As a primary school kid, the only history of Nigeria I was taught officially was the amalgamation of the Southern Protectorate with the Northern Protectorate to form a variegated entity called Nigeria. So the national heroes we knew included Zik of Africa, Herbert Macaulay, Abubakar Tafawa Belewa, Obafemi Awolowo, Akanu Ibiam, Michael Okpara, Ahmadu Bello and so many others. On the side of Nigeria, ‘they’ more or less canonized the likes of Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, Hassan Katsina, Olusegun Obasanjo, and many others who fought on the side of Nigeria to end the civil war.
But I and many other kids in my stead who were born after the Biafran war had a different hero we so revered. We heard legendary tales of the bravery of the “Uguta Boys” and how they stood against the marauding Nigerian army supported by the enemies of Biafra. We were regaled with tales of how men of my Igbo stock fought the war with little or nothing, and how their scientific ingenuity led to the manufacture of the legendary ‘Ogbunigwe”, that crude weapon of mass destruction that Igbo Scientists at the University of Nigeria Nsukka developed out of the exigencies of the time. How about the ‘Ojukwu Bucket’ and other contraptions that made the Nigerian army fight a war from 1966-70!
I was angry as a child because my uncles and big brothers shared with nostalgia the dream of what Biafra could have been, had Gowon not marshaled all the forces in the universe to quench the aspirations of a group of people in the hinterland of the Bight of Biafra- the “Land of the Rising Sun” as it was fondly branded in those days. The same scientists who made ‘Ogbunigwe’ they believed were sure to have copied and domesticated the technology from Europe and Japan to a point of perfection, and we could have been technologically self-reliant decades after. The blacksmiths in Igboland had crafted guns that were used to prosecute the war with little or nothing, and as a kid, I sat around blacksmiths, and watched as they beat red-hot iron bars into knives, and hoes, and den guns. And Onitsha was to be not only the commercial hub of Biafra, but also was a thriving centre of literature that fed the creative hunger of many.
As we rolled and played about on the sandy playgrounds in my kindred as kids, there were times we strolled into the nearby bush to answer the call of nature, and often we found used cartridges and stubs of used bullets. And when we tilled the ground to make ridges and mounds at our farmlands, we often dug up rusted and disused automatic guns that once were used to maim and kill my people. But as kids, we used these relics of war as toys and little did we know that the triggers once fired rounds of bullets to fell young men with dreams and visions for a land they truly loved, and fought for till they took their last breath and dropped to the ground.
My mama regaled me with stories of how they lined up to receive ‘Corn Meal’ from aid agencies to fight hunger and deprivation, but not a few Biafran children were eaten up by the monster called kwashiorkor. During the day, my folks would run into the forest to hide and take cover from the Nigerian Airforce bombers who air-raided my enclave and left craters on the ground. My people camouflaged their rooftops with fresh green leaves to deceive the pilots who dropped balls of death from the sky, which caused havoc when they detonated on impact. No one cooked during the day; else the rising smoke will end up as emissaries for the bloody bombers who watched from the sky for lives to lynch and buildings to wreck. People groped about in hushed tones, for they knew the enemy was prowling about looking for whom to devour.
As the war raged on, someone’s voice echoed over and again, “On Aburi Accord We Stand” but the world feigned ignorance. The world watched as millions of Biafran children were annihilated by the ravaging hunger that was unleashed by the inhumane war strategy of imposed food blockage espoused by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. So while Nigerian children had daily breakfast and recited rhymes and poems in their classrooms, Biafran children died of hunger and deprivation imposed on them by ‘Fathers” of the Nigerian nation. And the world caressed and watched on, while the first large-scale pogrom on African soil lingered, and no one on the Nigerian side was ever judged for “Crimes against Humanity”.
They ended the war, but not before the deed had been done and sealed. They shouted “No Victor No Vanquished” but deep in the hearts of the Generals and heads of the battalions that maimed and raped in the Biafran territory, the only reality they believed was that those ‘crazy rascals’ from Biafra had been summarily defeated and vanquished and will remain so for decades; and should be made to know this through the expressed and unwritten policies from the generals who ruled from Dodan Barracks in Lagos and later Aso Rock in Abuja.
And my father, an enterprising merchant who travelled to Onitsha to buy goods for sale at his shop inside Isinweke Market in my village lost all his investment due to the war, and had to start life once again from the scratch like every other Igboman. The crisp rolls of Biafran Pounds that I unpacked from my father’s boxes were useless to pay my school fees as a kid, when he was no longer around to do so. For the Nigerian Pound had vanquished and rubbished whatever value the Biafran currency had during the war.
