OPA-LOCKA — Emmanuel Obiesie was 17 years old when he looked around his war-torn African village and realized that he was the only man still alive.
“The village was being bombed,” he said, referring to Iwollo-Oghe, an Igbo village in the new country of Biafra formed after seccession from Nigeria in 1967.
“When the Nigerian soldiers entered the place, all of us had to run,” Obiesie recalled. “I was the only guy walking around. I decided I had to be a man that day and join the army.”
The fight Obiesie joined was the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, a bloody three-year ordeal that pitted countrymen against one another in a struggle for political and economic power.
The war began in 1967 following two coups in Nigeria and failed peace talks held in nearby Ghana. The unrest broke out less than seven years after Nigeria had gained independence from Great Britain.
The British had carved out three major geographical groups along ethnic-religious lines in its colonization of Nigeria: the mainly Muslim Hausa-Fulanis in the north, the Christian Yorubas in the west and the Christian Igbos in the east. Igbo leaders cited massive attacks by the Hausas against their people, many of whom had migrated to the north where they held jobs in government and trade, positions desired by the Hausas.
Fearing continued reprisals, the Igbo leader Gen. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu demanded independence for their southeast state and named it Biafra. In response, the central government declared war on the Igbos to reclaim the area.
Ojukwu, who died at age 78 in London in November following a brief illness, is now being honored by Nigerians throughout the world not only as an Igbo leader but as a Nigerian patriot. South Florida’s Nigerian community held a celebration for Ojukwu Saturday at the Opa-locka City Hall Municipal Building, 780 Fisheman St., in North Miami-Dade County.
“We the Igbo community of South Florida, along with other Nigerians and well-wishers, decided that we should pay a tribute to him,” said Dickson Ezeala, one of the event coordinators. “He stood for justice, equity and fairness. He fought for [those things] throughout his life.”
Vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Nigerian troops, the Igbo soldiers lost their war and their newly minted country of Biafra in 1970. Ojukwu went into self-exile and Nigeria was reunified. After 13 years, Ojukwu was pardoned. He returned to the country and participated in the government.
“He found himself in a unique position in history,” said Annabel Brewster, one of the event organizers. “When he returned from exile, he could have stayed outside and made it but he said it was important for Nigeria to re-absorb Biafra. In his death, he left us a vital lesson of patriotism and nationalism.”
“He helped them, shoulder to shoulder, to go from nowhere to somewhere, to move from bottom to the mountain top,” Obiesie said of Ojukwu’s attempts to lead the Igbos. “But he believed in one Nigeria.”
Obiesie fought for two years under Ojukwu’s leadership and was wounded in battle in a bomb explosion. He still carries around a piece of shrapnel inside him, said the Miami Dade College economics professor who was among hundreds attending the celebration for Ojukwu.
Born in 1933, Ojukwu was the son of Nigeria’s first millionaire, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was in the transport business. The elder Ojukwu sent his son to study in Britain, where he earned a master’s degree in history from Oxford University. The younger Ojukwu served as the military governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria in 1966 before he led the revolt to create the Republic of Biafra.
During the war, as many as 100,000 military troops were killed and up to two million Biafrans died from the attacks and from starvation.
“When the genocide was getting too bad, he left Biafra in 1970 to seek peace for the good of the people,” said Chief Vincent Aniagoh, the keynote speaker at the local gathering which included a religious observance of songs, prayer and testimony from several leaders in South Florida’s 6,000-member Nigerian community.
“Mourning him and not following his advice and dream is tantamount to waste,” Aniagoh said.
The second half of the program included food, music and cultural performances, including dance.
During the gathering, some attendees alluded to the current turmoil in Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country and top oil producer.
Boko Haram, an Islamist sect that says it wants to set up an Islamic state in the impoverished, mainly Muslim north, has been blamed for coordinated attacks that have killed more than 200 people since the beginning of the year. A Christmas Day attack at a Catholic church near the Nigerian capital Abuja killed at least 44 other people.
“We have made progress but fundamental problems are still there,” said Adewale Alonge, executive director of the Africa Diaspora Partnership, a nonprofit that has created an economic empowerment exchange program between South Florida and Nigeria to benefit Nigeria’s young entrepreneurs. “They are using these ethnic, ethno-religious conflicts to bargain for their own personal gain.”
Photo: Emmanuel Obiesie