Beautiful, if that could capture it, is like an understatement. For in her seventies, the grace and elegance that must have made the Ikemba fall head over heels in love decades ago were apparent. With a disarming smile, an intellect that is confounding and a memory that is outstanding, Mrs Njideka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is a subject for a whole biography. But that may never come out of her. She just is not attracted by publicity. In this interview, a lot of areas were marked as no go areas, a lot of fields not to be touched. Obvious, however, is the fact that there are far too many truths lurking within her that only a book can fully capture. What we serve here therefore is the summary of an interview session with the woman who saw the Nigerian Civil War as the wife of one of the two most important players – Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu; a woman who gave birth to four successful children and has remained elegant even in her seventies. Eni Akinsola spoke with her. (Note: this interview was first published in The Nation on Sunday, June 22, 2008. Mrs Ojukwu passed on March 24, 2010)
What was your childhood and growing up like?
My birth was said to be special in that my mum was barely seven months pregnant when I came prematurely with my twin sister. We were said to have been covered with all sorts of clothing, wool and other things to make us warm. My mum could not offer breast milk because she was not too well and so we had to be breast-fed by other women. I made it but the other child didnâ€™t. I was named Njideka, which means â€œI am grateful for this child.â€
My parents had seven of us, one died at thirteen and I became the second from the original third position among the children.
I attended St. Monicaâ€™s in Onitsha and Archdeacon Crowder Memorial Girls School, Elelenwo, near Port Harcourt.
I was born in a Christian family. My parents were very strict Christians. Itâ€™s difficult to say this, but the truth is that I was born in abundance. I had everything I wanted. True also is that it wasnâ€™t a happy childhood. My father, for reasons best known to him, wanted very much to marry me off and yet he had five daughters, I was number two.
Coming from a wealthy home, how was school like?
It was not easy at all. Teenagers had their own ways of thinking. We had so many people. My father would not allow one to say hello to a man.
But here was I, in Elelenwo, with students from University College, Ibadan coming to teach. I will be going on, and see one and say hello, or shake hands, my father would see that and descend on me. Our house was so high that he could see you from afar. In any case, I was not ready to play hide and seek. I read a lot, stayed indoors a lot.
My father was one of the pioneers in the recording business. There was another called Joe Febro, though I have forgotten the man behind it. Those days, they used to work together.
My father, had seven living children I was first number three, but when the eldest died at thirteen, I became the second.
How did your relationship with Ojukwu start?
It was after my divorce from Dr. Brodi-Mends, a Ghanaian and the father of my first child, Iruaku. Ojukwu is somebody you see around or bump into because our parents were business people. Iâ€™d seen him the day my younger sister was going to England at the airport. She knew him before me. Later on, he told me my sister was my best ambassador. That she was always talking about me and that I was always at home.
Then, you had to fly by a small aircraft from Enugu to Kano to join the British Airways. So, we had gotten to the airport when my name was announced, I was shocked. I had the feeling that maybe something terrible had happened to my father. My hands were shaking when they were giving me the telegraph. I opened it and what was the content: â€œI am sorry; I mean to come to meet you at the airport. But I was sent to Keshi in Ghana. Emeka. â€œWhen I read it, I had to wonder, why is he concerned and where is â€œKeshiâ€. Because, I was not familiar with military locations.
After that, I went to London and continued with my life, until three years later, when I met him again at a tube station. I had gone with a friend of mine, Mrs. Obiekwe, she is late now. While we were going with the husband, somebody just said â€˜they do not greet people in Igbo.â€™â€™ I turned back and lo and behold, it was Emeka, who had escorted his father to the station.
He said he was on a course and asked for my phone number and I gave him. A week later, he called. â€œHello, I am very sorry I have not been able to call,â€ he said, I said no problem, in any case, you give your number to several people not with any expectation that theyâ€™ll call. We met on several occasions thereafter. He pursued me like I have never experienced. At a point he asked me about a Canadian friend of mine and said that I had to let go of him.
One major reason I didnâ€™t mind him was my father. I was afraid he could have a heart attack and die if he got to know I had a white friend. By then, we were thinking of a serious relationship.
