By Chidi Obineche
Chief Sylvester Debe Ojukwu is the eldest son of the late Biafran leader Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. A lawyer and ex-senior police officer, he speaks on the fledgeling agitation for the actualization of Biafra, his father’s Biafra and dreams, the challenges of Nigeria’s nationhood among other contemporary issues. Excerpts
With the closeness you had with your father, how do you think he would feel with all these agitations going on now if he were alive?
With the benefit of hindsight, I believe he would temper it. He would temper it in the sense that he would not want it to claim lives and damage property. We shouldn’t forget one thing; nobody nurtures a child and kills the child. Biafra is the child of my father, he nurtured Biafra, he was the first to nurture Biafra. So there is no way you would mention Biafra and he would tell you no, I don’t know anything about Biafra because he was Biafra.
The Biafra of his days was circumstantial, don’t you think that this new Biafra sprung up because of certain exigencies and circumstances of the moment?
Now, if you say the new Biafra sprung up because of some inadequacies and misapplication of powers in the nation, nonetheless it is still Biafra.
But would he have cautioned or advised the leaders of the new movement, especially Nnamdi Kanu to go about it in a different way?
That’s why I said he would have tampered it, he would have cautioned the people to raise their voices gently and not in an explosive manner as we are currently witnessing. He would have spoken against hate speeches and things like that because nobody has a monopoly of hate speeches; it’s something that comes with chain reactions and change. If you abuse somebody unless that person has a lot of restraints, that person is likely to abuse you back and when the person abuses you back, and you say no, the tendency is to look for something stronger to tell him. That is how hate speeches degenerate into open conflict. He would have cautioned them.
In your own view, what do you dislike about the way the agitations are going?
It’s the seeming disregard for the rights of others. If you agitate, fill up the roads, block the roads, you are impeding on peoples right of movement, you are trampling on the rights of others. I have always said that.
Apparently, you are referring to the sit at home order of May 29, 2017, which was successful, but they did not come out, neither did they stop people from moving around.
Well, the sit-at-home was successful. Initially, I sued for peace on that; I said it’s better for people to be laid back and not to fill up the roads and all that. If you are protesting peacefully, you can go to the stadium, you can go to a public place, get a police permit to do that and then get the media houses to record you and expose it to the whole world for viewing.
What do you have to say about the carnage that has attended the protest so far, because a good number of people in ( Indigenous People of Biafra) IPOB have been killed in cold blood?
This is a carnage that could have been avoided; it could have been avoided by not unleashing them on the roads, because when they throng the roads, the law enforcement agencies, the police, the army have the power to maintain peace and protect the citizens as their actions may harm them. The law is very clear that when more than 10 people are gathered in a place and the gathering is in such a way that innocent bystanders would start feeling that they are so gathered in order to disturb the peace of the people, they have the powers under the law to ensure that the gathering is in no way harmful and disruptive of their freedom.
There have been a lot of insinuations, especially from IPOB that they want a breakup of the country and they are moving towards it. Don’t you think that the way Nnamdi Kanu is going about it is well with the people?
It depends on who the people are. If you say that his crowd is so copious, yes it is. But if you look closely, they were all wearing jerseys, they were all in uniforms. Who told them to wear jerseys? Who told them that a particular event was going to take place in a particular place? It shows you that it was something that was premeditated. It’s like a rally of PDP, it’s like a rally of APC. We are going to do a rally for the government, all of you should assemble here and because of certain relationships and grievances they had, the turnout became impressive. It’s like calling for a meeting; group A, you are to appear here, and everybody appears and when you appear, part of that appearance is that you must wear the uniform. When my father was going to Aba, they were not all wearing uniforms, it was spontaneous and it was the spontaneity that was exciting. You would see it and feel it, you don’t go about coercing people to come. This was like a rally and actually, it was properly called a rally. It was not like you walked into the town and people said oh we like this, and trooped out to hail and behold you. That is when you appreciate that the people are behind you. It is not when you coerce the people to come, it is not when you force them out. For instance, if you go and administer the oath to the people and tell them that whatever we do, you would be part of it. When I looked at the footage, I saw uniforms and once they were wearing uniforms, it was no longer the people who voluntarily came out. It was now like a formal meeting of a set of people because people don’t wear uniforms to such events. They don’t.
But does the mammoth crowd not suggest that the membership is very huge?
