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Saturday 18 November 2017

Chukwuemeka Ojukwu

Leader of Biafran breakaway who saw his land invaded and suffer famine on a huge scale

Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who has died aged 78, led the secession of Biafra in 1967, which resulted in a civil war in Nigeria costing more than a million lives.

Nigeria, which had gained independence from Britain in October 1960, was composed of more than 200 tribal and linguistic groups, made up of three principal tribal divisions: the Muslim Hausas in the north; the Yoruba in the west; and the Ibo (or Igbo) in the east.

The Ibo, with a population of around nine million, were the best-educated group; most were also Christian. When, under Ojukwu, they declared independence as the Democratic Republic of Biafra, the subsequent conflict was prolonged and brutal; thousands of Biafrans died daily, many of them children whose emaciated frames were recorded in television reports that were beamed into living-rooms across the world.

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was born on November 4, 1933, at Zungeru in northern Nigeria, the son of Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, one of the country's richest businessmen. After attending King's College in Lagos, the young Ojukwu was sent to Epsom College in Surrey. He went on to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he read History (taking a particular interest in Machiavelli) and drove a red sports car. Having graduated, he returned to Nigeria in 1955.

Ojukwu went into the civil service, serving for two years as an assistant district officer. He then joined the army, later explaining: "It seemed to me that the only truly federal organisation in Nigeria that appeared likely to remain intact was the army."

From 1964 to 1966 Ojukwu commanded the 5th Battalion. In January 1966 a cadre of junior army officers, most of them Ibo, assassinated the prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and installed an Ibo general in his place. Ojukwu, although not involved in the coup, was appointed military commander of the Eastern Region.

Then, in July, there was a counter-coup, and Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon, a former schoolmate of Ojukwu, became head of the federal government. Two months later, thousands of Ibo who had settled in the north were massacred, causing nearly two million more to flee for the safety of the Eastern Region.

Pressure in the east for secession mounted, and in March 1967 Ojukwu declared that all federal taxes collected in the Eastern Region should be retained for the benefit of the Ibo who had fled from the north and had to be resettled.

In May the Eastern Region declared independence, naming itself the Democratic Republic of Biafra, after the Bight of Biafra, an inlet on the Atlantic coast. Gowon resolved to crush the rebellion, and on July 6 federal government forces invaded.

Any hopes the Biafrans harboured of winning the war were dashed when, in August, the Soviet Union began to supply the Nigerian government with weapons, as did the UK.

In early October the Biafran capital, Enugu, was taken. Food supplies were scarce, thanks partly to a blockade by the Nigerian navy. In July 1968 Gowon offered to allow in overland food shipments, but Ojukwu refused -- on the grounds that they might be poisoned -- and insisted instead on airlifts; but these could do little to address the enormity of the suffering, and by October the Red Cross was estimating that up to 10,000 Biafrans -- most of them children -- were dying daily.

Finally, in January 1970, Ojukwu fled the country, and Biafra collapsed shortly afterwards.

After 13 years in exile, Ojukwu returned to Nigeria after being pardoned in 1982. He made several unsuccessful attempts to return to political life. He had three wives.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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