Ojukwu & Igbo Leadership

I am ambivalent about the past because on the one hand, the past is irretrievably lost, but on the other hand, the present is only a reflection of the past, and an understanding of the past provides necessary tools for resolving the problems of the present. So, while there are many more contemporary issues that should rivet the focus of most imaginative writers, I cannot help to retrospect, and glean insights from the events of the past. As we ponder the vast scene of confusion that is our beloved country, are we not confronted with the inexorable reality that our present problems are the direct results of the happenings of yesteryears. Not surprisingly, as I brood over the plight of the Igbo nation, I am irresistibly drawn to the past, to the civil war. While there may be some fundamental cultural and historical factors that militate against Igbo political progress, it was the civil war that actually deal the Igbo a bludgeoning blow. To really address the present Igbo political problems, we cannot escape an objective assessment of that war and the central figure in that war, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.

Ojukwu’s recent presence in the Washington DC area did not inspire much enthusiasm within the Igbo community. The Igbo’s earlier perception of him was shaped through the distorted prisms of the Biafran propaganda. The Biafran propaganda apotheosized him, so, in the Igbo minds, he became something of a deity, an invaluable political asset. But, over the years, he proved himself a political profligate, improvidently spending his political capital. His repeated political blunders, especially, that his infamous waltz with Sani Abacha demystified and stripped him of much of his political legitimacy. It left him devoid of any political good will, except for the lingering grip of the Biafran propaganda on some Igbo minds.

As an emissary of the Abacha government, he was in Washington DC. His mission then was to burnish the badly blemished image of the Abacha government, evidently for a consideration. It was 1995, and he stood before an exclusively Igbo audience. As usual, he was a riveting presence: a consummate orator, a captivating demagogue. With credulous and adoring listeners, he was spouting some half truths, twisted facts and some downright falsehood; and his audience in their gullibility were applauding.

That forum reinforced my earlier conviction that the problem with politicians is that they generally lie too much, that the problem with their following is that they barely think, and that it is the volatile mix of these two worrisome realities that has brought the world most of its political calamities.

He said that the Igbo will provide the next Nigerian president. Surprisingly, this statement drew a thunderous applause from his audience. I was appalled by this brazen piece of demagoguery. I crafted some questions for him. I wanted to rattle him with some pointed questions. I raised my hand frantically, but I was not allowed the opportunity to ask any of my questions. The self-appointed Igbo leaders of Washington DC were at work. It was their evening, and they were putting a spin on it. They have a penchant for ingratiating the Nigerian Embassy, and fawning over every important visitor from Nigeria. So, in their customary sycophancy, they orchestrated the event in a way that will preclude serious questions that may disconcert the August visitor. Applicants for the most menial jobs are subjected to rigorous interviews. Lamentably, men who lay claim to the leadership of a people are shielded from meaningful questions from those whom they supposedly lead. Evidently, we carried across the Atlantic elements of that hero-worshipping that imperiled accountability in Nigeria public life.

The Igbo producing the next president as of 1995? Staggering nonsense! After all, Moshood Abiola who was wasting away in jail as of then was a crony of the northern dominated military elite and an intimate friend of the northern aristocracy. Moreover, like the majority of the northerners, he was a Moslem. If the northern powerbrokers could not trust him with power, what Igbo could they have entrusted with it.

In the same speech, he also extolled the Constitutional Conference. The Constitutional Conference was tendentious rubbish, a gaudy political ploy that kept the politicians busy while Abacha tightened his hold on power. It was something of a nursery game at which a bunch of venal politicians played at the supervision of Sani Abacha. Ojukwu and the other Igbo leaders stampeded into the Constitutional Conference ostensibly to “enshrine” rotational presidency, and the devolution of power to regional units in the new constitution. What of the previous constitutions, and all the grandiose ideals enshrined in them? Were they not all violated, and shoved aside at the whims of the northern feudal lords and their military surrogates. If all previous constitutions were tossed away as worthless pieces of paper, what was to ensure the sacrosanctity of the one written by the Constitutional Conference? If the Hausa/Fulani as of then were refusing to rotate the presidency with the Yoruba who had been their allies for about 30 years, why would anyone expect them to rotate it with the Igbo whose presidency, in the words of Abubakar Umar (supposedly, a progressive), “will be too much for the country to bear”?

I had a feeling that Ojukwu left that forum dismayed by the quality of his listeners, that is, not knowing that it was the hero-worshippers in their traditional shamelessness who deliberately searched out mostly the incoherent, and inarticulate to ask questions. Is Ojukwu really a hero, or do we just glory in nonentities?

