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Nigeria Needs Me: Odumegwu Ojukwu


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Theweek: Sir, You've just given a talk on the Nigerian civil war at the National War College. How best do you think the ranks of officers and men on the Biafran side could be restored since it was one of the major subjects discussed at the meeting?

Ojukwu: In an oblique way I touched upon this very subject. In an oblique way I said that it seems rather odd that people found it difficult to know how to address me. They didn't know whether to say lieutenant-colonel or to say general. And then on that basis, I indicated that that was still one of the things that bedevilled our effort at coming together. We have not been able to come together because, you see, when you strip a man of everything, be careful, don't strip him of his plans. We are in a position today where coming together, even though we all know it's necessary and laudable, is hindered by actions that people don't realise how insulting they can be. Here is, sitting beside me at that time, Major-General Philip Effiong. How can I contribute fully to the War College when you in front of me and in front of him call him colonel, or when you cannot even call him any rank? So, I told them these are the things that we really needed to look into.

The American civil war was fought very bitterly, but in personal relationship, all the officers on the other side bear their ranks. And in any case, in a country like Nigeria wherein band leaders call themselves field marshal and everybody calls him field marshal, where do you then start staking, refusing? I will always be a four-star general. General of the Biafran Army. I have never claimed to be a General of the Nigerian Army.

Having said all these, I then look at the future. If even at the end of the war it was felt otherwise, in the interest of national reconciliation, it will be necessary to review whatever hindering decisions that have been taken before. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing difficult about it. If even you have, let's say, a man, a Biafran major-general, I don't even think actually we should even go through all the rigmarole converting him into the Nigerian Army. No. Even if a Biafran, he is a general. But courtesy makes him to be. We should then give him, call him, refer to him, with respect. We say we are trying to come together. Let us remove all the various things; let's all come together. What was said, in fact it was left unto me, it will be the beginning of a healthy relationship between the past officers and men.

In the efforts enunciated by the NWC, how would you react to the intellectual import of the NWC, vis-a-vis the present crop of the Nigerian Army officers?

I am fascinated by the whole concept of bringing army officers together to talk about one traumatic event of Nigerian togetherness. The War College rightly should look into it. The only thing is that there are still a lot of people who depend on the war, good or bad, right or wrong, for their positions in society. I believe these people are getting less and less. They come into retirement. I don't care if anybody says I am wrong. I have never claimed to be Jesus Christ reincarnated. But I will willing to argue my point of view with anybody else so that future generations can get the truth to have the possibility of avoiding the mistakes which we made that brought so much pain to our Nigeria. That is the way I look at it. So, War College, I feel proud of today actually.

If you were there during the discussions, in fact, I started off mine by telling them: 'I don't agree with anybody.' That's how I started. But it was in good humour. The esprit de corps was there. They began and ended as comrades in arms. But for me, it was fabulous. It was like a home coming, because whether one likes it or not, this is the history of Nigeria. All the senior officers of Nigeria today, I either taught them, personally, or taught their teachers. I either commanded them personally, or I commanded their commanders.

When you received the invitation to deliver a talk at the seminar, how did you feel?

I felt good. I felt very good. The only thing, because to me - and let me take this opportunity - some people will misunderstand and say there is a bit of sycophancy. No! I praise the openness of General Sani Abacha. It is that openness that has made this reunion possible. And I say this bearing in mind that the first act, particularly in my direction, of this regime was at the death of President Houephet-Boigny (of Cote d'Ivoire). General Sani Abacha, in choosing the delegation that went with him to the funeral, put me on the delegation. And nobody had considered me as having any positive capacity in Nigeria, until he did it. Oh, no!

I have a lot to be grateful. And the thing I have never done in my life - because people want to believe this or that - is to refuse to say the truth. No. It's another evidence of his openness that I, the arch-rebel, would come to the Nigerian War College, stay at the high table and pontificate to the officers who are serving the Nigerian Army.

How do you react to the statement that you are an Abacha's man?

