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I’m New Leader of the Igbo

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Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, speaks to Chris Ajaero, deputy general editor, on his recent installation as Ijele Ndigbo, his relationship with the late Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu and the Igbo race after the demise of their hero. Excerpts:

Newswatch: How would you describe your relationship with Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu before his demise in November, last year?

Uwazuruike: My relationship with Ojukwu got to an extent that I was like a member of his family. It was even difficult for me to see myself as an outsider because if I was with him, I had access to all the rooms in his house.  He took me like his son and gave me the name Okenwa (meaning my great child).

This shows that he loved me so much. He gave me that name when I came out of prison after one of my encounters with government and the overzealous security agencies. When I was in prison, he came there to visit me with his widow, Bianca. And he told the prison officials that it was the first time he was coming to the prison in his life but that he had to do it for Ralph.

 When my mother died, he played a prominent role in her funeral and when I was eventually released after two and half years in detention, he organised a party for me in Enugu, after Ohanaeze Ndigbo had done its own. So, he took me like his prized son, a son that was special to him. There was nothing practically he didn’t tell me. There was no advice he didn’t give me. There was nothing he hid from me and there was nothing he didn’t know about me. Each time I went wrong, he called me and advised me. Each time I went right, he would call me and hug me, and congratulate me. He was everything to me. Each time I was arrested, he would be the first to call my wife and ask, “what is happening now, do you need some money, and are the children going to school?” He would send money, even if my wife said there was money and he would send people to the prison to come and see me anywhere I was detained. He would open up communications with me, so much so that even though we were not allowed to make use of the phone in prison, he would make sure he heard my voice.


Newswatch: When exactly did you meet Ojukwu for the first time?

Uwazuruike: When I came back from India after my studies, I had to stay back in Lagos to go to the Nigerian Law School.  When I was called to bar on June 6, 1991, I had to stay in Lagos, and I became involved in Igbo politics. Then during the June 12, 1993 political crisis when many people were killed in Lagos, I was among the leaders of the non-indigenes of Lagos who met and resolved that we should approach Buba Marwa who was the then military governor of Lagos State, but we didn’t have access to him. So, we decided to approach two prominent Nigerian leaders to speak to the government on our behalf. So, we decided to approach Ojukwu and G. M. Hamza because the meeting was a combination of Igbo and Hausa.

By then, I hadn’t gotten any synergy with Ojukwu. We went to Ojukwu first and I was the spokesman of the group. After our discussion, Ojukwu requested me to stay back a little bit that he wanted to speak with me. He asked me my name and I told him. He said he would like to see me again. He later arranged and we met Buba Marwa. So, we started fraternising.

But the major thing that linked us together was when he was crowned the Eze Igbo Gburugburu and then some people took advertorial in the newspapers disclaiming him as Eze Igbo Gburugburu, then I took the other side, writing in the newspapers that he is  indeed Eze Igbo Gburugburu, that we should have a leader for Ndigbo. He read all those things and was pleased with me. Then, I started organising birthday parties annually in his honour in Lagos and he was attending and this drew us closer.

When General Sani Abacha died, two of us attended his funeral together in Kano on a chartered flight. When MASSOB commissioned the Biafra House in Washington DC, USA, on September 29, 2001, he was there to officially open it. From then, he saw me as a reliable person, someone he could work with and we were always in touch until his demise.


Newswatch: As one of the Igbo personalities who were very close to Ojukwu, what would you say was his last wish for Ndigbo before he passed on?

Uwazuruike: 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 all Igbo men and women were liberated. He said if one Igbo person was still in bondage, the struggle will continue. To him, the beginning and end of his life had to do with the welfare of Ndigbo. He was the rallying point for the Igbo race and wanted them to remain united in the struggle for self determination.

I know that now that he is no more, what he would like Ndigbo to do is to keep his ideals alive – the Ojukwu spirit. That is the best thing we shall do today to immortalise him and make his spirit happy even in the great beyond.


Newswatch: Recently, you were conferred with the chieftaincy title of Ijele Ndigbo (meaning the big Igbo masquerade) by Eze Obidiegwu Onyesoh, the traditional ruler of Nri kingdom, in Anaocha local government area of Anambra State, believed to be the ancestral home of Ndigbo. This was a few months after Ojukwu’s death. Was it a coincidence that you were conferred with the title by the same kingdom that made Ojukwu the Eze Igbo Gburugburu?

