By Anthony Akinola
The letter of admission I received to read Law at Oxford University in 1983 was one I was determined not to trash or merely file for record purposes, even when the reality of my financial circumstances suggested that that could very well have been the reasonable thing to do. I wrote `furiously’ to a number of prominent Nigerians – Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo, Arthur Nzeribe, Moshood Abiola and Lawrence Omole – seeking financial assistance. Both Chiefs Nzeribe and Omole duly acknowledged receipt of my letter, explaining to my admiration and appreciation, why they were not able to help. Others might not have received my letter; however, I managed to find my way to Oxford where I enjoyed a memorable relationship with Nigerians of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Of course, I also wrote to Dim Chuckwuemeka Odumegwu – Ojukwu, even though he had just returned from exile and could be broke. The main reason I chose to write to him was to make a political statement that the Igbo and Yoruba were not enemies, regardless of misgivings about the role of leadership in the Civil War of 1967-70. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dim Ojukwu never got my letter.
I was mature and politically aware when the war broke out in 1967. I was born into a family that had sentiments for the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC). That political party was led by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo. The members of the Igbo community in my hometown of Ikere – Ekiti,, venerated my late father as the local leader of the party they all supported. It was therefore all sadness in our political community when those Igbo citizens we had come to accept as our own had to flee to their region of origin at the beginning of hostilities in 1967.
In fact, this was the case in those areas of the Yoruba-dominated Western Region where the Azikiwe-led NCNC was widely supported. There were rumours in those days that Federal authorities had warned soldiers against eating food at Ilesha, fearing that they could be poisoned. Ilesha was one of the strongholds of the NCNC where the war ,rightly or wrongly, was perceived as an extension of partisan politics.. There were also rumours that former NCNC supporters in that political enclave contributed food and clothing materials for their Igbo political affiliates in the East. To whoever had witnessed the politics of the First Republic and the almost fanatical support many Yorubas gave Zik, any thought or assumption of hatred of the Igbo would be repulsive.
The Civil War of 1967-70 was an inevitable event in the history of Nigeria. The imbalance in our political structure suggested it was always on the cards. We were also all culpable by virtue of our utterances and political behaviour. . I have always held the view that we could still have fought a war at a later stage of our history if we had not experienced an earlier one. The most important lesson from the civil war which, sadly, we seemed not to have fully imbibed, is about how to manage unity in a nation of divided sentiments and interests.
Dim Odumegwu- Ojukwu might have been a rebel at a point in time; he was, however, not in any way less patriotic than General Yakubu Gowon or any soldier who fought on the federal side. Ojukwu did not enrol in the Army with a premonition of an attempted break-up of Nigeria; he enrolled in the military in order to fight the enemies of Nigeria. His return from exile to play a part in nation-building suggests to all and sundry that he indeed believed in Nigeria. Of course, he was leader of a political party until his death on 26th November 2011.
The spirit of Ojukwu will be fighting for the unity of Nigeria in the great beyond. In a society where political leaders are gifted in the art of managing unity, Ojukwu’s demise provides an opportunity. Some key leaders, particularly surviving soldiers on the federal side of our historical conflict, should have visited him in the hospital where he was receiving treatment for his terminal ailment. Assuming they did not do that, his funeral provides another great opportunity to make a statement about unity and the ultimate reconciliation of our peoples. President Goodluck Jonathan should honour Ojukwu’s funeral with federal presence.
Historically and demographically the Igbo have been significant in the quest for Nigerian integration. The great Zik played a unifying and conciliatory role in the politics of independence. More than any other group, the Igbo are to be found in other regions of the Nigerian federation. Both Zik and Ojukwu, the two legendary Igbo sons,were born in the North of Nigeria. All considered, Biafra was a product of genuine anger and not what the true spirit of the Igbo wished for. What we must now strive to actualise is the sovereign state of Nigeria that is truly great and united. May the soul of Dim Odumegwu- Ojukwu rest in peace.