General Ike Omar Sanda Nwachukwu turned 80 recently. And when I see anyone turn 80, I simply say he/she is strong. It is biblical too. The Psalmist at Psalm 90:10 says, “Our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years”. (Ref: Christian Standard Bible). I have deliberately omitted the second arm of this verse because “trouble and sorrow” are essentials of life. Everyone gets a fair share of them. But the best memories of life are those spent serving humankind as General Nwachukwu has done.
I was a student in secondary school when I started hearing his name. That was when he first hit political scene as military governor of Imo State. His well starched and, masterfully ironed, uniform made some admire the Army. His disposition, and gait, as a soldier was inspiring. And for several months, he supervised Imo state as military governor making some landmark decisions that helped transform the state. Many years later, I would meet, and interview him, for The Union. The occasion was the 2014 National Conference which held at the National Judicial Institute in Abuja.
Gen. Nwachukwu led the South-East delegation to the conference. He was a member of the ‘Committee of the Wise,’ which worked out the voting threshold that enabled the conference to progress. He co-chaired the ‘Committee on Political Restructuring and Forms of Government’ with Hon. Mohammed Kumalia. The committee took far-reaching decisions that ought to have advanced the restructuring of the country if its leaders have had the political will to implement the decisions as adopted. As leader of delegation, he shepherded those he led to strike deals and reach agreements that were in the interest of their region and for the better development of Nigeria.
My most profound experience of Gen. Nwachukwu at the conference was his intervention when a delegate referred to the southeast as “so-called”. The reference drew bad blood and the conference quaked. In spite of prodding by his colleagues to withdraw the reference and apologize, the delegate remained adamant. His refusal almost ended the life of the conference as the southern delegates drew their swords and were ready to battle. The meaning read into the use of ‘so-called’ was at issue. It was derogatory and abusive. Southern delegates saw in it a scornful attack on the southern divide as not being of any relevance on the Nigerian table. They wouldn’t stomach it. But when Gen. Nwachukwu, who had watched and observed the ‘push and shove’ quietly from his seat got the chairman’s nod to speak, he spoke to the issue and gave the conference a brief, very brief, ‘lecture’ on Nigeria’s past. Afterwards, the delegate saw the need to withdraw the comment. He promptly did and apologized.
In essence, Gen. Nwachukwu made a simple reference to his love for Nigeria’s unity. He drew attention to the fact that Nigerians should do more to build bridges of unity than blow up already built bridges. His Igbo and Fulani parentage prepared him with insights into two different worlds which he believed must work for the good of one indivisible nation. Amb. Godknows Igali would re-echo Gen. Nwachukwu’s position on Nigeria’s unity in a tribute titled “How General Ike Nwachukwu Used Economic Diplomacy to Salvage Nigeria’s Growth and Development”.
In the tribute, Ambassador Igali quoted Gen. Nwachukwu as saying, “I fought in the Nigerian Civil War as a Federal Army Officer, principally because I believe in Nigeria’s unity. That belief remains my conviction that all Nigerians regardless of ethnic, religious or regional origin have the right to live, work and prosper anywhere and everywhere in Nigeria”. Those words were said by Gen. Nwachukwu in an address at the Chief of Army Staff Annual Conference in Ibadan in December 2017. He holds firm to those convictions till this day.
Amb. Igali describes him as “one of Nigeria’s most outstanding military-diplomats… urbane-debonair-cavalier and gentlemanly former military officer”. The Emir of Katsina and Chairman of Katsina State Council of Chiefs, Alhaji Abdulmumuni Kabir Usman, in a birthday tribute, describes Gen. Nwachukwu as an “illustrious and well-accomplished son”. For me, there is no better way to describe Gen. Nwachukwu who has made his impact on Nigeria’s political space and carved his name in gold.
Nwachukwu, represented Abia North in the senate from 1999 to 2003 where he served as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Power and Steel and, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. He kept to a gentleman agreement that rotated the Senate seat between the political divides of the senatorial district and did only one term. He was Nigeria’s Foreign Minister on two occasions; first appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs by President Ibrahim Babangida in December 1987 and was in office till December 1989. He returned to the office in September 1990 and operated till January 1993. He was also Nigeria’s Minister of Employment, Labour and Productivity where he established the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), the National Social Security Insurance Trust Fund and the National Productivity Commission.
Amb. Igali credits him with the development of economic diplomacy, a new understanding in international relations which Nwachukwu pushed forward to ensure that the private sector was drawn into relations with other countries for business development, wealth and job creation. According to Ambassador Igali, “before Gen. Nwachukwu, two other top military officers had left lofty impacts in other areas in the Nigerian Foreign Policy. First was Major-General Henry Adetope who served there from 1978 with great focus on sports as a diplomatic tool. Later was Major General Joe Nanven Garba, whose tenure from 1975-1978, could be said to have been amongst Nigeria’s highest crests in African decolonization, especially in Southern Africa. Unarguably, however, Nwachukwu’s aggressive focus on building and growing the national economy, attracting foreign direct investments, creating jobs and the like, was more directly impactful and now easily bought by the entire global community.”
A most decorated diplomatic soldier, Gen. Nwachukwu wears several medals including the Nigerian Independence Medal (NIM), Forces Service Star (FSS), Defence Service Star (DSS), and Nigeria Republic Medal (NRM), National Service Medal (NSM) as well as that of the Order of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR). He was also decorated with international medals including that of the Grand Commander of Equatorial Guinea, Grand Cross of Merit of the German Republic, Brazil’s Grand Master of the National Order of the Southern Cross (GMSC), South Korea’s Diplomatic Medal (DMM) and Spain’s Grand Cruz de la Order dei Merito Civil de Espana awarded him by the Spanish King, Juan Carlos of Spain. Gen. Nwachukwu also wears the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (GCMG) awarded by Queen Elizabeth II, completing the haul with the Commander of the Order of Mono (COM) awarded him by President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo. Whatever garlands that pour in for him are well deserved. He has made positive impacts on Nigeria’s life. He also impacted the diplomatic world with his emphasis on economic diplomacy which helped open several doors to Nigeria’s business community.
As General Officer Commanding of 1st Mechanized Division of the Nigeria Army from January 1990 to September 1990, many of his admirers believed that his next port of service would be as Chief of Army Staff (COAS), as it was the tradition then. But that was not to be. He was succeeded by Maj-Gen. AA Abubakar. Abubakar was later to become Nigeria’s Head of State. Could Nwachukwu have accessed the office before him? Maybe, maybe not! It is Nigeria still. Nwachukwu bowed out of military service when the ovation was loudest and has since remained a gentleman and peace advocate.
Sadly, these unmatched credentials are now being rubbished by some Igbo children (most of who are below 40 years), who in their warped sense of nationalism and differentiation have taken to the social media to denigrate and insult Gen. Nwachukwu and his parentage. Unknown to these children, Gen. Nwachukwu is very proud of his Fulani mother. His siblings are too. Nothing is ever going to change that. The Igbo people are proud that Gen. Nwachukwu led them to the 2014 National Conference. He was, and still is, a worthy Igbo ambassador and leader. Those who picked him as leader of delegation were patriotically guided. So, hiding behind social media walls to insult and abuse an elder statesman who has paid his dues for your own good does not in any way make you brave. Those who want to interrogate history should drop their gadgets and spend time in a library browsing books on Nigeria’s military and political history. Perhaps, they would be better informed.