Painfully, the membership is huge and it depends on where the membership is coming from. If you put about twenty luxury buses in different places, a lot of people will come in and still claim membership of the organisation. It may not be the people in the particular place you are addressing. You may have people from different places because they want to advance their cause. What I believe is, for instance, when my father was still alive, he didn’t go about calling meetings. If he wanted to meet people, the information would disseminate like wildfire and people would proclaim excitedly from the rooftops that Ojukwu is here and people would leave whatever they were doing and rush out.That’s who he was, I have never known him to start planning certain things like this. If there was to be a rally, we would attend his rally, but apart from that, the other things were very spontaneous. It is when you receive appreciation from the people, such love that you can boldly say that the people are happy with you.
With the way things are going now, would you say that your father has gotten a natural successor in Kanu?
Well, it’s is not my place to say that. It is still ongoing and it would take time. The reality behind it is that, as at today, there is no Biafra. So with that reality, you can’t just say that this is Biafra land, you are still in a territory.
Your father failed to groom a successor, that’s why we are having this crisis of succession now. Do you think his shoes are too big for Nnamdi Kanu?
Like I told you, I cannot go into that, I’m not saying his shoes are too big or not and I cannot subscribe to the notion that my father failed to groom a successor. At a point, he always said he had no successor. He said he had a good plan but that he was looking for a successor.
He never saw the person?
He never saw the person. Again, my father was not groomed. He matured into that position. So another person, who is clamouring to be like him would also mature into it. It’s not a personal property for him to dispense and gleefully talk about.
Looking at the people now, especially from the South-east who are complaining of so many inequities, Biafra is like a very sweet sound to their ears. What kind of Nigeria do you want that can at least quell the fire in the agitations?
I would sue for an equitable Nigeria, Nigeria of justice, Nigeria of equality, a progressive Nigeria. You see, there is something about living together. I always go to the North. I’m a lawyer. When there is conflict, the courts in their wisdom in order to arrest the explosive situation say; maintain the status quo ante- belum. Now that we have all these pockets of discontent, what is the status quo ante belum? The status quo, before we started having our divisions? We started having our divisions after the 1963 Constitution. So I think that the best thing for us to do is to go back to that 1963 Constitution because it was at that time that the rapacious incident of the military tampering with our constitution started. If we go back to 1960 because that was where the strife started up to 1963 constitution, we can douse the tension.
We were operating the regions, everybody started talking, but after that, it was in 1966 that the problem started and continued. And it continued until this day. That is why you have people saying restructuring, resource control and all that can bring about peace and progress. But if we go back to 1963 Constitution and say that these are the regions, and we move back into the regions, the tension will be defused. If there is any ethnic nationality that wants to go for self-determination, they would do that. The procedures are there. So that is what I feel it should be.
You are a member of IPOB. Between Biafra and a restructured Nigeria, which would you pick?
Ultimately, I would vote for Biafra, but presently I would look for a restructured Nigeria.The house is leaking, the family is worried, there is the father, there is the mother and there are the children. Do you say woman go back to your house, man go back to your home? No, you try and mend fences firstly, and that is the focus of restructuring. You restructure the house because the house is leaking, the home is a structure, you mend it. What is happening? Maybe the bedrooms are too small, there is no freedom, no space to navigate. That means you should expand certain things to make people feel comfortable. you say okay, this man or woman, the allowance that I have been giving you every month is not enough, you increase it. It is after you have done that, that you take that motion and that is when a referendum would come in. How many of you actually want out? Is it the uniformed people that want out? What of those who are wearing suits, have you counted them? If you look at the numerous crowds there, to create a semblance of unanimity, you make things easier by ceding some powers to the federating units. You involve everyone in the house. It is the major crowd, no doubt, but that is not all the crowd. What have all the members of the family said? It is then you can now appreciate what the crowd has said, and then you can confidently say that this is what the whole people want.
Why do you think that the leaders of Nigeria are not keen on restructuring the country?
It’s because of the advantages they have.
What are the advantages?
For instance, if you feel that a school certificate holder from your place can get a good position within two years and the other people would think that you used 15 years to get that post, you would like to maintain the status quo, because, it is to the benefit of your people. Those set of things like that. For instance, the current discourse is on the cut off marks for JAMB ( Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board) and all that.Those things are things that none has been very suspicious of, and somebody who is benefiting would not like to give up. How did this benefit come about? The benefit came about because of the civil war we had. The civil war upset so many things. I know that during the civil war when Enugu fell and the Federal Government was trying to set up a government for the town. They were looking for just anybody and that concept is happening now. The person they engage may not have the qualification and capacity for the position but he has to be taken. And he knows that the position is something that a PhD holder elsewhere would be finding it difficult to get. So if you tell him; see, you have to vacate that place, he would fight with everything he has. But because of the problem we are having, it would be in the interest of all to go back to that 1963 Constitution. That’s the wisdom.
