This month I yield this space to excerpts of an interview with Late Chief Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, culled from Tribune Newspapers published on Saturday, 03 December 2011
In life, his image loomed large. In death, quintessential Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, has also remained an enigma, going by the avalanche of glowing tributes from the high and low, following his demise last Saturday in a London hospital. In his book, Because I Am Involved, the ever-blunt and cerebral leader of the defunct Biafram Republic, gave his candid views and estimation of some past and present Nigerian leaders and his wife, Bianca. Excerpts:
HOW does a son begin to assess, for posterity, the virtues or otherwise of his own father? In asking me my opinion about Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha, you have, as it were, put me in a very tight spot – nothing I say can pass the test of objectivity. Here is a man, I have known all my life; a man I was brought up to give even more respect than my father; a man who looks a giant in every respect within my childhood memory. He was the indefatigable fighter for freedom and equality. To all intents and purposes, Zik inserted the word ‘politics’ into my life’s dictionary. I respected, I worshipped, I considered him a hero, and saw him as a living legend.
At independence, he cut a rather tragic figure. He was to me the symbol of a Nigeria that might have been, but was not. He became the one Nigerian, alongside whom every other Nigerian achievement, every other success, paled in comparison. He became Governor-General, the Queen’s official representative. He later became President — a ceremonial executive. Throughout the First Republic, it slowly permeated the perception of the masses that his position in terms of power was empty. He could not dissociate himself from the inequities of the First Republic. He could not intervene to halt the inequities, and from time to time we saw him justifying and rationalising actions we were sure conflicted with his better judgment. With bitterness, we began to learn that Zik, whom the British colonial administration could never incarcerate, he willingly constituted himself a prisoner of what appeared to us as northern interests. With many others, I began to feel let down. During the war, which to a certain extent was a war to free him, he rallied to the Biafran side but later switched his support when it appeared the Biafran resistance would fail.
Deriving from this act, many have questioned his commitment to the Igbo. Many have recalled that he is of Onitsha extraction and that Onitsha has with great pride claimed and continued to claim a non-Igbo lineage. The foregoing, coupled with the fact that the Igbo appear today to be marginalised and lacking in any appreciable influence within the power structure of Nigeria invariably has made the leadership of the Igbo by Zik a subject of a vast amount of discussion. In my own candid opinion, Zik did not set out to lead the Igbo and has not in fact led the Igbo. He has been first and foremost a Nigerian who aspired to a Nigerian leadership. When the British withdrew in 1960, Nigeria was left in the hands of three great men. Of the three, Zik could be said to have been the dreamer whilst the others were hard-headed realists. Zik believed, worked for and made sacrifices for a Nigeria that had not yet come into existence – the ideal Nigeria. Those who followed him worked for this ideal, and perforce had to make sacrifices for this ideal. It is only natural that finding this ideal increasingly unattainable, they found themselves deflated and deprived vis a vis the realists, who from the beginning, ensured for their groups a share of whatever was going.
I have no quarrel with Zik, I cannot quarrel with Zik. I am rather too small for that. In Igbo culture and tradition, a son cannot quarrel with his father. Zik is my father. I grew up on his lap. My father considered him his friend and testified to this fact at the Foster-Sutton tribunal. It is true that he and I have not agreed on many issues. This is more due to the generation gap than to anything else. Our ambitions are different — where he would appear to wish to lead the Igbo, I would be content to serve them. In Igbo language, we say that one does not choose one’s relatives, but friends. As a father, I love and respect him. As a politician, I disagree with his policies which I believe, to a large extent, have left the Igbo naked.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo
In political terms, he would be considered an adversary of the Igbo given the intense rivalry between him and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. As a leader of the modern cast, he has left Nigeria standards which are indelible, standards beside which future aspirations to public leadership can be eternally measured. He was, for a long time, the only Nigerian leader that enunciated principles and played down personalities. He was a brilliant political administrator and a most erudite teacher. He not only identified himself wholly with the aspirations of the Yoruba people of Nigeria but also he was able to convince the Yoruba people of Nigeria that he, only he epitomised the highest point of their political aspirations and consciousness. He was loved, he was feared but above all he belonged to the people he professed to lead. At his death I had the singular honour of proposing for him this epitaph that has endured — ‘he was the best President that Nigeria never had.’
