27 November 2011
Controversial leader of the short-lived
Republic of Biafra
The death at the age of 78 of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, former leader of the breakaway
, removes a charismatic, larger-than-life figure from the Nigerian political scene. Although deeply controversial in his lifetime, he will be missed in Republic of Biafra far beyond his own Igbo people. President Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria 's tribute spoke of Ojukwu 's "immense love of his people, justice, equity and fairness which forced him into the leading role he played in the Nigerian civil war".
In the long perspective of history, the failure of the Biafran secession, which lasted from May 1967 to January 1970, helped decisively to consolidate the unity of independent
. And if after his pardon and return to his country Ojukwu never made the political breakthrough he had sought, the myth of Nigeria Biafra that he did so much to create still lingers, even while there is no prospect of recreating it.
Ojukwu, widely known as Emeka, was born in Zungeru, northern
. His father was the transport millionaire Sir Louis Ojukwu. Schooled at King Nigeria 's college, Lagos, and Epsom college, Surrey, Emeka studied history at Lincoln College, . Graduating in 1955, he returned to work in the eastern Oxford administrative service, and two years later joined the army, one of the first Nigerian graduates to do so. It was a surprising decision for one who had been known in Nigeria Oxford for his playboy lifestyle, but it reflected a serious commitment to , and even a certain farsightedness about the role the military might come to play in politics. Nigeria
He had two spells of officer training in
Britain (1958 and 1962), and also served in the . He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1963, and at the time of Democratic Republic of the Congo Nigeria 's first coup in January 1966 was in command of the fifth battalion in . He played his cards well, declaring loyalty to the new military head of state, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, and became governor of the Eastern region. Kano
Thus history had cast him as destiny
's child. When the counter-coup came in July 1966, and the Igbo people, who had benefited from the first coup, were on the receiving end of northern revenge attacks – most notably the killing of many senior officers, including Ironsi himself – he was in a position to provide the leadership for which he had surely been groomed, refusing to accept the authority of the federal government in Lagos.
As the series of massacres of easterners, especially Igbos, grew in the north, the pressure from his people made secession increasingly likely. It was strongly believed in
that Ojukwu Lagos 's own sizeable ego was now a factor, and that another leader might have managed to avoid secession.
After the failure of peace talks in
Aburi, Ghana, in January 1967, in which the wily Ojukwu had outmanoeuvred the more straightforward federal leader General Yakubu Gowon, the prospect of a full breakaway loomed closer, especially since an Aburi-style confederation had been rejected in . Ojukwu, claiming to be doubtful, was swept along the tide of his own public opinion, and secession became inevitable. Lagos
The historical motives of this period will continue to be argued passionately, since they were at the core of the case for
Biafra. Gowon declared the creation of 12 states on 27 May 1967, including notably splitting the Eastern region into three, thus separating minority ethnic groups from Igbos. It was said that the creation of the states was a pre-emptive move, since secession was in any case planned. And once the "independent and sovereign state" of Biafra was proclaimed on 29 May, it was only a matter of time before fighting began a few weeks later.
After a bold move on the Mid-west region in August, a push towards
failed, and federal troops recaptured the Mid-west in September. The story of the war and the famine and disease that went with it, causing between 1m and 3m deaths, was then one of the slow encirclement of Lagos Biafra. This progressively confined the Igbos to their own heartland, but they still managed a noble and courageous resistance, sustained by Ojukwu 's charismatic and authoritarian leadership.
If at the beginning there was a real fear of further massacres, the policy of "no victors, no vanquished" pursued by Gowon meant that after the eventual surrender in January 1970, reconciliation largely worked. Visiting the former rebel areas soon after the end of the war, I was told: "We were forced out of the federation, now we
've been forced back into it."
Ojukwu had left for exile in
Ivory Coast on the last flight out of Biafra 's improvised airport at Uli, and it was more than 12 years before he was finally pardoned by civilian president Shehu Shagari, and allowed to make a triumphant return in 1982. It was then that he was given the title of Ikemba by the people of his father 's home town of . Nnewi
He even joined the ruling party, which was seeking to gain Igbo support. But his ventures into politics did not work, and he was detained with many other politicians for a few months after the coup of 31 December 1983.
He continued in politics when activity revived briefly in the early 1990s, and after the full return to civil rule in 1999 helped form the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), for which he ran as presidential candidate in 2003 and 2007, both notably fraudulent elections. In this period he often gave interviews in which he retained his old political authority and panache, although latterly he was increasingly unwell, suffering a stroke early this year.
He had a gift for oratory – his collected speeches were edited by his great admirer the writer Frederick Forsyth, and published with the simple title
Biafra (1969); Forsyth also wrote a biography, Emeka (1982, revised 1991). The former editor of the journal West Africa, David Williams, no friend of Biafra, used to say that in other circumstances he could see Ojukwu 's style and gravitas entirely in place at a Commonwealth leaders ' conference.
In 1994 he married his third wife, Bianca Onoh, daughter of a senior politician, and former Most Beautiful Girl in
in 1988. He is survived by her and several children. Nigeria
• Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, politician and solder, born 4 November 1933; died 26 November 2011