By Sunny Igboanugo
Words are not just ordinary. They have their implications. I learnt this the hard way some 30 years ago. It was during the bitter feud between Ohanaeze and the late Ikemba Nnewi, Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. You recall that the row was so bitter and caustic that it led to the late Ikemba Nnewi, being absent at the burial of the late President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azike, despite the fact that the whole Nigeria if not the world were in attendance.
What was the war all about? Ojukwu insisted that he was the rightful person to assume the leadership of Ndigbo, rightfully so, in my thinking. But some elements in Ohanaeze, vehemently opposed this. Not that any of his challengers actually came out openly to do so. They simply had no balls for such contest. So, majority, if not all of them hid behind the ubiquitous Ohanaeze to do their battle.
But Ojukwu, a war-tried hero, would not be the crab, who swam across the mighty ocean but fell in the woman’s pot of soup. After all it was not for nothing that he enjoyed such exotic labelling as the General of the People’s Army.
So, amid the intensive battle, he simply upped the ante by taking the title of Eze Igbo Gburugburu, which simply translates, King (Leader) of the Igbo race worldwide. Now, to ensure its authenticity, he went to Nri, the community in Anaocha Local Government of Anambra State, believed to be the origin of the Igbo race to take the ofo, the symbol of authority to qualify him for the position.
Now, even though in Igbo land, there are still some people disputing the history of the place of Nri as the cradle of the Igbo race, this was not in contention here. The Ohaenaze warlords, appeared to have conceded that much to him. But there was a snag! Which authority in Nri, could confer anybody with such symbol? Was it the Eze Nri, the king or the Adama Nri, the Prime Minister?
Incidentally, Ojukwu had taken his ofo from the latter. This was where the Ohanaeze, seemed to have got him. Nobody knows whether they would have argued otherwise had it been given by the Eze Nri. In that case, they could have argued that it should be given by the Adama, just to keep the argument going. But in this instance, anyway, they insisted that he was conferred the title by the wrong person.
So, they opposed it. A day to the outing ceremony, The Guardian, ran a full page advertorial denouncing the taking of the title of Eze Igbo Gburugburu. Part of the argument of the socio-cultural organisation of Ndigbo and the highest decision-making body, was that the Igbo race is a republican entity and had never been ruled by a central king and that the introduction of such a title was not only an anomaly, but an assault on the true essence of the people.
I don’t have the exact expressions, but some of them were not only completely derogatory, but so acidic, tapering towards describing him as a dictator in the mould of Hitler, Napoleon and Mussolini that the Ikemba became so thoroughly incensed and went to court.
In the suit for libel, the Ikemba talked about how his reputation had been injured and how he had been brought to public odium, ridicule and made a laughing stock. I have forgotten what he asked in monetary damages, but it was about N100million, the hugest amount, I had heard people ask for in court damages at that time, like asking for N1trillion today.
That practically opened another chapter, as the battleground shifted to the courts. That morning, we were all at the Onitsha High Court, before Justice Obiorah Nwazota. The entire courtroom was filled to the brim, as people travelled from far and wide to witness the historic event. In the crowded courtroom were the supporters and the opponents of the two sides.
Of course, yours truly, was there, pretending not to be supporting any side. However, I had secretly wished that the Ikemba would trounce his detractors, because, as my hero, I saw the war against him by his Ohanaeze traducers as a product of bad belle. Incidentally, both sides had extended invitation to me to cover the case, making it impossible to detect on which side I was. Of course, I would have been there anyway, not only because the publication was made in The Guardian, which I represented, but because I was particularly interested in the matter.
Kpo, kpo, kpo! Cooouuurrrt! That was my first time of being in Nwazota’s court. I didn’t know he was a man of such high drama and theatrics. He made a show of emerging from his chambers with his back facing the courtroom. As he mounted the dais, it took another few minutes before he was done with what looked like incantations rather than prayers. Then he finally sat down and cleared his throat, which appeared a signal to the court clerk to proceed with calling the case.
Of course it was the first case to be called, perhaps, out of its high profile nature than the fact that the lawyers on both sides were Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs). Naturally, this was not one of the cases where anyone would be reminded to be silent. You could literally hear the echoes of the dropping of a pin. That was when the drama began.
The court clerk had barely finished introducing the case when Phillip Umeadi (SAN), rose to challenge the summons. Incidentally, Umeadi, was not only a chieftain of Ohanaeze, but a titled man from Nri, the community at the centre of the imbroglio, who also opposed Ojukwu receiving the ofo from the Adama. Therein lay his passion in conducting the case.
The drama that played out thereafter remains, to me, one of the epics of court room engagements in my memory. It was as epochal as it was comical, as engaging as it was intriguing. I had prepared for a long day believing that the hearing was going to stretch very far into the day. But it ended as abruptly as it began.
“My Lord, we are not before you,” Umeadi began. “They have not given us the number of days the law permits us. The law gives us 30 days and they said we should cause appearance within 30 days. We are saying that WITHIN is not up to 30 days and that we are entitled to 30 days. Therefore they have not given us the 30 days required by law!” That was it.
For the next close to 30 minutes, the two lawyers battled with the interpretation of the law on this account. Did the word WITHIN detract from the 30 days which the Ohanaeze was entitled to enter their appearance and if so, was it’s effect fatal? Was it enough to destroy the case?
There was no authority Ojukwu’s lawyer did not cite to plead otherwise. But with every argument, with every authority cited, Umeadi never wavered or budged, as he continued to insist that they were not before the court. Dictionaries were sprung up to search and interpret the word WITHIN and to prove that it was inside 30 days and not complete 30 days.
With the eyes of The Guardian-trained reporter I was, I could detect that Nwazota was on the side of Ohanaeze. You couldn’t but detect the glint in his eyes, as he continued telling Ojukwu’s lawyer the obvious! “Counsel, but you’re not before me,” he intoned repeatedly. It was a lost case! The frustration, anger and bitterness in Ojukwu lawyer’s face could have better be imagined than witnessed. It must have hit him that he goofed big time, as he frantically sought, albeit futilely, for exit routes and legal loopholes for remedy. And what a blunder! What a case to throw away in that manner!
In the end, as he finally hit the gavel, indicating that the case was dismissed, I could completely swear that Nwazota’s seemingly open sympathy for the Ikemba and his camp was contrived, if not a mockery. The glint in his eyes, the smile at the corners of his lips and his stoic expression, were all the giveaways. Yet, nobody could hold him responsible.
That word WITHIN, was the killer punch that brought what looked a landmark case and sure victory for the Ikemba, flat on the canvass, face-down. Not only that the Ikemba failed to redeem the image, he sought, he equally lost the bank alert he prayed for as well. The saving grace was that he was physically absent in court that day. Nobody would have guessed what it could have looked like otherwise.
But did he lose completely? No! Throughout his remaining days on earth, he was addressed as Eze Igbo Gburugburu. He even carried it to his grave. In the end, it was a win-win situation. Ohanaeze ended up not coughing out that huge amount in compensation, Ikemba went home with his Eze Igbo Gburugburu.
So, all who think it doesn’t matter, learn yee today, words are not there to be used, freely. They have their meanings, their implications. – The Tiny Voice!
*Mr. Igboanugo, veteran journalist, lives in Abuja.