The king of Derby

Photo: Susan Schulman

Photo: Susan Schulman

On or around 15th August 2013 (in rural Nigeria people can be tremendously hazy about precise dates) a jubilant crowd made its way to the Ngamikpo IV Palace in Oyofo Oghe. The people chanted as they marched and were joined by neighbourhood children who dashed into the dusty road to take part in the fun. As they arrived at the 12 foot-high palace gates with their bright gold lettering, they called out for their ruler. “Igwe!” (King) they shouted.

The king, 67-year-old Igwe Engr. Chris Ejiofor (Ezekwesili) Ngamikpo IV, appeared in front of the palace. Resplendent in floor-length black brocade robes embroidered with delicate gold filigree birds and flowers, he wore necklaces made of ivory and coral and a gold crown trimmed with red velvet and leopard skin. Gold beads, hung in strands from the sides of the crown, swayed gently as he approached his people. The crowd roared. “Igwe! Igwe!”

The procession marked the return of a group of the king’s subjects from a successful raid on an illegal settlement on his land. The king surveyed the scene with satisfaction. It’s fair to say this kind of thing rarely happened during his four decades in Derby.

1960-1967: From Harrogate to Biafra

Chris Ejiofor grew up in Zaria, an ancient, largely Muslim city in Nigeria’s arid north, where his father was a prosperous businessman and the family lived in comfort. In 1960, aged 14, he joined the Nigerian army, proudly swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth.

In 1962 he won a military scholarship to study in the UK, at the Army Apprentice College in Harrogate. “It was a beautiful experience,” he recalls, “although in those days some people had the impression that black people were not intelligent.” He did his best to dispel this myth, graduating with flying colours and winning multiple awards for excellence, as well as being feted in a BBC radio interview and profiled in the local press.

Ejiofor returned to Nigeria with high hopes, eager to make a contribution to the building of his newly independent nation. It was not to be. In 1966, military coups plunged the country into civil war, split the army and ignited ethnic tensions. Pogroms were conducted against the Igbo people which claimed more than 30,000 civilian lives and saw a million Igbo fleeing to seek refuge in their ancestral homeland in southeast Nigeria. Ejiofor’s family was amongst them. Ejiofor himself was based in Lagos with his battalion, and got out in the nick of time after being tipped off that fellow army troops were en route to his base to kill all Igbos.

Ejiofor returned to Nigeria with high hopes, eager to make a contribution to the building of his newly independent nation. It was not to be”

On 29th May 1966, yet another massacre began in the north. The widely broadcast anthem of this pogrom was a bloodthirsty chant in the Hausa language:

Mu je mu kashe nyamiri | Let’s go kill the damned Igbo
Mu kashe maza su da yan maza su | Kill off their men and boys
Mu chi mata su da yan mata su | Rape their wives and daughters
Mu kwashe kaya su | Cart off their property

“People were very, very angry. There were demonstrations everywhere, saying we can’t have this – if they don’t want us, why don’t we have our own land, our own nation,” Ejiofor remembers. “Biafra came out of necessity rather than desire.”

Britain, whose Shell-BP venture had been first to discover and export oil from Nigeria’s delta, lined up in support of Nigerian federal troops”

On 30th May 1967 General C Odumegwu Ojukwu took the microphone at Enugu State House and declared the independence of the south east of Nigeria and the creation of the Republic of Biafra, citing the massacres of the eastern peoples as the reason for secession. Ejiofor was in the crowd of onlookers. “It was a momentous day,” he remembers. “The whole city was vibrating with joy and hope.”

Photo: Dennis Lee Royle/AP/Press Association Images

Federal Nigerian troops walk towards the frontier with Biafra. Photo: Dennis Lee Royle/AP/Press Association Images

The territory of Biafra included the oil-rich Niger Delta. If this made independence an economically plausible response to the slaughter of the Igbo people, it also put Biafra into the crosshairs of politics and commerce. Britain, whose Shell-BP venture had been first to discover and export oil from Nigeria’s delta, lined up in support of Nigerian federal troops. The major world powers refused to recognise Biafra.

