Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu stamped an indelible mark on the Nigerian psyche in the 1960s, leading the Igbos of eastern Nigeria into an ultimately disastrous attempt at secession in the aftermath of coups and pogroms. He remained a hero and symbol of self-reliance in his home region until his death last week at the age of 78, much loved by some, if always a controversial figure.
With his bulky frame, brilliant oratory and long dark beard, he was a formidable intellectual and physical force during the first convulsions of Nigeriaâ€™s turbulent post-independence history. Were it not for his outsized ego, some historians have concluded, the 30-month civil war, which ended in 1970, might have been avoided â€“ or at least cut short before it claimed more than a million lives, many of them children who succumbed to hunger and disease as the breakaway republic of Biafra was squeezed into submission by federal troops.
The son of one of Nigeriaâ€™s wealthiest businessmen, Ojukwu was schooled in Lagos, before being sent to Epsom College in England. In 1955 he graduated from Oxford, with a penchant for sports cars and a talent for rugby. Ignoring his fatherâ€™s pleas to join the family transport business, he enrolled in the civil service, working as an administrative officer.
His decision then to become a soldier was unusual for someone of his privileged background but prescient given the central role the military was to play in subsequent upheavals. â€œThe only truly federal organisation in Nigeria that appeared likely to remain intact was the army,â€ he later said. Rising rapidly up the ranks he served a stint in the UN peacekeeping force in Congo.
But it was when appointed military governor of the eastern region, after Nigeriaâ€™s first coup in 1966, that he rose to international prominence. Junior Igbo officers had murdered the then prime minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, from the north, before being put down by loyalist troops. The uprising led to the first military regime and, sparking retaliatory massacres against Igbos, set Nigeria on the path to war.
Ojukwu did not join the coup, nor the counter coup in which northern officers struck back. For a time he remained fastidiously loyal to military hierarchy. But as events strained the multi-ethnic federation to breaking point, he declared the creation of the Biafran republic. At the time, the eastern region was flooded with some 2m Igbos fleeing massacres in other parts of Nigeria.
The doomed struggle proved a cautionary tale for other parts of Africa that fitted uneasily into their inherited borders
In the Igbo narrative, the east was forced to break away from Nigeria by an impending genocide. Later it was forced back in. With international backing, federal troops retook half the territory in the first year of the war, when the Biafran struggle had become unwinnable. Ojukwu refused to concede as much. Instead he rallied his people to hold out in the midst of extreme suffering, brought for the first time to televisions across the world.
The doomed struggle proved a cautionary tale for other parts of Africa that fitted uneasily into their inherited borders. Paradoxically it also consolidated Nigeriaâ€™s unity, by showing the terrible potential cost of trying to break apart the federation bequeathed by colonial rule.
But it also led to reconciliation. After the surrender of Biafran forces, Jack Gowon, then military head of state, declared a policy of â€œno victor no vanquishedâ€ and prevented acts of retribution. Ojukwu had fled into exile in Ivory Coast.
It is one of the remarkable facets of elite Nigeria that those who fought on the battlefield and toppled each other in coups have ended up doing business together and even in cases joining the same political parties. Ojukwu was pardoned in 1982 by the then elected head of state, Shehu Shagari, and returned to Nigeria to join the ruling party. However, his efforts at a political revival were largely unsuccessful. The rhetorical flair was still there, but he had lost some of the guile that made him such a formidable adversary in the 1960s.
His later career, in which he ran unsuccessfully for president, mirrors the fate of his own people, who have remained third fiddle on the federal stage. Eastern Nigeria still bristles with the enterprise and self-reliance that won so many international supporters to the Biafran cause. But like much of the country, it has been left without the infrastructure or power needed to fulfil its potential.
Latterly Ojukwu had fallen sick. Fellow officers, politicians and civil servants who cut their teeth in Nigeriaâ€™s turbulent sixties continue to play an influential role. But as Olusegun Obasanjo, who led the victorious federal troops, said in a tribute to his former battlefield adversary, Ojukwuâ€™s death â€œmarks the end of an eraâ€. The once mighty are falling, many of them conscious that they have failed â€“ as Ojukwu himself used to lament â€“ to imbue Nigeria with a cohesive national project or strong sense of citizenship.