Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Remember him? In the sixties when many Igbos living in the Northern parts of Nigeria were slaughtered in thousands by the Hausas and driven back to their place of origin, Igboland, this Oxford trained historian and a Colonel in the then Nigerian Army who was the governor of Eastern Region declared the whole of that region, Republic Of Biafra. Nigerian government considered that republic illegal and vowed to use police action to crush the secession within twenty four hours. But it was not as easy. What followed next was a 30 month internecine war between Nigeria and the newly created republic. Conservative estimates put the number of Igbos killed during the outbreak of that hostilities as over one million. With the defeat of Biafra, Col. Ojukwu went into exile to Ivory Coast only to return during the
civilian administration of Shehu Shagari and was granted full pardon. Since then, he has rejoined the political community of Nigeria. But today, the man who wedged a tough war against Nigeria with little or no ammunition, is talking tough again. He takes another look at that war, what future holds in store for Nigeria, a report card on the present Obasanjo administration, etc. etc. In what may be considered a journalistic scoop, McLord Obioha, Editor of The Nigerian, met with Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu while he was in the United States to witness the birth of his third child, a son, Nwachukwu Ojukwu, by his wife, Bianca. This interview is as probing as it is explosive. Excerpts:
As a man who led Igbos following the creation of Biafra, perhaps, there is no better person to ask this question: Is the plight of Igbos better today than some thirty years ago?
OJUKWU: Well, there is no doubt in my mind that Igbos are the most marginalized people in the entire Nigerian complex. But before I go into it, I want to take this rare opportunity to give my best wishes to your teaming number of readers. I am particularly happy to have this opportunity to exchange views with them and I want to also stress the fact that we at home look very forward to them for leadership and leadership ideas. Now, it has to be stated as a matter of fact that Ndi Igbo after the civil war despite the proclamation of “No Victor, No Vanquished”, have been treated from the end of that war to the present day as a vanquished people. The Igbos are still not in Nigeria … no restitution for their goods vandalized or appropriated wrongly by those who fought on the Nigerian side. Ndi Igbo are still suffering the ravages caused to their internal economy by the heartlessness of Nigerian leaders. These are certain things that I will be taking up as we go along. Ndi Igbo were publicly told to bring, no matter what they had in the banks and then at the end of the transition, we were only given twenty pounds in return. There can be no worst assault on their right as human beings and citizens of a country than that. These things were done perhaps, sort of in the euphoria of sort … of supposed victory by the Nigerian troops! But it has to be decided whether we are full citizens of Nigeria or not. There is no way you can justify a situation not even as in great wars to have a people deprived of what clearly was their own. As the Jews today are being given their money back and their paintings back and so on, let me make it very plain and even put it forward as a warning to Nigeria that before there can be absolute peace, there must be a requisite restitution. No Igbo man can live fully in Nigeria as a disabled.
Why is the glass ceiling still holding sway in One Nigeria of today?
OJUKWU: It is very simple. You don’t blame the Igbo man for not rising to high level. It is the ceiling that makes sure that no Igbo man rises to a high level. We have not over the years won any political power. We haven’t got in a good lien on political power and it is… an Igbo… conspiracy of the war that persists long after that war is over. Sooner or later, it should be a political objective to dismantle the conspiracy that fought the war. Remember that this new government is so very much symbolic of that conspiracy. There is the minister of defense, Danjuma, there is the head of state himself, Obasanjo, and elsewhere within. It is still the same group that fought against Ndi Igbo. Now, very soon Nigeria has to decide whether there will be peace and for that, even in Kosovo there was a peace conference and I think very soon it has to be decided either a Nigeria peace conference, a national conference or a conference where the rest of the country and Ndi Igbo will reassess the peace coming from the end of the war.
Other tribes in Nigeria ridicule Igbos for not having a leader. Do Igbos have a leader?
