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The Celebration of Ojukwu

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Thousands of people receive the remains of the late Biafra warlord in major Nigerian towns and cities 

If the dead could see, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, popularly known as the peoples’ general, would be fulfilled and smiling, wherever he is. He would be proud that the people for which he said, “I do understand my people. I will go anywhere with them, fight any fight with them…there is no doubt that I am their most beloved,” did not disappoint him. He was indeed given a hero’s burial, unprecedented in Nigeria’s history. Ojukwu, also known as Eze-Igbo Gburugburu, meaning, king of the Igbo worldwide, who died in a London hospital, November 26, 2011, was flown to Abuja in a British Airways plane, on Monday, February 27, after a requiem mass the previous day at St. George’s Cathedral, London, attended by a huge crowd, which included 83 –year old Phil Philip, who flew the last plane that brought relief materials to Biafra, under the joint Christian Aids.

At the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, the casket, draped in the Nigerian flag, complete with a green army cap, was brought in front of the presidential wing of the airport by military officers comprising of two brigadiers-general, four colonels, two lieutenant colonels and a regiment sergeant major, who acted as pall bearers. A full military parade and other ceremonies were performed by Lt.General Azubuike Ihejirika, chief of army staff. The army band also performed at the ceremony. The spiritual angle of the event was conducted by John Onaiyekan, Catholic Archbishop  of Abuja, who led the clergy to a brief ceremony. In his sermon, Onaiyekan said Ojukwu impacted positively on the people, as he was loved and admired by all. President Jonathan, who was represented by Vice President Namadi Sambo, said Ojukwu was an advocate of justice, peace and great lover of good service, who provided exemplary leadership to his people. For Patience Jonathan, first lady, Ojukwu was a bundle of humility, simplicity and intellect, who would always command a place of pride in the history of Nigeria.

At Owerri, Imo State, the crowd defied the early morning rain to welcome their hero, who was brought in a Nigeria Air force jet C-130, NAF 917. The entire stretch from the airport to Owerri town, a distance of more than 10 kilometres, was lined up by people, old and young, men and women, who wanted to catch a glimpse of the great man. The large turnout must have been made possible by the public holiday declared by the state government in honour of Ojukwu. Schools were closed, as well as markets, government offices, banks and all other commercial enterprises. The casket was driven in a horse-drawn car, followed by Bianca, the wife and the wife of Imo State governor, through to the government house and then to the Ikemba Ojukwu Centre, built in his honour by the state government. At the brief ceremony, Rochas Okorocha, governor of the state, Achike Udenwa, former governor of Imo State and Peter Obi, Anambra State governor, laid wreath. Okorocha, described Ojukwu as “courageous and religiously committed to Igbo cause,” a man who fought for justice and the interest of his people. “Ndigbo believe in the nation’s unity and have over the years shed their blood in this regard,” he said.

In fulfillment of Ojukwu’s wish, his body was taken to the commercial city of Aba on February 28. Like in Imo State, the Abia State government declared public holiday in the state. Thousands of  residents trooped to the stadium, where his body lay in state, to pay their last respects to their hero. The body was flown into the town via a Nigerian Airforce helicopter with registration number NAF at about 11.05 am. From there it was conveyed to the Enyimba Stadium, where it laid in state. The casket bearing his remains was carried to where it lay in state at the centre of the stadium by senior army officers led by Major Generals D. Abubakar and S.A Audu. At the stadium, eminent politicians and citizens took turns to eulogise Ojukwu. He was hailed variously as a great soldier and politician who not only inspired a generation of Igbos who saw him as a role model, but one who sacrificed his time and future in defence of his people. Ojukwu’s lying in state was preceded by an all night musical concert in the town. The event was organised by the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, in conjuction with Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, PMAN. The candlelight dinner tagged “Ojukwu Lives,” which held at Creation Club, Aba, attracted musicians and artistes such as Bright Chimezie, Nigger Raw, Duncan Mighty, Onyinye, Nkiru Sylvanus and Flavour, among others.

From Aba, the body was flown to Abakaliki where a mammoth crowd had been waiting to honour the fallen soldier. Like it happened in Aba and Imo, markets and shops remained closed in honour of Ojukwu. His body which arrived the Ebonyi State capital at 3.10 pm was given the same military treatment, as the casket was carried by soldiers, preceded with a 21 gun salute followed with National anthem. A brief church service was then conducted by Emmanuel Nshii, a reverend. Nshii noted that every human life is marked by a beginning and end, and that Ojukwu  had arrived at his own exit point.

Martin Elechi, the Ebonyi State governor, while recalling the sacrifice and contributions of Ojukwu to his people, said the passing of the Eze Gburugburu was a source of sorrow and regret to Nigerians and Ndigbo in particular.  “It is not so much the fact of death, which is our common heritage that makes us sorrow at his passage, but that our war hero, a soldier of great prowess, a man of indomitable courage and a personality of colour and action, died after many months in the bed of pains and at a time when Nigeria was at the  crossroads of history, struggling to assert itself as a nation of diverse compositions,” Elechi said.

Among the huge crowd that witnessed the burial ceremony in the town were members of the state chapter of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, led by Uchenna Madu, its leader.

From Abakaliki, the corpse was later moved to Enugu that evening. To ensure that residents of the state trooped out enmasse to welcome and bid their leader goodbye, the Enugu State government declared March 1 public holiday. In his sermon at the requiem high mass held at the Holy Ghost Cathedral, Enugu, John Nwafor, reverend father and administrator of the cathedral, emphasised on the need for unity in diversity. According to him, “Unless Nigeria embraced true federalism with a weak centre, which Ojukwu proposed many years ago, the country would know no peace,” he said. Before the end of the mass, Obiora Ike, reverend father, announced an undisclosed amount of  money donated by Peter Obi, governor of Anambra State, to Biafra war veterans. The governor’s donation followed a rendition of gospel hymns and Biafra war songs by the veterans, a development that drew a loud ovation from the congregation. The service, which began at 10.00am, held at the Holy Ghost Cathedral, had President Goodluck Jonathan, represented by Vice President Namadi Sambo.

From Enugu, the remains headed to Awka, Anambra State, where it also lay in state. Earlier, the House of Representatives members from Anambra State  had announced their decision to abstain from all legislative duties for one week as a  way of honouring Ojukwu.  As in other states, hundreds of thousands of  indigenes  trooped out to witness the historic moment. Encomiums and accolades were, as usual showered on the departed Biafran leader.  It was from Awka that his remains was finally taken home to his family house in Nnewi where he was interred. His family house, as part of the efforts to accord Eze Igbo Gburugburu a befitting burial, had undergone renovation. Like in Zungeru, Calabar, Lagos, Umuahia, Aba, Owerri, Abakaliki and Enugu, people trooped out in traditional outfits or T shirts bearing Ojukwu’s picture, hailing and chanting his name and shouting slogans reminiscent of the Biafra days.  Igbo traders in the 19 Northern States, closed shops to attend Ojukwu’s burial. Similarly, many Igbo in other parts of the world arrived for the ceremonies, a situation that saw hotels, guest houses and restaurants in Enugu, Awka, Onitsha and Nnewi, fully booked, one week to the burial date. 

Representatives of countries that recognised Biafra during the civil war – Gabon, Haiti, Tanzania and Zambia were present at the ceremonies at Enugu, Awka and Nnewi, as well as Jerry Rawlings, former president of Ghana.

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