Popularly called Emeka as a short form of his first name, Chukwuemeka Odemegwu-Ojukwu was born on November 4, 1933, to a wealthy family. His father, Sir Loius Odemegwu Ojukwu was a wealthy businessman considered one of the first millionaires in Nigeria. It is said that Sir Louis took advantage of the lucrative business opportunities in Nigeria during World War II to set up businesses in various industries.
Born into such an affluent family, Odumegwu-Ojukwu received the best of education, attending Kings College in Lagos where he is remembered for his great academic performance and his participation in anti-colonial demonstrations at a very early age.
At 13, his father sent him off to England to continue his studies and to stay away from such demonstrations. Odumegwu-Ojukwu studied at Epsom College, Lincoln College and Oxford University where he obtained a bachelors degree in Modern history and returned to Nigeria in 1956.
After his return, it was expected that he would take over his father’s lucrative business but Odumegwu-Ojukwu was not interested. He, instead, joined the civil service in Eastern Nigeria in a bid to escape his father’s influence in his life and was appointed as an administrative officer but left to join the military after two years.
Sir Louis used his influence to prevent Odumegwu-Ojukwu from gaining an officer role in the military, forcing him to enrol for the non-commissioned officer role. Despite facing several challenges thanks to his father, he persevered until he was noticed by the British Depot Commander who helped him get his well-deserved officer commission.
After training in Ghana and in England, Odumegwu-Ojukwu became one of the very first Nigerians with a university degree to receive an army commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. He went on to serve in the United Nations Peace Keeping force in Congo and, after his return, was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and immediately posted to Kano as the leader if the 5th Battalion in 1964.
It was from there that his influence over Nigeria and his Igbo tribe started to manifest.
On May 30, 1967, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state known as Biafra in a bid to protect the Igbos after several months of trying to preserve peace in Nigeria. This followed a military coup in January 1966 led by Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. There was a counter-coup in June 1966 as a retaliation to the killing of soldiers from the North by the Igbo.
The peace process between the two military factions ensued and Odumegwu-Ojukwu met the then-president, General Yakubu Gowon, in Aburi, Ghana for a peace conference hosted by General Joseph Ankrah on January 4, 1967. The process fell apart upon return to Nigeria, leading to the declaration of Biafra as a sovereign state.
The Republic of Biafra created many institutions including the Bank of Biafra that produced the Biafran Pound legal tender, and a military made up of about 30,000 soldiers by the end of the war.
During his rule as president, Odumegwu-Ojukwu managed to keep Biafra and the whole of Nigeria under considerable control until Gowon declared war and attacked the just-established state, leading to the Nigerian Civil War, also referred to as the Biafran War, in July 1967.
The war was already against the new state, which was ill-equipped and inadequately manned. The Nigerian army maintained a consistent attack against Biafra, destroying food supply and sources of livelihood for the 14 million Biafran natives. This, coupled with a total blockade of supplies, led to massive poverty and hunger and almost two million civilians died from starvation. Many suffered from diseases and stunted growth.
Since he was on the wanted list of many leaders of Nigeria, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was forced to leave Nigeria. On January 9, 1970, he left for Côte d’Ivoire after President Felix Houphöet-Boigny offered him political asylum.
Odumegwu-Ojukwu stayed in exile for 13 years until 1982 when he was granted pardon by the Federal Government of Nigeria under President Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari. He was declared a national hero for protecting his people and standing for peace and was also given the popular chieftaincy title of Ikemba, which means Strength of the Nation, by the Nnewi community.
Despite being warned to stay away from politics, Odumegwu-Ojukwu remained actively involved and was, in 1983, imprisoned by Major- General Muhammadu Buhari after a successful coup but was later released unconditionally as he was never charged with any crime.
He also stood for the presidential candidate for the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) in three elections.
He married Bianca Onah, a lawyer and former Beauty queen turned politician, with whom he had three children. Odumegwu-Ojukwu fell ill and moved to the United Kingdom for treatment where he died later at the age of 78 on November 26, 2011.
To the history of Nigeria, especially the Igbos, he will forever remain an outstanding figure who risked his life to protect his people.