John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan Praises Former Biafra Military Chief of State

by John Campbell
November 28, 2011

Ex-Biafra military chief of state and former presidential candidate Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu waves to All Progressive Grand Alliance supporters in Lagos, Nigeria during a general election rally February 27, 2003. (George Esiri/Courtesy Reuters)

Nigeria presidential spokesman Reuben Abati has issued a statement on the death of former Biafra military chief of state Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, characterizing Ojukwu’s death as “a great national loss.” The statement also recalled Ojukwu’s leadership of Biafra and subsequently “his commitment to reconciliation and the full reintegration of his people into a united and progressive Nigeria.”

More than forty years after the civil war, ethnic and religious tensions persist in Nigeria, though the fault lines are somewhat different from those in Ojukwu’s time. Now, it is the North that is discontented and the locus of radical Islamic groups such as Boko Haram, not Ojukwu’s East.

Jonathan’s praise of fellow Christian and southerner Ojukwu can be seen as an effort to “let bygones be bygones” with respect to the civil war. On the other hand, Jonathan’s critics in the North are likely to see it as a presidential effort to consolidate the South and East against their region. In any event, Nigeria’s friends hope that Jonathan will demonstrate similar sensitivity and outreach to the predominately Muslim North that he is showing toward former supporters of Biafra.

Ojukwu was military chief of state of Biafra during the 1967 civil war. The predominately Igbo Biafra sought to establish itself as an independent state following a series of military coups and ethnic and religious pogroms in the North, especially against Igbo Christians. While the U.S. government favored the preservation of Nigerian national unity, many American college campuses hosted fervent Biafra supporters. Among American youth, the cause of Biafra was often linked with support for the civil rights movement in the United States and opposition to the Vietnam war. Nigeria went “over the brink” during the civil war, with deaths predominately from hunger and disease likely numbering more than one million. For many Americans, a starving Biafra child became the poster for the suffering caused by African civil wars.

After the defeat of Biafra, Ojukwu spent thirteen years in exile, returning only when he was pardoned by civilian president Shehu Shagari. Oxford educated and from the late colonial elite, Ojukwu’s critics accuse him of needlessly prolonging the civil war in part to gratify his own ego. Nevertheless, after his return from exile, he re-established himself as an important leader of the Igbo people, though never a national kingmaker.

Following the civil war, the Nigerian federal government pursued a policy of national reconciliation called “no winners, no losers.” Among the major Nigerian ethnic groups the Igbo have done well in business and professional occupations. However, they have never held the presidency and there is a pervasive sense of grievance that they have been de facto excluded from the highest political and military positions in the federal government. The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) reflects Igbo nostalgia for what an independent Biafra might have been, and its specter on occasion can still keep federal officials in Abuja awake at night, resulting in heavy-handed crackdowns.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    Nigeria civil war should not be reduced to a simplistic confrontation between Northern Muslims versus Southern Christians. In fact, most of the actors of that war were Christians: on the Federal sides in the North the actors were mainly Christians of the Middle Belt extraction (Gowon, Danjuma, Bisalla, Dimka, Domkat Bali,etc.), the SouthWest Christians (Obasanjo, Adekunle – the Black Scorpion, Diya, etc) and the Niger Deltan Christians (Isaac Adaka Boro, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Dappa-Biriye, Capt Amangala, etc).

    Also Nigeria was able to effectively blockade the landlocked Biafra because of the support given to the Gowon Govt by the leaders of the Niger Delta, a region Jonathan is a native of. If not for this support (which the Igbos still hold grudges against the South-South region) there would probably have been smuggling of weapons to Biafran soldiers through the many river outlets to the Atlantic in the Niger Delta which probably will have made the rebellion much more difficult to crush.

    Also, Ojukwu was born and grew up in the North,speaks fluent Hausa, and has many Northern friends. In fact, many Northern Muslim leaders (Buhari, Babangida, Atiku, Northern Governor Forums, etc) are equally eulogizing him just as Jonathan did, though they were not mentioned in this article for reasons I don’t know.

  • Posted by debo Adejobi

    When I was younger I had a different view of him, they were dropping bombs on our streets. But as I got older, my impressions have fluctuated invariably. I guess nobody is perfect. He is an enigma. Dust to dust…..r.i p.

  • Posted by Emeka

    What a great man.A military genius. A man who took up arms to prevent the slaughter of his people. I salute your courage in the face of great tribulation. Adieu our great leader. A man of peace.

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