In a naval battle in the South Atlantic, the British Navy disabled a German warship, and the commander of the German warship, Hans Langsdorff shot himself in the head. In his suicide note, he stated that “for a captain with a sense of honor…his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship”. Ship, captain, and honor. What of nation, leader, and honor? “In politics and statecraft”, Richard Nixon once wrote “power means life or death, prosperity or poverty, happiness or tragedy for millions of people”.

Honor linked the personal fate of a captain to that of his ship. So, quite naturally, honor should inextricably bind the personal fate of a leader to the life or death, happiness or tragedy of his people. Ojukwu led the Igbo in a war against northern domination of Nigeria. That war was not wrong in itself. However, while there were insinuating circumstances that impugned the basis for one Nigeria, Biafranism was not the only political option open to the Igbo. Eastern Region of Nigeria, even Igboland was not an ideological monolith. There were contending views as to the response to the mass murder Easterners in northern Nigeria. There were knowledgeable and respectable voices who urged for a more circumspect approach. Nnamdi Azikiwe among others disagreed with Ojukwu’s methods, and counseled against his policy of secession. Ojukwu ignored and/or suppressed all such dissenting views, and set off on his own political course. So, he is liable for Biafranism, and all the pains, sorrows, and ravages it wrought on the Igbo. Even the qualified endorsement of secession by the Ojukwu appointed Consultative Assembly does not in any way exonerate him from this responsibility.

Yakubu Gowon was then an ill-baked, insecure and mild-mannered ethnic and religious minority foisted on Nigeria by the northern feudal lords and neo-colonial interests. He was inexorably beholden to his northern masters and Yoruba allies. Still, he is culpable for the war to keep Nigeria and all its concomitant horrors. Even in democracies where the leader’s choices are circumscribed by the constitutional prerogatives of the parliament/congress, the leader is still held answerable to his political decisions and actions. For example, in spite of the intrinsic limitations placed on leadership by the institutional moorings of democracy, it will be most grotesque to suggest that Winston Churchill was not responsible for the British stance in the 2nd World War, or that President Roosevelt be not accountable for both the New Deal and American involvement in the 2nd World War.

Soldiers by both training and orientation are ill equipped for political leadership. Edward Gibbon, that 18th century man of letters, once wrote that “…the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and (servitude), renders them very unfit guardians of a legal or even a civil constitution. Justice, humanity, or political wisdom, are qualities they are too little acquainted with in themselves to appreciate them in others”. In spite of these inherent handicaps, the soldiers were thrust into Nigeria politics by a political accident. They were neither expecting it nor prepared for it. Out of the confines of the barracks and the parochialism and regimentation of military life, these young army officers were overnight saddled with enormous powers and responsibilities. That mixture of military brashness, political power and youthful ebullience was to be a dangerous experiment. Yakubu Gowon, probably conscious of his limitations, sought the advise of the politicians – older men and experienced men. Ojukwu, on the other hand, befogged by his imperiousness, arrogance and superciliousness, ignored the counsel of older and experienced politicians, notably Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Azikiwe, although notorious for his equivocation and inconsistence, was still universally revered for his learning, prudence and experience. It was a profound act of irresponsibility for a 33year old soldier to rebuff the political advise of the father of Nigerian nationalism renowned for his political instincts and intellectual penetration. It smacked in the face of the traditional Igbo, actually African respect for age and the wisdom of the elders. He chose to tread his own political path, a path devoid of the foresight, staidness and somber reflection of the elder, but replete with youthful impulsiveness, wanton despotism and military license. Not surprisingly, he led the Igbo into a quagmire of powerlessness and helplessness.

By building an autonomous power structure that defied, and to some extent repressed the traditional Igbo political power structure, he disjointed and severely weakened the Igbo leadership order. Historically and culturally, the Igbo do not readily submit to a hierarchical social order, or coalesce around a leader. So, the pre-1966 power establishment in Igboland must have been painstakingly cobbled together over many decades. Ojukwu’s repudiation of the established Igbo leadership form, rocked that traditional power structure to its core. Subsequent swipes at it after the civil war only furthered the deterioration of an already decrepit system. War is an infernal monster that racks, devours and devastates. It generally takes its highest toll on the youths. With their reckless idealism, impressionable minds and an excitability that can easily be kindled, they are readily whipped into a frenzy. Youthful idealism and exuberance are forged into combat material by military training, a zombification process that drills men into obeying orders unquestioningly. The word “infantry” evolved from the French word for child because of the child-like compliance instilled in soldiers. For every soldier thus trained, armed, and ordered into battle, his stake is clear. He is staking his life for some lofty ideals as made believe by the leadership. But, what are the moral obligations of that supreme commander who is ordering young men to their death in droves from the comfort and security of his bunker? What are the stakes for him that has convinced young men that the struggle was worth their lives, hundreds of thousands of them?

