✍ Tell Magazine, Monday, 05 December 2011 12:22
Sent by Nevbechi Nwoye Emma Anazövba
(Excerpts of interview the Ikemba granted TELL magazine in March, 1993, over 18 years ago, after he was disqualified to contest the presidential primary election of that year)
You have said that some people, cynical of your candidacy, accused you of going to only fight for the Igbo cause…?
|Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu|
Do some people wish you were outside?
Oh yes, of course.
Can you give an example?
Wouldn’t you even consider 13 years exile enough punishment for anything? But there were Nigerians that went round barracks trying to mobilise troops to mount a coup d'état (against my return in 1982). There are people today who refuse that I should have opinion on anything Nigeria.
You talk of mounting a coup d'état to prevent your return?
Oh yes, yes.
You haven’t said anything about the politics against or about your return to the country. Could you seize this opportunity to do that?
I was in exile, there was a negotiation with my host, President Felix Houphouét-Boigny. I was invited at a certain stage, we discussed and we came back. On returning, I understood that there were very many movements, individual movements against my return… The fact is that it has been said in many, many publications that General (Theophilus) Danjuma opposed my return. You can take it over from there…
How did you feel at that moment?
How did I feel? How would you feel? It was the highest point of one’s career. Exhilaration, so many emotions all crowded in. You saw but you didn’t see, you felt but you didn’t feel. You were sort of being transported on a sea of heads. And more than that, you found yourself floating on a bed of love. People who have come in to say to you, “Onye Ije Nnoo: welcome.”
Did you feel it was the ultimate justification for whatever cause you have led in the past?
I’ve never needed justification, I knew all the while that I was right in opposing the massacre of people whom, institutionally, I was placed to protect.
You are being denied the opportunity now to, not necessarily lead the people on regional basis, but on a national level because you applied to contest the presidency. But, naturally, you have to start from your home base…
I wish I were allowed to actually start from Lagos, because I think if I had a rally in Lagos, it would be the biggest rally ever and no one will command the crowd I will command in Lagos.
Actually, the law is the law, it says you must start from the home base?
What in fact is a home base in Nigeria? We don’t know; we are going forward, we are stepping back. Why must you force somebody who came back in 1982 of his own choice, now living in Lagos, to go back? What is home? We should encourage Nigerians to mix, to feel at home everywhere, to choose even their own culture. That, for me, is truly the highest point of freedom.
Before the National Electoral Commission, NEC announcement, you were generally regarded as the most credible candidate from the eastern part of the country. Now, with you not being in the race, is the East being denied the opportunity to contest on an equal basis for the presidency? Do you see it that way?
Yes, I see it that way. Earlier on, I talked about, perhaps, there being another side to the coin of “no victor, no vanquished.” Let me explain in details what I mean. I believe that looking at the way things are going, there might be a hidden agenda. And that one of the protocols of that agenda would be that of the foreseeable future or for a period specified, nobody from the ex-rebel side – I am using the Nigerian probable language – should be allowed to reach or aspire to the presidency. It does not mean nobody can but nobody credible can. That is the real issue. And, in a way, my disqualification, if you look at it, you could almost see that it is a flattering consciousness of the strength of my presence in the race. If the authorities did not consider my presence a credible one and I won’t likely win, they wouldn’t take this drastic action, they would leave it to the people to decide. It is like everything Nigerian. You asked this question about the Igbos, I am obliged to tell you the truth because I have never known how to dissimulate things. I believe my own function will be always to explain, to teach. I’ve done a number of things. I am well known internationally, nobody has ever said I am stupid. They could say other things but not stupid. And I believe that I can then have my own input into Nigeria. I keep saying that when your country is in danger, what you should do is to come out and help. To withdraw and sit back at home complaining like a middle-age housewife is self-indulgence at its worst. I have always believed that a difficult situation can only be helped by facing the danger ahead. What is required is for all hands to be on deck. You cannot solve Nigeria’s problems by excluding areas… So, the sooner we can get round a table, the better for the whole country.
If you found yourself in exactly the same situation you found yourself in 1966? … (cuts in)
First of all, I hope we have learnt from our past experience and that we would not re-enact the same situation. I hope nobody ever takes it into his head to isolate and massacre the people purely because they are of a certain geographical origin or cultural attachment. I hope that doesn’t happen again. But let me tell you as a human being, depending on the strength I still have left in my body, if anybody attacked or isolated the northerner or the Hausa-Fulani, I will be at the forefront of those opposing it. I will fight. If anybody suddenly isolated the Yoruba and then decided that they had to be wiped out and a final solution had to be given to the Yoruba problem in Nigeria, I will try as much as possible to give whatever I can to the struggle to destroy that aberration. I would rise as much as possible, even at the head of their armed forces if I can, to fight for the protection of my fellow citizens, the Yoruba or my fellow citizens, the Hausa-Fulani. If I can do that for those two and others in Nigeria, then it is by normal logic that if the Igbo are again attacked in that manner, I would do that which I would do for the North and the West.