Anyway, Emeka was calling and calling and staying on the phone. I didnâ€™t realize what he was up to until I asked him why he liked wasting time and money on phones. He asked if I really wanted the truth, then revealed that he wanted to take that my friend, who he had christened â€œCanada.â€ off me! (laughter).
One day, Emeka invited me to his house. I took a friend of mine, Efun Shobande, with me. We got to his house and he took me aside. So, you brought someone to come and spy on me? I laughed it off but that was indeed why I brought my friend with me.
By the way, I lost contact with Efun and have not seen her since. I understand she was married and was in Kaduna, she was brought up in Jos.
On the way back the next day, we talked about him and I was so confused, that when we go to Baker Street, I almost passed out.
Efun told me that she liked and preferred Emeka. In any case, she added, â€œhe is a Nigerian.â€
I thereafter, told him to get in touch with my parents if he was serious. He had known about Iruaku, my daughter by Brodi-Mends. She was two when I left home. When I got back to Nigeria, I saw a huge teddy bear with Iruaku and when I asked who gave it to her, I was told it was Emeka.
He had obviously wooed everybody in the house over. My mother and the rest were all in love with him. Our parents, fathers were well known to one another, though they are from Nnewi and we are from Nawfia, not too far from Awka.
Your marriage with Ikemba started on a high. He was a military man and all thatâ€¦ Did you know he was in the military when it started.?
I knew he was a soldier. But I didnâ€™t know much about what being a soldier meant. There was a day he came home while in London with the British Army uniform, I asked him and he said he is on course and so have to put on the uniform during the duration of the course.
I only got to know more when I came back. The first party he took me took me to was Ironsiâ€™s. I didnâ€™t remember seeing many women there. I remember seeing Murtala Mohammed who was then Ironsiâ€™s Aide De Camp. The men were so polished; spoke impeccable English, well mannered and unbelievably polite. I was pleasantly surprised. So we had people like this in Nigeria? I sort of liked them. The crop I saw was impressive. And Emeka was very good at taking care of a woman.
Was he randy, full of soft words, romantic?
I didnâ€™t even know the word is romance. Not really. He is just a very kind man, very polite, not intrusive. He cared less about what happened in the kitchen, he just settled for whatever you offered him. He respected me and my opinion a lot. Later, when the children got across to him, he would ask them what my opinion was on issues. And I loved him immensely in return.
If you were this in love, why the separation?
Well, somebody summed it up: Fredrick Forsyth in his book. He knew the very beginning of the story. I agree with him that it is the war. I suppose, in a given situation, where things are very bad, there is always a casualty. I guess I was the last casualty of the war.
I do not hold Emeka responsible. I think there was pressure on him to have another wife and he was resisting. And you know there are other undercurrents that are better left in the past where they belong.
So, one day, you just decided to leave him or he asked you to leave?
No, I just left. I disappeared. I went to London. Okigbo my last son was then around two and a half years. He didnâ€™t allow any of the children to go with me. Eventually, we communicated again and I got the children back.
Maybe the problem is that I canâ€™t tolerate distraction in my marriage. I gave all, my soul, life and all and could not stand ridiculous stories. The unfortunate part of it all was that I kept marrying single sons. But if I had married again and had trouble, I would just have left I love my peace.
Since then, what have you been doing?
I have been doing business. When I was in London, I was ordering George, jewelleries from India, Italy and selling them to other traders. I couldnâ€™t continue with my education, so I went into buying and selling. Some people asked me, what was Deka (West Africa) Limited (my company) into? And I answered: we sell everything except illegal things.
Like your dad who was into buying and selling before going into recording?
Yes, I learnt trading from him. He was into several other legitimate things. For instance, when he started the record business, he would bring in sample records and play them, he would then ask us to listen in and from our reactions, he gets a fair idea of how the record would be received by buyers. In that way, we were being used as sounding boards.
Then he went into importing ladiesâ€™ things. Later on, he opened a recording factory, CTO, which stands for Christopher Tagbo Onyekwere.
