Remembrance of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu

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Now that the mourning is over, a remembrance. One day in 2004, Mr. Chris Uba, the then number one renegade in Anambra State visited Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi at his home in Enugu. Chris Uba’s minder walked in first, briskly and firmly like a he-goat who knew the way to the barn. Uba followed, two measured steps behind, with hands clasped together behind his back. His ubiquitous sense of importance, common with Ogbete market traders, was missing. He looked subdued and humbled.

“Nna anyi, Ikemba,” his minder greeted.
“Good day, Sir,” Uba followed suit, his lanky body tilting down in a show of respect.

Ikemba, sitting comfortably in his sofa nodded his head. Ikemba’s open door policy meant that unexpected visitors would often wander in. But none like this had ever been imagined. Ikemba’s face did not reveal any surprise, neither was there any aura of excitement.

“Sir,” Uba’s minder commenced, “this is Eselu. He has come to see you.”
Ikemba focused his deep piercing eyes on Chris Uba. It made Uba uncomfortable. To calm Uba down, Ikemba said, “Hope all is well that you decided to visit me today?”

Uba was still fidgeting. In the presence of Ikemba he looked uneasy. Unlike the colossus he had come to believe he was, in Ikemba’s home, he fell short. Determined to deliver his message, Uba wasted no time with pleasantries.

“Sir,” Uba began, “I came to see you because the president is coming to visit me.”

Ikemba raised his hand and Uba paused. He tilted his head as a check on whether what he was hearing was correct.

“Did you say the president is coming to visit you?” Ikemba rephrased.

“Yes, Sir. President Obasanjo is coming to visit me.” Uba replied proudly. For the first time, a line of smile flashed through his run-of-the-mill face.

Ikemba gently swung his hand up and it signaled Uba to continue.
“I want to invite you to come and break kola,” Uba said, unsure if he had used the right words.

“You are inviting me to your house?” asked Ikemba, pokerfaced. It made Uba feel more awkward.

“Yes, Sir,” Uba answered, this time more unsure than before. “I think it would be good if you come and break kola. That way, the president will know that we have people in this town.”

Ikemba swallowed a lump of hot air. He wanted to say something but paused. He seemed to be struggling to constrain himself. As Ikemba battled to find an appropriate response, Uba was visibly worried. Uba glanced at his minder just as his minder was glancing at him. Uncharacteristically, Uba resigned to his faith.

“Have I visited your house before?” Ikemba asked after what seemed like a decade of silence.

“No, Sir,” Uba responded in a shaky voice.

“You just want me to come and break kola nut because the president is visiting you?”

Uba did not answer. For the first time, he was not sure if “yes sir” would suffice this time.

Equally, Ikemba did not wait for an answer. He raised his back off the sofa. His chest puffed out.

“Let’s say you are at home - you are relaxing” Ikemba said after settling comfortably in a new imposing posture. “Let’s say you are having a quiet time with your household, maybe drinking beer or palm wine. Then, a knock is heard on your gate. If your door man runs into the house and tells you that Odumegwu Ojukwu is at your door, what will you do?”

Uba looked confused. The veins on his face all popped out. He did not know where the question was leading to and what answer might be suitable. He had his mouth wide open but no word came out.

“What will you do?” Ikemba questioned again, this time his voice was raised.

Uba was visibly rattled. Hot sweat began to drop down his armpits. His demeanor quickly changed to that of a man poised for flight.
“Won’t you open the nearest window and jump out?” Ikemba yelled. “Won’t you?”

“Yes, I would,” Uba answered, almost jumping off his feet.
With that, Ikemba settled back into his sofa and continued to enjoy his day.

Uba hurriedly walked out with his minder. Outside Ikemba’s compound, he said to his minder, “It seems I messed things up.”

It is a special remembrance for those privileged to have known Ikemba in public and in private, those chanced to have watched him dramatize stories like the one above. Ikemba told this story while answering my question on why people like him were at home and things were going terribly wrong. In his answer, Ikemba said that the problem was that nobody was telling people like Chris Uba “taa, mechie onu,” hey, shut your mouth.

