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Ndigbo after Ojukwu

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With Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu dead, who is the next leader of the Igbo?

His death on November 26, 2011, even at the age of 78, came as a shock to many Nigerians and Igbo people particularly. But even for the many people who were yet to get over the shock, the commencement of the burial rites for the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, which began on February 8, finally brought home the reality of the situation. Ojukwu is gone for good, never to be seen again.

That, sadly, is what many people have been mulling about. And which then gives rise to the question: who will replace Ojukwu, and how will the Igbo fare without a man whose admirers insist, was the undisputed Igbo leader?  This view is probably not borne out of sentiment. Ojukwu actually earned his place among his people. He was acknowledged to have proved his love for the people at a time when it could have been convenient for him to abandon them.  He did not.  His declaration of  an independent   state of Biafra  for  people of the  former Eastern region ,  of which Igbos make up the majority, in 1967, after violence broke out in some northern states, leading to the death of many Igbo,  is interpreted by people of his ethnic group as  a rare act of love by   the  Nnewi born ex-soldier. But Ojukwu’s bond with his people did not end with that action, for, even after the civil war, which his decision sparked, the man did not shy away from assuming responsibility for issues concerning the Igbo. He once described himself as a servant to the Igbo people (Ndigbo). Where others would appear to wish to lead the Igbo, “I would be content to serve them,” Ojukwu had said, in his book, Because I am Involved.

In another instance, when he was asked why he was always championing the cause of the Igbo, Ojukwu  replied: “I am proud to fight for the Igbo because somebody must fight for them.” Such was the passion that Ojukwu, who was crowned Eze Igbo Gburugburu (overall king) of Igbo land, by the traditional ruler of Nri, brought to bear in his relationship with his people. In Igbo land, traditional titles speak volumes, and confer certain responsibilities and expectations on  the holders, and Ojukwu was not one who spoke tongue in cheek  whenever the issue at stake had to do with the Igbo.

As a result, not a few Nigerians have been pondering over  the  void created by his death. One of them is  Emeka Onyemelukwe, Ojukwu’s lawyer and confidant. He told Newswatch that, when he learnt about Ojukwu’s death,  the question that agitated his mind was: “Who is going to replace this man in Igboland? Who is that Igbo leader who can sacrifice his time and money for his people like Ojukwu?”  As someone who knew Ojukwu personally, Onyemelukwe told Newswatch that  Ojukwu lived and died for Ndigbo.  “For him, the Igbo was everything. When he was alive, he was for the Igbo a symbol of protection. If certain people wanted to do certain things, when they remember that Ojukwu was there, they would beat a retreat.”

He added that the Igbo should seek God’s hand in prayer so that He will raise a leader for them because a group without a leader will continue to grope in the dark. “Igbo people are republican in nature. If you want to lead them, you must have to be a selfless leader so that they will give you the backing like they did for Ojukwu,” Onyemelukwe told Newswatch. 

Joe Achuzia, former secretary general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, and Ojukwu’s confidant in the Biafran Army, also wonders about the vacuum  created in Igboland by  Ojukwu’s demise  which he said would be difficult to fill. He noted  that men like Ojukwu are rare to come by, and that every Igbo man would always remember the Biafran ideology which Ojukwu lived and died for.

Joshua Ogbonnaya,  a professor and chairman of the Local Organising Committee for the burial of the late icon, also spoke about Ojukwu in glowing terms. He described the Ikemba Nnewi as a selfless  Igbo leader who for generations to come would be remembered for his contributions and  sacrifice towards the emancipation of Ndigbo.

Ogbonnaya absolved Ojukwu of responsibility for the civil war that claimed  over two million lives, and said the Oxford trained historian merely responded to the situation by doing what any good and caring man would have thought of, in the circumstance. “We had a pogrom and our people came back here, some of them with broken legs, women being sewn open and babies being removed from their wombs and slaughtered. And that is anything that will make anybody get mad, and nobody should blame him for the Biafran War at all because if he were still alive and all these things are still happening, maybe he will take the same action.”

Mua’zu Babangida Aliyu, governor of Niger State,also believes that Ojukwu was a man who genuinely loved his people and that his action in 1967 proved his  love for them, as it was geared towards protecting them from further harm and death. Aliyu  said this at Zungeru, last week  when the town, like some other Eastern states, held the burial rites of passage for  the fallen leader. That  officially kickstarted the final burial process for Ojukwu which will lead to his committal  to mother earth in his Nnewi hometown, on March 3 . The ceremony that held at Zungeru was called Icho Mmadu, meaning,  searching for  the  dead.

The choice of Zungeru as one of the towns where  Icho Mmadu was held, is significant. Ojukwu was born in that ancient town in 1933.

