18 March 2019
Nigeria’s recent presidential and governorship (s)elections in Rivers State, aka “Rivers of Blood”, has, once again, brought to the fore the violent battle for supremacy in that state between two former allies, current governor Nyesom Wike, and his predecessor and transport minister Rotimi Amaechi. The struggle between the two, which has led to fatalities, has involved thugs, members of “cults”, and seen Nigerian security forces contributing their own “quota” towards the violence on behalf of the transport minister.
This deadly rivalry has been likened to another bitter clash about 36 years ago between two prominent politicians from the same state, which had national repercussions. A year before the elections in August 1983, President Shehu Shagari, of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), with an eye on splitting the Igbo vote – they had voted overwhelmingly for the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) led by Nnamdi Azikiwe in the last election – pulled off a masterstroke by granting a presidential pardon to Emeka Ojukwu.
Ojukwu was the legendary leader of the attempted secession of the predominantly-Igbo Eastern Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra between 1967 and 1970. He fled to Ivory Coast when the secession was finally quashed in a very bloody civil war. Ojukwu, on return from exile, joined Shagari’s NPN and ran for a Senate seat, representing Onitsha zone in the old Anambra State. Onitsha was also Azikiwe’s constituency and Ojukwu’s joining the NPN was viewed as an affront by the state’s governor, Jim Nwobodo, who liked to think of himself as Azikiwe’s “political son”.
For Ojukwu, Nwobodo was like an “illegitimate son”. And he invested a lot of time in personal attacks against the governor, questioning his “Igbo” credentials and parentage. Nwobodo was born in Lafia and opponents spread rumours that his father was not Igbo. At one rally, Ojukwu told the crowd that before anyone aspired for a leadership position in Igboland, people needed to know who his father was in order to assess his pedigree. The fact that Ojukwu’s father, Sir Louis, was the first Igbo millionaire, must have grated with Nwobodo. The personal attacks got even more venomous, with claims that Nwobodo’s mother worked in Lafia as a woman of ill repute. Nwobodo’s supporters countered with claims that Ojukwu was a “coward” that fled Biafra, leaving others at the mercy of the conquering federal troops. He was called “Ogbo-oso 1” – “one that runs away” in Igbo.
The only two TV stations available at the time helped feed the frenzied atmosphere. NTA Enugu was controlled by the federal government, so was rabidly pro-NPN. It devoted a lot of airtime to Ojukwu and all the anti-Nwobodo rants. This was countered by the state-owned ATV, serving as a mouthpiece for Nwobodo and the NPP.
It all came to a head when Ojukwu and his convoy of supporters were heading to a rally and they ran into Nwobodo and his motorcade at Nkpor Junction, at the outskirts of Onitsha. Both men were with their army of thugs. Ojukwu’s was known as the “Ikemba Front” – named after the title given to the homecoming war hero by folks in his hometown, Nnewi. Nwobodo’s thugs called themselves “Jim’s Vanguard”.
At Nkpor, with sirens blazing, Nwobodo, as governor, would have expected all cars on his stretch of road to give way for his convoy to proceed. Ojukwu had different ideas. He allegedly ordered his men to proceed head-on. The man who was known during the civil war as “the General of the People’s Army”, then used to roll in a Mercedes SUV assembled at the Anambra Motor Company (Anamco) in Emene and known locally then as an “Anamco jeep”.
Ojukwu was said to have poked his head out of his car’s sunroof top and started barking orders to his men, as gunshots started going off when no side was willing to give way. It was unclear at the time if anyone was injured, but the two protagonists appeared at their favourite TV stations that evening to give differing accounts of what happened.
Nwobodo read from a prepared text and seemed a bag of nerves. What came from Ojukwu was pure unscripted theatre and a throwback to his famed oratory during the civil war. He spoke about how Nwobodo got out of his car and told his men: “Get him (Ojukwu). Don’t let him escape this time”. He then ended his monologue with: “I have not been through the hell of war, through the heart of shells and bullets, to succumb to the excesses of a megalomaniac pimp. Yes, that’s what he is! James Nwaogbodo is a megalomaniac pimp!” Ojukwu may have been referring to rumours in Enugu at the time that Nwobodo made his money as a pimp for military top brass during military rule.
Nwobodo always preferred to be addressed as “Jim” and his surname “Nwobodo” was probably a shortened “Nwaogbodo”. It is likely that Ojukwu felt that Nwobodo didn’t like the longer version. Throughout the campaign, Ojukwu never passed up an opportunity to call the governor “James Nwaogbodo”.
Both men would lose – Ojukwu to Edwin Onwudiwe of the NPP, and Nwobodo to Christian Onoh of the NPN. While Nwobodo was very unpopular by the end of his first term, it was most likely that the results were falsified against him. The widely-held view at the time was that a goat in Azikiwe’s party would win any election in the state.
In December 1983, the military overthrew Shagari’s regime, citing election rigging alongside a long list of other grievances and Muhammadu Buhari was installed as the leader of the junta.