Ojukwu pivotal figure again in Nigeria

By , Pat Utomi is editor of the Lagos based New Times magazine and final semester PhD candidate in political science and public affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Twelve years after he failed to split Nigeria, Odumegwu Ojukwu is back in the middle of Nigerian politics.

The man who led the 1967-70 Eastern Region attempt to secede from Nigeria and form an independent Biafra is back to lead his fellow Ibos again. This time he appears to have the government's blessing.

The National Party government of President Shehu Shagari granted Ojukwu an unconditional pardon after 12 years of exile. He had escaped into exile as Nigerian federal troops began the final offensive of a 30-month civil war.

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As Ojukwu prepares to call off his exile in the Ivory Coast and return to Nigeria, all indications point to his being a major factor in who will rule Nigeria next year.

What is at stake, in this country where the ethnic vote is still an important electoral factor, is the loyalty of the Ibos. Ojukwu led the predominantly Ibo rebellion that resulted in the Biafran secession, and most Ibos still recall his charismatic style with nostalgia.

Were he to throw his support behind one of the political parties, or party alliances, he could carry significant Ibo votes with him and decisively alter the political equation for next year's presidential elections in Nigeria. And many suspect he is disposed toward supporting the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

Already the NPN-controlled media is positioning the Ojukwu return in such a way that any careful observer of trends in Nigerian politics will conclude that the NPN has Ojukwu in the bag.

There are reports of intrigues and trade-offs that purportedly linked Ojukwu's unconditional pardon with his support of the President's party. And the opposition could exploit that, should Ojukwu support the NPN.

As 1983 draws nearer, political loyalties in Nigeria are beginning to crystallize into firmer commitments. The anxiety to defeat the National Party of Nigeria, which controls the presidency, has propelled most of the other major parties or splinter groups from these parties to form an alliance, the Progressive Parties Alliance (PPA).

The leaders of this alliance, the Nigerian People's Party (NPP), the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), and factions of the Great Nigeria People's Party (GNPP), and the People's Redemption Party (PRP) agreed that the alliance should present one candidate for each office. The alliance is almost certain to win in the Yoruba language-speaking areas, dominated by the Unity Party of Nigeria, but there are questions about how the Ibo-speaking areas will vote. This is where the Ojukwu factor becomes important.

In the 1979 elections the predominantly Ibo-led NPP easily won the Ibo-speaking states, especially because of the enduring allegiance to the legend of Dr. Nnandi Azikiwe, Nigeria's first president.

But the National Party of Nigeria, which won the presidency, has as vice-president Dr. Alex Ekwueme, an astute Ibo intellectual and entrepreneur. As vice-president he has worked furiously to deliver the Ibo vote to his party. In this quest he has exploited all the resources at his disposal but has only managed to make narrow inroads into the loyalty of the Ibos to the NPP, which is in the PPA alliance.

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