Ojukwu: The Megalomaniac And Demagogue: Really?

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

The second part of Damola Awoyokun’s ‘The News’ trilogy (‘The News’, 4 March 2013) paints a very ugly portrait of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Page Two of the magazine goes thus: ‘Confidential US dispatches on the Nigerian Civil War yield a wounding portrait of Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who was painted by those who knew him as a man that experienced rejection as a child, a megalomaniac, demagogue and one who once threatened to shoot his own father.’

A very interesting psycho-portrait of the Biafran leader, I must say. At the beginning of this work, in the introduction, I requested my readers to be cautious in absorbing information from these American dispatches that form the bases of Awoyokun’s analyses. They are far from altruistic. Why should Ojukwu be realistically portrayed? Demonizing him will serve the goal of portraying Biafra as one man’s unchecked bid for an empire of his own, even if carved out from his people’s skulls. What then is the truth?

Before I go on I have to state some basic positions. I never met Ojukwu when he was alive. But every historian and other researchers worth their brief know that you need not know your subject personally to write about him or her. If that were the case then we should toss historical accounts about Jesus Christ (Gospel of Luke), Nero, Hitler, and so on into the trash can. Evidence is sifted by serious scholars to draw their conclusions. I have always felt, based on what I learnt about the war, that the concept and state of Biafra is far bigger than Ojukwu, though he, even in death, remains its public face. Finally, no matter what he did or did not do, Ojukwu was mortal.

Let us begin with Awoyokun’s account in the second part of ‘The News’ trilogy:

On 11 September 1967, Klaus W. Stephan, the West African correspondent of Bavarian Broadcasting, broadcast to the Germans that Ojukwu had harboured an ambition to ‘alter the political constellation of power in Nigeria by means of the army one day.’(p.16 of ‘The News’).

According to this journalist Ojukwu sympathized with the January 15 plotters but carefully avoided being attached to them. He reportedly told Ironsi to crush the coup and stopped Ironsi’s arrest by the plotters.

Suzanne Cronje, the British/South African author of ‘The World and Nigeria: The Diplomatic History of the Biafran War 1967-1970,’ met Ojukwu in Enugu on 8 April the same year. He reportedly told her that ‘on January 15 I was the one who advised Ironsi to stand as the head of the army, call for support and then organize the various units that would immediately support so that the rebels, who were bound to be few and already committed, would suddenly find that the whole thing was phasing away.’

Stephan claims that Ironsi made Ojukwu governor of the Eastern Region out of ‘thankful feelings.’ While he praises Ojukwu as intelligent, versatile, eloquent and charming, the journalist points out that ‘there are two characteristics in that man that are not realized by many people for a long time: his greed for power and his ability to charm and enchant the masses: a demagogue.’

The fact is that as the son of Nigeria’s foremost millionaire between the 1940s and 1960s, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s decision to join the army was earth-shaking. Why did he sign up? Because he was smart enough to see that the road to power lay in the army and that with all his talents and education, he could rise to the pinnacle of power? Trevor Clark, the biographer of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, reports that when the young Ojukwu quit the civil service for the army, in his father’s presence, John Macpherson, the then British Governor of Nigeria said ‘‘If you think you are going to be a Colonel Nasser someday, put it out of your mind because Nigeria would never accept it.’’ (‘The Source’ magazine, 5 March 2012, p.12).

So did the British authorities, with who Ojukwu were never the best of friends, sense a vaulting ambition in the young man? Till his death this so-called desire to alter Nigeria’s political dynamic through the gun remained an allegation hung around Ojukwu’s neck by many. In an interview published in ‘The Punch’ newspaper, 3 December 2011, retired General Domkat Bali, former Defence Minister under military President Ibrahim Babangida, expressed his suspicions and misgivings that Ojukwu, an Oxford M.A., would opt for a military career. In his words ‘Why did he join the army at the time he did, was it out of pure interest to be a soldier or was it because he thought the army would play a vital role in the ranking of the Nigerian state? That was my suspicion. I was suspicious of him from the beginning.’ In Kole Omotoso’s book ‘Just Before Dawn’ there is a tale, probably apocryphal, that as a fresh university graduate, Ojukwu told his mates when they were discussing their future ambitions that he would one day be the ‘King of Nigeria.’ If this account is accurate does it mean that Ojukwu, even as a youth, had grandiose ambitions to power? But if so why end up as the leader of the most unfortunate entity in modern Africa’s history?

