This interview is the most intimate account of the thoughts and actions of Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu before, during and after the Nigerian civil war. The account is coming from Professor Sam Aluko, the respected Nigerian economist, who has revealed that he was the most trusted friend Ojukwu had. That friendship started immediately the Ikemba Nnewi assumed the governorship position of the Eastern Region. Since then and through the period of the war, Ojukwu’s exile in Cote d’Ivoire and his return to Nigeria, that friendship had sustained.
More profoundly, in that relationship, was the trust and the confidentiality with which Ojukwu dealt with the economist. It was such that, for every major decision Ojukwu made, he must first test-run it on Prof. Aluko. It was Aluko that he first told of his plans to pull the East out of Nigeria. Ojukwu would have attacked and wiped out a whole village in the Benue area, to teach Nigeria a lesson during the pogrom in Northern Nigeria in 1966, but Prof. Aluko stopped him.
Aluko also said he forced Ojukwu to agree on a conference as well as suggested and perfected the Aburi meeting that produced the famous Aburi Accord.
When the war overwhelmed Ojukwu, Aluko said, he contemplated either to stay put or wait for the Federal Government troops to capture him or to “abdicate.” Again, it was Prof. Aluko who advised him to take the latter option and go to Cote d’Ivoire, instead of some other places.
How close were you to the late Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu?
I will say that I was very close to him till his death. Immediately, he became governor of the former Eastern Region, when I was a senior lecturer in Economics in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he called me the third day he became governor. He said he wanted to come and see me in my university. I never met him before. How can the military governor come and see me? I said no. I told him I would come and see him, instead. I told the person he sent that he should tell the governor that I was the one who should come and see him and not him coming to see me. That was on January 20, 1966. So, when I said I was going to see him, my wife said she would go with me. She said we didn’t know the man and therefore she wanted to be present at the meeting. She reasoned that we couldn’t predict a soldier who just came. When we got to the military governor’s house, Ojukwu said: ‘Madam, I know you would come because you thought that I will do something to your husband.’ He said he had never met me before, but those in the military had been reading so much about me and they venerated me. According to him, that was why he wanted to see me. He said he wanted me to help him to run the government of the Eastern Region.
We discussed and he asked what role I would like to play and I said I would remain in the university because I didn’t want to leave. I promised to do whatever I could do to help him. The first cabinet that he formed, we both sat down and looked at the names of those from the Eastern Region to be cabinet members. He did not know them because he was not living in the Eastern Region. He was outside, in Kaduna and in Lagos. He spoke Yoruba better than I. So, we were speaking in Yoruba most of the time. That’s how the relationship began and we became very close. It was through him that I knew Adekunle Fajuyi, the governor of the Western Region. We continued until after the counter-coup in July. I was very sad. They killed many Igbo. Many who were not killed had cuts in the head and other parts of the body. He called me and said what could he do? What was going on in his mind was to go to a place in Benue and sack a village there. He wanted to kill as many people as possible. I said no. I said as a Christian, Christianity doesn’t allow for vengeance. As a Christian, I said he should not do that.
Was that when the killings in the North started?
Yes. That was the period the pogrom started. I said he should get in touch with the Head of State, but he said no because it was wrong for Yakubu Gowon to be Head of State because there was Ogundipe, who was a Brigadier and the most senior military officer at the time. He said when the coup happened in January, the most senior officer became the Head of State. So, he argued that when the counter-coup happened, the most senior should also become the Head of State. But the northerners will not take that at that time. Ogundipe himself did not want it because he said there were few Yoruba in the army. He said he will just be there without support and they would kill him. So, they made him High Commissioner in London. When the pogrom continued and the people were coming to the East from the North, Ojukwu said he was afraid that the easterners coming back might attack those who are non-easterners in the East. He then made a statement on the radio that all those who were non-easterners should leave the East.
