Bianca Ojukwu exudes beauty. And it is not beauty without brain. To say that she is intelligent is to state the obvious. It only takes a brief interaction to unravel the bundle of giftedness masking under the rather innocent smiles and affectionate disposition of this lawyer who seems to relish in accomplishing unconventional things. She made waves as a beauty queen in 1988 and capped it up with marrying a man old enough to be her father. All that is history given that Bianca has made an outstanding success of a relationship everyone thought was doomed to fail, a situation not helped by stiff family opposition.
Over two decades after, Bianca’s marriage to Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu has turned out the longest relationship the Ikemba ever had with any woman. That’s another unconventional success. In this interaction she gives the recipe for successful marriage and makes an unusual foray into the enigma called Ojukwu.
Then the big irony: Bianca wont let her daughter do what she did with Ojukwu. It is an interesting discussion. Excerpts:
How long have you been married to Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu
We have been into a relationship since 1989 but we got married formally on November 12, 1994. We have been together for over 20 years because we have been living together since 1989.
How old were you and how old was he at the time
Well I was 22 while he was in his mid 50s
People considered you too young for him at that time. How did you feel then.
Its not your conventional relationship. Looking back now I certainly realise that I was very young at that time but it didn’t seem to matter because we had so much in common and we had good communication. The gap was not there in our day-to-day interactions. People found the relationship a bizarre one because of the age difference but it is only now when I look back, now that I have children of my own that I realise that it was rather unusual.
You were so much in love at the time that you didn’t notice any disparity in your ages.
I don’t know whether I would classify it as being in love. I just know that the difference tended to melt away when compared to the common grounds that we had. We had a similar background and we had so much to talk about. We had common interests and we just did a lot of things together. We went to see plays at the theatre, we went on vacations and there was just no disparity in our interaction. I didn’t feel it at the time.
How come you are feeling it now
No I don’t feel it now because we have got used to each other having been together for so long. I always say to him I am like the furniture in your house. We are too used to each other. I can complete his sentences and he can complete mine. Really I think at the end of the day that’s what is imperative in every relationship. You must be able to communicate. He understands me fully and he appreciates that mine has been a life of dedication to him. I know the travails he has been through and I appreciate that a man such as him needs somebody to step in and play the role of wife, sister and mother simultaneously and give him peace of mind in his day to day life.
Would you say therefore that you were psychologically prepared to be Ojukwu’s wife
I come from a political family. If that is being psychologically prepared well I am not the one to say so. But I think I had to shoulder a lot of responsibilities beyond what somebody of my age would reasonably be expected to go through. I had to learn in the process. I think I have done well because it requires diplomacy and the fact that sometimes you have to get out of your skin to mediate in conflicts that will generally arise around a man of his stature. It’s been quite challenging but I thank God that I have been able to navigate the terrain.
Has it ever occurred to you that people never gave this marriage a chance, yet it has lasted this long. How does that make you feel
I feel blessed. I have known friends in more conventional marriages, who break up, remarry and break up again in this space of time and I am still here. I thank God for his grace because nobody gave this thing a chance of survival. In all honesty I was really young at that time and I did believe that I could handle it. Now when I look back I wonder how I did it. That was not a situation your average 22-year-old could handle. Normally the disparity ought to make the interests different. But the truth is that I didn’t miss those things the average 22-year old would want, like going to parties, clubs and the like. Those were not my interest. Though people have always said that I am very old fashioned and I didn’t have those things that propel people of my age. I wanted a stable marriage. I wanted to live with a man that I had a lot in common with and a man that I could spend the rest of my life with. Having said that the truth is that it requires a lot of sacrifice, commitment and hard work to be able to make it work.
Was it that you had to grow up to him or he had to come down to you? How was the mix
No question about that, I had to grow up to him. I had to learn to interact with people who were a lot older than I was. Generally from the time I was 22 people who were coming to our various homes were people of his age. They were his friends and by extension they have become my friends too. I give God the glory. He has some of the most dedicated, committed and loyal friends who are dedicated to him and to his struggle. I feel privileged to have met those categories of people. I consider them as family. So I had to grow up to his life.
You were not scared by that calibre of people
Don’t forget that I am the daughter of a former governor. My father was the Governor of old Anambra State, now consisting of Enugu and parts of Ebonyi. So I was certainly not intimidated because we had such regular high calibre people visiting us. There were Presidents, ex-presidents, Ambassadors, governors were frequent visitors. I was not intimidated in the least. It was just a progression. Just that the same calibre of people were now visiting in another house. The routine was basically the same, just a little bit accentuated.
