Saturday, February 24, 2018 4:41 pm
Excerpts of the special birthday interview with Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu when he turned 70
If we categorize your life into the pre exile-exile and post-exile years, what were the highpoints?
I came into consciousness knowing who I was, the son of my father. In the days I was growing up my father was the success story of Nigerian business. So I live that period very much under the shadow of my father’s image. I started life very much a Nigerian. My consciousness began in Lagos, Isale Eko. So everything you do as a young omo eko I did too. I was in the karate group. I did my wolves’ cub inside Oluwole. I went to St Patrick’s Idumagbo because we lived in Okoya street those days. At school I must say, I was noted for a certain lucky ability to speak English. So when the bishop came to visit, I was the pupil called to give the thanks. From here I went to CMS Grammar School beside the CMS bookshop. From there I took my entrance and went to Kings College. So you can see it was a classic Nigerian elite education.
At class three I moved over to England, I was at Epsom College. I was noted by one accident of fate. When the famous Kings College strike took place, I was in boarding school. It just happened that I was the person carrying the water to the guards at the front of the boarding house. The man who was guarding the gate at the time everything took a different shape was the great Ovie Whiskey. There he was formidably attired in his shorts and wrapper around his waist. His job was to frighten anybody that was coming. We the small ones had the job of carrying water to them whenever it was needed. It was then I noticed our Nature Study master Mr Sleigh, striding down towards Bonanza Gate from the police station. What do we do? Clearly he was coming to disperse the whole notion of strike. I don’t know what got into my head, I dropped the bucket of water and ran as fast as I could towards Mr Sleigh, got to him, leapt up in the air and gave him the biggest slap I could muster. I don’t know who was more surprised, myself or Mr Sleigh. And that sealed my fate. When the police came, we were all arrested and he insisted I be put in detention. Then I got myself an image, which in those days was the big way to enter politics – slap a white man! So I already had my certificate at the age of ten.
Then, they put me in court, it was JIC Taylor’s father that was the talk of the bar at that time, so they decided to defend us. He took one look at us, decided I was the appropriate dramatic point of his defence. I was put in the witness box. I was overawed by the box. A friend of mine Bisi Cole, who was a little bit older was put in the box with me. At the dramatic point of the defence, he threw out his hand and shouted “look at” and I was supposed to get up and in getting up, only the top of my head should appear from the witness box and that would have ridiculed the whole case. So he threw out his hand and called three times, but I didn’t respond. So he walked towards the witness box and there were both of us, we’ve been playing Okoto (Dancing cone) and we’d fallen asleep. So with the Okoto in my hand he lifted me and said “these are the dangerous criminals”. Everybody laughed. He made nonsense of the whole case. But the important thing I remember was that we became celebrities overnight.
So I went to England. The thing to mention here is that I didn’t realize how quickly people forgot. At England I saw my friends’ parents and relatives visit them. Then one day I was told my uncle C C Mojekwu who was then a law student was coming to visit me. It was wonderful. Prior to his coming, I had been dressed up waiting. Then I had to meet him, I started running down the corridor and somehow I saw the man coming towards me, my uncle but the shock was that he was black. I looked at him almost questioningly, then I looked at myself and realized I was black went forward and embraced him. I said this because you see you could be in English atmosphere and forget. You don’t quite realize how different you are. I was so embarrassed by my own reaction that I determined then that I would never forget who I am and where I came from. My life has been a testimony of consistency to this. At Epsom I enjoyed myself in rugby. I was in the school’s best eleven in athletics. I had the England record for some time.
Then I moved to Oxford. Here I did all the things young men do and quite a lot of what they were not supposed to do. I was well looked after and was able to move around. Britain is a very interesting country. There was subtle discrimination but it was well handled. If you go looking for it, you get it but if you are not looking for it, they hide it from you. But it was then, I give an example, I went to Croydon to look for my uncle, at the tube station I said to one white chap I was going to the hostel where African students stay, and he said ‘yes, yes, yes, Go down follow this way, you see that first turning on the right take it, keep your nose up, you cant miss it, you smell it.” What do you do? You ignore it and move on.
At Oxford we were very alive to the independence struggle. My friends were Philips Asiodu, Ezekiel Oluwassanmi, Allison Ayida etc. If you look at me you’d be shocked. I was not only a member of the Labour Party but a card carrying member of the Communist Party. You do all sorts of things in Oxford. We agreed that there was no need just talking but to dedicate ourselves to service. So at the West African Students Union, we had vowed that when we came home we must give five years Of service free to our countries.
