Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ojukwu, the Okonkwo of Biafra

There is no celebrating the life and times of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu that mention would not be made of Biafra, for the name, Ojukwu, was and is synonymous with the former secessionist enclave and ambition. There is no argument about that. It is providence that brought about the Siamese-twins relationship which has unwittingly turned Ojukwu into a generic and iconic name for Biafra. Some will relish in this development while others may frown at it as an inevitable reminder of the Nigerian Civil War that culminated in untold hardships, loss of lives and properties.

Historians don’t give a damn about that. Their job is to chronicle, interpret and analyse past events. They are quick to point out that Biafra was an unmitigated African tragedy in which more than one million people perished in an unnecessary fratricidal war. Saying the war was unnecessary is, however, debatable. The extent of the human toll absolutely makes it an undesirable war but in terms of its purgative effect for the angry Igbo of the 1960s, it was a war worth fighting. It was a kind of diabolical catharsis and, no doubt, a just struggle for survival and self-preservation in the face of the wanton killings of the Igbo in the North following the January 15, 1966 coup that instantly but negatively changed the complexion and configuration of the Nigerian polity.

For the 30 months that the war lasted, Biafra was a tragic drama in motion or what the novelist, Zainab Alkali, would describe as a drama of pain in which happiness is just an occasional interlude. It was a tragedy of such magnitude that Biafra became another focal point to the rest of mankind, shortly after the bloodshed in the Congo. The chief protagonist of the ensuing drama was, of course, Ojukwu, a thoroughbred, well-educated and polished military officer who, by virtue of his bourgeois background and military training leaned more to the right of the centre than to the left. Yet an unusual kind of political leadership was thrust on his hitherto conservative shoulders, turning him into an accidental hero of an ideological struggle he least prepared for, a struggle to sustain the newly created Republic of Biafra.

However, since the once risen Biafran sun set in 1970 with the end of the war, many chroniclers of history, playwrights, writers and critics have made a kill of the Biafran tragedy in history books, plays, novels and analyses. It is a natural tendency, though, because it is from life that man draws inspiration and materials for building a corpus of literature. The critic can also, through an indiscernible aperture, peep through the prism of art to have a glimpse of the possible, the impossible, the congruous, the incongruous, the real and the unreal, to contribute to the mounting materials on Biafra and its dramatis personae. This write-up is equally an attempt to do the “uncommon,” nay, the unusual but, perhaps, the imaginable, to do a surreal, comparative analysis of Ojukwu, the Biafran hero, and Okonkwo, the strong man in the famous novel, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.

But before we go into that, let’s take a look at the rationale for doing this. Both Umuofia, the setting of Things Fall Apart, and Biafra can be used to examine the tragedy in the two seemingly diametrically opposing worlds of fiction and reality. By the way, is the writer not over-stretching the elastic band of imagination? From where should playwrights draw their materials for tragedy? Should it not be purely from reality? Not exactly. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, believes tragedy should be built more on myth (i.e. a fantasised reality) than on history (i.e. a factual reality) as the basis for tragedy. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels seem to disagree with this Aristotlean postulate. They will rather opt for tragedy based on historical events such as we have in Ola Rotimi’s Kurunmi or Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The Biafra and Umuofia tragic dramas oscillate between the two extremes. While the tragedy of Things Fall Apart is based on fantasised reality, that of Biafra is hinged on historical, factual reality. The two characters can, therefore, be easily accommodated under a common literary microscope for a forensic analysis. In doing so, we can see similarities and draw some parallels between the two.

The story of Biafra is the story of the Igbo people in the larger Nigerian society. They belong to a special breed – hardworking, daring, adventurous, enterprising, religious and ambitious. Before Biafra came into being, the Igbo were everywhere in the West, Midwest and the North, planting and hoisting the flag of their proud heritage to the admiration or envy of fellow Nigerians. Then came the military coup of January 15,1966, and hell was let loose. The centre could no longer hold... Umuofia was no different.

Hitherto, it was a clan which once thought like one, spoke like one, shared a common awareness and acted like one. Then came the white man and his confusing religion and the people could no longer act like one. “He (the white man) has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart,” Obierika, a leader of the clan, sums up the tragedy of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart, both depicting similar settings, similar moods, similar characters with dominant roles within their universe of influence.

