Rudolf Okonkwo: A journey into Nigerian history with Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
As we enter the 3rd week of January, we remember, as always, the coup of January 15, 1966, led by Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. It was the day when Nigeria, hobbling along since the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates in 1914, finally lost its wheels. One of the military officers who helped to foil the coup was Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was stationed in Kano. Ojukwu, later on, led- the breakaway Republic of Biafra that emerged as an unintended consequence of the coup. On July 9, 2001, I interviewed Ikemba Nnewi, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in Boston, USA.
Over twenty years later, the interview is still as relevant as it was in understanding the Nigerian conundrum. For the young ones just getting into the arena, this will be a lesson in Nigerian history. Enjoy.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: “The Federation of Nigeria is today as corrupt, as unprogressive and as oppressive and irreformable as the Ottoman Empire was in Eastern Europe over a century ago. And in contrast, the Nigerian Federation in the form it was constituted by the British cannot by any stretch of imagination be considered an African necessity. Yet we are being forced to sacrifice our very existence as a people to the integrity of that ramshackle creation that has no justification either in history or in the freely expressed wishes of the people.”
That was you speaking in 1969. Do you still believe in those sentiments or have they changed?
OJUKWU: Regretfully, they haven’t changed. The worst thing about Nigeria is that here is a nation that has so much potential but the only problem is that everybody seems unprepared to face the problems or the realities of the Nigerian situation. There is absolutely no way you can look at the Nigerian federation, the way it was conceived, and say it is a good federation. One of the federating units is bigger than the other units. The other thing is that everything that has worked in Nigeria, or appears to have worked, seems very much to have been an imposition. The idea that sovereignty belongs to the Nigerian people is all fiction as far as Nigeria is concerned.
I was talking to somebody earlier today, and I said that one of the problems we have is that we have refused to define our union. Yet, Nigeria is one place that, because of the many, many disparate units in the country, needs to work together. This imposes on us the need to define every step of our being so that everybody knows his rights but, unfortunately, this is one thing that Nigerians are not willing to do. I don’t know why.
If America says to you today that they are proud of the fact that, for two hundred years, they have been trying to make their union more perfect, it sounds very reasonable. But, in Nigeria, you are not even allowed to question your union, which is ridiculous. Even if Nigerians at a certain point, say ten years ago, thought one way, what right have we got to think that new thoughts, new brains, haven’t emerged that can work out something different? This idea of considering a national conference, an idea only put out to make Nigeria break up, is one of the most ridiculous concepts Nigerians have.
It is the same thing that we are going through over resource control. Somebody says I want to control my resources and automatically everybody takes up arms, saying no, no, you mustn’t talk about it. Why mustn’t you? It is yours. If you say it isn’t then simply declare that nobody owns any resource. At that point, I would ask you, who owns the northern landmass? Isn’t the land a natural resource? Why does it belong to the North alone? Why don’t we march up there and take our own share? If it’s land, the North can have it; if it is oil, then, of course, Nigeria must have it, not the people who found it under their soil. In any case, that you want to control it doesn’t mean that you want to take it all. No. The idea of all resources is to know who owns the resource and allow that person to negotiate his own place within the federation with the resources that he has. We the Igbos, whatever we have under the ground, will negotiate, and I make this quite boldly, our place in Nigeria using our own rather high-level manpower.
In Nigeria, you say you have a democracy but you don’t allow parties to spring up as parties normally would anywhere in the world. What is INEC? Registering a party? Why? They can take note of the existence of a party but they haven’t got any executive right over its functions. There is nothing wrong with me personally setting up a party purely for the interest of the people of Umudim in Nnewi. I wouldn’t win a national sort of mandate, I am sure, but if I choose to safeguard the right of a minute group, why shouldn’t I? If I choose that my political party should be one that protects four-legged animals, why shouldn’t I?
