OJUKWU: THE FORMATIVE YEARS OF A GREAT MAN
The year was 1944, and the Second World War was reaching its crescendo on the battlefields of Western Europe, Soviet Union, South-East Asia and the Pacific. In January of that year, Dwight Eisenhower was appointed Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and Operation Shingle, the Allied invasion of Italy began with the Anzio landings. In the same month, thousands of kilometres away from the theatres of war, a chain of historical occurrences was set in motion, which would eventually lead to a smaller but no less catastrophic event, within a quarter of a century of the global conflagration.
In January 1944, the name of a 10-year lad named Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was emblazoned on the muster roll of King's College Lagos, the nation's premier secondary school. His admittance into the celebrated institution was symbolic of a life that was marked out for distinction from the outset, for he was the youngest to have had the privilege of admission in the 35 year history of The School.
New entrants into King's College are sorted into one of four Houses which are named after past Principals of The College – Hyde Johnson's, Mckee-Wright's, Harman's and Pane's. By a peculiar unfathomable process, not only do Kingsmen (students past and present) develop an allegiance to their Houses second only to their loyalty to The School, they also acquire the special characteristics of products of the individual Houses. The young Chukwuemeka was received into Harman's House, named after Major H. A. Harman who took over as Principal in 1919; having spent the preceding eight years in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) was a man of great vision and energy. He was a first rate disciplinarian and a man of action. Our youngster automatically imbibed the Harman's qualities of bold originality, discipline, sartorial elegance, energy and vision.
The House system was inherited from the British public school system upon which template King's College was built. Another inherited tradition was the custom of 'fagging', wherein a new entrant into the College or 'fag' would come under the supervision and mentorship of a senior boy or 'fagmaster'. On a personal note, I am proud to say that the fagmaster to the young Chukwuemeka was my father, the late Professor Tiramiyu Belo-Osagie of blessed memory, then in his final year in the school, and close friend of Chukwuemeka's elder brother.
The moulding process of the boys was largely conducted by masters (as teachers were then called) who were mostly citizens of Great Britain, a country that for centuries, had produced outstanding men and women, and they quickly recognized that they had in their care, an embryonic great man. The Principal at the time of his entry was Mr. A.H. Clift, another stern disciplinarian, whose rather spiteful nickname of 'Adolph Hitler' paralleled his initialsBy all accounts, the young Chukwuemeka was a very intense and strong-willed individual from the outset.
Despite being an average of 4 to 6 years younger than his classmates, he held his own in every aspect of school life. The residence of Sir Louis Phillipe Odumegwu-Ojukwu was at Oshodi Court, a few minutes' walk from King's College. Being amongst the richest West Africans of his time, he encouraged his son to entertain his friends and colleagues. I am informed by Chief Ojukwu's contemporaries at King's College that he was certainly the most hospitable and convivial of the students of his time.
A little over two years after his son was enrolled in King's College, Sir Louis decided to expand the young man's horizons by sending him to another famous school, this time in faraway England. He was to complete his secondary education in Epsom College, Surrey, England. In a display of the steadfastness which was his life-long trademark, Chief Ojukwu maintained by Royal Mail, his contacts with the friends he made in King's College, with whom he had a happy re-union on a visit to Lagos in 1948.
The fifteen-year old public school boy had grown. He had acquired the height, rugby-player's physique and upper class British accent which remained with him permanently. Asked by a former schoolmate about his experiences abroad, his answer was a testament to the quality of education King's College had to offer, 'It was easy to adjust' he declared, 'because the subjects of study were identical and the school life was very similar'.
Five long years were to elapse before Chukwuemeka would again come into contact with King's College, this time in the form of two of his contemporaries who came up to join him in Oxford University, and with whom he shared digs in 1954, namely, Mr. Allison Ayida and Izoma Philip Asiodu. By this time, he had been nicknamed 'Oj' (pronounced Urge) and was greatly admired for his prowess on the rugby field and squash court, his fabled generosity and his good fortune with members of the fairer gender. Periods of rigorous study alternated with the exaggerated escapades of a privileged Oxford University Undergraduate. .
It was not all fun and games. Although Harold Macmillan had not yet made his famous 'wind of change' speech, it was quite evident in the aftermath of the Second World War that the British colonies in Africa would inevitably gain their independence. Many African undergraduates in Britain were conscious that they were destined to play very prominent roles in the futures of their respective countries.
Chukwuemeka was known to have attended this and other events of the Association. Like many Nigerians of his generation, he was 'anti-tribalist' and regarded himself as a Nigerian rather than as an Igbo man. In his undergraduate days, he was an outspoken supporter of 'Unitary Government' as a constitutional option for Nigeria. The British Colonial Government had enacted both the Richards Constitution of 1946 and the Macpherson Constitution of 1951 to introduce self-rule in Nigeria. Chukwuemeka passionately criticised sections of these edicts because he believed they would unleash the monster of regionalism, and fractionate a united country.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu returned to Nigeria after completion of his studies and the subsequent events are a matter of public record and world history. However, most commentators have remained perplexed by his decision, nay, his insistence on joining the army. A clue to this anomalous action may be traced to his undergraduate days as a student of history, and his oft-expressed admiration for the duo of Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the modernisers of Turkey and Egypt respectively. Were his inclinations a result of a premonition of the role he would be forced by Providence to play within a few years after enlisting?
It is manifestly clear, that Colonel Ojukwu had no hand in the coup of January 1966, nor could he have halted the tidal wave of events which occurred thereafter. What is clear is that when the Igbo people needed a Champion, they found a great one in Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, scion of a colossus, beneficiary of the finest education in the Commonwealth, graduate of the best university in the world, noble, visionary, courageous, learned and charismatic, an orator, officer and a gentleman; the true embodiment of Plato's Philosopher King.
The community of King's College past, present and future salutes her great son.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi, Dikedioranma, Dim, Ezeigbo Gburugburu, may your brave and dutiful soul rest in perfect peace. Amen.
Belo-Osagie is President, King's College Old Boys' Association