Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
DATE OF BIRTH
November 4th, 1933
DATE OF DEATH
November 26th, 2011
CMS Grammar School (Lagos), King’s College (Lagos),
Epsom College (Surrey, England)
Lincoln College (Oxford, England)
PLACE OF BIRTH
Zungeru, Niger State
The history of Nigeria is incomplete without the mention of Ojukwu and the role he played in shaping key events in the country often called the Giant of Africa. Ojukwu, a historian, soldier and politician, was admired and also loathed by many, depending on which side of the argument regarding Nigeria an individual supports. As an Igbo nationalist, Ojukwu is undoubtedly the most revered son of Igboland after Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. He was a vocal and passionate leader who cared for his people and Nigeria and he would be most remembered for probably the three longest years in his life – the Biafran War. A few years later at age 13, his father sent him abroad to complete his secondary studies at Epson College, Surrey, England. Ojukwu was a natural athlete and became involved in a number of school sporting events while at Epson College.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was born on November 4th, 1933 to Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, a wealthy business tycoon who lived in Niger State. His father was originally from Nnewi, Anambra State and was a successful entrepreneur who was either the Chairman or on the Board of Directors of some of Nigeria’s most profitable companies such as Costain West Africa Ltd., Guinness Nigeria Ltd. and Nigerian Cement Factory. At the age of 10, he attended CMS Grammar School, Lagos, before transferring to King’s College, Lagos. In 1944, Ojukwu was momentarily incarcerated for an altercation with a white teacher who was belittling a black lady at Kings College in Lagos.
He served as captain of the school’s rugby and soccer teams and even broke and set the All England Junior record in the discus throw.
In 1952, Ojukwu got admission to Lincoln College, Oxford University where he majored in history. Three years later, he graduated with honors. While at Oxford University, Ojukwu developed competing interests in social issues, drama and journalism. An example of this interest was the leadership role he took on overseeing the Oxford University branch of the West African Students Union. After his graduation, Ojukwu looked forward to coming back to Nigeria, rejecting his sheltered life in order to forge his own path.
Armed with a degree from Oxford University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, and an affluent father, Ojukwu returned to colonial Nigeria in 1956 and decided to take a different route by joining the Nigerian civil service. In his first role, Ojukwu will serve as an Administrative Officer overseeing rural community development at Udi, Enugu State. In this role, Ojukwu was recognized for his attention to detail and his ability to comprehend intricate community issues and was highly respected for his impartial recommendations. His superb administrative acumen didn’t go unnoticed as he would later on hold the same position in towns such as Aba and Umuahia both in Abia State.
By 1957, he quit the civil service and joined the Nigerian military. His father was supposedly quite unhappy with his decision to join the military such that he alienated his son for almost 30 months. Ojukwu would receive his military commission in March 1958 as a 2nd Lieutenant from Eaton Hall, England and in the process became one of the first and few Nigerian university graduates to join the army as a recruit. Following his stint at Eaton Hall, Ojukwu will attend the Infantry School in Warminister, England, the Small Arms School in Hythe, England, and the Royal West African Frontier Force Training School in Teshie, Ghana. After these military trainings, Ojukwu will return to Nigeria in 1958 and was assigned to the Army’s Fifth Battalion in Kaduna. After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Ojukwu was speedily promoted; holding the rank of major by 1961. It was widely believed that Ojukwu’s charisma and education were key factors that influenced his rapid ascent up the military ranks. Shortly after his promotion, he served in the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Congo and later became the first Nigerian Later in 1963, he became the first Nigerian Quartermaster-General in the Nigerian Army and would later on be promoted to a Lieutenant Colonel in 1964. In 1965, he was assigned as the commanding officer of the 5th Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Kano; his first independent command.
THE CIVIL WAR
The six years following independence from Britain were riddled with ethnic clashes, regional rights and growing tensions for leadership roles amongst the political elite. Nigeria’s military launched a bloody coup that was orchestrated and led mainly by ethnic Igbo officers from eastern Nigeria on January 15th, 1966. Prominent northern Nigeria leaders including Sir Tafawa Balewa (Prime Minister of Nigeria) and Sir Ahmadu Bello (Premier of Northern Nigeria) were assassinated during Nigeria’s first ever coup with the Hausa (most prominent ethnic group in northern Nigeria) labeling the coup an ‘Igbo Coup’. Even though Major Kaduna Nzeogwu was the lead coup plotter, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi took over the leadership of the country and appointed Ojukwu as the military Governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria.
Six months later, a retaliatory campaign by northern military officers against the Igbo leaders resulted in a counter coup on May 29th, 1966. The coup plotters killed Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, and Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a 31 year old northern officer, took power. Ojukwu refused to accept Gowon’s regime insisting that Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, the most senior officer after the slain Ironsi, should assume power. The ensuing rift between Ojukwu and Gowon quickly escalated leading to a peace conference in Aburi, Ghana in January 1967.
