Onyeka Nwelue premieres “Other Side of History” at Oxford University

On Thursday November 4, 2021 writer and filmmaker Onyeka Nwelue premiered his new movie, Other Side of History, a biopic of Emeka Odimegwu Ojukwu.

This is the full text of his speech at the event at Oxford University, Ojukwu’s alma mater

Other Side of History: Inverting Bellicosity 

Let me begin by thanking Professor Perry Gauci for that gracious introduction. I am immensely grateful to you and to Lincoln College for hosting this event, and for your enormous contribution to this project.

From left: Professor Perry Gauci, Onyeka Nwelue, Ifeanyi Nwelue and Professor Susan Harrison

I also want to thank distinguished members of the Nigerian Oxford University community who are present, including those who made concerted efforts to be here, even after tickets to this event had sold out. I am speaking, specifically, of course, of Professor Kingsley Moghalu, who has emerged in recent years as a fresh, energetic, insightful and inspirational voice in the Nigerian political landscape.

And I will be remiss if I did not mention how interesting it is that I am running my programme here at Oxford at the same time as both Professor Moghalu and his former boss, HRH Lamido Sanusi Lamido, former Emir of Kano, who is currently a fellow at St. Antony’s College. 

To Professor James Currey, an immensely generous benefactor and spiritual forebear in many ways, words do not suffice to show my gratitude to you. 

I’m also delighted to see special friends of mine, including the new ones that I’ve made here at Oxford in recent weeks; as well as the extraordinary individuals who have made this journey with me; and so many others of you.

Frederick Forsyth and Onyeka Nwelue

Your presence here, all of you, fills me with great pride.

In 1982, Emeka, the pioneering literary title that captures the fascinating evolution of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, was published. Veteran journalist and celebrated novelist, Frederick Forsyth, who authored Emeka, chose that title based on his reflections on the emotional intimacy he observed between Ojukwu and the Igbo people of the then breakaway Republic of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. Emeka was the endearing name that Igbos chose to refer to Ojukwu as during the war.

Coincidentally or not, the publication of this biography was well-timed: 1982 was, after all, the same year that Ojukwu returned to Nigeria from exile in Cote d’Ivoire. This confluence of events afforded him the opportunity to stamp his own impression on this largely definitive work on his life’s story. In the foreword to ‘Emeka’, Ojukwu writes, quite candidly and pointedly:

Much has been written about me over the past fifteen years, and a great deal of it has been, alas, quite inaccurate. None of it was written with my personal authority.

In the trailer for the Other Side of History, this statement is verbally rendered as an appropriate introduction to the different bits of history that form a rounded whole in dramatizing the private life of Ojukwu. 

I recall that many years ago, while reading the aforementioned book by Forsyth, some paragraphing which struck me as tantalizing became engraved in my memory bank, and these were in particular, bits of peculiar information about Chukwuemeka Ojukwu’s evolution. I reproduce the excerpt at length for emphasis: 

For one thing he (Emeka) had a handsome allowance from his father, which enabled him to dress in the most elegantly cut suits and drive a series of newest and fastest British sports cars. He was observed by contemporaries to be seldom out of the company of a string of very attractive young women.

Then there were the parties, the weekend trips to London and the high life of the capital. It was probably the social life that cost him a place in the Oxford Rugby team of his final year. He made his place as wing three-quarter in the London College team… But to make a place in the university Rugby team meant a ruthless dedication to a course of extreme physical fitness. That in turn meant a choice between physical training or late-night parties and lively social life. The social life won.

At the time, I conceived no deliberate mental picture to those words, let alone contemplate a biopic to popularize them. But I did not forget them either. And as it turns out, nine years ago, I was again tantalized by what seemed a salacious prompt on my phone one languid Saturday afternoon. It was the headline of a special report by Uduma Kalu for Vanguard Newspaper, one of Nigeria’s leading media outfits, and It was captioned thus: Ojukwu: Sexcapades of the Biafran Leader.

I remember letting out an inquisitive and slightly audible sigh, ‘hmm’—not for any lewd reason, but because I felt a rush of allure, good enough to make me want to click on the prompt. I paused for a moment, looked at the prompt again, and clicked on it. The rider to the caption, which by the way was rather short, read: “Had four wives, romantic poems and controversial marriages’. Interestingly, unlike the seemingly passive experience I had whilst reading the passage excerpted above from the book by Forsyth, this time, I made a mental note of this short summary, and, by the time I was done reading the report, a varied, creative kaleidoscope began to take shape in my mind’s eye. And so, for the first time, I began to conceive this grand picture of Ojukwu that was in sharp contrast to the avalanche of projectiles, hand grenades, explosions, Saracen tanks, unsmiling soldiers, spectacles of wartime oratory, and so on – motifs which occupy and still dominate the popular imagination of the man. This is the crucible in which what I believe the theme of this film to be, the inversion of bellicosity, was formed. I started working on the screenplay with Odega Shawa, a magnificent mind. 

