Chief Ojukwu has the pedigree of the Mahatma Ghandis, Martin Luther Kings and the like. His aversion to injustice, marginalization, discrimination, and such vices was almost in-born. His ideal was to fight that neutrality that ArchBishop Tutu described -â€œIf an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutralityâ€. In 1944 for instance, the young Ojukwu assaulted a white British colonial teacher, who was humiliating a black woman teacher at Kingsâ€™ College, Lagos. He was briefly imprisoned thereafter. This was a time his mates dared not go near not to talk of questioning the colonial officers that were then demigods. Twenty-three years later, (1967) he saw more serious vices permeating all the fabrics of the Nigerian society especially as it related to the Ibos. He confronted it head on, championing a fiercer fight against neutrality.
He led the Biafra to war forty years ago when he was 34 and as the then military governor of the Federal Republicâ€™s Eastern Region, he proclaimed independence from Nigeria in May 1967. The move followed the regionâ€™s steadily deteriorating relations with the government of Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, which refused to take action after northerners massacred thousands of Ibos who had settled in the Northern Region. After the failed war, he fled into exile, lived in Ivory Coast for about 13 years and returned in 1980 after receiving an official pardon.
The war which left millions of people dead remains indelible in the minds of many who lived through it. Nonetheless, for many Nigerians, it is a love-hate relationship for the man popularly referred to as Ikemba (the strength of the nation). Though many still blame him for a major disaster in the countryâ€™s history, to his people he is a hero and an icon who commands tremendous respect, love and admiration. To them he is a Moses, even if he might not have exceeded the Red Sea, but he told them there was a Canaan.
Kehinde Aig-Imoru of The Voice Magazine meeting with him at his Enugu Hilltop mansion was quite overwhelming because she was about to set a date with history. It turned out to be quite an extremely enlightening experience because she was able to learn first hand, more about the civil war she had only read of.
The Voice: There has been a lot said about the Nigerian civil war, tell us about it?
Chief Ojukwu: It was a war of emancipation, emancipation of my people, the Ibos from continued marginalization. The inequality existing at the time was such that the Iboâ€™s needed to resist and it was this, which prompted me to take up the mantle of leadership. It was to eradicate what I felt was a grossly inappropriate situation. The war which broke out in 1967 lasted for about three years. It was a struggle of independence from Nigeria. For me it was an opportunity to offer the best for the Ibo people, and allow Nigeria see the best of my people. Finally, the war was caused by certain people I have mentioned in the past, one of which is the former Nigerian Head of State General Yakubu Gowon, who used it as a weapon of rationalising the coup dâ€™Ã©tat.
The Voice: What lessons are there for Nigeria?
Chief Ojukwu: War is never the solution to a crisis, and Nigeria, today can progressively unite the existing factions and further strengthen relations through discourse which is a powerful unifying force. Nigeria can and should mend and build bridges across divides and seek to maintain peace. Personally, I have contributed in shaping the path of Nigeria through my desire to ensure equality at all levels. Nigeria must reconstruct and restructure all available avenues to assist its people in continually moving the country forward. Finally we need to look beyond tribes and people.
The Voice: Are you grooming a new leader to take up the mantle of leadership?
Chief Ojukwu: Groom anyone; I donâ€™t believe in that. No one groomed me. I saw what I felt was an unfair situation at the time. All I had was the courage to stand up and fight for a change. That was the only option at the time.
The Voice: Will Nigeria stay united or survive?
Chief Ojukwu: Yes! Nigeria will stay united; it is evident in our everyday life today. I believe I helped chart this course, a process that began with the Biafran war forty one years ago. Today, Nigerians can co-exist, maintain peace and justice.
The Voice: What are your thoughts on the United States President- elect, Barack Obama?
Chief Ojukwu: Ever since I heard the news this morning I have been soaring because this is a major accomplishment, for the entire black race. I am glad it happened in my lifetime, it simply says, nothing is impossible. Anyone can achieve what ever he sets his mind on. Besides, this should be an eye opener for every one, particularly Africans that the sky is the limit and there are no impossibilities. Nigerians and Africans can achieve the impossible. Nothing is impossible.
The Voice: What does his election mean for Africa?
Chief Ojukwu: It re-instates confidence in the African man, particularly so for young Africans who can set their mind to accomplishing anything and really believe that they can. There is hope for Africa.
The Voice: Would you say you were successful at the endeavour?
Chief Ojukwu: Yes! I would say so? Though, a number of people would like to believe that the war was lost.
The Voice: Looking back, have you any regrets?
Chief Ojukwu: I made mistakes but I donâ€™t blame anyone for what ever happened in my life. For what ever happened, I made my choices and what I wonâ€™t do is blame anyone, I just do not believe in the blame game.
The Voice: The president of Nigeria, Yarâ€™adua is over a year in office, how would you rate his performance so far?
Chief Ojukwu: I have not seen anything he has done. What has he done besides appoint people to key positions, has he done anything? NO.
The Voice: What about the 2010 vision?
Chief Ojukwu: I donâ€™t know what the 2010 vision stands for. Nigerians are still expectant on having the right machinery in place to move the country forward. Do you know what it represents?
The Voice: How can Nigeria move forward?
Chief Ojukwu: The good news is that Nigeria is moving forward and it will continue to move forward.
The Voice: Did you win the war, would you say you succeed?
Chief Ojukwu: Yes! We did, I did win the war. The war was not lost.
The Voice: Would you say your relatively privileged background influenced the decisions you made?
Chief Ojukwu: I really do not know. I did what I had to do at the time for my people.
The Voice: There is a school of thought that is saying that the Igbo language will be extinct in the next twenty years. whatâ€™s your opinion?
Chief Ojukwu: Thatâ€™s a lie; the Igbo language will outlive every one of us. It will stay on for generations to come.
The Voice: How much will the Niger delta situation affect the unity of Nigeria?
Chief Ojukwu: Anything can affect the unity of Nigeria; I think we are playing with fire.
The Voice: How do you spend your time now?
Chief Ojukwu: Well! I like to spend my time in good company, usually with friends, relaxing with a good bottle of wine. My children are a source of joy for me. If you had come in earlier, you would have met my youngest son who is an enormous source of joy for me; I look at him and wish him to make an impression wherever he goes, pondering on what kind of life he will have at seventy five.
The Voice: How would you like to be remembered?
Chief Ojukwu: Pausing for a long while, before answering – That is a difficult question but I guess I would like to be remembered as some one who came and changed the course of history in a positive light. I want to be remembered as someone who contributed to the positive up-liftment of my people.