I have this problem that when I vow on anything , I see it through. I came back to Nigeria and drove straight to my father’s office on Lagos mainland. Then my father took me next door and there was a secretary, very well appointed too. And he said that was all mine. In my mind there was a conflict. We got home and everyone was happy but my father was a bit restless because he had noticed something was missing. So he called me and inquired. I think my choice of words could have been a bit shocking not appreciative because I said to him “Papa thank you but I don’t want this.” And he said “What do you mean that you don’t”? Is Ojukwu Transport not big enough for you and I”? and I said “Papa don’t get angry. All my life I have been pursued by fingers pointing at me as Ojukwu’s son, what I want is that before you die, you’d be pointed as Ojukwu’s father.” And he said he had never heard anything more terrible.
Actually that was the summation of my mind and where I was going. I became a civil servant, Assistant District Officer then later D.O but the thing that caught me was that all ended in regionalization. Well I just had to move on and the only place I could see was in the police, in the army and in the prison. It wasn’t much of a choice. I went in for the army. I went into the army in 1957 but in doing so I had to come back to my father and that is the legend, people saying that I never got on well with my father. No. We argued. When I went to Oxford, he wanted me to be a lawyer, I said no because I had been brought up badly in England where everybody thought that professions such as law were of the lower class. We grew up to employ lawyers, doctors and so on. So I didn’t think that was appropriate and that was why I actually refused law and went for history and I don’t know how you explain that to your father in Nigeria.
I came back and said I wanted to serve and all that. He too was serving in the way that he should understand but the idea that I should become a civil servant didn’t please him. Eventually he agreed to my being a civil servant. But he had this avuncular look at my service. I was still his boy, he can choose where I would be posted. I did get a posting to Calabar and in those days, no young man went to Calabar because apparently there was this legend of Calabar women once they got hold of you, you wont go home again. And my father just moved and before I knew what was happening, he had already seen the governor general that his son was not going to Calabar. Any way these are little things but they were episodes in my life like steps you climb to get to somewhere. When I got the opportunity, I moved. My father objected to my going into the army and many people asked me why? Was it because of power? I never minded being powerful but certainly that wasn’t the motivation. The concept was from Oxford. I wanted an area I could serve in the whole country.
I went into the army against my father’s wish and that’s why my first day in the army, all they did was put this steel plate on my head, shave off every bit of hair they could find underneath and I was a Nigerian army recruit, I didn’t go in as cadet or anything. And there are other stories emanating from it. So in a way, I started an army career which made me move very fast and through the years up till 1966 I was a lieutenant colonel.
But I must mention independence. We had a privileged position of watching independence come. Being my father’s son I had to intimate knowledge of certain activities in the history of Nigeria. There was no meeting at which my father was that I was not nearby. I sat sometimes on the floor. I witnessed the formation of the new Nigeria. On Independence Day I attended the celebrations like a Hausa prince but then you will never see me in any of those photographs unless I pointed them out to you. I thought it was the best thing for me to do, it was the greatest day of my life. I remember that I had my own relative gestures, like before we left Tafawa Balewa Square that night, I proudly threw my British passport into a fire. I don’t know if I was wise or foolhardy. I did that, nobody asked me to. In those days, Nigeria was a country of debates and discussions. I joined the contemporary society in Lagos and entered into those debates. When I actually joined the army and became a Lt.Col. by then the crisis had started. When it started, I was forced to doing that thing I wanted to avoid.
The war caught me unprepared but prepared in a different way. There was no way I could act outside my duty. I had been appointed governor in the eastern part of Nigeria and my job was to protect that part and I can take any body on any day. I did protect the East to the best of my ability. And we declared Biafra. The declaration of Biafra was a question of semantics. My people were being massacred everywhere in Nigeria. I couldn’t go and save them. This side is Biafra, you do whatever you can wherever you may be, but once you can get across this line and enter this territory we all will defend you, accept you, rehabilitate you. That was what happened.
We fought the war to the best of our ability with limited resources. Personally I felt I acquitted myself militarily, nobody expected it to last more than a week. But more than that, I was myself gratified by the liberating effect of war. The talent of the Ibo man just blossomed like you will find in an agricultural school farm. The only area in Africa that lived its own devices for three years. Name whatever the need, it became a challenge. We were never in lack of individuals ready to take the challenge.