At the time, there was rumour that Professor Babatunde Fafunwa was killed because he was from the West. But Fafunwa was in Benin Republic attending a conference. Ojukwu said the rumour was a sign of what was to happen. He said they would be attacking the northerners and the westerners and claim easterners did. So, he will ask everybody to go. I went to see him in Enugu and I said: “well, Your Excellency, I will have to go back to the West.” He said no, emphasising that when he talked of westerners, it did not apply to me because I was one of them. Non-easterners in the East were scared. Fafunwa and I were the most senior in the place. Fafunwa was not around and I said: “I will have to take them to the West to make sure that they were safe.” He said it was OK and that he will give me soldiers to make sure that all the students and staff were safe. He said when I got to Benin, I should hand them over to the governor in Benin to take them to the West and I should return to my job in Nsukka.
What of your protection?
He said I needed not worry because I was one of them. Really, I was being integrated in the East because, at that time, Obafemi Awolowo was in the Calabar prison and I was the only one allowed to see him. Ojukwu used to give me protection to go and see him. So, I was enjoying myself. When I got to Benin, I did not return to the East. I got the people to Ibadan and then called him to say: “Your Excellency, I am here and I am no longer coming back to the East.” He said: “Doctor, don’t call me Your Excellency, call me Emeka. You are older than I and I adore you. Just call me Emeka and I will call you Sam.” I was talking to him every night from Ibadan.
When the problem was brewing, General Adeyinka Adebayo was then the governor of the Western Region. He called me and said he understood that the easterners were planning a counter-coup and I would have to go to Enugu to see Ojukwu. He said that he had been trying to get him without success. I said I had his secret telephone number and I gave it to General Adebayo. But Ojukwu did not pick the phone from anybody. So, Adebayo asked the late Professor B. A. Oyenuga and I to go and see him. So, we went to Enugu and I delivered the letter. He told Professor Oyenuga that if he had not come with me, he would not have discussed with anybody. The only person he trusted was Dr. Aluko. I was not a Professor at that time. When we finished in the evening, we went to our hotel. Ojukwu came to me in my hotel room and said: “Doctor, I want to talk to you confidentially.” And he said: “Our plan in the East is that we are no longer safe in Nigeria. We want to secede.”
What date was this?
That was January 1967. I said: “Emeka, I don’t think you should think of secession. I said it was the Igbo that were killed in the North and not all easterners.” I said “from my living in the East and going round the East, I know that the Igbo were not very popular in the Rivers area and the Calabar area. I told him that if he declared secession, he would be fighting two wars. I told him he would be fighting internal war against people with him, who didn’t want to be ruled by the Igbo and he would be fighting Nigeria who didn’t want him to succeed. I told him not I didn’t think he could win the war. I think that made a great impression on him. He said: “Doctor, your analysis is perfect.” He said, “after all, why should I secede? “He said: “All my father’s property are in Lagos. I was brought up in Lagos. I came to the East on posting as a military governor. I have discovered that ruling the Igbo is like ruling a pack of wild horses. They are very difficult to rule. I will rather want to be away from here to another place. It is very difficult to persuade the Igbo against their will.”
I told him he didn’t have to persuade them against their will, just be loyal to them. I went back to Adebayo. We had a reconciliation meeting. Awolowo, Onyia and myself were sent to meet Ojukwu in Enugu. Ojukwu insisted that if I did not come, he would not receive them. So, we went together. We discussed.
When was this?
That was March 1967. Awolowo was very frank with him. He told him: “Look, governor, you cannot secede. You cannot go alone. Just as you fear the North, the West also fears the North. The soldiers in the North are occupying the West. So, we have the same common interest. But don’t let us secede. Let us do whatever we can do together to unite and confront the North so that we can have a settlement on how we want to run this country.” Awolowo said, if the East left the federation, the Yoruba would have to leave the federation. That’s what some misconstrued to say that Awolowo assured Ojukwu that if he seceded, the Yoruba would join. What he meant was that the thing that makes Igbo leave the federation would also make the Yoruba leave the federation, but that he didn’t want to leave the federation. According to Awolowo, we want to enjoy and rule this federation because nobody has the monopoly to rule this federation; so, let us be in constant touch; let us unite and don’t do anything rash. When we left, I went to Nsukka and Ojukwu called me and said I should come back. I went back to him that evening.
