THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JAJA WACHUKWU
Welcome to the segment “This week in History”. According to Robert Heinlein, “A generation which ignores history has no past and no future”. Most Brownites did not take history classes in high school and few may not even know when Nigeria gained her independence. Even if the aim is to japa, it is important that you know a little about your history, our history. After all, we do want to have a ‘past’ and a ‘future’. It also helps that history is beautiful. We will be going on an interesting journey each week that you should not miss for anything.
Jaja Wachukwu (1918 – 1996) was a royal prince, not of Zamunda, but of Ngwaland, now in present day Abia State and he is of course different from King Jaja of Opobo. His name might not ring a bell to you but perhaps the picture below would:
That’s right. He was the popular Nigerian man who slept during a United Nations meeting. I believe when this picture trended on Twitter, you might have thought him to be another incompetent Nigerian leader, or perhaps, you decided that your ‘sleeping in class disorder’ was something you inherited from your forefathers. Well, Jaja Wachukwu was far more than a chronic sleeper. He was a Nigerian statesman, lawyer, politician, diplomat, humanitarian and a Pan-Africanist.
Jaja Wachukwu was the first of many good things. He was the first speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives. He was the first Nigerian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He was also the first Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Jaja Wachukwu was the first indigenous Speaker of the House of Representatives of Nigeria, between 1959 and 1960. During his tenure as the Speaker, he received Nigeria’s Instrument of Independence (Freedom Charter) on 1st October 1960, her Independence Day, from Princess Alexandra of Kent who was the representative of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain at the Independence Day ceremonies. From 1960 to 1961, he served as first Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations as well as the Federal Minister for Economic Development. It was during this period that the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Police Force made their debut with the United Nations’ peacekeeping effort.
Jaja Wachukwu served as Nigeria’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth relations from 1961 to 1965. While he was in office, his diplomatic efforts helped save Nelson Mandela and others from the death penalty at the Rivonia Trial (1963-1964). In a sense, he was instrumental to Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s long walk to freedom.
He was elected as Senator for Aba Senatorial Zone twice (1978 and 1983) under the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP). At the Senate, he became NPP Leader and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Again, he made repeated trips to South Africa to put pressure on President Pieter Willem Botha for the dismantling of the apartheid system and also pushed for the unconditional pardon and release of Mandela and other political prisoners. He got criticism and backlash but that did not stop him. During this period, he made the famous prophetic statement that the defeat of apartheid in South Africa “shall flow from the barrels of dialogue and contact, not from the barrels of isolation and guns…”
Jaja Wachukwu was a strong diplomat. In an article titled “Pride of Africa”, the New York Time Magazine described him as “Nigeria’s dynamic U.N. Ambassador” – stating that because of his worthy, very lively and enthusiastic diplomatic style with a lot of energy, wisdom and determination: “Nigeria, less than two months after winning its independence, is on its way to becoming one of the major forces in Africa. And some unconfirmed sources even say that the “sleeping on duty” was as a protest against a racist comment made during the meeting.
Yes, Jaja Wachukwu was also well educated. He came first in the whole of Ogoja Province in the First School Leaving Certificate Examination and earned himself an automatic scholarship for his secondary school education. He graduated with a first class honours degree in Legal Sciences from Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, Ireland.
Jaja Wachukwu received several awards in his lifetime and even posthumously. In 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan conferred on Jaja Wachukwu a posthumous special Golden Jubilee Independence Anniversary Award for his stellar contributions towards the development of Nigeria. More recently, in 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan honoured him as a Hero of the Struggle for Nigeria’s Independence from Great Britain and a Pioneer Political Leader Honour. Only last year, he got a “Prominent Portrait” Honour from the College Historical Society, Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin, Ireland at the 250th anniversary of the college’s historical society.
There is a lot more to say about Jaja Wachukwu. We remember him today for good leadership and good diplomacy. See you next week!