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A Hero’s Final Journey Home

 - Saturday 24 March 2012.

By Ngozi Achebe, USA.

By the time the funeral cortege of General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu arrived in Eastern Nigeria, the location of the former secessionist enclave known as Biafra, he had already done the rounds of Nigeria.

Ironically, Ojukwu was actually born in Zungeru in what is known as the Middle belt/Northern Nigeria and so according to the custom the Igbos of Nigeria, he had ‘to be sought out’ in the ceremony known as ‘Icho Madu’ not only in his ancestral home in Nnewi but at the actual land of his birth in Zungeru in Northern Nigeria and also in other places such as Abijan where he lived for many years in exile.

‘Icho Mmadu’ is a traditional way the Igbos have of celebrating a fallen hero. During this ceremony, there is chanting of a mixture of mourning and warlike songs as the male participants make a show of their contempt for and indignation at Death for daring to take the hero away.

I caught up with the ceremonies at the Michael Okpara Square in Enugu which happened to be in my backyard. Ojukwu’s arrival in Enugu on the 1st of March marked the beginning of the end of his journey through his ancestral homeland.

On that balmy late African March morning, I was among the large crowd that had gathered at the immaculately appointed square, its pristineness a testimony to the hard work of the current Enugu State government.

Gathered under the white awnings, were Ojukwu’s widow, the ever graceful Bianca and such august guests as Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel laureate and Jerry Rawlings, erstwhile president of Ghana. Also in attendance were delegates from the then ‘Friends of Biafra’, countries such as Haiti, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia amongst others.

The Enugu state governor and host, Governor Sullivan Chime, and his other gubernatorial counterparts were present and so were other national political heavyweights. President Goodluck Jonathan, who was to attend the final interment ceremony at Nnewi the following day, sent Vice President Namadi Sambo to stand in for him.

I could feel the mood of the crowd vacillating somewhere between a deep sense of loss and the joyous celebration of a great life. Many wore traditional attire tailored from screen prints of Ojukwu’s different visages.

All day, souvenir hunters and merchants outside the square did a brisk business in the sale of almanacs, commemorative brochures and various books including what looked like bootleg copies of the famous Frederick Forsyth books The Biafra Story – A struggle for secession, and Emeka. On sale also were copies of the only book, as far as I’m aware, to have been written by Ojukwu himself, Because I’m involved.

The real barnburner of the day was Soyinka’s speech. He started by reading aloud the declaration for the creation of the Republic of Biafra, as proclaimed by Ojukwu to the world those many years ago, on May 30th, 1967. The cheer from the crowd, I suspected, would be heard for miles around.

Ojukwu declared independence for Biafra in 1967 in the midst of an orgy of genocidal murders of Eastern Nigerian civilians, explained at the time to have been in retaliation for a 1966 coup that was believed to have been led by mostly Eastern Nigerian army officers. Seeking a safe haven, the Easterners declared independence and the ensuing civil war had the world powers, including Britain and Russia, pitching their tent with the Nigerian government.

Over a million people, mostly Easterners, lost their lives. This was also when the harrowing image of the starving ‘Biafran Child’ was born.

The world recoiled in horror as images of emaciated and starving children paraded the nightly news networks, a byproduct of the food and ammunitions blockade against the Biafrans. If the idea of this economic barricade was to end the war quickly, it backfired spectacularly as the isolated Biafra, with very little outside support, put up a fierce resistance that lasted for 30 months before collapsing in January 1970.

Ojukwu was officially pardoned by the Nigerian government in 1983 following a 13-year exile in Ivory Coast, paving the way for his return to Nigeria. He subsequently entered the political stage and ran for office under his party affiliation.

Many Nigerians today still see Ojukwu as a legendary freedom fighter and some of the principles of his so titled Ahiara Declaration are still regarded by some as a possible blue print for not only modern day Nigeria but other countries of Africa.

Ojukwu, 78, died last year in England on November 26th 2011.

Note: Ngozi Achebe is a medical doctor and author of the historical fiction novel Onaedo: The Blacksmith’s Daughter available in bookstores and online. She can be contacted on www.ngoziachebe.com. She’s also on Facebook.

Photo caption: Ngozi Achebe in front of a poster of General Ojukwu in Enugu, Nigeria. March 1st 2012.