Where was Awolowo?
He was in Enugu, at the Hotel Presidential. But I went to see my friends in Nsukka.
What of protection for you and Awolowo?
I didn’t need protection in the East, but Awolowo was protected. He was just released from prison. So, he didn’t need much protection. Ojukwu came in the evening to my hotel room and said he did not want to be very frank with us because he didn’t know Awolowo and Onyia. But he knew me. He said what he wanted is to make Rivers, Benue and Niger the boundary between the North and the South. He wanted a confederacy of the country so that the South will be Southern Nigeria versus Northern Nigeria and if Northern Nigeria wanted to go away, let them go away. I said: “look, I don’t think we should do that. I don’t think it would work. I have told you that the West has not suffered the way the East has suffered. How your people are angry is not the way and manner our people are angry. So, if you declare unilateral secession, you won’t get the whole West to follow you.” He said I had said so before and would not do it. So, I came back to the West and reported to Gowon what we discussed in Enugu.
You told Gowon all that Ojukwu told you confidentially?
Yes. I told Ojukwu I would brief Gowon. He liked Gowon and the only thing he had against Gowon was that he ought not to be Head of State. He said it was usurpation. I said but Gowon was already Head of State. That is how I became an intermediary between Gowon and Ojukwu. Gowon told me that he had been trying to get Ojukwu but he would not take the telephone. I said he had three secret telephones. There was one in Enugu, one in Onitsha and one in Nnewi, which he gave to me. At that time, it was the ground phone that was available. I gave them to Gowon.
On the night before he was to declare secession, Adebayo called me that despite the assurances by Ojukwu, he learnt that he was going to declare secession tomorrow. I said I spoke to him last night and he did not tell me that he was going to declare secession. So, I called him and said: “Emeka, I have just learnt from the Head of State that you want to declare secession tomorrow.” He said, yes, that the people met and said if he wanted to continue to be military governor, he should either declare secession or quit. He said that to quit meant death. I said, “but you are a leader and a leader is not supposed to follow? People are supposed to follow the leader. Try and dissuade them from declaration. Let us see if we can do a number of things.”
Anyway, he declared secession. Much later he said, “Sam, I have declared. I am sorry. We will continue to talk.” I said: “Look, this declaration is only declaration. The war has not started. We can still talk. If you want confederation, we can still talk. I said Canada has a confederal system.” We ended at that. So I told Gowon that Ojukwu was willing to talk if he could have a place to talk. Gowon said if Ojukwu would come to Lagos. I said Ojukwu would not come to Lagos. He said what of Benin? I said Ojukwu would not come to Benin. I said he regarded those as part of the enemy territory. That was how we settled for Aburi, in Ghana.
Who suggested Aburi?
I suggested Aburi to Ojukwu. He was first thinking of East Africa, like Tanzania. I said it was too far. I told him that if he was away Gowon was away in this turbulent time, they could plan coup against Gowon in Nigeria and plan coup against him in Biafra. I told him he should go to a place where he can go in the morning and come back in the evening. That was how we settled for Aburi. He also thought of Liberia. But I said Liberia was a bit far. At the Aburi meeting, you know Ojukwu is highly educated; so he prepared very well. Gowon went there with the hope that he was going to discuss with an old friend soldier and agree, like the Yoruba way of settling disputes, that, nobody is guilty, let us go on as we are doing.
He did not go with the Awolowos and Permanent Secretaries?
No. He went with a few people. And so, Ojukwu outwitted them there and got all he wanted as a confederal system.
Who went with him?
He went with soldiers. He went with officers of the army. So, when they returned and published the agreement, Ojukwu was very happy. It was published by Nigeria. But top civil servants, like Allison Ayida and others said this was disintegration of Nigeria. They said there was nothing left for Ojukwu to sever within one day. It was less than a confederation. It was virtually creating two countries. That was how Gowon developed cold feet to implement the Aburi agreement.
You did not go to Aburi?
