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Late Biafra warlord laid to rest

Channels Television  
Updated March 2, 2012

The Saint Michaels Catholic Church in Umudim, Nnewi in Anambra state, South-east Nigeria was on Friday filled to capacity as eminent Nigerians gathered for the church service/requiem mass for the late Biafra warlord and Igbo leader, Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu.

President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Dame Patience Jonathan were among those in attendance at the funeral service. Other dignitaries present at the service were the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Emeka Anyaoku, former Vice President, Alex Ekwueme and Justice Chukwudifu Oputa.

Also present at the funeral ceremony were the governors of Delta state, Emmanuel Uduaghan; Liyel Imoke, the governor of Cross River; the Anambra state governor, Peter Obi and the Abia states governor, Theodore Orji.

The Deputy Speaker House of Representative, Emeka Ihedioha, Chief of Army staff, Major General Onyeabo Azubike Ihejirika and Senator Chris Ngige were also present at the funeral service.

Mr Jonathan in his condolence message extolled the virtues of the late Biafra leader. Calling him ‘our leader’, ‘our brother’ and ‘Ikemba’ the President praised the late leader in his five minute speech.

“I am here with my wife to pay respects to our leader Ojukwu whose life symbolises service to the people. May his soul rest in peace,” he wrote in a condolence register opened at Ojukwu’s home.

The President on his facebook page said he is “personally touched by the depth of sadness at the passing of this philosopher, officer and gentleman”.

“It is remarkable and moving that his awesome life is a source of celebration by every strata of the Nigerian society,” Mr Jonathan wrote.

He said “in death Dim Ojukwu has consolidated and strengthened the nationalist philosophy agreed by all patriots that there was indeed “no victor and no vanquished”.

Ojukwu’s body was later interned in a mausoleum within his family compound, bringing to a climax the week long burial ceremony of the late Ikemba of Nnewi.

The government of Anambra state joined other states in the South-east region to declare a work free day to honour the great leader and pay him the last respect. Shop owners of Igbo decent around the country had their shops locked up today in memory of their leader.

Ojukwu died aged 78, on 26 November last year, in London, after suffering a stroke. He is survived by his widow, Bianca and many children.

His funeral, already once delayed, has seen a revisioning — or at least a remembrance — of Nigeria’s bloody civil war in a country where an almost collective amnesia about the event still exists. President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly mentioned Ojukwu and his legacy, something previous unheard of. Ojukwu’s coffin also has been transported around the country under a military honor guard.

For his family, that honor means a lot after seeing much of the family’s wealth confiscated at the end of the civil war and Ojukwu living in exile for more than a decade.

“He was a passionate man who wanted very much to leave his footprints in the history of his country,” his brother Lotanna Ojukwu reportedly told a news agency.

The roots of Biafra came from a 1966 coup in Nigeria, a former British colony that had gained independence only six years earlier. The coup, led primarily by army officers from the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria’s southeast, saw soldiers shoot and kill Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, 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 largely Igbo 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.

Nigeria’s Igbo people have since been largely marginalized in the country’s politics, despite being one of the nation’s top ethnic groups. Many hope for that to change in the upcoming 2015 presidential election, as there’s been discussion about the nation’s ruling party picking an Igbo as its candidate.