Go back to what?
1963 Constitution in order to avoid secession. That is where our problems started from, we should go back there. Then, we had palm kernels, we had cocoa, we had groundnut, now everybody goes and make your money with your resources. If you have oil, you use your oil. The oil that is now the beautiful bride, do you know that projections in the US and other civilized countries are saying that by 2040 there would be no need for it.
Who would you blame for this wave of agitations in the country.? Is it the military class or the political class? Who are the ones behind this crisis?
Nobody is to be blamed. Everybody is to be blamed. The military incursion brought in a new system. So, if the military had not come we would not be having this issue.
The Igbo are said to be stubborn. Maybe that’s why there is an unwritten rule to exclude them from governance which is believed to be the reason for the clamour for Biafra now.
The Igbo are not troublesome.
That’s the general view of some people.
I disagree with that. The Igbo are very Republican, they are not troublesome.The only thing with the Igbo is that they want to ascend, they want to progress and you cannot hold somebody who wants to progress and then dismiss the person on the platter of being troublesome. They want to ascend and everybody wants to progress. So what is there is that you should give them that latitude. There are so many things that are written and there are also things that can be done. Some people are acting and giving the impression that an Igbo man should not lead this country. There is no agreement that can be determined that an Igbo man should not rule this country. It is left for us to play our card well. It is when we play our cards well that we would get results. You see, so many things happened. For example, when we had the June 12, 1993, presidential election, Abiola, in reality, won the election but was not allowed to assume the office.
The Yoruba people in their natural diplomacy were able to pursue it strongly and when preparing to go over that crack, they then had Obasanjo who had eight years of presidency and even anointed his successor. The succeeding government was his own. That is what you get in navigating diplomatically. It is not by being aggressive. If you get a dog and the dog is always barking, the next thing is to get a vet. That is when the classification of dogs come in and when there is a classification of a mad dog, the next thing for you is to get a vet to give it some injections in order to sedate the dog. So, that’s the way it goes.
Beyond restructuring and secession, do you think Nigeria has any hope for unity?
If they will by tomorrow go back to the 1963 Constitution, it’s fine. The South-east is vulnerable and that is what most Nigerians don’t seem to know. In 1970, they shouldn’t have left the South-east. They should have remained in the South-east, in that enclave where they were between 1967 and 1970. When the war ended, if they had that zeal to be on their own, they shouldn’t have gone out, everybody should have been there. They should have stayed back doing their businesses. But they left for China, everywhere doing their importations, building houses and other businesses in foreign lands with warehouses everywhere. All what we are doing now would have been done since, but because we started staying abroad, outside our land as if there is something in our land that is driving us away we are not being accorded our deserved respect and position in the scheme of things. That is the base because someone with too much property cannot run away. The more acquisitive you become, the slower you get in leaving a place.
The Igbo were asked to quit the North by the Arewa youths on October 1 this year. It looks like a replication of what happened in 1966 when they were also ordered out of the North. There was a massive war. With the benefit of hindsight and the problems Nigeria has now, do you think the Igbo should leave the North to avoid being slaughtered out there?
I don’t think the Igbo should leave.
Why? Their hosts have told them to leave?
They are not their hosts. They’ve made investments in the North. If they are to leave and the government is bent on that, with all their buildings and other acquisitions they should compensate them; this is your house and this is how much we would pay, go home and so- so -so time you would come back. You can’t come up and give somebody eviction. You gave the person a plot of land, then the person develops it and all that, and you tell the person to go. Where is the tenancy agreement?
Okay, you are banking on the tenancy agreement?
Yes, there is no tenancy agreement. You can’t lure somebody into your place, give him land and he develops the land and is doing very well, then all of a sudden you say I’m giving you three months for you to go. How long has the person been there? If you are a tenant in a person’s house and you are paying yearly, you must stay six months. You’ve been paying 10 years, at times you get about two years notice. There must be time for relocation.
Are you saying that the time limit is short?
