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Emeka Ojukwu: Soldier who led his people into the war of Biafran independence

  • @AlexDuvalsmith

The image so often associated with Africa – a child with stick-thin limbs and swollen belly – dates back to the first televised famine, the Biafran war. The man who understood the power of that image was an Oxford-educated Nigerian soldier, Emeka Ojukwu.

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, to use his full name, proclaimed the short-lived Republic of Biafra in 1967. His demeanour of a gentleman-rebel standing up to the Nigerian Goliath appealed to western intellectuals such as Frederick Forsyth and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. A Swedish count built and flew planes for the tiny country's air force and its struggle for independence inspired the French humanitarian Bernard Kouchner to create Médecins Sans Frontières.

The son of one of Nigeria's most successful transport entrepreneurs, Ojukwu was from the Igbo tribe but was born in Zungeru, in the north of the country. He received the best education – King's College, Lagos; Epsom College, Surrey and Lincoln College, Oxford, where he graduated with honours in history in 1955. He refused to go into his father's business and instead spent two years as an unglamorous administrative officer in the Eastern Nigerian public service.

In 1957, Ojukwu joined the Royal West African Frontier Forces as a recruit. He rose rapidly through the ranks, ending his training at Sandhurst at the time of Nigerian independence in 1960. Under British indirect rule, Nigeria had been crudely divided along tribal lines: politics was for the northern Hausa tribe, commercial clout was the preserve of the supposedly industrious Yorubas on the south-western coast and education was for the administratively inclined Igbos in the east of the country.

Unhappy at northern heavy-handedness and discrimination, Igbo officers staged a coup in 1966 andinstalled Ojukwu as governor of the Eastern Region, which includes the oil-rich Niger delta. When the counter-coup came six months later, Ojukwu refused to step down.

Under pressure from Igbo militants he declared independence for the 29,000 square-mile region on 30May 1967. A flag was designed, featuring a rising sun. A currency was issued and the beginnings of a welfarestate were put in place. Ojukwu personally chose a movement from Jean Sibelius's Finlandia as the tune to the national anthem, in reference tothe Nordic country's resistance toforeign domination.

But the region's oil wealth made Biafran independence intolerable to Nigeria and the international community. A futile two-and-a-half-year war cost thousands of lives as Nigeria created famine conditions and enlisted British and Soviet support against a ragtag army equipped with home-made military hardware.

Vonnegut described Ojukwu asBiafra's George Washington. He wrote: "When we met General Ojukwu, hissoldiers were going into battle with 35 rounds of rifle ammunition. There was no more where that came from. For weeks before that, they had beenliving on one cup of gari a day. The recipe for gari is this: Add water to pulverized cassava root. Now the soldiers didn't even have gari anymore. General Ojukwu described a typical Nigerian attack for us: 'They pound a position with artillery for 24 hours, then they send forward one armoured car. If anybody shoots at it, it retreats, and another 24 hours of bombardment begins. When the infantry moves forward, they drive a screen of refugees before them. If we go forward, we die. If we go backward, we die. So we go forward'".

The American writer was among a dozen intellectuals invited by Ojukwu to witness the Biafran war in a bid to influence western public opinion and secure airlifts of food. Another was Forsyth whose biography of him, Emeka, was published in 1982.

By 1969, Biafra was on its knees and Ojukwu fled into exile in Ivory Coast. Twelve years later he was granted a pardon and returned to Nigeria where he formed the All Progressives Grand Alliance and ran for president in 2003 and 2007. In 2008, he received his military pension from the Nigerian government but complained that it ranked him as a lieutenant-colonel rather than as a general, his rank in the Biafran army.

In Nigeria, Ojukwu's legacy islargely viewed as positive for having stood up for his ethnic group, having proved incorruptible and havingessentially personified the country's view of itself as constantly riven along ethnic lines. After his death at the Royal Berkshire Hospital – where he had been admitted following a stroke in December 2010 – President Goodluck Jonathan paid him a glowing tribute: "Ojukwu'simmense love of his people, justice,equity and fairness forced him into the leading role he played in the Nigerian civil war."

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, soldier and politician: born Zungeru, Nigeria 4 November 1933; married firstly Njideka, second Stella Onyeador, thirdly Bianca Onoh; (several children); died Reading, Berkshire 26 November 2011.