Uwazuruike: Was it a coincidence? I don’t know. What I know is that shortly after Ojukwu’s death; the palace secretary of Eze Nri called me and said that I had a letter with him. One week after his call, I did not send anybody to pick the letter and he called me again to remind me about the letter. Then I asked Rommy Ezeonwuka, proprietor of Rogenny Games Village, Oba, Anambra State, to go and pick the letter for me and he did. When he received the letter, he asked me when he should bring it for me, and I told him to read the content of the letter for me over the phone. This was when I knew the content of the letter and went to pick it up in Onitsha because I saw it as a great honour for me.

But before then, I had never thought about such a thing.  Before I was installed as Ijele Ndigbo, Eze Nri visited Okwe, my village, and was surprised that I had built a home for the disabled Biafran war veterans there. He didn’t know that for about ten years now I had been taking care of them. Each month, I would buy them 25 bags of rice and 20 bags of garri and give them money for their upkeep. This was five years before I brought them to Okwe from Oji River where they were staying and begging for alms. When I was in prison, I told my members to continue to send materials to them. When I was released from prison, they told me that they had problems because armed robbers frequently came to harass and rob them. I promised that I would build a home for them.

Even the Eze Nri who decided to confer a chieftaincy title on me never knew about it until he visited my village. When he saw it, he said he was impressed and that he was happy he didn’t make a mistake by conferring the chieftaincy title of Ijele Ndigbo on me.


Newswatch: With Ojukwu’s demise, a vacuum has been created in Igbo leadership. Now that you have been crowned Ijele Ndigbo and presented with Ofor, symbol of Igbo leadership, does it mean that you have stepped into Ojukwu’s shoes as his successor?

Uwazuruike: Certainly, that is the symbolism because even Eze Nri brought the picture where the late Eze Nri, his predecessor, conferred the title to Ojukwu. He told me that now that I have been conferred with the same title by Nri kingdom, automatically I have stepped into Ojukwu’s shoes.


Newswatch: Don’t you think that Ojukwu’s shoes are too big for you?

Uwazuruike: 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.


Newswatch: How would you react to the position of some of your critics that you should have waited to be crowned Ijele Ndigbo after Ojukwu’s burial?

Uwazuruike: Well, I was written a letter and asked to come on a certain date for installation. Indeed, it was supposed to have taken place on February 18, but was shifted backward to January 14. And when I went on January 14, I was conferred with the title. So, I did not decide on the date and I didn’t make any input into it.

But I suspect that why Eze Nri did it that way is that our people are always embroiled in controversy.  You would recall that when Ojukwu was to be made Eze Igbo Gburugburu, some people went to court and tried to stop it through injunction.

However, in respect for Ojukwu, the ceremonial aspect of the chieftaincy title called Igo aro was not done. Eze Nri kept that one for March 10, after Ojukwu’s burial. The coronation has taken place but during the Igo aro, we will celebrate it.


Newswatch: How prepared are you to confront the challenges of your new status in Igboland?

Uwazuruike: I have tried to articulate and consummate all these and I see myself as a dual role player now. Formerly, I was a MASSOB leader, now I am an Igbo leader. Being an Igbo leader does not subtract from my activism as a MASSOB leader but I will marry the two together.

But I will be more responsible now. Not that it will subtract from my radicalism but I will be more rational and more mature. Formerly, I used to take decision for millions of MASSOBIANS but now I will be taking decisions for every Igbo man and woman. So, I will be more articulate and more considerate. This was why when the Boko Haram attacked Ndigbo in the North recently, people thought that there would be retaliation. You know that in the past, there used to be reprisal attack but I stopped it because of that maturity. If it were before, there would have been reprisal attacks but because of my new position, I had to look at so many variables playing out and I stopped it and ensured that there was complete quietness in Igboland.


Newswatch: With Ojukwu’s death, what happens to the struggle, especially as he was your pillar of support?

Uwazuruike:  Oh! The struggle continues.  We started MASSOB when he was still alive and he identified with us. Now that he is no more, the much we can do to respect him and make his spirit happy even in the great beyond is to make sure that we not only continue with the struggle but ensure that we actualise the sovereign state of Biafra.