Many have wondered what I meant by this, but I believe the statement was clear. Nigeria would have benefitted from his presidency because of his innate presidential qualities. Nigeria must continually regret that he never, for many reasons, had the opportunity to serve at the presidential level. Awo was a leader of great stature. He was a leader who was eminently successful. That he did not fulfil a presidential ambition cannot detract from his leadership, and us, poor us, who were not his people, must continue to regret that our own leaders had not led us as he did his people or achieved for us as he did for his people.
He perceived his job as leading his people and God bless his soul. He did a lot for them. Whenever he saw an opportunity for his people, he went for it. He had a dream for the Yorubas and was steadfast in the pursuit of that dream. He knew where he was going and he took his people with him without deceit. That is why he will remain immortal in the area of his influence.
Sir Ahmadu Bello
Whenever children, the heirs of our today, read the history of Nigeria the one name that must command admiration and one which will, without doubt, attract the largest fan club would be that of Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto. Here was a man every inch a prince who bestrode the Nigeria of his days and won, if not admiration, then the respect of friends and foes alike. Here was a man who roused the sleeping giant of the North from its centuries old slumber and within the short span of six years placed it in a dominant position in Nigeria. He laid he foundations of a northern pre-eminence in Nigeria that has lasted until today and which threatens to last into a future without limit. In all his actions the Sardauna was regal. When arrogant, his arrogance was perceived and accommodated as the normal prerogative of royalty – sort of droit de seigneur.
His perception of Nigeria was perhaps different from mine. He was more of a continuation of the Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio’s grand design, than the creation of a modern Nigeria which favours accommodation as opposted to absorption. Everything Sir Ahmadu believed, he believed sincerely. He was both haughty and down to earth, he was loved by those he led, of both high and low estate. He understood his people and inspired them to heights which they never appeared to think possible. As a leader, he was superb and very successful. As a Nigerian leader we all wished he led us all, directed us all and inspired us all. His legacy was, however, a legacy of competition, a legacy of a dialogue into which the North entered from a position of strength.
Sir Ahmadu Bello was in every sense a giant. He perceived Northern Nigeria as his domain and proceeded by sheer force of character to pull up that section of Nigeria from its bootstraps. He took over the leadership of the North when the North was weak and disadvantaged. When he left the scene after a short spell of time, the North had become the bully which everyone feared. He was a great leader of his people.
People make me laugh when they talk about an enmity between Yakubu Gowon and Ojukwu. That Gowon and I did not see eye to eye on certain issue was as a result of our different perceptions of the situation at the time. These were perceptions built into our being in Nigeria. If I were from the North my perception of the situation would have been entirely different, just as if Gowon had been from the East. In leading the war we both postured. For anyone, therefore, to try and extend this posturing and make it permanent on the national stage, to my mind, is sterile. I will most certainly invite Gowon to my house for lunch any day.
Then came Obasanjo. I would have felt some relief at Obasanjo’s ascendancy. Afterall, I had known him earlier as a young officer who joined the 1st Brigade on exercise in Kano. I remembered him well and remembered his rather portly presence that never ceased to amuse. I remembered his rather unpropitious return from the United Kingdom into the Nigerian infantry. I remembered that we had been friends, that I had discussed his service prospect with Brigadier Ademulegun who later advised Obasanjo to transfer to the Corps of Engineers. We had been sufficiently intimate and since I could not call him Oba, I had opted with tongue in check to call him Omo-Oba. I remembered him during the Ifeajuna coup. He had just returned from a course and was used as an intermediary between General Ironsi and Major Nzeogwu in Kaduna.
My initial enthusiasm on his becoming the Nigerian Head of State was rather dampened by the thought of certain unfortunate statement he was alleged to have made after the war, about the war, about the vanquished areas to a people he was directed to reconcile and reintegrate. I was confused by the novelty of his concept of dual sovereignty — ‘The Murtala-Obasanjo Regime.’ I was enthused by his peaceful hand-over to civilian rule, dismayed by his reference to juju in the search for a South African solution, excited by his forthright commentary on contemporary Nigerian matters and absolutely elated by his leadership forum: its concept, articulation and execution. If I were to give a confidential report on this great son of Nigeria, my verdict would be that ‘Here was a man who without being a great statesman in his time grew to become the greatest statesman of his time.’