Unfortunately, the agreements reached in Aburi fell apart once both parties got back to Nigeria and on May 30th, 1967, Ojukwu declared independence for Biafra, a region that included parts of the oil-rich Niger Delta. Ojukwu’s declaration was the trigger for the Biafran War that persisted for 30 months. The might of the Nigerian military was quite overwhelming for Ojukwu’s forces and the Biafran army never had a chance. With superior forces and artillery, the Nigerian military repeatedly attacked the Biafran forces, and after a year, the independent nation had lost half its territory. Gowon’s strategic plan to thwart humanitarian efforts that was meant to provide food and medication to the Biafran army and citizens had worked and the Biafran army was losing ground and fighters at an alarming rate.
The Red Cross estimated that nearly 10,000 Biafrans, mainly children, were dying each day and images of malnourished children and corpses on the streets of ravaged cities in eastern Nigeria prompted the world’s first privately organized large-scale relief operation. Despite the carnage, Ojukwu was resilient and held fast to his desire for independence, painting the plight of Biafrans as a people defenseless against daily genocide. In 1968, Ojukwu told journalist that the
“Crime of genocide has not only been threatened but fulfilled. The only reason any of us are alive today is because we have our rifles. Otherwise the massacre would be complete. It would be suicidal for us to lay down our arms at this stage.”
By 1969, the strength and determination of the Biafran forces was severely depleted and failure to surrender will mean a continued rise in the daily death toll. Perceiving the war was over and acknowledging his own potential assassination if arrested, Ojukwu relinquished power to Major General Phillip Effiong on January 8th, 1970 and fled to Ivory Coast. A few days later on January 12th, 1970, Effiong will announce the surrender of Biafran forces. Ojukwu will later on justify his action to flee when he said “Whilst I live, Biafra lives.”
RETURN TO NIGERIA
In 1982, Ojukwu was invited back by President Shehu Shagari and his administration who granted him an official pardon. On his return home, the people of Nnewi (the 2nd largest city in Anambra State) honored him with the chieftaincy title, the Ikemba of Nnewi. Ikemba is an Igbo word that means “Strength of the Nation.” Despite abandoning his people and his troops over a decade earlier, he was still beloved by man and given a triumphant welcome. Ojukwu’s renewed interest and foray into politics when he joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was met with shock and disdain by many Nigerians especially his people, the Igbos.
His dabble into politics was met with criticisms from his people. Some found it absurd of him to run for office in the same Government he once fought against and suffered untold hardship from. If he didn’t think of himself, he should have thought of the millions of Biafrans killed by the same Government he was going to wine and dine with. He joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) but could not secure any position in the senate. Irrespective of the criticisms against his choices and interests in Nigeria politics, he was active in the matters and affairs of the country. He was seen as statesman and sought out for advice on national issues both in Nigeria and Africa at large.
He was imprisoned for about 10 months immediately after the coup that ushered in the military government of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. This should have been the last stroke to break his resolve and hope in Nigeria, but he remained resilience and dogged. He ran for president at subsequent elections until his illness. He joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1993 with the aim of running for the president of the party but was disqualifies. Ojukwu also ran for president under the auspices of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) for three consecutive times and lost in all of those times.
On November 26th, 2011, Ojukwu died in the United Kingdom after a brief illness. He was 78 years old. He received a funeral parade in Abuja on February 27th, 2012 and after his body was flown back from the United Kingdom. Before he was buried, his body was carried around five eastern states: Imo, Abia, Enugu, Ebonyi and Anambra and memorial services were held at different locations in Nigeria and abroad. He was finally buried on March 2nd, 2012 in his hometown of Nnewi and his funeral was attended by many dignitaries including then President Goodluck Jonathan, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings. He was survived by his wife, Bianca, whom he married on November 12th, 1994 and several children from their union and previous marriages.
Ojukwu embodied the understanding that Nigeria is often a country often at odds, sometimes violently, by unpretentious grievance. For many Nigerians, and undeniably for the Igbos, Ojukwu is appreciated as someone who refused to compromise on freedom to an imperious regime. According to Ralph Uwazurike of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, Ojukwu “will be remembered for many things, top of which is freedom and emancipation of our people. The Igbos can never forget him for that.”
More importantly, Ojukwu gained the respect of people around the world. He was an Oxford educated man that had a ton of wealth at his disposal but chose to fight a grassroots nonconformist crusade. The support of Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first President, for Biafra in the late 1960s immensely boosted Ojukwu’s popularity and the war seized the attention of East Africa. Today, there are parks and suburbs in East Africa towns named Biafra and raucous sections of football stadiums in certain parts of East Africa are called Biafra.
- “C. Odumegwu Ojukwu” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Modiefied March 29 2016. Web. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._Odumegwu_Ojukw
- “Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu Facts: Nigerian-born military leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (born 1933) leaded the unsuccessful move by Biafra to secede from Nig.” Your Dictionary. Web. http://biography.yourdictionary.com/chukwuemeka-odumegwu-ojukwu