Ibo warrior who made his peace Remember Biafra? The Ibo do

MISSING PERSONS N0.37 Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu;
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The Independent Online
Chief Odumegwu


Ojukwu, who visits Britain this week, is the man who led secessionist Biafra to war and disaster 28 years ago. To some Nigerians - and particularly the Ibo - he is a courageous and heroic figure. To others he is a self-seeking opportunist who squandered hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, then sold out to the very people he had fought.

Almost a million people died in Biafra's three-year struggle for independence from Nigeria, which ended 25 years ago, a conflict described by the Red Cross as "one of the major human disasters of this century".

Chief Ojukwu (aka ''Emeka'') was 34 and the military governor of the federal republic's Eastern Region when, in May 1967, he proclaimed its independence from Nigeria. The move followed the region's steadily deteriorating relations with the government of Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, which refused to take action after northerners massacred thousands of Ibos who had settled in the Northern Region.

Today, aged 61, Chief Ojukwu is "a free and ordinary citizen of Nigeria". He divides his time between Lagos (the commercial capital), Abuja (the federal capital) and Enugu (the erstwhile Biafran capital).

"History has not fled me," he said before his departure for London. "I'm held in high respect and consulted on many subjects, not just by my own people but also by the government. I have cordial relations with General Abacha and many others in the military."

It is hard to believe that General Ojukwu, who in the late Sixties fought to resist the forces of another military dictator, and Chief Ojukwu, the placatory patriarch, are one person. But the former freedom fighter is committed to working with the Abacha regime in the context of a united Nigeria.

"There are many who want to fan the embers of ethnic discord," said Chief Ojukwu in the patrician tones he acquired at Oxford. "But the Ibo people want a system which embraces all Nigerians."

Chief Ojukwu was a member of the government-sponsored constitutional conference which advised General Abacha prior to his historic 1 October declaration. On that day, General Abacha, in power for nearly two years, announced it would be at least another three years before Nigeria would be returned to democracy and civilian rule.

"I do not support the military government as such,'' said Chief Ojukwu, "but I cannot wish away the fact that it's in power. I believe we must try to ease the military out but there must be no risk of bloodshed."

His aversion to bloodshed is understandable. The civil war, which broke out in July 1967 with the invasion of the Eastern Region by government troops, was particularly vicious, fuelled by imported modern weaponry. Outnumbered by more than four to one, the Biafran army was doomed. As federals advanced, millions of Ibo fled into the bush where they were cut off from supplies by a naval blockade. By October 1968, the Red Cross estimated 10,000 Biafrans, mostly children, were daily dying from starvation.

Despite the fact that Britain supported and armed the central government forces, Chief Ojukwu likes the country. He regularly travels to Britain and is sometimes accompanied by his wife, who needs medical treatment in London. He also travels worldwide, at the invitation of Ibo communities. "Biafra is very much alive," he said. "It's not so much a territory, as a state of mind."

Chief Ojukwu is active in the Nigerian People's Movement, a political association founded earlier this year to promote national dialogue. With the lifting of remaining restrictions on political activity scheduled for this year, he believes the movement can play a role in shaping the country's future. He also has his eye on the 1998 elections, though to what extent he takes account of his political marginalisation is unclear.

"If I could run for president that would be wonderful," he said. "If I do decide to contest the elections, I'd join a political party, obviously one which would ensure the Ibo are not cheated of their rights under the federal structure.''

Chief Ojukwu takes a keen interest in tennis, rugby, chess and classical music. A Sibelius fan, he chose ''Finlandia'' as Biafra's national anthem.