Before I married, I worked for him for one year as a clerk and I was for the important and export section. So, I learn on the job. Of the several of us Tagbo is an accountant, Ndubuisi, the other boy, an engineer, is the one managing the rest of my dadâ€™s business.
Tagbo was in London for sometime and then moved to Zambia, where he was like the governor of the Central Bank for some time. Definitely after the war, my family was not comfortable here.
The factory was burnt during the war, because it was on the water front. My elder sister, I told you was a nurse, and was one of the best nurses I have ever met. She had a clinic. She is late now and had children.
When I was asking about you from the commissioner, your son, I could read admiration and deep respect. And he said, he never heard any bad word from you against his father. I know you have your grouses, why did you keep them to yourself?
You see, it is destructive to bring children into the disagreements of their parents. In my case, he is not a criminal; he is a very kind man. He was not criminally involved. He did not steal while in government, he doesnâ€™t know how to steal governmentâ€™s money. And that was why he was even spending our money. So, there was indeed nothing to tell.
I couldnâ€™t make up a story because I wanted to make him bad with the children.
If there was a crime you could hold against him, it would be that he loved women. Ordinarily that is a thing one should be able to put up with, but it is not that simple when you are in love with a man. In any case when you love a man, there are so many things you donâ€™t ever do.
He, I must say, is unlike most Nigerian men. His likes are not common. In maintaining the family, he was much like my dad. He does not interfere with what happens in the kitchen. He has a long of good points.
Well, have you been communicating?
Yes, very well. In bringing up the children, he is always there. Whenever, proximity allows, he comes in here and we discuss specific issues of importance. We were never in any irreconcilable crisis. And we share respect for one another.
How was the war for you? The fact that you were the wife of the Head of State of a breakaway country; how was the pressure of the war, the children and the family?
Let me tell you one true story. When the war started, the wife of the Commissioner of Police came up to my house and asked; Madam, how do you survive in all these because the tension was just too much? She said: â€œdo you know, this man, she was referring to her husband, whenever he goes out, I always feel I am going to melt. My body would be shaking. You know, I love my husband so much I canâ€™t imagine what I would do if he dies.â€
I told her that I tackle the tension by settling for the worse, even when I pray fervently that it does not happen. Each time he goes out, I pretend that it may be the last time Iâ€™ll be seeing him. I felt that the best thing to do is to be prepared anytime to be a widow. That I felt would be the best attitude because if not, you will die immediately. If you love a man like that, all you could do if the unexpected happens, is to swallow very hard and just move on. You see, I am so calm. There was this particular doctor who used to come to take what he needed for others from the little we were getting as relief materials during the war. He refers to me as â€˜always unruffledâ€. May be itâ€™s in the way Iâ€™m made.
Was there no time you felt threatened as a person? When you felt death was close? Were you prepared to die for the cause? Were you convinced about the Biafra thing?
If you saw what happened to Igbos in the northâ€¦ I was so angry. I told my husband I would have been in the tanks if I wasnâ€™t married to him. When they were bringing people from the North; headless men, women â€¦ they put bottles inside them. I was very angry. I felt I should go out there and kill all of them. There was no way you could see the returning casualties and not get angry. Let me give you an example. One day, when I came back from Ivory Coast, I was on my way to Broad Street. I didnâ€™t know my way around. One gentleman in suit, extremely light in complexion, obviously from the North, introduced himself. Please can I meet you? His name was a northern name. I said, oh my God! And went away showing how bitter I was.
Is there any reason for Biafra now?
You tell me. Is there any reason for Biafra as a Nigerian? (Here there was a debate on present realities.) I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s almost impossible, but it wonâ€™t be. It can happen if they are not careful. The way they are treating everybody, even Yorubas sometimes ago threatened to go away. And you people (Yoruba) let us down because we wanted southern solidarity. Have you not heard of that?
It is not over yet. It may not come in this manner. It may not be Yoruba wanting to go away or Igbo wanting to go away. Something terrible can happen. You cannot continue to oppress people like this. They force their ways into power or rig elections and rob the place dry and they are not even ashamed. What havenâ€™t we seen?
