|Saturday, May 25, 2013|
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PUBLISHER'S NOTEBiafra is Dead and Buried
03/21/12, Kayode Soyinka
Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu's death and the national burial given him with funfair brought alive sad memories of the Nigerian civil war, otherwise known as the Biafran War, and exposed the many ironies both in the life of Ojukwu himself and the Nigerian nation he unsuccessfully tried to dismember and make the Igbo secede from, which led to the three-year war - one of the bloodiest in history - in which over two million people, including 700,000 soldiers, lost their lives.
Biafra was the Rwanda of the late 1960s. The war broke out July 6, 1967 and ended in January 12, 1970 when Biafra surrendered. If it had taken place this time and age, it is most likely present day Nigeria will not be how we know or see it now. The multi-ethnic country, a contraption put together by British colonial master Lord Lugar, would most certainly have gone the way of the old Yugoslavia. Despite the war and the huge loss of lives, that Biafra is still within today's Federal Republic of Nigeria.
It was the old Eastern Region of Nigeria that Ojukwu declared an independent state of Biafra after the Igbo who lived outside it in northern Nigeria were set upon by the Hausa-Fulani people of the north. He was then the military governor of the region and one of the most senior army officers in the military government that was ruling the country then after the counter-coup of July 29, 1966 which was in retaliation for the unsuccessful first coup of January 15, 1966, led by young Igbo officers in which the federal Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and several top politicians were assassinated across the country.
Ojukwu inspecting a guard of honour mounted by Biafran troops
Balewa, an impressive personality with a distinctive voice was killed in that first coup, and so was his principal from up-north - Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. The north was already under the control of the young Turks, but the coup failed when the officers who were supposed to be in charge of the operation at the southern Lagos end failed to complete the operation.
With Balewa and the influential Bello out, it would appear that the north came out worse-off from the putsch. The north therefore saw it as a deliberate attempt by the Igbo to obliterate northern Hausa-Fulani leaders from power, and they went on a revenge mission, killing Igbo people anywhere they could be found in the north.
Ojukwu, who was not part of the coup, therefore saw a clear case of genocide being meted to his people by northerners and took it upon himself to fight against the injustice and do everything possible to protect the Igbo. The declaration of the Eastern Region as an independent state of Biafra was therefore inevitable. Every Igbo man and woman living outside the Eastern Region was ordered to return home. And after all attempts made to find solution to the differences failed, war broke out between the Biafrans and Federal Nigeria.
As long as the war lasted, world attention was concentrated on Nigeria. The international community had to make up its mind about the war - which side to support or not support. A difficult choice to make even for some states that one would have expected to be natural allies of Federal Nigeria. Somehow, at the outbreak of hostilities, some developed cold feet and had divided loyalty. There were countries which supported both sides - they had no shame, it was that bad! The underlying factor was oil. If Ojukwu had succeeded with the Biafra project, he would be governing a territory that would have included the Niger Delta of Nigeria which sits on some of the biggest oil reserves in the world.
In Africa, Tanzania, led by the charismatic teacher, Nwalimu (Dr.) Julius Nyerere threw away its friendship with Federal Nigeria and surprisingly put its support behind Ojukwu and Biafra. So did Zambia, led by Kenneth Kaunda. Followed by Gabon and Ivory Coast whose leader, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, saw Ojukwu like a son. Another Africa state that gave support was Equatorial Guinea through which much needed supplies to sustain the war came into Biafra. Far away Haiti also recognised Biafra. As the war divided Africa, the major world powers were equally divided. Even the support that Britain professed to be giving the federal side was doubted at one point when it transpired and the controversy broke out that the country was supplying weapons to both the Biafrans and the federal side at the same time. And France gave the Biafrans immeasurable support. Paris was Ojukwu's second home during the war, where he was able to drum up support across Europe for his secessionist campaign.
In fact, most of the Biafran propagandists were based there. And give it to them they did a good job with their propaganda. Most especially the sight of Biafran children with swollen stomachs sitting on very slim shrinking legs dying of kwashiorkor lost the propaganda war for Nigeria. They made it almost impossible for the federal side to have any sympathy or anything convincing to say to justify the continuation of the war in the eyes of the international community. If we were to go by the Biafra propaganda machine only, Federal Nigeria lost the war. And the way Nigeria treated the Biafrans during the war influenced many years after the war the way Nigeria was perceived and treated by the western media. It is no secret that most journalists from the West who covered the war were sympathetic to Biafra. Some of them became personal friends to Ojukwu, and wrote books on him after the war.
