A telephone call startled me awake at 3:41 a.m. last Saturday. Still gripped by sleep, I fumbled in the darkness until I palmed my phone. “Hello?” I slurred, my tone testy, ready to chide whoever was on the other end for so thoughtlessly interrupting my sleep.
The caller was a friend of mine. I was still searching for a mild way to protest when he revealed that he’d just heard that Ikemba Nnewi, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, had died in a UK hospital where he’d been receiving treatment for several months. Had I heard the news, he asked?
Stunned, I told the caller that I needed to make a call to London to ascertain the veracity of the report. By this time, the fog of sleep had cleared, leaving my senses alert, my emotions a topsy-turvy. It took me one call to the UK – to one of Dim Ojukwu’s children – to confirm that the man who led Biafra – and, in several ways, epitomized it – had indeed died.
In life, Ojukwu was at once a spellbinding presence and approachable; he was both charismatic and truly larger than life. One measure of Ojukwu’s stature as a historical figure is that, among those who knew him – or merely knew of him – it’s extremely difficult to meet many who can honestly say they were indifferent to him. No, he inspired adoration or invited disdain; he drew fierce adulation and provoked fulsome hate, but none, friends or foes alike, could ignore him.
The death of such a personage often inspires a clatter of emotional responses from people, especially those who had the fortune of knowing him on a personal level. I was one of those fortunate ones.
As a fledging journalist in Lagos in the mid-1980s, I ran into Ojukwu in Enugu and received an open invitation to drop in at his 29 Queens Drive residence in Ikoyi, Lagos. Sometimes alone, sometimes along with a few colleagues – among them, Nnamdi Obasi and C.Don Adinuba – I’d often visit Ojukwu’s residence with that famous sign at the gate, “Beware of snake”.
Alone or accompanied by others, I’d spend several hours listening as Ojukwu discoursed. At these informal sessions, he’d smoke cigarette after cigarette and sip from his glass of cognac as he weighed in on Nigerian politics. His favorite subject, a theme he returned to again and again, was the failure of the Nigerian state to crystallize anything approaching a clear sense of citizenship. He was troubled that the Nigerian was in no position to affirm that there was any verifiable content to being a citizen.
Of course, Ojukwu was not alone in articulating that specific malady, that contradiction that easily betrays the hollowness at the heart of Nigeria’s claim to being a meaningful community and coherent idea. What made his voice urgent and lent poignancy to his stipulations was, apart from his uncommon prowess as a speaker, his stature as the man who led a war to resolve that contradiction. There was something heartrending, then, about the experience of sitting with Ojukwu as he eloquently, piquantly, and ruefully demonstrated that Nigeria had embarked on a ruinous war, but had failed – despite the sacrifice of more than a million lives – to address the central question that had triggered the war.
A few months into these informal exchanges, Ojukwu agreed to grant his first extensive interview since returning from exile to the African Guardian, the now defunct weekly magazine that I worked for at the time. One bitingly sunny afternoon, a team of us from the magazine – Editor Ted Iwere, senior correspondent Kingsley Osadalor, and I – spent several hours asking questions that ran the gamut of his life as a historian, soldier, war leader, exile, and refreshed Nigerian. What emerged from that encounter were two paradoxical, but far from inconsistent, considerations. One was Ojukwu’s declaration of his readiness to go to war in order to preserve the unity of Nigeria. The other was his insistence that Nigeria as a nation had not come to terms with its meaning, that its constituent elements had not hashed out the terms of their engagement, and that the country had yet to take seriously the redemption of its implicit pledge to all citizens, especially erstwhile Biafrans.
In the heady flush of emotions after his death, there are those who would leave the impression that Ojukwu was beloved by all Igbo. That impression fudges the evidence. No, he was no object of universal acclaim. Like all great men – and he was a great man in all the ways that count – he was too complex to command everybody’s affection. Many despised the haste with which, once home from exile, he entered the partisan political fray on the side of the widely unpopular National Party of Nigeria, thus seeming to spurn the going political sentiment of most Igbos at the time. He paid a stiff price for that precipitate decision, and seemed to reel from its effect till the very end. I regret that he never took time to offer the world his own written insider’s account of the darkest moments in Nigeria’s history.