It was after this sudden epiphany of the interconnectedness of these tantalizing details—from Forsyth to Vanguard—that I began to actively consider a potential biopic in Ojukwu’s name. And in a flash of a more stimulating illumination, the profound words of the philosopher Karl Jaspers wafted through my mind, chiming in this manner: ‘however minute a quantity the individual may be in the factors that make up history, he is a factor’.

Instinctively, I felt a rush to situate these hallowed words within the mode of individual peculiarities. I therefore resolved to focus not only on this individual—who was by no means minute in the history of post-colonial Nigeria and indeed Africa, but whom most of us had somehow come to consign to a mental box marked ‘the generalissimo of the Biafran people’—but to highlight he was also —and in fact more so—a wealthy, libertine, gregarious, Oxford-nurtured fellow.

What the Other Side of History represents and intends to achieve is the mainstreaming of that side of the same coin which has suffered oblivion for too long. It is by no means a portrayal of the totality of the manifold inherences of Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, but it is an artistic effort in the promotion of balance, in stimulating those sentimental sensibilities, borne out of idiosyncrasies, that also colour the ways in which many of history’s resonant figures come to be viewed, for better or for worse.

As many here will know, the young Ojukwu graduated from Lincoln College in 1955 with a degree in Modern History. The degree itself was a rebellious pursuit which his iron-willed father, Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Nigeria’s first billionaire, did not approve at the outset. The young Ojukwu was sent to Oxford by his father to study Law, which was more in vogue at the time, but he chose Modern History instead. Ojukwu was well-moulded academically, but enjoyed an unparalleled social life while he was here, and, as he would later disclose to Forsyth, ‘his three years at Oxford were the happiest of his life’. Whilst here, he drove the latest luxurious cars that Britain had to offer, enjoyed a copious amount of social life and nightlife, mostly in the company of other young socialites. 

When he returned to Nigeria in 1955, he returned with an exquisite British accent, and, as he would later attest to, an extensive wardrobe of impeccably cut English suits and a sundry collection of high-class supercars. As a wealthy, smooth-speaking young man with glowing skin, Ojukwu became the cynosure of young ladies in Nigeria, and as you would see in Other Side of History, he left no room for doubt that he was a thoroughgoing Casanova. Oxford also bequeathed to him a consciousness on Africa, groomed from his membership of the Oxford West African Students Union.With Africa on the cusp of decolonization at the time, unions like that helped animate an apprehension among Africans studying in western universities about the continent’s future.Little surprise then that Ojukwu was inspired to return early to Nigeria so he could serve his home country. Again, on this, he and his father disagreed. And yet again, his will triumphed over his father’s as he eventually joined the Nigerian Army.

In Other Side of History, which covers Ojukwu’s life in the years before Nigeria’s independence, that is, between 1954 to 1960, viewers will be treated to an intimate portrayal of the much-vaunted poetic side of Ojukwu, which he charmingly deployed in wooing the women he encountered during his lifetime. His equanimous voice, exotic accent, thrilling oratory, and urbane mannerisms were all attributes of someone worthy of the appellation of a Poète Romantique. Ojukwu’s romance poetry was deemed head-spinning by those who were close to him, and Greg Ojefua—famous Nigerian thespian and protagonist playing Ojukwu in this film—has done a remarkable job of bringing that to life. 

The film also features several acts portraying Ojukwu’s Nigerian contemporaries and friends across the literary, entertainment and political domains like the dramaturgist, poet, and first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature,Wole Soyinka; the preeminent Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe; the extraordinary Nigerian poet who died fighting for Biafra during the civil war, Christopher Okigbo; the extremely talented Nigerian playwright and poet, John Pepper Clark; the First President of Independent Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe; former Military Head of State and later President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo; former Military Head of State Yakubu Gowon; the first Black African to win a Gold Medal at an international sports event, Emmanuel Ifeajuna; the Ghanaian highlife pioneer, Emmanuel Tettey (E.T.) Mensah, among others. Other side of History has made the first attempt ever to portray these people and the private relationship they all shared with Ojukwu as clearly and enjoyably as possible.In its portrayal of these highly consequential figures in Nigeria’s history, the film moves beyond being a literary device intended to partially refocus audiences’ consciousness on the less regarded traits of a great man, to becoming a story of friendship, of youthful idealism and exuberance, and of pristine aspirations eventually arrested by the disruptive and gruesome crosscurrents of post-colonial African statehood.

I would also venture to say that Other Side of History is a portrayal of an odd story of competing egos coexisting with filial love. This may be speculation, but I’m inclined to think that among the fruits of Chukwuemeka Ojukwu’s defiance of his father at critical points in his youth was an abiding desire to match or even outdo the old man wherever possible. Having trod the path of military service, Chukwuemeka could not have matched his father in the department of industry and commerce. So, he settled for the only area where he enjoyed massive comparative advantage: women. Sir Louis married four wives, and Chukwuemeka would match his father in that department before exiting the scene.

Delivered on November 4th, 2021 at Lincoln College, University of Oxford.

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