The Nigerian Civil War ended in 1970 with millions of lives lost but like every other mega conflicts, it spawned a thousand other controversies. In Nigeria, one of this is the issue of properties abandoned by the Igbos in the heat of the conflict. In December 1985, this issue will reach a cataclysmic point involving the leader of the Biafran rebellion, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojuwku, his wife, Stella and the Lagos State Government. Ojuwku had led millions of Igbos and others in the old eastern region in a secession which eventually led to the civil war. When the war ended, Ojukwu fled to Ivory Coast but in 1984, he returned to Nigeria and settled in Lagos.
In Lagos, Ojukwu resided at the famous Villaska Building at 29, Queens Drive. The property was said to belong to Ojukwu Transport Limited, a company that was established by Ojukwu’s late father among scores of other properties in Lagos. But the Lagos State Government was not going to have any of that. So on the 4th of September, 1985, the Lagos State Government, insisting that Ojukwu was not the legitimate owner of the house, gave him an ultimatum of seven days to either vacate the residence or face the consequences once the deadline elapsed on the 11th of September. An infuriated Ojukwu derided the order as nonsense and dragged the state government to court praying before the court that the state government should be forbidden from throwing him out of the house. Ojukwu carried the day as the court granted his prayer.
The Lagos State government fumed and fired a countersuit where it argued that Ojukwu forcibly entered an ‘abandoned property.’ While admitting that the property did belong to Ojukwu Transport Limited, the state government argued that the company had not entered any claim. The judge handling the case saw sense in Lagos State government’s prayer thus throwing confusion into the Ojukwu camp. The Lagos State government, headed by Air Commodore Gbolahan Mudashiru the military governor, did not waste any further time and promptly seized upon the court ruling. Ojukwu was thrown out of the building and to this, he said, summoning his legendary powers of oratory:
‘The concept of abandoned properties is totally wrong. If we really intend to build a united nation, then we must avoid a situation where a citizen of Nigeria can be said to have abandoned a property in Nigeria, particularly when he is still alive and seeking to retrieve his property.’
As far as Ojukwu was concerned, the civil war was not over yet. His wife, Mrs. Stella Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who incidentally, was a lawyer agreed absolutely with her husband saying:
‘…our interpretation of what is happening is that the civil war has not ended.’
But he was a fighter and would not relent in his struggle and claim over what was built by his father. He went straight to the Appeal Court and he won. The Appeal Court ruled that the Lagos State Government did not receive the blessing of the court before removing Ojukwu and his loved ones from the controversial building. The Lagos State government had resorted to what lawyers call ‘self-help’ immediately the earlier ruling was in their favour. The legendary Ojukwu was wronged but did not take the laws into his hands; he upheld the rule of law and won. For a man who once took the laws into his own hands, that is a lesson for every one of us.
Credits: An Enduring Question, Newswatch, December 2, 1985, pages 14, 15, 16, 17.