Clergymen surround the casket of Biafran ex-warlord Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu at St. Micheal Catholic church during his final funeral ceremony in his native village of Nnewi. REUTERS
After over three years of relentless fighting and two million lives lost, Ojukwu fled Nigeria when it became clear to him that he could not win the war, ostensibly in search of peace. He went into exile in Ivory Coast where he was to live for 13 years. His departure led to the surrender of Biafra to Federal Nigeria on January 12, 1970, thus officially ending one of the world's most gruesome civil wars. General Yakubu Gowon officially made the announcement declaring the war over on January 15. The ending of the war brought about an historic gesture of reconciliation from the Nigerian side when Gowon declared that there was "no victor and no vanquished" in that war. And he meant it, so much so that there was no reprisal against the Igbo. That spirit of reconciliation led to the efforts to try and re-integrate the Igbo back into Nigeria and reinstate them to positions they held before the war broke out. Officially, Gowon launched a magnanimous venture of national reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction - known as the 3Rs.
However, with Ojukwu still in exile in Ivory Coast, full integration of the Igbo into the system was impossible to achieve. He therefore returned to the country on June 18, 1982 in a surprise move that looked more of a deft political move by the ruling party, National Party of Nigeria (NPN) that was getting ready for election. Someone must have come up with the smart suggestion to the party that bringing back Ojukwu would help the NPN win the support of the Igbo during the 1983 elections and therefore defeating their closest rivals and retaining the presidency. President Shehu Shagari gave Ojukwu state pardon and the coast was clear for him to return home. On his return, he was given a hero's welcome. All was forgiven. And in another surprised move Ojukwu declared for the ruling party as a card-carrying member. He even contested in that 1983 elections for a seat in the senate but lost.
His state pardon and eventual return home did not go down well especially in the military. Even among his own people, the Igbo, he was criticised for joining the NPN. However, once he returned to Nigeria, Ojukwu became fully converted and committed to the Nigeria project. He became an influential apostle of real national unity. He believed that the north was too big and powerful, but instead of castigating it, he believed that the east and west of the country (forming the south) should work closer together to provide a counter weight to the massive north. He believed that Nigeria needed unity, without it, he said, "No Nigerian leadership can emerge until Nigeria comes into true existence." To demonstrate his renewed firm belief in one Nigeria he even contested to become president of the country on a couple of occasions.
Biafran leader Lt. Col. Ojukwu. AP
Forty two years after the war, it could be argued that full integration of the Igbo into the system has not been easy. For instance, Nigeria has not had an Igbo as president since the war - although an Igbo man had been elected vice-president. Within the fully integrated Nigerian military, it was not until recently that an Igbo was appointed head of the Nigerian army. But Igbo have been fully integrated and have been playing important roles in politics, diplomacy, trade and business throughout the country. On a larger national scale, however, the story of present day Nigeria shows that the injustice against the Igbo which Ojukwu fought against is still there and can be seen with what is going on especially in the north with the emergence of the armed insurgency group Boko Haram.
Nevertheless, Ojukwu has proved in death that history is better written many years after. He transformed from being a rebel into a conciliatory and powerful voice for "true unity". His sheer existence in Nigeria since he returned from exile symbolised his genuine effort to bring about "true unity" in the diverse country. He was always doing something, holding meetings, dialogue and courting people from other parts of the country, all in an effort to ensure the Igbo are in the mainstream of Nigerian politics.
He died truly as a national hero. The country and its people came out to pour encomiums on him and genuinely publicly recognised his contributions towards the building of modern Nigeria. The first event to start his burial program appropriately took place up north in Zungeru, Niger State, where he was born. And the biggest irony of it all was that the man who took arms to fight against his own country, Nigeria, died and was buried as a Nigerian. From the moment his body returned to Nigerian soil, via the federal capital territory of Abuja, the Federal Government made sure it hijacked, so to say, the body and the army, in which he had served before the war and he was a Lt. Col., took over the burial arrangement. His casket was draped in Nigerian colours and carried by smartly dressed senior military officers. It was a careful and deliberate effort to make a statement that Ojukwu, the exponent of Biafra, died and was buried as a Nigerian; therefore, those who are still agitating for Biafra are on their own, doing it in vain. Biafra is dead and buried. As a very controversial figure in his life time, opinion will always be divided about him. But it will be right to say that history will be fairer to Ojukwu than the many looters who have been ruling and ruining Nigeria since independence.
When we asked him pointedly in a landmark interview he granted Africa Today in 1998, reprinted in this edition, what he wanted for himself in all his Nigerian struggle, his response was as touching and very emotional today as it was when he first uttered it. Hear him: "I want to die in piece. I want to have the opportunity of becoming the best Nigerian of my time. I want to leave a mark on Nigeria, that forever people will remember that Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was a Nigerian. I would like to be loved by Nigerians, all of them." What a massive irony. God bless his soul.
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