Talk of leadership, one thing I can tell you is that I have, since the war came be, not been able to relinquish the popular support of the people I led. They haven’t changed, they still look up to me and that for me is a major success.
You have not touched your years in exile years?
I hadn’t been in exile before but that doesn’t say anything new. When I got to the Ivory Coast, I had not met Felix Houphouet Boigny before but he was great. Nobody can understand how grateful I feel towards that man unless you too have been in exile. The only time you appreciate Nigeria is when you are not in Nigeria. You appreciate the nakedness of not being in Nigeria. I moved into exile. I lived in exile for 13 years. In exile I was a non person. I was very well looked after; he was a father and everything to me. Can you imagine being a non person there, where I was for 13 years? I remember tuning the radio. Even to hear any of the Nigerian languages on radio was something of a celebration, I stayed a bit restless. I looked after myself and I can remember the shock the day I went to look for the president, Houphouet Boigny. He sought to know the problem. He wanted to know if he was not looking after me properly. I told him I am a healthy man, not to be looked after the way he was doing. I told him that no matter what I would like to work for my own upkeep. He sought to know what I would do, I told him I did not know but would like to do business.
My family is known for transport, and why not start there. He gave me money for three vehicles and I converted it immediately as down payments for seven vehicles. I started from there and he was very proud. The years in exile were very lonely years. Exile is to render you alone and to have absolutely no effect. So you can imagine the joy with which I came back home. A lot of people really do not know how I saw it; it was not just coming home. I had to feel part of home. To see that a man like myself just sit and every morning people will just come perhaps even bow and ask for advice is, in my way of looking at it, lunacy. I had to get into Nigeria to be part of Nigeria. Whichever the prospects, right or wrong, get in there. This is what I did. I was lucky I got home to join the NPN, but on the other side I was at the maximum security prisons. So here we are. I’ve been politicking, trying to find a position for the Igbo and the associate tribes at the centre of Nigeria.
Quite suddenly I realize the coming of seventy. Being a Christian I know what seventy means. So I have been thinking, Emeka what have you been doing? Has it been all right or a colossal failure? The Almighty created me for a purpose. He put me in Nigeria, he put me in Igboland. Since he is not wrong, I could not be wrong. Whatever I find as my share, I have the duty to use it. It is not for me to decide whether I should be beside the Yoruba and Edos and the Tiv. I have been put in my position and I should use it to the Glory of God.
I know everybody at 70 like everyone who has been to prison becomes born again. But I feel I still have many years. I can feel it in my bones. I will use the remaining years in service to Nigeria and the dignity of man.
As presidential candidate of APGA what did you learn from the revelation at the election petition tribunal?
The election was a monumental fraud. Every thing you know about election concept, method, result was wrong. I’m proud of the fact that APGA in the South East particularly got no less than eighty per cent of the vote. To pretend otherwise is a deception of the worst kind. I am happy that we demonstrated that the whole thing was fraudulent. Do you know the difference between Ghana and us? The judiciary in Ghana has always stood for the true Ghana. And no matter the battering around it, you can always rely on the judiciary to hang on. The problem of Nigeria is the near collapse of the judiciary. But as I sit here talking to you, my hope still lies in the judiciary. They have a responsibility to take a second look at what is placed before them. Do we go to weapon again? I hope not.
But wasn’t it simply that your party took on a PDP that was too big for it?
David took on Goliath that was far too high and at the end David triumphed. So it is not ended. But what was the alternative? To allow the PDP run wild all over the place? No. for me actually, this is one of the problems of Nigeria. We tend to turn our back to problems. The sooner we face problems, the better we heal our ills in the country. We sweep dirt under the carpet, always doing things on ad-hoc basis. I am very proud to be part of the team that confronted the PDP. I’ve come to the conclusion that in fact it was not the PDP that had contested all along but the Obasanjo PDP. The problem of Nigeria is that evil called Obasanjo. And what is required is a surgical operation to extract him from the Nigerian scene.
How is the surgery to be done?
Well I have taken him to court. I think he is not competent. There are many areas you can point out that he has demonstrated incompetence. What do you say about a man who is reputed to have rigged at such a monumental scale? A man whose government has been the most corrupt Africa has seen. A man who glories in provoking his own followers. A man who comes out of one crisis and leaps willfully into the next crisis. A man who produces excess petrol but glories in its importation. A man who does not link prices with cost of living. A man who glories in our taking advice. Nobody wants king-kung. What we want is a leader. I personally feel that Obasanjo will not stay long in power and I believe if nothing else does it, people’s power will certainly put an end to the atrocity called Obasanjo.