If today, you were to give an account of the state of the nation, how would you describe it?
We are in a country where you make money in order to incarcerate yourself. Nigeria is going backwards. In 1944, I didn’t know the difference between an Igbo and a Rivers man. Today, before you even call me an Igbo, somebody is already saying, “look at that Okoro man.” We are going backwards. We tell lies. We have no courage.
In 1966, during the political crisis, prior to the civil war, one of the things you tried to articulate was that there should be a loose federation. But that position was rejected and the war broke out. Do you now feel vindicated, looking back at what happened at that tumultuous period vis-à-vis the calls being made now by people who are absolutely dissatisfied with the state of the nation?
I don’t view Nigeria in a personal sort of frame of mind. Many, many things – because you ask the question – will seem to me a vindication. It’s just that I don’t bother to think in those terms. There is no doubt I was public enemy number one in Nigeria from 1966 and nearly till my return. When I landed at Murtala Muhammed Airport, when I saw the Nigerians there welcoming me, I felt vindicated. When I got to Enugu, bearing in mind what some of the elites had said, that they were used and many things like that during the war, when I saw the crowd, yes, I felt vindicated. When I heard some very highly placed people from across the Niger saying what we need is a loose federation, naturally, if you really want to indulge yourself, you’ll feel vindicated.
We have had 33 years of independent Nigeria and all put together there have been about 10 years of civilian government. Do you really regret the military coming to power?
It’s an aberration. To me, the military in political power is an unmitigated disaster. To start with, I do not believe that just wearing a well-starched khaki safari makes you wiser than the next man. It was wrong, though things were difficult, that the attempted coup took place. And my position has been very consistent. I did not support that attempted coup and I did everything I could to frustrate it.
Military intervention in Nigeria politics?
The first military government, as I said, was the Ironsi one, which was accidental as I had explained. But the deliberate one was the Murtala Muhammed one, which was handed over by Jack Gowon, which then led us into the war and out of it. That was actually the regime that destroyed the armed forces. And if you look round today, those of us of the old times, the Adebayos, the Ojukwus, the Effiongs, we are all the poor ones because actually, the military in our days was a vocation. It was almost an anathema for one to be rich in the military. We were like priests. It was from the Gowon regime (and that doesn’t mean I am blaming Gowon, I am talking about his regime and not his person. He is still my very good friend) that we started having this monstrosity of retired army officer millionaires and of course with that, the entire calling of the military has been subverted.
What is it like now?
Everybody is looking for money.
Look at the events of the 1960s and compare them with the situation in the country today. Do you envisage a repeat of that political crisis?
I don’t think we are going to fight again. But the danger is that we’ll get close to it. And I am pretty certain that when we get there, sanity will prevail. It is madness to go that far.
But do you also envisage a situation like the former Czechoslovakia agreeing in a very peaceful manner to pull apart?
What I would like to see is for us to sit down freely and see whether we can make unity work. I would like us to sit down. We’ve never had the chance, you know. When the ad hoc constitutional conference during the crisis was in progress, again we got to a point where we designed a type of loose federation. That conference was immediately disbanded and dismissed. Nigerians have never freely decided anything concerning their mode of governance. It always (falls) on them from above: from the colonial office, from the military regime and from another military regime. It is significant that all our structural changes have taken place under the military. All the nice talk, plebiscite here, consultation there, we have rejected because the military just imposes everything.
On the issue of this national conference, what has been observed is that the call for it has been more strident in the South whereas the opposite is the case in the North, which tends to be opposed to the idea of Nigerians or their leaders sitting down to hold such a conference.
Would it not indicate the level of satisfaction between the various populations? If you are satisfied with the status quo, why would you want to shift it? And it is possible that the people there are quite satisfied with things the way they are. When in your life, your ancestors have never seen a wide expanse of water and today you can become admiral of a fleet, wouldn’t you enjoy it? When you are sitting on desert sands and petrol is piped to you to exploit, wouldn’t you want it? When fertilizer companies are established and you are put on top in the South to run, wouldn’t you enjoy it? When all the services are commanded by you, when the powers – the executive, the judiciary, the legislature – are yours to take, at your command, would you really be in that situation, clamouring for change? It’s only natural that those who suffer the disappointments are the ones who want change.
