Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu And A Matter Of A Title And A Rank

by Sheyi Oriade

The Igbos of Nigeria are famous for many things. They are renowned for their sense of industry, business acumen, itinerancy, resilience, proud culture, and for that audacious act of seceding from Nigeria to form the Republic of Biafra those many years ago. What the Igbos have not been renowned for, at least not to my knowledge, is their subtle sense of humour. But this perception may have to change. And the reason for this possible change in perception has to do with their most notable and charismatic former living leader – Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu. I have often wondered why the Igbo eldership in their collective wisdom decided to confer upon him the honorific title ‘Dim.’

As a non Igbo, many thoughts have crossed my mind as to the rationale behind this rather curious decision. Could the title have been conferred upon him out of a sense of wicked humour? I mean the Igbo eldership is well aware that the common language of all Nigerians ‘though tribe and tongue may differ’ is English. Or could it be that the elders were trying to convey a subliminal message to the great man’s subconscious mind for having abandoned them for the safety of Cote d’Ivoire when the sun set on Biafra. Or better still, was it simply their way of telling the great man that he was their past and not their future; even though his place in the pantheon of Igbo heroes is secure. Whatever the real reason(s) for honouring the great man, I suspect that buried within the subtext of that honorific title ‘Dim,’ is a hidden meaning which only those with ‘ears to hear’ and ‘eyes to see’ will be able to decipher.

Dim Ojukwu is a larger than life personality. A colourful figure, physically imposing, with a Che Guevara guerrilla type beard cultivated in the days of Biafra, or probably even before – although I don’t think hirsuteness is or ever was a feature of the Nigerian Army. Right through to the present day he continues to sport his revolutionary beard as an emblem, I suppose, of that epic, but ultimately unsuccessful secessionist bid that catapulted him to international fame and notoriety.

Articulate, and with more than a trace of his English public school accent still noticeable in the cadences of his speech – he continues to orate with flourish as occasions demand. But much more noticeable than even his posh accent, is his prominent forehead, one which inspired some mischievous Yoruba wag during the Civil War to name an item of out door crockery after it. Conventional wisdom has it that the bigger the head the bigger the brain and Dim Ojukwu proved this by his deft performance at the Aburi peace talks. During those talks he ran rings around General Gowon to the point of his becoming giddy headed, causing him to accede to positions which were inimical to his overall interest. And it was only after he recovered his composure and became clear headed once again, that he saw the need to recant on his previously agreed positions.

It is not at all surprising that a man of Dim Ojukwu’s stature and background is often in the news for one reason or another. Not too long ago now, he pulled off one of the greatest feats in the annals of Nigerian romantic history by securing the hand of the then ‘Most Beautiful Girl’ in Nigeria in marriage – the ‘mermaidic’ and spell binding Bianca Onoh. And this to the consternation of her father, the redoubtable C. C. Onoh the former ‘stormy petrel’ of Old Anambra State politics and its one time governor. By achieving this amazing feat, Dim Ojukwu validated a privately held hypothesis of mine – to wit – that in the eyes of women, ‘no man is ugly; they are simply rich or poor.’ It seems that what he lost in the theatre of war, he won on the platform of love.

It has been my privilege to have set eyes upon Dim Ojukwu in the flesh, not once, but twice. Once in 1981 at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, and again in 1989 at the Presidential Hotel, Enugu, during the launch of his book entitled ‘Because I am Involved.’ Both encounters were memorable, but the latter more so, for it was an occasion filled with high drama and one which I am likely to never forget and for the following reasons.

Just before the commencement of the book launch, and with all the invited dignitaries seated at the top table, Dim Ojukwu for some inexplicable reason jumped out of his seat like a man possessed and made his way to the back of the hall as if propelled by some invisible force. I thought to myself, what could possibly be responsible for such a bizarre display? It was all to become clear very quickly.

Bianca Onoh, unbeknownst to most of us present, was at the time being courted secretly by the old war horse, and had been invited to the launch, and had just arrived at the venue. Dim Ojukwu on noticing her arrival felt that it was both fitting and appropriate for her to be treated to a royal and romantic welcome – a public demonstration of his affection. After all, she was a national beauty queen and wholly deserving of his attentions. True to form and in true Gallic romantic fashion he bowed his head and kissed her hand to welcome her, before chaperoning her to the top table to be placed amongst his other important guests.

It was a good show – a free and public demonstration of the art of winning the affections of a beautiful woman. Yes, there was life yet in the old dog! Dim Ojukwu was certainly involved and with something more beautiful than Biafra! And there and then his book took on a wholly different meaning. A friend seated next to me at the occasion, wondered out aloud, as to what on earth Bianca Onoh could possibly see in an older man like Ojukwu? He clearly had never heard the saying that ‘its much better to be an old man’s darling, than a young man’s slave’!

Watching Dim Ojukwu back then, I wondered what could be responsible for his seeming deviation from matters of national importance to trivialities such as ‘puppy’ love played out on a public platform. Could it be boredom? Or could it be that he had reached the realisation even back then that he no longer commanded a place of authority amongst his own? For in spite of his defining role in the history of the Igbo nation, I have quietly suspected for many years now, that since his hurried departure out of Nigeria at the end of the Civil War he is looked upon and treated with ambivalence by his people.

