HOW I WANT TO BE REMEMBERED -OJUKWU
The following is the last interview Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu ever granted to any newspaper. Excerpts…
It may be difficult to determine which of these two Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu loves most: Ndigbo or his wife Bianca? If you speak with Ojukwu, you immediately come away with the impression of a man married, as it were, to both. However, with age taking its toll on the Igbo icon [he is in his late 70s], Bianca, his ageless wife, is like the guardian angel attending to his needs. That was why she stayed home on the appointed day for an interview with Daily Sun. She stood by her husband all through the interview to ensure that 'he did not say anything volatile' and that he was 'frugal' with his answers.
Ojukwu would naturally detest any bid to 'cage' him. At a point he got angry and called off the interaction. Ironically, it took Bianca's intervention to get him back on the 'hot seat'. He then fielded questions within the ground rules, namely: that you do not drill him for more than an hour, and that you do not insist on all your questions being answered.
Age may have slowed him, but not his articulation and unflinching consistency over his beliefs.
Forty years after, Ikemba still believes he was right to have declared a war in defence of the Igbo people, but would flatly refuse to talk about the war. He believes that Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida has a 'sense of humour' and 'may have something to offer' should he decide to return to the seat of power at the Presidency. The interview is vintage Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Your Excellency, why did you choose to pursue a career in the military?
I must confess you caught me pants down there, completely off guard. But I thought everybody knows why I went into the Army. I joined the Army to serve the nation. I also joined the Army because I liked the military. I also joined to prove a point to myself, the point being that, as many people said and thought, at that time, that I was not [speaking in Igbo] Onye aba aba nna [meaning a jolly good fellow spoilt by wealth]. I wanted to make that point to myself first and then to others. I needed to show that whatever needed to be done in my country, I would do my own part. I joined the Nigerian Army and I am proud to say that I continued to serve to the rank of General. I don't know how many of us can boast of that. I am very proud of that. I have been seen in action in the barracks. I have been seen in war. That's it.
Muammar Gaddafi had on two occasions in one month called for the splitting of Nigeria. The Senate president described him as a mad man. What's your take?
No, I would not go as far as calling him a mad man. He is a leader of his people and I respect that fact. If you look through my entire career, you would find that even with a country as close to us as Ghana, at no point have I suggested what type of government they should have, because it is not my business. Having said that, it is clear that whatever Gaddafi thinks, he has every right to his thoughts, but as a political leader, he should note that he has no right to decide for Nigeria what Nigeria should do. So, I say to him, my friend Gaddafi, please shut up.
Forty years after the civil war, would you say the circumstances that led you to draw a line of defence for your people have abated?
I hesitate to answer that question, because I don't like to be boxed into a corner. Quite a lot of the issues have been raised over the years. But whether they have abated, I would say yes, to a certain extent. However, that we are today still talking about the safety of our citizens is really sad. What are our leaders doing and why is our society so fragile? By now Nigeria should have grown beyond all these sectarian crisis and insecurity, which now makes people scared of travelling to or going to live in some parts of the country. I feel we should have gone far beyond that. But, more than anything, I want to make this very clear, namely: that it is for this kind of things that we have leaders. I call upon the leaders to guarantee the safety of our people. I hope I have made myself clear. Let me add here that I also speak as a General.
The Anambra State election has come and gone. One of the remarkable things about that election is that you stuck out your neck and your reputation for Governor Peter Obi. What did you see in him?
Every one is already talking about the outcome of that election. I was very proud of the campaign and I am still very proud that I made a call and despite all the rough things people say about Ndigbo, it appears very clearly that Ndigbo listened to what I said. And by that they obviously accepted me as their leader. They acted in accordance with my wishes. I am very proud of this. You are Igbo and you know how difficult it is to get Ndigbo together to accept one person. I am proud that I told them this was my last wish and they responded. But then, don't laugh at the next thing I am about to say, but I am hoping that Ndigbo will still be available to do other 'last wishes' that I would have [general laughter], you understand?
I do, sir.
Yes, because I am still very much around and I will ask for more last wishes [more laughter].
You have not talked about Peter Obi.
