Odumegwu Ojukwu, who attracted international attention when he led the Republic of Biafraâ€™s secession from Nigeria in 1967 and subsequently waged a civil war that left more than 1 million dead â€” many of them children who succumbed to starvation â€” has died in London. He was 78.
News accounts reported that he died Nov. 25 or 26. A cause of death could not be confirmed.
Mr. Ojukwu was an unlikely rebel leader. The son of a NiÂgerÂian millionaire knighted by the Queen of England, he grew up in a mansion and attended a private high school in Surrey, England, where he set a school record for the discus throw.
At Lincoln College at the University of Oxford, he played on the rugby team and was known for his flashy clothes and red sports car. He graduated in 1955, then returned to Nigeria. He rebuffed his fatherâ€™s offer to join the family transport business and enrolled in civil service, working on community projects building roads and digging culverts.
He later joined the military â€” partly to spite his father, he said, but also because he sensed that â€œNigeria was headed for an upheaval and that the army was the place to be when the time came.â€
The most populous nation in Africa, Nigeria is on the western coast, just north of the equator. For decades, Nigeria was a British colony until declaring independence in 1960. Three years later, Nigeria became a republic within the British commonwealth.
Mr. Ojukwu rose through the army ranks before the chaos he predicted arrived in January 1966. A gang of officers overthrew the government in a coup and assassinated the prime minister.
Although Mr. Ojukwu didnâ€™t participate in the coup, he was made the military governor of Nigeriaâ€™s oil-rich eastern region, home to many ethnic Ibo Christians like himself.
A counter-coup followed a few months later that left Nigeria in disarray. Throughout the power struggle, Mr. Ojukwu kept the eastern region running smoothly and mostly independent of federal rule.
In September 1966, 20,000 Ibo were massacred in pogroms in the Muslim-dominated northern region. Mr. Ojukwu called the unprovoked aggression â€œorganized, wanton fratricide.â€
Mr. Ojukwu grew a thick, bushy beard â€œas a sign of mourning,â€ he said, for the injustice caused to the Ibo. He acceded to mounting demands of an Ibo-led secession of the eastern region, a total area of 30,000 square miles.
He announced the birth of the Republic of Biafra during a radio address at 3 a.m. on May 30, 1967. The ceremony featured a 42-gun salute and champagne served from waiters in white coats. He named his country after a NiÂgerÂian coastal inlet and chose Jean Sibeliusâ€™s â€œFinlandiaâ€ as the melody for his nationâ€™s anthem.
For much of his 30-month rule, he was a revered figure among his people. A raconteur who charmed journalists, he quoted from Shakespeare and spoke authoritatively about the reign of King Louis XIV of France. He landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1968 and gained sympathetic followers such as the celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who moved to Biafraâ€™s capital and later wrote many books inspired by the secession.