Nigeria: Breakaway Biafra leader Ojukwu dies at 78

November 26, 2011 - 10:40 AM
Obit Ojukwu

FILE - Lietenant Colonel C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, then military governor of East Nigeria, center, is pictured addressing a press conference at the state house in Engu, Nigeria, in this May, 1967 file photo. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, a millionaire's son who led Nigeria's breakaway republic of Biafra during the country's civil war that left 1 million dead, died Saturday Nov. 26, 2011. He was 78. Ambra state spokesman Maja Umeh confirmed the rebel leader died Saturday morning. (AP Photo, File)

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu passionately believed his homeland in eastern Nigeria deserved to be its own country, a new nation free of the borders imposed by foreigners as colonialism lifted across Africa in the 1960s.

That hopefulness, seen in the rising-sun flag of the Republic of Biafra, descended into hellish reality as Nigeria's many ethnic groups fought over whether to remain unified during a bloody three-year civil war that killed 1 million people.

Instead of pan-African pride, it brought the first television images of starving African children with stick-like arms into homes around the world. And even today, the oil-rich nation still violently struggles with its identity.

Ojukwu, a millionaire's son who became the military leader of the breakaway republic, died in a London hospital Saturday after a protracted illness following a stroke. He was 78.

Maja Umeh, a spokesman for Nigeria's Anambra state, confirmed Ojukwu's death Saturday. Anambra state, in the heart of what used to be the breakaway republic, had provided financial support for Ojukwu during his hospital stay, Umeh said.

In a statement Saturday, President Goodluck Jonathan praised Ojukwu for his "immense love for his people, justice, equity and fairness which forced him into the leading role he played in the Nigerian civil war."

"His commitment to reconciliation and the full reintegration of his people into a united and progressive Nigeria in the aftermath of the war will ensure that he is remembered forever as one of the great personalities of his time who stood out easily as a brave, courageous, fearless, erudite and charismatic leader," the statement read.

Leaders said the war's end would leave "No Victor, No Vanquished." However, that claim has yet to be fulfilled as ethnic and religious tensions still threaten Nigeria's unity more than 40 years later.

Ojukwu's rise coincided with the fall of Nigeria's First Republic, formed after Nigeria, a nation split between a predominantly Muslim north and a largely Christian south, gained its independence from Britain in 1960.

A 1966 coup led primarily by army officers from the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria's southeast shot and killed Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, as well as the premier of northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello.

The coup failed, but the country still fell under military control. Northerners, angry about the death of its leaders, attacked Igbos living there. As many as 10,000 people died in resulting riots. Many Igbos fled back to Nigeria's southeast, their traditional home.

Ojukwu, then 33, served as the military governor for the southeast. The son of a knighted millionaire, Ojukwu studied history at Oxford and attended a military officer school in Britain. In 1967, he declared the region — including part of the oil-rich Niger Delta — as the Republic of Biafra. The new republic used the name of the Atlantic Ocean bay to its south, its flag a rising sun set against a black, green and red background.

The announcement sparked 31 months of fierce fighting between the breakaway republic and Nigeria. Under Gen. Yakubu "Jack" Gowon, Nigeria adopted the slogan "to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done" and moved to reclaim a region vital to the country's finances.

Despite several pushes by Biafran troops, Nigerian forces slowly strangled Biafra into submission. Caught in the middle were Igbo refugees increasingly pushed back as the front lines fell. The region, long reliant on other regions of Nigeria for food, saw massive food shortages despite international aid.

The enduring images, seen on television and in photographs, show starving Biafran children with distended stomachs and stick-like arms. Many died as hunger became a weapon wielded by both sides.

"Was starvation a legitimate weapon of war?" wrote English journalist John de St. Jorre after the conflict. "The hard-liners in Nigeria and Biafra thought that it was, the former regarding it as a valid means of reducing the enemy's capacity to resist, as method as old as war itself, and the latter seeing it as a way of internationalizing the conflict."

The images fed into Ojukwu's warnings that to see Biafra fall would see the end of the Igbo people.

"The crime of genocide has not only been threatened but fulfilled. The only reason any of us are alive today is because we have our rifles," Ojukwu told journalists in 1968. "Otherwise the massacre would be complete. It would be suicidal for us to lay down our arms at this stage."

That final massacre never came. Ojukwu and trusted aides escaped Biafra by airplane on Jan. 11, 1970. Biafra collapsed shortly after. Gowon himself broke the cycle of revenge in a speech in which said there was "no victor, no vanquished." He also pardoned those who had participated in the rebellion.

Ojukwu spent 13 years in exile, coming home after he was unconditionally pardoned in 1982. He returned to politics, but lost a race for a senate seat. Authorities sent him to a maximum-security prison for a year when Nigeria suffered yet another of the military coups that punctuated life after independence.

He later wrote his memoirs and lived the quiet life of an elder statesman until he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Olusegun Obasanjo for the presidency in 2003. Obasanjo served as a colonel in the Biafran war and gave the final statement on rebel-controlled radio announcing the conflict's end.

Despite the long and costly civil war, Nigeria remains torn by internal conflict. Tens of thousands have died in riots pitting Christians against Muslims in a country of more than 160 million people. Militant groups attack foreign oil firms in the oil-rich Niger Delta while criminal gangs kidnap the middle class. Poverty continues to grind the country.

The Igbos, meanwhile, continue to suffer political isolation in the country. While an Igbo man recently became one of the country's top military officers, others say they've been locked out of higher office over lingering mistrust from the war.

Some in the former breakaway region still hold out hope for their own voice, even their own country despite the cataclysmic losses.

As did Ojukwu himself.

"Biafra," Ojukwu told journalists in 2006, "is always an alternative."

___

Associated Press writer Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.