I ask you this because you’ve known Obasanjo for a long time. Were there things you saw then that are manifest now?
Oh, he has a lot of complex. In fact, he is very fond of creating enemies and fighting them even when they don’t exist. This is one visible permanent trait in the man. He neither says Oh this could be wrong, we should do in this way… the moment you say this is wrong, you’ve become an enemy. Perhaps, this is through military training, but I like to disown him militarily because at any case we are all military. I remember the day he joined the battalion I was serving. I know he was very awkward. That notwithstanding, he became an engineering technician. I never had the privilege of assessing him during the war but one thing I can assess him on is conflict. Obasanjo is both cowardly and incapable of administering a conflict. He is the type of person who will follow acquiesce and not do anything so as to ensure his own position. I don’t know except through his own report, any military brilliance that can be ascribed to Obasanjo. And in any case, in the military, we were trained to serve and not to be served. He should always remember that at any point the true sovereigns are the people. Go and read through my Ahiara Declaration, the real problem of the military is the hierarchy, placed at the central core of military life which was subverted.
When Emmanuel Ifeajuna led his would be coup we had this problem, I maintained that the army must go into this together. And that means maintaining the hierarchy. That there could be no question of putting somebody junior on top of his superior. I persuaded my colleagues to accept. So Ironsi became head. I was posted to Enugu. I was not in Lagos and I think that was why when the next upheaval came, Gowon was moved from a relatively low position to the top. From that moment, indiscipline was rooted in the armed forces. I still maintain that all those who accepted that then are at the bottom of the problem with Nigeria today. The army used to be like a cult of its own, but a cult of honour. I’m proud when I looked at my military service, I can say without fear of contradiction that I have never served under a junior officer. When it comes to that, honour demands that I resign.
It is given to victors to write stories of the war. One of my protests is that those who are writing the stories are not yet the victors of the war. The Obasanjo concept of the war is an extension of the Nigerian war time propaganda. Otherwise I ask you, a people without weapon whose battalion weapons were seized at Makurdi, those who held you at bay for three years with all your alliances with all your support, how do you find a hero out of that. Not on the Nigerian side, if anything I don’t like calling names, Benjamin Adekunle was more of a hero.
‘I said to him “Papa thank you but I don’t want this.” And he said “What do you mean that you don’t”? Is Ojukwu Transport not big enough for you and I”? and I said “Papa don’t get angry. All my life I have been pursued by fingers pointing at me as Ojukwu’s son, what I want is that before you die, you’d be pointed as Ojukwu’s father.” And he said he had never heard anything more terrible.’
If there was anything that was done from the Third Marine Commando, it was under Adekunle. It was right at the end because of Adekunle’s excesses that Obasanjo was put there. And he only came in to take the surrender. Obasanjo is certainly not a hero. What campaign did he go for? Which battle did he win? And that’s another thing about Nigeria, your great soldiers with all due respect are political soldiers. People who have killed their masters. Not professionals. I don’t see actually how he became a hero, except when you read his own books which are so typical – the concept that he alone understand the war, fought it and won it. I don’t see what to reconcile. As a man, which campaign did he lead and what results did he get? I will tell you, singlehandedly I fought the recapture of Oguta. When Nigeria captured the town, I went down and took personal command. In less than four days we got Oguta. I am not here to put feathers to my hat but I would imagine that is how to look at your military and military commanders. No matter what anyone would say, my movement from Enugu to Ore was well conceived, that is the dash that any commander should do.
Please when I use my own, I am saying it in opposition to the Nigerian side. I am sure that inside Nigeria there were those who did great things. What I am saying to you is that I have never heard Obasanjo’s name in purely military exploits.
Well he says he has a mandate we must all respect.
