The reverberating power of his voice that hitherto cut through the pin-drop silence of the little hours of the morning, like chisel through rock, suddenly came down a couple of decibels. The interview had moved from the vibrant subjects of his politics and ideology, to the sober ones of the dying days of Biafra and the lonely exile that followed his abrupt exit from his beloved homeland.
Ojukwu had found a new abode in the Ivory Coast, hosted, not just by a kindly, elderly leader, but also by his warm and welcoming people, whose imagination had also been captured by the Biafran struggle. The man never seized to talk about the kindness and love with which the Ivorians and their leader, the fatherly, Felix Houphouet-Boigny had showered him.
A few years later, as we sat alone in his living-room, at the Villaska Lodge in Ikoyi, Lagos, reflecting on the civil war and its lessons, an incident that followed, bore him out. The subject of countries that recognised Biafra, came up. I was particularly curious about Haiti and its then leader, Francois Duvalier, also known as ‘Papa Doc’. Of course, Haiti had a long history of rebellion, that dates back to the sugarcane plantations of the 18th century and to revolutionaries like Francois Mackandal, Bookman Dutty, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and all the rest of them.
It was also believed by not a few Igbo, during the war, that the Haitians were part of their lost kith and kin. Several slaves taken originally from Igbo land, wound up in the West Indies, including Jamaica and the entire island of Hispaniola, from which the French colony of Saint Domingue (later Haiti) was carved out. Did that have anything to do with Papa Doc’s recognition of Biafra, or was it purely the influence of his friendship with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president?
The rains, which had, for over three hours, mercilessly pounded Lagos, leaving an above-ankle-deep flood on the lawns of Villaska Lodge, were just beginning to abate, when a car, drove through the gates. A small group of men disembarked. Shoes and socks in hand, their trousers rolled up, they waded through the flood waters, as they approached the lodge, interrupting my thoughts and our conversation. A four-man delegation from the Ivory Coast just arrived.
“You see!” beamed Ojukwu, “I was just telling you that not a fortnight or so goes by, without the president sending someone here to see how I’m doing.”
It was such touching kindness. Even whilst in exile, in the Ivory Coast, Ojukwu had so distinguished himself that a father and son relationship developed between the guest and his host. And pretty soon, the man who could not speak one word of French, earlier, became very proficient in the language…
All through your years in exile, very little was heard about your activities, except that you became a very wealthy businessman in the Ivory Coast, by and by. Could you kindly, sir, tell the world a bit about those years?
What can I tell you? There isn’t much. What you have to understand is that exile situation, unless you’ve been in it, you cannot understand it. I was in exile for nearly 13 years. There is the initial shock of finding yourself in exile, the sort of brutal separation from your loved ones and not only loved ones, but your loved environment. These things affect one and after some period you start, naturally, to go through a lot of self-questioning: how did I come here; how did I get to this?
You retrace the steps, progressively, that led to your finding yourself in exile. And then you start off, (probably, if you’re somebody like myself) you start wondering, what have I done? Have I done it right, what would I do differently? And so on and so forth.
But you see, one is alive and sooner, or later, you’re faced with the practical problem of living. Some people react in various ways. My attitude was that I would start to work. In fact, I found that work was a sort of therapy. It helped me sustain the loneliness of exile. In fact, I got myself working, first, before trying to write or to think, politically. Because I found, also, that at the initial stages, it was very difficult to be objective.
I lived a simple life. My host was very good to me. In fact, I don’t think anybody…anybody…could have helped me as much as the President of the Ivory Coast [Felix Houphouet-Boigny]. I was an honoured guest. If I really wanted anything, I could from him. I knew that and it was a comforting feeling but I preferred, because of my pride as a Nigerian to, in fact, work for what I got. There were others that lived through the entire period of exile, being fed breakfast, lunch and supper. I found it difficult to accept. I’m an active sort of person, I play games.
The work I did…actually, a lot of people have romanticised what I did, but what was it? No. What job, in fact, does an army officer get in exile? I couldn’t become absorbed into their army; I was an administrative officer before then, I couldn’t be absorbed into the French system. So really, what could I do, teach? I couldn’t speak French…and so on and so forth. And it occurred to me that being an Ojukwu, at least, something with four wheels always worked for the family.
So I chose something that was based on four wheels. With the help of the president, I bought a couple of lorries and began shoveling sand unto them and selling to building sites. The Ivorians were rather amazed that I would do that. It proved, not as lucrative as many people would like to imagine, but it kept body and soul together. That was how I lived.
