Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu was born in Zungeru, Niger State into a family of influence. His father Louis Ojukwu from Nnewi in Anambra State, was one of the richest men in Africa and the first billionaire from Nigeria.
Ojukwu as a young man decided to choice a path for himself different from what his father had proposed. After his education at Oxford University, he returned to Nigeria and against his father’s wish joined the Nigeria Army.
The political crises and coups in Nigeria in the mid-60s triggered a chain of events that shoot him to limelight.
He led a secessionist nation Biafra which led to a brutal civil war with Nigeria which lasted for 3 years. Until his death he was revered and highly respected by his people and many who admired his bravery.
Early life and Education
Emeka Ojukwu was born in Zungeru in Niger State in the Northern part of Nigeria on November 4, 1933.
His father Sir Louis Odumegwu built one of the biggest transport companies in Nigeria during WW2. And thereafter went into importation of essential commodities and rose to become one of the most influential men in Nigeria.
He received one of the best education money can buy. He began his secondary education in 1943 at the age of 10 at CMS Grammar School, Lagos. In 1944 he transferred to King’s College Lagos and was recorded as the youngest pupil then, before he left for the United Kingdom.
An event in which he fought a British teacher for insulting a local woman at his school generated widespread coverage in the newspapers. For this act he spent some time at a Lagos police station.However other reports have it that his imprisonment was due to his assault of a British teacher who attempted to put down a protest he was part of.
At the age of 13 he left Nigeria for London where his education continued first at Epsom College.
Ojukwu was a natural athlete and served as captain of the rugby and soccer teams and also set an All-England Junior record in discus throw.
Thereafter Ojukwu moved to Lincoln College in 1952, and Oxford University, where he graduated with honors and earned a master’s degree in History in 1955.
As a student he was a leader of the West African Students Union at its Oxford branch. It was also at the Oxford University that he met a female lawyer who eventually became his wife.
Ojukwu Returns to Nigeria
In 1956 he returned to Nigeria and joined the civil service in Eastern Nigeria as Administrative Officer in Enugu State. Afterwards he moved to Aba and then Umuahia. All this he did without his father’s consent who wanted him to work with him to build his business empire.
Frustrated with his father’s constant influence and pressure he decided to leave the civil service after 2 years.
Ojukwu Joins the Military
In 1957 he joined the military as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in Zaria. His father who become aware of his intention had pressured the then Governor-General of Nigeria (John Macpherson) not to commission Emeka as an Officer-Cadet. He believed the rigors of the NCO schedule and training would force him out of the military.
Composed and unperturbed he persevered and continued with the training. But as fate would have it, He corrected a drill sergeant who mispronounced the safety catch of the Lee-Enfield 303 rifle. For this he was recommended for an officer’s commission by the British Depot Commander.
He attended the Infantry School in Warminster, England, the small arms school in Hythe England and the royal West African Frontier Force Training School in Teshie Ghana.
After his training in Ghana, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and was one of the first university graduates to receive an army commission.
During the colonial era the Nigerian Military had 250 officers with only 15 being Nigerians while in the other ranks 336 were British out of 6400.
He was promoted to the rank of a Major in 1961 and served with the Nigerian First Brigade in Congo under Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi. They were both part of the United Nations peace-keeping program.
Ojukwu became the first Nigerian quartermaster-General in the Nigerian Army in 1963 after attending several courses as a lieutenant.
In 1964 he was promoted to a Lieutenant-Colonel and was posted to Kano where he was the Commanding Officer of the 5th Battalion Nigerian Army.
Political crisis and 1966 coup
Shortly after Nigeria’s Independence in the early 60’s political crisis began to surface, culminating in the popular Operation wetie events. It was a violent protest in the Western region of Nigeria, characterized with opposing political figures and their properties being soaked with petrol and set ablaze.
Major political figures involved were Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Ladoke Akintola due to their political differences. This crisis ultimately precipitated a chain of events that led to the first military coup in Nigeria on January 15, 1966.
The coup was led by a young major named Kaduna Nzeogwu and other majors who were mostly from the Igbo speaking region of Nigeria. The main objective of the coup plotters was not achieved largely due to the significant role played by Ojukwu
Ojukwu had organized men under his command prevented the coup plotters from gaining ground in areas under his command. After a period a momentary peace he was appointed Military Governor of the eastern Region by the new Head of State Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi. Ironsi took over from Tafawe Balewa who had been a victim of the coup.
However peace was truncated due to violent attacks against Igbos living in the Northern part of Nigeria. On June 29, 1966, a counter coup was carried out against the government of Ironsi by Military officers from the north. The North had suffered the most and had the highest causalities from the January 15, 1966 coup.
Ironsi was killed in this counter coup alongside his host Col. Fajuyi in Ibadan. Massive killings and unprecedented violence was unleashed against the Igbo population scattered across the Northern part of Nigeria.
Meanwhile the Eastern region were irking to retaliate but Ojukwu prevailed on them not to, after he was assured by his northern colleagues that the situation will be brought under control.
The Aburi Peace Conference
Little was done by the Northern leaders to stop the killings of Igbos in their region. Truck load of injured, mutilated and dead citizens of Igbo extraction continued to arrive the Eastern region on daily basis.
After the death of Ironsi, Colonel Gowon assumed the position of head of state contrary to the order of hierarchy.
