ICYMI: Ojukwu Interview (1): The first coup and
Back in Biafra, General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu wore an image not different from that of a god. His reputation always preceded him and at some point, during the war, it looked as if Biafrans could not even breathe without the man. Everything, good or bad, but mostly good, was ascribed to him and he totally personified the struggle.
The war propaganda on the Nigerian side didn 8217;t seem to help matters either. Rather than diminish him, they lionised the man and so, on both sides of the conflict, he was a larger-than-life persona. For me as a young boy-soldier, (just like everyone else) that was also the image I had of the 8220;People 8217;s General 8221; and the closest I ever came to seeing him, live, was during one of those his flash stopovers in different parts of Biafra, this time, at our Divisional Headquarters in Irele Owerri.
When the rumour of his being around spread like wild bushfire, I joined the rest of my colleagues in racing all the way from our camp to the Div. HQ, just to catch a glimpse of HE (His Excellency) as he was fondly called. but by the time we go there, he was gone again like a flash of lightning bolt 8230;
Fast-forward from that point to almost a decade and a half later when as a young reporter, I stood up from my seat in the aircraft that was taking him back home from some 13 years exile to shake the legend 8217;s hand. He was going round to meet the reporters, cameramen and photographers on board with him. Ojukwu seems to have a deep respect for newsmen, for a reason I later conjectured to be that he thought they play no small role in helping him the war and building the looming image that he had. But unlike many other even much lesser mortals he, a truly big man that he was, remained totally and eternally grateful for it.
I couldn 8217;t help noticing, right away, the urbanity of his good breeding and aristocratic background, as we exchanged banters and greetings. We struck a rapport right away and I also later found out that he was the kind of man that never cared who you were; how old you were, what you owned, the kind of clothes you wore, or anything like that.
He seemed to just look out said, 8220;You know I don 8217;t grant anybody interviews 8221;. He could have been talking to the walls, as that statement heightened my curiosity and my persistence. 8216;
A few years later, as we cemented friendship, he had summoned me to his Villaska Lodge residence, Ikoyi to discuss a publication he was planning. Shortly after I pulled into the compound as if on cue, a heavy downpour that lasted for well over three hours trapped me in, giving us ample time to talk undisturbed by his usual endless stream of visitors. He was alone at home, with a few of his domestic staff. Then, I saw another Ojukwu I didn 8217;t know could ever exist, a handyman. It was a total anticlimax.
At first, as I approached, I didn 8217;t think it was him. He had his back against me and didn 8217;t see me enter. He wore an African print 8216;jumper 8217; atop a pair of black trousers that he half rolled up, as he mopped the floor, barefooted! Holy cow! What then, was the job of the domestic servants, I thought? He turned and smiled, as he waved me to a seat. I tried to hide my shock and he went on doing what he was doing until he finished. It looks like the lady who was doing the job earlier didn 8217;t get it right and that upset him, as I later conjectured when he spoke to her.
As I sat back and analysed this little incident, I recalled two earlier ones in his Enugu home that gave me an insight into his personality. Someone had absent-mindedly sat on the remote control of the television and buried it deep inside a crevice, in the sofa. Others tried to retrieve it but failed because the crevice was too narrow for an adult hand. Ebele, his little daughter, was then about three years old and everybody felt her small hands were the best pair for the job of retrieving the remote-control.
Ojukwu would have none of that. What if the little girl got hurt in the process? He kept forcing his right hand which was, in fact, the largest one in the room, into the crevice, in his attempt to retrieve the remote-control, against all entreaties: 「Ima na m’adi ekwe-ekwe,」 he spoke out, in Igbo – 「you know I never give up」. When he finally picked out the piece of tool, he raised it up, triumphantly for all to see, with the glee of a Richmal Crompton’s Lovable Little Rascal, after he finally found his misplaced catapult!
