It’s already two years since Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu Jr, the Ikemba Nnewi, the scion of the Odumegwu Ojukwu dynasty took over the reins of power as the Sole Administrator/Executive Chairman of the Nnewi North Area Council. In his first incisive interview since the transition of his father, the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi (1st), Eze-Igbo Gburu Gburu, the people’s General who was the supreme leader of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA).
The Council boss in this no-holds-barred interview with The Authority, broke his silence on his childhood, Nigeria-Biafra wartime experience, the family’s tempestuous flight to Ivory Coast in a cargo plane amidst rapid gunship fire as the pilot maneuvered the flying bullets. How he left the African shores for education overseas at the tender age of seven. His links with Presidents Jerry Rawlings, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Jean Bedel Bokassa; the novelist Fredrick Forsyth and the great astronaut, Neil Armstrong.
He spoke about his first contact with AK47; his regrets, plans towards his children and the burden of being Ikemba’s son as well as appreciation to President Goodluck Jonathan and all Nigerians for giving his late father a state burial. He spoke on Biafra and his father’s love for fatherland. And of course he spoke about Nnewi his native land and Governor Willie Obiano’s strides towards transforming Anambra state. Excerpts:
Nnewi North Council, two years after your arrival
Well, I had hoped that at this stage we would have done more than what it is today. Nnewi is an industrial zone. The poor power supply problem is still very much with us; though that is beyond our purview. But we want the state and federal governments to assist us. The water system we want to re-energize is still pending. We are expecting our new fire station to come up and take care of our markets and industries. We also hope that some private industrial firms help with in-house fire-stations.
Our roads are not enough yet. We commend our dear governor, Chief Willie Obiano for the street light which helps illuminate our neighborhood at nights, helps security, beautifies our streets/city. The street lights also help nightlife; boost our social life and businesses. The governor has equally helped in security and arrested the kidnap menace.
Actually I had wanted to establish family friendly areas because here, the only things we have as relaxation are beer parlours and roadside restaurants. We need amusement parks, movie theaters, and open spaces for relaxation, unwinding and sit-out. The on-going construction of Shoprite shopping mall at the Nkwo Triangle is a welcome development and in about 9 months time or less, it would be commissioned for business. I thank the state governor and the people for this. I acknowledge there are issues over the manner the location was acquired. But such dissenting voices were in order and expected. They are being assuaged. Having such project here in Nnewi is a big plus in terms of job creation, tourism and modernization.
Truly, there’s still a lot to be done. But given the prevailing paucity of funds, we are doing our best. The country’s economy is not doing well presently because the whole system is tied to the production and sales of crude oil. Incidentally the price and sales of crude has crashed and is at its lowest ever. So, all aspects of the economy are affected. The nation and Governor Obiano are making intense efforts to redirect our economy away from importation to manufacturing. Exportation is the way to go, and it is our hope that with time we will achieve that.
I’m happy we have been able to do some of these. We have also done a survey of the land given to the council by the community and have come up with a design for an ultra-modern automotive transportation hub. Presently we are searching for a public private partnership (PPP) investors. We believe that it will be a legacy for the APGA administration because Nnewi is a huge commercial hub in Africa where passengers and goods are daily loaded and off-loaded. The traders will massively decongest the roads to a more organized and modernized locations.
We will end up with Nnewi that is environmentally clean, where the roads system is not choked by street vendors, human and vehicular traffic; where the potential customers would enjoy a more modernized shopping experience and allow us attract customers from beyond our borders.
We have just launched a new website amongst other new innovations. We need to update the website with pertinent information about commercial activities in Nnewi. We want to attract industrialists and other internet visitors to the site and they will see and know what we have to offer. If we are able to achieve these and if we can take advantage of Internet technology, we can end up with a situation where local vendors via the Internet have access to international markets; and local manufacturers have access to international customers; such that a local producer/supplier through the instrumentality of the Internet know the prices on the end-user site and therefore be able to set the price, making his business more profitable and competitive.
