WHY I LOVE ODUMEGWU-OJUKWU
Sometimes the loss that accompanies some deaths is too great to call for mourning. No mourning, however long or deep, can suffice. Nor would we rather celebrate the merits of the life that expired with such death, for we would prefer that it lasted forever, and had the exceptional privilege of enjoying physical immortality in full health of body, mind and spirit, eternally glowing in the ambience of our love and reverence, and those of our offspring across generations, when we ourselves might have ceased to live.
At such times, mourning becomes a gesture of stunned resignation in the face of the inevitable, in respect of the departed soul who would seem to have received a concession from dying, having been so much larger than life that he had come to seem greater than death.
And his death becomes the ultimate act of deprivation by fate for those who love him, and always will.
I have wallowed in such stunned resignation since I learnt of the death, on November 26, 2011, of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Dike Di Ora Nma and Eze Igbo Gburugburu of Igboland, whose great and positive aura pervaded my consciousness for as long as I knew about him as a thinking adult, beginning around the time of his return from exile in CÃ´te d'Ivoire in 1982, and probably will till the end of my days.
Like all great men, different people - particularly among the Igbo - would have different reasons for loving Ikemba, as he is fondly called by the multitudes who admire him, for being emotionally and inextricably attached to him. I have heard some, men and women, confess to being irresistibly drawn to the seemingly all-powerful loadstone of his charisma. So strong was his personality, his psycho-somatic gift for compelling obedience, that I once heard a trader in Aba say that if he walked into any market in that city and asked the traders to follow him, you were sure to find the market deserted in seconds, with the traders marching behind him to wherever he wished to lead them, and without first inquiring about the destination.
The significance of the scenario painted by the trader - for Ojukwu's stature, that is - did not strike home until I pondered it in the light of the almost superlative attachment of Aba traders to the marketplace. That they could unhesitatingly ignore that attachment, however briefly, and follow him unquestioningly to any destination of his choice, as I know they did on one occasion when I lived in that city, would be a mark of the highest possible concession from a people known to be averse to the herd mentality. It would also be a mark of instinctive love and loyalty for a man whose unstinting sacrifice for the good of his people had earned him their eternal love and gratitude, especially at the grassroots.
Some love him for the effortless ease with which his strong but gentle nature fused elite refinement and popular appeal, a fact captured somewhat by his title of Dike Di Ora Nma, The Hero Loved by All. This trait explains why, in spite of his elitist education - he graduated from Epsom College and Oxford University - and his being veritably blue blood by birth - his father, Sir Louis Phillippe Odumegwu Ojukwu, was one of the wealthiest Nigerian aristocrats of his time - he never lost the common touch, nor did the common people ever cease to regard him as one of them.
Some love him for being an African exemplar of the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king. For, as the Head of State of the defunct Biafra, he proved himself to be not just a charming and brave soldier but also a man of ideas, in the mould of Fidel Castro, as evidenced by the sublime articulation of the qualities of a true leader in 'The Ahiara Declaration', one of his more famous speeches, to wit: 'He must have physical and moral courage and must be able to inspire the people out of despondency.
He should never strive towards the perpetuation of his office or devise means to cling to office beyond the clear mandate of the people. He should resist the temptation to erect memorials to himself in his life-time, to have his head embossed on the coin, name streets and institutions after himself or convert government into a family business. A leader who serves his people well will be enshrined in their hearts and minds. This is all the reward he can expect in his lifetime.'
That and other speeches by him were sterling examples of the intellect prodding the heart towards the noblest of human aspirations even under the severest privations that could be imposed by war. In the same speech, delivered on June 1, 1969, he inveighed against the racist responses of the 'civilised' world to war and the immense suffering it can bring to humans, especially women, children, the aged and other non-combatants, and was arguably the first leader in history to identify and draw attention to such responses, which we were to witness decades later in places like Rwanda and Sudan.
His courage for speaking truth to power, especially overbearing power, was exceptional, as in: '…Britain is a country whose history is replete with instances of genocide.' His humanity and willingness to risk his life to protect the weak (including women) was all-encompassing and manifest even at the very young age of 11 when, in 1944, he was imprisoned for restraining a white British colonial teacher who was humiliating a black woman at King's College in Lagos.
I love him for all such reasons for which others love him. But more importantly I love him because, being born into privilege, and having the choice to pursue a life of comfort at home or in foreign lands, he preferred to sacrifice his imponderably huge patrimony and bear the burden of leading us, his people, at the most difficult of times, through a strangulating war that threatened our collective existence and in which over two million of us lost their lives.
He chose to risk death so we could live, to become poor so we could be rich, and to bear in him wounds that were meant for us and our descendants. I love him because he represents to me the quintessence of a leader as a willing sacrificial victim for his people, such that Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. should, I think, eternally represent to mankind. I love him because he stood for a just world in which no man is oppressed.
Ojukwu's life was so deeply interwoven with the lives of his people, the Igbo, that he can be said to have had their hearts in him while they all had him in their hearts. The love they shared was at once real, mystical, profound and imperishable, the type of love any leader worth the name would aspire to share with his followers, his people. And I believe this earned him the envy of some less endowed individuals who could not comprehend such love - 'in spite of his having led them to a futile war!' - and who made desperate but altogether fruitless efforts to diminish his olympian stature.
He had his flaws, but they were insignificant compared with his great virtues; and whatever he might have done wrong becomes easily forgivable to his people in the light of the numerous things he did right for them, shielding them to the end of his days with his towering and enigmatic presence.
Odumegwu, The Awesome Lion, may have gone into the long night, but his eternal dwelling place will be in the ever bright and warm dawn and daylight of the memories of those who love him for sacrificing his life and comfort for their survival, I inclusive!
Oke writes from Abuja.