This ambivalent attitude is noticeable by the Igbos stance of never fully loving him and never fully hating him; never fully accepting him and never fully rejecting him; and never fully embracing him and never fully pushing him away. They appear to tolerate him as relic of their past, rather than celebrate him as a champion of their future. A position clearly demonstrated by their rejection of his senate candidacy in 1983. Under the present dispensation his political movement has enjoyed only modest success in Igbo heartlands. Although this may very well have more to do with the electoral excesses of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, rather than being an indication of the measure of confidence that his people repose in him. I suppose that we will never know for certain.

It may be because of this ambivalent approach of his people towards him that Dim Ojukwu seems to be more engaged these days in the Nigerian project rather than in the re-animation of the corpse of Biafra. I was both amused and bemused recently to read that he turned up as an invited guest and recipient, at a ceremony for the presentation of pension cheques to retired Nigerian soldier. His cheque it turns out was made out to him in the amount and for the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel – his last Nigerian Army rank before he went AWOL to Biafra, where he re-emerged as a General.

I’m not certain what use his pension cheque will be to him, seeing that he is and has always been a well appointed man courtesy of his late father’s stupendous wealth and his successful business enterprises in Cote d’Ivoire. If anyone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a gold plated AK47 in his hands, it was Dim Ojukwu.

Judging from his comments at the ‘pensions’ ceremony, it is clear that he has more issues with his ‘lowly’ Nigerian rank than with the size of his pension cheque. He feels that he his deserving of a much higher rank; that of a General to be precise, or at least the right to be addressed as one. Whatever the merits of his arguments, it is clear that he views himself as a full fledged Nigerian, and one who has travelled the whole distance from Aburi to Abuja. He needs to be congratulated on his re-absorption.

In a way, I actually agree with Dim Ojukwu’s logic. For Biafra was a child of abnormal circumstances. It was a desperate action by a desperate people living at a desperate time in our nation’s history. And given the circumstances of the times many saw themselves – rightly or wrongly – as having no choice other than to cross over to the ‘other’ side to realise their vision of a land of the rising sun. It was a vision that was not to be, as the sun set relatively quickly upon it; but not quickly enough to prevent the horrific and needless loss of life suffered by both sides.

Since then, Nigeria, first of all through General Gowon, with his ‘no victor no vanquished’ policy of reconciling and reintegrating secessionist forces within Nigeria; and then Alhaji Shagari with his State pardon of Dim Ojukwu; and finally General Babangida with his return of Dim Ojukwu’s sequestrated properties, have done much to heal the wounds of that conflict. While much has been done in this regard, there is still some way to go yet.

One further gesture the government should consider making – if it is so minded – is to make a grant of the rank of full General in the Nigerian Army to Dim Ojukwu. I recognise that this will involve a quantum leap of faith and enormous amounts of goodwill. And it will undoubtedly be viewed in many quarters as an unnecessary and controversial gesture. But I think it is one worth considering. Had Nigeria evolved along the lines that it was supposed to have, there would have been no armed sectional conflict. And there can be no doubt that Dim Ojukwu and maybe others of Igbo extraction of that generation would have attained to that rank, or near enough, on merit.

Should the government adopt and implement this idea, then it will have succeeded for all time in exorcising the ghost of Biafra and squelching the present clamour for its resurrection. For what better demonstration of his full rehabilitation into mainstream Nigeria, can there be, than the award of the rank of General to him. It would be a symbolic and powerful gesture of reconciliation.

Were this to happen, I can’t predict what the reaction of the Igbo nation would be, but I imagine it would be mixed. Some may feel that much of the benefit of reconciliation efforts have accrued directly and disproportionately to Dim Ojukwu to the exclusion of others. In any case, I think the Igbos decided long ago that they can and will thrive with or without him. For many of them he represents what could have been, and not what is, or may yet be. That he stood up for them at a difficult period in their history is beyond contention, even if he didn’t stay the course to the bitter end. I suspect that at that moment of defeat he felt it was best to adhere to the wisdom of the maxim that advocates that ‘he who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.’ And having preserved his life, his fight today seems to have more to do with the restoration of his dignity and the securing of his place in history, rather than the leadership of territory.

As for the ‘Dim’ title, I think I now know why the Igbo eldership conferred such an ambiguous title upon him. In their collective wisdom, it appears they came to the realisation that his once prolific powers were on the wane. And that his relevance to the Igbo nation was in decline; but how to deliver such news to a once great man? Difficult tasks call for resourceful solutions. So what better way to deflate a man’s ego by pretending to inflate it; confer upon him an ambiguous title, one which conveys one meaning to some and another meaning to others – a clever use of double entendre.

Like many of his generation, he is now a lion in winter, his best days are long past. Unfortunately, that is the plight of all men. We enter the world, we perform on its stage and then we depart it; just as Shakespeare said. It was my privilege to listen to Chief Ojukwu in 1989 at the height of his powers. He was not ‘Dim’ then he was bright; he was also the Ikemba Nnewi in all of his glory.

Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu – long may you live!

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Dan April 16, 2011 - 4:25 pm

Great article – love it.

udi ojiako March 17, 2010 - 9:13 pm

Hi…just to mention that the Igbo title is not a ‘confered’ title..’Dim’ is not like chief…Dim is a title ‘taken’ and not ‘given’…in effect, someone with a ‘Dim’ title does not have a warrant, he will need to gbue ichi first, and then take ozor title….in Igboland, the two highest Ozor titles are ‘Dim’ or ‘Ezeana’, the title depends on where one originates from and also thier village..


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