Photo: Frank Leonard Tewkesbury/AP/Press Association Images

Pro-Biafra protests in central London, 1968. Photo: Frank Leonard Tewkesbury/AP/Press Association Images

It was a bitter pill for Ejiofor to swallow. He had been confident that Britain and its allies would come to the support of what he saw as a just cause and that war would be averted. “I realised that the world had more of an interest in the resources than in the people who were killed,” he says.

War began in earnest. General Ojukwu appointed the 21-year-old Captain Ejiofor as his aide-de-camp and the young officer took his place at the side of the defender of Biafra.

1970: The fall

After initial successes which saw them get to within 130 miles of Lagos, the Biafran army was pushed back by Nigerian federal forces supported by Britain and Russia. A million lives were lost in two and half years of war and, besieged and diplomatically marooned, Biafra eventually ran out of options.

The last time Ejiofor saw Ojukwu was on 10th January 1970. “He was coming out of a meeting and I knew something was wrong. It was like he had had a fit.” General Ojukwu left the country by plane the very next day. On 13th January 1970, Biafra surrendered. Panic ensued. “It was like the end of the world,” says Ejiofor. “Shells were exploding everywhere and nobody knew where they were going.”

Ejiofor crammed his fiancée Christine and her 12-year-old brother, Obie, his sister Cecilia, his brother Arinze and his cousin Chinedu, eight, into his Volkswagen Beetle and they set off together towards the town of Omanze in search of safety. Before they could get there, they were stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint. Ejiofor got out and instructed the soldier to let them pass, but was struck across the face. Christine screamed. A fight broke out and the soldiers raised their guns: Ejiofor tried to reason with them, telling them he was Ojukwu’s aide-de-camp.

Photo courtesy of Chris Ejiofor

Pro-Biafra protests in central London, 1968. Photo courtesy of Chris Ejiofor

But the soldiers knew exactly who he was. Angered at what they saw as Ojukwu’s desertion, they had rebelled. Ejiofor was beaten and tossed into a deep pit in the ground. As his eyes slowly adapted to the darkness, he could make out around 20 other men. “It was my bleakest moment,” he told me. “I had lost everything, the people of Nigeria had rejected me, the world powers had rejected me and then my own people turn against me and throw me into a pit and try to kill me… It was just like going down to hell.” Then, finally, came a stroke of luck: a sympathetic officer had heard of his capture and helped him to escape.

Ejiofor now knew that if he didn’t leave the country, he’d be killed. After rounding up his party, he set out in search of a way to flee abroad. But by now, all the airports were closed. They headed for Uga airstrip where Ejiofor had been posted early in the war, and joined the desperate group already waiting there, praying a plane would come.  At last the drone of engines approached, the airstrip lights flashed on and a relief plane landed.

The people of Nigeria had rejected me, the world powers had rejected me and then my own people turn against me and throw me into a pit and try to kill me”

The plane had barely touched down on the narrow landing strip when the waiting crowd stampeded in a frantic rush to get on. Christine and Cecilia were scrambling onto the plane behind Ejiofor when suddenly the staccato beat of machine gun fire filled the air. Bullets perforated the plane and screams rang out as the engines roared to life. The pilot struggled to take off, a man tumbled from the boarding ladder to the ground, and bombs exploded around the plane as it gained height, its door open. Inside, a man lay on the floor bleeding profusely from bullet wounds.

Christine and Cecilia were the last two passengers to make it onto the last plane out of Biafra. They were crying hysterically. The two children – Chinedu and Obie – hadn’t made it onboard. The two women wept inconsolably as the plane swooped away from the wreckage of their world.

Ejiofor sat silently, staring out of the window, sinking into a deep depression. “I felt like an earthquake had opened the ground and swallowed me up,” he says. “Suddenly I was a refugee. I had nothing. No home. Nowhere to go. It was like Year Zero.” He was 24 years old.