With what is happening in the oil sector presently, the only way to go is what Governor Obiano is doing – investment in home-grown products. That is the reason he is investing heavily in agriculture. The transition can be a little painful, but the long term gain will blot out whatever pains we felt.
Ikemba’s big shoes
My father’s shoes are really too big for anyone to fill. I don’t even expect to fill it. But one being alive gives you room to make your mark. Ikemba being my father swings both ways – a lot of high expectations are constantly placed on my shoulders; to see whether I will measure up; to see whether am a chip of the old block. So the benchmark set for me is higher than what it would have been. There’s the personal responsibility I have because I know where I come from, and I’m ever proud of it; that I must excel. As a result of this, the option to cut corners or break the rules to achieve success faster doesn’t exist because the spotlight is always on you.
If you are conscientious, you will understand the need to protect a minimum of two generations of goodwill amongst your people. Then you find out you must always do things the right way, which most often means the hard way. There is also in some quarters the feeling of ah ah, this people again. O bu ayasia nnia, a bia yaba kwa nwa ya? (which literally means – shall we have to endure the son too, after the father?) So you may find yourself dealing with artificial unwarranted road blocks from certain quarters for no reason of your making. But like one of my good friends often says jokingly, ‘what can a man do’, you take the good with the bad. There are indeed many advantages of being Ikemba’s son. So I will not cry too much about it. There is hardly anywhere I go to in Nigeria or in the world where I will not be initially welcomed with open arms from the main gate to the door to the oga’s office. And that is the inheritance that my father left for me. Of course once I gain access and fail to acquit myself well, then I have myself to blame if on a subsequent visit access was denied.
It will be easy now to give you a whitewash answer, but I have known you for quite some time. So I am going to give you the truth.
Things would have been a lot easier if he were still around. No matter how great a man in life, no matter how well loved, cherished, respected or even feared, once he proceeds on that great journey, time would naturally erode those sentiments. Then you find out that things will begin to change, people will begin to forget. The type of response you may get as a son or family member starts to change. To me, the key is to remember always that you are not him and you never will. And that whatever respect you may get was not a right but rather a testimony to his legacy and the impact he has on the lives of his people. Once you realize that, then in that regard you should have two primary objectives – work hard to establish, promote his legacy and that is, keep his memories alive in the minds of people. While the second objective is for you to endeavour if possible live a reliable life and excel in whatever field you chose.
Yes, I miss his strength. He was larger than life. He was never easily shaken. There was no situation he had no solution for. That supreme confidence he had in himself was truly infectious. It’s such that if you are feeling overwhelmed and you visit him, your battery of life will become fully re-charged. I miss also his wisdom, his sense of humour, his playfulness as my daddy. He cast a huge shadow over everything around him. In fact when he passed away I couldn’t believe he had. I had felt he couldn’t die. I literally looked at him and felt he was still breathing even when I knew he was gone.
When taken up on the easily visible attributes he thinks he inherited from Ikemba, he laughed. According to him, I think all of us his children have different parts of him, here and there. He was a disciplinarian. He didn’t have much tolerance for mediocrity. I think I have some of that. For those who know me, I think I have his sense of humour.
I was born in Lagos, before the Nigerian civil war. I may not have all the memories, but that of the war because of the stress and tense atmosphere. I remember him as a soldier. I remember people’s reaction to him. He was the man in charge. That sense of power that radiated in him. I remember the air raids, the air raids sirens; going for the shelter in the bunkers. We spent most times with our mother. He was often in the warfront and showed up occasionally at home. That was in Arondizuogu, of the present Imo State. We spent a lot of time there. We visited Nnewi at times. I remember he often sent emissaries to my mother. The house was covered with leaves, particularly palm leaves to camouflage it against air raids. We were never allowed to have any weapons in the house.
I remember on one occasion a soldier brought a message and left his weapon leaning against the wall by the door because no weapon was allowed into the house. I strutted out from nowhere, grabbed the gun and dashed into the house. Though I didn’t even hold it properly, but on getting inside with it, everyone hit the floor in an instant while one of the officers grabbed and threw my mother on the floor. It was quite a bit of commotion. Eventually someone came from behind and snatched the weapon from me. The dose of spanking I received that day has remained evergreen in my mind till date.
I also remember that often in the evenings I looked through the windows in the night and the far horizon will be orange coloured. I used to see what seemed like a big black bird, with that orange background. It looked quite peaceful and beautiful. It was only later on in life that I realized that what I was witnessing were air raids in the far distance, and that the orange glow were as a result of the massive destructions going on below. And that the big black bird-like silhouette was actually war plane doing the damage. That in actual fact there was nothing peaceful or beautiful about it. I remember helping my mother share food to victims of kwashiorkor. We had shared ovaltine, milk, sugar, etc. I remember how we were thought frying a type of insect called ‘aku’ and the larvae of weevil for good protein and food. The day we left Biafra, if I remember correctly, we left on the third to the last plane; a cargo plane. I think my grand father and grand mother sat on the only two seats there. Every one else sat on the floor. We even embarked vide a wooden ladder. I remember a woman handing over her baby to a person inside when the plane had already started taxing for take off because the airport was under intense attack. The ladder fell off before she could climb in to join her baby and she didn’t want the baby back when attempt was made to return him to her. She preferred the safety of the baby. I remember running around inside the plane. There were explosions that looked like fireworks outside the plane. It was much later I learnt we were under heavy attack and were being shot at. And that our bungling from side to side was actually the pilot’s evasive maneuvers. We eventually arrived at Ivory Coast. We had changed plane at Tanzania, then straight to Ivory Coast.
We disembarked by sliding down like goods at the rear. We waited for what looked like eternity to know the fate of my daddy. We were told he left on the last plane. But I remember that at a time we were told he had arrived. Shortly the door was opened and there he was, tall, huge and calm. My mother, with tears in her eyes melted in his arms. All this while he remained calm.
Ivory Coast as home
Growing up in Ivory Coast was the first time we had what could be described as a normal life. We quickly learnt their French language, picked up their custom and started school. Though my daddy was too busy with business and political meetings with a lot of foreign visitors, we had a lot of time with him unlike before when we were in Nigeria. He played football, table-tennis and badminton with us. It was now that he taught us how to shoot and handle weapons.
I have fond memories of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny who became our adopted grand father and a lot of Ivorians who took us in as one of their own. At a point my parents decided that I should go to school overseas, in Ireland where my daddy’s friend Fredrick Forsyth, the popular international author was living. One of my cousins, Rita was already schooling there. On the day of my departure, the entire family led by daddy saw me to the airport, in the care of Rita to take me to Ireland. I remember them telling me that I was now a man, hence should be strong and should not cry. I took that to heart and entered the aircraft with Rita. Inside, I kept my cool until a very popular touching song (good-bye my friend, good-bye) came on the public address system, I immediately burst into tears. I really lost control at that point.
I was very young, just 7. I did my primary school in Ivory Coast and Ireland. I had to go to England to do my secondary school ‘A’ Levels because as at that time British citizens were under intense threat from the IRA. So Mr Forsyth moved back home to England taking me along. I moved over to the USA after my A Levels, for my university education; first at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Carnegie Me-lour, and later to Houston and Chicago.
So when I reflect on my days in Ivory Coast where popular historical figures like Presidents Omar Bongo (Gabon), Jean Bedel Bokassa (Central Africa Republic), Denaissa (Uganda), Sedar Senghor (Senegal) and many more visited often to meet and interact with my daddy I feel elated. Even President Jerry Rawlings sent me a life-size picture of himself when my daddy told him I was a big fan of his. The picture showed him being interviewed by some foreign press crew, with his popular AK 47 leaning by his table.
