Ojukwu: Biafra And The “Abandoned Properties” Question —Charles Ugwuanyi
Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu meant different thing to different people. To the authorities of Kings College then, he could have been a stubborn student. But the venom which gave young Ojukwu the push to beat up a white tutor for molesting a black female staff, was not stubbornness but abhorrence for injustice and unquenchable desire to fight for the less-privileged. Ojukwu was a human rights activist who could not describe himself.
To his influential father, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu could have passed as a disobedient child for refusing the course his father chose for him and opting for another. But Ojukwu may just have shown leadership in the pursuit of independence of mind, clear vision and sense of responsibility. After all, the right to say no, it is said, is the first condition of freedom. A freedom that carries responsibility for the consequences. Ojukwu’s father, wherever he is today, must be proud of his son. Just as, coincidentally, the Chairman of Ojukwu’s burial committee, Rtd. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, is, today, proud of his son, Charlie Boy, who also disobeyed him in the choice of career.
To the Nigerian military, Ojukwu was a surprise entrant, being the most educated recruit into the military at that time. But Ojukwu’s mind was focused. He wanted to imbibe the discipline that the military offered and stood for and to make a success of it, without allowing the more mouth-watering opportunities his big certificate could offer him to distract him.
Ojukwu fought against indiscipline in the military when he insisted on the right person, Brig. Samuel Ogundipe, the most senior military officer then, succeeding the late Gen Aguiyi Ironsi. The person Ojukwu insisted on was not an Igbo. He was a Yoruba. Ojukwu wanted to maintain esprit de corps in the military which was supposed to stand as an example of a disciplined force. Ojukwu was overruled without a convincing reason, and he refused to take orders from one he conceived as not being the next in command, Gen Gowon. The ghost of that indiscipline in the military which was allowed to stand, is still haunting Nigeria as a nation today. It laid the foundation for the culture of impunity and the rule by cabals. Who were those cabals? Are they still very much around today, or are we battling with their long shadows? Before President Jonathan contested the last election, some prominent Nigerians, most of them already adults at the break of the civil war, threatened to make Nigeria ungovernable if Jonathan dared declare his interest or goes on to win the election. They wanted him to be disciplined and stay on line. How soon can we forget? Well, could that truly be why there are explosions everywhere?
Ojukwu showed what good leadership and accountable government are all about. After the fall of the First Republic, Ojukwu was appointed the Administrator of the Eastern Region. In all the constitutions of advanced countries, the primary duty of government is the protection of lives and properties of its citizens. When it became obvious to Ojukwu that the protection of lives and properties of people from Eastern Region was no longer guaranteed in Nigeria under the watch of the Federal Government, he weighed the options he had – gather his people together and show leadership, or abandon ship and seek personal safety. He exhibited courage and chose the former. He gathered the survivors of his people and declared a state of Biafra, which was the only way he could go if he had to save the lives of his people, who were no longer secure in Nigeria. He never declared war against Nigeria. Ojukwu, like Moses, only asked to let his people go. But Nigeria, like Pharaoh, said no. Ojukwu wanted to be a true Nigerian, but he was forced into a secessionist. He wanted to be a true leader, but he was forced into a warlord.
Notable dramatis personae of the period are still very much with us – the persons of Generals Yakubu Gowon, Danjuma, Obasanjo, etc. And what is more, many of them profess the Christian faith. Which brings me to the Bible and the issue of Nigeria Prays, a pet project of Gen Gowon. To this writer, Gen Gowon epitomises the quintessential of courage garnished with humility. Humility, according to Roberts Dilts and Judith DeLozier, “involves knowing your limits and having appreciation for the intentions, strengths and perspectives of others”. Gowon had the courage to prosecute the civil war. At the end of it, and with his appreciation of the cause, coupled with his experience on the field, he knew the war was over and won, but not the battle. The battle is not over because the sins that led to the civil war are still with us. These are sins of impunity, indiscipline, injustice and bad governance. These are the sins Ojukwu fought against and died fighting. He never gave up and the battle is on. It just needs a new arrowhead. Gowon, nevertheless, had the wisdom to proclaim “no victor, no vanquished” and to launch his post-war three-pronged programme of the famous 3Rs – reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation.
Embedded in humility, of course, is the recognition of a higher force. So it is not surprising that out of power and with the addition of a doctorate degree to his cerebral prowess, it was time for him to launch his innate quality of humility. That, to me, came out as a finished product in Nigeria Prays.
The efficacy of prayers, for believers, is not in doubt. But no one can mock God. The Bible prescribes procedure. In sum, it says that if people can humble themselves, confess their sins and pray, God, in turn, will hear their prayers and heal their land. Right now, Nigeria prays. But has Nigeria first confessed her sins? This writer doesn’t think so. Which, perhaps, is why the more Nigeria prays, the more Nigeria boils. Though some positivists can argue that it could have been worse.