In yet another incident in the same Enugu home, the man was commenting on an intimate, personal matter in my presence. There were only the three of us in that room, that day: Ojukwu, himself, Stella Onyedor, his consort and Mr. Chris Offodile. Suddenly, Stella cautioned him to be careful, as there was a pressman in the room: 「Don’t worry,」 replied Ojukwu, 「he is my colleague.」
The man was an enigma. He was wise, urbane, humble and deeply respectful of friendship. But he could also be more ferocious than a lion and it is that other side of him that one may not like to see and must never provoke. But above all, was his audacity, which personified the spirit of Biafra, one that enabled the fledgeling new Republic to survive an excruciating 30 months of a war of survival that captured the imagination of the world:
「I was the last person to leave Enugu,」 said he, of the fall of his capital, to the advancing Federal forces. 「As I was leaving, the Nigerian soldiers saw me, I saw them. We waved at each other, they didn’t think it was me.」
There was hardly anything this man could not handle with some degree of finesse, from housework and cooking to the intricate matters of state and the art of dealing with human beings. As I sat on that sofa, analysing the things I had taken in, in my mind, it dawned on me that it was not for nothing that we were meeting in life, to share each other’s experiences. We were merely pawns in the mighty hands of Fate, weaving its own plot, for humanity’s instruction. It was then for us, as individuals, to find out our respective missions and fulfil them.
Indeed, it was on that note of the art of man-management, how those skills came in handy in Biafra, that our conversation began on that June day, in 1983. He talked about how fate had prepared him for his later role, as a war-time leader; leaders and sycophants and how sycophancy could destroy leadership, among many other issues…
All my adult life, I have spent, handling human beings. As an army officer, the greatest attribute one can have is man-management, the ability to manage a number of human beings. As an Administrative Officer, I did nothing but that. And, oh well, as a Head of State, too – during the war. I have had some experience along this line. I personally keep my ears open to all manner of information that comes to me. But I only act on information that I have personally checked.
Actually, when you talk with some of my friends, you will find that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of friendship with me. A number of people come up to me thinking they are sufficiently intimate and once they have told me something, I accept it. But that is not possible. My instinct is to check. Sycophancy is a terrible disease of our society, today and I’m sure that most leaders find sycophancy one of their biggest problems.
People refuse to say things that are true and try to tell you those things they imagine you would want to hear. That is sycophancy. I personally prefer the man who tells me the truth. In my entourage, around me, there are always individuals that I would resent, even calling me Ikemba because once they move to that stage they seize to be objective friends. They become friends that are using me as ladders. My attitude is to maintain people, generally, who would tell me the truth.
And again I find, for example, that the biggest help my wife [Njideka Ojukwu] gives me is her posture, which is totally, diametrically opposed to sycophancy. She does not see me as anything, but Emeka, who wooed her and later proposed to her and married her. She would not change. And I value the last minutes of the day when she then tells me what she feels about certain performances.
If you look also at my crest, you will find a motto: 「To Thine Own Self, Be True」. I seek friends that would help me be true to myself. Obviously, today, my position in the NPN [National Party of Nigeria] is largely honorific – National Vice-Chairman – so I don’t have as many sycophants, perhaps, as I had, when I was head of Biafra. I don’t have as many sycophants as I had when I was Governor of Eastern Region. Should I advance? I hope to God I do. I know there will be more sycophants, people who think they can make a career, standing on my shoulders or being carried across different and difficult paths on my back.
There was this strong rumour during the war and even now, that you were always too self-willed and that, that attitude largely misguided many decisions that affected Biafra negatively, even though you had a Consultative Assembly and a war cabinet that you always seemed to consult, regularly. It was even said that you delegated quite a lot to the late Dr. C. C. Mojekwu, your relative, prompting many to see it all as nepotism. What do you have to say about all this, were you just consulting merely to sound people out, knowing already, the direction you were headed?
Honestly, I cannot judge myself, I haven’t got that capacity. I do not think, actually, I am self-willed. And I remember, during the war many people, in fact, blamed me for being too soft and listening to too many people. No. That I have a general idea where I am标签：