Oh yes, Peter Obi. To start with, I like his modesty. No doubt about that. He is one leader who does not come here to see me as though he was attacking a fortress. He is very modest. Whenever we have to talk, he comes as Peter. He does not bring half a brigade as entourage as others would do. You notice also that whenever he talks he keeps to the point and does not elongate matters unnecessarily. I like Peter and I hope I would be more useful to him in his career. The truth, however, and Peter can claim this more than everyone else, is that while I can say that I have helped him in his career, he can also stand up and say he has also helped me in my own career. You can see there is some mutuality in our interaction. But having said all these, my advice for him is that he should try to be more of a politician than a businessman.
The country has waited 40 years to read your war memoirs and it has not come. Will it ever come?
Yes, it will come. From time to time I tell myself that I am just starting. Again, it is this question of the last wish. I say it is the last wish, but somehow the Almighty says no it cannot be the last wish yet. War memoirs you call it, well, it will come out in the course of my own memoirs. When you say war memoirs, I tell you straight away that I do not want to be remembered necessarily as a soldier. I want to be remembered as a patriot. I will write and I will explain whatever needs to be explained about the war time. I will do that because I want the truth to be available.
What time would that be?
[Long pause, then his wife Bianca says] He had only just started. So, it would be difficult to say when that would be. [Another long pause, then Ojukwu says] What I find amusing is that I am being asked to determine when what I have described as my final act would be. I have already said to you that there will be many other final acts and I pray to God that it would be so. But one thing I would tell you is that I made a promise to my wife, and you know how much I love her, I promised her that I would not leave her without my own testament.
So, it is sure to come?
Yes. It is coming.
What's your comment on Goodluck Jonathan's emergence as Acting President, and do you think he should run for the 2011 election?
Has there been any problem over his emergence? As far as I am concerned, he is a Nigerian citizen, and the most prominent one at that, for now. If he wants to continue, then he should run for election next year. It is not a North and South thing, and I noted that he is a Nigerian and he is free to run and should run if he wants to continue to be in charge of the country. From that point of view, yes, he can run for as long as the Constitution of Nigeria permits him.
The papers reported that you are backing Iwu's reappointment and that you have endorsed his return as INEC boss, is it true?
Absolute nonsense! Why should I back him? He did a good job and I am proud that I stood up to say yes, you have done well. I will do that for any Nigerian who has done well, not only because he is an Igbo son who is producing for Nigeria a good result, which the whole world applauds. Iwu did a good job in Nigeria and Anambra, as far as I am concerned. People making comments about good elections are not just talking about Anambra; for a long time people have wondered whether we are capable of conducting elections. We have shown that we are capable of conducting elections and producing results the whole world will look at and acknowledge. We have successfully had a civilian to civilian hand-over. That is certainly a plus.
Should he be reappointed?
Oh, come off it. I am not his employer. The question of his reappointment is between himself and his employer, why should I dabble into his job? People said when he visited the other day that he asked for and got my support. No such thing happened. Let me use this opportunity to put it clearly that he came to visit me on his way to Abia where he had a job to conclude. At no time during the interaction on his visit did he seek my support, nor did I give to him the said support for elongating his tenure in INEC or for seeking another mandate. As I said in the opening of my response, that is a matter between him and his employer, which in this case, is the Federal Government. I was not even consulted when he was appointed, so how can I now be instrumental to his reappointment?
Why were you unable to win election into the Senate in 1983 even when the Igbo nation stood still on your return from exile in 1982, what happened?
It may be that the people did not want me. But there are records of what happened. And I don't go beyond that actually because I felt that whatever happened to me then was a temporary set back. I want you to always remember that most leaders are not really idols where they come from. Anything could have gone wrong. One thing I have suffered in this sense is the fact that Ndigbo would seem not just happy that I am there, but they would like to claim every inch of my skin as theirs and they would like to control every bit of my blood, too. It is natural.
In fact, instead of just rejoicing that I am useful to them, they seem to have cast themselves in a tug of war with Nigeria, whether Nigeria has a greater pull on me or they. You will always find that even in Nnewi I am at once their most popular son, yet I know that Nnewi people feel they have been cheated by the rest of Nigeria that did not father me, and are coming out now to claim a lot of me. These petty conflicts you can find anywhere. But let me put it very clearly, I have said this before and I will continue to say it: I came into politics for the Igbo cause. I came in to do what I can to rescue Ndigbo. I shall continue to do so and my focus remains that entity called Igbo. That's all about that.
If you have the opportunity to present yourself for the Presidency, would you do that?
[Long pause, then Bianca says] No.