What can I say about this very beautiful young girl that won the 1989 Miss Inter-Continental pageant? I must confess that having only met her once (as of the time of writing the book), I cannot claim to know her and neither was I present in the audience when she won her very-much coveted crown. The year, 1988, must have been for her a year of triumph and naturally as a Nigerian I pray that she continues for ever to triumph.
I won’t comment more on her phenomenon than on her person for I feel more to ease with this for if after looking at her photographs in the newspaper or viewing the repeat broadcasts of her Inter-Continental triumph, if after seeing this, I exclaim with all men that she is beautiful, it would be like standing in front of the Empire State Building in New York and exclaiming that the building is high. I would be stating the obvious and it would be trite.
I must state categorically that I do not see anything wrong in beauty pageants and beauty contests. What I regret is that very often the beautiful ones are not, for one reason or the other, on view. There can be no doubt that beauty, like all gifts, is an asset. An acclaimed international beauty is a national asset - like a champion in any sphere of activity. This year, Nigeria must be proud that for once we have brought forward a beauty that can compete favourably with the best in the world. We have a queen we can proudly proclaim, not as a matter of jingoism or with tongue in cheek, but rather with the full confidence that we have a world-beater.
Like all endeavours, winning beauty contests is not an easy matter. It is an effort that demands absolute self-discipline. It is an effort that begins even before birth, carries through home training and years of self-denial comparable to the commitment of a world class athlete. Because beauty is all pervasive, not just a matter of physical proportions, positioning and production, but rather compromises equally of internal and latent moral and intellectual attributes, more is demanded of the beauty queen than the athlete. The athlete is permitted emotional tantrums whilst his private peccadillos are accommodated provided he wins. The queen is granted no such indulgence. Like Caesar’s wife, she must, at all times, be beyond reproach. In Nigeria today, we have at least one girl that can meet with all these standards — Miss Bianca Onoh. We should all be proud of her. When she returns home with the Miss Universe crown, Nigeria would have produced another world champion, would have won another gold in an international competition, another platinum disc award, an Oscar, a Nobel Prize. When this happens, the vehicle for such international acclaim and honour shall be none other than Miss Bianca Onoh.
Here is one Nigerian who has never appeared to want to be anyone else, anything else but Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Fela has indisputable genius. He has been and still remains one of the finest musicians on the African continent and it is most gratifying for me as a Nigerian to note the very wide acceptability which his music commands worldwide. When Fela is criticised, it is usually because of his life style. No individual is perfect. Fela is Fela and can never be Emeka just as Emeka is Emeka and can never be Fela. He is a political gadfly, a social critic and an indefatigable fighter against all forms of pomposity and hypocrisy. When he acts, his aim is to reduce the target of his action from the sublime to the ridiculous.
His lesson is to teach us not to take ourselves too seriously, to get into the habit of laughing at ourselves. Fela is an eccentric. When a society is not sufficiently elastic to accommodate essentricism that society, and not the eccentric, is sick. Our society needs Fela as a therapy; Fela reduces tension within our society. Whenever he forces authority to descend from its pedestal to join issues with the pedestrian, it is the authority that loses, it is the authority that appears ridiculous and it is the authority that we end up laughing at.
Whenever a final history of this country of ours is written, I am sure that the name of Gani Fawehinmi would merit a prominent passage. Gani symbolises, perhaps, the very best of professionalism in an epoch where everything including the intellectualism is up for sale to the highest bidder. Gani is, without doubt, one of the nation’s best lawyers and perhaps also the hardest working. Where others lawyers are content to win cases, Gani’s aim remains to employ his very extensive knowledge of law to ensure justice. To him fees are of a minor consideration. What he always considers important is that the poor obtain from him the best legal protection against the rich and powerful. When he goes to court, it is very often to pose a pillar that will become part of the perimeter fence of social justice.
He is fearless and would not hesitate to take the initiative in pointing out and challenging the excesses of authority. Gani is a firm believer in the supremacy of Law. He is a crusader for the establishment in Nigeria of that supremacy. He believes the lawyer is an officer of the court and not the agent of a client. Naturally, his uncompromising posture in his relentless pursuit of social justice irritates governments. Indeed, the more autocratic and fascist the government authority, the more irritation Gani causes. Yet, there can be no doubt that Nigeria is better off with the courageous crusade of this lone-ranger.