LIKE THE PHOENIX
• Debe Ojukwu
Debe Sylvester Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the late Ikemba's eldest son is precisely a chip of the old block. He cuts in a special way, the split image of his father-the eye popping, gesticulations, mannerisms, voice modulation, physiognomy, charisma, shining brilliance, a clone, in self admittance. Debe, lawyer by profession sits atop the legendary family business empire in Lagos. In this interview with Daily Sun, he speaks with deep fond memories of his late father, his love for his people, his interests lifestyle and the things that propelled him.
His death, in his view is not the end of an era, since 'It is something that runs in the family. His own grandfather, Ojukwu Ezeigbo was a great warrior. The history did not start with him. It will not end with him.'
He reveals nostalgically that his late father deliberately chose the business name of Phoenix, a mythical bird of the desert which lives long and on its death burns and from the ashes, another emerges. He speaks more on the vintage Dim, philosophy, and how he'll be remembered.
First of all, condolences on the death of your father. What are the things you will remember him for?
At times like this, you need the co-operation and sympathy of all, to be able to move yourself through these difficult times. What is instructive about my late father is his humility. His simplicity. His compassionate love. It was from him that first and foremost, I learnt the basic lesson that if you want to be loved, the only way to get it is to exude compassionate love.
Tell Nigerians about yourself.
There is really nothing much to say. I am Chief Debe Sylvester Odumegwu-Ojukwu. I am a lawyer by profession. The first child and son of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
Growing up, how was it under your father's tutelage?
I was born when he was an assistant district officer. His life spanned from the native authority, the civil service to the Army and back to politics. So then, in his growing years, when he was developing himself, he was not much around. By influence I was so much with my mother.
What is the name of your mother?
My mother's name is Margaret. She died Mrs. Margaret Ugbogu, having remarried after they parted. From Iwororie.
She is dead now?
She is dead.
She died in what year?
She died three years ago, in 2008.
Only three years ago. At what age?
At the age of 70.
What have you been able to learn from the life of your father who many see as a hero?
It still goes down to my opening answer. The love. Initially I was befuddled as to why the out pouring of love to him by the Igbo. If you check the history of civil wars, there is hardly any leader of a civil war who came back alive. Robert lee of USA was killed after the American civil war. But he fought the war. Left Nigeria. Stayed out of Nigeria for almost thirteen years. Came back and his people still received him.
Ojukwu, Ikemba, the icon left a lot of foot prints in the sands of time. If you were to ask for a realignment of his life. Would you still believe he should fight another war.
My father did not fight a war. My father was dragged into a war. He was dragged into a war, because of the pogrom of his people in certain parts of Nigeria. He had the opportunity to move over like others did to Britain, where he had spent about ten years.
Where he knew like the back of his palm. He had the opportunity of going to Oxford as a lecturer, or even translocating to any of the Ivyleague Universities in the world. With his academic background, he would have well fitted out as an academic. But he chose, in the face of daunting problems, not to abandon his people. That is something that is very worthy of emulation. So, I will not agree that he fought a war. He was dragged into a war. And I believe that if he were to reincarnate and the same conditions present themselves, knowing him the way I do, he will react the same way.
The only way to prevent him from being involved in a war is not to drag him into the war. It is not to be mean or oppressive to the poor people of the world. Once there is injustice, he rises to the occasion. It is not only him. It is something that runs in the family. His own grand-father, Ojukwu-Ezeigbo was a great warrior. The history did not start with him. It will not end with him. To understand him properly, you need to do retrospection and read the history of the Ojukwu family. What he did; in the nuclear family, we are never surprised by that. Because that is the way we are.
When was the last time you spoke with him, and can you recollect what he told you. Were there any special things he told you before he became sick and eventually died.
There are many things.
Can you recollect one or two of the remarkable things?
There are many of them, starting from many years ago till now. He had always wanted to make me his footstool. He had always wanted to see me always by his side. But I am always telling him, 'I am your clone. So, I don't need to learn from you'. We think alike. We behave alike. In fact, before he starts doing a thing, the only way I understand it is that I transport myself into the situation he finds himself. And in most cases, I will come to the conclusion, that I will almost do the same.
