Ojukwu, Ojukwu, Gowon is coming...
I was just a kid in elementary school when the Nigerian civil war started. Nkrumah had already been overthrown. The NLC was in power and Ghana was looking forward to “better times” without Nkrumah. There were lots of Nigerians in Ghana then. Indeed, there was no town or village in Ghana in which you did not see a Nigerian. Many of the major towns had quarters where there were large concentrations of Yoruba. “Lagos Town” in Accra was not just a name. There were Ibos too – lots of them. And the Calabar woman was well known for the colour of her skin – and her job. So when the civil war started, it did not only affect us in Ghana as a close neighbour. There were many Nigerians in our midst living with the knowledge that their homeland was burning.
Because I was so young, my personal memories of the war as we saw it from Ghana are very dim. There were pictures in Graphic and Times of the happenings there – the top level meetings taking place to stave off war, and then later, pictures of the atrocities that were going on. We saw the pictures of all those starving Biafran kids. It all seemed very far away from us. I don’t remember as a kid ever knowing what the cause of the war was. But we were always hearing the names of Gowon and the bearded Ojukwu as well as Awolowo (Awo) and Azikiwe (Zik) and all kinds of stories about them. Then there was the acronym, GOWON, that we all liked – Go On With One Nigeria. We also heard the music of Fela then singing with Koola Lobitos – Viva Nigeria (War is not the answer...) and Cardinal Rex Lawson’s song about the war. Oh, how Ghanaians loved Rex Lawson’s music! He died during the war. I can’t remember seeing any war-time refugees coming to Ghana. There were already many Nigerians who had been living among us for ages. Perhaps the refugees went to Cameroon.
What many Ghanaians will remember most about Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who died in a London hospital last Saturday aged 78, was his performance at the Aburi Conference. It was an attempt by the then NLC chairman, Gen. Ankrah, to help the two parties come to an agreement and prevent war. They met in 1967 (a year after the massacres in the north) at the luxurious Peduase Lodge outside Aburi. Gowon and Ojukwu met face to face, in the presence of General Ankrah. It seems Ojukwu (who had adequately prepared himself for the conference) got the better of Gowon in the negotiations because when they returned to their country, the Federal government side realised the Aburi Agreement was not in its favour and quickly discarded it. The Biafrans still held on to the Aburi terms – “On Aburi We Stand. There will be no compromise. Aburi Kwenu!”. It is said that the Ghanaians recorded every single word that was uttered at the two-day conference and gave each party a copy of the tapes. It didn’t help. The civil war happened and by the time the guns went silent, more than a million Nigerians, mostly Biafrans, had lost their lives. The war lasted 30 months. Shortly before Lt.-Col. Phillip Effiong, leading the Biafran side, surrendered to Obasanjo on January 15, 1970, Ojukwu had left for exile in Côte d’Ivoire which was one of the few African countries that had recognised Biafra (the others being Gabon, Tanzania and Zambia, as well as far away Haiti).
The NLC government did not recognise Biafra but it seems many Ghanaians of the day were sympathetic to the Biafran cause even though they knew the odds were heavily stacked against them. The Americans, with their hands full with the Vietnam War, were loath to play a leading role in the negotiations. But Americans, privately, had sympathies for the Biafrans. Ojukwu was articulate, well educated (with a Masters degree in History from Oxford), dashing and cut a romantic figure that appealed to the American sense of adventurism. He had a presence that infected all those around him. What else would make British novelist, Frederick Forsyth, write such a hagiographic account of his life? The suffering of Biafrans during the war attracted worldwide sympathy. I have met people in Europe who told me that as kids in the late 60s, their mothers made them eat their food by threatening that if they didn’t eat, the food would be taken away from them and given to the starving children of Biafra whose pictures filled the world’s newspapers and television sets. I don’t know if Ghanaian mothers also resorted to that gimmick to get their kids to eat.
When you cast your mind back to the roles of Gowon and Ojukwu during the war, one thing will strike you: the very young ages of the two leaders. At the time they arrived at Aburi as heads of their various delegations, Ojukwu was no more than 33 years old. Gowon was a year younger. These young men carried the fates of millions of their countrymen and women on their youthful shoulders. When Gowon was forced out of office in 1975, he was still young enough to go back to school which he did, never stopping until he had earned a PhD in Political Science from the University of Warwick. (If only Rawlings too had done something like that!)
Busia came to power a few months before the Nigerian civil war ended. One of the first things his government did was to pass the Aliens Compliance Order that forced the many Nigerians living among us to leave the country. Busia also opted for the infamous policy of dialogue with the apartheid South African regime which angered the radicals in Ghana. Côte d’Ivoire, where Ojukwu was in exile, also favoured dialogue. These two policies of the Busia regime were so unlike anything Nkrumah’s government could have done and ended up marking the most disgraceful moments in the foreign policy history of our country.
The Compliance order came at a very bad time for Nigeria which was still rebuilding its economy after the war. Even though Nigeria was then a major oil exporter, it was the time before the increase in oil prices (and revenues) precipitated by the oil crisis.
The first oil crisis started in October of 1973. It hit Ghana badly. Less than ten years after we had shamelessly sacked the Nigerians, Ghanaians would start arriving in Nigeria searching for jobs. By 1975, secondary schools in Ghana had started losing teachers to Nigeria. The great movement of Ghanaians of all calibres to Nigeria would happen between 1979 – 1981 (the time of the second energy crisis). Yours truly was in the throng. Some people argue that the first sacking of aliens (read Ghanaians) from Nigeria in 1983 was in retaliation of the Busia order. That may not be so. There were cracks appearing in the oil-rich economy and Shehu Shagari’s government thought they could make things better for themselves by sacking the non-Nigerians. They saw, just like we had also seen earlier in Ghana, that such policies never solved any problems. No country has ever fared better by sacking immigrants! The irony of the Ghanaian-Nigerian situation was that, it was mostly those Nigerians whom we had sacked from our country who were most favourably disposed towards the Ghanaians who had now come to work in their country. After all, they still spoke Ghanaian languages and spoke English like Ghanaians. It was rather the Nigerians who had never been in Ghana who often reminded us of what we had done to their fellow countrymen.
Ojukwu was granted an official pardon in 1982 by the Shehu Shagari government. This enabled him to return home after 13 years of exile to a tumultuous welcome by the Ibo who have always regarded him as a hero. He plunged straight into politics again always in search of the righteousness and equity for which he had fought all his life.
As I ponder over the death of Ojukwu, I remember my days as a school boy in Ghana while the civil war was raging on in Nigeria. Jamaican born singer Millie Small (better known for My Boy Lollipop) had a song in 1967, “Wings of a Dove”, that was frequently played on GBC. We used to sing this song replacing the instrumental interlude with an Ojukwu taunt:
If I have the wings of a dove (2x)
I will fly, far away
Over the mountains over the seas
Where my lover waits for me
Panpara, panpara, panpara papaaaa...
Ojukwu, Ojukwu, Gowon is coming...
Ojukwu was certainly a very courageous man, principled and with a passionate love for his people – a love that was abundantly returned by the people who showered him with titles. The many tributes pouring in are not just the nice words that people say of the dead. To the very end, he remained the People’s General – Ikemba Nnewi, Dikedioranma Ndigbo, Odenigbo Ngwo, Ezeigbo Gburugburu, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
May he rest in everlasting peace.
Kofi Amenyo (email@example.com)