General Emeka Oduegwu-Ojukwu-1934-2011
The Diasporan Perspective : By Ekerete Udoh
I am officially in a state of mourning as I have to reflect on the lives of two important people who in many ways helped shape my career and influence me in profound and consequential manner. Exactly a year ago, I lost a dear friend- a confidant and a good woman in every material particular that anyone could aspire to know and have as a friend-Ms. Donna Tillman to cancer. I was getting ready to mark the first year of her sad death, when the news broke that another person whom I regard as a father and a mentor –General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukw-the Ikemba Nnewi, the erstwhile Head of State and Commander –in-Chief of the Armed forces of the now defunct state of Biafra- the one with the sonorous voice and whose diction and command of English was almost musical was dead. I had intended to devote this week’s column to harp again on the need for Nigerians who love this country and have a sense of pride and dignity about her essence to join hands and rescue us from daily international ridicule and embarrassment that Murtala Mohammed Airport represents. I will return to that topic next week.
General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu loved me dearly and until I moved to the United States, I was officially a member of his household with unfettered access. I would pop in sometimes, without an appointment, and the security detail upon informing the Ikemba that I was at the gate, would not only asked that I be allowed in, but would come out of the living room, always in jeans, and walking barefoot, would usher me to the house. Most times, I would ask myself what I did to deserve such kind treatment by a man who was a true historic figure in the evolution of the Nigerian state. Whenever I listened to him speak in that soft voice, I would find it difficult to believe this was the same man who led an oppressed people, a people who had been subjected to pogrom and other genocidal tactics for almost thirty months without much of international support. He appeared so gentle-so collegial almost to a fault. Listening to him, his power of persuasion, his intimidating intellect and the force of his oratory, you would be left with no choice but to appreciate why the Biafran people followed him without question and invested their collective hopes for a safe and secure future in him.
My first encounter with General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu happened in 1990 at the an event to mark the New Yam Festival in Umuahia-Abia State organized by Eze Everest Nmandi Ofoegbu- now the Chairman of Abia State Traditional Council. The event was attended by virtually who’s is who in the Nigerian state then. Several members of the then Armed Forces Ruling Council and I believe the then Chief of General Staff-late Admiral Aikhomu was in attendance alongside the immediate CGS-Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, several military governors then as well as captains of industry and pop culture personalities. The atmosphere was that of a carnival and I can vividly recall the MCs-the gregarious duo of ‘Chief Zebrudaya’ and ‘Gringory’ of the 70s Sit-com-New Masquerade announcing the arrival of Chief Ojukwu and the whole place erupted in an ovation that lasted over ten minutes.
Ojukwu’s appearance at the event also was significant in another angle: it signaled the first public appearance of the Ikemba with his then rumored girlfriend-the former “Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria” Bianca Onoh. Before the duo stepped out publicly, the Nigerian media was agog with all manner of stories about their relationship. This interest was triggered by Ojukwu’s devotion of a page in his book “Because I am Involved” to praise the then beauty queen, and singling her out as one who may provide Africa with its first ‘Miss World’ title. The inclusion of that chapter in an otherwise consequential book that dealt with more profound issues triggered a rash of speculations and rumors that would later dominate the Nigerian media-mainstream and pop culture for months. As the rumors swirled around and innuendoes and third rate sources inundated the pages of newspapers and magazines, the loving duo maintained a studious silence. They would not comment as to what was the true nature of their relationship, neither would they entertain interview requests from the media both local and international. That silence was however, to be broken and the New Yam Festival provided the opportunity for that to happen.
I had established a very good friendship with Bianca Onoh soon after I interviewed her for Climax magazine which I, alongside Moji Danisa had edited then in 1989. Bianca and I had remained very good friends after that interview. She had come to trust my editorial judgment and the spirit of true friendship developed between us. I was touched when she found time to mail me a card when she went to contest for Miss Universe and provided me exclusive tit bits on the pageant. There were no cell-phones then; neither did we have Facebook, Twitter or other social media of today, where you can in a minute contact anyone all over the world. For her to still find time and reach out to me was a very refreshing tendency and that only helped deepen our friendship.
As the Ikemba held Bianca’s hands while walking to the high table at the New Yam event, our eyes met, and she winked at me. Shortly after they had taken their seat, I walked up to General l Ojukwu, greeted him and after exchanging greetings with Bianca, asked her to convince the Ikemba to grant me an interview. Bianca looked at me with those large luminous eyes and said “Ekerete, I will do it for you-just for you” and whispered to the Ikemba who now turned to me and said “young man, I respect your courage. Meet me in Lagos on Monday and Bianca and I would grant you an interview.” Walking back to my seat, I was giddy with excitement and I quickly sent words to my publisher then-Dr. Ibe Kachikwu- now an Executive Director-Legal of Mobil Producing that I had landed the mother of all interviews.
