Remembering General Ojukwu
Conversation with my stream of consciousness
2012-03-15, Issue 576
© Wikipedia‘We’ve agreed to so many things before – but it’s always in the implementation that we get bogged down.’
When I heard that General Odumegwu Ojukwu, who led Biafra into secession from Nigeria in 1967, had been buried on 2 March 2012 (he died on 26 November 2011 at the age of 78) my stream of consciousness went into overdrive.
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: Why overdrive? Why not first gear? Are you suggesting that I am a speed addict? That I start where everyone else ends up? That implies that I am an incompetent driver. Suppose I am in overdrive at the brow of a hill? Won’t I be swept into reverse by force of gradient power?
ME: Okay, I misspoke. Let’s hear about Ojukwu, please.
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: All right: before the secession of the Eastern Region of Nigeria from the Federation of Nigeria on 30 May 1967, to become the Republic of Biafra, a conference was called at Peduase Lodge, Aburi, in Ghana, in January 1967.
ME: Peduase Lodge, Aburi? Remember the story my late wife, Beryl, told me about the place? She was then working at the Ambassador Hotel in Accra and was asked to go and do the interior decoration of the place for the president, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah. She said the workers used to be paid in the garden. As each was called by the accountant, he responded ‘Yessoh!’
But there was this one guy who was so pleased at the prospect of pocketing some money at last that when he was called, he replied ‘Lovely!’ So I adopted that response whenever Beryl called me with annoyance in her voice – say, when my food was getting cold whilst I chatted endlessly on the phone. As soon as I yelled: ‘Lovely!’ she would immediately double up with laughter and forget her anger.
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: Ha! That Peduase Lodge! Do you remember how after the former Chief Justice, Mr Edward Akufo Addo, was elected president in 1970 by Members of Parliament, his wife, Mrs Adeline Akufo Addo, invited you to come and have tea with her? That woman was polished bright eh!
Doing PR on behalf of her husband? How many wives would be so concerned with their husbands’ image as to invite the editor of the Daily Graphic to come and have a one-to-one with her? Remember the day of her funeral at Kyebi, 15 May 2004? Everyone who was someone in Ghana was there: [then] President John Agyekum Kufuor….
ME: Please don’t let’s go there!….
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: Okay. Now, the second time you went to Peduase Lodge was when the then head of state of Ghana, General Kutu Acheampong, held a party there in January 1973 for delegates to the OAU Liberation Committee Conference in Accra. Remember the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole of Zimbabwe? And the other delegates from Zimbabwe – Noel Mukono? James Chikerema? George Nyandoro? Bishop Muzorewa? Robert Mugabe? Simpson Ntambanengwe? Who was to know that Robert Mugabe would emerge on top?
ME: Not so fast! Do you remember how I met Acheampong for the first time circa 1969, at the Ambassador Hotel? He was Regional Commissioner for the Western Region and he was having a quiet drink by himself when I went and joined him! Who was to know he was to become our head of state only four years later?
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: What about the time YOU were a delegate to a Liberation Committee meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1974? Remember Jonas Savimbi’s foreign Secretary, Jorge Sangumba, coming to lie to the committee that Savimbi wasn’t co-operating with the Portuguese forces in Angola, and how Savimbi eventually rewarded Sangumba by having him murdered? What about the Zimbabwe Liberation army leader, Josia Tongogara, whom you met there? Herbert Chitepo, who was blown up by a bomb shortly after you’d met him? How the leader of the Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA) Dr Isaac Tabata was denounced to the committee by his own men, when you visited them in the ‘camp’ without any facilities, in which they claimed he had dumped them, while he lived it up in Lusaka?
ME: Oh please! Let’s just do Peduase Lodge, ok? The party was in honour of the Liberation Committee delegates, most of whom you’d interviewed for Ghana TV. Remember the interview with Samora Machel of Mozambique? He came across as the most charismatic leader of the lot, right? I also did Aghostinho Neto of Angola and Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde – a truly historical series of interviews, wasn’t it? If only the library of Ghana Television had not burnt down!
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: I can’t let you pass over Amilcar Cabral like that. Tell us about him, right now!