In the continued but obviously reluctant implementation of Gowon’s 3Rs post-war programmes, an offshoot of his “no victor, no vanquished” stand, a lot of rehabilitation and reconstruction have been done. Today, rising from the ashes of the civil war and the imposition of the limit of twenty pounds on ex-Biafrans – irrespective of the value of Biafran currency possessed at the end of the war – Biafrans, and Igbos in particular, have moved on and gradually played themselves back into the mainstream of Nigerian socio-economic and political life. Of recent, Igbos have been IG, Senate President, Chief of Army Staff, etc. Today, an ex-Biafran is the President of Nigeria. I understand that some ex-Biafran fighters who were enlisted in the Nigerian military before the civil war were recently recalled and retired with benefits. So, yes, in the area of rehabilitation and reconstruction, post-war Nigeria has moved on. But same cannot be said in the area of reconciliation.
In a capitalist economy, like Nigeria, the most prominent signpost of wealth and power is land. It is argued that the Gowon’s regime created the 12 states out of the then existing four regions to principally break the rank and bond of Biafra, by taking a larger chunk of the oil-bearing lands out of Ojukwu”s control. Gowon had every right as a soldier to employ any strategy that could help him win the war, provided such does not amount to war crime. So Gowon, one could argue, prosecuted the war as fair as he could – with the exception of being accused in some quarters of using starvation as a weapon of warfare based on advice by some rehabilitated opportunists – won it, and exhibited his humility by the pronouncements he made and the programmes he instituted and tried to implement.
It appears, however, that those who succeeded Gowon were not happy that Biafra and, in particular, the Igbos, were not pronounced “conquered” by Gowon. They felt that the strategy of creating more states, though a good one, was not enough guarantee to ensure that Biafra did not regroup. There was the further need to create permanent enmity between Peter and Paul so they don’t form a tag-team anymore. And the best way, they thought, was to rob Peter to pay Paul. So, either out of sheer wickedness or as a strategy for winning the minority Biafrans to Federal side and bequeathing to the incoming civilian administration a self-destruct ex-Biafran region, the Obasanjo-led Federal Military government did what has never been done in any civilised nation – appropriation of private property by state without compensation for reallocation to private new owners. Such an act of state is against the Bill of Rights in all the constitutions used by all the governments in all the civilised world. It is a crime against humanity. The Obasanjo-led Federal Military government, as a parting gift to Nigeria, took away the properties of Igbos in Port Harcourt, called them Abandoned Properties, and appropriated same to the Federal government without further assurance, via Decree no 90 of 1979. The Decree, made on 28 September 1979 – two days to Obasanjo’s handover of power – is herein reproduced, for effect and accuracy:
ABANDONED PROPERTIES ACT
An Act to make provisions for the sale, registration and maintenance of abandoned properties by the Implementation Committee set up for the purpose.
[28th September, 1979]
1.(1) Every sale or disposition of abandoned properties conducted by the Abandoned Properties Implementation Committee (hereinafter in this Act referred to as “the Committee”) set up by the Federal Government shall be deemed to have been lawful and properly made and any instrument issued by the Committee which purports to convey any estate or interest in land, shall be deemed to have been validly issued and shall have effect according to its tenor or intendment.
(2) Any abandoned property sold pursuant to subsection (1) of this section shall vest in the purchaser free of all encumbrances without any further assurance apart from this Act.
(3) The Registrar or any other person in charge of registration of land, instruments, deeds or rights affecting land shall, upon presentation to him of any contract of agreement signed by or on behalf of the Committee, expunge from the relevant register the name of any person in whose name any interest is registered in respect of any property affected by this Act and substitute therefore the name of the new owner.
2. Any person who contravenes or fails to comply with any of the provisions of section 1 of this Act shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for one year without the option of a fine.
3. (1) Any member of the Committee or any person acting on its behalf shall stand indemnified and no suit or other proceedings shall lie at the instance of any person aggrieved in respect of any property sold by the Committee or anything done in compliance with the direction of the Federal Government in respect of abandoned properties.
(2) The question whether any provision of Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has been, is being or would be contravened by anything done or purported to be done by the Committee shall not be inquired into in any court of law, and, accordingly, sections 40, 42 and 220(1)(b) of the Constitution shall not apply in relation to any such question.
(3) Any proceedings against the Committee or members of the Committee or any person acting on its behalf (whether criminal or civil) commenced before the date of commencement of this Act shall cease and any order or ruling already made shall be null and void and of no consequence whatever.
4. This Act may be cited as the Abandoned Properties Act.
•Ugwuanyi, LLM, Bl, is a Lagos-based legal practitioner. 08033269501