You won't allow him?
Ojukwu: you heard her.
That's my answer.
You said in the past that you will not condemn MASSOB, neither would you support them, but right now their leader, Uwazurike, is being held…
[Cuts in] Most unjustly. Uwazurike, like anybody else, must have made mistakes, though I have not seen any yet, but why should he be detained for three months? What is worse is that even in court his accusers do not bring him forward to answer to the charges against him. I don't want to be a scare-monger, but really, to be honest with you, I am not sure he is still alive. It is a terrible thing for an Igbo man to disappear like that before our very eyes. No, the Igbo race certainly has it as a bad mark against the Federal Government that locked him up for three months. We demand, I will demand on their behalf that we be told in clear terms where Uwazurike is.
Where is he, why does he not attend court when he is under the care of the Federal Government in prison and in circumstances where the government want him to answer to charges preferred against him? Where is he? I have asked this question and I say to the Federal Government that I shall continue to ask; find my brother Uwazurike, tell me where he is. If what you say about him is right, I would feel better if he were permitted to come out and answer to your charges. It's only fair. Keeping him away is culturally an abomination.
How can a man just disappear and we cannot give him the rightful honours he deserves as a human being under our culture? Secondly, if you think as a government that he has committed certain offences, I now ask the government, has his wife committed the same offence? Why must his relations be punished? Bring him out. Tell us where he is, and above all, give the courts the opportunity of pronouncing him guilty or not. I hope I have made myself clear. Ralph Uwazurike cannot just disappear into thin air. Each time they come to court to say they have adjourned for one reason or the other, yet the man is in custody of the government that is adjourning. That is not right. It is this sort of thing that makes me often wonder whether it is not part of the suffering of Ndigbo, because I can't see any other tribe or any other group being handled in this off-hand manner. If he has done wrong, let him go to court. Try him and let us hear the verdict.
Yes. But, it is for these kinds of things that Gaddafi called for the country to be split if certain people are going to be treated like second class citizens in their own country, isn't it?
If I had said what Gaddafi said, I would stand by it. But I did not. And we have not reached a stage where we can now hire Gaddafi to come and be our advocate. He has his own problems. Please, Gaddafi, don't mix your problems with ours and if you feel you have to talk, come and talk to me. I am the leader of Ndigbo. The name Gaddafi does not appear in our lexicography.
Biafrans refined oil during the war and thus had fuel they used. Forty years after Nigeria is importing fuel. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel awful and there are many things that make me feel awful. I don't expect every problem to be solved at the same time, but there are many things we could do better than we are doing now. These things were done, but the people who did them should come out and be counted. I have become notorious for waving the ethnic flag, but I am always proud of the opportunity because what I am after is equity for all citizens of the block I serve.
In 1966 when Nigeria experienced the first military intervention, did you think the circumstances at that time warranted a coup?
You will be surprised. As junior officers in the Army, practically every thing that happened got us thinking of the possibility of a coup de tat. So, when you ask do I think that circumstances warranted the coup, my answer is yes. As an Army officer, I thought Nigeria needed a shake-up at that time.
Do you think you were right to have declared a war in defence of Ndigbo in 1967, was it the right thing to do at that time?
Of course, I was right. Even now, I still believe I was right and I will even go further to say that if I am found exactly the same situation again, I would wish that I have the courage to be as right as I was then. Are you with me?
I am with you, sir. But some people did not think you were right even at that time and I understand that they advised you to use diplomacy rather than war. I wouldn't know whether looking back you would say they were correct?
There is no situation you wouldn't have some supporting and others not supporting. They have their right to support or not to support. But I should warn you that if you think you are leading me into a situation where I would review the war, I think it is better for you to recognise that before you stands a brick wall.
Why wouldn't you want to talk about it?
[Flares up, eyes popping] Because I don't want to.
Ok. Let's go back to the beginning. You were said to be a pampered child. How true?
[Turns to Bianca] Darling, was I a pampered child?
Bianca: Well, I always tell you when you throw tantrums that we need to go and wake up your mother from the dead so she can come and take better care of you, because she may have spoilt you. Yes, you are a pampered child.
Ojukwu: My wife thinks I was pampered.
Was it true that as a child you lacked nothing as a young growing boy?
