Ozoemezina – Obiano’s Tribute to Igbo Memory
By James Eze (email@example.com)
Seven years ago, Governor Willie Obiano symbolically laid wreaths before a long list of Ndigbo who fell to the booming guns of the Biafran War.
On that January day, as he bent down to place the wreaths at the foot of a piece of plain glass bearing the names of the casualties, time stood still at Alex Ekwueme Square! Thousands of Igbo people from the five states in the South East and parts of Rivers and Delta States had gathered to make peace with a troubling past. It was perhaps one moment in history when memory took the glint of precious amour and Ndigbo wore it proudly in Ekwueme Square.
In that EPIC moment, Governor Obiano nudged Ndigbo to accept the full weight of history and march proudly onto a bright new future with a resolve to NEVER AGAIN allow history repeat itself at our expense. That event which remains the most widely accepted Memorial of the Biafran War to date was fittingly titled Ozoemezina – NEVER AGAIN!
Ozoemezina was a day set aside for memory; a watershed in our collective ability to remember. You felt it once you set foot on Ekwueme Square that day. The dry harmattan wind stung the eyes and drew involuntary tears down people’s cheeks that were instantly licked up by the baking sun. Masquerades from different parts of Igboland filed out in their bizarre splendour to lend solemnity to the day. People came from the farthest points of Igbo land, looking distinct and woebegone but united by grief and the quest to bring closure to a past that had defied Time’s ceaseless plea to stop tugging at memory.
In the distance, the Ajofia masquerade from Otolo Nnewi stood out among the visiting ancestors of the clan who had returned to mourn their children that the war claimed. It towered above fellow ancestors like a silhouette, a dark silver grey smoke curling out of its head to complete the dread it inspired. Its horde of attendants flocked round it in what seemed absolute paternal affection to an illustrious ancestor come back to life. The surrounding din was almost mythical. But Ajofia still managed to project its enchanted voice over the crowd and utter some incantations known only to its fellow spirits. Over there in the milling crowd, Ijele swayed in extravagant showboating. A panoply of colours and charm, Ijele invokes riveting mental pictures of a peacock. There were lesser ancestral spirits in the audience, each with its peculiar gait and sense of selfhood. There were masquerades that spoke only in grunts. There were some that spoke nothing at all. Yet there were those that seemed to have found exaltation in their hideousness and others that sought to echo the heavenly essence of beauty in its manifest fullness. That reminded me of the Igbo belief in the duality of things. Ife kwulu, ife akwudebe ya! Nothing ever stands alone! Neither bravery, nor cowardice, nor beauty nor ugliness!
Dr Alex Ekwueme for whom the Square was named was in the audience with his wife Beatrice. He looked so distraught that on his face alone it was easy to read the full meaning of Ozoemezina. Biafran War veterans, Joe Achuzie and his comrades-in-arms were all there. The veterans looked every bit like I thought they would; wizened but spritely with eyes that blazed like headlamps in the dark. I gawked at them in awe as I imagined what these men must have experienced; the pangs of hunger and starvation, the guts of erstwhile comrades spilling out in final supplication to the earth goddess to heal the land that had been overwhelmed by evil, the smell of death in the rubble of gutted afternoons as they prayed to see another nightfall. I wondered which one of them had stood next to the Ogbunigwe Launcher that I saw the other day at the War Museum and pulled the trigger on an advancing battalion in an ambush. I wondered if their sunken cheeks and shriveled biceps once hand the full complements of flesh. I wondered how they coped with the listless early days of peace after surviving the horrors of war; how they battled the thousand voices in their heads, the crippling ennui! Then I felt fiercely proud of them. I felt happy that they were there as vestiges of the War and living symbols of an iron will that would neither bend nor break! In their fading dignity, they reminded me that pride was still important; that when a war is lost, something is lost but when pride is lost, everything is lost!
A sense of absolute grief swept through me when Governor Obiano and Dr. Ekwueme moved over to a little tent with a little sign that says Ndi ife melu (the bereaved or the mourners). There in the little tent, they sat in representation of the entire Igbo nation to receive sympathizers who filed out in a long line to condole with Ndigbo on the tragedy that had befallen them. Billionaire businessman, Prince Arthur Eze soon joined them in the tent. Governor Obiano’s face was a mask of anguish and pain as he shook hands with the leaders of the delegations of all the town unions, market associations and cultural groups across Igboland who played the role of early callers to the house of the bereaved.
Gazing into his ponderous countenance that afternoon, the weight of what Willie Obiano had done with Ozoemezina finally sank in. It struck me that he had always wanted to do this – to confer dignity to his kit and kin who were denied the appeasement of a proper burial. I remembered how he had sounded while answering a call from the Presidency earlier that morning at the Governor’s Lodge. “I just want to bury my people. There is nothing more to it,” he had assured President Jonathan on the other side for the umpteenth time. It had been a nerve wrecking contest between him and the entire security apparatchik that had expressed grave concerns about the event.
This is why I shake my head ruefully when some youngsters and the uninformed accuse him of ordering the killing of some youths who took part in a protest at Nkpor some years ago. Nobody who remembers Ozoemezina will believe such a story!