This is the story of Chukwuemeka (Emeka) Odumegwu Ojukwu, who displayed a trail of leadership and champion of people at the very early age of 12 when he molested a British Colonial teacher at Kings College, Lagos.
What was the offence of the Briton? It was alleged that the teacher assaulted a black woman. It happened in 1944. Emeka was a pupil at Kings College but took up the cause of a black woman who was persecuted by the white colonialist. Despite that Emeka was a pupil and the persecutor was a teacher in his school, Emeka did not allow the oppression and persecution to go unchallenged. He could not stand and watch a white teacher who assaulted a black woman go unchallenged, Emeka humiliated the white teacher for daring to assault a black woman in Nigeria.
Emeka, a teenager was arrested and briefly imprisoned. That was a big news story in a colonial territory. Newspapers made a feast of Emeka’s encounter with the school authorities who were mostly whites and even the law that was bent by the colonial master to show that Emeka was still a subject of the Queen of England. It was, therefore, not a surprise that Emeka rose in status, prominence and popularity as a champion of black people’s cause, regarded as impudence by the colonial authorities. What Emeka did to the white teacher though he didn’t kill him was all in to what Moses, in the Bible, did in Egypt when he (Moses) killed an Egyptian who was fighting or maltreating a jew. Moses was a jew and he killed the Egyptian and escaped into exile to avoid prosecution. Emeka’s school mates and even contemporaries in the larger Nigerian society could not but see Emeka as their champion.
He would not allow or tolerate oppression of the weak or underdog by the strong and powerful.
Emeka was the sone of one of Nigeria’s early millionaires, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, in the colonial era. Emeka was born on 4th November, 1933 at Zungeru in Northern Nigeria. His father, Louis is an Igbo businessman, an indigene of Nnewi, Anambra State in the South-Eastern, Nigeria. Emeka’s father was a successful transporters, who benefitted from the booming opportunity provided by World War II. He ran a fleet of trucks, buses and cars ferrying goods and passengers across Nigeria. He expanded his transport empire across the West African sub-region, with a conspicuous presence in Cote D’Ivore with a telling impact on the country’s economy.
Despite that Emeka was born in the Northern part of Nigeria, he started his secondary education in Lagos in the South-Western area of Nigeria. In 1943, he started his secondary education at CMS Grammar School. He later left the school and went to Kings’ College also in Lagos. It was at Kings College that he first display his hatred for oppression, maltreatment when he literally challenged a white teacher at his school and by extension the school authorities and the political leadership at the time. Emeka was briefly sent to jail for what the British Colonial Masters regarded an effrontery.
He took advantage of his father’s wealth to become a pupil at Empson College in Britain and later at Lincoln College in London. As a brilliant pupil, Emeka gained admission to an ivy school, Oxford University in Britain. He didn’t stop his educational career at a first-degree level as Most Africans of that era did. Money was never a problem or hurdle that could hinder his education programme. Emeka completed his master’s degree course in History before he left the university. He came back to Nigeria in 1956 and joined the Eastern Nigerian Civil Service as an Administrative Officer at Udi in the present-day Enugu State. His working at Udi gave Emeka’s father an opportunity to monitor his activities which Emeka didn’t like. There was a strong belief that Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu used his connection and influence to secure a job for his son at Udi. It was the only means that could allow a dotting father to keep his eyes on his son. Emeka, on his part, Emeka didn’t like the arrangement and was looking for all means to escape into what could be described as freedom and be out of his father’s watching eyes. Emeka’s attempt to join the Officer cadre of the military was frustrated by his father who pleaded with the then Governor-General of Nigeria, John Macpherson to stop Emeka from joining the cadetship of the Colonial Army. Sir Louis Ojukwu and Macpherson were, however, surprised that Emeka went ahead to join the army as a rookie (recruit) despite holding a master’s degree in History. He went to Military School, Zaria.
Thus Emeka became a goldfish, a degree holder in the class of stark illiterates and primary school certificate holders. His conduct, language and disposition while in training betrayed his class.
Despite that Emeka pretended and persevered, but his education refused to be tamed. On the field, one day, his superior education rose to the fore when he corrected a drill-sergeant’s mispronunciation of safety-catch of Lee-Enfield 303 rifle. That was what prompted the Depot Commander, a Briton, to recommend Emeka for an Officer’s Commission Course.
The encounter was the beginning of a new phase in Emeka’s journey of life. He left Zaria and was sent to the Royal West African Frontier Training School in Teshie, Ghana. From there, Emeka was sent to Eaton Hall where he was commissioned in March, 1958 as a 2nd Lieutenant. He later attended infantry school in Warminster and followed it up at the Small Arms School in Hythe.
When he completed the programme, he was posted to the Fifth Battalion in Kaduna. It is noteworthy that at the time Emeka was posted to Kaduna, the Nigerian Armed Forces boasted of 250 Officers. Only 15 of them were Nigerians.
