From his existing biography, Chukwuma can be said to be an elemental figure (Ogbanje – one with a short breezy life span) do you share in that belief?
Yes, it is true. He always told us clearly, and from accounts from our elder sister, it was clear that he came to the world with a mission. Our late father used to tell his friend, Olusegun Obasanjo who was married to pressurize his friend, Chukwuma, to get married too. Several times he told him “you’re married. Please let your friend get married too”. My brother’s standard response was always, “ I am not interested in that, because I won’t live long. I have come here to do what I want to do and then move away. So, there is no point getting married and leaving behind a widow or orphan to suffer’. He was focused on what he said he came to the world to do and did not want any distraction.
So, he had a premonition that he was going to die young?
In your family lineage or genealogy, can you recall anyone with that kind of streak that he probably took after? Did he reincarnate anyone as traditionalists believe?
Well, I don’t know. Since I was born, I never heard from even our elders that he took after someone. He was a different kind of person.
After so many years of his death, how do you remember him?
We always remember him in our prayers asking God to accept him in his bosom, since he was the one that sent him on the mission. We believe that since he came to achieve what he wanted to achieve and had gone away, God should give him eternal rest. We have left him in the hands of God. He sent him here and called him back.
He didn’t marry. But have you heard stories of his having a girlfriend or child anywhere?
No. Nothing like that. We never knew of any. His friend, Obasanjo confirmed it to us. He said he never had any.
As a notable hero in your family, what strong memories of him can you remember that you can share with us? Are there times you would say, if Chukwuma were to be alive, he would have done this thing like this or this way? Can you remember any incident or feeling like that in your family?
It has to do with cheating or injustice. He never liked cheating in any form. Where he saw or perceived any, he tackled it without looking back. Sometimes when we were being punished by our father for some misbehaviours, he used to fight on our behalf to get us out of the troubles and punishments. He would tell our parents to forgive us. They are children. They won’t do it again. But if my father insisted on flogging us, he will appeal to him more strongly, saying’ I think I have pleaded with you. Please leave them.’ He was that kind of person and he loathed bribery with all his heart. He also hated corruption. He would not bribe you and would not accept.
How did members of your family react when you heard the news of his involvement in leading the first military coup d’état in Nigeria in 1966?
We were shocked and surprised.
He did not tell anybody?
No. Even, he did not tell my father. What he did was that when he came (I just put to bed that time and my mother was with me on Omugwo.- Igbo postnatal motherly visitation and care); remember that there was no phone that time. So he came to the house to tell my husband to release mum; that he wanted our mother and father to go home to the village. We were all living in Kaduna then. My husband wanted to seek for more clarifications, but he told him, “no questions. Just release this woman to join her husband. I am sending them home.” He sent them back to Okpanam. They, first of all, went to stay in Asaba where we had a house, before relocating them to Okpanam. This happened the same month that the coup occurred. We did not expect it. Even my husband did not know about it. So, we were all shocked.
Was your father angry? How exactly did he react?
He was very angry and fumed over his son because he knew the consequences of what Chukwuma did. He knew they would be searching for him to punish him. My father was upset and complained bitterly.
He never met him again until he was killed?
They never met again. He was sending friends to cater to my father’s failing health and upkeep. His friends were the ones in charge. They took directives directly from him and what to do and where to take him to. He never sent any direct message to my father.
During that intervening period, you know he was detained? Did your father make any conscious effort to see him?
He didn’t want to see my father. He tried to see him. He sent a message that he had told him he had a short life to live and whatever he heard or saw, he should take it like that.’ Don’t worry, people will take care of you’, he told him. He was not moved by any persuasion and insisted on his friends taking care of him through him.
Your father died shortly afterward in 1973. Do you think he died of a broken heart arising from the ordeal of his son? Was it the news of the death of Chukwuma that killed him eventually?
Yes, that was what killed him. He died of a stroke. He had a stroke and after some years he died.
After his release from detention, he joined the Biafran forces and was gunned down at Nsukka. What was the family reaction to that?
Well, as the war was raging, they were also pushing forward. He was with his soldiers. He was not gunned down like that. The Nigerian soldiers had been pushed back by them. He knew that they were particularly looking for him. So, he was running for his dear life.
He was trying to escape before they caught him?
No, he wasn’t trying to escape. Well, he tried to….. He was trying to escape to join those people because they were soldiers too. Part of them was Nigerian soldiers.
Was he with the Nigerian soldiers or Biafran soldiers?
Ehmm… it was when the war was serious. Where he was, he had to belong to the people there. Common sense dictated that.
That means he was caught on the Biafran side?
Since his death… I mean when he was gunned down.
( Cuts in) He was not gunned down.
But some historical accounts say he was shot? How did he die?
