No one speaks ill of the dead. This is not an attempt to go against this widely accepted universal norm. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu is a big masquerade and when a big masquerade passes on, all shapes and sizes of egwugwu come out to celebrate him. It's often a big spectacle. Town criers, village orators, igwes, obis, storytellers and all manner of entertainers will come out to pay their last respects. True, when an elephant is killed, all sorts of butchers emerge to partake in the booty. Here is one with a mischievous penknife who revels in dissecting and lacerating on the canvas of history. And here he goes.
If his will be done, the Eze Ndi Igbo Gburugburu who passed on, Saturday, November 26, would soon embark on a four-nation tour of Africa and the Caribbean. Already, this intended ‘diplomatic’ foray into Gabon, Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Haiti has continued to generate high voltage controversy. While some view it as a needless exercise, others see it as a post-humous thank-you tour of those countries that gave Biafra diplomatic support during the Nigerian Civil War. Yet there are those with a diabolical sense of humour who want to know if the accompanying entourage would have to apply for entry visa for both the living and the dead. Some, out of outright mischief, wonder why Iceland is not part of the itinerary. Actually, that's hitting the dead below the belt. You don't need to carry Ojukwu’s body to Iceland to keep it perpetually frozen and adequately preserved. That's the job of morbid anatomists. And they are legion all over the world.
The controversy is understandable. Students of Ojukwu know that the ex-Biafran leader himself was a controversial figure during his lifetime and, like the greedy fly in the Igbo proverb, controversy is bound to follow him into his grave. Well educated, polished but self-opinionated and domineering, Ojukwu was an officer to beat. Well, military officers were made of such stuff in those days when discipline was the power base of the Nigerian Army, not the latter day "army of anything goes". He was a politician in and out of uniform. During the war, he saw the Yoruba leader, late Obafemi Awolowo, as a stumbling block in his confrontation with the federal government. He pointedly accused the Ikenne sage of introducing starvation as a weapon of war in his capacity as the manager of the nation's finances during which he engineered some revenue-saving measures that curtailed wasteful spending. To the Biafrans, Awolowo was public enemy No. 2 after Yakubu Gowon, commander-in-chief of the invading federal forces. To them, by courtesy of Ojukwu’s verbal manipulations, it was Awolowo that lured the then Eastern Region into secession by promising that the West would also secede if the East was allowed to go. Legal experts have argued and continue to argue that the Biafran orator had cleverly excised a vital clause in the famous Awo declaration. Justified or not, Ojukwu resented the leader of the Yoruba for his alleged inimical role in the Biafran cause till Awolowo died in 1987. Yet, Ojukwu the politician was quick to dub his political enemy as “the best president Nigeria never had”. It was a comment that took the wind out of the sail of those committed Awoists who did not want the ex-Biafran leader to visit Ikenne on a condolence visit. The smooth operator had outwitted Awo’s disciples!
Now, it’s pay back time. If Awolowo were to be alive today, he, too, would be quite in order to write a similar epitaph on Ojukwu’s tombstone, to wit, that the warlord was the best Igbo president Nigeria never had. Some may regard such assumption as a misnomer and an exaggerated assessment of the ex-Biafran leader but looking at the life and times of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, one might not be too far off the mark. He had almost all the attributes of a benevolent dictator. Spartan, stoic, stern, opportunistic, Machiavellian, loving and nationalistic, he suffered no fools gladly. Neither did he spare the gun to save “sabos,” the Biafran term for saboteurs.
Born in 1933 in Zungeru, then Northern Nigeria, he was virtually raised in Lagos where his father had a thriving transport business. He attended King's College, Lagos, but elected to speak Queen’s English which he acquired in Oxford where he bagged a degree in History. Urbane, suave and often given to theatrics, Ojukwu was a delight to watch or listen to while articulating his point of view on the way forward for Biafra or how to lift his people from the ruins of war. His stress-timed syllables and phonetic rendition of speeches made him a primus inter pares among his peers. With his body language and choice of elegant words coupled with some deliberate histrionics bordering on verbal acrobatics of the popular atilogwu dimension, the rest of the world, including the “enemy constituency”, could not afford not to listen to him. Speech delivery was his forte and the microphone his podium. The opportunity was there for him to grab and he did with both hands. He succeeded in uplifting the Igbo race from political defeatism to psychological glorification, to paraphrase late Ozumba Mbadiwe of the “when-the-come-comes-to-become" fame though he was not as grandiloquent.
With his oratorical prowess Ojukwu was the conqueror of the airwaves. He beat the enemy silly. He knew his strength and always went for the kill. On Aburi he stood, and no army in the whole world could conquer Biafra on the battlefield because all the men and women and animals and trees of Igboland would resist any invading force. Biafra would never be vanquished, he boasted. True, Biafra may have been defeated on the battlefield but it has not been obliterated from the subconscious of the average Igbo man because the issues that gave birth to it are still very much alive. Ojukwu has played his own part and left the stage as a modern-day hero, an icon of self-determination and a reference point of Igbo nationalism. He loved his people and his people loved him. If in doubt, ask MASSOB why their hero grew a beard (a taboo in the army) which he never shaved until his final moment. He never wavered from his promise never to shave. Not even Bianca, his gazelle-legged beauty, could distract him from that covenant with Ndigbo.