In an interview with ‘Newswatch’ magazine Ojukwu stated his reasons for joining the army. In his words: ‘I had all these notions about the new Nigeria and we were told and we learnt that Nigeria certainly was going to be a big entity. Regionalization was actually a temporary mistake that will later be rectified. So the forum we will serve was limited because I wanted to work for the whole country, for Nigeria; to go to various places. It was also glamorous to work in the North in those days; that was the place to go that you were needed and will be able to give more. And so finding the administrative service so restrictive, I then looked forward to a pan-Nigerian department within which to give my service. It is the search for the pan-Nigerian concept that actually drove me to the choice, as it were, a Nigerian choice. Where I can serve best the totality of Nigeria. And the only departments at that time that were pan-Nigerian were the army, the police, the prisons; there was nothing else.’ (‘Newswatch’ 28 September 1992, p.10).

From ‘Emeka,’ the biography of Ojukwu by Forsyth, we learn that Ojukwu’s father, Sir Louis, pulled the strings to have his maverick son sent to Eastern Nigeria instead of the North to commence a much-contested civil service career as an Assistant District Officer. The irony is that this pan-Nigeria minded man would end up the supposed architect of the destruction of a pan-Nigerian dream with the declaration of Biafra. But then things are not always what they seem.

According to the biography, Ojukwu joined the army to break out of his father’s overwhelming orbit. Sir Louis loathed the civil service posting of his son and had it cancelled with a phone call to Governor John Macpherson. Furious, Ojukwu quit and joined the army.

But those who have tried to explain Ojukwu’s role in Biafra see his choice differently. Undoubtedly, as an intellectual, especially one with degrees in History, Ojukwu read the times and saw the significant role of the military in the emerging states of Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. As a source put it: ‘Ojukwu also shared with various Nigerian friends in London, his strong views about the inevitability of military intervention in the politics of many African nations. The politicians who would fill the shoes of the departing colonists were largely inexperienced and impractical theorists, he maintained. Various other sources indicate that he did not make a secret of his redemptive role of the military in national affairs. Did he carry this condescending view of the political class into the office of the military governor?’ (‘Th

e Source,’ 5 March 2012, p.12).

Ojukwu did not hide his views about how Nigeria was being run. He was politically conscious and active, but that does not necessarily translate into a grab for power. In the same ‘Newswatch’ interview, where the issue of his supposed ambition to ‘alter the political constellation of power in Nigeria by means of the army one day’ was thoroughly discussed, Ojukwu had this to say: ‘When we are talking about truth, the fact is that I have never been part of any planned coup. Even if somebody said Ojukwu said this, Ojukwu said that, make no mistake about it, I was very politically aware; I discussed a number of things intellectually and so on. What I am saying to you is that I knew the country was in a pretty bad shape but from the knowledge to planning action militarily, that’s a big gulf. And I know I don’t do such a thing. (p.14).

At this point let us examine Ojukwu’s link to the January coup.


By January 1966 Ojukwu had completed his term as the first indigenous Quartermaster-general of the Nigerian Army and was posted to Kano as the commander of the Fifth Battalion. He was a Lieutenant-Colonel.

From Ademoyega’s book we know he was not part of the plot. The only lieutenant-colonels, who were involved, though at the conception stage, were Adekunle Fajuyi and Victor Banjo. For different reasons they did not participate. (Ademoyega pp.51, 59, 61 and 66).

Forsyth informs us in ‘Emeka’ that Nzeogwu sent his man, Lieutenant Ude, to dispatch Ojukwu for non-cooperation. (pp.44-47). But Ude was arrested. This account is also reported by Obasanjo and Madiebo:

Obasanjo: ‘I (Obasanjo) understood much later that one Lieutenant Ude, a participant with Chukwuma in Kaduna, had come to Kano earlier, allegedly to ‘bump off’ the commanding officer for his fence-sitting.’ (p.94).