Nigeria is well blessed. We have in Nigeria sufficient resources to take care of Nigerians. But Nigeria has been mismanaged and most prominently it is being mismanaged by politics. You need politics to run a country obviously. That is why we say that if there is something wrong with the politics, it should be repaired first. You are just talking to me and I think it is really unfair. I was going to ask you your own personal opinion, but I would not be fair Obasanjo tells me that he won the North hands down, a North that despises him. He tells me of course, he won the East. You are dreaming. I won it too. Now if you are willing to accept that, suppose you must then accept that truly he is the President with the mandate of the country. But since you know that it is a false, we should permit ourselves to consider the possibility that his Presidency is fake. That is where we are. His Presidency is false. When he first came in, he didn’t have a mandate. I mean when he came into the PDP, he didn’t have a mandate.
Why did you say so?
It is because the rigging was quite obvious. But somehow, again, many people might like your question to give him a chance. During the four years, he demonstrated clearly that he did not merit that chance. We have to call a halt to what is going on. We all know the level of corruption we are swimming in. for how lonmg do we go on? And if we have any pride in being Nigerians what we should be doing is looking for a way to change the situation, not constantly prancing up and down the stage. That is why I said this is a kin-kong situation. “I’m great.. I’m great. I’m great.” Yes, if you say that long enough, you will believe yourself. But we don’t have to believe you, that is where we are. Wole (Soyinka) is wrong, Ojukwu is wrong, Musa is wrong, everyone is wrong, in this very wrong society. There is only one genius – Obasanjo. It doesn’t quit make sense.
I believe Nigeria has quite a chance, otherwise I wouldn’t be in politics. I believe Nigeria needs to look again at itself, re-discuss itself, its being, its togetherness. I believe that we should be open, like brothers to one another. When I said to you that Biafra is an alternative, it doesn’t mean that I want Biafra, it means solely it is an alternative, it gives you a signal to act, bearing in mind that it is an alternative. Now there has been every effort mounted to stop me mentioning Biafra. You cant write a proper history of Nigeria without mentioning Biafra.
So why don’t you accept, if these people are really feeling this way, why are they feeling that way? We say let us hand in hand go to the constitutional conference? Why shouldn’t we have a National conference? Whatever we have in Nigeria today. I’m willing to bet that the future brains of Nigeria will be more competent that today’s brains. So I’m quite willing as soon as possible to put to play our new brain acquisitions. What we called a constitution is not a constitution. And whatever it is, it has been imposed by the least knowledgeable group of our society. I have been in the army, I can tell you how to move from here to Sokoto and what to do to get there better.
When I was a LT Col in Kano, nobody could have stopped me. I could have taken probably half of Kano but I wouldn’t do that because whatever I had was held in my trust by the people of Nigeria. I think we should a national conference and it’s a conference that must be taken on as quickly as possible.
Today because of the monumental fraud which has become manifest everybody knows, we should consider seriously setting up a committee of national salvation. We should take care of the day-to-day governance of Nigeria for a specified time to enable us get again on to the reins of democracy.
For want of a better person, I would accept that the chief justice head the body. I would also suggest names of people who retain the confidence of the masses.
Beyond contesting the results of the elections at the tribunals, what do you think people should be doing politically?
For long, we have all avoided answering this question, mainly because we do not want a free Nigeria. There is nothing wrong to say that people should protest. If you don’t protest for your right, you cannot regain your right. And I said again w must learn to suffer a little in other to gain much. I believe in protests, mass action and all other possibilities. Have we ever asked ourselves, why is it that mass action works in Southeast Asia and not West Africa?
I think it is because we have become too cowardly too soft. We are willing to move two million march to ask the late Abacha to come back but we are not willing to put together one million man march to ask Obasanjo to step down. I am not suggesting anything. I am just giving examples. There are so many things we can do. I’m from Anambra State, everybody nowadays say let Ojukwu solve it and why? You have already given all your votes to Ojukwu and what is left “What do I solve. You hold a governor” Honestly there is nothing more insulting to the people of Anambra State that we all don’t want him and yet he is there.
Do you understand what I mean? He is there. Other people have told you what they can do with him. They can kidnap him, slap him and put him in the toilet but the whole of the state cannot handle him.
Somebody will tell me immediately, police have guns. But they will have to reload at some point, they also have to take aim at some point. And these guns they threaten you with how really effective are they? I feel that our generation has fought a lot, preached a lot but somehow we haven’t been able to act when necessary and the reason is the unevenness of the structure of the federation. So we should look forward for a true federalism emerging from the national conference.
• This interview with the late Dim Emeka Ojukwu, conducted by by Ebelo Goodluck and Uba Aham, was first published in TheNEWS (hard copy), Vol 21, N0 20, of 17 November 2003