Ojukwu vehemently opposed and insisted on the most senior officer; Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe assuming leadership. Gowon had several other officers ahead of him and according to Ojukwu was not qualified to be head of state.
But promoters of the coup refused and insisted on Gowon being the leader. This issue according to historians was one of the major reasons for the war that eventually took place.
Ojukwu fearful for his life had earlier rejected any meeting on Nigerian soil outside the eastern region to negotiate peace. Thus it was finally arranged to hold the meeting on a neutral ground in Aburi, Ghana with General Joseph Ankrah as host.
Efforts by the Ghanaian government to negotiate peace in the now famous Aburi Peace conference of May 5-7, 1967, unfortunately failed to calm the situation.
Aware of the significance of the situation, secretly the Ghanaian government tape recorded the events of that conference.
Ojukwu was more composed and prepared as to the importance of the gathering. This was unlike the Nigerian government led by Gowon who saw the event as a social gathering of former associates.
The contrast in composure was not lost on Western observers of the events. They also observed that the problem really was more of a personality clash between Ojukwu and Gowon.
A resolution proposed by Ojukwu was accepted by all parts involved. The proposal advocated for a loosed confederation with the regional components having some significant autonomy.
However on return to Lagos, Gowon rejected the resolutions earlier agreed upon and went ahead to create new states from the regions. This singular act of Gowon was what unfortunately led to the Nigeria-Biafra civil war.
War Breaks Out
Ojukwu on his part had insisted on the resolution stating unequivocally “on Aburi we stand”. Due to continuous attacks on Igbos all over the North and in some other parts of Nigeria, He was criticized by his people for not out rightly seceding from the union. They believed he was procrastinating because of the wealth of his father which was mainly in Lagos and thus had a personal stake in sustaining the nation.
Ojukwu finally realized Gowon had no intentions of abiding by the agreement reached at Aburi on May 30, 1967 pulled out of the union. He declared the Eastern region of Nigeria, The Sovereign State of Biafra, with Enugu as capital.
This declaration by Ojukwu did not go down well with the authorities in Lagos. A ‘police action’ was authorized by Gowon to reintegrate them back into the country. This action led to the beginning of the brutal and genocidal war that took place on Biafran soil for three years.
Though Biafra had some support from few countries, they were outgunned and outmanned by the British backed Nigerian army.
Late 1969, when it became obvious to him that the war was a lost one, he appealed to the United Nations to negotiate cease fire and peace. The Nigerian government rejected any form of negotiation it and insisted on total surrender.
After a 30 month long fight, due to hunger and little support from the international government Biafra capitulated. Ojukwu relinquished power to his deputy, Major General Philip Effiong and fled to Cote d’ivoire. An earlier offer of asylum from Switzerland was rejected by him.
He arrived Ivory Coast with his family and aides on May 11, 1969, some hours before Effiong surrounded to the Nigerian Army.
Life in Exile
While in Ivory Coast Ojukwu engaged and successfully established different businesses; a construction company, aircraft leasing and a business in aviation services. He also learnt the French language and within six months became fluent
A sour point in Ivory Coast was his romance with a lady called Stella who he eventually got married to. For this, his wife left him and returned to Nigeria.
Meanwhile several of his kinsmen in Nigeria were making efforts to seek presidential pardon for him. In 1982, Nigeria under Alhaji Shehu Shagari was approached by Chuba Okadigbo and George Obiozor to plead on Ojukwu’s behalf.
Ojukwu was finally granted presidential pardon in 1982 by the government of Shagari, after 13 years in exile.
Ojukwu back in Nigeria and Political Life
Ojukwu’s return to Nigeria was marked with fanfare with people from his region, friends and his admirers giving him a heroic welcome.
Immediately he reasserted himself into the political sphere of influence of the country. He became an active member of the National Party of Nigeria and contested unsuccessfully for a seat at the national senate.
The coup of Buhari in 1983 which ousted Shagari from power earned him a room in prison. Reprieve however came his way when Buhari was toppled in a coup masterminded by Gen Babangida in 1985. Babangida came in as head of state and released all political prisoners detained under Buhari; including Ojukwu.
He became a founding member and leader of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) when democracy was eventually restored in Nigeria in 1999.
Ojukwu married a third wife, Bianca Onoh a former beauty queen in Nigeria and daughter of the second republic governor of old Anambra State.
Death and Legacy
On November 26, 2011, Ojukwu died in a London hospital after a brief illness at the age of 78 with family members close by.
His body was moved round the five states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo state as a sign of respect for a man who gave his all for his people.
He was accorded all honors and respect due to a military officer by the Nigerian Army, with a military parade organized for him on February 27, 2012 in Abuja, Nigeria.
His state of birth Niger and Lagos states also held memorial services in honor of him. He was finally led to rest in a newly built mausoleum at his compound in Nnewi Anambra state.
Popularly called the Ikemba Nnewi, he left an indelible record in the sands of time and will always be remembered for the role he played in preserving and fighting for the continuous existence of his people.
He was reported as saying towards the end of the war “what we are seeing is the end of a long, long journey. It began in the north of Nigeria and moved steadily southwards as we were driven out of place to place. Now this path has become the road to the slaughterhouse here in the Igbo Heartland”.