Let’s talk about Ojukwu. What kind of a man is he?
I think you are in a better position. Having spent the better part of two hours with him today, I think you are probably in a better position to do that. As you can see he is a very complex man, very complex. He can be like a volcano about to erupt this minute and the next he is like a kitten. His persona switches so rapidly that it is really quite hard to pin him down, to paint a complete picture of the man. There would always be that mystery. He is kind, caring and, as you have witnessed, he is a very stubborn man. A lot of the time he gets impatient and most people find that rather intimidating. But he can be very meek. One just have to find that meeting ground of interacting with him. Once you can do that then you are on safe ground. But he can be quite difficult to decode.
Obviously he loves you and says it to anyone who cares to listen. What are the things he does differently to you that also gives you the impression that he really does love you
I think it is the absolute trust that he has in me, the faith. I think every man is looking for a replacement for his mother. That’s one thing I have learnt. In life every man looks for that woman who would not just be his wife but his mother, whose paramount objective is to ensure that he can be the best man he is meant to be. I wouldn’t say that he loves me in an irrational way.
Perhaps in me he has been able to find that combination of wife and mother. The mother element is very important because its only your mother that you would trust so absolutely to be able to deliver the best judgments and to be able to pull you back when they think you are doing something wrong. It is just to have absolute trust in your judgment and go to bed with both eyes closed. A lot of people don’t have that in their families. A lot of men find that their wives tend to be quite demanding and impatient and the men then reflect that in their attitude. But I think a woman cannot get the best out of any man by nagging him or making him feel bad and less of a man. But if you let him be a man then you get the best out of him. That’s what has helped this marriage to stay the way it is today.
You are a lawyer but you seem to be averse to politics even when you grew in a political home so to say
Well, I have seen quite a lot in my life with Ikemba and I have seen that you need to develop very tough skin to go into politics and unfortunately that’s something I am yet to develop. Until Nigeria offers an opportunity for one to be a decent politician without having to sell their soul I will continue to be averse to politics. I have hope that we will get to that stage soon because the Nigerian people are no longer willing to just sit back and watch and accept whatever is rammed down their throat. The recent election in Anambra is a pointer to that.
I understand that one or two political offers had come your way. You don’t want them or you just prefer being Ikemba’s wife.
Being Ikemba’s wife is a job on its own. These are issues that are being constantly discussed. Right now my prerogative is my husband and my family. I have a very young family. I don’t want a situation that would have my attention divided. I would like to help determine the path that my children would take. I would like to be instrumental to raising and shaping their lives. I am not saying that I cannot do that and serve the people at the same time. These were offers that were made even before the elections but I just do not feel that the time was ripe for it.
Your relationship with Ikemba is the longest he has had with any woman. Does that make you feel special
[long laughter] it must be one of two things. Its either that I am made of a sponge like material that I can absorb or that I am made of a shell like object, like a turtle back and I have found a way of making things work. Some times you are lucky in life. You just come across somebody that God says this is the person that you will stay with for the rest of your life and you just have to work at maintaining that relationship. He is working and I am working too and we both appreciate the fact that we need each other and that we both need to be as committed as we can for the relationship to work. That’s what we are doing, building on it everyday. That’s just the key. It does not make me feel special. Its not like being in Las Vegas everyday. But the high points are always more than the low points. I think if you can get 70 percent you have done very well.
How do you relate with his other grown up children and perhaps if there are other living wives.
[laughs] I like the way you put it, living wives. The fact is that at the time I met him he was a bachelor. He was not living or married to anybody at that time and that’s probably why we were able to go through a Roman Catholic wedding. We had our wedding in a Roman Catholic Church and that would have been impossible if he were designated a married man, otherwise he would have been a bigamist. I am just making the point that I met him as a bachelor. Of course he had been in a lot of other relationships but I have not had the opportunity of interacting with those people that he had had relationships with in the past.
What about his children
Oh yes. You know he has three children that are older than I am. We get on quite well. Most of the children don’t live here. They live abroad. My marriage to their father is not anything new because they live in societies where such things are not abnormal as such. They know their limits. We hold family meetings and things like that. Some times issues come up that we don’t all agree upon. At such times Ikemba steps in and sorts things out, that’s normal but generally we get on well. So far its been quite cordial and when they come on vacation they stay here and I am glad to tell you that they all have their rooms here. I have tried to make sure that we are one united family.
