The Legacy of Ikemba The Great

Chukwuemeka Ojukwu was a Nigerian military officer and politician who served as President of the Republic of Biafra from 1967 to 1970 during the Nigerian Civil War.

He previously served as the military governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, which he declared as the independent nation of Biafra. He remained active as a politician from 1983 until his death in 2011 at the age of 78.

BACKGROUND

Chukwuemeka “Emeka” Odumegwu Ojukwu was born on 4 November 1933 in Zungeru, northern Nigeria, to Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, an Igbo businessman from present-day Nnewi, Anambra State, in south-eastern Nigeria. Sir Louis was in the transport business and became the richest man in Nigeria during World War II. Emeka started his educational journey in Lagos, southwestern Nigeria.

Emeka Ojukwu began his secondary school education at CMS Grammar School, Lagos, at the age of 10 in 1943. He later transferred to King’s College, Lagos, in 1944, where he was involved in a controversy that led to his brief imprisonment for assaulting a British teacher during a student strike action he participated in. The incident garnered significant attention in local newspapers. At the age of 13, his father sent him to the United Kingdom to further his education, first at Epsom College and later at Lincoln College, Oxford University, where he earned a master’s degree in History. He returned to colonial Nigeria in 1956.

Ojukwu joined the civil service in Eastern Nigeria as an Administrative Officer in Udi, present-day Enugu State. In 1957, seeking to break away from his father’s influence over his civil service career, he left the civil service and joined the military, initially enlisting as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in Zaria.

His decision to enlist as an NCO was influenced by his father and Governor-General John Macpherson, who believed he would not endure the gruelling NCO schedule, but Emeka persevered. After correcting a drill sergeant’s mispronunciation of the safety catch of the Lee-Enfield .303 rifle, he was recommended for an officer’s commission by the British Depot Commander. Emeka then proceeded to the Royal West African Frontier Force Training School in Teshie, Ghana, and later to Eaton Hall, where he received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in March 1958.

He was one of the first and few university graduates to receive an army commission. He further attended Infantry School in Warminster and the Small Arms School in Hythe. After completing additional military training, he was assigned to the Army’s Fifth Battalion in Kaduna.

At that time, the Nigerian Military Forces had 250 officers, with only 15 being Nigerians. The ranks consisted of 6,400 other ranks, of which 336 were British. After serving in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the Congo under Major General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ojukwu was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1964 and posted to Kano, where he was in charge of the 5th Battalion of the Nigerian Army.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu was in Kano when Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu executed and announced the bloody military coup in Kaduna on 15 January 1966. Ojukwu supported the forces loyal to the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi. The coup lost momentum in the north due to Ojukwu’s efforts, as it had succeeded in other parts of the country.

After Major Nzeogwu’s coup, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi took over the leadership of the country and became the first military head of state. On 17 January 1966, he appointed military governors for the four regions, and Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu was appointed Military Governor of the Eastern Region.

By 29 May 1966, the anti-Igbo pogrom began, presenting challenges for Ojukwu, as he tried to prevent reprisals and encouraged people to return to the region with assurances of their safety given by his colleagues from other parts of Nigeria. On 29 July 1966, a group of officers led the majority of Northern soldiers in a mutiny that later developed into a “Counter-Coup” or “July Rematch.” The coup failed in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria, where Ojukwu was the military Governor.

The Supreme Commander General Aguiyi-Ironsi and Colonel Fajuyi were abducted and killed in Ibadan during the counter-coup. Ojukwu insisted on preserving the military hierarchy, but the leaders of the counter-coup declared Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon as head of state, leading to a standoff between Ojukwu and Gowon and eventually resulting in the Nigerian civil war.

In January 1967, the Nigerian military leadership attended a peace conference in Aburi, Ghana, where agreements were reached, but they fell apart upon their return to Nigeria. On 30 May 1967, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state known as Biafra.

On 6 July 1967, Gowon declared war and attacked Biafra. Efforts were made through various conferences to settle the conflict via diplomacy, but war persisted. During the war, in 1967, some members of the alleged coup plot of July 1966 and Major Victor Banjo were executed for treason with Ojukwu’s approval. Major Ifeajuna was among those executed. The defendants argued that they sought a negotiated ceasefire with the federal government and were not guilty of treason.

In 1981, Ojukwu began campaigning to return to Nigeria, and Nigerian President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari granted him a pardon on 18 May 1982, allowing him to return to Nigeria as a private citizen. He declared his candidacy for the Nigerian Senate in 1983 but lost the election. In 1984, he was jailed by the Buhari regime but later released.

Ojukwu married Bianca Onoh in 1994, and they had three children. He unsuccessfully contested the presidency in 2003 and 2007 during the Fourth Republic era.

On 26 November 2011, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu died in the United Kingdom after a brief illness at the age of 78. The Nigerian Army accorded him the highest military accolade and conducted a funeral parade for him in Abuja on 27 February 2012. He was buried in a newly built mausoleum in his compound at Nnewi after an elaborate weeklong funeral ceremony in Nigeria. Memorial services and public events were held in his honor in several places across Nigeria and abroad. His funeral was attended by President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and ex-President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, among other personalities.


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