Ozoemezina – Day Obiano Held Rite of Passage for Igbo War Dead


By Ifeanyi Afuba

At the end of the Nigeria – Biafra war, folks on the eastern divide greeted each other with the prayer – salutation, ‘happy survival!’ It was a natural impulse that surged on meeting with a relative, friend or associate whose fate in the harrowing events had remained unknown to you.

The  scary signatures of the conflict were everywhere; intruding into your psyche even if you wanted to avoid them – malnourishment all around, blown up bridges,  buildings pock marked with bullet holes,  abandoned artillery pieces and cases of spent cartridges,  queues for essential commodities and so on. It was merciful providence to be alive.

A short while into the new season, prolific writer Cyprian Ekwensi published the novel, Survive the Peace. It was an artistic recreation of the transition from the trauma of war to the sobriety of peace. From the life of the characters, the post – conflict stage could be daunting without the right attitudinal responses. As it were, a key demand of pacification of a brutal past is coming to terms with its memory.

Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State led Ndi Anambra and representatives of the other south –eastern states of Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo states to do just that on Monday, January 12, 2015 at Ekwueme Square, Awka at the formal burial ceremony for Igbo victims of the civil war.  With the theme ozoemena [never again], the religious cum cultural event held with some trappings of a carnival.

Setting the tone in his welcome address, Chief Tony Onyima, Anambra State Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism clarified that the programme ‘is not a rallying call to hate or to remember the wrongs we have suffered but one to build a spirit of forgiveness and ensure the security of our children through peaceful existence and love of our neighbours. It is a rallying call on me and you to remember that people sacrificed their lives for us to enjoy our own today.’

Coming at the period of the annual armed forces remembrance week, the Awka memorial did not appear strange in spite of its novelty. The celebration took on expanded scope with the inclusion of non combatants among those being honoured. Thus, women and children who were victims of the pogrom that preceded the war or who died as victims of battle operations were also beneficiaries of this collective tribute.

It had taken three months of planning and organization by the ten member committee headed by Col Ben Gbulie to kick off the programme intended to be an annual event. Alongside Gbulie, two other members of the committee, namely Col E.M. Udeaja and Col Emma Nwobosi were all captains in the Nigerian Army before Biafra’s secession.

The Bishops of the Catholic and Anglican Dioceses of Awka, Most Rev Dr Paulinus Ezeokafor and Most Rev Alexander Ibezim respectively, led the order of ecumenical service, assisted by the state leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria [CAN]. There were Bible readings, responsorial psalms and commendation hymns at intervals of the ninety minutes long memorial service.  Governor Willie Obiano read the first lesson taken from the book of Job [19: 1. 23-27]. On the heels of Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor’s pungent homily, the capacity – packed square radiated with fluttering flames as candles were lit and raised in memory of the dead.

Unlike the scenario of Leopold Sedar Senghor’s “In Memoriam”, when the poet as a student in France could not find any known names in the cemetery to remember on All Souls Day, everyone at Ekwueme Square had someone to intone a hymn in his or her honour.  And not to be left out of the celebration was the man after whom the public space was named, former Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme, who defying the limitations of old age, actively participated in the proceedings.

Delivering his speech richly punctuated with fraternal compliments of umu nnem, [brothers and sisters], Chief Willie Obiano offered an insightful and incisive picture of the raison d’etre of the event. ‘We believe in the centrality of God in the affairs of men. We are bold enough to accept the cruel verdict of fate and bury our dead with fanfare. Our culture upholds the centrality of ‘burial’ as a crucial epilogue in the narrative of life…My administration is committed to lifting up the standards of our shared experience. We shall continue our bold efforts to ensure that we are not only united in times of adversity and grief but in times of victory and peace. With this ceremony, I urge you to mourn no more but rather celebrate the bravery of these great spirits who lost their lives yesterday that we may find peace today.’