Uche Chukwumerije, a senator from Abia State who is also the vice-chairman of Ojukwu burial committee, said the decision to commence Ojukwu’s burial rites from Zungeru is in keeping with the agreement reached by members of the committee to ensure that his birthplace was accorded its pride of place in the scheme of things. Some of the South-East governors who accompanied Chukwumerije to Zungeru were Peter Obi of Anambra State and Rochas Okorocha of Imo State.  Apart from Zungeru, some other states in the old Eastern Region and Western part of Nigeria  also identified with the burial activities planned for Ojukwu. They include Cross River, Rivers and Lagos states

Last Monday, the Cross River State government marked the exit of Ojukwu at an event that recalled his days as governor of the defunct Eastern region. The occasion was  part of activities marking his burial ceremonies. That day was set aside by the Ojukwu national burial Committee for reminiscences on events and activities in the Eastern Region under his rule.  Liyel Imoke, former governor of the state, and Efiok Cobham, his deputy, graced the occasion.

The defunct Eastern region now comprises the South-East geopolitical states of Abia, Anambra, Imo, Ebonyi, Enugu and the South-South states of Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Bayelsa. Ojukwu was military governor and later, head of state and commander in chief of the region from 1966 to 1970.

The event, which held at the Cultural Centre, Calabar, was kick-started with a lecture on the topic: “Ojukwu and the Quest for Regional Integration and Stability,” delivered by Chris Nwamuo, head of department of Theatre and Media Studies of the University of Calabar.

 Nwamuo described Ojukwu as a courageous Nigerian who sacrificed his  money, time, energy and education for the wellbeing of his people.

Three days after the Calabar event, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo in Lagos held a funeral programme at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos in honour of the late icon. The event  which was   chaired by Tunji Braithwaite, elder statesman was attended by Obi, governor of Anambrea State, his wife, Babatunde Fashola, governor of Lagos State,  Senator Ben Obi, Martin Agbaso, stalwart of the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA,  and Oliver Akubueze, president, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Lagos.

During the event, there was a procession of various Igbo groups clad in their mourning regalia with Ojukwu’s photograph embossed on them. Some of the groups were Igbo Community, Lagos and Amalgamated Traders Association, Lagos Chapter. 

Across the country, similar activities relating to Ojukwu’s burial had been gaining momentum. Apart from the expected high powered delegation from the federal government and the support it would render  the  various  states seeking to accord him a befitting burial, many prominent sons and daughters of Igboland as well as socio-political groups have, on their own, been identifying with the burial programmes.

But beyond that, the whole period of the burial rite, as is becoming obvious already, will present a great opportunity for people to not just make great speeches, but stir emotions, and one of the groups that had since positioned itself to play a prominent role is the Movement for the Actualisation  of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, led by  Ralph Uwazuruike. The group, for instance, has since distributed special uniforms for its members to be worn during the burial ceremony.

To many political watchers, it does not come as a surprise that MASSOB would play a big role in the burial. Like many Igbo indigenes themselves, MASSOB has never hidden its love for Ojukwu as a person. But the affection does not end there. The group says its ultimate goal is to achieve a sovereign state of Biafra. By implication, MASSOB wants to continue from where Ojukwu stopped. For this reason, Uwazuruike had long positioned himself as someone who could step into Ojukwu’s shoes whenever the opportunity presented itself.  For his belief and vision with regard to actualising Biafra, Uwazuruike has endured his own share of tribulation from the Nigerian authorities. He had been arrested and detained a number of times for his role as MASSOB leader.

For that reason, many Igbo, especially the youth, have come to identify with MASSOB and the man behind it. Perhaps, a test of MASSOB’s popularity could be seen in how seriously, the people respond to its demands. MASSOB, at one time or the other, had issued orders calling on Ndigbo to sit at home as a way of pressing home its demand for a cause. To such demands, the people responded positively. One of such instances  was on September 6, 2004, when the body issued a sit at home order to Ndigbo to observe the “Biafra Day.” It was a success,  as  commercial and economic activities were paralysed in many parts of the South-East and Niger Delta as people obeyed the order. Perhaps, better than any other group in Igboland, MASSOB is believed to enjoy grassroots support among its people. Along with Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the pan socio-cultural group, it has, long even before Ojukwu’s death, been speaking out on behalf of the Igbo people.  Even Ojukwu himself  was known to have openly declared  his love for MASSOB.  In a 2004 interview with Newswatch, Ojukwu was asked whether he supported  MASSOB’s activities. His reply: “Yes, very much…” Such endorsement, coming from a revered leader, a man whose voice carried enormous weight in Igboland, could only have added to MASSOB’s reputation.

