Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, a millionaire’s son who led Nigeria’s breakaway republic of Biafra during the country’s civil war that left 1 million dead, died in a London hospital Saturday after a protracted illness following a stroke. He was 78.
The Biafran war brought the first televised images of skeletal, starving African children to the Western world, a sight repeated in the continent’s many conflicts since. Leaders said the war’s end would leave “No Victor, No Vanquished” — a claim that has yet to be fulfilled as ethnic and religious tensions still threaten the unity of the oil-rich nation more than 40 years later.
Maja Umeh, a spokesman for Nigeria’s Anambra state, confirmed Ojukwu’s death Saturday. Anambra state, in the heart of what used to be the breakaway republic, had provided financial support for Ojukwu during his hospital stay.
Ojukwu’s rise coincided with the fall of Nigeria’s First Republic, formed after Nigeria, a nation split between a predominantly Muslim north and a largely Christian south, gained its independence from Britain in 1960.
A 1966 coup led primarily by army officers from the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria’s southeast shot and killed Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, as well as the premier of northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello.
The coup failed, but the country still fell under military control. Northerners, angry about the death of its leaders, attacked Igbos living there. As many as 10,000 people died in resulting riots. Many Igbos fled back to Nigeria’s southeast, their traditional home.
Ojukwu, then 33, served as the military governor for the southeast. The son of a knighted millionaire, Ojukwu studied history at Oxford and attended a military officer school in Britain. In 1967, he declared the region — including part of the oil-rich Niger Delta — as the Republic of Biafra. The new republic used the name of the Atlantic Ocean bay to its south, its flag a rising sun set against a black, green and red background.
But instead of sparking pan-African pride, the announcement sparked 31 months of fierce fighting between the breakaway republic and Nigeria. Under Gen. Yakubu “Jack” Gowon, Nigeria adopted the slogan “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done” and moved to reclaim a region vital to the country’s coffers.
Despite several pushes by Biafran troops, Nigerian forces slowly strangled Biafra into submission. Caught in the middle were Igbo refugees increasingly pushed back as the front lines fell. The region, long reliant on other regions of Nigeria for food.
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WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY ON OJUKWU HERE.
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