Wednesday, November 4, 2020 6:32 am
By Steve Osuji
He turned 80 years on 26 October, 2020 and as it is in his character, it was a quiet and solemn event. Quiet dignity became him and defined his very essence both as a public official and in private life.
A man of immense public stature and iron-cast persona, he would rather not be seen or even be heard if it was all up to him.
As editor of New Age newspaper about 15 years ago, my friend, late Pini Jason Onyegbaduo had arranged for us to interview Ochiagha. But upon getting to his Victoria Island home, he had ponderously deferred it, not quite sure whether ro speak on that matter or not. We never had the interview.
But an 80-year sojourn on this plane of existence is no mean feat therefore, must not pass unremarked. Especially so if you happen to be Ebitu Oko Ukiwe, Ochiagha Ochimba Abriba and the first Chief of General Staff (CGS) heading the entire Nigeria military hierarchy. This position made him the de facto second in command or vice president if you like.
What may be considered the turning point of his career and political life was in 1986 when as CGS ie, the second in command to General Ibrahim Babangida, he had openly disagreed with his commander in Chief.
Babangida had unilaterally signed Nigeria into the membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) during a conference in the middle east.
When the news of Nigeria’s membership of OIC broke, reporters had accosted Ukiwe with the fact of the issue and he had plaintively told them he was not aware as the matter was never discussed in the Supreme Military Council (SMC).
He was immediately removed as CGS by Gen. Babangida and replaced with a more pliable Rear Admiral Augustus Aikhomu. Ukiwe was to retire prematurely from the navy a few months later.
Stoic and equanimous, Ukiwe had quietly immersed himself into private life and work in the past 34 years after the abrupt end of his military career.
Apart from a half-hearted attempt in 2006 to run for presidency, Ukiwe remained a class apart from most of Nigeria’s grasping elite who insist on doing nothing else than feed on the national treasury.
Not one to be found in the precincts of the Presidential Villa or in the numerous government houses across the country with appointment and contract papers tucked in their suit pockets, his peers consider him haughty and self-possessed.
The only other time Ochiagha showed up on the landscapes of national life was when he teamed up with some leaders of like minds to midwife CUU – Council for Unity and Understanding. It was designed to forge some mutual understanding between the leaders of the east, west and the Middle Belt.
CUU was somewhat behind the creation of such additional states like Abia, Enugu, Delta among others.
CUU, unbeknown to many, was the seed from which NADECO sprouted. Of course Ukiwe was visibly part of that elite activism that dislodged the recalcitrant military junta that was most reluctant to quit power.
It is also quite remarkable that Ukiwe who had barely been commissioned a subliutenant in 1964, had to defect to the Biafran Armed Forces in 1966 to fight on the Biafran side for the duration of the civil war from 1967 to 1970.
After the civil war, he was among the few ex-Biafran warriors reabsorbed into the Nigerian military in 1972 and it must be a mark of his sterling qualities that he was elevated to the ruling SMC three years later in 1975 by General Olusegun Obasanjo.
He was to be appointed military governor of Niger state and later Lagos State between 1977 to 1999. He was on a rollercoaster it seemed as Gen. Muhammadu Buhari retained him as member of the SMC while he still headed Nigeria’s most strategic naval base – the Western Naval Command as Flag Officer Commanding (FOC).
It was in the hay days of military putsch and erratic musical chairs. When Gen. Babangida toppled Gen. Buhari in January 1985, he made Ukiwe the CGS.
Ukiwe, son of a traditional ruler who was head of the old Bende Division Local Government Appeal Court enlisted in the Nigeria Navy in 1960. He trained in the Nigerian Military College, Kaduna and Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, England.
He was to later earn a Masters Degree in Defence Studies (1981) from the US Naval University, Newport, Rhode Island, specializing in naval strategy, logistics and operations.
He led numerous Nigerian naval fleet including NNS Calabar, NNS Benin, NNS Kaduna, NNS Lokoja, NNS Beecroft and NNS Otobo with which he led an Assault Operation by sea into Cotonou, Benin Republic in 1976 to rescue President Mathieu Kerekou’ regime from insurgents.
At 80, the one fondly called Ochiagha could be described as among the last of Nigeria’s true statesmen and an original class act.
▪︎Steve Osuji is a journalist and public affairs analyst