Odumegwu Ojukwu, an Oxford-educated Nigerian colonel who proclaimed the Republic of Biafra in 1967 and led his Ibo people into a secessionist war that cost more than a million lives, many of them starved children whose skeletal images shocked the world, has died at a hospital in London. He was 78.
International news reports quoted Maja Umeh, a spokesman for the All Progressive Grand Alliance Party in Nigeria, as confirming Mr. Ojukwu’s death. The Associated Press said he died on Saturday, but Bloomberg News said the death occurred on Friday. The cause was not cited. Mr. Ojukwu had a stroke at his home in Enugu, Nigeria, in December 2010, and had since been under treatment in London.
Mr. Ojukwu was an unlikely militarist and a reluctant rebel: the sports-car-driving son of one of Nigeria’s richest men, an urbane student of history and Shakespeare who read voraciously, wrote poetry, played tennis and, with his wealth and connections, might have been a business mogul or a worldly rouge-et-noir playboy.
But he spurned his father’s offer of a business partnership, joined Nigeria’s civil service and then its army in the turbulent last years of British colonial rule. And as maps of Africa were redrawn by forces of national and tribal self-determination, he became military governor of the Ibo homeland, one of three tribal regions, at a historic juncture.
At 33, he found himself at the vortex of simmering ethnic rivalries among Nigeria’s Hausas in the north, Yorubas in the southwest and Ibos in the southeast. The largely Christian Ibos were envied as one of Africa’s best-educated and most industrious peoples, possessed of much of Nigeria’s oil wealth. Tensions finally exploded into assassinations, coups and a massacre of 30,000 Ibos by Hausas and federal troops.
While he denounced the massacre and cited other Ibo grievances, Colonel Ojukwu for months resisted rising Ibo pressure for secession. He proposed a weak federation to separate Nigeria’s three tribal regions politically. But Col. Yakubu Gowon, leader of the military government in Lagos, rejected the idea. A clash over federal taxation of the Ibo region’s oil and coal industries precipitated the final break.
“Long live the Republic of Biafra,” Colonel Ojukwu proclaimed on May 30, 1967.
Five weeks later, civil war began when Nigerian military forces invaded the breakaway province. It was a lopsided war, with other nations supporting federal forces seeking to unify the country and Biafra standing virtually alone. Nigeria was Africa’s most populous nation, with 57 million people, of which 8 million to 10 million were Ibos.
Poorly equipped and outnumbered four to one, Biafra’s 25,000-member army held its own for months, supported by a citizenry that donated food, clothing and supplies. Colonel Ojukwu ran Biafra as a wartime democracy, fought alongside his troops and was said to be revered by his people.
He gave orders in a slow, deliberate baritone: native Igbo with an Oxford accent. Fond of Sibelius, he chose “Finlandia” as Biafra’s national anthem. And he read Shakespeare. “Hamlet was my favorite,” he told a New York Times correspondent. “I wonder what the psychiatrists will make of that.”
Over a battle map he looked like a brooding Othello, with solemn eyes and a luxuriantly bearded countenance. He slept irregularly, sometimes working nonstop for days, taking a meal now and then, rarely touching alcohol but chain-smoking English cigarettes.
Tanzania, Zambia, the Ivory Coast and Gabon recognized Biafra, and France and other nations provided covert aid. But the Soviet Union, Egypt and even Britain, after a period of neutrality, supplied weapons and advisers to Nigeria. The United States, officially neutral, provided diplomatic and relief coordination aid. But after 15 months of war, Biafra’s 29,000 square miles had been reduced to 5,000, and deaths had soared.
As crops burned and refugees streamed away from advancing federal forces, much of the population was cut off from food supplies. As the 30-month civil war moved onto the world stage as one of the first televised wars, millions around the globe were stunned by pictures of Biafran babies with distended bellies and skeletal children who were succumbing to famine by the thousands daily in the war’s final stages.
Colonel Ojukwu appealed to the world to save his people. International relief agencies responded, and scores of cargo planes ferried food in to the encircled Biafrans, but airlifts were woefully inadequate. Deaths from starvation were estimated at more than 6,000 a day, and postwar studies suggested that a third of Biafra’s surviving preschoolers — nearly 500,000 — were malnourished at war’s end.
In January 1970, secessionist resistance was crushed and its leader, by then a general, fled into exile in Ivory Coast and London. Granted a presidential pardon after 13 years, he returned to Nigeria in 1982 and was welcomed by enormous crowds. He became a Lagos businessman and ran unsuccessfully for president several times, but remained a hero in the eyes of many of his countrymen.
The legacies of the war were terrible. Deaths from fighting, disease and starvation were estimated by international relief agencies at one million to three million. Besides widespread destruction of hospitals, schools, homes and businesses, Ibos faced discrimination in employment, housing and political rights. Nigeria reabsorbed Biafra, however, and the region was rebuilt over 20 years as its oil-based economy prospered anew.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (pronounced chuk-woo-MA-ka oh-doo-MAG-woo oh-JU-kwoo) was born on Nov. 4, 1933, in Zungeru, Nigeria. From modest beginnings, his father, Sir Louis Phillipe Odumegwu Ojukwu, had made fortunes in transportation and real estate, and was Nigeria’s wealthiest entrepreneur when he died in 1966.
The boy nicknamed Emeka attended Kings College in Lagos, Nigeria’s most prestigious secondary school; Epson College, a boys’ prep school in Surrey, and Lincoln College, Oxford, where he graduated with honors in history in 1955. Classmates said he was popular, dressed stylishly, drove a bright red MG sports car and loved discussions of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Louis XIV and Shakespeare.
He had three wives. His first, Njideka, a law student he met at Oxford and wed in 1962, died in 2010. His second, Stella Onyeador, died in 2009. He married Bianca Odinaka Onoh, a former beauty queen and businesswoman 34 years his junior, in 1994. Returning to Nigeria in 1956, he rejected his father’s business overtures, worked on development in remote villages, and in 1957 joined the army. He called himself an amateur soldier, but rose rapidly in the ranks after Nigeria gained independence in 1960. In 1966, he became military governor of the Ibo region, and declared Biafran independence after repression enveloped his people.
He sometimes compared Biafrans to Israelis. “The Israelis are hard-working, enterprising people,” he told a visitor to his besieged field headquarters in 1969. “So are we. They’ve suffered from pogroms. So have we. In many ways, we share the same promise and the same problems.”