Before the first coup in the country, there was this rebellion in the East. Isaac Adaka Boro, in a bid to draw attention to the plight of his people in the riverine areas of the East, declared an independent enclave. Now, you find that the issues, which Boro tried to fight on are still very relevant…
When I called the press and declared my intention to stand as a candidate for the presidency, I did talk about natural resources and I said, (quotes from a paper), “It is my earnest belief that all resources, whether human or material, whether above ground or around the ground, are divine endowments belonging primarily to those in whose areas these things abound. It is primarily their property to exploit, to negotiate and to use for their own benefit, for their own development and for their own wealth…” This is the issue. Sooner or later, we have to seek equity in Nigeria. If you are living on the sands of the desert and you say you want to eat sandwiches, go ahead, produce your sandwiches and eat them. That’s what you have been given. If some people are sitting on oil, agree that it’s theirs. We are together, you bring something into the kitty, they bring oil into the kitty. But when you think that you (can) take their oil and decide completely what you give them, then you are wrong. These are what cause imbalance. And I maintain, when you talk about Adaka Boro, he had his reasons. And it is a sad reflection of Nigeria today that these reasons notwithstanding, he set up a republic and he’s a national hero. I am accused and made public enemy number one because I set up a republic. Where is the justice in this country?
We’ve been talking about a national conference. What should we go to discuss there? What should be the agenda?
It is a difficult one for me to give you. You want to know the agenda, one thing certainly will be the nationalities question, the direction of our economy, the limitation of power, the safeguards for nationhood. There are certain definitions that we require. We like to know what a citizen of Nigeria is, what are the limitations of citizenship within Nigeria? There are a number of things and just now you caught me off-guard. I think there must be general discussion of wealth, how do you distribute it, how do you acquire it? And the limitation of its uses. Because no matter what wealth you possess, once it constitutes an oppression, you are in trouble. If it constitutes an oppression to somebody else in society, you are in trouble. All these have to be defined.
If we find ourselves in a situation where a part of the country is eager to have the national question answered and another part is opposed to it also, at all costs, what is the way out?
Isn’t there the normal situation which dialogue eventually finds a solution to? The way out is certainly not fighting for it. The way out is talking more about it. It is somehow in my mind accepted that those who will discuss the national question discuss it on the basis of take it or leave it. If actually it comes up that my nation is going to be swallowed up without any compensation, then I opt out. If somebody is ever going to make me change my religion, I opt out. I am not like a number of Nigerians who find it difficult to say so if opting out is a necessity. The nation that I belong to is a nation that gives me freedom of religion. I say so and it’s the bottom line. If tomorrow you come up to me and say I must now become something else, I’ll tell you goodbye, so long, it’s been good to know ya. The same way if I find that power in this republic that we constitute together is to be held permanently by one area, and that no matter what you do you cannot share power, if you don’t belong to that area, then obviously, I am not part of that state because a citizen should be able to aspire to the highest office in the state.
There is this issue that is, among all others, regarded as very, very weighty in our national degeneration, and that is corruption. Would you want to speak on it?
We are not ready to wipe out corruption yet because a lot of people make their positions in our society through corruption. There are so many things that defy understanding. When I drive through Queen’s Drive, I see some houses, newly built. I will like to know the tax returns of such people, how they reflect such opulence. If you are donating N10 million, where did you find it? We do not ask necessary questions. There is a beautiful house in Kaduna, did you find out the owner? We don’t also stigmatise those who engage in corrupt practices. We even tend to applaud anybody that makes it no matter how. There are many things you can do to cut down corruption. But more importantly I have always said that wealth has an odour, no matter how you hide it, the smell comes up. Whenever you smell the odour, what you should do is declare the person corrupt until he proves himself otherwise.
Who is Ojukwu by your own assessment?
Who is Ojukwu? Ojukwu is very much a black man. A black man propelled into white society very young and who defined his own mission in the context of his sojourn as a stranger amongst other people. The major item that organises and affects my life is racial, not territorial, not even cultural, not even tribal but more racial. Ojukwu is that African who wants to be a permanent proof that an African could be better than all others. At the same time, Ojukwu in Nigeria remains very much that Nigerian that most Nigerians have not got the courage to be like. I believe that I am very much misunderstood in Nigeria, many people say I live much ahead of my time. I say no, it’s you, you don’t understand me. You see, the few items that become the framework of our thoughts do not affect me. What affects me is the racial excellence, which one projects. At every stage of my life, in every action, which I take, Emeka Ojukwu is challenging the white man to do better. And that is the only thing I judge by. When I say to you, I want to be president of this country, I say to the white man, my people are better. When I get there, you’ve got your America, you’ve got your England, our Nigeria will be better. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu is that black man who wants his fellow blacks, at least, to create society, their own society to which every black man on earth can point with pride. Finally, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu is that Nigerian who believes that his privilege is a debt that he has not repaid. I am nothing if I cannot transmit something of myself to those with whom I come in contact. My aim in life is that everywhere I pass should become that much better because I pass by it.