I think they are just being childish. I was never. How can I be an Abacha's man? Just look at it; how can I? He happens to be head of state. All I do is I try as much as possible to give any amount of my own experience in whatever I feel is good to help him. What I am saying, if you look at it in its true context, the word I used is the openness of Abacha. And fortunately for me, and I suspect for Nigeria, he happens to still be the only one that sees in me... And so, I give whatever I can to make his government work and to make him succeed in his mission.

Again, rightly or wrongly, I have been seen in the context of being at war with Nigeria. I will dearly love before I die, to be seen in the context of generating peace for the well being of Nigeria. And I pray also that... actually, this is what I have been doing even though the first effort was misunderstood.

Have you made some positive contributions to the peace processes initiated by Nigeria in the sub-region or in the continent?

The thing I have been known for, in a way, is also my openness. Most evenings people come. Like we are sitting here, they sit with me in Lagos, in Abuja, depending on where I have been. With my erstwhile colleagues in the army and so on I try to discuss. And I believe that we are caught up in the Liberian crisis. It is a good thing. I don't know whether actually it is a cost effective effort by Nigeria because that is one of the problems we have. Nigerians have not been told what vital interests, other than the general notion of peace in Liberia, that have caused us to lay down our lives in Liberia. I think that is necessary.

I believe that Nigeria cannot be talking, talking, talking about its own greatness. This greatness demands certain actions and peace-keeping operations is also a way of receiving the promise of Nigerians.

When I was in America talking about the misunderstanding of Nigerians by America in particular, I drew their attention to the fact that since independence, Nigeria has lavished a large percentage of its resources in fulfilling her membership to the United Nations. We were hardly independent when we went to the peace corps and ever since this, there's hardly any place that Nigerian troops have not taken part in. In fact, I look upon it and I put it side by side with this problem which has beset Nigeria's image. When the whole world should be pointing at Nigeria with envy and pride, certain dissidents have been making a lot of noise abroad. I don't say Nigeria is perfect; no human organisation is perfect. But certainly, let us accept that on this peace-keeping effort, Nigeria has done a lot more than other African countries. I would like to point out that in running to the aid of impoverished neighbours, Nigeria has done more than other West African countries.

In rallying and giving a sense of pride to the black man on the continent of Africa, I believe Nigeria has done more than most. And this was acknowledged until recently. If you permit me, my own view is this, and I say this in Nigeria, I do not support military government. I was part of the first but then, I do not still support military government. But once it has arrived, I cannot wish it away. It is there. I have to deal with it or I live with it. Confrontation is not the answer in any case.

Confrontation from across the Atlantic Ocean is not the answer. If you want to confront, why don't you come home and then we will know the relative strength of the various contestants in this problem? I believe, and I am not ashamed of it, in constructive engagement. I believe that we must help them achieve objectives that have been articulated by them and that we think, as ideas grow, is worthwhile. That does not mean I don't apologise in finding something good. In fact, I feel relieved that I find something good in my head of state.

For some-time now, you have been engaged in canvassing support for the Abacha regime both at home and abroad. Why actually are you involved in this exercise?

One, what I have been doing is not canvassing support, but canvassing understanding. That is a different thing altogether. As I said when I went to America, I bring the other side of the Nigerian coin, so that people understand what is happening in Nigeria. And in so doing, I tell them my own view, and I point out what I consider their mistakes. I have a need to do it because the misunderstanding of the situation in Nigeria by our foreign friends is causing us a lot of hardship. There is no doubt about it. And we don't just allow it to go on.

I finished with the Constitutional Conference and I said, this was another way I could be of help. And whether we like it or not, the international community still finds me credible. When I say things, they still understand and they give it the necessary weight.

You ask me, why then do I do it? My God! Are you serious? Anytime Nigeria needs me or I feel that I can do something for Nigeria, then I get up and start going. That's purely that. I don't need to be asked to help my country, and I have said this to many people. If I don't agree that Nigeria is my country today, my right place is in the bush, leading a guerilla warfare against Nigeria. But I have agreed that Nigeria is my country. I want it to be the best place on earth.

Recently, the government and its security agencies have been accusing NADECO of being responsible for the bombings in the country. Now, in view of the efforts you've put in place in trying to reconcile the various factions in the Nigerian dispute, what advice would you give?

