Odumegwu Ojukwu, once the leader of Biafra, died during the last few days of November. He received respectable obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Both Robert D. McFadden and T. Rees Shapiro got all the facts right and understood the causes and the horrors of the Nigerian Civil War well. But, befitting a man who was only a minor figure in African history, the notices were relatively small, and there was no room to portray his audacity, his operatic flair, his demeaning wit, and his contempt for the many less gifted than he.
I interviewed Colonel Ojukwu for the first time in June 1967 a day or two after he had seceded from Nigeria and proclaimed the independent republic of Biafra. Two British reporters joined me at the offices in Enugu — in a busy building once the headquarters of the British colonial governor of the eastern region of Nigeria. Ojukwu wore a flowery sports shirt and slacks, rested his sandaled feet on his desk, and sipped from a can of beer.
One of my colleagues asked if it was true that he had rearranged his cabinet that day. Ojukwu, pondering the question, replied slowly, offering a procession of names and posts, and then stopped suddenly. He glared at the questioner, examined him with disdain, and asked, “Did you come all the way to Enugu to ask me a question that any one of my aides could answer?”
We quickly coated our questions with a thin veneer of profundity. Yakubu Gowan, the leader of Nigeria, had pledged to quash any secession with miliary force. We asked if Ojukwu thought Gowan was bluffing. “No,” he replied thoughtfully, “I don’t believe he is bluffing. Bluffing presupposes a certain amount of intelligence.”
Discussing the chances of Biafran success, Ojukwu said “the nigger in the woodpile” was the Shell-BP company. He said it without the slightest tic of a smile or glint of merriment in his eyes, letting the shock of those words from African lips sink in more deeply. He was a superb showman.
I sympathized with the secession. Thousands of Ibos, the main tribe of the eastern region, of Biafra, had been slaughtered in the north by their neighbors in an ethnic frenzy. Ojukwu and the Biafrans put the toll at 30,000; other Nigerians insisted it was “only” 5,000. The surviving Ibos had trekked back to their tribal homeland. Nigeria, the largest country in Africa, was unwieldy, too large, too disparate. Its regions were as different as a union of Sweden, Guatemala and Iran.
Yet secession and the war that followed unleashed awful scenes. John de St. Jorre, a foreign correspondent who wrote a history of the war, estimated that perhaps 600,000 Biafrans died. A generation of children suffered from starvation and malnutrition. Their features turned almost to skulls, their eyes dark and hollow, the skin too tight to smile. Their rectums protruded and, oddly, their bellies distended. If you brushed the chest of a seated child with the slightest touch of your finger, he or she would keel over.
Perhaps if the leaders were older, they could have talked themselves out of war. But Ojukwu was 33 at the time of secession, Gowan a year younger. Coups had stripped Nigeria of their elders. Power, in any case, was new to Africans, no matter what age. Nigeria was not yet seven years old. It was the exuberant era when almost all colonies in Africa left their masters, and the new African leaders succumbed to the corruption of power swiftly.
There had been one try at conciliation before. Gowan, Ojukwu and the young military commanders of the other regions had met a half year earlier in the Ghanian town of Aburri. Ojukwu, a graduate of the University of Oxford, arrived armed with many position papers. Gowan and the others, all military schooled, came prepared to talk things over like good comrades in arms. Ojukwu’s papers and arguments proved persuasive. In the end, Gowan had accepted most of Ojukwu’s proposals for a new Nigeria.
The results alarmed the British ambassador, the American ambassador and many Nigerians. In their view, Gowan had accepted a sham Nigeria with a feeble center and powerful regions. It would be a confederation of equals, not even a federation, and it would offer only the illusion of a united country. Gowan gave in to the entreaties and reneged on his acceptance of Ojukwu’s proposals. “Ojukwu is smarter than the others,” an American diplomat told me, “but in this case he outsmarted himself.”
After the war began, there were several attempts by outsiders to organize peace conferences. Ojukwu showed up at one in Africa Hall in Addis Ababa in August 1968 and, in the presence of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, repeated the same words that the Emperor had delivered to the League of Nations to protest the Italian aggression against his country in 1936. Haile Selassie’s words were futile then and made no greater impact for Ojukwu’s theatrics more than thirty years later. These conferences foundered because the federal government, confident of eventual military victory, would never offer as much autonomy as Ojukwu wanted.
At a conference in Kampala, Chief Tony Enahoro, who headed the federal delegation, called me to his hotel room. “You have been to Biafra several times,” he said. “Do they really believe what they are saying here?” Yes, of course, they did. The Biafrans believed they were an aggrieved people and there would be no room for them in a united Nigeria. I did not say more than that. But the Biafrans also believed what the Christian missionaries had taught them, that God would not desert them, that justice would triumph in the end.
President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania recognized Biafra because no country had the right to keep control of territory by killing those within. Recognition came from three other African governments as well. France evidently dispatched arms secretly. Christian organizations mounted an enormous relief operation that fed children and provided some infrastructure. But the Nigerians overran Biafra in January 1970 and ended thirty months of war. Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast.
I do not believe the plight of the Ibos in Nigeria afterwards was ever as bad as they had feared. Even Ojukwu came back to Nigeria a dozen years later. Yet I still feel quashing Biafra was probably a mistake. In any case, the Nigerian civil war tore the heart out of my optimism about Africa in those early days. The notices about Ojukwu reminded me of that.