OJUKWU:The funny thing about Igbos not having leaders is that the only people actually who said that with effect are the Igbos. Every Hausa man knows who the true lgbo leader is. Every Yoruba man knows. It is the Igbos rejecting leadership that is the issue and sooner or later we have to face the fact that we can’t really move forward without leadership. I look forward to the time when with open arms and hearts, the Igbos will embarrass their leadership. As I said sometime ago, as far as I am concerned… because when I say these things, people imagine I have vested interest in it. I haven’t. At 65, two things have to be very clear. I have run my race. I have my baton in my hand, it is a relay, I am waiting for somebody to take the baton from me. The other thing is that I still find it quite, quite incongruous, and I don’t know how to explain how I
will if l suddenly one day aspires to be president of Nigeria after being Head of State of Biafra. It is incongruous and then in fact it is almost part of the problem with Ndi Igbo. We like to have it both ways. We like to have our bread buttered both sides. It is what I call the Mbekwu syndrome. This idea that no matter the circumstance, we must hang on a little bit to one side. Now you’re probably wondering what I mean by the Mbekwu syndrome. I have always said when our people, somehow finally reflect like all other people are now, the hero of their mythology then …When you look at the Hausa’s who always proclaim the prowess of the Jackal, omnivorous and so on, and the Yorubas, their partners who always proclaim the prowess of the hunter, but don’t forget that the Yoruba hunter is a Trappist, then you will understand it clearly. They set the trap, they withdraw and when the trap has caught, they come back and take the prey. Finally, our experience with these two groups and others elsewhere tend to underline the fact that people usually act in accordance with the qualities of their mythology. Now you ask yourself, why do we choose the tortoise as ours, the tortoise will never confront, ends up eventually victorious either by stealth or cunning. At the end of the day, he has won and if he doesn’t even win, he will persuade you that he has won. And somehow in this modern day, it appears that the Igbos are moving towards that direction. I think politics of today deserves a better approach, a more forthright approach.
What really are the problem of Igbos?
OJUKWU: I think the problem of Igbos is 50/50. It is about leadership as well as followership. The leadership fails mainly because of the followership and of course the followership due to confusion of the leadership. The problem I have said always is that within the ranks of the Igboland, those who should be given leadership of Ndi Igbo they themselves are in conflict. We have not,you see, cleared our minds and we should do that very quickly as to our true positions… whether we are Ndi Igbo or whether primarily we are Nigerians. These are the problems.
Do you think that there are something that Igbos abroad can do to arrest these problems especially their so called marginalization in Nigeria?
OJUKWU: Well, the first thing as I have said they really need do is to forge a national identity and get them all working together. I believe actually that there should be no dichotomy between the Igbos abroad and the ones at home. I look to the Igbos abroad as our window to the world. I look upon them as those most likely to produce the next leadership. I look upon them because actually by our history, leadership has never emerged at home. It emerges from outside and then takes the leadership at home. So I keep on urging our people abroad to stop their inferiority complex. At 33, I was making earth moving statements and taking positions. A lot of them are in their 50 …a lot of them are certainly 40s. Now if they don’t make their marks today, when are they ever going to make it? So when they say to me that oh, they’re waiting for the people at home to give leadership, I laugh. I say this is avoidance of your duty because at your age, you should be giving leadership.
How do you assess Obasanjo’s regime?
OJUKWU: How can I assess it? I can’t assess it yet because I haven’t even lived under one single day of his governance. I have heard a lot about what he has done and what he hasn’t done in particular. I have heard one occasion to applaud in a certain way his retirement of certain officers. Personally, I think it was a good thing, but I have my fears. My fears derive from the fact that we are now running a democratic government and there is no way you can sidestep the institution of consultation. I don’t know whom he consulted or when the decision was taken. You see there is this talk, this appearance that even though a civilian government is in place, it is running in a military fashion. There are no decrees anymore, but when have these things been debated in the legislature only for him to take unilateral decisions? Of course today, Nigerians are applauding, clapping and clapping and all that, but we are falling back into the same trap. We are either democratic or we are not. My view is that we must proceed immediately to democratize all our practices and even our language. People do not say to you in a democracy “Until further notice,” “With immediate effect” and things like that. These are things we have to look into.
During the last Nigerian election, a prominent Yoruba professor in Lagos said and I quote, “The Yorubas can vote either way, because it
is our time,” what do you think of that statement?
OJUKWU: These outbursts actually have no great significance. The important thing is that the Yorubas have demonstrated the subtleties of their politics. They have moved from being number one enemy, rebel and everything straight into the State house and that is a measure of their astuteness in politics. It will do us good to accept, one, that we have been defeated, two, that the Yorubas are better at handling their own politics, because once you have agreed that way, then you can start learning from them instead of what we are doing … pretending that there was No victor. No no, no, we have been taught that they have found a mental lesson of politics.
So you are saying that the Igbos have been defeated?
OJUKWU: Yes… in politics, yes…
As an Igbo leader, how do you feel about it?
OJUKWU: I feel terrible.
