Have you ever seen a child born with a silver spoon with unlimited access to his father’s wealth, yet choose to snub these rights and start life on his own accord? Don’t ponder too deeply but read on about the life of one of Nigeria’s powerful men who influenced her history: Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Early Life and Education
Emeka Ojukwu was born on November 4, 1933, in Zungeru, present-day Niger State, Northern Nigeria to Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu (1908-1966), a businessman from Nnewi, present-day Anambra State in South-Eastern Nigeria. Ojukwu Snr. was into the transport business; he took advantage of the business boom during the Second World War to become one of the richest men in Nigeria.
Ojukwu started his secondary school education at the C.M.S Grammar School, Lagos, at the age of 10 in 1943. He later transferred to King’s College, Lagos, in 1944 where he was involved in a controversy leading to his brief imprisonment for assaulting a white British colonial teacher who humiliated a black woman.
At 13, his father sent him overseas to study in the United Kingdom, first at Epsom College and later at Lincoln College, Oxford University, where he earned a master’s degree in History. Ojukwu then returned to colonial Nigeria in 1956.
Ojukwu joined the military, against the wishes of his father, receiving his commission in March 1958, as a 2nd Lieutenant from Eaton Hall. He was one of the first and few university graduates to join the army as a recruit. Upon completion of further military training, he was assigned to the Army’s Fifth Battalion in Kaduna.
Emeka Ojukwu’s background and education guaranteed his promotion to higher ranks. At that time, the Nigerian Military Forces had 250 officers and only 15 were Nigerians. After serving in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the Congo, under Major-General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ojukwu 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 when the January 15, 1966 coup was executed.
Emeka Ojukwu as Military Governor
On January 17, 1966, Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was appointed Military Governor of the Eastern Region. Four months later in May 1966, there was a pogrom in Northern Nigeria during which Nigerians of Eastern origin were targeted and killed.
This presented problems for Emeka Ojukwu. He did everything in his power to prevent reprisals and even encouraged his people to return to the North, as assurances for their safety had been given by his supposed colleagues up north.
The Northern Counter Coup
On July 29, 1966, a group of officers, including Majors Murtala Muhammed, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, and Martin Adamu, led the majority of the Northern soldiers in a mutiny that later developed into a “counter-coup”. The coup failed in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria where Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Ojukwu was the military Governor, due to the effort of the brigade commander and hesitation of Northern officers stationed in the region (partly due to the mutiny leaders in the East being Northern whilst being surrounded by a large Eastern population).
The Supreme Commander General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi were abducted and killed in Ibadan. On acknowledging Ironsi’s death, Ojukwu insisted that the military hierarchy be preserved. In that case, the most senior army officer after Ironsi, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, should take over leadership, not Colonel Yakubu Gowon (the coup plotters’ choice). However, the leaders of the counter-coup insisted that Colonel Gowon be made the Head-of-State.
Both Gowon and Ojukwu were of the same rank in the Nigeria Army then (Lieutenant-Colonel). Ogundipe could not muster enough force in Lagos to establish his authority as soldiers (Guard Battalion) available to him were under Joseph Nanven Garba who was part of the coup, it was this realisation that led Ogundipe to opt out.
The Nigerian Civil War
Thus, Emeka Ojukwu’s insistence could not be enforced by Ogundipe unless the coup plotters agreed (which they did not). The fallout from this led to a standoff between Emeka Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon leading to the sequence of events that resulted in the Nigerian civil war, which lasted for 30 months.
After three years of non-stop fighting and starvation, a hole did appear in the Biafran front lines and this was exploited by the Nigerian military. As it became obvious that all was lost, Ojukwu was convinced to leave the country to avoid his certain assassination.
On January 9, 1970, the Biafran leader handed over power to his second in command, Major-General Philip Effiong, and left for the Ivory Coast, where President Félix Houphouët-Boigny – who had recognised Biafra on May 14, 1968 – granted him political asylum.
Return from exile, Legacy, and Death
After 13 years in exile, the Federal Government of Nigeria under President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari granted an official pardon to Ojukwu and opened the road for a triumphant return in 1982.
Emeka Ojukwu could speak Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, English, French, and Latin fluently. Interestingly, during the civil war, he always slept with his boots on.
On November 26, 2011, Ikemba Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu died in the United Kingdom after a brief illness. He was 78.
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