By Celestine Okafor (Editor-in-Chief)
Today, Sunday, September 12, 2021, made it exactly 55 years after the death of Nigeria's foremost indigenous first multi-billionaire businessman, Sir Louis Philippe Odumegwu Ojukwu, father of the former military leader of Biafra, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (Ezeigbo Gburu Gburu 1), died.
Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu was a very wealthy man in his lifetime. He was born in 1908 at Obiuno, Umudim, Nnewi, in Anambra State. At the early stage of his career, he was a civil servant but later veered into the murky terrain of business which eventually helped him to be known across the land as Nigeria's richest man of his time. He was a multi-billionaire in both cash and assets.
As a career civil servant, he worked with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in the pre-independent era, from where he resigned and took up another job with John Holt as a sales clerk. Not satisfied with paid employment, Sir Louis Ojukwu desired a more secure future which could only come through industry and business enterprise. He took off on this note by immediately incorporating a textile company in the commercial city of Onitsha, Anambra state while still a staff of John Holt. His sharp business instinct told him to exploit the opportunity of inadequate means of transportation for the then old Eastern Nigerian textile traders who were already having difficulty transporting their goods.
He set up a haulage company known as Ojukwu Transport Limited. Late 1945, the period of the Second World War, triggered a little economic boom in different spheres of business and the young emerging tycoon took advantage of that factor. He began to expand his business frontiers, and soon became the major transporter for the Nigerian Railways Corporation and the Nigerian Produce Board newly created then by the colonial government in Nigeria.
Sir Louis also ventured into the real estate sector and even acquired a string of blue chip companies including some moribund firms which he painstakingly did a turn-around on, to make more profitable. He succeeded. This shrewd entrepreneur equally moved into the Nigerian Capital Market where he made a huge kill through share acquisition. Sir Louis became a board director in Shell Oil Company, D Archy, African Continental Bank (ACB), Nigerian Coal Corporation and the United African Company (UAC), etc. His dominance of the Security Market was so evident that he was elected the pioneer President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, NSE.
Sir Louis was not one of those illiterate, half-baked merchants East of the Niger. He attended good public schools, what could be described as elite institutions by the standard of his era. He was educated at Asaba Township School, in the present Delta State, as well as the prestigious Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, Cross River State. But unfortunately, he dropped out of school, at the junior secondary level. As his wealth increased, he also rose in social status. The father of Ikemba Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu controlled a substantial share of Nigeria's commerce and industrial sector at the time, such that the colonial home government in Britain took good note of him. So close was Sir Louis Ojukwu to the then colonial Governor-General of Nigeria, Sir John McPherson, that he got anything he wanted in the country's government with ease.
Offshore, in the United Kingdom and in other European countries, Sir Louis was worth so much in assets and in European foreign currencies. Back home in Nigeria too, he had assets which ran into billions of naira. Among them, is the magnificent Nnewi building located in Apapa, Lagos, which remained a lucrative commercial edifice for many years after he was gone. The former headquarter of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) at Hawksworth road, Ikoyi, Lagos, including other numerous properties in Ikoyi, Mushin, Victoria Island and Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, Lagos, were among the prime assets of Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu. He also owned real estate properties in Enugu, Aba, Portharcourt and elsewhere. Some of these properties have long been shared among the Ojukwu family members. It was in recognition of Sir Louis Ojukwu's contributions and influence that the British monarch, HRM Queen Elizabeth II knighted him with the title of Knight of the British Empire (KBE) which entitled him to be addressed as 'Sir', even long after his death.
However, as the agitation for democracy in the pre-independent Nigeria was going on in the 50s, Sir Louis could not afford to be indifferent to politics. He was wealthy, prominent and popular among his people, so he stood a chance at the polls. Age, also, was on his side, just 38 years old at the time. He contested for the Senate to represent his regional senatorial district of Nnewi and it's constituency environs at the federal parliament in Lagos. His contributions at the Senate were so significant and distinguishing that he became the center point of reference in legislative excellence. Coupled with the fact that he was a multi-billionaire, he was courageous, daring, principled but very proud.
A certain day at the Senate, a mild drama occurred at the floor of the Senate Chamber. Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu was making his usual contributions to a parliamentary debate on a national issue. He had the floor that very moment. A fellow Senator heckled into his speech. He was so incensed that he could not stomach what he considered as rude interference by an inferior colleague. Sir Louis stared menacingly with disdain and shock at the effrontery of the offending Senator. Without a word, he quietly picked his personal effects and took a final walk out of the Senate premises. A bye-election was subsequently conducted by the electoral body of the colonial government for his immediate replacement. His cousin, Mr Christopher Mojekwu was elected to succeed him.
Sunset however came in the life of the patriarch of the Odumegwu Ojukwu family in the early hours of September 12, 1966, at the age of 58. Prior to Sir Louis's passage, a massive pogrom against the Easterners in the Northern and Western regions of Nigeria had reached a crescendo, and a constitutional conference earlier proposed by the military regime of Nigeria's first military Head of State, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi for a re-democratization of Nigeria after the counter-coup of 1966, became a better option for peace across the country. The Igbo delegates to that conference who were to fly to Lagos grew cold feet and refused to travel for the confab for fear of their lives.
