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There cannot be anyone, I daresay, whose belle can be more gladdened with how the death and burial of the great Dim Chukwemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu has dominated national space, culminating in what is tantamount to a national State Burial of perhaps unprecedented proportion, than I – for, as readers of my column must be familiar, I idolise Ojukwu.
But I was jolted out of my euphoria when an egbon of mine at our ‘watering hole’ in Ikoyi pulled me aside to wonder whether in giving Ojukwu the sort of national heroic burial amidst superlative eulogies, Nigeria was not inadvertently sending the wrong message that may set precedence for future rebelliousness or adventures in power?
It must be said, very quickly in fact, that the said egbon, just as myself and our likes in the millions of our generation, identified with the course of action the young Ojukwu took when he led his people to secede the then Eastern Region of Nigeria and declare it a “sovereign state of Biafra”.
Many of us then even perceived him as a “reluctant hero” who dallied too long in pulling his people out perhaps because he had too much of his father’s immense wealth at stake in the Nigeria he would turn his back upon, we thought.
It must be remembered that after the first wave of pogrom against the Igbos in the North, Ojukwu as the military governor of the East, with tears in his eyes but love for Nigeria more in his heart, asked his fleeing people to return to the North and continue with whatever was left of their lives. It was a decision Ojukwu was to eternally regret when no sooner had the brethren returned to the North than an even more ferocious onslaught was unleashed on them, maiming and killing them in the hundreds of thousands, leaving poor Ojukwu devastated yet measured.
Nevertheless, from the moment his people decided they’d had enough of Nigeria, her nonsensical ways with the “irreconcilable differences” and divergent visions of nationhood, the rebel in Ojukwu was awoken and gallantly, most gallantly, he led the rebellion against his fatherland!
The war was fought, all three years of it. For the Igbos, it was genocidal and a war of survival. For the Federal forces, it was a war to quell rebellion against the fatherland and “reconcile” the secessionists to a “joint fate” as One Nigeria!
Personally then I wanted the secession of Biafra to succeed for I saw its success as the only hope there was for any other part of the “geographical expression” to assert its own independence and acquire “national expression”. In particular the West, since Awolowo as our acclaimed leader had unequivocally said without the East as part of Nigeria then you can forget the West remaining in what would be left!
The point is, on what grounds were the national state burial, and now clamour for a most significant national monument to be named in his memory, to be justified? Ojukwu’s coffin was draped in the national colours and there was a full military parade and a 21-gun salute oft reserved for a departed head of state was given to our (my) hero. Has the rebel turned a national hero? At the time of his rebellion, he was a Lt. Colonel and the military governor of Eastern Region of Nigeria. Could either have merited that scale of military and national honour? Or was this, tacitly, in recognition of the fact that Ojukwu was a “General” in the “Biafran Army” and its “Head of State” and so the need to accord him what would necessarily be granted a General and a Head of State?
My mind went quickly to what (even if a bit stretched) may be a precedent.
There was another hero of mine, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. Nzeogwu was one of the “five majors” in the Nigerian Army who mutinied against the Nigerian state and staged the first military coup, killing off most of the key political and military leaders from different regions of the country save the East, thus giving it an ethnic coloration and setting Nigeria on a trajectory of ethnic animosity and national erosion from which she is yet to recover.
But Nzeogwu carried out the boldest and bloodiest of the insurgence; he led the attack on the Kaduna residence of Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, leader of the ruling NPC, killing the powerful Sardauna and some in his household. But from records and Nzeogwu’s subsequent lament, it was clear that he was a genuine patriot at heart and the failure of the coup was as a result of the betrayal by others who perhaps had hidden (ethnic) agenda.
Cut a long story short, Ojukwu’s May 30, 1967 Biafra secession declaration caught Nzeogwu in “detention” in the East. He asked to go into battle on the side of Biafra, more because he was bored, it is said, than desire for secession. Sadly, on July 29, 1967 he was killed in battle by federal troops.
The crux of the story is that when Nzeogwu’s corpse was subsequently identified, Nigeria’s Head of State, General Gowon, ordered for Kaduna, as he was fondly called, to be buried “with full military honours” at the military cemetery in Kaduna - “in order to speed up the national reconciliation effort”!
And so does this massive national embrace of Ojukwu signify the true “end” of Biafra and any further pro-Biafra sentiments? Are all wounds now healed, or would the reconciliation only be complete when and if a real ‘Azikiwe’, a true Igbo son or daughter, becomes president of Nigeria?
Atiku Abubakar, who most brilliantly eulogised Ojukwu, reminds us of an interview republished after Ojukwu’s death on November 26, 2011 in which in answer to how he would like to be remembered, the Eze Gburu Gburu of Igboland had responded:
“I would like to be remembered as a statesman; not just as a rebel leader.”
Perhaps, in acknowledgement of this national gesture, the Biafra-resurgence activists group, MASSOB, withdrew any overt Biafra symbolism during the funeral of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu that may add salt to the injury some may feel.
Curiously, as a younger friend and retired military officer, Col. Gabriel Ajayi, observed, no high ranking officer who fought in the war on the federal side has ventured a comment on the scale of honour being given to Ojukwu in death. And, quoting another retired officer but senior to Ajayi, what is being done is to complete that “national reconciliation” that Gowon had begun with Nzeogwu’s example. It is a “national concession” to which those with reservation have to turn a blind eye.
But when asked if the lesson is to show that rebellion against the state, where the state is deemed perverse, is honourable, and if such “state burial” awaited a rebel in similar circumstances, Ajayi said his senior was quick to put a caveat, echoing Chief Justice Fatayi-Williams pronouncement on the electoral judgement of Awolowo vs Shagari, that it was a “once and for all verdict, never to be cited as authority in the future”!
So be it with Ojukwu, a great leader of men; my hero. Adieu!
Tunde Fagbenle writes!