Never mind, I once referred to him as 'Rebel Leader'! That was the appropriate language of the official perception of his role at that time, during the Nigerian Civil War; but he was His Excellency, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu - Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria. However, i can testify that he was not only a remarkable and interesting man, he was also a brave and courageous Soldier - Statesman. I say this because i knew him as a colleague and he was my friend.
However, owing to the fact that we were on opposing sides of the civil war, many had thought that Emeka and I were arch enemies. We were not. I never refer to him of the Igbos as enemy, privately, personally or officially. However, as leader of the government of Eastern Nigeria that sought to break away from Nigeria ( a factor that led to the Nigerian Civil War), Military Governor Ojukwu was seen by many as my adversary because at that time, I happened to be the Head of the Federal military Government of Nigeria. But I did not see Emeka Ojukwu as an hostile adversary of enemy and the worst endeared way I can describe him was a ‘rebel’! We were friends and colleagues before the events leading to the civil war and would like to point out that we were contemporaries after he enlisted as a graduate cadet officer and later commissioned into the Nigerian Army and joined us in late 1958.
I believe that Ojukwu and I had one thing in common. We were both principled men and it might even be said that the Civil War resulted largely because we both stuck to our principles! We swore an oath of loyalty to our country, Nigeria. This was the ideal we both held before the crisis that engulfed the country on 1966-1967. I concede, in all honesty, that Emeka Ojukwu could be justified in taking a stand fof the defence and protection of his people in the circumstances of the country at the time. I was trying to do the same at the national level at that time. I understand and respected his position but not the extreme position he took which I felt was misguided. I wished we had toiled more to avoid secession. I strongly believe that if Ojukwu was in my shoes he would have done exactly the same a s I did during those crucial years. Waht was done was not our of personal or group dislike or hatred. Emeka was never my enemy nor are the Igbos. We never disliked each other. We only disliked the stand and actions taken by the other.
The cumulative effects of the events of 1966-67 unfortunately brought about the schism between us personallu and officially that ultimately led to the unfortunate civil war of 1967-70 which regrettably brought out the nest and worst of our human nature. Thankfully efforts from both sides brough about the resolution of our crisis, with Ojukwu in the interest of his people to have peace, left to sue for peace and for his successors to end the armed conflict and for the Federal side to offer end of hostilities with a ‘No Victor, No vanquished’ policy and a robust programme of the 3Rs – Reconcilliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction programme which herald the historic reconciliation to the credit of Nigerians from both sides of the divide.
I feel happy that ultimately Nigeria was preserved and reconciled, and enabled Ojukwu to return to Nigeria to continue to contribute his quota to the growth and development of a new and better Nigeria. It is also instructive that he was able to contest national election into the highest office in the land. He will always remain relevant to our history, history of Nigeria, by the legacy he left behind.
After the war, when we were both exiles and outside Nigeria, Emeka, on a visit to the UK made a telephone call to my home in London while I was at the University of Warrick and spoke to my wife Victoria and left his telephone number and contact address with her. On my return home at the weekend, I reciprocated by calling and visiting him at his hotel, Mont Calm Hotel, Marble Arch in London where I could say our personal and initial ‘reconciliation’ began and sealed the national reconciliation that had earlier taken place in Nigeria. Thereafter, we had met many times in various parts of the country endorsing our personal and national reconciliation. I was also able to visit him at his home in Enugu after our Nigeria Prays Programme in that city in April 2010. I paid a condolence visit to him and his wife, Bianca for the death of his late former wife, Njide, and his father-in-law, former Governor C. C. Onoh with whom I was very close. I was very warmly received by the family and my leave taking on that occasion was so moving as the staff around showed much appreciation and love. His eldest Son, Chief Debe Odumegwu Ojukwu whom I know from childhood wrote a touching endearing letter to inform me of his father’s demise which says it all ‘...you may have fought a war against each other...a facade to the outside world, but to us the family, especially myself.. you ingeniously remained friends till the very end. Let his death soothe and garner lasting peace for our country Nigeria...’ I say Amen! Let all say Amen!!
When I learnt of his admission to hospital in London and i rang to speak to him and or his darling wife Bianca, the call was answered by his young daughter, Ebele who was the only one available at the time holding forth and keeping watch over her sick father. She told me that Daddy was sleeping. We had a pleasant chat and i gave her a message, to tell Daddy that he had no right to be sick at this jostling time and that he should hurry up and get well and out of hospital and return home so that we can continue with and finish our fight! Young Ebele burst into ecstatic laughter of understanding that touched my heart and promised to relay the message. Subsequently, I learnt fron Ojukwu's Chief of Staff that she faithfully relayed the message to the family, her mother and all that were there. I am sure the old Soldier got the message and would have smiled, smiled of approval!
On learning of his death, I called to commiserate with the family. His Chief of Staff, Bob who answered the call promised to relay the condolence message. Is salute the memory of a brave soldier and worth friend. The only regret I have is that I did not make an effort to draft Emeka into our Nigeria Prays ministry to join me and many others in praying for Nigeria. Who knows whether with his experience of the horrors of the civil war and the powers of prayer we would not have sooner been saved the scourge of the violence, bombing, kidnappings and mayhem being lately experienced in the nation. My prayer is that the Lord may have mercy on his soul and uphold the lovely family he left behind and grant Nigeria peace and love of one another.
I join all my Ndigbo brothers and sisters, living and the dead, all Nigerians in mourning and celebrating their and Nigeria’s illustrious Son, my brother, friend and old colleague – Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Adieu dear brother and friend, rest in peace till we meet again at our Lord’s presence.
General Yakubu Gowon, GCFR