Is the business still functioning over there?
No, I haven’t got time for business, at the moment. I closed down. I do have a couple of houses and they are rented out, that’s all.
Talking about the war now, sir, how did you feel during those moments when reports came to you, sporadically, that your troops were wiped out at so and so sectors of the war?
Let us not over-dramatise, first of all, the notion that your troops are “wiped out”.
But there were incidents during the war that came quite close to that…
(Cuts in)…No, but any national disaster, is a disaster and, of course, you feel pain. You feel a lot of pain because there is no such disaster that you do not have personal contact with – you know the various people concerned, you feel the loss. But you still have a struggle on your hands. Abandoning it at that time, we felt, would certainly cause greater pain. No, there is a bit of price you have to pay in leadership. When you go out into the streets, everybody shouts at you and you feel elated at the ovation. When there is then a disaster, you carry the pains.
While in exile, I’m sure that on some days, when you were by yourself, you relieved the trauma of those civil war days. What was such experience like, in exile, especially as you may have also added to it, the dilemma of thinking that you may never see your homeland again?
No. I have always known that once there is a democratic government in Nigeria, I would come back. I have always known that.
I see, so you lived on that hope?
Well, it’s saying it a bit too much…that I lived on that hope…it’s a bit too much. I knew that I would come back.
You have spoken about the relationship between you and President Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, what was the relationship like, between you and the other heads of state that recognised Biafra?
It’s a difficult one. The President of the Ivory Coast was my host so I had personal relationship with him. The President of Gabon, I saw him a couple of times and the relationship was quite cordial and I knew that if I needed any help I could, at least, address myself to him. The presidents on the East African side were rather more remote. Apart from my letter of thanks and yearly Christmas messages and anniversary messages, we did not really have any contact, as such. The only thing that I know and this, I’m very proud of, is that the ordinary citizens from all the countries that recognised Biafra, considered me a friend and, in fact, whenever they were in Ivory Coast and whenever they knew that I was nearby, would always come and say, hello.
One gathers that when you travelled to Britain to pay the school fees of your child, or something, whilst you were in exile, you were refused entry…
(Cuts in…) No, I didn’t travel, I asked, because I usually asked that I wanted to come in – that sort of thing – yes, Britain refused.
Does that sort of relationship still exist between you and the British Government?
No, I’ve been to Britain since. I can go to Britain any time, my children are still there. It’s just that I am too busy. I haven’t been for some time. I went earlier this year – twice, in fact.
Do you feel any bitterness towards the British government for all that has happened?
Bitterness does not exist in my dictionary. I resent certain of their activity during the war. Of course, I did. I felt they didn’t play right by us. But the prime objective of every British government is to interpret British interest. The only thing I refuse is to accept that their interest is paramount, that’s all. As far as we are concerned, we have our own interest. Sometimes, they’re opposed, sometimes, they agree with one another, simple as that.
Did you have any kind of communication with the Gowon regime while you were in exile?
It depends on what you call communication. There were members of his government that I met…accidentally, sometimes; some old friends that called and saw me. And that continued throughout, not only Gowon’s regime, all the regimes. I had friends in them, all over the country and whenever they knew they could get at me, they would come in.
Is there any truth in the report that you met with officials of the Nigerian government in a London hotel, in a series of meetings, leading to your pardon?
(Pause…) I think it’s premature to answer that. But, I mean, let’s not be naïve, for an exile coming home, there must be some contacts, first. It’s normal.
There were so many stories that circulated after the war, about why Biafra did not succeed…
(Cuts in…) The miracle is actually why it succeeded for so long and not why it did not succeed…(laughter)…
How true is the story that Biafra refused to go into negotiations with some superpowers who were eyeing Biafra’s oil for some kind of a post-war deal?
First of all, a lot of people are very ignorant about the war, they don’t understand. It is a meaningless idea that you sit around a bargaining table and mortgage my oil and this and that sort of thing. I don’t even bother to answer those things. At what point, actually, did we have oil to bargain with? If you had money, would you bargain for something that I say belongs to me, that is fully in the hands of somebody else? I would think that the normal thing for you to say is, get it first, then we’ll talk…(chuckles). So when people start talking about these things, I just laugh at their ignorance.
You were reported to have physically fought in several sectors of the war and that you were actually once wounded in the Oguta sector. It was also reported that one person who did not like the idea of your coming out to fight, physically, was Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. How true were these reports?
