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Saturday, 29 January, 2000, 17:53 GMT
Biafran leader looks back

Biafrian fighter Ibo people fought for short-lived independence

By Nigeria Correspondent Barnaby Phillips

All things considered, life has turned out pretty well for Emeka Ojukwu.

The man who led Biafra in one of Africa's most terrible post-independence wars is now living comfortably in Enugu - the very same city from where he made his secessionist declaration one fateful day in 1967.

Biafra war
Starts 1967 after Ibos in eastern Nigeria secede
One million deaths
Biafrans defeated 1970 by federal Nigerian forces
Secessionist leader Ojukwu exiled, later pardoned
He looks well - no longer a "brilliant 33-year-old" - his words, not mine - but now a 66-year- old elder statesman.

To an extent, he's still surrounded by the trappings of power: a big house in an exclusive part of town, an old limousine parked outside, and a group of sycophantic assistants, far too young to remember the war, who address him as "your excellency".

Prestige and respect matter to Chief Emeka Ojukwu, just as they mattered to Colonel Emeka Ojukwu some 30 years ago.


In his spacious living room, amid the garish collection of imitation Louis XIV furniture, are a couple of very regal thrones.

In the best Nigerian tradition, Chief Ojukwu has collected a pair of traditional titles- he's not only the Ikemba of Nnewi, he's also the Eze di Oranma of Iboland.

He's a wonderful man to talk with, a man who loves to reminisce about the past, and his part in it.

In Ojukwu's world, there is no room for self-doubt, not even after one million deaths, and 30 years to reflect on the tragedy of Biafra.

His eyes momentarily flashed with anger when I asked whether he felt any personal responsibility, or even guilt - It was evidently not the kind of question those sycophantic assistants had been putting to him.

He fixed me with his stare.

"My people - the Ibo - were faced with genocide. We had no choice".


It is true that thousands of Ibo people were killed in terrible ethnic pogroms in the months before the war - and that these killings led many Ibos to believe that they could no longer live in Nigeria.

Biafran Army Chief Ojukwu believes his forces were betrayed by foreign governments
But there are also those who are convinced that Chief Ojukwu's own ambition hastened the descent to war, and then prolonged it unnecessarily, long after it became apparent that Biafra faced a slow and devastating defeat.

Chief Ojuwku prefers to remember, and blame, those who let him down - above all, the British, the former colonialists, who chose to back Nigeria, despite strong support for Biafra from prominent writers and politicians in London.

"We could never understand how the British could not see the justice of our cause" he says, the sense of betrayal all the more bitter for this Oxford-educated man, who still retains his Oxford accent, and who always moved with ease through the British establishment.

Paying the price

But if Ojukwu is still mulling over the events of what he calls "those days", there are others in what was Biafra who are still paying the price.

Ojukwu never shows any interest in us
War veteran
On the outskirts of Enugu there is a pathetic sight. Each morning dozens of men - old men now - position their wheelchairs by the roadside, and wait for passing motorists to throw them some loose change.

These are Biafra's wounded veterans - men for whom defeat has been followed by 30 years of humiliation.

Michael Okafor was once a sergeant in Ojukwu's army. Now he says he wants the Nigerian government to stop punishing him for having fought on the wrong side all those years ago, he wants to be treated like any other Nigerian.

And what about the man who led Michael during the war?

"Ojukwu?" Michael fired back. "He never shows any interest in us, he's not concerned with our plight."

Distant memory

But for most Nigerians, Biafra is history. This is a young country - like everywhere in Africa the vast majority of people were not even born 30 years ago - and only a small proportion of Nigerians have direct memories of the war.

Biafran captives Ibo captives rounded up after Biafra's surrender
The underground bunker from where Emeka Ojukwu planned his doomed campaign, and from where Radio Biafra pumped out its relentless propaganda, is now part of a museum.

The gardens are full of the improvised armoured cars and pieces of artillery which the Biafrans, brave and resourceful, built by themselves. Small children clamber over the rusting weapons, laughing and singing.

Here I met another veteran, a former corporal, helping to guard the premises. Not, I would have thought, a terribly well-educated man.

We got talking, and I asked whether anything good had come out of the war. He looked down and then said:

"Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."

It's Shakespeare, a quotation from As You Like It, and a very eloquent way of saying that every cloud has a silver lining. The war had been so terrible that Nigeria would never risk another.

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See also:
03 Sep 99 |  Africa
Nigeria: A history of coups
18 Feb 99 |  Africa
Nigeria's ethnic divisions
03 Jan 00 |  Africa
Secret papers reveal Biafra intrigue
12 Jan 00 |  Africa
Biafra: Thirty years on

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