That's how I saw it, but others might have seen it differently. But I certainly had everything that was necessary. I went to the best of schools, CMS Grammar School, Kings College, Lincoln College, Oxford, and so on. Yes, my father did the best he could to bring me up and I always say, and it doesn't take anything off me at all, that the product which he finally got justified his efforts.
People generally say Ojukwu is a stubborn person. How do you see yourself?
I hope I remain stubborn. If this is stubbornness, yes. But the important thing is to get things right. If you look around in Nigeria, we tend to sweep things so much under the carpet only to come back and start picking them bit by bit. If the verdict is that I am stubborn, then I draw comfort from the fact that Winston Churchill was stubborn, Napoleon was stubborn. I draw consolation that today Mandela is stubborn. All around me the names that keep coming up are those of very stubborn people. If I am stubborn, then there is just one point I want to make about stubbornness, and it is this: I believe I am stubborn for the right reasons.
Your fellow soldiers, Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, IBB, have all had opportunities of leading this country at one time or the other. Now, some of them want to offer themselves again for the same position. People have said that soldiers are not really good administrators, should they be allowed to come back?
I don't join the group that would casually say that soldiers are not good administrators, because I know that in the Army you are trained to administer. I know that in the Army you find great administrators who lead men to make the highest sacrifice known to this world. Soldiers are very good administrators. In fact, you cannot be a good soldier if are not a good administrator, because I know that in the Army you are trained to administer. I know that in the Army you find great administrators. It is only in the Army you would take a man and administer all his needs until his death. That is true administration.
Obasanjo ruled for eight years…
Yes. He was there for two terms. Could you assess his tenure?
[Long pause] you are asking for trouble, but I would not succumb. Let other people decide whether he did well?
Why would you not want to talk about Obasanjo's regime?
[Voice rising] Because he is too much of a colleague of mine, I do not want to get into this personal conflict.
No sir, it is not personal.
[Flares up] I am talking about Obasanjo, who you want me to talk about.
Yes, but we are talking about his regime, not his person.
Well, his regime and himself are the same, and I ask you to shut up.
Muhammadu Buhari wants to return as Head of State, do you agree?
Well, he has not told me. When I see him next time I shall ask him.
There is also IBB who ruled for eight years and now wants to return to office. What do you think?
I don't know that he wants to come back. But Babangida happens to be the one I know a little bit about. If for nothing else, I like his sense of humour and I believe that a man endowed with such openness might have something to offer.
You think if he wants to come back he is welcome?
Oh yes, why not? In fact, anybody who wants to have a shot at the Presidency is welcome, provided they go the right way. Don't come back to office through the wrong way such as a coup de'tat, then I will tell you that you are cheating. But if you are going to go through the elections, campaigns, and get people to vote for you and they say you are the man, then that's okay by me.
After eight years, IBB and others who had had a shot before can come back if they wish?
I would even go further to say that if 16 years were possible, provided the man is healthy and his senses are still intact and his coordination still alright then, he should offer himself for the job, and if the people want him, so be it.
What are your general views on the recent ministerial nominees by Acting President Goodluck Jonathan?
Generally speaking, my attitude to the names is that there is too much recycling going on and I believe it is not a good thing to recycle people over and over again. Most of the problems that persist in Nigeria derive from this tendency to recycle. There are many people in Nigeria and my advice is that the authorities should look deeper and look round. They will find the men and women who can do the job.
What do you hope to see in next year's elections?
We know the constitution. People should go through it and make sure they present themselves the best way. What do I hope to see? I have indicated, for example, that if INEC does what it did in Anambra recently then I look forward to their taking charge again. But if they cannot, then the leadership should move aside. They have done their bit. That's the way I see it. I would like to see a transparent election. Now, don't go and slay me on the pages of your newspaper, but I would also want to see an Igbo man emerging winner of that election.
Do you think that the Igbo are ready to take the Presidency?
If they are going to take it, which party would provide the platform?
I must congratulate you for being persistent. Mark you, I did not say stubborn. What I say is let them have their chance. That's all. I am certain they would be up to the task provided nobody puts obstacles on their way.
Will your party, which at the moment is not doing too well, work hard enough to be that coveted platform?
If they do not work hard enough, it would not be for my lack of trying. I will keep pushing that they work hard enough and produce what I expect.
People believe the party Ojukwu leads should have been the leading party in the South East. But that has not happened, why?
Is that what people think? Then, I say Amen.
But that has not happened, why?
Let's wait till 2011 then.