The following Monday, I was led into the presence of General Ojukwu and his delectable girlfriend then-now his dear wife-Bianca and for over two hours, Bianca and Ojukwu gave me all the scoops I needed on their romance; how they met, their marital plans, the huge age difference that existed between them, the reaction of Bianca’s father-former old Anambra state Governor-the late C.C. Onoh to the relationship and above all why Biafra failed. It was a world exclusive and as we printed and reprinted copies of Hints magazine, due to the popularity of the story, my career reached the stratosphere. The interview was culled by several foreign newspapers and magazines and I can still recall the celebrations in our newsroom then, which paraded among others-Dr. Reuben Abati-now the Special Adviser to President Jonathan on Media and Publicity, Kayode Ajala-one of Nigerian’s most gifted writers, Chim Newton, Osita Aniemeka, Chidinama Awa Agwu etc. Hints magazine subsequently became the toast of the nation.
Since that interview, I was welcomed by the Ojukwu household and he was later to grant me two additional interviews that centered sorely on Biafra and why the effort fell short. Ojukwu was a man who genuinely loved his people. He was to reprise the word of late Chief Obafemi Awolowo- a good Igbo first before becoming a better Nigerian. He agonized over the lack of true federalism in Nigerian and was in many of our informal discussions, a strong advocate for the Sovereign National Conference where he believed the structural imbalance in the country would be addressed and resolved.
Even though he led the secessionist Biafran Republic, he loved being a Nigerian and I remember asking him if he thought the ideals of Biafra would someday be realized. He looked at me and in his characteristic way of talking almost as if he were whispering but would later become animated and raising the decibel of his voice, he said “I am a Nigerian but even at that, the issues that led us to war are still prevalent and must be resolved and I hope those in power would ensure that we would never have to fight our brothers and sisters again over issues that can be resolved at the conference table.”
Ojukwu bore no animosity toward those who had seized his father’s property and was grateful to the Igbo nation for all they had done for him- the love, the support and faith they reposed in him. When General Babagida eventually returned his late father’s property to him, he was very grateful to him and even at that, he didn’t spare IBB when he manipulated the transition to democracy program. In an interview I had with him for the defunct Quality magazine, he told Babangida in no uncertain terms that he was playing with the patience of Nigerians with his endless transition program. He was a very principled man.
Ojukwu loved his beautiful wife-Bianca, and had a special name for her. He called her “Madam.” He appreciated the love, the devotion, the care she had shown him and went above and beyond to replicate and return the love. I used to marvel at the breath and extent of their love and devotion to one another. It was a thing of beauty to watch how much they loved each other. As death takes away our dear Ikemba, here’s wishing his dear wife-the one and only “Madam” Bianca- my dear friend the fortitude to bear the loss. The people’s general lived a consequential life and as the New York Times of 11-26 2011 stated he “remained a hero in the eyes of many of his countrymen.” May his soul rest in peace.
Nigerian Diasporas Hail President Jonathan’s Pledge to grant Diasporas voting rights in 2015
The Nigerian Diaspora community is excited over the pronouncement of President Jonathan earlier this week in Paris, France that he would work to ensure that the Nigerian Diaspora community exercises one of the most basic constitutional imperatives of a citizen-the right to vote.
As readers of this column would recall, I wrote a piece a few weeks ago in which I lamented the exclusion of a large pool of educated, economically secure and skilled populace whose only challenge was that they resided in another country. I had made reference in the said piece to the Dominican Republic Diasporas, the Ghanaian, the Jewish-Americans and other countries where having residence abroad by its citizens is not considered an impediment for participation in the political process.
President Jonathan’s pledge is highly commendable and shows he is determined to provide a sense of inclusion to our Diasporan community. At Tropical Grill- a Nigerian upscale restaurant and lounge located on Rockaway Boulevard- a few minutes from JFK Airport, in Queens, New York, the general sentiments of hundreds of Nigerians who had gathered last Monday to watch the “The Monday Night Football” was one of praise for the president. According to Ayo- an attorney, “the president has shown leadership by this gesture. I think the Diasporan population will enrich the texture of discourse and platforms future candidates will run on and it can only be a win-win situation for us all.” Joy- an OBGYN also concurred” the notion of excluding us from voting for our preferred candidates to say the least was a wrong policy. We love our country dearly and wish for her nothing but a fulfillment of the dreams of our founding, and one way of doing so, is to ensure that we vote into office candidates who would not sacrifice the aspirations of our people. I commend the president for finally pledging to grant us this one wish-to ensure that our votes count.”