Amidst interjections of ‘Akpokuedike! his title name from his admirers, Obiano glided from the philosophical to the historical and contemporary. ‘History presents us with a long list of ethnicities and nations that have risen through horrific experiences to strengthen their ties of brotherhood and reaffirm their humanity through symbolic events …In the Jewish example, we see the firm resolve of the world Jewry to ensure that the tragic history of the Holocaust is permanently etched on human memory…Many major cities in Europe and America have a Holocaust memorial built to perpetuate the memory of six million Jews.

Instructively, the people of Rwanda have quickly recovered from the genocide that marked the Hutu and Tutsi conflict of the early 1990s to build an ambitious economy. They have erected the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre which opened in April 2004to perpetuate that memory, renew their pact with their past and solemnly declare to themselves and say – never again.’

Preaching the homily, Most Rev Paulinus Ezeokafor situated the issue of remembrance from a Christian perspective, pointing out that without an ethics of remembrance, memory could be abused. ‘I heard that our celebration today is understood by some people as a way of placating the spirits of departed and forgotten Igbo sons and daughters who are now blocking the progress of the Igbo nation. To open up the path of Ndi Igbo to peace and prosperity, these aggrieved spirits need to be celebrated. This interpretation is indeed very far from our Christian belief about death and life after death. It also violates the challenge from the Book of Job to continue to trust God and know that in the mystery of God’s love and justice, virtuous and upright people could suffer.  The high point of this mystery of God allowing the suffering of the just is seen in Jesus Christ, whom it pleased God to crush with suffering.’

The close of the ecumenical service only brought the first part of the ceremony to an end. At the lighting of a thousand candles, the Square reverberated with the thunder of cannon shots. It served to announce the act of burial and further marked the traditional salute to bid the dead farewell among the Igbo.

Accompanied by a select number of dignitaries, Chief Obiano strolled to the spot of the memorial plaque, acknowledging cheers with swinging motions of his milky fly whisk. The plaque unveiled, the programme transited into the second part, the condolences and funeral festivity.

A burst of musical instruments erupted from various points of the arena, moving the already roused crowd to excitement. Delegations of market associations from the five South – Eastern states jostled for space even as dance groups competed for air dominance. By this time, Obiano had taken his seat at the obi to receive the callers on condolence. Market groups, delegations from the twenty – one local government areas of Anambra State and a host of civil society groups, took their turns paying tribute to the war dead. More cannon shots boomed.

Dance and drama reigned as masquerades, as diverse in costume as in role, made their appearance. The izaga simplified definition of onomatopoeia with its zig zag movement as it walked on long stilts.  Agaba or okwomma wore its warrior expression but kept its elastic valour in check. Ugo, the golden bird enacted a few dance steps, preened itself here and there and filed out, postponing full performance to another day.

But you could not deny the ijele its majesty, its pomp and pageantry. It stood out in size, stature and colour. A spirit of class, it left you wondering after its graceful poise; its breadth and depth. Ajofia was unique in its forbidding image. Adorned in pitch black animal wool, it struck a beastly note in movement and ghoulish mood in appearance as it continually emitted smoke. It is a mask that makes rare appearances and had reportedly last accompanied the Ikemba Nnewi, Dim Emeka Ojukwu on condolence at the funeral of his in law, late C.C. Onoh.

The War Memorial Centre is to eventually have its permanent site along the expressway close to the Central Bank of Nigeria complex even as compilation of register of war casualties continues.

In the estimation of some analysts, the impact naturally accruable from the ceremony has been downgraded by the non participation of other state governments in the zone.  Chief Victor Umeh, APGA national chairman, believes it was a worthwhile outing. ‘We will get there’, he says. ‘It will be an annual memorial. I’m optimistic the other states will come aboard. It takes the courage of one man to show the way.’

For Chief Emeka Onuorah, Chairman, Njikoka Local Government of Anambra State, a milestone was recorded with the event. ‘This is history updated. But it is not only history refreshed. With this initiative of Governor Obiano, history, religion, culture and philosophy find a confluence.  There’s a lot to learn from it all.’  Onuorah also pointed to the psychological relief of knowing that your burden is shared by others as another important benefit. ‘I have no doubt that many hearts troubled by the events of the war will feel pacified after today.’


Written by Ifeanyi Afuba from Nimo, Anambra State.


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