I have said that my new status does not change my opinion about Nigeria. And my opinion has been that what Nigeria needs is six republics, six independent states emerging out of Nigeria. I don’t believe in one Nigeria. There must be Biafra for Ndigbo. The Yoruba can have their own republic, call it Oduduwa republic. The Niger Delta should have their own republic. The North Central should have their own republic, the North West and North East should have their republic. But if the North wants to come together as one country, that is their business. However, I don’t believe in Northern Republic and Southern Republic. All the geopolitical zones should be on their own so that no section will dominate the other.


Newswatch: Do you see a situation whereby the activities of Boko Haram could lead to the disintegration of the country?

Uwazuruike: That is what I am praying for. I am praying that Boko Haram should assist us to break Nigeria.


Newswatch: Following the killing of many Igbo people living in the North by Boko Haram, you directed Ndigbo living in the North to send their wives and children back home while the men could stay back to monitor their investments there. Why did you give such a directive which runs counter to that of the South-East governors who told them to stay back because government was intensifying efforts to ensure their security?

Uwazuruike: The issue is that we have to be practical. It is not about what the South-East governors said. They are killing our people in the North and you said they should continue to stay there and be slaughtered like cows. As a matter of fact, Boko Haram had ordered that Southerners should go home. When they issued that order, I was even the first person to tell the Igbo not to mind them but when they started killing my people and I did not want any reprisal attack that could lead to the killing of Hausa peasants in Igboland, I told my people to come home.

The big question is since the South-East governors said that the Igbo should stay back in the North, what security measures have they provided for them? The Igbo in the North continued to call me and say that they were being killed. I said come home and they said that some of them could not afford the transport fares. That was why I sent luxury buses to go and bring them home.

But instead of being realistic, the South-East governors claimed that they were in touch with their colleagues in the North. Which governor in the North is not a member of Boko Haram? Was it not in the Borno State Governor’s lodge in Abuja that Kabiru Sokoto, the mastermind of the Christmas Day bombing was arrested?

I know that in the presidency, they know those behind Boko Haram. But by the time you bring the list, everybody will be involved. That is why they don’t want to publish it.


Newswatch: You recently said that after the burial of Ojukwu, MASSOB and the Igbo Elders’ Forum would be ready to take concrete steps to tackle any Igbo challenge that comes your way. Does it mean that you would be ready for war?

Uwazuruike: We shall be ready for anything. After Ojukwu’s burial, we shall sit down and appraise every situation and treat them adequately. In Nigeria today, the only tribe that had confronted the entire country in a war are the Igbo. We have tasted war and we have lost our kiths and kins in the war, so we know what it is. So, nobody should frighten us with violence.

And in terms of armament, we are the masters as far as Nigeria is concerned. God gave us that talent of how to manufacture arms.


Newswatch: You have always reiterated that MASSOB is involved in a non-violent struggle. How would you reconcile it with your threat that Igbo will be ready for war if Boko Haram attacks continue?

Uwazuruike: Remember that the best form of defence is attack. If you want to defend yourself, you will be prepared to attack. I am a lawyer and I know the meaning of self-defence in law. You have the right to defend yourself against any invasion or attack. If Boko Haram members continue to kill our people, in self-defence, we will kill them and kill whoever we think is a threat to us.


Newswatch: Ojukwu’s burial is coming up on March 3. How prepared are Ndigbo to give him a befitting burial?

Uwazuruike: We are very prepared. Part of the preparation is the arrangement I have concluded to build Ojukwu Memorial Centre in Owerri. This is a centre where there will be an annual remembrance of Ojukwu and this will endure forever. I am also building Ojukwu Hall in Okwe, my hometown.

Ojukwu is my father. He did for me what my biological father could not do for me. So, I respect him, I honour him because he is the person that brought me to the limelight and introduced me to the whole world. He suffered because of me. In 2004, during the era of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the State Security Services, SSS, wanted to arrest him because he said he supports Uwazuruike and MASSOB, and he stood his ground and continued to stand by me.

I will uphold all his ideals and make sure that his name continues to ring bell for the rest of my life. 


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