You know there were very few of us who were really trained soldiers in Biafra and it has happened that at certain stages, I had to come out physically with the troops. I did so at Oguta, I did so at Umuahia…where else? I did a little bit at Aba; yes, at Uzuakoli, as well. I did, in fact, just in front of Awka, where Chude Sokei was killed. He was standing next to me…that sort of thing. That happens and I’m sure, in any war, particularly wars of this nature, if the opportunity arose, one would fight. I don’t consider it anything extraordinary.
Wasn’t that a big risk, for a head of state to put himself in harm’s way, in such a manner? What do you think would have happened if, for instance, it was you, rather than Colonel Sokei, don’t you think that the Biafran struggle which you personified, at that point in time, would have just come to an abrupt end?
The important thing, actually, was to win. If I didn’t win, there would be no Biafra. And, let’s get our priorities right, it’s very nice to sort of have national anthems played whenever you appear, but that would be living in a fool’s paradise. No. I think everybody should contribute what he could and at certain stages my physical presence was necessary to bolster up morale.
This is part of the business and luckily – and I thank God for that – somehow and for some reason, God decided to spare me. I was shot at, certainly. I certainly saw Nigerian troops, face-to-face, in many fronts. Even Enugu, here, I was the last to leave Enugu. I saw the Nigerian troops; they saw me, we waved to each other. The only thing was, they didn’t realise it was me. And so on.
Hmm, buildings I was in were bombed but somehow, I managed and God protected me – that, I couldn’t have escaped because there was nothing saying that this was head of state. No, one does take risks. I am glad that when the occasion arose, I was able to take such risk. And there is no point urging people to take risk when you, yourself, cannot. No. It was a price one had to pay and as I’ve said before, I thank God that he found it necessary to spare me.
Sir, can you talk a little bit about Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and also about the tales carried by many, both during and after the war, of the said indiscipline associated with Colonel Joe Achuzia, as he was severally accused of summarily executing his own soldiers? Also, how would you assess Colonel Onwuatuegwu and Major Archibong, these men who were among Biafra’s best known fighters?
(Long pause)…Don’t you think it’s a bit too early? I consider it a bit too early, actually, to start talking about the officers and trying to assess them…
Ehm, Chukwuma Nzeogwu was somebody I liked personally. He was in Kaduna when the coup took place. I did not support his effort to move down to Lagos, but that was just a disagreement. When, in fact, he finally decided to join the bulk of the army, we maintained good contact. I released him from detention. I found him very patriotic. I found him, also, very well motivated. Certain ideas he had, perhaps, I would not go for. But I liked him personally and I know that he was a very courageous young man. He was.
Then, we move on: Onwuatuegwu. In fact, I knew him better than I knew Chukwuma Nzeogwu. He also had his good points and he had his bad points, like all army officers. I know that he fought loyally. I felt that he was very patriotic.
Archibong, perhaps, was even the most courageous of all. Here was a very young man I admired, because he was totally oblivious of danger. Unfortunately – and it was a sad loss – we lost him quite early in the conflict. But he was good – very courageous one.
We talk about Achuzia. Achuzia was effective. I don’t know how much, in fact, all the sort of stories told about Achuzia were true. The thing about Achuzia – don’t forget that we had a very tight esprit-de-corps – those of us who were army officers, trained, had natural resistance to somebody coming into our midst and he was a rough-and-ready type of army officer. And I remember at one time, speaking to the officers of the High Command who were very resentful of Achuzia and they told me that he didn’t fit in well in the Officers’ Mess.
And I said, ‘For Christ’s sake, what is all this?’ And that I didn’t mind, actually, if he ate with his feet, provided he won battles. In this sort of situation, this is what you’re after. And you have to grant it to him that the fellow won battles. Of course, there was a lot of propaganda and don’t forget that our society could not conceive of the type of upheaval that an all-out war brought about. There were so many rumours, people were talking, imagining so many things. And don’t forget, some people were even talking about going to prophets, to tell them who to give bullets to and who not to give and so on and so forth.
The Igbo people came to war sort of abruptly. Their minds were not really geared to it. There were so many things that happened. What I’m trying to say about Achuzia – of course, everybody wanted to be somebody – he liked being called ‘Air Raid’, it sort of massaged his ego, I don’t blame him. He liked being called, ‘Hannibal’. No, a lot of stories, actually, I don’t think were true because, right to the end, he had a substantial number of troops that were very loyal to him and people who, whenever they knew he was in command in a certain front, flocked to him. That sort of man cannot be that wicked, can he? People were, right to the end, happy to entrust their lives to him.