I sat down with him one day, we were discussing, I said 'what will you do if you were sitting with your friend and you suddenly bend over, then on raising your head, you found out that your friend has aimed a blow at the particular spot where your head was before you bent over, then you turned and looked at your friend and he said sorry?' My father told me that he would give him a safe berth. Give him a very wide berth. 'Why would you do that?' He said perhaps the only reason why he told him sorry was because his head was not off (general laughter).
Then again in Yamossokouro in Cote D'ivore, he told me one day. He had a company, and his company name was Phenix Africa. I was curious. He said Phenix in French meant a paragon. You know Phoenix is a mythical bird of the desert. It lives for a long time, but when it is about to die, it burns. When it burns, the ashes descend. Like in a supernova, another Phoenix emerges.
I have always related with him in parables. I never allowed him to tell me all his mind. But from the snippets of proverbs and things he says, he tells me deep things, I infer what he thinks about things. That is why when I discuss with him, I tell him we relate more spiritually than physically. He told me that death is nothing, that death is for the living and not for the dead. That the dead hardly knew what you are doing for them. That if he were the one lying down and his family, friends, waste time, fret in committing him to mother earth, he might start bursting from the stomach. And every basic rudimentary student of biology knows that that is where the worms come from. He once told me that. That was when I realised that this is a man that doesn't attach too much importance to anything material.
Let's come over to the family side; the Ojukwu family is like a dynasty. There are about three or four trees back in the ages. Your father was not the first son, I want to believe. But he is the well recognised son of the Ojukwu dynasty. Did he leave behind any will?
Well the issue of will is not for people to speculate on. As a lawyer, I know the procedure on wills. The lawyer who writes a will hardly divulges anything on the will. It is when they have done total burial, and everything that anybody who is in custody of anything will arrange to have it read. I am not speculating about it. I am not interested.
Actually, there was a day he was writing one, with his lawyer. He asked me to come and sit, I said no, not on your life. He said why? I said I don't know if I am a beneficiary and I don't want to know. And the rule in the writing of will is that the beneficiary should not be there and should not know what was written. But I knew what he was doing. In his magnanimity, I don't know why he said I should come and sit. Even though I know the lawyer who wrote it, I am hardly on talking terms with him.
There is another son of his who is well known, in fact many Nigerians have come to believe that he is the first son. Why is it so? Why is the family not properly organised to bring up somebody that should act as the first son?
Well, in the history book we were reading before, there was this story of the six wise men, six of them went to see the elephant. One touched the trunk and said 'oh my God, it is like a wall. 'Another one touched the trumpet and said the elephant is like a trumpet. My father is very big.
Ideally, you should not be talking about two sons, but many sons in many facets of society. What determines the first son is age. Nothing more. Nothing less. Here and now, I tell you, he is my junior brother and he is Ojukwu's son. Because when you put two of us side by side, I am senior. If he goes about claiming first son, all well and good. We might even go towards the burial and another son comes, who is older than me, what do I do? Will I still say I am the first son?
That is the way, it is. In man's affairs, until it ends, you cannot really put a finger about what is going on.
You are talking about the will, the will might come out and all of us-even myself may not be there. He might be groping in the political world. Some people might say I am groping in the business world. We might go to read the will and somebody else emerges. If that person is older than me, I will be very foolish to say I am the first son. Because first son by Igbo culture is determined by age. It is not determined by clamour. It is not a political appointment.
You are older than him by how many years.
I think by eight years. I was born on third of August, 1956. He (Ikemba) was ADO (Assistant District Officer) in Udi in 1955.
Talking about burial rites, Nnewi people, the other day said they were not aware he is dead. I guess they were speaking in parables. What is the family doing about that?
All those things will be taken care of. When I learnt of his exit, I did what I felt was the natural thing, which was to touch the land where he left, because the last time I was in England, he was alive. We prayed together and he even concurred amen. We had even felt that he had turned the bend. What happened on the 26th could be aptly described as an anti-climax. So the natural thing to do is not to speculate or sit in Nigeria or read newspapers. It is to go back to that place in London and confirm if that is the exact position of things. I did on the 28th and came back last Saturday.