Meanwhile, tension and anxiety was palpable in the entire Igboland as the then military governor, Col. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (Sir Louis's son), could not convince the fear-stricken delegates to proceed to Lagos. Sir Louis, who had by then relocated to the East, chose to assist his son. He promptly left the State House Enugu on the night of September 11, 1966, to embark on a door-to-door persuasion of the Igbo delegates to change their minds and attend the Lagos conference. The old man hit the bull's eye in his mission. The delegates had agreed to fly to Lagos for the confab the next day.
A few minutes later and after a drink with his son (the military governor of the East, lkemba Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu), Sir Louis drove to Nkalagu, the cement factory town of the present Ebonyi state where he would spend the night with his friends. At about 3am, the Government Enugu's telephone buzzed. The military governor tiredly grabbed the phone receiver by his bed side. There was emergency. The governor's attention was urgently needed at Nkalagu, just thirty miles away from Enugu metropolis. Rich man, Sir Louis was seriously ill, almost dying. Moments later, he breathed his last, in the arms of his beloved son who had arrived with his military entourage at the nick of time. The curtain finally drew on Sir Louis, the son of a minor clan Chief of Nnewi.
The late multi-billionaire in his lifetime, impacted so much on his son, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, in terms of strong character, good education, and positive multi-lateral values, such that the young military governor of the old Eastern Region of Nigeria and former Head of State of the defunct Republic of Biafra was prepared to face the challenges of life and leadership which fate trust on him at the death of his illustrious father, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, in 1966.
But apart from the ex-Biafran leader, Sir Louis had other sons. Among them is Professor Joseph Ojukwu, a former consultant surgeon at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Ituku-Ozalla in Enugu state. There were also Engr. Emmanuel Ojukwu, Lotanna and Udegbe Ojukwu. Some of them were born before the late Ikemba Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Ezeigbo Gburu Gburu 1, in November 1933 in Zungeru, Niger state, North-Central, Nigeria.
According to close family sources, Sir Louis's eldest son actually was Professor Joseph Ojukwu. Their half brother, late Tom Biggar, who was born of a British mother, died during the civil war in the mid 1967 along with the late poet, Christopher Okigbo and leader of the first military coup, late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, at the Opi junction near Nsukka, Enugu state, in an attempt to repel the military attacks by the federal forces.
Until now, there had been a long dawn battle over the years until his death, between the late Biafran leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and his half brothers over their late father's estate. The 'Ikemba', as Emeka Ojukwu was called, laid claim to the family estates as the bonafide inheritor. He had argued that the mothers of his half brothers were not properly and traditionally or legally married to their father, Sir Louis. The late Ezeigbo Gburu Gburu 1 was said to have broken the proverbial coconut from Nsugbe (in Anambra state) when, in a fit of rage, he'd remind them that "they are children of his father's concubines".
This seeming derogatory remark however infuriated Ojukwu's brothers and consequently alienated them from him until his death on November 25, 2011. The battle for Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu's vast estate had been embroiled in several court litigations. Earlier, Professor Joseph Ojukwu, the consultant surgeon, and his other brothers had sought a court intervention to legally declare their status in the family and, to, in the interim, restrain Dim Emeka Ojukwu from appropriating their father's properties to himself. But the case was yet to be resolved when the late Ikemba's children by his late first wife, Njideka Ojukwu, namely - Emeka Ojukwu Jnr. and Okigbo and their half brother, late Debe Ojukwu, approached the court on the same estate matter.
The trio had dragged their grandfather's company, Ojukwu Transport Limited, their father (Ikemba) and his half-brother, Professor Joseph Ojukwu, to court, claiming that they are the real beneficiaries of Sir Louis Ojukwu's estates being the direct offsprings of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The boys also prayed the court to grant their plea, since, according to them, Ikemba's mother was the only legal wife of Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu. The billionaire patriarch of the Ojukwu family seems to have anticipated this squabble while alive and therefore decided, in his will, to make his grandchildren major beneficiaries in all his assets.
Indeed, Sir Louis acknowledges Professor Joseph Ojukwu and others as his biological children. But the only woman he married according to native law and tradition was reported to be Ikemba's mother. That marriage contracted by Sir Louis at the age of 25 did not last. The Ikemba's sole claim to his father's wealth was also borne out of his dissatisfaction with his half brothers who had accused him of doing nothing during his twelve and half years exile in Ivory Coast to recover their father's landed assets confiscated by the Nigerian military government. But, on his return from exile in March 1982, the Ikemba also known as the Dike di Ora Mma Ndigbo (The Warrior that appeals to Igbo people) swiftly launched a relentless battle against the Nigerian authorities to release his father's properties. The military government of General Ibrahim Babangida however returned the seized properties to the Ojukwu family. NNL.