Now let me be quite blunt: It's not by indiscriminate bombings that we can change the situation in Nigeria. All you succeed in doing is implanting greatest fear and therefore irrationality in Nigeria.

When I listen and hear about these bombings I am sad, because it seems directed cowardly to those who cannot fight back. Not to those who are responsible or to those they, the NADECO or whoever, have enunciated as being responsible. What they do is just scare ordinary men/women, market women, some few soldiers, but really, it is not properly directed.

Then, I have my own grouse against the police. The police has not told us what it should tell us so that we can help them. What type of explosives are being used? What system of detonation is being used? so as to know at least, what to be looking for. Are they dynamites or plastic bombs? Carried in a container and kept somewhere unguarded? If they had told us that, we will then, whenever we see something lying unguarded, 'police, look at that - o!' But we cannot help them. They haven't told us anything. Let me take this opportunity and say to our police, please, we know you are the specialist, you've been trained, but we have trained eyes too! Take us into confidence. Let us help you, because these things, if you notice, is when people are going to work; suddenly, there is an explosion. Now, if there is an explosion, it will either be in the vehicle itself, or on the ground where the vehicle passes, or thrown at the vehicle when passing. Those are the only options.

Now, if it is in the bus, at least you can then set up a system where every bus will be searched properly before the soldiers board. If it is on the ground, then people will look and see things and report any unusual things. If it is to be thrown, then you will certainly be looking for people with either bulging pockets or arms ready to throw. In fact, you must join. So, these are problems I have with that.

Now, we've been told NADECO is involved. It could be true, and perhaps it is not. But I don't automatically just get up and say the government is wrong Na lie o! Otherwise, there is no end. What I will say is, whenever something like that happens, please, investigate quickly so that we know the truth.

What is your advice on the controversy over Abacha's alleged bid for the presidency?

Like most things in Nigeria, we always go at a tangent to the real problem. I have said this publicly: personally, I believe that as a citizen of Nigeria, every citizen has the right to seek to serve his nation at the highest level. I believe therefore, that Abacha has that innate right as a citizen. I then look at the situation and I say to myself, how does he do it? I say that he must not do it unfairly. My aim is to find a fair way that we all, everybody who wants to, can do it. It is for that I suggest perhaps a period of disengagement from this khaki uniform that frightens everybody.

Now, if there is period for disengagement, then I see a situation where we all wear babanriga or whatever caftan and campaign properly for election. You might say to me, 'come here, be careful after all (US president Bill) Clinton was in position and he campaigned for re-election.' I say to you that there you have the difference.

The problem with Nigeria is the interest of the military in the presidency. That is what we are trying to repair. We cannot repair it by devising undue advantage from that fact. I would like to say this: A man like General Abacha has been very close, right almost number two man for eight years. By the time he finishes in 1998, he would have been number one for five years. If he is not satisfied, that's his own business. But admit, admit that this man certainly has some experience, and probably, more experience in number one leadership than most of the contenders. In fact, if he wants, let him come out. But let me now tell you something. I would be so proud to contest against him. (laughter)

What credentials do you think you possess to be able to contest against him?

I don't know whether that will ever happen. But in trying to answer your question very objectively as I can, I just simply expect that somehow, a lot of people still respect me. A lot of people have faith in my ability. I have full confidence that there are so many things I could do. But as I said to you, I would like to believe I have something different. I would also like to ensure permanent peace in Nigeria. I believe I am in a unique position to be able to do that. I believe that I can reassure those who think they're oppressed. By doing that, I believe also, not just by submitting that, that I have so many ideas that if properly applied would be useful to Nigeria. I believe that given the opportunity, my business in such a struggle would liberate the vast energies of the people who up till today feel they're either defeated or in occupied territory.

Having been in the Constitutional Conference, how do you assess the transition programme so far?

The transition programme is moving. We still have very many problems. Every country has its problems. But the programme which was presented to us by General Abacha, General Abacha has followed. He has followed scrupulously. I have always said that we have this habit of waking up late. For example, a lot of people are arguing, why did they register only five political parties? Whose fault? When we were told that we should submit our applications for registration, that was the time to object, because, implicit in the fact that you're applying for registration lies the other fact that you might be registered or not.