But the approval from Ojukwu wasn’t spontaneous, as the Igbo leader himself, probably, was unsure just how to view MASSOB  in the early years of its existence. He was once reported to have declared Uwazuruike’s escapades as head of MASSOB as “infantile drama and  child’s play.” That was after Uwazuruike had gone to Aba to hoist the Biafran flag which was meant to herald the state of Biafra.  This happened in May 2000. The manner Uwazuruike carried out his wish, left many people amused,  leading some analysts to dismiss him as a joker. He was said to have escaped to evade arrest from security agents, having earlier announced May 27, 2000, as the date for the hoisting of the flag. While  many waited and watched with keen interest, news suddenly emerged that Uwazuruike had declared the Biafra republic ahead of the scheduled date. According to reports, no sooner had Uwazuruike performed the exercise than he “escaped with a motorbike parked nearby.” In declaring the state of Biafra, Uwazuruike said in part: “I bring you freedom, the freedom to assert your independence. And the freedom to demand for the sovereignty of your new Biafra State, distinct from the geographical expression called Nigeria. None of you here can be the president of Nigeria but one of you can be the president of Biafra.” Eye witness accounts said the event lasted barely 10 minutes. 

There might well have been some elements of drama to it, but Uwazuruike’s action that day did cause some scare in government quarters and led to the summoning of Ojukwu to Aso Rock.  But, further dwelling on Uwazuruike’s antics, Ojukwu said: “Biafra is not a chest beating exercise. The original Biafra which I have the privilege and honour to lead and which up till today, to a large extent, I symbolize is a very serious matter.” He enjoined Nigerians not to lose sleep over MASSOB’s activities as the organisation was incapable of causing any mayhem. That was not the only time Ojukwu was summoned to Aso-Rock because of MASSOB. In 2004,  after the publication of an interview he granted Newswatch, the State Security Services, SSS, invited him to Abuja and asked him to come with a one-way ticket. But Ojukwu refused to honour the invitation, seeing as it was suspicious. However, the succeeding years has seen MASSOB and Uwazuruike’s influence grow even more. This, though, didn’t come on a platter of gold as Uwazuruike, perhaps more than any other Igbo leader fighting for the state of Biafra,  paid a heavy price for his belief. He was, in 2005, arrested and put behind bars by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, for being a security risk. The man was, however, later released after spending two and half years in prison. But his prison experience never scared him from continuing with what he calls a non- violent struggle. It emboldened him. And with that has come more support from his people, including traditional rulers, some of who have found it necessary to award him chieftaincy titles. The latest of such traditional honours was conferred on him on January 14, 2012, by Eze Obidiegwu Onyenso, the traditional ruler of Nri Kingdom in Anambra State, the same kingdom that had crowned Ojukwu the Eze Igbo, Gburugburu of Igboland. Uwazuruike now goes by the appellation, Ijele Ndigbo  

Is Uwazuruike then the successor-in-waiting? Or, put differently, can he fill the shoes left behind by Ojukwu?

Uwazuruike believes that Ojukwu’s shoes are too big for anyone to fill, given his clout and influence in Igboland but said he’s prepared to take over the challenge of filling the void that his exit has created. “When you talk about vacuum, it is impossible to get somebody that can be like Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu.  No doubt, his shoes are too big for any Igbo man  to wear. He had a larger than life image. But you know that he was my mentor and I have understudied him over the years. I learnt a lot under his tutelage and imbibed some of his traits. So, I believe that the Eze Nri who conferred the title of Ijele Ndigbo on me knows that I am capable of playing the role required of me as the person holding the title now,” Uwazuruike told Newswatch.

Reflecting on Ojukwu’s role as an Igbo leader, Uwazuruike said: “Ojukwu is one person who had sincere love for Ndigbo. When he was still alive, I sometimes asked him why he was always fighting for the emancipation of Ndigbo and he told me that he would continue the struggle until every Igbo man and woman was liberated. He said that if it remains one Igbo man, that the struggle will continue.”

Uwazuruike  is not short of support in his  bid to succeed Ojukwu as Igbo leader. Festus Mbaonu, secretary, Disabled Biafran War Veterans, told Newswatch that Uwazuruike has proved to be a worthy successor of Ojukwu by building an ultra modern camp for those of them who were wounded during the civil war for fighting the Igbo cause.

He described Ojukwu as a hero and said that the greatest honour Ndigbo could do to the memory of Ojukwu was to unite and support Uwazuruike to continue the struggle from where he stopped. “Ojukwu was like our own Moses in Igboland. Moses led the Isrealites to an extent and gave his blessing to Joshua who eventually took the Isrealites to the promised land. It is in the same manner that I want Ndigbo to rally behind Uwazuruike so that he will keep the light ignited by Ojukwu shining until he takes us to the promised land,” Mbaonu said.

Uwazuruike is not the only Igbo man in Igboland who would be aiming to fill the void created by Ojukwu’s death. There are many others, young and old Igbo people, some of who are members of the Ohanaeze, who might also want to lay a stake to the position.

However that might play out, Godson Offoaro, a veteran journalist, believes that Ojukwu’s name and influence, even in death, would still continue to gain respect for Ndigbo. “With or without him, the Igbo will move on,” he said, even predicting  that  “his presence will be more meaningful now than when he was alive,” and the “ invocation of his name alone will bring sanity and direction in Igbo hours of need and or search for direction.”


Reported by Chris Ajaero, Emmanuel Uffot,  Obong Akpaekong and Dike Onwuamaeze


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