Jaja Wachuku was a great man. He was a Pan-Africanist – they believe in the unity and self-reliance of the African people. He was the first speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, the first Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations and the first Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Jaja’s Family and Education
His father was the king of Ngwa and his mother was a pioneer women’s rights advocate and humane royal land owner.
He was well educated in different schools up to the tertiary education. He went further to attain skills in carpentry, farming and metal works as well as an avid tennis, football and cricket player.
Jaja in Dublin
Jaja went on to study in Dublin, Ireland. There, he achieved great success becoming a lawyer and joining several organizations. One such organization was the Association of Students of African Descent. He was secretary and then president as well as the founder of other organizations before he came back to Nigeria to fight for the end of colonial rule and the independence from the British.
Jaja: Back in Nigeria – Politics
Jaja came back to Nigeria in the same ship as Nnamdi Azikiwe. He was present at Gold Coast (present day Ghana) when Nnamdi Azikiwe spoke to Joseph B. Danquah about Kwame Nkrumah.
He joined the NCNC and became the party’s legal advisor. Jaja got involved in the agitation at that time, famously giving a controversial lecture where he called Lagos a “no man’s land”.
In 1949, Jaja founded a youth movement called New African Party and he affiliated it with the NCNC. This even got the attention of the people of London who sent a letter.
Jaja Wachukwu with Nnamdi Azikiwe founded the African Continental Bank. As the bank’s regional director, he facilitated the launch of branches in Aba, Enugu, Port Harcourt and Calabar.
He became very heavily involved with politics beginning from the grassroots. First, he became the village councilor and later becoming a member of the Ngwa Native Authority.
Jaja was elected as the second member of the Eastern House of Assembly. From 1952 to 1953, Wachuku was elected Deputy Leader of the NCNC and Chairman of the Parliamentary Party when there was crisis in Nigeria’s Eastern Region – resulting in the dissolution of the Eastern House of Assembly.
In 1954, Jaja lost the Eastern Regional election and left the House of Representatives. Later on in 1954, when the principle of direct election to the House of Representatives was introduced, he was re-elected first member for the Aba Division; as well as member of United Nigeria Independence.
In 1957, for the following three years, he was appointed member of the Local Education Authority and chairman of the board of Education in the Eastern Region of Nigeria. During the same period, Wachuku was also Chairman of Aba Divisional Committee of the NCNC.
From 1958 to 1959, Jaja was Chairman of the Business Committee in the House of Representatives of Nigeria. He was also a member of the Parliamentary Committee on the Nigerianization of the Federal Civil Service. He wrote the Committee’s Report assisted by Michael O. Ani.
In 1959, Wachuku was re-elected into the House of Representatives from Aba Division; and was, subsequently, elected the first indigenous Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives.
He married Rhoda Idu Oona Onumonu (1920–1994) in 1951. She fondly called her husband “Anucha.” Rhoda went to primary school in Imo State, Nigeria, and later attended Women Training College (WTC), Umuahia; as well as Achimota College, Gold Coast (Ghana). She also studied at West of Scotland College of Domestic Science, Glasgow
Jaja and Rhoda had five children and after the devastating civil war, they adopted numerous orphans.
Jaja, Speaker of the House
Jaja replaced Sir Frederic Metcalfe of Great Britain to become the first indigenous speaker of the House of Representatives.
His most notable work was receiving Nigeria’s Instrument of Independence – also known as Freedom Charter, on 1 October 1960 from Princess Alexandra of Kent – Elizabeth II (Queen of the United Kingdom)’s representative at the Nigerian Independence ceremonies.
Jaja: Ambassador to the United Nations
He was known to be lively and enthusiastic and wise and determined in diplomatic dealings. Jaja hoisted Nigeria’s flag as the 99th member of the United Nations on 7th October 1960. He was also instrumental in Nigeria becoming the 58th member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Jaja was quoted once as saying
“I am losing confidence in the great powers. They are climbing from the pedestal of greatness to the pedestal of insanity. We expect leadership from them; they give us destruction. We expect wisdom from them; they give us lack of knowledge….“
He was lambasting the Eastern and Western Blocs for not ending their differences and quarrels.
Jaja: Foreign Affairs Minister
Before becoming the minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the then Prime Minister doubled as the minister of Foriegn Affairs. He later appointed Jaja Wachukwu to the position.
As Foreign Affairs Minister, Jaja organised the Afro/Asian group of States and worked to get Liberia voted into the United Nations Security Council and Ethiopia into the Economic and Social Council. He also worked towards the amendment of the United Nations Charter – increasing the Security Council from eleven to fifteen – taking into account African nations.
Ambassador Owen W. Roberts, United States’ 1964 to 1965 Political Officer in Lagos, Nigeria strikingly said:
“The Nigerians, whatever their tribe, are a very strong, very assertive group. Foreign Minister Jaja Wachuku was a surprise for many American diplomats because he considered himself as having a status equivalent to the British, French, German,or Russian Ministers. Wachuku demanded that much attention and respect. The Nigerians were, and have been, very independent. Senior U.S. echelons weren’t used to dealing with Africans as assertive and as strong minded as the Nigerians were. I found this nice because the Nigerians were absolutely always open with you, and would hit you over the head with whatever the problem was. They were entitled to respect and helped gain it for Africans. Ambassador Matthews was not the kind of person to go in and tell Prime Minister Balewa or Foreign Minister Jaja Wachuku how to do things….”