Why can’t I go into politics determined that culture is essentially a religion or that religion is essentially culture and determined to protect the culture of our people, why not? Even today, they have a Christian Democratic Union of Germany. In Nigeria, because of the word Christian, it will be banned. You cannot have a Christian Democratic Union in Nigeria. Why? So, generally, I say that I would like to see a more mature approach. Stop treating Nigerians all over, across the board, as children.
I don’t know who decided on a structure of 36 states, but I say, if we decide to review it, why shouldn’t we? Those states, you and I must understand, were mainly punitive creations rather than a need for the economic advancement of Nigeria or Nigerians. Let us stop burying our heads in the sand. We have had national emergencies and managed to get out of them. Let us look at each other eyeball to eyeball and decide the type of country that we want to live in. I believe that is essential.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: For over a year now, you have been calling for the formation of an Igbo political party where Igbos would be a majority, rather than the current situation where Igbos are a minority in a majority party. You have argued consistently that it is the only way for the Igbo agenda to receive the attention it deserves. What progress has been made towards the establishment of such a party? And following the same reasoning, why are you not supporting the formation of a country where Igbos would be the majority?
OJUKWU: You caught me short there. The formation of a country where Igbos would be the majority? I have never opposed it. If the Igbos feel that things are best for them in a country of their own, why shouldn’t they have it? If after all, we have been going through in Nigeria we feel that Biafra is best, we have every right to seek to re-create Biafra or any other place. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that this world is a prison.
You are what you are for as long as it is comfortable for you. That is how I see it. I have continued to say that in Nigeria what we require is a nation that we can build together. You will understand where I am coming from better if you understand that I was brought up in the Pan-Africanist tradition. I believe that, not only would it be better for the Black man anywhere if we in Africa find a way of joining hands, all of us – Ghanaians, Nigerians, Basotho, Sierra-Leoneans, etc. – it would be wonderful. Now, with that at the back of my thoughts, you can understand that the only problem that will not permit that is man becoming a beast to his fellow man because of the accident that puts power into the hands of somebody.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: You seem to be traveling across the globe searching for someone to take the baton from you. Is there nobody at home who is capable? What attributes are you looking for in the potential leader you are searching for?
OJUKWU: To start with, it is clear to me that I can’t suddenly wake up one morning and say, here, I have found him. It doesn’t ever work that way. More than anything else, what I am trying to do is to wake up the youths of our society. That power, the way I see it, is not my personal preserve. I think that more people should come forward and when they do, very simply, one day, another leader would emerge. I would like also to stress, in the context of this, that whatever it is that people admire in what I have done, let them remember also that I did most of them when I was 33. So, I don’t want a group of people laid back, always waiting for something to be served to them on a platter of gold. Come out; show your hands, struggle; take over the baton, I wouldn’t fight you.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: You once said that whoever wants this baton should snatch it if it wasn’t given to him or her. Some observers think that Chief Ralph Uwazurike is fighting to snatch the baton from you but rather than receive the support of the kingmakers, he is being persecuted by the governments of Imo and Abia States in conjunction with the Obasanjo’s administration, making laws aimed at keeping MASSOB down. How does this hostile environment help your search for the emergence of new Igbo leadership?
OJUKWU: There is absolutely no question of MASSOB or Ralph Uwazurike not being received by me. I like Ralph. We get on very well. He even saw me to the airport when I was leaving. That close we are. When you talk about the establishment, what you find is one of my problems with the Nigerian structure. What the governments of Abia or Imo are doing; whatever positions they have taken about Ralph Uwazurike are not Igbo positions. They are reflecting what they imagine would be pleasing to Obasanjo and his government. That’s all.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Once again, Nigeria is seeing an upsurge in ethnic violence. There is a total breakdown of law and order. Large quantities of arms are being imported into the country. Is Nigeria a failed State?