No. I didn’t. Immediately he came from Aburi, he called me and said: “The agreement was fantastic. When we implement it, you will have to come back to your job in Nsukka.” He called me from Port Harcourt because he was then in Port Harcourt. When the Aburi agreement could not be implemented, he said Biafra Republic is indissoluble. No power in Africa can dissolve it. But I was going almost every month to Enugu, Nnewi or Onitsha to see him. What worried me, as I told him, was that whenever I was going from Onitsha to Enugu or Onitsha to Nnewi, soldiers who are eastern soldiers would say: “Doctor, please tell Governor we don’t want to fight. We have suffered enough. We don’t want to fight.” So, I will always tell him: “Emeka, the people you say no power in Africa can stop, are not willing to fight. They are not with you 100 per cent. This is what they tell me.” He said he knew but there was no going back and that he had secured the confidence of the French, British, the Americans and some African countries. I said: “Don’t rely on Western powers. They are talking to you now because you are controlling the oil. Immediately there is war and they take the oil from you, they will desert you. It is because the oil is in the East and you are military governor in the East. But with what I see, immediately those in Rivers and Cross Rivers desert you and they link with the Federal Government and the Federal Government take those places from you, Britain, America and France will leave you,” which is what they did.
What I like about Gowon was that throughout the period, he was always in touch with me and I was always in touch with him. But the soldiers were always coming to my house in Ife, saying that I was a saboteur and that I was linking with rebels and that I was the ambassador of Ojukwu in the West. They would come and search my house that I had arms and so on and so forth. They did that until Gowon told them not to worry me again. They didn’t know I was in touch with Gowon. Every night, I will call Ojukwu and he will call me even when he was in the bunker. I once asked where he was calling? He said he was calling from the bunker in Aba. I reminded him that he said he was in Enugu and he said Enugu meant hill and anywhere he was hill. When the war started and the Nigerian soldiers started getting upper hand, he still believed he could win.
What was he saying when Nigeria had upper hand?
He believed after some time, they would collapse because he was also winning some skirmishes. He killed some soldiers in Awka. He killed some in Asaba. So, he was winning some small, small wars too. But I was a bit against him that there was no way he could win. About the end of 1968, I called him and said, “look, Emeka, try to make approach when Dr. Azikiwe defected.”
Why did Azikiwe leave him?
Ojukwu did not like Azikiwe.
Two masters cannot be in a boat. Azikiwe was so dominant in Nigeria and he was living in the East and Ojukwu was the military governor of the East. So, obviously, he would be looking over his shoulder because of Azikiwe. He might think he was more important than him (Azikiwe) as the military governor. It’s understandable. In fact, he told me once that he had a lot of people watching Azikiwe. Finally, Azikiwe defected and came back to Nigeria. I said; “Emeka, I told you there is no way you can win this war.” I said use Azikiwe as intermediary between Gowon and yourself and let us settle this matter. That was at the end of 1968. We were talking in Yoruba. We always talked in Yoruba. We continued talking like that until the eve of his departure to Ivory Coast. After sometimes, he believed there were a lot of saboteurs in the East, who were no longer willing to fight. The French, British, Americans and even the Russians did not support him.
Didn’t they support him from the beginning?
They supported him, to start with, when he was in control of the oil. Immediately the oil was taken away by the Nigerian government, they reneged.
What of Rivers and Cross Rivers?
They didn’t support him from the word go, because they knew that in an East dominated by the Igbo, they will always be subject to Igbo domination. We are a bit lucky in Yoruba land that there are not many ethnic groups. We are all Yoruba. But in the East, they fear the Igbo more than the Hausas. That is why they always vote for the Hausas. So, about two days before his departure, he called me and said: “Look, the game is up.” I asked him what he would do. He said he was thinking of two things: either to be captured by the Nigerian army or he would abdicate. I said: “From what I know, if you are captured by the Nigerian Army, there is no way they will not prosecute you for treason. He who runs away leaves to fight another day.” I said, “I will advise you to abdicate. He said where would he go? Tanzania recognised him, Ivory Coast recognised him. Haiti recognised him. He said he would go to Benin Republic. I said no because there were too many Yoruba in Benin Republic; they would hand him over to the Nigerian government. The French were playing hide-and-seek, but I felt it is safer. I asked him to go to a French territory, where there are many Igbo, like Cameroon or Ivory Coast. He said he would rather go to Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast had already recognised Biafra. So, he got in touch with their president, who sent a plane to him. It was Ivory Coast presidential plane that carried Ojukwu to Ivory Coast.
