From CHIDI NNADI, Enugu
Today, November 26, is one year after the Igbo leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu died in a London hospital. Ojukwu was buried by the Federal Government in a state burial at his Nnewi ancestral home after week-long burial activities that took place across many states in southern Nigeria.
Besides, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), an organization, Ojukwu promoted while he was alive, opened condolence registers across the globe where it has offices.
As his death was announced, the members of MASSOB took charge of his homes in the South-East with the MASSOB leader, Chief Ralph Uwazuruike receiving those who came to pay their condolences at the Ikemba Nnewi Enugu residence.
But surprisingly when Ojukwu was to be buried, the MASSOB leader and his members were conspicuously absent.
In this exclusive interview with Daily Sun to mark the one year anniversary of the departure of the Igbo leader, Uwazuruike revealed that they struck an agreement with President Goodluck Jonathan that paved way for the state burial given to the Ezeigbo Gburugburu which was the major reason MASSOB accepted to back down on its own burial arrangements.
He also disclosed that MASSOB had already contracted an helicopter that would have flown Ojukwu’s corpse across seven states in Southern Nigeria for N49 million per day had the Federal Government decided not to give him a state burial.
He also revealed that though the Federal Government gave Ojukwu a state burial, the inside of the golden casket he was buried in was draped with Biafra insignia with his head resting on the Biafran rising sun crest.
Uwazuruike also spoke about how he made a sudden appearance at the Nnewi home of Ikemba shortly after his burial in Biafran camouflage and how Ojukwu had instructed that he be crowned the Igbo leader to replace him. Excerpt:
MASSOB without Ojukwu
I must confess that we missed him a lot and every day we wonder if he is really not around with us. I never knew it is up to one year because it was just like yesterday. It was only some days ago when we celebrated his 79th birthday in Lagos that it dawned on me that I will actually not see him again. During his second to the last birthday we had on November 4 last year in Enugu, we thought he would be with us in his next birthday; so, when we had it in Lagos the other day and he wasn’t with us and when people started to refer to him in the past, it dawned on me that actually we will not see him again. MASSOB misses him a lot and we will continue to miss him for many years to come. I feel that we must be doing things to remember him annually, that was why I said in Lagos that we must be celebrating his birthday annually so as to be able to remember him every day; not only his birthday, but also the day he died. So, it will be an understatement if I tell you that we just miss him only, we miss him more than any other thing; we feel he should be around because there are so many problems he used to solve for us, he used to be a pillar of support for me and when I wake up in the morning I feel that I am empty without someone like him and it is clear to me now that he is no longer here and won’t be here anymore.
Ojukwu solving our problems in MASSOB
To be very frank with you, not only in MASSOB, but also in my family affairs; each time I was detained he would be the first person to send people to my wife to help them, he would want to know if there was food in the house, if the children were still going to school, he would ask if there was any role he could play. So, I miss him very much in my family setting and in MASSOB, yes, each time my members felt I was a little bit hard on them they usually ran to him to complain; he would summon me, caution and advise me; all these we are now missing. More than that he used to be our chief judge when there were attempts by some members to break away into factions; so, each time we had such problems, all the factions will go to his house and he would admonish and advise us; and now we are missing all of these and if I tell you that it is not rubbing off on us negatively, it is a lie.
MASSOB taking charge of Ojukwu’s houses in Enugu and Nnewi and my absence during his burial
Yes, I will tell you that I was the first person his wife, Iyom Bianca told when he passed on in London, that was around 1a.m or 2a.m and we talked all through that night on phone. She later broke the news to other people around 6 O’clock in the morning. So, it was on phone that Iyom said that I should go to Enugu to start receiving visitors there and also position people in their Nnewi residence.
On the issue of the burial, I was absent because I reached an agreement with President Jonathan that I should play that role. You know initially some people put up a motion in the Senate that Ojukwu should be given a state burial which the Senate threw out; so, MASSOB prepared to give Ojukwu a befitting burial. We had contacted a guy who is in charge of an helicopter, we had an arrangement with him to lift Ojukwu’s body for seven days round seven states in the South; the five South-East states, Delta and Rivers. We had even made advance payment; but along the line Jonathan came up to say that he wanted to give Ojukwu a state burial and we started discussing. It was only Iyom Bianca that knew about this discussion, no other person knew about it and that discussion was centred around Iyom Bianca, myself and the presidency. Initially, I refused, but when I looked at it a second time, I asked myself, what do you want? This is your leader, your mentor, your father; now if I give Ojukwu a burial it wouldn’t be like that of the entire Nigeria giving him a state burial. So, I came back to myself because even when I insisted that I would not opt out, Iyom Bianca supported me; she didn’t want me to be out, but I slept over it and said, if the whole Nigeria wanted to bury my leader, it would be louder, the international community will hear more of it than when I do it by myself; so, I agreed at the last minute and said fine, if you people, Nigeria will give him a state burial on the condition that MASSOB will not participate, I agree provided you will give him the type of burial that I wanted because in Enugu I had said that his burial will be the best in Africa, not knowing that it will turn out to be the best in the whole world. So, Jonathan stepped in and I am happy that he even did more than I expected. So, my absence during the burial was an agreement because it was agreed that MASSOB should give way and that was why throughout the burial you didn’t see any member of MASSOB, any Biafran flag, nothing. I kept to my words, I assured the president that I won’t be present, MASSOB members won’t be present, but unfortunately, most Igbo leaders didn’t know about this agreement; at a time General Ihejirika, Chief of Army Staff and the state director of SSS in Enugu State were part of the discussion held for almost four days.