Still, nobody would seriously deny that, when his people were tested by fire, he stood up to be counted. Born into privilege on a legendary scale, Ojukwu sacrificed his worldly possessions in the fight to secure a safe space for his beleaguered people. In a Nigeria where relative paupers shoot or rig their ways into office and loot their way out to obscene wealth, here was a man who went in as a leader wealthy and left (relatively) materially wretched.
That, and his other gifts, among them an inimitable way with language, an uncommon insight into the plight of dispossessed Nigerians, an ability to speak a language that resonated with the downtrodden, a deep historical acumen, and that incomparable sense of drama – these endowments defined his titanic personality. Since the death of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and Alhaji Aminu Kano, the Ikemba has given us our closest glimpse of a true leader’s mettle. I’m willing to predict that, with time, his leadership credentials are likely to receive wider appreciation and magnification whilst his flaws slip into insignificance. He’s physically dead, but his spirit will loom, will infuse the hearts of those he touched and whom he allowed to touch him in return. May his soul rest in peace.
Lotachukwu Ezeudu: A Memo to the Police and Prisons
Both the Inspector-General of Police and the Director-General of Nigerian Prisons ought to take an urgent interest in the sad saga of Lotachukwu Ezeudu, a 19-year-old accountancy student at the University of Nigeria (Enugu campus) who was kidnapped in September, 2009 and has not been seen since. Thanks to the unyielding devotion of young Lota’s parents, the tenacity of police investigators, and the diligence of prosecutors at the Enugu State Ministry of Justice, most of the suspects in Lota’s kidnap have been identified – and arrested.
Even so, certain developments in the case threaten to cause further serious dents to the already terribly tarnished image of the police and prisons.
One of the suspects in Lota’s kidnap is a young man named Uche Moses Amajor. Declared wanted in connection with the case, Moses, whose father is a businessman and the owner of Prosper Hotel in Trans-Ekulu, Enugu, went underground for a year and a half, eluding police investigators. It was only in April this year that his parents finally surrendered him to the police.
And then the story became trickier – in a really sordid, disturbing way. First, one Mahmud Isah, the area commander of the Funtua police in Katsina State, reportedly signed a letter stating that the suspect, Moses Uche Amajor, had come to the station on September 25, 2009 to file a report that armed robbers had stolen various documents from him. If that report were true, then Amajor would have pro
duced proof that he wasn’t in Enugu on September 26, the day Lota was kidnapped. That would have amounted to a perfect alibi.
Except that the investigators in Enugu insist that Moses Amajor was indeed in Enugu and participated in a heinous crime. If their account is true, it follows that, a, perhaps the “alibi” letter from Funtua police was forged (in which event the person who produced the letter ought to be arrested and prosecuted) or, b, that a senior police officer in Funtua consented to give a false statement with the aim of misleading the law and miscarrying justice. That calls for a serious investigation by the IG of Police. If he finds the officer guilty, he must order his immediate firing, arrest and prosecution. Police officers who give cover or comfort to criminals worsen the already bad image of the police and are a menace to society.
Meanwhile, the Inspector-General should also order an investigation into the whereabouts of Sam Chukwu, a Divisional Police Officer (DPO) who has been named as a suspect in the kidnap. On several occasions, Mr. Chukwu has failed to show up in court to face charges. Is it not time the IG ordered a wide search to nab him, wherever he’s hiding?
More recently, a doctor at the Nigeria Prison Service reportedly wrote a statement to the effect that the same Moses Amajor was suffering from hepatitis. The prison doctor then recommended that the suspect be released to seek treatment on his own.
The report is troubling, and not only because prosecutors question its veracity. A man accused of a crime as grave as kidnapping should never be released to fend for himself. Even if Moses Amajor is infected with hepatitis, he is not a threat to other prisoners or prison staff unless there’s somehow exchange of blood with them. Surely, the prison authorities can ensure that he does not jeopardize others through blood contact. If necessary, he should be held in a secluded space. At any rate, the director general of prisons should order a second set of tests to ensure that the diagnosis of hepatitis is sound – not another attempt by Amajor to dribble his way to freedom.