No, there was a lot of jealousy and I understood it. He was not in the Nigerian Army. He came in and he was absorbed. Even, he came in through the Militia and at a certain stage, he started getting prominence. A number of people didn’t like it.
Also, during the war, certain massacres were said to have been carried out by Biafran soldiers, in certain non-Igbo areas, what do you also have to say about that, sir?
I’m not aware of that, actually and I think it’s pure propaganda. I am absolutely certain it’s pure propaganda. You see, and this is totally why I have no animosity in this business because I think I understand the psychology of a number of people.
This whole bogey about the minorities – these people, so-called minorities – were part of Eastern Nigeria. They were members of the Consultative Assembly. A lot of them stayed on and, in fact, became minorities, as it were, only after the Federal troops had overrun their areas. And I’ve always said that I, personally, do not mind whatever anybody did to survive. I understand. It would be ridiculous and suicidal for them, after the Nigerian troops had overtaken [their homelands] to start saying, ‘Oh no, we’re still Biafrans’.
This is why I can walk anywhere – in the Rivers area, in the Cross River area, all the so-called minority areas. I have friends that come in here to see me, almost on a sort of daily basis, from all over the place, friends that I knew during the war. No, let us try, it’s 13 years, you know. Let us separate propaganda from facts.
Sir, did Biafran soldiers ever victimise the minorities, or not, did you ever get such report and if indeed, you did, what did you do about it?
This is precisely one of the reasons I don’t really want to go into intimate detail [about the war]…Biafran soldiers victimised, Nigerian soldiers victimised, first and before you know, we enter into fisticuffs. One should avoid that. First of all, in a state of conflict – and you’ve got to accept that we were in a state of conflict – there was no Biafran government policy to victimise anybody, not even the enemy (in inverted commas) that were captured. That is normal.
Whether somebody did something hellish – I hope that they didn’t do – it did not come to my notice that they did but propaganda has said this and now you’re asking me to refute. To my knowledge, no Biafran soldier victimised the minorities. And tending to prove what I have said just now, a lot of the minority elements stayed with Biafra right to the end and after. What would that tend to prove? That they did not fear for their lives.
When you say victimisation, perhaps, individuals might have had personal clashes with individuals. But to really talk about victimisation of the minorities, King Jaja of Opobo, he stayed with us right to the end and there were many others. Effiong, himself, my Chief Secretary, N. U. Akpan; if their people were being victimised, why didn’t they go? Or did I sort of hold them in chains, throughout?
Some of our most brilliant soldiers were from the so-called minority areas. They stayed with us to the end, and so on and so forth. No, when we start talking about this, remove propaganda from fact. I understand the need to make that propaganda – on the other side – in the circumstance of the conflict that we were all immersed. But that is not fact. It is not fact.
What was really the force behind your ability to inspire people, particularly the young cadets? And how did you actually feel, seeing Biafran towns falling, one after the other, with people who were once living comfortably in their own homelands, milling from place to place, winding up homeless, in refugee camps, how did all this affect you?
That’s a very difficult question to answer: how I managed to inspire, I don’t know. I do not know. I am grateful to the Igbo nation for the support they gave. And, in fact, the thing one has to understand about this war, a lot of things, a lot of people have said: ‘Oh, Ojukwu did this, Ojukwu did that’. Do you know if I did everything ascribed to me, then Charles Atlas would just be a nonentity beside me. Sometimes, I almost feel like going out in the street and saying, I’m the real Killiwe…(laughter)…because, honestly, one man, to stand up, take on Nigeria, take on Britain, the United States, Russia? No. If we think seriously, then the obvious is for us to accept that, clearly, a people went to war, stop. If they didn’t, they could have turned against me at any time, during that period.
PHOTOS CREDITS- All Ojukwu pix courtesy The People’s Eye, except: Ojukwu in the battlefront, courtesy C. David-Osuagwu, Information Service of Biafra; Ojukwu in combat fatigues, courtesy Getty Images. Houphouet-Boigny, courtesy browsebiography.com; Biafran boy-soldiers, courtesy Peter Obe; Philip Effiong, courtesy Youtube; Omar Bongo/Harold Wilson/Achuzia, courtesy wikipedia.org; Nzeogwu, courtesy AP Wire Photo.