Why we were prevented from attending the burial
MASSOB is a phenomenon and everybody is afraid and afraid of Uwazuruike too. Not only that, the Igbo leaders were afraid because they thought that MASSOB will capitalize on Ojukwu’s burial to become more popular and all that. But on the part of President Jonathan, I gave it to him as a mark of respect because as the President of Nigeria if I come to Ojukwu’s burial people will also see me as the President of Biafra and there might be a clash of interest because I wouldn’t go there without the Biafran flag and all that and my men will dress up in their Biafran uniform and might clash with the Nigerian security men. So, I envisaged the apprehension, so I agreed with Jonathan.
Was there any Biafran insignia buried with Ojukwu?
Yes, the rising sun was there! Before Iyom Bianca arranged for the casket, she told me; except for my appearance during the burial proper, there was nothing about that burial I didn’t know. Even in the casket where his head rested, there was the rising sun crest, Iyom Bianca told me everything; and there were other Biafran features in Ojukwu’s casket as he was buried. Before the casket was made, Iyom and I agreed, even the undertakers I brought them, they were the same people that buried my mother. So, I was part of everything except in the area of putting up appearance during the burial and other areas some people blacked me out because they felt I would take the shine out of them.
How we planned to bury Ojukwu before Federal Government stepped in
Though I agreed that the Nigerian state burial would sound louder, but MASSOB would have given him the same type of burial; already an helicopter was contracted for N49 million per day which I had paid an advance. So, we were prepared to bury him state by state, in the seven designated states.
My appearing at Ojukwu’s Nnewi home shortly after the burial in Biafra camouflage
That would have been the same way I would have appeared at his burial because Ojukwu believed so much in Biafra, he suffered for Biafra, he went on exile because of Biafra, he spent all his father’s money on Biafra, he lived and died for Biafra. So, that insignia must be there, that was why I put on the camouflage to remind people what Ojukwu lived and died for. And that was the first day I was wearing that camouflage just to show my last respect to him and I know he would be happy in his grave to see me in that camouflage. Actually, I had wanted to wear the same camouflage to his burial, but when I agreed with Jonathan that I shouldn’t be around, I decided that I should go to his grave to lay a wreath in the Biafran camouflage.
Igbo leaders struggle to step into Ojukwu’s shoes and my Ijele Ndigbo title
Do you know that even on the last time we had his birthday at the national stadium in Lagos, the man who read the keynote address, Solomon Asimota (SAN); he was Ojukwu’s lawyer, he said that Ojukwu told him that when he dies I would be the one to step into his shoes, I was surprised to hear that from him. Ojukwu’s Chief of Staff, Bob, also told me that Ojukwu told him too that if he is no more he should tell people that I am the one to replace him. Also the Eze Nri of Ancient Nri Kingdom told me that while he was fasting for the annual Igu Aro that the gods told him that I am the one to step into Ojukwu’s shoes and I believe it was the spirits that guided him. So, how do I feel about this? Well, that has been the cross I have been carrying without anybody giving me a pat on the back. And now that people have given me a pat on the back, I should continue and be more courageous to serve the Igbo nation. And that, in fact, was the path Ojukwu himself encouraged me to thread on; as I said, the other day during his 79th birthday that if as a father he played a prominent role in my life, then I have to do things to keep his name going, that is, to keep alive his ideals and to continue from where he stopped. So, all the things I am doing that pleased Ndigbo or Eze Nri to recognize me as the person to step into Ojukwu’s shoes, I must continue in that direction, I have no choice than to continue to do good things for our people Ndigbo. I feel pleased and challenged in doing this onerous task.