You see, during the war, he knew that all the soldiers that they caught died a gruesome death. They used to tie their neck with a rope to a vehicle and drove along with their heads hitting the road until they died. So, my brother said no, I won’t die like that. They won’t kill me like that. Before they kill me, I will do something. So, according to the story I heard within our family circle, you know he was trained in the war school in India? Nigeria trained him. Even when they went to Congo for peacekeeping operations, he was the one who led the troops. So, he felt that if they got hold of him, his own death will be the worst ever. They will cut off his hand first. Cut off some body parts and subject him to a slow and painful death. So, he said no. I won’t die like that. I won’t give them the opportunity to humiliate me. Then…(pause) I am not supposed to be telling you all these.
No, go ahead ma. He is long gone.
So, I learned that he used injection. He was a trained soldier. He injected himself. After injecting himself, he threw a grenade. By then, the Nigerian soldiers were around. They had sold him away to Nigerian soldiers. He was together with Emmanuel Ifeajuna, his colleague. He betrayed him and sold him to the Nigerian soldiers. He slipped away and told them that ‘that person that is holding the war, I just left him there. Go there, and you will meet him’ and really they saw him, and he knew it was time to go. Immediately they came near, he did that thing. He injected himself and released a grenade. All those soldiers died with him. He died a great soldier.
When he died and you got the news, what was the reaction at home that day?
Well, I was with my husband at Kaduna. My parents were at home. They told me about it and I became sick. My husband heard the announcement on the radio, but he didn’t tell me. Somebody from outside came and said ‘did you hear what I am hearing. They said Chukwuma is dead oo’. My husband hushed him up. Then later on, when I had eaten and refreshed and was in the parlour, lonely, he came to see me. He quietly told me and quickly added, ‘it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, he died a good death.’ I tried to inquire more but he didn’t say much again. I fell sick immediately. My parents were devastated. That very day, I left Kaduna and returned home to meet my parents.
Since his death, apart from Obasanjo, have his other friends and admirers been relating with you?
Obasanjo is the only one that has maintained a relationship with his family. He was taking care of my mum. My father died and he buried him. Barrister Nwokolo from Abagana too, who is late now. They were all friends. He and Obasanjo joined together to bury my dad. Obasanjo also buried my mother when she died some years ago at the age of 110 years. They were the ones taking care of my mother too before she died. Obasanjo kept faith with my brother and the assignment he gave him. He told him that ‘since I am not going to live long, my sisters are all married. So take care of my brother Peter and my late sister, Philomena. See to their education. My life will be short.’ That was what Obasanjo was doing. The late Tai Solarin of Mayflower School, Ikenne trained our only surviving brother (Prof) up to university level. Tai Solarin also trained my late sister, Philomena up to university level. She was teaching at the Federal college, Asaba.
Have you been able to find out if your late brother left behind any property, bank account or will since he knew he was Ogbanje and was not going to live long?
No, he did not leave behind anything (laughs). He just assigned duties to his friend, Obasanjo.
Looking at the scenario closely, how would you describe the man, Obasanjo?
Obasanjo is a very nice and reliable friend. A kind-hearted man. He kept promises made. Others would have disappointed. He demonstrated what true friendship is all about. He is not a fair-weather friend as we can see in many people. He is a loyal friend even unto death to my late brother, Chukwuma.
What the late Chukwuma fought and died for, do you think they have been actualized? Do you think he is sleeping easy in his grave? That way, given the situation in Nigeria today, did he die for nothing?
All his struggles to make Nigeria better and united, you can see that it is worse now. He would be regretting fighting that war. But he has played his own part.
If he were alive today, where do you think he will belong to A better Nigeria or secessionist Biafra because there is a growing clamour by some groups and individuals for Biafra to break out of Nigeria?
He would never have supported Biafra. He wanted one Nigeria. His objective in everything is justice and fairness and he would seek to achieve it in Nigeria.
When you look back and forward, without Chukwuma in the mix, how would your family have been?
Well, we leave everything to God, because if he were to be alive, I know we won’t be under this condition. It would have been better. All the same, we thank God for his life and for knowing him. We are okay and managing.
What type of food did he like eating when he was alive? Can you remember?
I can’t remember. He was not somebody you could easily get such details from easily. Even when he visited home in Kaduna when he was in the army, he never gave out such details or encouraged anyone to prepare any food for him. He will just come in, sometimes unannounced and say ‘Papa, how are you? Mama, how are you?. Ok. No problem. You’re okay.’ He would turn and go back. My mum would cry, sit down, sit down. He would retort ‘I’m not sitting down. I just wanted to say hello. I am just from the church’. He was a devout Catholic. He never missed the morning masses. Even when he lived with Obasanjo, he would leave him very early in the morning to go for morning mass. And then, on his return, the two would leave for morning sorting activities. He believed in God, and it was God that helped him during that coup.
What another special thing would you say about Chukwuma?
I want the government to look into what my brother fought for and his intention. If they will go back to work based on justice and fairness, he would not have died in vain.