I grew up in a family where equality was upheld. My sister, older than me by just over a year, always came first. She got the first pick of goodies, she got the first bicycle, the first cell phone, she was taken on the first trip to Lagos by air…hell, she even got the first pair of soccer boots my dad ever bought. As a kid growing up, this was disturbing because when I played with my friends or listened to older people talk, or just looked around me, I saw that the ‘man’ came first in everything especially if he was the first born son. See, the scenario at home wouldn’t have been an issue if big sis had been a boy; she was after all, older. But she was ‘just a girl’, I had heard one too many times. At home however, it was different. Dad made me understand by his actions, that big sis wasn’t just a girl, she was the first child. That was my first lesson in equality. But for my parents’ firm belief and advocacy of equality at home, I might have grown up undermining the women folk, or worse, resenting my lovely sister. Thanks to them, I stand proud today as a respecter and ardent admirer of women. I stand as a firm believer in fairness to all, equality and justice.
Fairness, Equality and Justice. The same values by which the late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu stood throughout his spectacular life. Many times, I have been asked about my relationship with Ikemba Nnewi. While he struggled with ill health over the past couple of months, it only took a mention of my full name and hometown to prompt reactions like, “How is your uncle doing?”, “Is your grandfather still in a coma?”, or “Why don’t you grow a beard like your father? It will fit you oh!” In response, I’d smile and say something along the lines of “He’s very healthy…he even reads the papers now”, then regrettably (I admit) I’d set the records straight about my relationship or more truthfully, lack of a relationship with the great man. It would have been so very easy and I was sorely tempted, to grow a beard and claim ‘sonhood’ or ‘nephewhood’ of Dim Ojukwu but that would have meant denying my own identity. From the little reading I have done on him, I know that Ojukwu too was an advocate of roots and identity. He believed in independence – the truthfulness of man to himself and his origin, the ability of a man to lodge his own roots firmly into life’s soil and bloom to prime away from the domineering shadows of man-made and God-made influences. Only by being truly independent, as above stated, did he believe that a man could discover his own identity.
Ojukwu was born into affluence but he did not hang onto his father’s wealth with his last breath like many of us would have done. He had money and knew how to spend it. But he didn’t see it as a god among men. To him, money was a rod among men; a rod or staff that made the journey of life easier for whoever wielded it as well as the wielder’s fellow travelers. Ojukwu also loved people, especially those recognized by the society as suffering or under-privileged. Some say he only loved the Igbo people but they forget that he quit his position as Assistant District Officer of the Umuahia Eastern Region to join the Nigerian army, to his father’s chagrin. He was smart, wealthy, an Oxford graduate; he could have been anything he wanted to be but he chose to join the army as a cadet, one of the first graduates to ever do that. Ironically, the armory which served the Nigerian army in the civil war against the Biafrans was stocked up by Dim Ojukwu himself during his years as a Quarter Master General of the Nigerian army. The Igbos say that if a dog is spat on and beaten in the market place, he knows only one place to go for comfort – home. Before Ojukwu’s very eyes, the Igbo people suffered all manner of ignominious abuse, spite and faced utter annihilation – all vices that contradicted his core values. The Igbos had been beaten in the market place so he took them home for succor. This love of his enabled him spend his birthright – enormous wealth handed down to him by his father, the wealthiest businessman of pre-independence Nigeria – on a war which served to redeem the honor of the Igbo man.
The Biafrans lost the Civil war but I don’t believe it was a defeat. In my eyes, the Civil war served the purpose for which the Igbos fought. The Igbo man had been trampled on, his wife and children horrendously abused, his rights exorcised like errant demons. There was a desperate need for him to be respected again. For it to be known that he was no rabid dog to be kicked around in the dust. The Civil war served that purpose. Dim Odumegwu-Ojukwu helped the Igbo man take that right back. All through his exile days, the days after his return to the country, and the latter days of his battle with ill health, the Igbos worshipped the ground he walked on. He was seen as the savior, Eze gburugburu. But he had done all he could, a father can only go as far as marrying a wife for his son and buying him a house to bed his bride in. He wouldn’t be expected to help the son bed his wife too, would he? The destiny of the Igbo man was put in his hands at the end of the war. While Dim Ojukwu lived, the Igbos were his children but now he is gone, they must grow. They must take that destiny and do well with it because so far, it hasn’t looked very good.
Comrade Uwazuruike, leader of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in his speech marking the announcement of Ojukwu’s death made certain demands of the federal government. Among other demands such as that for the creation of two additional south-eastern states, he demanded the implementation of the ‘no victor, no vanquished’ policy initiated by Gen. Gowon in January of the year 1970! I had to consult my calendar again to count how many years had passed since then before I began to wonder what Comrade Uwazuruike had been waiting for all this time. Any honest Igbo man would be the first to confess that among the three major tribes, the Igbos are the least integrated. As a popular saying goes, Igbo enweghi eze. An Igbo man who bears the title of Onwa na-etili ora would throw parties, make public donations and gorge his kinsmen with kegs upon kegs of palmwine but what would he do if a brother came to him in secret for a much-needed loan? What would he do if a government contract came his way which would destroy thousands of his townsmen’s means of livelihood but up his account by millions? We all know the answer. In the face of the true test of brotherhood, the average Igbo man would fail woefully. We couldn’t even agree on a consensus candidate for the 2007 elections!
The death of Eze gburugburu is not a call for Igbos to deliver ultimatums or threats. Ojukwu might have led the Biafran war but at heart, he was first and foremost Nigerian. As many are aware, he spoke Yoruba and Hausa very fluently. He believed in unity, equality, fairness to all and justice. The threat by MASSOB to unleash the fury of ‘our boys’ now that Ojukwu is no longer here to calm them demeans the legend of the man and what he represented. Ojukwu did not give his time, energy, money and life for another Boko Haram. His death is a call for every Igbo man to become involved. A call for bone-deep patriotism. Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s wish, I can bet, is for every man to kindle in his heart, a love for country and fellow countryman that would burn through every material and immaterial obstacles blazing the way for a better Nigeria, a better you and I. The state burial, monuments, foundations, threnodas, and elegies aside, this is the only way to truly honor him. Anything less would only send him on a spinning roll in his grave after he is buried. REST IN PEACE, IKEMBA NNEWI. KA O DIBA…