Nobody queried. We all went in. Five came out. Right or wrong, they have come out. These are generally the sort of problems we have in Nigeria. You and I are discussing the big politics in Nigeria. Do we know actually what the powers of the next president would be? Do we know his power vis-a-vis the much talked-about prime minister? Do we know what it would mean? Do we know whether after electing the president, we will go to elect a prime minister? Or would he be elected from the parliament? Or would he be appointed by the head of state? Do we know the relative positions in protocols and powers between the senate leader and the vice-president? These are things that need clarification.

Today, we have set off and we are going to election for local government councils. But we do know that most of the new councils have not been demarcated. These little things... there is something wrong. That's where I say, the politicians have failed, because they are the ones actually... that's what we should be clamouring for. Define! Define! Define! Tell us what is this, what is that. That's how it should be.

As the Igbo leader, what actually is the Igbo agenda is the next republic?

The day I came out from the Constitutional Conference, and we had talked so much about rotation, I said it's Igbos' turn next. That's what I said. And I have been saying so all along. I still believe that the one thing that will bring peace, absolute peace, to this country, the type of peace we want attached to development, is to liberate Ndi Igbo and there is no better act of liberation than accepting that they have equal right in Nigeria. I don't say that presidency should be handed over to the Igbos on a platter of gold. I will be an idiot if I say so. But let no obstacles be placed before them in the realisation of their manifest destiny.

You ask me an Igbo agenda. Oh! The Igbo agenda is so clear. We are bored with the slow pace of Nigeria in development and progress. We are bustling with energy to clear the way for Nigeria to make progress by leaps and bounds. We see many gross feelings and obstacles on our way. We weep for Nigeria because we believe we can contribute so much to Nigeria. The Igbo agenda is to be allowed to give Nigeria the best of Ndi Igbo.

It is argued in some quarters that your demand for the setting up of the Failed Contracts Tribunal would undermine the political interests of some Igbo elites who may wish to go into this race against you?

That is if you decide that Igbo leaders are criminals. But I don't. I don't believe they are criminals. If, in fact, Igbo leaders have been indulging in these bad things, yes, let them be rounded up. If I too have been involved, let me be rounded up.

I will not be intimidated by such partisan considerations. Hell! There is no doubt in my mind that a lot of people have taken this nation for a ride. They have gotten awarded contracts of whatever it is; received mobilisation and done nothing. If you can charge somebody for taking wrong loan from a bank, when in fact, one of the reasons why banks are set up is to give loans to businessmen, if you can think that too much loan is an abuse, then, taking money for contracts not done is criminal. I have no apologies to make to anyone on that.

And if all the people in my way, as you put it so nicely, are criminals, let them be rounded up. They shouldn't actually be contesting with me. You know why? I don't know how many people that have been involved in government and come out as empty-handed as me. I'm proud of it. I am very proud of it. And that is the way it should be. The problem with Nigeria is that corruption corrupts. And if you give the chance, we can turn this thing round. That is my promise.

You were once seen as one of the architects of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, but now, there seems to be a departure. Where and how did this happen?

There are many things wrong with our Igbo system and one of the worst is the whole question of Ohanaeze, which I find very painful. I have been a member of Ohanaeze in that I am a member in a situation where Ohaneze has no membership. It is an obtuse organisation and there is nothing other than if you happen to be an Igbo man who fraternises with them, there is nothing against one. But if you attend meetings you are seen to be a member. I am worried. I am worried for a long time about this amorphous nature of the organisation because if we really want something done, you need a tighter organisation. You don't have a market organisation to do or to live. It is significant that this Ohanaeze would appear more important to the Yoruba, to the Hausas, in general, to the non-Igbo than it is to Ndi Igbo. And I get amazed at the amount of tears shed from outside Igboland for Ohanaeze than the regret you will find in Igboland. Of course, we should be part of the organisation. But, the strategy of a people cannot be discussed just like that. It needs a tight organisation.

(Cuts in) Is that what you see in Igboezue Cultural Organisation?

Igboezue happens to be a different organisation. It is tighter. I am not a member of Igboezue, but they honour me by inviting me to their functions. My position on Igboland today, no matter whatever people might like to think, is very much like a father. Any organisation in which I am invited to their functions. I go, give my blessing and encouragement. I think they give me such respect.

Your fraternal relationship with Igboezue tends to give the impression that you want to weaken Igbo solidarity.

Why should that? There are people who come to Ohanaeze, they are members of Aka Ikenga. There are people who come to Ohaneze, they are members of Izu Umunna and all that. Why must mine be different? When they do or are members of so many, I am now being accused of even an organisation I am not a member of, I find that very difficult to understand.

Sir, specifically, what role do you play for them?

I say to you in answer to your question, that they give me honour by sometimes, whenever they have something to do, they invite me to give them the benefit of my own experience and knowledge and I use such occasions to talk to them. That is my role.

We would like you to clear the controversy over the Biafra issue. Specifically, its declaration and all that, especially in relation to statements credited to Chief C.C. Onoh and Mokwugo Okoye.

Oh, come off it. How can I? Chief C.C. Onoh is my father-in-law. I am an Igbo man, born from a family that is known. I can't start bandying words with my father-in-law. If my father-in-law thinks I am a criminal, oh well, good and fine. If he thinks I was wrong, oh well and fine. I will not raise issues with my father-in-law. In my house, what do I call him? Daddy. How can I?

Without references to him, what actually happened?

What? Ask your question.

People are asking, how was that declaration made?

When I write my book, you will know my own viewpoints on that.

But probably, it may translate to you exchanging banters with him.

Oh no, I will not. I can never, I said it is an irony of life that from the sting of a bee, there is a honey. And I go for the honey, I don't go for the sting.

What is your advice to top the political elite, taking into consideration the intra-party squabbles in existence in the parties?

What we are doing actually is the way politics should not be done. Who can get up today and tell me the difference between the CNC and DPN? (laughs). Am I going to join a party because Mr. or Alhaji Y is a member? This is the problem we have, so, very quickly, it becomes a jostling for position. This is part of my critique. I don't see really the difference between the five.

Since you are interested in the presidential race, how would you come in?

I think I will join one.

I ask this question because there are insinuations that you've actually joined UNCP?

No, no, no. I haven't joined any yet. I am still a freelance, I haven't joined any. But, at the Constitutional Conference I naturally did everything to get the conference to accept the motion of an independent candidate. If that had been accepted, I wouldn't even consider any party. But it was rejected. I still think it is the best thing, because, while parties take care of group interests, it is only the independent candidate actually that fights for the citizens. We should have accepted that but we didn't. In this business, you win some, you lose some. I accept that as a democrat. Now if you ask me, why don't I find a way of deciding which one? Since there is no other way to go and since the whole question of politics is all about persuading people, I will probably join, based on what I see has given to me the best leverage of getting people mobilised and understanding my viewpoints.

But in this exercise and with the problems encountered now, which is to blame, the Transition Implementation Committee, National Electoral Commission of Nigeria, presidency, politicians?
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Ah, we will all get blamed. This idea of isolating blames is another bane among us Nigerians. We have a culture of distributing blames. That is not the issue. We should try to ensure that it doesn't fail. This is what people will always misunderstand by saying I support this or I support that. My point is that irrespective, even of the mistakes of General Abacha - of course, he is liable to mistakes as a human being - irrespective of that, if even he makes a mistake, my duty is to rush towards him and try and see how that mistake can be manoeuvred to the good of the public in general. This is what an elder should be doing.

Sir, why I say this is because we have a teleguided transition programme where the TIC takes the upper hand. This question becomes pertinent where recently some TIC chieftains publicly passed the buck by saying that if this experiment fails, then the politicians should bear the blame.

Each one of us has a style to his ratings. I don't honestly think that one should always be looking for a means to sermonise political statements that are made purely for effect. I can see somebody wanting to blame the politicians. It is not proper. But let me ask you, can you define properly who the politicians are?

No, sir.

Reported by Malachy Uzendu in TheWeek March 10, 1997.

Odumegwu Ojukwu now lives in Nnewi, Nigeria. father of the internet, supercomputer, IQ, quotes, family, timeline, bio, net worth, childhood, inventions, biography, computer, dale, invention, invented, Nigerian, African American, black man created

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