Jaja preferred quiet consultation in search of solutions to continental and international problems. During the Rivonia Trial when Nelson Mandela and some others who were charged with treason and were given the death penalty, Jaja met quietly with the British High Commissioner in Lagos and the United States Ambassador. He strongly urged them to intercede with their governments. The prisoners were later taken off of death row.
Jaja foresaw the danger of recognising military coup as a way to change government. In Ethiopia, he strongly refused to accord recognition to the Nicolas Grunitzky Government in Togo after 13 January 1963 first coup in that country. Jaja believed that if that first African coup by the Togolese army was recognised as a way to change government, then, coup-making would spread in Africa.
Jaja: Aviation Minister
1965 to midday 14 January 1966 saw Jaja as Nigeria’s minister of aviation. Jaja initiated training programmes for Nigeria’s first crop of Flight and Ground Officers. The Aviation Training Centre, Zaria was established during his tenure.
His vision did not go well with his party, the NCNC. Mr. Blankson was the Nigerian Airways Board chairman and also the party’s Central Working Committee chairman representing NCNC’s interest in the spoils system. Jaja fired Blankson from the chairmanship as Blankston felt he was beyond ministerial control.
The NCNC demanded the reinstatement of Blankson – otherwise the party would withdraw its Ministers from the coalition government. Thus, Nigeria was faced with a potential crisis which would have compounded the already grave state of emergency in the country.
The Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who had high respect and a soft spot for Jaja pleaded with him to reinstate Blankson and accept another ministry. Wachuku refused. Balewa even asked his wife Rhoda to plead with him, yet he refused and tendered his resignation from Parliament and as an Executive Member of Government.
Jaja during the 1966 coup
The prime minister had not accepted Jaja’s resignation when the army struck by mid-night. This ushered in the era of military coups in Nigeria.
Jaja’s official residence was surrounded by soldiers. His younger brother was with him that day, Jaja Wachuku looked through the window in the early hours of the morning and asked the soldiers: “What are you boys doing here?”
One of the soldiers replied: “Good morning, Sir. But haven’t you heard what is happening in the country?”
To which Wachuku replied: “Yes. I know you boys have taken over the Government.”
And the soldier said: “Do not be afraid, Sir. We have come to protect you for being an honest Government Minister.” Jaja Wachuku survived the military coup.
Jaja during the civil war
Jaja Anucha Wachuku retired to his home town, first to Aba and then to Nbawsi, his village when Aba fell during the war.
He participated in the struggle of his Igbo people for freedom and justice against a country that had rejected them by not protecting them from genocide by its marauding soldiers and citizens.
Jaja spoke out against the recruitment of child soldiers by Ojukwu’s Government. He was arrested and detained by the Ojukwu Government. Jaja remained in custody until the end of the war when he released by a young Nigerian Army Officer called Theophilus Danjuma.
The Nigerian soldiers were shocked and dismayed that their first Speaker of the House of Representatives, first Ambassador to the United Nations and first Foreign Affairs Minister was in detention for exercising his freedom of speech and fundamental human rights.
So, Theophilus Danjuma and his military battalion gave Jaja Wachuku adequate protection and security. Jaja was escorted home by Nigerian soldiers.
Jaja managed to prevent the looting and destruction of his amazing library located at his country home. Jaja’s library was described as the biggest one man library in West Africa. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa used to call Jaja Wachuku the most “Bookish Minister”.
After the war, Jaja was involved in Community development affairs while practising his law profession.
From 1970 to 1978, he served as Chairman of Nbawsi and Umuomainta Town Council, and also chairman Nsulu Community Council. He was also a Founding Member of the Movement for the creation of Imo State, and leader, until his death.
Jaja during the second republic
Jaja was on the platform of the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), twice (1978 and 1983) elected Senator representing Aba Senatorial Zone.
At the Senate of Nigeria, he became NPP Leader and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During this period, he made various dangerous secret trips to South Africa for meetings with President Pieter Willem Botha to put pressure on him for the dismantling of the obnoxious apartheid system; including the unconditional pardon and release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.
On the floor of the Nigerian Senate, Jaja made his 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 was later removed from the Foreign Relations Committee because of officially calling for dialogue with South Africa: Interestingly, during the 1990 years, when Nigeria started diplomatic relations with South Africa, most prominent politicians and historians in the country called for an apology to Jaja Wachuku. In 1983, he was re-elected to the Nigerian Senate until the Buhari military coup of December 1983.
Jaja Wachuku received many honours, including
- The title of Ugo Ngwa[Eagle and Pride of the Ngwa people]
- City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Blue Seal
- Key to the City of Atlanta, Georgia,
- On 20 October 1961, in its “The World” Section, Timewrote an article and news report on Jaja Wachuku and his diplomatic activities at the United Nations entitled “Pride of Africa.”
- Commendation, Commander of the Order of Niger Republic, Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria [CFR],
- D: Doctor of Laws Honoris Causaby Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland,
- Enyi – Elephant: wisdom and strength – Abia title and Merit Award by the Government of Abia State, Nigeria.
- Posthumous special Golden Jubilee Independence Anniversary Award by President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria on 30 September 2010.
- Hero of the Struggle for Nigeria’s Independence from Great Britain and a Pioneer Political Leader Honour by President on 28 February 2014 during Nigeria’s 100-year anniversary celebrations.
Born in 1918, Wachuku was 78 years on his death at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) Enugu, Nigeria, during the late morning of Thursday, 7 November 1996.