens the quest for good leadership qualities in those who aspire to lead the country
It was a re-enactment of the 16th Century philosophy of William Shakespeare. Indeed, the literary icon of the time may have had the likes of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in mind when he postulated, “When beggars die there are no comets seen but the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” That aptly captured the rites of passage for Ojukwu whom many acknowledged as indeed more than a king and whose image loomed larger than life. Like the death of most great men, including Nigeria’s past heroes, his death attracted tributes and adulation written and spoken in glowing terms. Even as he lay dead, many still scrambled to catch a glimpse of his casket. To show their admiration for him, his people of the South-east geopolitical zone declared public holidays in the five states within the last five days of his funeral rites. Commerce, which is the mainstay of the economies of the states, came to a halt as shops and markets were shut as the rites of passage moved from one state to another.
Several weeks of befitting funeral ceremonies for the departed military governor of the old Eastern Region, who later became head of state of the defunct Republic of Biafra, attracted much commendations across the country and even beyond. The final journey began with the arrival of his body in Abuja, the nation’s capital, from London where he died on November 26, 2011 and where similar funeral ceremonies had taken place. The body moved from Abuja to Owerri in Imo State, the Heartland of the South-east, and later to Aba, the commercial nerve centre of the region. It was later taken to Abakaliki in Ebonyi State after which it returned to Enugu.
Prior to that tour of the states where elaborate ceremonies took place, similar ones were organised outside the South-east zone. “Nigeria’s history will not be complete without a glaring mention of Ojukwu. He was one of the greatest Nigerian apostles of true federalism. Here goes a great man, from where cometh another?” Babatunde Fashola, Lagos State governor, noted at one of such events in the state, as he recalled that Ojukwu in his lifetime was committed to the enthronement of a just and egalitarian society in the country. “He said his dream was a Nigeria where no Nigerian is maltreated as a result of the part of the country where the person comes from,” Fashola recalled, describing Ojukwu as a patriot who made immense contributions to the well-being of the nation.
To further illustrate Ojukwu’s leadership qualities, which some people say was only recognised in death, Fashola said the civil war was more about Ojukwu’s love for his people than secession. Similarly Bola Tinubu, former governor of the state, described Ojukwu as “a smart politician who knew when to fight, when to call for ceasefire, when to negotiate and when to bite.” The leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, said Ojukwu entered politics to give his people voice not for personal gains and can therefore only be celebrated and not mourned. That was quite instructive given the fact that such adulation came from across party and ethnic barriers.
Chibuike Amaechi, governor of Rivers State, who described Ojukwu as a freedom fighter and an intellectual of Igbo stalk said his understanding of the late Eze Igbo Gburugburu “is that he was a man who could not withstand injustice, and as a student of art or history, you know that the beginning of a struggle is the presence of an attempt by a group of people to deny the rest their right of existence, and Ojukwu felt that he could lead his people out of the injustice meted on them by the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Like Tinubu, Amaechi, who is chairman of the Governors’ Forum, remarked at a funeral lecture in Port Harcourt that what the people of the old Eastern Region did with the funeral ceremonies was to celebrate the achievements of Ojukwu, recalling that the Nigerian government may have won the military victory in the civil war but that the political victory was won by the Igbo because they established the fact that they are not a people you can ignore in the Federal Republic of Nigeria anymore.” Along the same line, while reminiscing on the leadership qualities of the Ikemba Nnewi and circumstances that led to the civil war, Babangida Aliyu, governor of Niger State, at a similar event in Zungeru, Ojukwu’s place of birth in Niger State, said he would have done what Ojukwu did in 1966 if he found himself in a similar situation.
At the tribute night held at the Enugu Sports Club, two days to his interment, Joe Achuzie, a colonel of the Biafran Army and one of his closest childhood friends who passed through Kings College with him, said against popular views held by many that Ojukwu rebelled against the state in 1966, it was indeed the state that rebelled against him. On that night of reminiscences, Achuzie among several other veterans of the civil war that threw Ojukwu up as General of his people’s army recalled that the man whom the Igbo regard as their king of all times joined the Nigerian Army to fight for equity and justice at a time when being in army was a strong mark of nationalism.
At the national interdenominational funeral rites held at the Michael Okpara Square in Enugu, a day before his interment in Umudim, Nnewi in Anambra State, President Goodluck Jonathan who was represented by Namadi Sambo, vice president, apparently overwhelmed by the number and spread of tributes that were being paid the departed leader, remarked that “there are those whose stories cannot end no matter for how long they are told.” He recalled that Ojukwu did things worth writing about and that those achievements justify the torrents of tributes that were being paid him. The President also recalled that after the dust of the civil war had settled, Ojukwu became an advocate of one united Nigeria. “He wanted a civil, just and one Nigeria where no one will be oppressed.”