What I deduce from the foregoing is that you are Ojukwu’s only legitimate wife
That’s correct. If there is any body else who can present a wedding picture, a marriage certificate in the church then I am willing to defer to that person. However, we live in Africa and the church format is not the only acceptable mode. There is the traditional mode. In my own case I did not start with the traditional marriage because my parents were initially opposed to the marriage. I only went through the traditional marriage after the birth of my children. My children were present at the event. Any woman who has been married in the traditional mode is also an acceptable wife. The only time both modes come into conflict is when there is a legal contention. That’s why I am making it clear that he went through both processes with me.
You mean you are not aware of any other women who went through those processes with him.
I am not aware of any body that went through a church wedding with him. You know the Roman Catholic Church is very strict in that respect. If they had any such information they would not have done the wedding. No catholic priest would wed you if he considers you a bigamist. They wed you strictly on the basis that you are a single man.
Is he still the romantic man you met in 1989
Oh my. I think romance runs in his veins. He will never change. I am the one who is not romantic. I am very practical. But he is very poetic. By virtue of his education and interactions in life Ojukwu was raised as an aristocrat so he tends to focus more on the classics, the arts, literature and so on. When you look at him in that light you find that he cannot but be romantic. In everything he does, it comes through. Its part of his everyday life. Even now when he is not as strong as he used to be, he would still come to open doors for me to get into the car. He would ensure I am served a drink before him and things like that. He is a typical gentle man. Without a doubt if Ikemba is nothing, else he is a perfect gentleman.
Why did you say you won’t allow him to present himself again for an elective post
I think he has done his bit. There comes a time in every man’s life when you just need to find the nearest beach, find a deck chair, sit by the ocean and reflect. I think he is at that stage in his life. He has done nothing but live and breathe the Igbo course. Sometimes he would hear of some injustice somewhere and he would stay awake all night, trying to find how it can be redressed. I remember the situation of the Apo six. He would wake up at night and say to me ‘whats happening, have these people been found, what are you gleaning from the media. Any time an Igboman suffers any form of injustice, it makes his blood boil, even in situations when he feels helpless. At such times I simply pray to God that he does not have a blood condition because he see him so agitated. At such times, I also tell him to stop knocking his head against the brick wall. I think he has sacrificed everything including his family. There are things he ought to have done but didn’t have the time to do because of his struggles. Now, I think that whatever time he has left should be used for his family, to nurture the family and let other people carry on from where he left off.
You are the closest person to him and I want to know whether people will ever get to read his memoirs
Like you and everybody else I also keep my fingers crossed. But I can tell you that he has been writing but slowly though. Some times he wakes up, remembers an incident and then writes. One thing I know is that he is not writing the account in sequence, he puts down incidents as he remembers. At the moment, there is a group currently showing very strong interest in getting him to complete and publish the memoirs. But I do not know how soon that will be. And it is something that we all really need to see, to know what really happened or more importantly how his mind was working at the time, his fears, anxieties and aspirations, what he wanted to achieve and why he took some of the decisions he took. A lot of people still do not have a real grasp of those things and we need to get into the innermost recesses of his mind to know them.
But is he really working on it
Yes, I know for a fact that he is working on it but at a snail speed.
You still look trim and fit, how do you manage to keep this fit.
Do you know what it takes to run this house, run my NGO, run my law chambers? There are so many things I am doing that some times I don’t even have time for lunch. I think I am overworked. I don’t think it has to do with any beauty routine. The work is enough to keep me trim. We have a swimming pool that I only use when my kids come on holiday and I join them there occasionally. I have a gym which I rarely use. But when I get the opportunity I walk around the compound for health purposes but strictly speaking, I don’t have a beauty routine.
You said your parents were opposed to the marriage but what we know is that it was your late father who was opposed to it.
I think it will be unfair to say that it was just my father that was opposed. My mother had her reservations also, just that she had a different style of showing it. Mothers being what they are, they would hardly cast their daughter adrift completely no matter the circumstance. They don’t want to come out openly and deny or lambaste you. Mothers always try to nurture. But my father was left with the tag of being the chief opponent of the marriage. My mother had her reservations and to tell you the truth, as a mother I would do the same thing.
Right now I am the proud mother of a 12 year old daughter. Even if she was 25 or 30 and comes to tell me that she wants to marry a man twice her age, I would still refuse. Yes I know your next question, yes I did it but that does not make it the usual pattern. Its not conventional and it can only be handled by somebody who is mature and wise beyond their years. And I tell that I support my father’s action. He did the best thing any parent would do for his child. It would have been disappointing if he gave his support without any form of resistance. Basically he did the right thing. My mother had her reservations too, just that my father's own was more prominent because he was more domineering. But the truth is that it was his resistance that has largely helped to make this marriage successful.