At that time, the Nigerian Army was 6,400 strong, while Britons were 336.
Those close to Emeka said he was not unaware of the role the military would play in the political development of a colonial country like Nigeria. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. As that period coincided with a political crisis brewing in Congo that claimed Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of Congo Republic, Emeka was posted to Congo as a member of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. He served under Major-General Johnson Thomas Aguyi-Ironsi.
In 1964, Emeka was promoted Lieutenant Colonel and posted to Kano in charge of the 5th Battalion. Kano posting was a watershed in Emeka’s military career as it later facilitated his resistance that stemmed from the wholesome success of the Nigeria’s First Military Coup in the Northern Region as it did in Kaduna. The coup of 5 majors led by Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu that shook Nigeria to her foundation on January 15, 1966. It wiped out most of the political leaders in the country.
In Kaduna, Nzeogwu’s group of mutineers had killed Sarduna of Sokoto, who was the first premier of the Northern region. In Lagos, another group of coup plotters had killed the country’s first Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and Senior Military Officers who were Northerners. In Ibadan, the capital of the defunct Western Region, another group of mutineers had killed the premier of the region, Chief Ladoke Akintola only the Eastern region was spared. The relatively young Middle-Western region also lost Sir Okotiebor, Minister of Finance.
Despite that the coup had succeeded in the Western region, Ironsi and other loyal soldiers suppressed it in Lagos, while Nzeogwu was in control of Kaduna, but could not convince the Commander of 5th Battalion in Kano, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was a lieutenant-colonel to support the coup. First, Emeka was a Lieutenant-Colonel, while Nzeogwu was a major, therefore, inferior to Emeka. Nzeogwu was, therefore on horns of a dilemma as the army in Lagos ordered him to surrender.
As the mutineers’ smoking guns were lowered and hanged, their action had wreaked havoc on the political structure of the country. The North had lost all its notable political and military leaders. No high-ranking Eastern Nigerian political leader was killed. It was, therefore, not a surprise that the Northerners regarded the coup as an Igbo agenda to take over the political leadership in the country.
Though the coup failed, but it paved the way for the political leadership of Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi. He became the Head of State. At the regional level, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi became Military Governor of the Western Region, Lt. Col. David Edjoor, Governor of Middle-Western region, Lt. Col. Usman Hassan Katsina was the Governor of the Northern region, while Emeka Ojukwu emerged the Military Governor of the Eastern region.
Each of the governors was posted to his region of origin to administer. It was believed that being among their people was politically savvy, but it was a direct match against closer unity among ethnic groups in the country. Suggestions were rife that if the governors were not posted to their regions, they would have performed better and unity would have been fostered. The Northerners in the army were, however, bent on avenging the loss of their leaders. On July 28th, 1966, the Northern elements in the military hit back. Not only Major General was killed, but many military officers of Igbo extraction were also killed in barracks across the country.
It led to an exodus of Igbo in the North back to their homeland. Earlier, the enactment of the unification degree by Ironsi, which changed the country’s federal system to unitary system raised Northerners’ suspicion that the Igbo were desperate to hijack the country and they must be stopped. The death of Ironsi engendered a crisis on who was to succeed Ironsi. Brigadier Henry Ogundipe was the most Senior Army Officer but was unacceptable to the soldiers who were Northerners. They preferred Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, who was then the Chief of Army Staff of the supreme military council.
Their decision was unacceptable to Emeka Ojukwu, who was a coursemate of Yakubu Gowon and also a lieutenant-colonel. The killing of many Igbo in the North did not help matters. All these were tindering that ignited the rebellion fire that razed Nigeria for more than three. Emeka Ojukwu declared the Republic of Biafra, while Gowon and the federalists insisted on one (indivisible) Nigeria. Britain, Nigeria’s Colonial Master, supported the stance of the federalists, while France backed Ojukwu.
In the three years of war against the breaking up of Nigeria, Emeka Ojukwu shook Nigeria to her foundation. To win the war, the Federal Government abandoned four regional systems of government and created 12 states to prune the power of the regions and give internal independence to the minority ethnic groups in the Eastern region. The war raged and claimed several millions of lives. When the federal troops were closing in on Uli Strip in today’s Imo State, Emeka Ojukwu with a few close advisers flew out of Nigeria in search of peace.
They landed in Abidjan, the then capital of Cote D’Ivore. What is spectacular about Emeka Ojukwu was that he was to later come back to Nigeria, participated in the senatorial election on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the Second Republic. The late President Shehu Shagari granted Emeka Ojukwu pardon. Yes, the enigma could not be ignored in the political setting of the country. The NPN needed a person of Ojukwu’s status to win elections in the South-Eastern states, hence an amnesty for Ojukwu who was later to be a presidential candidate on the platform of All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA).