1967: Like an abusive husband who would kill if divorced, the Federal Government of Nigeria was ready to shoot the Igbos into submission should they separate from the rest of the country. On the one hand, Nigeria was hunting and killing the Igbos everywhere, but on the other hand they would go to war to prevent the Igbos from separating.
As is often the case in abusive relationships, there was a reason why separation was a deadly option: The country’s rich oil fields are located mainly in Eastern Nigeria. Igbos would likely hold this resource to the detriment of the rest of Nigeria. The West, namely Britain, being the poster child of greedy imperialists, an ally of Northern Nigerian oligarchs and lately a no-friend of the Igbos, was heavily intoxicated on Nigerian oil.
Yakubu Gowon was leading Nigeria and its surrogates, the Hausa tribe and, to a sneaky extent, the Yoruba tribe, against Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was leading the Igbo resistance and survival efforts.
May 1967: In the first week or so, while still Head of Chancery at the Nigerian Embassy, Washington DC, but in name only – having been stripped of all duties and functions, and relocated to an empty third floor – Austine S.O Okwu received a telephone call from Godwin, the secretary of the Governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, His Excellency Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Days after the call, Austine tossed a few favorite trousers and shirts, a gray hat, embroidered on both sides, and red dome-shaped hat into a brown suitcase and began the trip home to Enugu, Eastern Nigeria.
I asked the Professor: ‘What made you embark on this trip to Eastern Nigeria, at a time when everybody else was trying to get out? The federal military would surely strike Enugu and decapitate the Igbos by disabling their capital. That someone would choose to travel towards danger goes against accepted wisdom.’
Austine: ‘I did it for the love I had for my people and the admiration I have for the Igbo people. Going to Enugu a couple of months before the war was a walk in the park if you consider what I did during the war: Flying in a small rusting plane, sandwiched between armory and relief food, and not knowing whether I would make it out alive.’
‘Tell me about the mood of the town and the people when you got to Enugu.’
‘Chaos, similar to any other refugee crisis. People were everywhere, Igbos displaced from Northern and Western Nigeria, people who had lost relatives or were looking for a lost child or father or mother. As you know, my dear Anselm, lots of our people lived outside Igboland and they still do, no lesson learned. Our people were everywhere in Northern and Western Nigeria. They had to come home to escape death, some coming home for the first time. More than thirty thousand Igbos lost their lives. You saw the sadness in many faces. People felt the omen in the air, like a soaked cloud waiting for a downpour. What they did not foresee was the extent of the calamity.’
For a second, a recollection came to him and he paused momentarily. ‘A notable exception was the civil servants. I felt proud of them. Poise was what I saw in them. They were stoic and ready to serve the people. Their body language radiated confidence, and preparedness, and empathy and unselfishness, and that they were capable of assisting the refugees who came down from Northern and Western Nigeria.’
Ojukwu and Austine met face to face one month before the Nigerian-Bifran civil war
May 13, 1967: The sun had begun to set when Austine arrived at Enugu secretariat. An aide was waiting. Once behind the iron front gate and inside the main building, the aide and Austine walked side by side through a dimly lit hallway with several doors, none of which were open.
Where the hallway ended both men stopped, and Austine looked at a sign near the top section of a large door: His Excellency, Governor Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.
Two knocks from the aide. Half a minute or so later, the door opened.
‘Welcome to Enugu, Austine,’ said Ojukwu, nodding his head. He grabbed his visitor’s hand and pumped it eleven times. ‘Good luck,’ said the aide and he closed the door on his exit.
Austine had a split second to study and survey his host and the immediate environment. ‘After all,’ his mind told him, ‘this is wartime; a lamb can quickly turn into a lion.’ He had entered a moderate-sized room; there were twelve padded chairs with armrests around a massive wooden center table, upon which was an open pack of Marlborough cigarettes. His host wore civilian clothes with a short sleeve brown suit, buttoned to collar bone level, and spoke in a civilian tone.
‘Thank you so much, Your Excellency, for inviting me,’ responded Austine, returning the hand-pumping with some of his own. At close range, Ojukwu was hairier than Austine imagined. When he nodded his head, his barrel-shaped beard reached the belly button.
Ojukwu dragged two padded chairs to a far corner of the room and sat in one of them. Austine claimed the other chair. Both faced each other, knees apart.
‘First,’ said His Excellency, ‘thank you for sending us clips of public and newspaper opinions about the Nigeria-Biafra conflict. On your own initiative, you searched, compiled and sent us opinions of how America and indeed the world views the Nigerian chaos, and the bloodshed. You are a true Igbo son who loves the Igbos, and understands their predicament and their goal.
‘Austine,’ continued Ojukwu, his voice still civil, though his gaze was piercing and unblinking like rays from a nearby star, ‘the reason I called for you is to ask whether you would consider transferring your skills and experiences of serving Nigeria to serving your people, your beleaguered Igbo people.’
After the request, the Governor shifted slightly to the right of his chair. ‘Our sons and daughters, our women and children are suffering tremendous tribulations, torments, and trials. Austine, I need to know I can count on you, that the Igbos can count on you.’
Austine listened and thought at the same time, not wanting to interrupt. His mind searched for clues. If only he could see the entire content of Ojukwu’s heart. Every sacrifice over time changes into selfishness, doesn’t it? Why would this moment be an exception?
As Austine thought, he straightened his back and rubbed his palms together a few times. Ten crossed fingers went up in the air, and five of the fingers patted his gray dome hat, felt the side embroidery. With eyes locked with the Governor, he said, his tone forceful, deliberate, and yet diplomatic:
‘Your Excellency, you know there is no burden I would not bear for the Igbos. You could have chosen many other men and women, some more educated, more connected, and richer than me, but instead you chose me. I shall serve the Igbos to the best of my abilities.’
Satisfied, Ojukwu exposed some upper teeth and allowed a few eye blinks. Suddenly he stood and lightly embraced S.O. Then he walked three steps to the massive center table, selected a cigarette and tapped the end a few times on the table, but did not light it.
‘Furthermore, Austine,’ commenced his Excellency again after he sat down, ‘I am going to need you in London. You have to go back to London. I am asking too much, I know. It has only been twelve months since you left London for the United States, but I am going to need you to go back. I have confidence in you, Austine, and I am so happy you agreed to join in the Igbo struggle.’
I asked the Professor, ‘What was Ojukwu’s general demeanor during the meeting? Did he pound his fist on the table many times, readying for war? Did he lament, did he weep?’
Answer: ‘In our meeting Ojukwu was calm. If he had any emotions, he did not show them. One thing I can say about Emeka Ojukwu is that he could control his emotions very well, firing them up when needed and cooling down at appropriate times.’
Before Austine S.O Okwu left the secretariat, he wrote a letter resigning from Nigerian foreign services, effective June 1, 1967, and gave the letter to Ojukwu’s secretary, Godwin Onyegbula, to mail to Lagos. He had a new assignment: Go to London and set up a Biafran diplomatic mission.
On May 20, 1967, seven days after meeting with Ojukwu, Austine arrived in London. Seventeen days later, on May 30, 1967, Ojukwu declared the formation of the Republic of Biafra, and the battle line was drawn. Less than two months later, on July 6, 1967, the Nigeria-Biafra civil war began.
Postscript: If there was one place in the Nigerian past I would wish to be, it is the moment Emeka Ojukwu talked Austine Okwu into taking the most influential diplomatic position on behalf of the Igbos. It is hard to see what was in the Governor’s heart as he discussed the situation with Austine. Was the Governor clandestine, as many military leaders are, in revealing the actual state of affairs, his real intent and strategies, or was he making decisions as events unfolded? One outcome was clear; he convinced the diplomat, now Professor, to transfer from serving Nigeria to serving the cause of the Igbo. Millions of other Igbos in their various professions did the same and made great personal sacrifices during the civil war.