1971-2009: Life in Derby

“England for me is like a mother country.” Ejiofor is reflecting on the nation which became his home when he arrived as a refugee in 1971. “It was a place to start life afresh.” After completing a course in aeronautical engineering in Bristol, he got a job as avionics supervisory inspector at East Midlands airport. He and Christine, by now married, moved to Derby.

Chris Ejiofor at work. Photo courtesy of Chris Ejiofor

Chris Ejiofor at work. Photo courtesy of Chris Ejiofor

But the England of the 1970s was not like the one he had left six years earlier as a new graduate from Harrogate. There were no press profiles this time. As a series of economic blows pushed unemployment and inflation to post-war highs, immigrants were seen as part of the problem and frustration turned to racism. “People were saying ‘go back to where you came from,’” says Ejiofor. Time and again, promotions were granted to less qualified, white skinned colleagues. And Ejiofor’s own feelings toward Britain were complicated by his bitterness about Biafra. “When I first got to England, I was boiling angry,” he says. “I blamed the British for not stopping the war.”

Ejiofor’s luck changed with the economic meltdown of 1978. “With the Winter of Discontent came fortunes for the Igwe,” he says, laughing. The company he was working for, Dukeries Avionics, went bankrupt. In 1982, he bought out his former employer’s business and renamed it Ejway (Ejiofor Way) Avionics. Now a businessman and employer, he had power. “Now, I could discriminate if I wanted to,” he says.

With his young family in Derby. Photo courtesy of Chris Ejiofor

With his young family in Derby. Photo courtesy of Chris Ejiofor

Ejway Avionics thrived and Ejiofor became the first black man to be certified by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority. He became chairman of the Derby Catholic Racial Justice Group and alongside his wife became an active participant in the local church. They also worked to raise money for important charitable projects in Ejiofor’s former home town of Oyofo Oghe in Nigeria.

Four children, all now grown and living in England, were born and raised in Derby.  The family home on Louvain Road overflows with their sports trophies and awards. Ejiofor had become embedded in English life. And then, one night in 2008, he got a call from Oyofo Oghe.

This time it was not the usual request for funds. Instead, the voice on the other end of the phone asked whether he would be willing to be considered for election as King – Igwe – of Oyofo Oghe and the surrounding area. It was nearly 40 years since Ejiofor had even lived in Nigeria.  It was preposterous. He laughed off the suggestion, thinking it was a joke, and forgot all about it.

He and Christine were watching TV a few weeks later when the phone rang again. “Congratulations, Igwe. You have been unanimously elected King!” Stunned, Ejiofor accepted.

December 2009: Return of the King

It takes almost an hour to cover the heavily potholed 20 miles from the regional capital of Enugu to Oyofo Oghe. It takes even longer if the armed policemen stop you, as is their wont, to hit you up for whatever they can. The road turns to dust at the turn off for Oyofo, and as we neared the village we saw the massive road grader hired by Ejiofor rolling back and forward on the dirt road, throwing up a huge cloud of dust as it attempted to even it out in time for his coronation day.

Ejiofor welcomed us warmly to his new kingdom. Forty years after the failure of Biafra, he had been given a second chance to bring progress to his people, and had grabbed it with both hands. With the same commitment he once brought to bear as Ojukwu’s right hand man, he had arrived in Nigeria for his coronation determined, this time, to succeed.

The coronation of Igwe Chris Ejiofor. Photo: Susan Schulman

The coronation of Igwe Chris Ejiofor. Photo: Susan Schulman

Nancy, a friend of the family, had called round to see Ejiofor. She explained to me that the job of Igwe is fiercely coveted. She lowered her voice and said, “people kill to be Igwe. He must be very careful.” In a whisper she confided that her father had been in the running for Igwe, but that he had been poisoned. Ejiofor overheard our conversation. “Yes, it is true,” he said. “People fight over the position of Igwe, and people lose their lives for it.”

