Former Biafran leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, has reportedly vowed to return Peter Obi to the Government House, Awka, after the February 2010 polls. Speaking at the Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity, Onitsha, Anambra State, at the flag-off of APGA’s campaign for Governor Peter Obi, Ojukwu was quoted as saying: “I urge you all who are my friends and sons to come out en masse and vote for my political son, Obi. Let it be the only thing I’m asking you to do for me” (The Nation online, 18/12/09). Obi rode on Ojukwu’s coattails to power.
Ojukwu’s call on the Igbos to vote for Peter Obi as a favour to him, has a number of implications, which goes beyond the question of whether Obi deserves a re-election or not. At issue are the implications, for the Ojukwu myth and legacy, of the Ikemba being drawn into the extremely polarising waters of Anambra state politics, at an age when he should be more of a unifying figure? If the Igbos hearken to his plea, will a victory in only one of the five Igbo states add anything to the persona and myth of the Ikemba Nnewi, who is also known as Eze Ndi Igbo (King of the Igbos)? On the other hand if Peter Obi loses, will that be taken as a referendum on Ojukwu’s claim to Igbo leadership?
There are a number of parallels between Zik’s NPP in 1979 and 1983, and Ikemba’s APGA in 2003 and 2010:
One, in 1979 when Zik agreed to become the Presidential candidate of NPP, it was perhaps reasoned that since the Yorubas were likely to vote en masse for the UPN, and the North for NPN, there was also a necessity for an ‘Igbo party’, that would rally the Igbos together, and use their bloc vote as a bargaining chip. If this was really the idea, it succeeded for the NPP swept the then two Igbo states of Anambra and Imo – and also won in the then Plateau state. Zik declared NPP ‘the beautiful bride’ of Nigerian politics and subsequently went into alliance with the ruling NPN.
It is thought the idea of APGA during the 2003 elections was to mimic what the NPP was for the Igbos in 1979. If this was so, then APGA was unsuccessful as it won only one of the five Igbo states (Anambra state), though many of the party’s supporters believed they were rigged out of some states such as Imo and Enugu states.
Two, while it was perhaps right for Zik to come out in 1979, not many people believe he should have run again in 1983, at the age of 79. There is a feeling that those who rode to power on Zik’s back, especially in Anambra state, failed to appropriately reward Zik by consciously expanding the base of his support in Igboland or reconciling him with some of his disenchanted followers in the First Republic, especially members of the Zikist movement. In Anambra state for instance, NPP’s support base, especially among the notables, shrank considerably.
It is generally thought that Zik’s participation in that election, when the political environment in his home state had become extremely polarised, undermined his perception and aura in Igboland. It is instructive to note that today most of those who rode on Zik’s back to power in 1979 appear to have little interest in projects that will preserve his legacy.
Many people are today drawing parallels between the way Zik was ‘used’ in 1983 and the current efforts by the rump of APGA to get Ojukwu, who is 76 years old, and with a failing health, to get involved in the murky politics of Anambra state. Just like some people accused Jim Nwobodo of failing to use the victory of NPP in Anambra state to build up Zik’s image by expanding his support base, there are people who similarly believe that Peter Obi failed to appropriately reward Ojukwu by expanding the base of Ojukwu’s APGA to be the party to beat in Igboland. Compare the fate APGA in Anambra state with how Bola Tinubu, the former Governor of Lagos state, has successfully repositioned AC to become a reincarnation of the AD, which was itself a reincarnation of Awo’s UPN. There is a legitimate concern that to lure an ageing Ojukwu into the political terrain as Jim Nwobodo did with Zik in 1983, especially when the APGA platform has shrunk considerably, will only lead to a further diminution of the Ikemba.
Three, like Zik, there is something Ojukwu evokes in many Igbos, even among those who have not met him, or agree with his political options, which makes it untenable for one party in Igboland to try to appropriate him. This perhaps explains why many of his Igbo critics will often come to his defence at any hint that he will be publicly ridiculed. I can recount my own minor contributions to the Ojukwu legend, which I feel entitle me to a feeling of rage, at what I consider a selfish attempt to ‘use’ Ikemba, even when it is obvious such that such will end up diminishing him.
I was a freshman at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, when Yakubu Gowon was pardoned in 1981. Most of us, who were aspiring writers, immediately began ‘flooding’ the newspapers with articles calling for Ojukwu to be also pardoned. As a student leader (Director of Transport, UNN, 1982-1983; President Nigerian University Students Association, September 1983 until Buhari’s coup), we passed numerous resolutions, pestered NPN chieftains with proclamations, and even made threats. Like many people, I was rather disappointed when Ojukwu returned in 1983 and immediately entered politics.
Notwithstanding my disappointment, I successfully convinced Chief Jerome Udoji (of the Udoji Award fame) to tone down his criticisms of the Ikemba in his well-received memoirs: Under Three Masters (Spectrum, 1995). I had been involved in the research for the memoirs from about 1987, and also read the drafts before publication. Again knowing how bitter Udoji -a man I deeply respected – was with his perceived mistreatment by Ojukwu before and during the civil war, I used the opportunity of working on his selected speeches, (Which Way Nigeria, Spectrum, 2000), to persuade him on the need for public reconciliation with Ikemba. I believe I was making a strong headway on this when circumstances, including illness, derailed the plans.
My only substantial encounter with Ikemba was in 1988 – a few months before I left Nigeria for further studies. Ojukwu and Chief Arthur Nwankwo had sent me, alongside two others (Comrade Victor Kalu, a lecturer at the then Awka College of Education, Awka, and Dr Vic who was a Director-General in the short-lived administration of the late Christian Onoh in old Anambra state) to ‘represent the Igbos’ at the first anniversary of Awolowo’s death. Babangida had then just announced one of his many political transitions, and we were mandated to make contacts with eminent Yoruba Awoists such as Ebenezer Babatope – to begin the process of the ‘handshake across the Niger.’
Just like I feel that the minor role I played in the preservation of the Ojukwu legend entitles me to a certain rage at what I perceive as an attempt to diminish him for selfish reasons, it is likely the Onitsha trader who regularly picks a fight with anyone he feels has insulted Ojukwu, may feel the same. It is simply not right to give Ikemba the sort of treatment that Zik was given in 1983 by people who pretended to love him but were only interested in riding on his coattails to power.