OJUKWU: It is always difficult to know which is a rumour and which is a fact, more so in a place like Nigeria. Certainly, it is clear that the forces of law and order have tended to fail the citizenry. It is equally true that under Obasanjo’s government, though called democratic, more people have been killed for various reasons; that life has not been secured under his government. It is equally true that throughout his government in the two years, Nigeria has had ethnic problems. These are factors, I suppose, with which one can judge the success or failure of Obasanjo’s government. And it is also the factors that would indicate to you that there are underlying problems of Nigeria that need to be looked into and that if Obasanjo is not looking well into them, then he is not doing his job. That’s how I see it.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Revisionist historians and their political friends are tearing apart the History of Nigeria. You are a major player in those years. It could safely be said that the history of Nigeria from 1966 to 1970 is nothing but the biography of Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Why have you remained silent on this?
OJUKWU: I do not remain silent. No. And I am happy that you asked this question. When you are not vested with authority, it is always difficult to get your voice heard in Nigeria. I say this, and it is not being big-headed, singularly, I am probably the most popular politician in the country. Proof: I only have to step out on the roads and you see what happens. In fact, I amuse myself and I laugh also, very often finding myself in a position where I introduce the “successful” ones who side by side with me waged the struggle. They succeeded; I “failed”, but when we get to Nigeria today, it would be expected of me to introduce them.
That is the position. But the other thing that you might be alluding to, is this question of writing a book about the war. I must confess that my attitude is slightly different from yours on that matter. I am more preoccupied with the immediate future. When I came back from exile, I was asked something nearly the same as you are now asking, and I said God in his infinite mercy gave us two eyes and both of them are facing forward. He could have given us one eye in front and one behind, but he didn’t. All that he has done that for, in my view, is always to remind us that the future is more important than the past. And that, indeed, is my own feeling.
The other thing is that Generals who have delusions about their earned professionalism spend years and miles and miles of paper trying to tell the world how they waged a struggle and without help won it single-handedly. So, those who think they are brilliant Generals let them write. I am a historian, social scientist; I am more preoccupied with what would happen to this unit called Nigeria tomorrow, the next day, and the day after. Whenever I get down pen and paper, and I will be getting them more and more, it will be an effort to help Nigerians discover themselves, not to glorify a past that really didn’t exist.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: How did you receive the news that you fought the civil war over resource control? When you hear statements like the one which said you sent Biafran troops into the Midwest with the sole aim of taking over Nigeria and making it an Igbo-dominated country, how do you react? What does such rewritten history tell you about the people who make such statements?
OJUKWU: I laugh because it is most unintelligent. The people who say this sort of thing are people who remain fixated at a certain point in history. What they are repeating ad nauseam is the propaganda with which they fought a war that ended full 30 years ago. I urge them to wake up and look at the new situation. Nobody went across the Niger to loot banks. All the banks that have been looted till today, were looted by prominent servants of the Federal Government.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Modern-day analysts have opined that the Ojukwu that died in 1970 would have been more powerful than the living Ojukwu of this day. Why didn’t you stay and fight until the end?
OJUKWU: Consider committing suicide? I am asking. What I considered was to fight the war to the best of our ability and give leadership to our people for as long as I could. If you remember, when I left Biafra I went in search of peace. I went trying to get hold of Houphouet-Boigny, the president of the Ivory Coast. He happened to be in Cameroon. By the time he came back and we had a discussion, my number two, General Effiong, had surrendered. That was the way it came about. But all that notwithstanding, I know many people would have loved a dead Ojukwu but I would not oblige them. I intend to live for very, very, much longer and I intend also to be quite vocal in politics for as long as I can.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Some agitators for a New Biafra are signalling their intention to establish a government in exile if it could not be achieved at home. Did you ever consider doing so when you left Biafra?
OJUKWU: Consider? Yes, but I dismissed it.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Why?
