Burial for Nigeria civil war leader recalls Biafra

AP News

3/2/2012 11:57:01 AM - AP News

The late leader of Nigeria's breakaway Republic of Biafra received final honors Friday from a nation he once fought bitterly against in a war that saw 1 million people killed.

The burial of Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu in his hometown of Nnewi highlights the complicated ethnic politics that dominate Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people that maintains an uneasy democracy after years of military dictatorships. The service also honored a man himself known as a complicated figure, who lived in exile for more than a decade before returning and ultimately embracing the country he fought so hard against.

And in death, those gathered at the service hoped the nation may finally bring the war to a close in the hearts of many.

"At this time, you have ended the Nigerian Civil War," Anambra state Gov. Peter Obi told President Goodluck Jonathan during Ojukwu's funeral service, drawing the cheers of a crowd pleased by leader's attendance. "We now feel less excluded from Nigeria."

Ojukwu died in a London hospital on Nov. 26 after a protracted illness following a stroke. He was 78. His funeral, once delayed, saw his golden coffin carried around the country in a farewell tour under a military honor guard _ something that would have been unthinkable in Nigeria immediately following the country's civil war.

The roots of Biafra came from a 1966 coup in Nigeria, a former British colony that had gained independence earlier that decade. The coup, led primarily by army officers of Ojukwu's Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria's southeast, saw soldiers shoot and kill 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, as trains carried the mutilated bodies of those killed.

Ojukwu, who was 33 in 1976, served as the military governor for the southeast. Slowly, the nation crept toward war as Ojukwu and the federal government adopted increasingly intractable conditions despite a series of peace talks.

He finally 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. He hopefully described Biafra as Africa's first true country after colonialism, drawn by Africans for Africans.

However, the announcement sparked 31 months of war. 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. The federal government slowly strangled Biafra into submission, as Igbos continually fled 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, showed starving Biafran children with distended stomachs and stick-like arms. Many died as hunger became a weapon wielded by both sides.

Ojukwu ultimately fled to Ivory Coast, but returned more than a decade later after receiving a pardon. He formed his own political party, which has seen success in the country's Igbo states. But he remained a divisive figure to many in the country who still bear the physical and psychological wounds of the war.

As Ojukwu's health began to fail, however, the federal government began to warm to him under President Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan himself described the one-time rebel leader as "our leader, our brother" during remarks at Ojukwu's funeral at St. Michael De Archangel Catholic church, just next to the family's compound.

"Ojukwu is one of those people brought by God to lead the people," Jonathan said.

Jonathan's comments come as Igbo people remain largely marginalized in the country's politics, despite being one of the nation's top ethnic groups. His embrace of Ojukwu now endears a major voting bloc to him as discussion continues about potentially funneling more money to the region, as well as talk continues about the nation's ruling party picking an Igbo as its presidential candidate in a coming election.

"We have gradually worked up the ladder to this moment," said Victor Umeh, the national chairman of Ojukwu's All Progressives Grand Alliance political party.

Emeka Ojukwu, the late Biafran leader's elder son, has been mentioned as a possible political candidate. However, he declined to say who would rise to take his father's place.

"You're talking about someone who looked like a giant to us," his son said Friday. "As his children, he just looked immortal."

Ojukwu remained a complicated man in life. He felt obligated to eclipse the long shadow cast by his knighted father, a self-made millionaire who loaned Queen Elizabeth II his Rolls Royce during her 1956 visit to Nigeria. He cast away a playboy image he gained while studying in England to join Nigeria's military, which has produced much of the nation's leaders since independence. He also had a number of children with different wives before marrying his beauty queen wife Bianca.

But Ojukwu always remained warm with his family, a man who could quote Latin poetry from memory and cared deeply about the Igbo people, his brother Lotanna Ojukwu said.

"He was a passionate man who wanted very much to leave his footprints in the history of his country," his brother said.

A military guard carried his coffin, draped with Nigeria's flag, into a large mausoleum at his family's compound in Nnewi on Friday after the church service. His father's grave, in white marble, sits just around the corner.

Okeke Ngozika Theophilus, a 77-year-old poet who remembered Ojukwu from childhood and fought briefly as a guerrilla during the civil war, compared the late leader to kings of England. However, seeing his late friend's coffin, he acknowledged that the Biafran war would draw to a close regardless as its elderly survivors will face death themselves one day.

"I am watching how I will be buried myself," he said.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.