Have you informed your 'umunna' formally?
I will be leaving for Nnewi tomorrow Wednesday. Apart from the Umunna, there are many people. The president of Nigeria, we have not involved him.
Anambra state governor has informed him.
Anambra state government is not the nuclear family of Dim Chukwuemneka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Even if the state governor goes there 20 times, the nuclear family must make a move to tell this people. He has friends everywhere, those friends, the ones we can have access to, and we will let them know.
Are you satisfied with the arrangement so far put in place by the Southeast governors for his burial, especially with the conclusion that most of the rites will be done in Enugu not Nnewi.
Thank you for your question. I like that question so much. Arrangement for his burial. And not arrangement for his being cast away. It is the arrangement for his burial, putting him inside the ground, which is what should happen to any mortal. As long as any arrangement is geared towards peacefully putting him into his final place, I am in support of it.
It is alien to Igbo culture that somebody comes to give you a helping hand and you push them away. All of them, everybody, I doff my hat for them. I congratulate them. I thank them for their various efforts. It goes back to the example I gave. Some people see him as a man who should be buried in Enugu. Some see him as a man who should be buried in Nnewi. But we have to accommodate all those things provided he is peacefully buried.
I was telling somebody even if the coffin, the cottage is carrying him, you know when a cottage is going to the grave, one side is lower and the other side upper. So when he is going down into the grave and somebody there suddenly starts somersaulting in front of the cottage, I will advice that we exercise patience and as soon as he finishes summersulting, we will continue on the journey until he rests finally.
What is your relationship with the wife, Bianca?
I will say cordial.
Are you carrying her along in the burial rites?
She should be carried along. There is no problem about that. She is back from England and there is no question of being carried along. The family is very much together, there are no perceived problems.
Traditionally have you been able to inform her family and the family of your mother?
I have informed the family of my mother which is my own responsibility, because I am their grandson. I have informed them. When she comes back she'll do hers. Informing in-laws can never be done in isolation. You will do it with the directly affected person.
What role did you play during the civil war in the fight against Nigeria?
Then I was a small boy. Then like every person my age will tell you, we all joined what was called Boys Company. I was in the Boys Company and I played my role very well. I was moving with most of the commanders like Onwuatuegwu, Egbiko and the rest of them. Major Egbiko was the head of the Biafran Artillery. Onwuatuegwu was an infantry soldier who proved his worth on the field. Their bravery at war inspired me a lot.
How many children does your father have?
In African tradition, we don't count children (laughter). And he is a chief. Not only that he is a chief, he has graduated to being a Dim. When he was alive, if you call him a chief, he will be annoyed with you. There are two inflexions that I have always known that he hated. That is chief and power. During the war they were calling him 'power'. When he moves, people will be screaming power, power, power. Suddenly he said he doesn't like that. That at times you might be misled into believing that they were praising you, but actually they are calling you powder, powder, powder. Then the other one is chief. That somebody will be hailing you chief, but you will not know that the person is actually saying thief.
Talking about his political life, when he returned to the country, he forayed into politics which actually cost him some friends. How do you look at that? What prompted him into moving head on into politics?
Well, I think it is his appreciation of the situation. Remember he was a head of state and he knew at what level, he left his people. And he knew where he wanted his people to be. We might be seeing it that we have been fully integrated into Nigeria. But to him, he might be seeing some lacuna, which was not too obvious. So, I believe that his instant foray into politics was a way of acting as a veritable engine, of taking his people back into the centre or the mainstream of Nigerian politics.
But he never won any elective position until he died in spite of several attempts. Are you satisfied with his journey in politics?