Leading MASSOB and the Igbo larger group
There is no difference. My style of leadership of MASSOB is non-violence and it would have become a problem if my attitude has been different, that is, if I have been promoting violence, taking to gorilla warfare, staying in the bush and organizing my boys to go on gorilla attack, that is when you can then ask how I can combine the two things. Mine is non-violence and on the leadership of Ndigbo, I have been with Ojukwu all along. And as a matter of fact, I can say that Ojukwu in his later days led Ndigbo through Iyom Bianca and myself. During his last days, Bianca and I were doing the whole work, so, it is not going to be strange to me to lead Ndigbo because there was nothing Ojukwu did not teach me and I don’t think that there will be any issue that will crop up today that didn’t come up when I was with him.
Some people believing that realising the sovereign state of Biafra is dead without Ojukwu
No, it is not dead. I said it at the national stadium Lagos the other day, I told them because Solomon Asimoto in his address said that I should soft-pedal in Biafra agitation; and I told him that I won’t soft-pedal in anything. Inasmuch as the marginalization of Ndigbo is a continuous thing in Nigeria, the struggle for Biafra will remain a continuous thing, the only thing is that I won’t resort to violence because I don’t want any Igbo man to die again because of Biafra, but the struggle must continue until something is done about Igbo freedom, we need freedom, not only for Ndigbo, but also for everybody. You see now the Ijaws are talking about freedom, having their own constitution, flag and all that; the Yorubas are also talking about the same thing, what everybody needs is freedom.
If the freedom doesn’t come
We will continue in the struggle, but what I will always advocate is non-violence. It might take time, even if it doesn’t come during my time I’m not bothered. But I want my children to continue in it, I want Ndigbo to continue in it, we are not born in Nigeria as slaves, they can do everything by giving the Igbo man the president slot, additional state, but this doesn’t solve the problem; the problem is; is the live of an Igbo man guaranteed in Zamfara or Maiduguri, are his property guaranteed without recourse to hatred or animosity,does an Igbo man has the right to contest elections in Maiduguri and win? In Lagos State, the Igbo constitute the second largest tribe; still they don’t have even a councillorship slot in the Lagos State government, that is what I want to see. It is only when they begin to do all these things that they can now convince me that Nigeria is one and that Ndigbo can settle anywhere. It is not when we stay in your place and develop your place for you and when it comes to pecuniary interest you block it; so, I don’t believe in one Nigeria.
Ojukwu on different reaction over Boko Haram if he were alive
No, such people don’t really know Ojukwu. Ojukwu before he died had warned me severally not to engage in anything that will take the life of any human being, he was very bitter that so many people died during the Biafran war. The last thing Ojukwu would have done under this Boko Haram thing was perhaps to want Ndigbo to retaliate because when you talk of retaliation, you have to be proactive; you have to think of the welfare of your people. How many Hausas reside in the South-East and how many Ndigbo reside in the North? So, think about it, you kill one or two Hausa men here; they kill 300 or 1,000 Igbos in the North, what have you gained. Or you kill one shoe-shiner here, Almajiri or one selling sugar-cane and they kill one managing director or chairman of a company in the North. How many Hausas have houses in the East, how many Igbos have houses in the North? So, you have to consider all of these things; you do not come out blindly to say let’s retaliate, you have to put so many things into consideration and know the consequences of your action. Number two, our brother is the president, Jonathan is our brother. I can tell you, the type of burial Jonathan organized for Ojukwu, if an Igbo man were to be the president he wouldn’t have organized such a burial for him. So, we have to see him as our brother. And there were so many discussions I had with Ojukwu about Jonathan; so, all these people that are saying that Ojukwu would have done this or that did not know what is happening. I know what Ojukwu would have done in a circumstance like this; Ojukwu wouldn’t have encouraged violence as a balance to Boko Haram insurgency.
Building memorial centre for Ojukwu
All I am doing today were practically what Ojukwu asked me to do when he was alive like the houses I built for ex-Biafran soldiers; we discussed it. About five years before I started building those houses I was sending foodstuff every month to them at Oji River; even when I was in detention I made sure that my men were sending food to them. And it got to a time when these people told me that they were encountering difficulties there from armed robbery and accidents and I told Ojukwu and he said if we had resources the best thing to do will be to rehabilitate them and that was how I started thinking about their rehabilitation. Again one of his ideas was that Ndigbo do not have a place they can sit down and talk, meet together except hotels or public buildings. That was why when he died I said okay I will use his name to do it; these were things we were discussing when he was alive. Ndigbo should have a place they can come to discuss and no other external body will hear what they are saying. That is why I am doing the Ojukwu Centre and to make sure that his name is immortalized. It will be a reference point as anybody that is coming here will say I am going to Ojukwu’s Memorial Library; all over the world now whenever any head of state dies they use the library to immortalize him; so, that is why I am using the library option. We have just done the foundation of the library, but what we are doing first is the conference centre. It was Iyom Bianca that told me, Okenwa look, why not finish this conference centre first before the library instead of having abandoned project, so, I took the advice and soft-pedaled on the library project, but everything will definitely come up and be completed gradually.