But Ejiofor did have one trump card. It is all but unheard of for a king to be selected unanimously, as he had been. He would need this powerful mandate. He had big ambitions for his largely impoverished and undeveloped kingdom of 100,000.

First and foremost, he was determined to bring what he sees as British values of integrity, honesty and transparency to bear in the notoriously corrupt Nigerian landscape, creating a foundation for development and progress. Next, he would bring running water, electricity and roads; develop cottage industries and tourism and build a town hall and a shopping centre. Finally, he would reject the primitive belief in magic and the traditional practices of native witchdoctors for which Oyofo Oghe is widely known. Instead, he would encourage people to embrace modernity and Christianity.

To achieve his goals, Igwe carefully handpicked a trusted group to serve as his executive cabinet.  He had complete confidence in them. It was a time brimming with optimism.

The day of the coronation arrived. Marquees formed a semi-circle around the town plaza, fanning out from the regal pergola, which was still being finished. Tables and chairs were being tied with bows.  Someone swept half-heartedly at the red dusty ground. No one seemed the least bit hurried, nor had anyone arrived, despite it already being well after the scheduled start time.

A commemorative programme. Photo: Susan Schulman

A commemorative programme. Photo: Susan Schulman

Eventually the guests turned up and proceedings got underway. It was a glorious riot of colour and music: women in fabulously patterned wraps and grand headdresses; tribal chiefs in gold robes, children in their Sunday best. The royal thrones were inched into place as the last bits of thatch were nailed onto the pergola roof.

Ejiofor arrived in a silver minivan. Wearing an elaborately embroidered ruby robe, he raised his staff to the wild cheers of the crowd.  Accompanied by two bagpipe players, he mounted his throne.

An endless procession of musicians and villagers dragging goats circled past the royal couple in tribute, before a solitary dancer gyrated towards the king. Wearing a red top cut off at the midriff, he twirled and jumped ever more fiercely, building into an otherworldly frenzy. A leopardskin-robed man joined in. Their dancing came to an explosive crescendo before they swiveled off to deafening applause.

The moment had come. The King was crowned. The crowd shouted with joy.

April 2010: Royal blues

“I am just totally devastated. You only get promises that something is going to be performed but nothing ever comes of it. So now what do I do? How do I transform this?”

Three months after the coronation, we were talking in the King’s Derby home. He was splitting his time between Nigeria and Derby, where he still had a business, commitments and obligations that needed tying up. His first few months as King had been challenging.

Igwe Chris Ejiofor at the Ngamikpo IV Palace in Oyofo Oghe. Photo: Susan Schulman

Igwe Chris Ejiofor at the Ngamikpo IV Palace in Oyofo Oghe. Photo: Susan Schulman

“Before I was made Igwe, I already knew the system was a failure,” he said. “But I now realize the battle is going to be tougher than I first envisaged… What I have discovered is very painful. It makes one feel very dejected. People who are wearing the hats of representatives of the government are… just thugs and people who are just there to pilfer and take money from the treasury and steal people’s wealth and take people’s land.”

Phone networks fail. The electricity cuts out every ten minutes. Nothing works.

He also faced opposition from the witch doctors within his community, whose beliefs he rejected. “These people are testing me and trying to kill me,” says Ejiofor. But the Igwe is not a man to give up. His third war – ‘The Cold War’, as he described it – had begun.

2013: The incorruptible youth

The King is radiant in his regal attire as he meets me at the brand new Enugu airport. His gleaming Hyundai stands out amongst the chaotic assortment of vehicles in the airport carpark. We head to the royal palace at Oyofo Oghe without anyone trying to shake us down: the HRH plates ensure a smooth passage.