Journey in politics. Trajectory in politics. Movement in politics. The way I see it is like the common mammy wagon, an ordinary bole kaja in Yoruba, or some people call them tuketuke, some of them they ply the road and they have a simple maxim. They say 'no venture, no success.' He tried his bit. We all know that the results were written. We all know that the results were manipulated. For one reason or the other, in law they tell us that intention is not capable of positive proof, but can only be inferred by overt act. He had the intention of taking his people into the mainstream of Nigerian politics. Some people may have misconstrued it and felt that maybe he was trying to garner or engineer another so called civil war. And for that, they went all out to make sure that he didn't get there. But something surprisingly happened.
And what was that?
The last convocation we have in this country was the constitutional conference. And he participated in it. And everybody who attended attested to the fact that he was a stirring member of that Assembly. And that Assembly was the one that gave us six geopolitical zones which we are all clinging to today.
If somebody could be perceived rightly or wrongly as enemy of Nigeria, yet he was a member of an august Assembly that fashioned a near panacea to the problems we have in this country, I don't know why people will think twice about giving him his deserved honour.
From a son's eyes, do you think he died a fulfilled man?
I believe he did. I will throw myself back to the bible. The bible says God gave us seventy -three scores and ten. Anything beyond is an addition by the grace of God. He died 22 days into his seventy- ninth year on earth.
What about his dreams. Maybe he was not fulfilled.
He had children. He had grand children by the grace of God. About his dreams, dreams are in a continuum. Nobody conceives an idea and carries it to the very end. He had his dreams and those dreams are still ongoing. A dream for an egalitarian society-a society where the rich and the poor will be the same under the law. He tried his best to fashion it out the way he deemed fit. If Nigeria had not attained that status due to certain problems here and there, it is not his fault. But he has set the ball rolling.
I am very happy today; the youths are imbibing that culture. And that is reflective in the outpouring of sentiments since he left us.
If you were to live your life again, what would you adopt from him?
He is very special to me. There is one thing he does to me which nobody has ever done. People meet me; they believe that I know it all. People sit with me they don't correct me. He is the only person that sits down and corrects me. He would correct me. That is why in most of my write ups, I call him my teacher. He doesn't spare me. You see when you don't spare somebody, it is out of love. Because he knows that one day, he will leave me to the larger society. He would be engrossed, busy with an assignment, even publicly. And if there is anything I do wrong, he will leave that thing he is doing and make sure he corrects me. That is one thing I enjoy about him. He does this everywhere, any time.
Finally, how do you say good bye to your father
I can't say goodbye to him because he will always be a part of me.
Even in death?
Yes. He will always be a part of me.
Spiritually, he relates with me. He had made up his mind that he will not leave me alone. So, it is not even possible that I will say goodbye to him. The only thing I will say is that he has been a wonderful father. A very compassionate loving father. The only thing that I can do for him is to make him a pledge and the pledge is that what he was doing, his ideas, I will defend with the last pint of my blood. That is the only way I can feel happy. That was why I told you I cannot say good bye to him. I told you at the beginning of the interview that I am his clone. I am reiterating it in another form by telling you that his ideas I will defend with the last pint of my blood. That was why when he told me about Phoenix, I didn't know whether he was referring to me. But I determined I will not be visible while he was on the stage. And I thank God that I did that.
Most of the people that knew me in the university will perhaps believe that I will have burst into the political firmament. But, surprisingly because the big masquerade was on stage, I deferred to him that is his promise and I believe it would come to pass. That is his promise. I wrote him once and I said as an avatar. When he was launching his book, my father, wonderful man, he invited me as a special guest. I said what? I should be there serving your friends? Sitting by him was Alhaji Ado Bayero, the Emir of Kano. He invited Obasanjo, who was represented by his son. On that particular day, coincidentally, I was being conferred with an honorary doctorate degree and I went to receive it, and I penned him my apology. The apology was read by the now chairman of APGA, Victor Umeh. And everybody knew what happened when the apology was read.
I wasn't there. You will go back and ask those who were there, the reaction he had with Ado Bayero.
But you heard what happened.
I heard but it is not for me to tell. In law hearsay evidence is never admissible. In law, preference is given to direct evidence. If I am telling you now it will be hearsay evidence. Which I wouldn't want to be involved in.