Some leaders in history dramatized the stakes of leadership under such circumstances. As the German Third Reich with all its attendant dreams tumbled down, Adolf Hitler took his own life, and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister for propaganda, killed his six children,. and with his wife, Magda, committed suicide. When her revolt against Roman suzerainty ended in her defeat, the Icenic queen, Boudica, drank poison and died. But, as it all closed in on Emeka Ojukwu, he packed his bag and baggage and ran away.

The civil war exposed the Igbo to untold hardship. The Igbo persevered in the fight because they believed in the superior validity of their cause, and were acutely conscious of the unmitigated danger of northern hegemony. That war decimated the flower and promise of Igboland (it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Igbo youth died in that war), and the associated hunger took a devastating toll on the Biafran populace. It did irreparable damages to many families, and irretrievably shattered many dreams.

If the war for Igbo self-determination was worth that many lives, and such a colossal sacrifice, was it not worth Ojukwu’s life? If Biafranism was not Ojukwuism, that is, if in Biafra, Ojukwu was not merely serving a personal interest, or realizing a personal ambition, if he was giving expression to the collective aspirations of the Igbo, then his personal survival of the war was not important, because there will always be men to lead the Igbo, and consequently give voice to the Igbo interests and aspirations in accordance with the social and political realities of the time. These men need to be guided by examples. Ojukwu should have therefore been prepared to die with Biafra as a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of men who died obeying his orders, an atonement for the pains and sorrow his decisions and choices cost his people, and above all, as an example to future generations of Igbo leaders. The example being that no Igbo leader should ever abandon the Igbo in times of adversity, that every Igbo man, especially, those in authority – those who have been entrusted with the fate of the entire ethnic group – must be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Igbo nation.

The public good requires the rigorous subordination of the individual to the nation. According to Richard Goodman, “the process of the individual life is bound by irrevocable limits”; it is but a blip in time inexorably sandwiched between birth and death – just a breathe that can be snuffed out by the vagaries of life. On the other hand, the life of the nation is eternal.

Therefore no sacrifice made by the individual for the group can ever be too much. The obsession by man to cling unto to life is laudable, even sublime as long as it is not given precedence to the welfare of the entire group. As the war ended, the issue was not Ojukwu’s personal survival, but the future of the Igbo nation. Laying the ground rule for this future was more important for the Igbo nation than the continued existence of any one individual, because irrespective of any one’s station in life, he is but a dispensable cog of history.

The future of a people is predicated on their collective attitudinal disposition (especially attitude towards sacrifice, honor and loyalty) and the quality of their leaders. Ojukwu led the Igbo through the most trying period of their history. To the Igbo, the civil war was both attitudinal and psychological watershed. Wars, especially of such devastation brings about a convulsive transformation of the society, a sharp break with the past. This break was obvious in different facets of Igbo life, but especially in the Igbo mindset; there was a psychological and attitudinal shift. Overhanging this shift was Ojukwu’s abandonment of the Igbo.

Ojukwu’s desertion of the Igbo had a subliminal, but profound effect on the Igbo psyche. It perverted the Igbo value system, and debased her public virtue. Subliminally, it impressed on the Igbo, especially those in authority that it was alright to use your people for personal advancement, and abandon them when things go wrong. It ushered into the Igbo ranks a new culture – a culture of opportunism. It is this culture of opportunism, more than any other single factor that has been the bane of the Igbo nation since the end of the civil war.

A man who was poised to cash in on power, grandeur and history if the “toil, sweat, tear and blood” of his people pay off, and prepared to run away if everything goes crashing, is not a hero, not even a leader, but an opportunist who gambled with human lives. On the other hand, we should always respect the courage, and determination of those men who made up that ill-equipped, but indomitable army that bogged down the Nigerian military machine for nearly 3 years. We should always appreciate the sacrifices of those young men who had their lives rent permanently, and their future turned bleak by the crippling and disfiguring injuries they sustained fighting for Biafra. Finally, we should always remember, and pay tribute to those fallen heroes who laid down their youthful lives for Biafra.

Dec 2002

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