“The history of the world” Carlyle Thomas wrote, “is but the biography of great men.” No doubt, the history of Nigeria from 1967 to 1970 will essentially reflect nothing but the biography of Emeka Ojukwu. No matter how much this generation or upcoming generation despises him, Ojukwu will always be remembered by history because he fulfilled one of the only two conditions necessary for history to remember- “write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” Irrespective of what anyone thinks about the man, Ojukwu did something worth writing about. He led the Igbo in a war of survival. One thousand years from now, historians can write and rewrite history, but history will forever acknowledge that fact.

A cursory look at history will reveal that many historical individuals who are qualified to be tagged rebels came from wealthy families. The Karl Marxs, the Sigmund Freuds, Che Guevaras, the George Washingtons, all sacrificed the life of comfort for greater goals. Rebels of these categories all recognized that all the money in this world will not guarantee them a place in history, not even a footnote.

What is surprising is that in this age, the rich have developed cold feet towards making any change in the society. They live under the illusion that acquiring more and more wealth will secure them a lasting place in this world or in the world to come. Their definition of ‘by any means necessary’ only applies to the pursuit of wealth. If M. K. O. Abiola had not gone into politics to make a change, if he had died a natural death, 100 years from now, the history of Nigeria will have nothing to say about him.

Chief Emeka Ojukwu, by virtue of his role in the Nigeria civil war, has contributed to humanity.  The Igbo should begin to acknowledge and celebrate his achievement and the contribution of his contemporaries. That is the only way to encourage others to pursue noble causes like the one he did.

The Confederates in the US Civil War fought an unjust war. They lost, yet, the South celebrates that part of their history and heritage. There is no reason why the Igbo who fought a just war should not do the same. All government houses in Igbo land should hoist the Biafran flag beside that of the Nigerian flag. School children in Igboland should be taught about the war from the Igbo perspective and not the perspective of the winners. In Virginia, Martin Luther King Jr’s Day is also known as Robert E. Lee Day - Lee being a confederate general who led the South. The Igbo States should find a Nigerian holiday and give people like Emeka Ojukwu a share of the day. Those are necessary ways to ensure that the world does not forget and to warn that it must never happen. Streets, Mountains, Lakes and Rivers should be named after Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Akanu Ibiam, M. I. Okpala and other heroes like them.

The battle to make history is not mere journey into vanity. It is the essence of our being. Those who came to this world and failed to leave a mark - a mark that would make the world a better place than they met it are complete losers. They are the ones who would be asked questions about what they did with the potentials bestowed upon them. Having enjoyed the contribution of others before us, it is pertinent that we make our own contributions.

The history that will matter tomorrow has not yet been written. In fact, historians who will write it are not yet born. So I am not worried about what some of us are saying about Ojukwu today. I am also not worried about whether we are willing to take bold steps to preserve the memories and papers of Ojukwu.

Those who in their quiet moments celebrate the passage of Ojukwu should know that a dead Ojukwu is more dangerous than a living one. What death took away from Ojukwu was his flesh- and its accompanying weakness. What death leaves behind is a pool of concentrated emotions- ideals in their purest forms, gratitude from non-participants, foresight for generations yet unborn. If Nigeria forgets what Ojukwu fought for, Nigeria is finished. If Igbo people forget what Ojukwu fought for, Nigeria is finished.

Had Ojukwu not drawn a line in the sand as demanded by the then Eastern House of Assembly and oha-na-eze ndi-igbo, chances are that the Igbo will today be bowing their heads towards Mecca. If the action of few Igbo military officers on January 16, 1966 was interpreted to be an Igbo action for which the Igbo had to pay with hundreds of thousands of their lives, why has the killing of the Igbo in the North continued virtually every year since the end of the war? How many other so-called Igbo coups have we had? Following the same logic, why shouldn’t the actions of northern killers be interpreted to be the action of the north? Isn’t it ironic that Gowon’s people who led the assault on the Igbo on behalf of Nigeria are now at the receiving end of the fanatical elements in the North?

No hero escapes vilification, not even Mother Theresa. Ojukwu is therefore not an exception. As humans, all heroes have their flaws. But no matter how big their flaws are, they do not remove anything from the hero’s contribution. History does not get fixated on our inadequacies. History is built on the strength of our contributions.

Emeka Ojukwu was a legend. With death he will make that transition from a hero to a mythical figure. That was his destiny. His story has joined other epics of this world. The complexity, the duplications and the paradox will all remain essential parts of his exuberance. It is the fate of all icons and Ojukwu’s own will not be different.

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