When he was in Ivory Coast, we were communicating with each other until he came back. When he came back, we resumed our friendship till his death. When my young son senator was getting married in Lagos, we didn’t invite him and he came. I visited him several times in his Ikoyi residence, near the UNDP office. I have not visited him since he went back to Enugu..
When did he tell you his health was failing?
He didn’t tell me that his health was failing. I read it in the newspaper that his health was failing. I did not visit him in the last three years. I sent Christmas card to him and he sent Christmas card to me. After sometime, when the land phone was not working, I did not have his mobile phone until one day he saw my son in Enugu and gave him his two mobile phones and I was talking to him. When Shehu Shagari pardoned him, I thought it was great statesmanship on the part of Shagari. But when he came and joined NPN, I was very angry with him.
Are you saying he didn’t tell you before he joined the party?
No. I said: “Emeka, how can you go and join a reactionary party like NPN?” He said they gave him pardon and that was the understanding he had with them that whatever he could do he would do to assist government. I said: “You were Head of State before, I don’t think NPN will want you to get very far in the place. The day they say an easterner should be President, many will say it must be Ojukwu. I don’t think these people would want you to be president.” They put him up for Senate and defeated him. It was NPN that defeated him. Can you imagine that Ojukwu was defeated for the Senate? So, I said: “Emeka, I told you.” It was NPP, Azikiwe’s party, that defeated him and that was the only seat that NPN lost in the East. We shared a lot of things together and he was very loyal to me and I was very loyal to him. If not, he would not tell me his secret movements, his secret numbers and talking to me every time, even when he was in Ivory Coast.
Did he tell you when he married Bianca?
No. He didn’t invite me because he knew I wouldn’t come.
What was wrong with the first wife? He knew I would question that. When I saw him, I said: “Emeka, how many women will go in your life?” He said: “Sam, I am a soldier. You told me once that Adebayo said he was a soldier and he owns this country only one bullet. So, when he wakes up and find himself there, he will enjoy himself that day as if it is the last day. That is how soldiers behave.” He said I should not query him, that he loved women. I never met Bianca. But I know C. C. Onoh, her father, very well. I used to stay by in Ugoh to see the father, even before he became governor. So, I know the father. I know Onoh.
When did you stop communicating with Ojukwu?
We were talking and he didn’t say he was ill and he didn’t show any sign of illness. I think it was a stroke. You know stroke comes suddenly. I don’t think it was a gradual deterioration. When you see what he has gone through during the civil war, it’s not easy. It takes tolls on people.
How did he maintain himself in Ivory Coast?
He was maintained by the president. He had no money at all. He didn’t take a single penny out of the East. He was also doing some lecturing and so on and so forth.
How true is it that Ojukwu spent part of his father’s wealth to finance the war?
Of course, he sold everything belonging to his father in the East. He wanted to sell those in Lagos, but he didn’t get people to buy. The East had no money at that time because they could not even exploit the oil. They tried. They built refineries and did a lot of things on their own. But it was not enough to finance the war. Of course, he was getting help from Caritas, that’s Catholic International or Catholic aide. In fact, when I went to the World Council of Churches in 1968 in Sweden, I was discussing with Dr. Akanu Ibiam who came and I said look, there is no way East can succeed. He was also assisted by France. France gave him some money. Ivory Coast gave some money. Tanzania couldn’t give because they didn’t have money and they were not too sure the way the war was going. Immediately the war wasn’t going the way they thought, they developed cold feet. Ojukwu tried. I praise the Igbo for holding Nigeria for 30 months.
By Duro Adeseko, Saturday December 03, 2011
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