NNEWI, Nigeria (AP) — The late leader of Nigeria's breakaway Republic of Biafra received final honors Friday from a nation he once fought bitterly against in a war that saw 1 million people killed.
Mourners gathered Friday in Nnewi, a city in Nigeria's eastern Anambra state, for the funeral and burial of Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who led Biafra during the three-year civil war. His body lay inside a closed gold coffin draped in the Nigerian flag with an officer's black dress shoes, cap and sword laying atop it. Soldiers stood guard by a man who once rejected the idea of a united Nigeria, a multiethnic nation now home to more than 160 million people.
Okeke Ngozika Theophilus, a 77-year-old poet who remembered Ojukwu from childhood, said he came to give his last respects.
"Like every other hero, including the kings of England, they were buried. I have come to accord him a bye-bye," he said "On my own in 18 months I will be as old as him. I am watching how I will be buried myself."
Ojukwu died in a London hospital on Nov. 26 after a protracted illness following a stroke. He was 78.
His funeral, already once delayed, has seen a revisioning — or at least a remembrance — of Nigeria's bloody civil war in a country where an almost collective amnesia about the event still exists. President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly mentioned Ojukwu and his legacy, something previous unheard of. Ojukwu's coffin also has been transported around the country under a military honor guard.
For his family, that honor means a lot after seeing much of the family's wealth confiscated at the end of the civil war and Ojukwu living in exile for more than a decade.
"He was a passionate man who wanted very much to leave his footprints in the history of his country," his brother Lotanna Ojukwu said.
The roots of Biafra came from a 1966 coup in Nigeria, a former British colony that had gained independence only six years earlier. The coup, led primarily by army officers from the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria's southeast, saw soldiers shoot and kill 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 largely Igbo 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.
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 finances.
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, saw massive food shortages despite international aid.
The enduring images, seen on television and in photographs, show starving Biafran children with distended stomachs and stick-like arms. Many died as hunger became a weapon wielded by both sides.
Nigeria's Igbo people have since been largely marginalized in the country's politics, despite being one of the nation's top ethnic groups. Many hope for that to change in the upcoming 2015 presidential election, as there's been discussion about the nation's ruling party picking an Igbo as its candidate.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.