So the war ended, and the refugees who found shelter in my family house went back to their villages I was told by my mom. Some came back with bullet wounds, maimed limbs and missing limbs. But not all the men who went to the war front came back home alive. Many were buried in unmarked graves at the battlefront and never enjoyed the honor of an epitaph etched on their tombstones. Many recounted the horrors of war: the death of close friends whose bodies grew limp and cold as the life in them was snuffed out. Not a few of the soldiers refused to surrender even after the war officially ended because they couldn’t bear to watch the dream of the Nation of Biafra die before them. They had to die anyway!
So Ojukwu had to swallow his pride and wipe his tears as he was forced by the prevailing circumstances at the time to accept to go on self-imposed exile to Ivory Coast but ended up as a princely guest of President Felix Houphouet Boigny who had sympathies towards Biafra like the Gabonese who sheltered many Biafran children then. It was not until 1982 when President Shehu Shagari cleared the huddle for him to return back home that I had the privilege of seeing my revered childhood hero in person.
Like other kids, we lined up the major road that linked up my village with Mbano and Umuahia as men and women sang and danced to welcome the Biafran hero into our homestead. I saw him; a balding head atop a long face with rounded nose and thick lips that sat over muscular cheeks and chin covered by long beards. He was standing in open-roofed car, clad in a short-sleeved “Biafran suit” and was full of smiles as he waved back at the mammoth crowd they pressed to see him at Isinweke; currently the headquarters of Ihitte Uboma LGA of Imo State.
His convoy visited two iconic spots in my village; the two famous “Ojukwu Bunkers” at Madonna High School Ihitte (then Etiti) and St Peter’s Seminary Ihitte from where he operated in the last months of the civil war. The famed bunkers we were told were linked up through a long tunnel such that he remained invincible to the bombers that longed to annihilate him and everything he represented.
And Ojukwu died at 78 as a wise and accomplished old man. We revered him as our childhood hero for we dreamt of taking up arms and continuing the battle for justice which he couldn’t finish. But as me and my childhood friend who adored him became men, we didn’t have the courage to dig the trenches to engage the leadership of Nigeria over the same injustices that led to the war in the first place. Maybe we lack the steely courage that made an aristocratic
ally-trained young historian join the Nigerian Army. Maybe we are too afraid to confront the same evils that bewitched the nation pre- and post-independence. For when religious and political riots break out in Northern Nigeria, the shops of innocent Igbo men and women looted and torched and their corpses made to line up the streets until fellow kinsmen evacuate them for burial rites in the land of their forefathers.
Had Ojukwu not fought the Nigerian State, he possibly would have been the richest Black African before his death, for Aliko Dangote hailed from a family of merchants. And Ojukwu’s dad stood heads and shoulders above all his peers in terms of net worth from his legitimate transport business. And as a true son of his father, he inherited such wealth and could have more than doubled it had he not chosen to fight for his fellow Igbo men and women. So the Nigerian government auctioned his father’s wealth but he never died a pauper.
As Ikemba of Nnewi’s lifeless body stares at us, the relics of the war would always remind us of the issues he confronted courageously. And as I walk through the streets of Port Harcourt, I have had to ask questions that had obvious answers which history cannot deny. Why were the houses that Igbo men built in Port Harcourt shared as war booties when their owners or their relatives were still alive? Why did the name of the once quiet and agrarian suburb of Port Harcourt change from its name from Obigbo to another? Why did Umuokoro and Umokwuta road change its name to Rumokoro and Rumokwuta respectively?
We may live in denial for sure, but the injustice that Ojukwu confronted in his own way still live within our nation, and have become hydra-headed than it was in the 1960s. He didn’t succeed in creating the Land of the Rising Sun (Biafra) but he made a loud statement that still reverberates in our hearts today. He sure was not a perfect man, and like most politicians he miscalculated in some alliances he formed. He made mistakes in life and many judge him for letting a young paragon of beauty succumb to his romantic overtures even when he saw he christened as a baby. He may have been proud and arrogant and not a few could stand his guts. Nevertheless, to many of us, he was a hero and a true son of Igboland.
Adieu! Odumegwu nwa-Ojukwu. Farewell!! Dikediromma. Laa n’udo Odum n’egbu Agu!!! May the dream of justice and fairness be realized in this nation! Peace! Udo Dirigi Opara Ojukwu!