ME: With pleasure. Acheampong’s Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Col Kwame Baah, was my good friend. It was I who telephoned him with the news that Cabral had been murdered in Conakry, Guinea, on 20 January 1973, shortly after Cabral had returned from the OAU Liberation Committee meeting in Accra at which I’d interviewed him. Kwame Baah invited me to accompany him to Cabral’s funeral in Conakry. We flew to Sierra Leone and travelled from Freetown by road to Conakry. His Permanent Secretary, Mr E M Debrah was our companion…
STREAM OF CONCIOUSNESS: Don’t you have a nice story to tell about Debrah and the former UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, both of whom were serving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1966, when you visited there?
ME: I beg oh! We’re on the way to Cabral’s funeral in Conakry! There was a dreaded pontoon on the road between Freetown and Conakry. But what I remember most is how hungry I was on that journey. I was almost at the point of fainting by the time we got to Conakry. I’d foolishly neglected to eat breakfast in Freetown, my habit being to ignore breakfast. Well, the drive to Conakry took us about 5-6 hours and we didn’t stop anywhere to have a drink because we wanted to get there before the funeral ceremony ended. And the silly chaps at the Ghana High Commission on Freetown had neglected to pack us anything for the trip. I mean, your immediate boss, the Foreign Minister and your Permanent Sec are travelling by road to Conakry and you give them a car without even one bottle of coke in the boot?
When we got to Conakry, we drove straight to the sports stadium, and were taken to the podium to sit next to President Sekou Toure of Guinea, who was very pleased that a delegation from Ghana had come. But they neglected their African traditional duty and didn’t welcome us with either water or kola! And then, we discovered that Guineans love to make long speeches. ‘Maintenant, la parole est par ….’ And they would launch another speaker on his long-winded way. We were trapped there for another three hours before we got to our hotel. They were laying the tables when we got there. I swear I made straight for the bread slices on the side-plates. I heard a Guinean waiter whisper to another in astonishment: “Pain sec?!” (Dry bread?) If only he knew that to me at that moment, it was the most delicious thing in the world!
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: Now, can we go back to Ojukwu please?
ME: Yes, okay. You know that Nigeria used to train some of its military officers at the Ghana Military Academy at Teshie? General Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian head of state, for instance, was trained there…. I met him…
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: No! We don’t want Obasanjo right now…. Just Ojukwu!
ME: Okay! Okay! The Nigerian military government in power in Lagos on 1967 was composed of officers, many of whom had Ghanaian course mates they’d met either at Teshie or abroad – at such British military establishments as Sandhurst or Camberley or Mons. So General Ankrah, our head of state, was persuaded to bring the Nigerians over to Aburi and chair a conference aimed at ironing out their differences and preventing the civil war that was looming.
I was Accra correspondent for the London Observer at the time and although no journalists were allowed near the Nigerian delegates, I went and had a drink in the VIP lounge at Accra airport, where I had friends, and waited. Sure enough, who should show up a little later but Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu! He was in the company of Mr E H Boohene, of the School of Administration, whom he’d met at Oxford University. Boohene introduced me and not knowing how long I would have with Ojukwu, I went straight for the kill: ‘Is there any chance that these talks at Aburi will prevent a civil war from actually breaking out?’ I asked.
In his quiet, measured voice, Ojukwu said: ‘We’ve agreed to so many things before – but it’s always in the implementation that we get bogged down.’
Just then, his minders, the Ghana protocol officers came and whisked him away to the aircraft that was taking him back home. Just as Ojukwu had told me, the ‘Aburi Accord’ was never fully implemented. As soon as the delegations arrived back in Nigeria, the Accord began to unravel. The Federal Government’s civilian advisers claimed that Ojukwu had drawn rings around General Gowon and his Federal colleagues at the conference and outwitted them. And they began to pull away from the ‘concessions’ they said Ojukwu had ‘cleverly’ wrung out of the Federal side. On 31 May 1967, Ojukwu, disgusted with the prevarications in Lagos, declared Biafra’s secession. The civil way that ensued lasted until 15 January 1970. It cost over 1 million lives.
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: Okay, you also know that Alex Ibru, publisher of The Guardian newspaper of Nigeria, has passed?
ME: Yes, but that will have to be for later.
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