Nnaziri Ihejirika - The Confounding Legacy of an African Freedom Fighter



Nelson Mandela.
Robert Mugabe.
Emeka Ojukwu. 

All freedom fighters. Men who are revered by their followers. Men who at their peak were hated but importantly, respected by their enemies. Men who impacted their countries and indeed, the world. What is their legacy?



Nelson Mandela had to be hospitalized last week and was treated to a hero's welcome upon his return home. The eulogies that have poured in for him - even in life - exceed those of several statesmen who have passed on. You can imagine that his death, whenever that is, will be mourned globally. Yet this is a man who at the height of his freedom fighting was plotting to blow up installations and destroy the country's economy in a bid to end apartheid. Today, he is a statesman and global legend almost without compere.

Robert Mugabe was probably regarded as the finest freedom fighter since Che Guevara. A charismatic man who could whip up the fervor of any crowd, he went through several personal deprivations in order to ensure that Zimbabwe was free from the shackles of Ian Smith's Rhodesia and was globally regarded when he accomplished this (except in the UK, perhaps). Yet it didn't take long for him to slip down the slope of extra-judicial killings, corruption and nepotism. Today, Mugabe has lost his entire store of goodwill in the international community. His death, whenever it comes, will likely be greeted with more cheers than tears. 

The legacies of these two are pretty clear-cut. The third man on my list - Emeka Ojukwu - confounds and confounds totally.

Emeka Ojukwu was buried in Nnewi, Southeast Nigeria, today. An Oxford-educated, silver-tongued orator and Army officer who led the breakaway Republic of Biafra when it seceded from Nigeria in 1967 until its collapse in 1970, Ojukwu and his legacy is a topic that has provoked many a heated discussion in Nigeria from then till now. 


Even an avid historian like myself cannot claim to know what went on behind the scenes in that turbulent period of Nigeria's history, and I suspect many of the protagonists on both sides have left out details either in the interest of the country or - more likely - to preserve their personal interest. Despite this, we know enough to aver that Ojukwu, more than anyone else in Nigeria, did a lot to prevent the massacres of Igbos and other Eastern minorities outside the Eastern region during tribal-inspired riots in 1966. He also ensured safe passage back to the North for many Northerners who feared reprisal attacks. 
His cross-border discussions with the likes of the Emir of Kano (his personal friend) and Obafemi Awolowo also demonstrated his desire to have a unified Nigeria. Anyone who argues these points doesn't know their history or has a bias against the man. 

That being said, for leading the East into a war the region could ill-afford, for his non-inclusion of the polity in decision making and for his exclusion (and persecution) of those in the military and public service who advised caution and diplomacy, Ojukwu demonstrated poor leadership traits. His capitulation and flight to the Ivory Coast was in my opinion his best wartime decision because it saved lives at the end of the war. However, some would argue that a leader who was willing to sacrifice that many livesduring the war should have been convinced enough of his beliefs to stick around for the final push, a la Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Civil War. Combined with his reappearance in Nigerian party politics upon his return from exile, at a time when Igbos were politically marginalized, it's easy to see why his motivations and ambitions are questioned. 

In death he has been celebrated as a colossus of his times by intellectuals, political leaders and foreign leaders. Others have castigated him. These encomiums and denouncements have spanned the religious, tribal and economic spheres; tribute to a man who despite his enormous wealth became a military officer. Who despite his pan-nationalist outlook and deep personal ties to other regions of the country led a breakaway republic. Who despite his strong Catholic beliefs was best friends with Ado Bayero, the Emir of Kano (and technically the deputy spiritual head of Nigerian Muslims).

Three men. Three countries. Three just causes. Three vastly different impacts. Three legacies.

Above all, these men have shown us that it is not enough to have good intentions or even a just cause. Ultimately, the hand of followership has to be extended across hatred divides. Ultimately, in leadership we cannot make the same mistakes as those we replaced. 
Nelson Mandela followed these two tenets and is considered a hero.
Robert Mugabe followed neither and is considered a villain.
Emeka Ojukwu followed the first but not the second. Hero or villain? Your choice.
This Nigerian nationalist who led a secessionist movement continues to confound and refuses to be defined, even in death.

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