Like Ihejirika pointed out that Ojukwu was one of the architects of the modern Nigerian Army, having served as its first Quarter Master General; Commander of the 5th Battalion in Kano at a time when the army had only five; and one of the first university graduates to be recruited into the army, Jonathan said he played significant role in the return to democracy by contesting for the presidency of the country and leading a political party. Government sources say such adulation may have been some of the considerations for the state burial and full military honours accorded Ojukwu in death. General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s wartime head of state, who was represented at Ojukwu’s funeral by an aide, said Ojukwu will be remembered for his courage and unwavering desire to fight injustice against his people.
In a more spectacular manner, Jerry Rawlings, former military ruler and later, president of Ghana, who earlier spoke at the tribute night, held his audience at Okpara Square spellbound as he maintained that “what made Ojukwu a hero is the fact that the circumstances that led to the civil war, the corruption of inequality; the corruption of not recognising the dignity of man, which he fought against, still live with us here. His integrity is what we need in our lives today.” But in a rather dramatic way, Rawlings who led a revolution in his days as a young air force officer in Ghana to rid the country of corrupt elements and tendencies became emotional and abruptly ended his speech as his voice began to rise in utter disapproval of corruption. Expectedly that attracted a standing ovation.
Like his fellow old soldier from Ghana, Ebitu Ukiwe, Nigeria’s former Chief of General Staff, described Ojukwu’s life as a lesson for all, stating that he was particularly touched by the quality of tributes that came in for Ojukwu. The tone of all the tributes, he said, pointed to the fact that Ojukwu lived for Nigeria, a development he said was indicative of the fact that the country was waking up to realities of the time.
Aside from being a great Igbo leader, Chukwudifu Oputa, retired justice of the Supreme Court and chairman of Ojukwu’s national burial committee, said he was a great Nigerian and a great citizen of the world. This greatness was attested to by not only the mammoth crowd that attended the ceremony in Enugu but also the fact that they came from far and near. Governors from across the country and royal fathers including the respected Ado Bayero, Emir of Kano, came to pay him their last respects. So also were his long time friends from across the country including Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate, who expressed deep feelings about what he stood for in an emotion-laden voice. A delegation from Ivory Coast, where Ojukwu took refuge for 12 years after the civil war, also graced the occasion.
In what seemed to be a most befitting funeral oration delivered with mastery of the language, Emeka Anyaoku, former secretary general of the Commonwealth, described Ojukwu as “a truth spoken before its time. He was dedicated to excellence in whatever he set out to do. He was a warrior for justice, equity and fairness.” From the tone of tributes to Ojukwu and the turnout of events at the funeral gatherings, it became obvious that Nigerians are indeed hungry for good leadership. They admire their leaders when they make sacrifices and meet their expectations but vilify them when they fall short of expectations. At the ceremony held in Okpara Square for instance, some serving and past governors got standing ovation from the people, not for their tributes to Ojukwu, but for their performances in their states. Among them were Amaechi, Rochas Okorocha of Imo State, Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State, and Sullivan Chime of Enugu State. So also was Chris Ngige, former governor of Anambra State, now a senator. A different situation occurred at the Enyimba Stadium in Aba a few days earlier where Theodore Orji, Abia State Governor, was booed by the people who beckoned on his Imo State counterpart to come and take over Abia State so as to fast-track its development. As unpleasant as that may sound, it was quite instructive.
In the midst of the tributes, one commentator who realised that there was a huge leadership gap in the country remarked that Ojukwu had the political sagacity of the legendary Nnamdi Azikiwe, the economic foresight of Obafemi Awolowo and the commanding loyalty of Ahmadu Bello. Although they were to a large extent seen by their people as champions of the various ethnic regions of their origin, these statesmen provided quality leadership during their time. In the South-west, for instance, late Awolowo is still revered today by his people for adopting a leadership style through which he secured the future of many people. Aside from providing his people with free education, Awolowo took major steps to develop their economy by building revenue-yielding infrastructure like the Cocoa House in Ibadan and the Premier Hotel while he was premier of the Western Region.
In the Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello rendered selfless service to his people to the point that he believed that occupying a position at the national level could have been at the expense of providing his people with good governance. In the South-east, Azikiwe was a shining light and exhibited exemplary resistance to colonial forces of oppression to the admiration of his people. The admiration of his leadership style within and beyond Nigeria earned him the popular appellation, “Zik of Africa.” The lives of the founding fathers were not ruled by passion for crude wealth acquisition, which is now the norm in the political circle. In fact, Ojukwu noted while alive that “there is nothing wrong with Nigeria except that we have not got the political will to live together… our problem, therefore, is the problem of greed.”
Like Murtala Muhammed whose life was cut short in his prime, Ojukwu was a visionary leader. But his vision, many people now realise from the tone of their tributes to him, was misunderstood. For so many years after the period of the nationalist leaders, Nigeria has been in the jaws of corrupt and inept leaders. But like many well meaning Nigerians have said, the life of Ojukwu and indeed those of Nigeria’s past heroes must serve as a lesson to all.