Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was born on November 4, 1933, at Zungeru in northern Nigeria to Sir Louis Phillippe Odumegwu Ojukwu, a businessman from Nnewi in southeastern Nigeria. Sir Louis was into transport business; he made wise use of the business boom during the Second World War to become one of the richest men in Nigeria when he passed in 1966. So it could be rightly said that Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was born into wealth. >> Read more stories here
Emeka, as he was fondly called, began his educational career in Lagos, southwestern Nigeria. At 13, his father sent him overseas to Great Britain to study at Epsom College, England. He left Epsom at 18 for Lincoln College, Oxford. At Oxford University, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in modern history. Thereafter, he returned to colonial Nigeria. This was in 1956.
He joined the civil service in Eastern Nigeria as an Administrative Officer at Udi, in present-day Enugu State. In 1957, within months of working with the colonial civil service, he left and joined the military as one of the first and few university graduates to join the army: O. Olutoye (1956); C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1957), E. A. Ifeajuna and C. O. Rotimi (1960), and A. Ademoyega (1962).
Officer Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s popular background and sound education guaranteed his promotion to higher ranks. Besides, as of 1956, the Nigerian Military Forces had 250 officers and only 15 were Nigerians. There were 6,400 other ranks, of which 336 were British. It is not surprising that he is N/29 and that the army found invaluable training resources in the young man. [W.U. Bassey was N/1, while JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was N/2; the first Nigerian to be commissioned as an officer, Lieutenant L. V. Ugboma, left in 1948] Odumegwu-Ojukwu has an understandably fast rise in the military, eventually becoming the Quartermaster General.
After serving in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the Congo, under the legendary Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, Odumegwu-Ojuwkw was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1964 and posted to Kano, where he was in charge of the 5th Battalion of the Nigerian Army. He was in Kano, northern Nigeria, when Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu on January 15, 1966, executed and announced the first military coup in Kaduna, also in northern Nigeria. It is to his credit that the coup lost much steam in the north, where it had succeeded. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu supported the forces loyal to the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironisi. Major Nzeogwu was in control of Kaduna, but the coup had flopped in other parts of the country. He surrendered.
General Aguiyi-Ironsi took over the leadership of the country and thus became the first military head of state. On Monday, January 17, 1966, he appointed military governours for the four regions. Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu was appointed Military Governor of Eastern Region. Others were: Lt.-Cols Hassan Usman Katsina (North), Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (West), and David Akpode Ejoor (Mid West). These men formed the Supreme Military Council with Brigadier B.A.O Ogundipe, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Chief of Staff Army HQ, Commodore J. E. A. Wey, Head of Nigerian Navy, Lt. Col. George T. Kurubo, Head of Air Force.
By May 29, 1966, things quickly fell apart: There was a planned Pogrom in northern Nigerian Nigeria during which Nigerians of Eastern Nigeria origin were targeted and killed. This presented problems for the young military governor, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu. He did everything in his power to prevent reprisals and even encouraged people to return, as assurances for their safety had been given by his supposed colleagues up north and out west.
On July 29, 1966, a group of officers of Northern origin, notably Majors Murtala Ramat Rufai Muhammed, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, and Martin Adamu, led the majority Northern soldiers in a bloody mutiny that was later tagged “countercoup.” The Supreme Commander General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host Colonel Fajuyi were abducted and killed in Ibadan; officer of Eastern and Midwestern origin was targeted and systematically eliminated across the country. And the Pogrom intensified. All hope for a united Nigeria was lost. In fact, Colonel Gowon, who emerged as the leader of the pack, admitted in a broadcast that there was no longer any basis for unity.
Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu never lost faith in a peaceful solution of the crises, even though citizens of Eastern Nigeria were so traumatized they generally wanted nothing more to do with their fellow citizens turned killers. Yet he persisted on the path of peace. First, he insisted that the military hierarchy must be preserved; in which case, Brigadier Ogundipe should take over leadership, not Colonel Gowon. But Ogundipe no longer had the stomach to deal with a riotous army; he was easily convinced to step out and into the Nigerian High Commission in London. On September 29, the final phase of the planned Pogrom was executed, marked by its brutal bestiality. Still, while coping with the mass return of maimed and bruised brethren from the North and West, Odumegwu-Ojukwu persevered; even when it had become obvious to his people that the basis for unity had been irreparably eroded, he still talked with whoever would listen. He never lost faith in seizing the moment to fashion out a lasting legacy for generations yet unborn.
And so they ended up in Aburi, Ghana in January 1967 for a peace conference hosted by General Joseph Ankrah. The brilliance of Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu was apparent throughout the talk. He succeeded in convincing his colleagues to sign off on what became known as “Aburi Accord.” Just when everyone thought that Nigeria was back on the path of peace, Colonel Gowon reneged and proceeded to split the Eastern Region unilaterally into three states on May 27, 1967! Three days later on May 30, 1967, and based on the mandate of the Eastern Nigerian Constituent Assembly, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state to be known as BIAFRA:
“Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria is a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”
On July 6, 1967, Gowon declared war and attacked Biafra. For 30 bloody months, the war raged on. Now General Odumegwu-Ojukwu knew that the odds against the new republic was overwhelming, but he preferred to fight for what is right and defend the sovereignty of Biafra against what was obviously an illegitimate regime of General Yakubu Gowon. The unholy Anglo-Soviet alliance, using rogue Egyptian mercenaries fresh from the war with Israel, pounded Biafra and Biafrans with armaments big and small, including the use of hunger as a weapon of war – which resulted in the ravaging kwashiorkor.
Biafra lasted for 30 eventful months during which a potential, indigenous African superpower almost emerged. But the forces against Biafra were enormous. On January 9, 1070, General Odumegwu-Ojukwu handed over power to his second in command, Chief of General Staff Major-General Philip Effiong, and left for Côte d’Ivoire, where President Felix Houphöet-Biogny — who had recognized Biafra on May 14, 1968 — granted him political asylum.
After 13 years in exile, the Federal Government of Nigeria under President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari granted an official pardon and opened the road for a triumphant return in 1982. His people of Nnewi gave him the now very famous title of “Ikemba,” while the entire Igbo nation called him “Dikedioramma” (Beloved hero). He was indeed a beloved hero. His foray into politics was disappointing to many, who wanted him to stay above the fray. Afraid of his supposedly overbearing and enigmatic influence, the ruling party, NPN, rigged him out of the senate seat, which was purportedly lost to a little known state commissioner in then-Governor Jim Nwobodo’s cabinet called Dr Edwin Onwudiwe.
The Third Republic was truncated on December 30, 1983, by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, supported by Generals Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida and Sani Abacha. The junta proceeded to arrest and keep him in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos. He wrote in “Because I am involved”:
In Kirikiri, there is no privacy. Leaders belch and fart sometimes louder than armed robbers. We scratch and pick our noses. In Kirikiri, we are constantly in battle with the animal in us. In this place, there is no justice, there is no beauty, there is no pleasure and there is no satisfaction.
Babangida took Buhari out and sent him to the cooler. His high-handed prison terms were reviewed and many were dismissed or drastically revised. After the ordeal in Buhari’s boondocks, Dim Odumegwu-Ojukwu continued to play major roles in the advancement of the Igbo nation in a democracy because “As a committed democrat, every single day under an elected government hurts me. The citizens of this country are mature enough to make their own choices, just as they have the right to make their own mistakes.” He played a major role in the 1995 Constitutional Conference, which gave birth to the present geopolitical structure.
General Chukwemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is a quintessential Igbo man: proud, ambitious, and intelligent. Here is a young man who at 33 had the fate of a nation thrust onto him, and he did not disappoint. He is a rare gem, the unconquered spirit of the Igbo personified.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu is married to Bianca, nee Onoh, the 1989 Miss Inter-Continental Pageant.
Dim of Umudim
Eze Igbo Gburu Gburu