Yes. Because my husband then had to be very careful. He knew that if he didn’t treat me right and things didn’t go too well, he would have my father to contend with. And my father also gave me a crucial advise which I have always cherished. You know we were living in Lagos and my father told me that if I ever had plans of raising kids with my husband I must ensure that we come back to settle in the east. My father had this very strong sense of identity of where he comes from which was why he insisted that my kids be born and raised here in the east. It was his advice and one that I would ever treasure and it was the best decision I ever took.
When did you eventually come back to live in Enugu
After our wedding we moved to Abuja, After a few years we now came to live in Enugu.
Do you agree with people who say that the Igbos have neglected Ojukwu
It was said that the Igbos neglected Zik, Okpara and Akanu Ibiam. But before you can substantite that statement you have to look at Ndigbo as a people. We are republican in nature. So its hard to determine the level of love, adulation and respect the Igbos give to their leaders. But in all fairness I think that Ojukwu has been luckier than most Igbo leaders. I have been with him to so many parts of Igbo land and I am moved to tears by the kind of reception he is accorded. I have seen a whole market dismantled just to get his car to pass in the tick of massive traffic. I saw youths dismantle a market just for his car to pass. When you go with him to a place like Aba, the reception is better seen than described. So I think the Igbos love him tremendously and they have shown it to him.
Take the Anambra election for example, the other candidates had so much money and support from the centre. But Peter Obi had virtually nothing, he was like the under dog. Yes he was governor but don’t forget that he no member of his party in the state House of Assembly. But he had one man and this man had only five words to say; This is my last wish. How many other people could do that and get the kind of response Ojukwu got. People came back from all parts of the world in response to that call, though some of them were disentranchised and so could not vote. They have shown him love. They love him and see him as their treasure. Of course if there is any one that can come up boldly to berate him in the newspaper, it would be an Igbo man but they still love so much. As for neglect, well do not forget that his father was the first millionaire to come from Igboland and the first African to enter United Kingdom without a visa, yet his son is such a simple man.
Ojukwu can live in a card room box. Even if it an old, haggard looking 504 car Ojukwu would enter and be driven to his destination. That simplicity is the greatest bond between him and Peter Obi. Peter would come here to visit us like any other Person, yet people who are not even governors would come with a convoy of seven cars. He is very modest and frugal man. You would see him queue up at the airport. If you permit him he would travel on the economy class. Both of them are alike because they consider themselves first and foremost as servants of the people. They do not brazenly display the paraphernalia of power. Peter Obi certainly does not do that. His popularity with the populace is phenomenal. He may not have that with the elite who thinks that he should defer to them but he defers more to the masses. In that light Peter Obi and Ojukwu are very much the same.
If you go to Peter Obi’s house he would refuse to serve you champagne. I think the highest he would probably give you is red wine or stout. If you ask him he would tell you that he knows the cost of champagne because he trades in such commodities and knows their astronomical cost and thus considers it rather criminal to drink such stuff randomly. He says people can do that in their houses if they wished but he would do no such thing in his own house. His style is not usual and he is a very principled man. Many people do not like the fact that he is very frugal administrator. He is a hands on person who could step in and do things himself. If you visit him he will be serving you by himself in spite of the retinue of staff. He is unassuming and his people like it. You cannot believe his level of simplicity.
That’s the bond between him and Ojukwu. Do you know that Ojukwu never handles money? As I talk to you he probably does not know the color of one thousand naira note. People administer those things for him. Ojukwu is so contented with whatever he has. As long as there is water to drink he is fine. You know before we moved to this place, we were living in a very small house and he was happy there. To a very large extent he built this new house because of me. I was the one who told him to get a bigger place and he would say no matter how big the hose is you only get to stay in one room and just one bed eventually.
I tell you for two years this house was completed and furnished yet Ojukwu did not move into it. He considered it too big. I actually tricked him into moving here on the night of a Good Friday. I just told him to get into the car for an outing and that was how I brought him here having moved some things to this place earlier. We left the old furniture in the former house. He was raised in affluence but he has little or no regard for anything that connotes wealth. I think such people are very rare to find, people who are willing to divest themselves of the paraphernalia of wealth and power. Somebody once said that it a great man to be little. I never really understood the significance of that statement until I came to live with Ojukwu. If I were asked to chose three words that would define him by way of an epitaph I can’t do better than saying that he was a simple man