Jhis country seems to live permanently with many boasters of secessionist propaganda. Just last week, during the trial of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, the media was overwhelmed with misinformation from the usual crowd of separatists, complemented by a lockdown of some southern states -East. I wish many of those with that mindset had the experience of Ambassador Denis Ukume in the line of duty. The Ambassador had the unique experience, as our envoy to Ivory Coast in 1983, of chaperoning a remorseful arch-secessionist, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, back to his homeland after being pardoned by President Shehu Shagari. This is what he revealed in his memoirs titled, I believe.
I happened to attend the book launch which took place about a month ago at the International Conference Center in Abuja. I attended the ceremony for two reasons. First of all, Ambassador Ukume was a pioneer student of Government College, Keffi, in the first group that started in 1949 – I attended the college several years later in the mid-1960s. This 1949 set has actually started in Kaduna, as the facilities at Keffi Rustic were not ready yet. They stayed so long in Kaduna and only moved to Keffi in 1955, their last year. Almost all of his classmates have returned to our Creator. He would likely be the last man standing in their set and saw fit to give her that respect by attending the celebration of her life.
Second, one of the books that Ambassador Ukume was launching is his memoir titled I believe which would be of great interest especially given the eventful days he spent as Nigeria’s envoy to Cote d’Ivoire and his involvement in the saga that brought Odumegwu Ojukwu back to Nigeria after his exile. As I discovered, the book is small and turns pages, which a determined reader could skim through in one sitting. The book chronicles his life from his birth in 1938 in Gboko, the traditional capital of the Tiv nation, to the journeys he undertook in an effort to acquire a Western education away from home.
After secondary school, he found employment with the Ministry of Information in Northern Nigeria, working alongside Muhammadu Uwais (later Chief Justice of the Federation), Kaloma Ali (Minister of Mineral Resources) Maccido Dalhat (Chief of Kaduna State Service and later Minister of Police Affairs). He had a memorable time working in the Ministry of Information then headed by Ahmed Joda as permanent secretary. In the exercise of his functions, he had the privilege of traveling several times, on tour, with the Sardauna Ahmadu Bello, Prime Minister of Northern Nigeria. He wrote: “Quite often I had the rare privilege of traveling with the Sardauna in his official state-of-the-art American-made Cadillac limousine as he traveled through various parts of the region. I took the front seat next to the driver, while Alhaji Yusuf Gobir, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, joined him in the back seat.
In due course, the ministry secured him a scholarship from northern Nigeria to study journalism in the UK. Upon completion of his studies, he was posted to the High Commission in London as a Senior Information Officer in the Office of the Agent General of Northern Nigeria. When the Civil War broke out, he was called back to the ministry and was heavily involved in the war effort. He was secretary of the War Council’s publicity committee and headed the department’s research department, a job that often took him to the rear commands in the war zone. A few years later, he left the service for the greenest pastures of the private sector. He worked with Nigerian Airways in the 1970s and upon returning from political activities in the late 1970s, he joined the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Perhaps because of his closeness to Joseph Tarka, a party juggernaut, he was appointed National Administrative Secretary of the NPN from where he became deeply involved in Shehu Shagari’s presidential campaign.
President Shehu Shagari particularly noticed him during campaigns and when appointing ambassadors, he voluntarily assigned him to Ivory Coast where Ojukwu lived in exile after the misadventure in Biafra. Ojukwu had made prior contacts with the President and Ambassador Ukume’s special mission to the Ivory Coast was to wrap up and bring Ojukwu safely back to Nigeria. It was a mission that took months to accomplish, and Ambassador Ukume withstood many intrigues, especially from those who did not want Ojukwu to renounce secession.
In all his interactions with Ojukwu, he found him deeply contrite. Ambassador Ukume wrote: “My first meeting with the ex-Biafra leader was in a floating restaurant on the lagoon in Abidjan. I had asked (his wife) Stella to bring him to lunch. A memorable encounter, which became emotional as Ojukwu cried on my shoulders. He seemed extremely sorry for causing the deaths of innocent citizens. As we spoke with each other frequently, I was convinced that he was indeed remorseful for what he had done. I asked permission and issued him a Nigerian passport.
Memoirs reveal much more, but such knowledge would have to be brought to the attention of these latter-day secessionists to realize that their actions would only cause anguish and regret afterwards.