Now is there a plan out there for Babangida to succeed Obasanjo after all? Who else do you think is in offing to take over?
OJUKWU: I don’t know how we keep on building bogies and after sometime we allow the boogies to whip us. I don’t know. Babangida has not told me anything. Why don’t people put it down and say, is there not a plan that Ojukwu or is there not a plan that Okafor will take over? Why do we think, even with our frame of mind as a defeated people, people with no right we should be thinking positively. Now, why don’t we sit down and decide that the next president of Nigeria will be an Igbo man and work for it? Four years campaigning…why not… nobody tells you not to campaign. Or would like to see that type of positiveness in thinking.
Major Abubakar Umar, former governor of Kaduna State said that it would be too uncomfortable for majority of Nigerians to accept an Igbo as president 30 years after that internecine war. What do you think about that kind of statement?
OJUKWU: Yes. Yes. He is my very good friend. In fact, I must confess that at a certain stage, I invited him to join the PDC. He is a good friend. He is forthright. But when he of course reflects his own antecedence, he will accept in fairness, perhaps, he will consider that arrogance and all what not. I don’t spend much time considering what others particularly on the other side say to great Ndi Igbo.
Do you think that the former military officers should be probed?
OJUKWU: Former military officers?
Yes. Those who have held government offices all these time and stalled democracy?
OJUKWU: Let me put it this way. I think that everybody who display unexplained wealth should be probed. That is an important issue. Not because you wore khaki or anything. No. If I see you today driving a Rolls Royce and I know it’s a brand new one, then I should ask you where you got it from. Now, you should show me how it reflects the tax you have been paying and your salary. Simple.
If you take a reflection of Biafra now, what would it have been like if it had succeeded?
OJUKWU: On one word, if we had succeeded, by now, we would have been like Taiwan. Taiwan of that geographic area.
Do you think that world powers knew this and did not want that to happen?
OJUKWU:I don’t care what they knew and did not know. The real point is, and we have to always look into it…you are the architect of your own fortune or misfortune. Don’t keep on looking for bogies all around when the whole purpose of this is actually to defy world reaction or opinion. It’s that simple.
It has been reported that you said if you had to do it all over again, you will … I mean another Biafra… for the sake of Igbo tribe which you said is being marginalized?
OJUKWU: I have always said to people that I am not only Igbo, I am Igbogburugburuigbo. I am the core of the Igbo race. Igbogburugburuigbo. Complete Igbo. That’s what I am and I make no bones about it. You see, my problem is that I accept that this is what I am. I don’t stop anybody from being anything for his own people but I want everybody to know that when you sit around the table with me, the first thing I will look for is Igbo interest. That is my duty and I am very proud of it.
So if it means fighting again, you will take up arms and defend the interest of Igbo race?
OJUKWU: I am now an old man. I don’t know the type of fight I will sort of carry out now. But if the interest is the word fight, yes, I will…
There were some Igbo children who were taken to Gabon at the height of the civil war, do you have anything to tell us about them.? Do you have any idea what happened to them?
OJUKWU: Some were returned to Nigeria, but from Gabon, quite a lot went to France. Those in the Ivory Coast were returned to Nigeria. To help their identity, I gave everyone that went from Gabon as a middle name, my own name, so you will find people who have Agnes Ojukwu or something else and so on and so forth. I said it was a little way of getting some form of identity. The other thing is that if you remember since the end of the war we have not as Ndi Igbo had the authority of government … If we had, we would do what a good government should be doing for its citizens. I deplore the fact actually that after the peace has been established, Nigeria as an entity has not found it necessary to set up a committee and investigate and try and get these children back because … What I did during the war was justified by the situation of a war. And I did the best I could as a government to save future generation. Well, a new government has taken over, they still have the same duty to our citizen. I believe they should have done it and whenever they decide to do it, I will give them total support in finding our children wherever they may be.
As a follow up to that question, why is there no war memorial for the Nigerian-Biafran war?
OJUKWU: I don t know, I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know what has happened to the Igbo conscience. I don’t know why we are so afraid of our shadows.
What about the Nigerian government?
OJUKWU: It is not for the Nigerian government to immortalize those they claim to have defeated, it is for us Ndi Igbo to immortalize our heroes, those who died so that we would live. Nobody has ever said we should not mourn our dead. Nobody has said we should not immortalize our perished heroes. It is up to us. It is a duty we have, And as far as I am concerned, actually, call it superstitious … but Igbo tradition says we will
never see good until we have led them to rest in eternal peace. Perhaps whatever we are suffering today is as a result of that… I don’t know. But I think it is a duty and a debt we all have to pay.