When Emeka was a governor, he was young, early thirties because both of us were married when we were thirty. I remember one day, one ambassador came and left a small chain and pendant for him to give me. He rejected it. It took a lot of persuasion from everybody there before he accepted it. The case now is different.
Do you know that Nigeria is the 10th country in the world in terms of the gap between the rich and the poor? And the people who are rich donâ€™t even know how to make money, only how to steal. In our own time, my father worked himself to death. They didnâ€™t know what resting was all about. Nowadays, people just flaunt their unearned wealth. Itâ€™s not fair.
To some people he was unforgiving…
Yorubas or those that he dealt with?
Not Yorubas. Several people in write-ups have said he is stubborn, inflexible and rigid. I know you love him, you still love him, and he was your husband. How do you see him?
He wasnâ€™t intransigent or inflexible. You see, he was not stubborn to me, and that is the gospel truth. The only thing that sometimes caused friction was women. And when you look at this women problem, a lot of them used to bring themselves to him. Donate themselves! Though I believe that sometimes a man should be able to say no.
Earlier on, you alluded to the war as reason for separation. What particular situation can you point to in the war?
The whole war itself. We were not together all the time; it was too dangerous. If it was about closeness, the war made us close like this (showing two hands tightly held together). Very, very close. Although he was far away from us, we were very close. We had a radio, the children used to talk to him every evening, every 9 oâ€™clock. He was sending messages to me almost every night by dispatch rider. He would write a letter. I would give the person a reply.
His fears, his feelingsâ€¦?
Very serious things. But I donâ€™t want somebody else to know about them. I remember when we were in Ivory Coast. There was this debate in France about Quebec and French Canadians and something about someone who had information that was needed by parties to the crisis and they killed him. I donâ€™t know how it happened but when I finished reading it I went and burnt all the letters. When he knew that I burnt them, he was upset… but I am glad I did it
Those are things you could have used to write your memoirsâ€¦
All the things I burnt are in my head. At my age I donâ€™t forget anything. They come out like pictures in my head. So, itâ€™s not about that.
Letâ€™s pray you write your book. I am longing to read it.
Maybe I would have been gone by then.
You mean you are not going to write your book? You donâ€™t have to write it yourself. You have your sons. They can do that for you.
I said you are still very young. You will read it, even when I am gone.
You donâ€™t want it launched before you go, but why?
For some personal reasons…
You met some other top ranking Nigerians who were leaders as well. How well did you relate with them? And have you met some of them of late?
I knew some of them but we were not friends
Like who particularly?
Let me see. You know we were colleagues. Our husbands worked together, but their ways were different from my own. I didnâ€™t like to be what they were. I donâ€™t want any person to come and tell me about my husband because it may kill your spirit. I also donâ€™t want to tell them about their husbands. They werenâ€™t terribly educated. I am not terribly educated either, but I have a different outlook. I remember one instance when Emeka was governor. One day I got a message from Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi ordering me to attend a function. I ignored it and didnâ€™t go. I felt she could have called me on the phone. I wasnâ€™t a military officer? Some of them were carrying on as if they were military officers too. She shouldnâ€™t have done it. I was sorry when her husband was killed. She was a nice lady too in her own. Others though were not as nice, and to that end, I used to keep some distance from them.
Gowonâ€™s wifeâ€¦ have you ever met her?
I have never met her. Gowon was not married before the crisis. You know he was a rank lower than my husband.
What would you say was the lowest point in your relationship with him?
It was in Ivory Coast. It was the conspiracy that eventually led to my leaving. It is better left for another day.
From the way you have been speaking of him, it is obvious you loved him and you still love him.
Yes, but if I love him what can I do. Itâ€™s not something you just write on. It is deeper than just writing about it.
The young woman who is the wife of the Ikemba now, Bianca, is she close to you?
No, not really. Though, we have met on some occasions like when Emeka (my son) got married.
You are from the same area?
No, she is from Enugu state, Iâ€™m from Anambra.
How have you been coping; I mean running your life?
I am more or less retired now. I live on pension from me, from my family and from my children.