OJUKWU: Because I didn’t see what good it would do. Oh, it would do me personal good because some people would still look upon me as a Head of State and they would certainly, in certain places, give the red carpet receptions. But, is that what life is all about? Life is about the betterment of the millions of people at home. I had to consider very seriously what possible reaction a government that, for three years, had intent on genocide would have on such a situation vis-à-vis our people who are still captive within the Nigerian situation.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Your critics think that you came back from exile, fought and recovered your father’s properties but you have not done enough to help other Igbos to recover their so-called abandoned properties. Is that a fair judgment?
OJUKWU: I will always have critics and whatever it is, they have every right to their opinion. I am satisfied in my mind that I have done as much as I can, and I am continuing to try to do more to help as many of my compatriots as I can. What am I expected to have done? What did I do even for my father’s properties, my inheritance? I went to court. If I am going to court for Ndigbo, I think the very first thing that I would have to prove is my locus. I believe that Nigeria’s concept about my locus does not permit me to assume certain national responsibilities. That’s just one thing. There are many others but in any case, I am satisfied that I have led delegations, talked about our people who lost their jobs, retired army officers and so on. Slowly, we are getting a hearing and I shall continue doing what I can. But that wouldn’t stop anybody from criticizing me.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Until recently, the Biafran veterans and the dead Biafrans have been neglected. The same is being said about those who financed the war. The fear out there is that failure to appreciate those who made sacrifices in the past would not encourage others to help when such a need arises. Have you been able to say thank you? And when will Igbos do the same?
OJUKWU: We do what we can in a circumstance that we are in control of. Even this morning, I thanked Israel for whatever help they had given us. I am constantly thanking other people whenever I meet them. I take it upon myself to maintain the symbolism of Biafra. I thank them. But that is not the issue here. The true issue is that people gave us sympathy. But financing the war? That is an odd concept. Nobody financed any war. What happened was that Nigerians decided that they would like to put a final solution to the Igbo problem. They unleashed a massacre. We tried to contain them; they unleashed a second wave more vicious than the previous one. I looked upon the situation, did the best I could for our people who were scattered all over Nigeria.
I said okay, this is our boundary. If you can find your way back to within this area, whatever there is within this area would be shared amongst all of us. You have as much right here as anybody who happened to be here. That actually is another way of seeing the declaration of Biafra and they had a goal and aim in their flight. The other thing to bear in mind is that we didn’t really wage a war. What we did was resist Gowon’s coup d’état and I hope that he would enter the Guinness Book of Records as the person who has waged a coup longer than anybody else because the whole three years, he was actually trying to legitimize his coup.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: A common trend in Igbo political discourse has been the labelling of those with dissenting opinions as saboteurs. It was prevalent during the war and continued to this day. Does it mean that there will always be Ifeajunas and Banjos in Igbo socio-political life and must they always be killed?
OJUKWU: During the war, there were saboteurs. I understand that historically. Our people didn’t fully understand the enterprise of saying no to Nigeria. A lot thought, in fact, that it would end much quicker. A lot thought that perhaps, even, it would be less painful. But in the course of our propaganda, they were labelled saboteurs. After the war, I am not aware of dissenters that have been labelled saboteurs. Perhaps, some people with a loose sort of language might have, but I am not very much aware of that. Since the end of the war, there have been dissents, but then, that is the essence of democracy.
There will always be dissenters. I don’t expect every Igbo man, woman, and child to agree with me. No. If they did, I would probably pull out, wondering what had gone wrong. There would be dissent but my aim is that amongst the Igbos, there should always emerge clearly an Igbo agenda to which the majority of Ndigbo would find adherence. I don’t think Ndigbo would all be in one political party. No. Forgive me if I use this as an example, the Jewish National Congress is an umbrella organization that encompasses all the Jews, but you now go from Likud to Labor and all that. They are different parties. America, for strength, is poised more closely than any other place at 50:50, those who agree and those who don’t. This is the strength of democracy. Therefore, when you say some of these things, I say, look at it less sentimentally. There is no way Igbos would all speak with one voice. But let one be more slightly strident than the others. That is what I look for.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: I overheard two Igbos talking about your marriage to Bianca. They were of the opinion that the marriage of the greatest Igbo man alive to the most beautiful woman ever produced by Igbo land, was a reward for all the sacrifices you made for Igbos. Do you feel adequately compensated?