Through a personal friend of my daddy I got a personally autographed picture of Neil Armstrong – the great astronaut. It was indeed interesting and great educational growing up.
Maintain military tradition?
Yes. If any of my children wants to join the army, he or she will have my whole support and backing. I believe one should allow his children to explore themselves within reason. Personally I wanted to join the army at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) when we returned to Nigeria. But my daddy advised against it saying he didn’t know what the intentions of people as a hold-over from the past hostilities could be. I even tried to join the French Foreign Legion to no avail. I think there is a lot to be said about military training – the self discipline, critical thinking it teaches under pressure. Be creative. Think outside the box to bring new solutions. For example, look at Mr President moving around with agility at his age. Does he look his age at all? No. I wish I had benefited from that type of training. I will therefore not stop any of my children from joining the army if they want.
State Burial for Ikemba:
I was and will remain proud that Nigerians and the government of the day gave my family and indeed the Igbo nation a state burial for my daddy, especially when daddy and all of us saw ourselves as nothing other than any other ordinary citizen. He believed so much in Nigeria. He detested injustice. He believed so much in Igbo. But being pro-Igbo never made him anti-Nigeria. Somewhere down the line the powers that be understood that and decided to give him a state burial. It was so honorable that his coffin was draped in the Nigerian colours – the Nigerian flag. Those who knew him know that decision to secede was not the first or second option but it was because there was no other option at the time. Even then he would have preferred Nigeria to remain one, in which equity and justice reign for all. He was fighting injustice, not Nigeria.
Nnewi – the home of Ojukwus, Orizus, Ilodibes, Ubas
Nnewi has remained very strategic to the political economy of the nation, particularly that of contemporary Anambra State. In the views of Emeka Ojukwu Jr, a mention of his father and grand father alone from whatever point would be merely scratching the surface. Such other names as the Orizus, the Okonkwo Kanus, Augustine Ilodibes (Ekene Dili Chukwu), the Anazodos; and in more recent time – the Cletus Ibetos, the Chika Okafors (Chicason Group), the Gabriel Chukwumas (Gabros), the Innocent Chukwumas (Innoson), etc. Then of course you cannot talk of Nnewi without the Ifeanyi Ubahs (Capital Oil Group), the Ajulu Uzodikes (Cutix Cables), the Senator Onyeabor Obis, the Orizu royal dynasty, the Justice Chika Okolis (Anambra Chief Judge Emeritus), the Virgy Etiabas (first female governor), the Ebele Okekes (Federal HOS emeritus), the Nwizus, etc. These are people who have made their mark in their chosen fields and new entrants emerge daily. The list is long and seeming endless.
For such a relatively small space to have produced and keeps producing so many giants with influence in the political and economic history of Nigeria, I make bold to say that Nnewi deserves a special status/recognition in the state, regional and national scheme of things. Not just because of our past, but because of our potentials in breaking more new grounds. So it behoves the nation to see the reality and acknowledge it from the angle of need to encourage and compensate. Again when taking to the old Nnewi you have persons like “the boy is good” – Chief Mbazulike Amechi. They deserve special national recognition, though we have a role to raise our voices for people to hear and recognize the reality. As the saying goes that God helps those who help themselves.
A budding of ideas, experience, exposure and hope:
Despite his budding ideas, exposure and experience, the young Ojukwu believes he would be willing to serve the state in whichever capacity Governor Obiano sends him.
“Yes, I believe there are more to do given the right atmosphere. My personal wish comes only after that of the boss. I’m always ready to serve. I’m happy where I am once the governor deems it is in the interest of the people.”
Happy with level of development in Nnewi?
Evidently the past leaders at both the state and council levels failed to invest in the social development of the town. This I suspect was because the real people have not been participating in the proper running of the governments. We were more concerned with our private businesses. But we are now doing some catching up.