You wrote a book, “Because I was Involved” but many still believe you have not given the full account of your role from the sixties to the present. Is that the book you wanted to write? When are you going to write that long awaited book?
OJUKWU: I don’t know whoever employed me to write books. I write whatever I want to write. Whoever wants another book better sit on his posterior and write his own book. I will write a book when I feel like writing a book. I will write certain thing down for posterity, so that our children’s children will know as much as possible what actually happened from my level about the crisis and trauma which we are all still suffering now. Let nobody push me. Has Gowon written any book? The sooner he learns how to write and writes a book, the better…
At the dying days of Abacha regime, there were speculations that you were very close to him. Can you explain that?
OJUKWU: I was not close to him. He was in Abuja, I was in Enugu so I couldn’t have been close to him that way. Abacha became Ojukwu’s friend more so when everybody was running away from Abacha. When he was alive, I was not preeminent as his friend. You try and think back, we know those who were his friend, but I must say that as a person, Abacha treated me fairly. I have a certain friendship towards him. The very first of a public nature which he took in my favor was at the death of my erstwhile host, the president of Ivory Coast. He took me in good favor and took me as a member of his delegation to his funeral. And that was magnanimous. I went with him and ever since, at least he granted me access. Babangida granted me a certain level of access, but it was very studied and it was a question of army days, then towards the end of his regime that I saw him two or three times. But from day one, Abacha granted me access and that’s it. So I don t really know what happened at the last day of his life. I don’t know.
So what’s the difference?
OJUKWU: What difference?
The difference between access with Abacha or is it Espirit de Corp access or relationship with Babangida?
OJUKWU:Well, I don’t know. People are different. People are very different Don’t forget, because I don’t want to be misunderstood, Babangida after all released my late father’s property. And he saw to it that he did it before he steps out of power. So he did show a certain “at least” level of compassion if nothing else.
Speaking of property, what do you think about Abandoned property…?
OJUKWU: What can I think … What can I think? When it’s bad it’s bad, it is thoroughly bad. Actually, a lot of the leaders on the other side in Nigeria do not understand. As I said to them in my speech about reconciliation, that we have now formed a habit. On every Sunday, certainly I will think every Igbo man who is worthy anything… every Igbo man will take his son and go around pointing every house belonging to their father and explaining to them that this was taken by force. What does that do? It creates a reservoir of bitterness. If you really believe in Nigeria, if you really believe in peace, it does not matter what amount of money you spent to solve certain problems. What is money for after all? We can do it. You can give to people a certain amount that their properties are worth. As I said, we knew how much money each person took to the bank. You can start by paying them their proper equivalent, and that’s it. That’s the way it is done.
Do you think there may be another Biafra?
OJUKWU: I don’t go that way in my thought because Biafra is most a conscious plan as such. Circumstances created Biafra. And the way I look at it, those circumstances are not present as at now, but I am warning that if we are not careful, the circumstances will reappear. That means it is a warning and it is not that one sits down to say, oh, we want to do … And the other thing I want to point out is this, a lot will depend on the accommodation Nigeria gives. Certainly, if we go ahead without restructuring the federation, chances are that there will be another Biafra. It is the restructuring of the federation that will decide. If we have a federation, we should all agree on what type of federation. We should agree… what are the federating units. We should agree what are their powers. What are the general powers and what are the residual powers and where do they reside? These are the things we have to clear. How much autonomy do we get? We would not fight just for a name as such. No. The important thing is what do we get in this situation and how do we live in it.
Do you have any regrets in life?
OJUKWU: Oh yes. I have a lot I have a regret that I am 65 today. I will want today to be 35. Because what I will do for the rest of my life, I really need a lot of time to do it.
What do you consider as your greatest achievement apart from being the leader of Igbos?
OJUKWU: My greatest achievement is very simple. As far as I am concerned, it is the establishment of Igbo identity. Nothing makes me more proud than to listen to our former enemies even when they are referring to us as Ndi Igbo. That is fabulous.
Do you think Hausas are still controlling the affairs of the the nation today?
OJUKWU: Well I don’t know. I don’t know. I am waiting to see the evolution of Obasanjo’ regime. His government that is. Quite a lot of them in the positions but lets wait and see.