OJUKWU: I can never be compensated enough on this matter. If, indeed, the question is my wife, she is the greatest thing that has happened to me. I don’t know what I have done to deserve so much compensation, but, if you call it compensation, I dedicate myself much further to the service of Ndigbo who in their wisdom gave me such compensation.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: There is a big debate going on on the Internet over whether Awolowo said to you that if the East should secede, the West would secede. The conversation supposedly took place in Enugu on May 6, 1967, and was pulled from what was titled, Ojukwu and Pa Awo Conversation and Speeches during the War in 1967. The information was claimed to have been classified but now declassified. Is this information authentic?
OJUKWU: Let’s stop fooling ourselves, please. When any Nigerian gets up and says, this is classified information that has recently been declassified, I say, classified by whom? Declassified by whom? Do you think we are in America where you have these things? In Nigeria nobody classifies anything and nobody has declassified anything. So, once it starts with that you know there is deception.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: They said you were the one that recorded this conversation.
OJUKWU: And then I declassified it recently?
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Prof. Aluko, Prof. Eni Njoku, Dr. Nwakanma, Dr. PNC Okigbo, Lt. Col. Imo, Chief J.I Onyia and many others supposedly attended the meeting.
OJUKWU: I find it quite amusing also that all the Igbo participants are dead.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: That is true.
OJUKWU: How come? Is it the death of Pius Okigbo that declassified the information?
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Did the meeting take place, and was there such an agreement?
OJUKWU: We’ve said this over and over again, so many times, and people don’t understand; they don’t want to actually. If you remember, I released Awolowo from jail. Even that, some people are beginning to contest as well. Awo was in jail in Calabar. Gowon knows and the whole of the federal establishment knows that at no point was Gowon in charge of the East. The East took orders from me.
Now, how could Gowon have released Awolowo who was in Calabar? Because of the fact that I released him, it created quite a lot of rapport between Awo and myself and I know that before he went back to Ikenne, I set up a hotline between Ikenne and my bedroom in Enugu. He tried like an elder statesman to find a solution. Awolowo is a funny one. Don’t forget that the political purpose of the coup, the Ifeajuna coup that began all this, was to hand power over to Awo. We young men respected him a great deal. He was a hero. I thought he was a hero and certainly, I received him when I was governor.
We talked and he was very vehement when he saw our complaints and he said that if the Igbos were forced out by Nigeria that he would take the Yorubas out also. I don’t know what anybody makes of that statement but it is simple. Whether he did or didn’t, it is too late. There is nothing you can do about it. So, he said this and I must have made some appropriate responses too. But it didn’t quite work out the way that we both thought. Awolowo, evidently, had a constant review of the Yoruba situation and took a different path. That’s it. I don’t blame him for it. I have never done.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: How does it feel like knowing that you are one of the world’s historical figures?
OJUKWU: I don’t know whether I am or not. But certainly, I do know that I am probably the most Nigerian of Nigerians alive today. I also know that the failure of Nigeria has created a reflex and that reflex can be called Biafra. I know that in the context of Biafra that existed, I am very important. Having said that, I feel that I have a responsibility to always point out the deficiencies of Nigeria and to keep alive the alternative. That’s why I say that there will always be, if not the Biafra of territory, Biafra of the heart.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: What does that mean?
OJUKWU: It is an attitude, a revolution, and a rejection of all the corruption and all the terrible things that you find in Nigeria. That will be always around, no matter where; in a little corner, people who want to change things and change them for the better and I am proud to be one of those.
RUDOLF OKONKWO: Thank you very much, Ikemba.
OJUKWU: Thank you.
(This interview was first published in Nigerianworld.com in 2001)
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include “This American Life Sef”, “Children of a Retired God” among others.
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