The character of Okonkwo is so strong and all-pervasive that the title of the German edition of Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo, a reflection of his central role in the Umuofian tragedy. It’s the same in the world of reality. Ojukwu was Biafra. Biafra was Ojukwu. With his Che Guevara-like beard, he became so much a mythical figure that his face became a robust advertisement for African rebellion and war of self-determination to the rest of the world like Guevara’s in the South American jungle.

The Ojukwu story opens to the world at the height of his military career in 1966 when as a 33-year-old officer he became the first military governor of Eastern Region. He had everything going for him, an aristocratic background and a good education. Okonkwo’s story also opens at the height of his professional and sporting (wrestling) career when, at 18, he dethroned Amalinze, the hitherto undefeated wrestling champion of the time. His fame rose beyond his village and the entire Umuofia clan, not only on account of his wrestling prowess, but also for being a successful farmer and a respected warrior.

His fame and wealth notwithstanding, he was not a happy man. The source of his unhappiness and anger was his father. Unoka was an unsuccessful farmer, a debtor, a weakling and an agbala, a derogatory name for a title-less man. He was regarded as a failure by his contemporaries. It was fear of failure that made Okonkwo steel himself against an open display of any emotion except that of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness, the only thing worth demonstrating was strength, even at the wrong time. He shot at Ojiugo, his second wife, during the Week of Peace. It was his machete blow that finally felled Ikemefuna, the boy who grew to know him as “my father.” It was an unnecessary display of bravery. Ojukwu also had such a steely mien. He hardly laughed in public but he was wont to display grimaces to reflect the ugliness of human nature that warranted the mass killings of his kinsmen and women in the 1960s.

He had smelled the blood of his fellow Igbo, victims of revenge killings in the barracks and other slaughter slabs in the North, and was not afraid to shed some too to water the seed of rebellion. Suspected renegades and saboteurs must be hanged while those with dissenting voices like Victor Banjo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Phillip Alale and Sam Agbam had to face the firing squad. The price of liberty was not only vigilance in Biafra but also the systematic elimination of opposition. Anger and fear of failure seemed to be controlling his inner being and pushing him into a tragic denouement, despite his enviable pedigree.

Louis Phillipè Odumegwu Ojukwu, his father, a knight, was not like Unoka, the fantasised father of Okonkwo. He was a wealthy businessman, one of the richest of his time, hardworking, urbane, savvy and suave. Ojukwu only took advantage of his family pedigree to acquire high quality education both at home and abroad. He was to later sacrifice a life of opulence to join the army as a private when there were better options! He did not stop there; he also sacrificed his military career to lead his people in a secession bid against the federation, a federation that was justly or unjustly perceived to be bent on annihilating the Igbo race. It was a disastrous miscalculation. The badly equipped and hurriedly trained young troops of Biafra had a daunting task facing a better trained, better equipped federal army at the war front. Soon the cookie crumbled and Ojukwu had to flee into exile “in search of peace” in Ivory Coast, abandoning his lieutenants.

Okonkwo, too, had to go into exile through the barrel of the gun. His gun had misfired during the funeral rites for Ezeudu, killing the deceased’s son. Though it was an inadvertent killing, he had to be banished into exile and off he went to Mbanta, his mother’s hometown. In exile, the virile strongman of Umuofia was literally reduced to a eunuch, an impotent, helpless, toothless bulldog who could only bark but not bite. He heard stories of the new changes taking place in Umuofia and he felt like going back to knock some sense into the white man’s head. His rantings were just like those of a column of ants, calling his people back at home weaklings and effeminate men “clucking like old hens.” Those who had decamped to join the missionaries were nothing but degenerate, gutless and “ball-less” (effeminate), efulefu (worthless) men.

The unsavoury changes taking place around him notwithstanding, Okonkwo, true to his character, made the best of his sojourn. He continued his farming business and prospered. Ojukwu also went into business to while away time in Ivory Coast. He started with transport business and later veered into interior decoration, using his connection with the powers that be to obtain rosy government contracts. Despite their success and prosperity, both still yearned for a return home. Okonkwo had heard a lot about the havoc being perpetrated by the white man on his people’s culture and wanted to return as soon as his seven-year banishment was over. Ojukwu, too, though in a safe haven, was like fish out of the Bight of Biafra. He wanted to go back home where he too could have a piece of the proverbial national cake that politicians were already scrambling for.