I’m saying that they cannot go because they have investments. Even if Arewa becomes a foreign country, people can buy houses in foreign countries now. There are some Igbo who have houses in London. That’s why I am so much in love with the IPOB ( i.e. our own IPOB) political, diplomatic and legal way that they are using in going about the actualisation of Biafra. It’s not something you recklessly and brazenly do. It’s a process, and we are in court. When the court decides that certain things should happen, then, we know where we are going. Protests and sit ins may not be the viable vehicle for this project based on experiences of the past and the mind set of our leaders. They can do that and escape because there is not as yet a court pronouncement on it. But if the court decides that flying of Biafra flag, wearing of Biafra apparels and all that is no offence, then it becomes a different thing. That’s why you follow the legal route in doing things.
What is the political way?
The political way is occupying the political space. As I always say, the Igbos are not the ones ruling Igbo land.
How do you mean?
Yes, the people ruling Igbo land are surrogates. That’s why we complain of marginalization.
Surrogates of which entity?
There are some people who are enemies to Igbo progress, because if not, why would we be given money as allocation for your people and the money is not found. Then, nobody asks you about it. All this time, from 1970 till now, there have been everywhere, allocations for roads, allocations for infrastructure, somebody takes it, then escapes because he is rendering account to the overlords. For instance, when you come to Lagos, if you move about, you would see most of our boys, all these people that they have been brainwashing, they are out there hawking handkerchief or something in the traffic jam. They are doing that because nobody is taking care of them.
All the governors, all the local government chairmen and all that, they receive what is called security votes, what do they use them for? Why can’t they say, for instance, anybody that is a graduate from a local government, the moment you finish your national youth service you get employed or be receiving a social welfare stipend until you are employed. It’s not more than N50,000.
If any local government can pay all the graduates in my area that are unemployed and are employable N50,000; if you pay that sum to 1,000 people or even 100, they would be talking about something else. And I know that most of these people receive not less than N5,000,000 as security votes every month. There is no place that we have about 1000 graduates.
IPOB says that there would be no election in Anambra state, would it work?
Well, I doubt if they can do it. It’s an invitation to anarchy. That is still what I tell them, it is an invitation to anarchy. Why are you selling jerseys to them, if you’ve taken over? Let Igbo rule over Igbo. If you know that you are IPOB, with all letters in capitals, put an IPOB governor and it becomes a house. Put him there, after which, put an IPOB Speaker, all those things like that. Then the state assemblies go. They move all the state assemblies of Abia, Anambra, and all that, they pass away. You would no longer want to be part of Nigeria. You make a valid resolution, a lot of people are so myopic. My father did not start Biafra as a thug. He started Biafra as the all powerful governor of Eastern Region of Nigeria.
He was there with the authority of government behind him. He then had to make the power of government elastic, using what he had to achieve what his people wanted. When he was the chosen governor of Eastern Region of Nigeria, he had an army, there was an army division in Enugu, then the country started from there. It is not when you are a rascal, you don’t have anything, you start giving people uniforms, you say march, then somebody comes and kill all of them. You start going to United Nations and say it’s genocide, No. You prevent the genocide by making things real.
My father was a governor of Eastern Region.He had Col Hillary Njoku, he had all these people, they were his colleagues, they were soldiers and they had colleagues on the other side who knew their capabilities, that’s how things are done. So when you then get up and put a Biafran in Biafra State House, and he is in power, he can now say that first of all he is the Chief Security Officer of the State, and he then says to the Commissioner of Police get Abia, that is a valid order. That’s how you would get Biafra. Look at those people from Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF), they were able to articulate a letter of a process and sent it to the United Nations and went there physically. It is not telling us that they’ve sent it, no. They went there and stood there eyeball to eyeball. Our people are being evacuated, they’ve given us till October 1, to go. They tabled it before the Secretary General and other officials and it didn’t take one week the United Nations reacted. That’s is the way it should be. When you talk of Biafra civil war, my father was a child of the academia. It was the intellectuals that started it. That was the way it was prosecuted, the ideal way. That’s the diplomatic assault and maybe in the vanguard of the diplomatic assault, we have somebody like Anyaoku who is moving. So that’s the way it should be.
The family problems of your father, how far have they been resolved now?
Well, it’s still in court and any matter that is in court we don’t speculate about it.
How is your relationship with your father’s wife, Bianca and your uncles?
It’s okay, there is no problem, and everybody is okay.
Is there any misunderstanding in the family?
There is no problem, it’s before the court as I told you that whatever is in court we don’t start speculating about it, telling the press.
You are in charge of your grand father’s businesses, are there no interference from your family members?
There is no problem, we are in court as I told you. (The Sun)