How much time do you think we should give for the restructuring of Nigeria?
OJUKWU: Well, it should have been done ten years ago. It is not a question of we should give … Nothing comes that way. We should be pressing for it before this interview, so that if we start off immediately and continue pressing for it, we hope that it will come in the course of the life of this government. Because actually, the Yorubas also agree that there should be a restructuring and when you look at problems in the Delta region there is evidence that there should be some restructuring to accommodate all these people.
When you take your mind back to the Ahiara Declaration in Biafra; what do you think about that speech now? Was that speech helpful to the Biafran cause…? If it did, how, and if not, why not?
OJUKWU: In Ahiara declaration, you will find my fundamental beliefs. The problem is that a lot of people don’t like to accept certain things. We will applaud a number of certain movements all over but I better warn that those we applaud in other countries have not enunciated any form of ideology to the level of the Ahiara Declaration. In fact, I would like instead of writing about Obollo Eke, Obollo Afo … and nobody is really in the movement of the battlefield… but I would like to look again at Ahiara and review it in the context of Nigeria because those things I want for the Biafran people is what we should have for the Nigeria that accommodates us.
Where are all those Biafran scientists who worked for Biafra? Why is Nigeria not using them? I mean those people who worked in Research and Production, (RAP) in Biafra?
OJUKWU: They are all there. Nigeria doesn’t want to use them. They are there in Nigeria. You see, we are justly proud of our scientist and what they did, but I am particularly proud that they were able to do it under my guidance. And the reason they were able to do it, they will tell you, is that I gave them absolute recognition. You see, a slave cannot make all these developments for you. You don’t expect them to build all these rockets, etc. when in effect they are doing it for the folks that tried to hold them down. In Biafra, I left it completely open, whatever you can produce, bring it. And the great thing was that even when I am sitting in a council meeting … a cabinet meeting … a note would come to me and say this has been done. I will just say to the council, this is what I felt. I must go and inspect and give honor to whom it is due. I was in a council meeting when I was told Biafra has developed a rocket. I was flabbergasted. I stepped out of the meeting and I was told a demonstration has been set up for me within the vast gardens of the State house. And it is funny, because when I stepped out from one end of the garden, this thing was fired. It took off and landed just by the other end of the garden. So we’ve solved the question of proportion. I was so very proud of our people. I must tell you that
before the end of the war, Biafran rockets were moving and homing unto their targets at six and half mile distance.
Why then do you think Biafra lost?
OJUKWU: We lost Biafra because we did not have the wherewithal to sustain it, that’s all.
As a respected officer, how do you think we can stop coups in Nigeria?
OJUKWU: Very simple. Remove the profit elements from coup making. That is the key! Nobody makes a coup in Nigeria to better Nigeria for policy or ideological reasons. No, it is to get their hands at the treasury and therefore all you need do, is make coup unprofitable. Anybody who has taken part always remember that it is a crime to act outside the constitution of the land, so it is high risk. Remove the statute of limitations on that issue. Whenever, as Ndi Igbo say, you take a child’s doll and put up your hands, sooner or later, your hands will start aching and you will put it down. The same way goes for coups. It doesn’t matter how long they stay in power, they will one day relax and pull out. Whenever they do, every member of that junta should be personally responsible for what he did whilst he was illegally in power. And all those who went to prison will sue. All those who were wronged for whatever it is, will take action. The other thing of course is the loot which is the attractive thing. We need to keep an eagle eye around the republic and any expenditure, any lifestyles that cannot be justified within the rules and regulations of Nigeria should be questioned. This is where you change the law a bit on this matter. Once you have been suspected of corruption, the government should immediately impose a seizure of your goods and you will be considered culpable unless you can prove your innocence. So when I see you spending so much money I’ll ask you, you can even say to me, Aha!, don’t you know that I have a tree in my house that have as leaves as Naira notes … in 50s. It is not wrong, the point is come and show me that tree. If indeed I see the tree in your house, you are not at fault. The only thing is that I will declare the tree a national property. But beyond that, you haven’t done anything bad. But If I get to your house and you cannot show me the tree, so you are in trouble.
Thank You or the interview.
OJUKWU: You’re welcome.
* Mclord Obioha, a veteran journalist and the publisher of The Nigerian and a 24/7 online news outfit for Ndi-Igbo worldwide which is under construction.
Copyright 2003. The Nigerian Newsmagazine, New York, New York, August, 1999.