Okonkwo returned from exile with great hopes to lead the fight against the white man and his new religion. He could not comprehend the fact that “even titled men like Ogbuefi Ugonna had joined the missionaries.” He was eager to mobilise and rouse his people from slumber for the great fight against the new “usurper” religion. It was a new Umuofia that he met, an Umuofia that had lost its “balls” and the will to fight. Obierika captured the dilemma in a private discussion with Okonkwo. “How do you think we can fight when our brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

By the time Ojukwu came back to Nigeria from exile in 1982, the falcon could no longer hear the falconer. The old “Igbo party,” NCNC, – long dead, like others –had also given way to new parties like NPP, GNPP, NPN, and UPN into which the Igbo had scattered and sought political relevance. The entity that used to be Biafra had been balkanised into the four states of Imo, Anambra, Cross River and Rivers (in the 19-state structure). His attempt to rally the Igbo into a common front on the political level did not come to much. Personal ambitions seemed to have overtaken the old communal interest. For the second time, the “people’s General” voted with his feet by going into internal self exile in NPN, a party that symbolised the establishment that provoked the birth of Biafra. And he paid a price for his “indiscretion” as he was detained along with fellow politicians when the military struck again in 1983.

If Ojukwu chose to join “them” if he could not beat “them,” Okonkwo stubbornly refused to be like the Joneses. Even at gunpoint, he would not join the motley crowd of those who had desecrated Igbo customs and traditions. He vented his frustration on the white man’s messenger and, in anger, murdered him. It is his inability to recognise change that in the end forced him to commit suicide, an abomination. Obierika, his friend, looked at his dangling body and literally wrote a verbal epitaph: “That man was one of the greatest men in our community. It’s Okonkwo’s personal tragedy that he will be buried like a dog.”

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Eze Igbo Gburugburu, was no doubt one of the greatest men of Igboland. Unlike the tragic hero of Umuofia, Ojukwu, the Biafran hero, will be buried as a god, not as a dog. And were there a real Obierika, he is wont to write a more befitting epitaph: “Here goes a true born Igbo man who sacrificed his silver spoon for the gun for the advancement of his people’s cause.”

In the realm of imagination, the mythical hero of Things Fall Apart probably lives on in the minds of the equally mythical “Ibo men” of Umuofia. There’s no obliterating Biafra also from the subconscious of the average Igbo man. The conditions that warranted it in the first instance are still present. Ojukwu was more of an accidental hero than an opportunist, as some of his critics are quick to label him, and he rose to the occasion to lead his people literally through the Red Sea, a very herculean task. In spite of the land and sea blockage, his besieged Biafra looked inward through improvisation. It was a vast workshop of native ingenuity. It produced guns, tanks, bombs and anti-aircraft guns to counter the enemy’s menacing arsenal westward even as far as Ore, in present-day Ondo State, where the mother of all battles was fought. The Biafran soldiers were ready to follow Ojukwu to war blindfolded. His charisma was magnetic and infectious. “Ojukwu led people with dignity,” wrote Obi Nwakama, an Ojukwu fan, in a tribute to the memory of the Biafran leader. “Biafra’s grassroots democracy thrived; men and women of ability were inspired to work; young men stood before their General and vowed to give their life to him… He earned their trust. He inspired them by his own sacrifice. He led them – with the flag of the rising sun fluttering – to believe that they were that sun rising.” Okonkwo did not have that kind of following. A man who fought and killed for Umuofia had nobody to fight and kill for him at the time he needed them most. The sun does not rise twice to wake a man. Unknown to Okonkwo, time had moved on without him. Therein lies his personal tragedy.

It could be sunset for Biafra of the 1960s but today, the sun is rising again and blazing for a new Biafra. If Arrow of God (not No Longer at Ease) can be regarded as the real natural “sequel” to Things Fall Apart, the emergence of a new Biafra (Ojukwu called it Biafra of the Mind) cannot be wiped away with just a wave of the hand.

History has a way of repeating itself either in mythical terms or in the reality of human circumstance. Meanwhile it’s adieu to the Ikemba of Nnewi, Eze Igbo Gburugburu of Nigeria and, of course, the “Okonkwo of Biafra.”

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