Being a tribute to Ojukwu taken from Pages 23-26 of the Book of Tribute-Life and times
of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu
By Chinua Achebe
There is a cruel irony in the coincidence between the death of Ikemba Nnewi, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1933-2011) and a disturbing surge in sectarian violence in Nigeria. Ojukwu’s life, career, and abiding commitments were shaped by just such trying circumstances as Nigeria faces today. That his death and funeral
are framed by the familiar circumstances that he fought against four decades ago clearly projects the significance of his life and the unsolved challenges confronting our dear homeland. A beleaguered nation sorely needs Ikemba’s voice at this juncture to caution our feet against treading the path of thunder.
And even in death his voice rings clear, as urgent and resonant as perhaps only he had the ability, bearing the message of restraint, justice and restitution.
This giant of a man may now lie inert, but his intrepid voice speaks to all of us from the grave. We should listen and hearken to the message that issues from him. The question is: Are we ready to listen?
Or are we like the proverbial housefly devoid of counsel that journeys with the corpse into the grave?
I have called Ojukwu a giant of a man, and I know there are people ready to challenge the praise.
Even so, I am confident that in death, his stature and the scale of his achievements will rise above the malice and scepticism of his traducers. Why do I think he was a giant?
One mark of greatness lies in how a man or woman responds to onerous historical challenges and how his or her ideas and vision endure over time. Ojukwu was barely 32 when history thrust him onto the stage of great convulsions. Nigera, a country desperately cobbled together by British merchants,missionaries and politicians showed signs of its shaky foundations. Bitter regional and sectarian rivalries and resentments had combined with corruption and rigged elections to bring the fledging nation to a jagged edge. After several waves of ethnic cleansing of southeasterners, there was little doubt that the idea of one Nigeria was strained beyond forced amalgamation.
When embattled easterners demanded self-determination, Ojukwu displayed true greatness by accepting –and quickly rising-to the challenge of leadership. In proclaiming his people’s choice to live as a separate national entity called Biafra,he bravely entered a territory that was for the most part uncharted. True, he had read history at Oxford, but he had no history of secession in Africa to go by. He and Biafra had no models.
Ojukwu’s Biafra was, then an experiment in the best sense of that word. Along with the confident, self-posessed, but never pompous man who led us, we had to learn every lesson about the dim prospects and huge frustrations of founding a nation, as we went along. Even so, through the sheer eloquence of his representation of the plight of his people, the passion and charisma he brought to the Biafran cause, and his powers of engagement with Biafrans and others,Ojukwu found a way to stamp the Biafran struggle in the world’s consciousness ,to elevate his people’s struggle onto the international platform.
Much of the grit,inventive genius and resilience of the Biafran people owed to Ojukwu’s inspiring leadership. For a child of uncommon privilege-his father Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu was once Nigeria’s towering businessman-he exuded a common touch and infectious charm and empathy that galvanised Biafrans and many supporters around the world. His cosmopolitan background-born of Igbo parents in Zungeru, Northern Nigeria, experienced adolescence as a student in Kings College, Lagos, South Western Nigeria, and studied abroad-was an asset that defined his engagement with the world. If he soared above other public figures in Nigeria and is so well celebrated, it was partly because of his disdain for the culture of wanton accumulation at the expense of the people. Instead he made self-disregarding sacrifices as the leader of an economically strapped Biafra.
Ojukwu always insisted, rightly, that the fact that Biafra ultimately buckled should not be read as a sign that the cause itself was misconceived. He was adamant that the quest for Biafra- as a quest for justice and equity –lives on and will continue to reverberate in Nigeria and elsewhere. He made point of rebuking Nigeria for behaving all too frequently as if it had not fought a war. True to Ikemba’s vision, forty years after the war, Nigerians from various regions have continued to agitate for a sovereign national conference to determine the structure and terms of a federal union.
Another measure of Ojukwu’s greatness can be glimpsed from his deportment once he returned to Nigeria, after a prolonged exile in Cote D’Ivoire.
A man of lesser stature may have chosen to disappear from public view and engagements. Not Ikemba! He decided that being a shy Nigerian was out of the question. Regardless of the occasional taunts he received from various corners of Nigeria-including from among some of his own people-he rolled up his sleeves and offered himself as a labourer in Nigeria’s vineyard. He knew more than many, the steep price that millions had paid for the prospects of founding a Nigerian nation. He knew too that Nigeria remained an unfounded idea, that it was caught in the cycle of lost opportunities, of promising roads not taken .Above all, he knew the risks involved in partisan politics ,but would rather take the risks than remain a spectator in the process that shaped the lives of
In death, his voice has understandably become louder. Like a venerable ancestor, that he is, he has much to teach us about the negotiations and investments we must make in order to dispel the dark clouds that are looming over us, especially at this dangerous chapter in our history. If we listen,we can still usher in the long-dreamed achievement of our collective aspirations. A man like Ojukwu was a rare masquerade, the kind that appears once in a generation among a people.
May his soul rest in perfect peace.
Chinua Achebe is professor n David and Marrianna Fisher University and Professor of African Studies at Brown University,Providence, USA