Madiebo: ‘…on the evening of the 16th of January, news came from Kano that Captain Ude, who had gone there with a message from Nzeogwu to Ojukwu was under arrest and was being held in the Fifth Battalion Guardroom. The following day, when I (Madiebo) got to the Brigade Headquarters in the morning, there was tension and feverish activity. Outside the Headquarters, a strong Company group, supported by two ferrets and a Saladin armoured car formed up under Captain Onwuatuegwu, an instructor under Nzeogwu at the Military College. This force, as I soon found out, was about to leave for Kano to ensure that the Fifth Battalion joined the Revolution. Their instruction was to avoid the use of force and the consequent loss of lives, unless it became necessary. Realising that the special task force was formed to do battle in Kano, I convinced Nzeogwu to cancel the operation, and he did so. He then asked me to devise a more peaceful means of ensuring the full cooperation of the Fifth Battalion in Kano and the release of Captain Ude from arrest.’ (pp.25-26).

An unbiased study of accounts of the first coup and the ‘Newswatch’ magazine interview with Ojukwu will probably reveal the truth about his role on January 15. We should be grateful to God that a principal witness of Ojukwu’s role that day, the revered Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, is still alive. A précis is provided below:

Ojukwu got an order from Major Nzeogwu who was using the slain Brigadier Ademulegun’s code ‘Sunray’ on the morning of the coup: arrest all members of the government in his jurisdiction. A second one came commanding Ojukwu to have them shot.

The battalion commander took preemptive measures by taking charge of Kano airport and disarming his men. He got in touch with the Emir and asked his help in maintaining law and order.

Ojukwu disobeyed Nzeogwu’s orders and gave safe custody to the politicians who came in from Lagos from the banquet that rounded off the Commonwealth summit.

Given the charged and confused situation, there was clear mistrust within the country’s military cadre. Ojukwu got in touch with Majors Hassan Katsina and Alexander Madiebo. When he finally got across to Ironsi the beleaguered GOC was blunt. In Ojukwu’s words: ‘The first question Aguiyi-Ironsi asked me was ‘‘Emeka, what side are you on?’’ He was used to the brash way. I said I’m on your side, which side are you on? Tell me. And then he narrated what had happened and so on. In fact, it was he who told me that Victor Banjo had been arrested (for allegedly entering Ironsi’s office with a pistol during this tense period). And that was how we finally got a number of things in order. And I suppose that was one of the reasons he appointed me governor of the East.’ (‘Newswatch’ p.14).

Nzeogwu’s fury at Ojukwu’s uncooperative attitude and his subsequent bid to send a fighting force to Kano has been noted. With its airport, battalion and Central Bank branch, Kano was a key objective of the plotters but Ojukwu determined to deny them access.

Why did Ironsi appoint Ojukwu governor of the East? Gratitude for loyalty? Probably. Because Ojukwu was an Igbo? There were other Igbo military officers who assisted Ironsi in crushing the coup. Administrative competence? Given the very short time between the coup and Ironsi’s ascension, it is highly unlikely but not totally improbable that Ojukwu lobbied for the post. But this was a military setting, Nigeria’s very first for which there was no precedent, and as Ojukwu said: ‘As a military officer, if my commander says you are assigned to Enugu as a military governor, who am I to say no?’ (‘Newswatch’ 28 September 1992, p.13).

This statement by Ojukwu aptly concludes this section:

‘In the history of the Nigerian Army, whenever it is fully written and truth told, you will find that, in fact, I’m one of the few officers that the Nigerian Army produced that has never served under an officer junior to him. I have always maintained the military hierarchy; I have never revolted against constituted authority. I was appointed into the post legitimately by a head of state who was formally vested with authority in and over Nigeria. He appointed me. I was not appointed because of a coup. I was appointed because of a national need to halt a coup. Because the leaders at that time thought the situation had gotten out of hand and they called on Aguiyi-Ironsi who had escaped death and gave him specific things to do. And I was appointed in the course of doing those things. I have never, never in my life led a coup.’ (‘Newswatch’ p.13).

Does the record disprove this assertion?

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