The royal car with its HRH numberplate. Photo: Susan Schulman

The royal car with its HRH numberplate. Photo: Susan Schulman

Turning off to Oyofo, we glide onto a now-tarmacked road. We pass the dirt village square where the coronation was held and little else seems changed until we reach the Royal Palace, where there are brand new gates and a new room is being constructed at the top. The king takes to his throne and greets his advisors. The original cabinet members in whom the King had such confidence have all been fired. The five chiefs here today are his new executive cabinet.

Ejiofor has spent much of the last three years campaiging against corruption. “Everyone was doing it, right down to the grassroots,” he says. “Even children.” The Igwe’s minivan was used behind his back as a taxi, run into the ground and falsely re-registered to a stranger by his trusted driver, a family member. “You can’t trust anyone at all,” says Ejiofor. “It is every man for himself.”

Oyofo Oghe went without power for months after it was turned off by the supplier, NEPA, for non-payment of bills. Determined to get to the bottom of the issue, the king discovered that although two million naira (£7,775) in fees for the electricity had been duly collected from local homes by Oyofo council, NEPA had recorded payments of only 80,000  naira (£311) towards a total bill of 500,000 naira (£1,950). Which left a staggering 1.92 million naira unaccounted for and the community cut off.

Ejiofor has spent much of the last three years campaiging against corruption. ‘Everyone was doing it, right down to the grassroots,’ he says. ‘Even children’.”

As Ejiofor pushed back against the corruption, he met with resistance. But he has continued to work hard through all the provocations and upsets. As custodian of the land, judge and arbitrator, head of security and of all matters concerning properties, events, feasts and festivals, his job is never-ending. I watch him deal with a frightened subject who has had multiple attempts made on his life by a man who wants to steal his business (he advises to avoid trying black magic and seeks to arrange a confrontation with the aggressor). The Igwe’s next visitor is a disgruntled mother-in-law, upset with her son’s wife. She is followed by a man burdened by an excessive medical bill for his son. The stream of petitions and problems is endless.

Despite the challenges, the Igwe has made progress. He has resolved the electricity problem and water is running once more. Children crowd around a row of shiny new taps, jostling to fill colourful buckets. Nearby, the town hall is in the process of being expanded and the yearned-for shopping centre has been constructed.

But the biggest turning point in Igwe’s battle to bring integrity and development to his people was his action against the illegal settlements in August. The Nigerian Supreme Court had condemned this settlement back in 1966, and ordered the settlers to leave within seven days. Nearly five decades later, the illegal settlement had more than quadrupled in size and more construction was underway.

Ejiofor had decided to take a stand. He had ordered the immediate demolition of two of the settlers’ recently-erected structures, calling for six volunteers to put themselves forward to carry out the action. More than 50 stepped forward.

The night before the raid its leader, Ernest Iyke-Ojuegegiofor, received a phone call from an unidentified stranger who implored him not to take action but instead to send over details of his bank account, into which he promised to deposit two million naira, an absolute fortune in this impoverished locale and more money than driver Ernest is likely to see in his whole life. The settlers were trying to buy him off as they had apparently bought off his predecessors. But Iyke-Ojuegegiofor was not to be persuaded.

The raid went ahead and was swift, decisive and – at the Igwe’s insistence – non violent. And the raiders returned jubilant, determined for change. That night, branches and greenery were twisted into a shrine to the spirit Bonoshie Alushie and a ceremony was held. Birds, goats and cows were sacrificed for the blood needed to enable the spirit to carry out its deadly threat. Anyone who now accepts a bribe will be killed by Bonoshie Alushie. Virtually the whole community – save its Christian king – came, in a sign of unanimous support.

Ejiofor’s decisive and forceful response to an age-old land issue had united the youth behind him and shown what can happen when the temptations of corruption are resisted. And with the support of the youth – and of Bonoshie Alushie – Ejiofor can start to resurrect some of the dreams which died on that Biafran airstrip back in 1970.

“I feel like I am part of the history of this land once again,” Ejiofor tells me. “It is something that I never dreamed of.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #12 of Delayed Gratification

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