Like a suicide bomber ready to sacrifice his life, I slid into the Nigerian war theatre last week. No, not Northeast Nigeria, where kaffir soldiers are busy bombing Boko Haram faithful; nor Northwest, where good bandits are in an orgy of kidnapping hundreds of school children – apologies to bandits-negotiating merchant mullah, Ahmad Gumi. I was in Igboland where the second Nigerian civil war, unknown to many, has begun in earnest. For me, the mental feeling of war was actually the pandemonium that my visit evoked in the hearts of people privy to my itinerary. “How dare you!” they chorused.
By then, the most recent karate session against free speech by His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the Twitter Empire in Africa in General and Nigeria in Particular, (I hope Idi Amin Dada would not be livid in his grave for piracy of his intellectual property!) had not begun. But right at the Igboland war front, what I saw was that, the totalitarian rule of the Joseph Stalin brand may look very distant and opaque in Nigeria, but its forerunner – repression – has already perched on our tree like an invading colony of vultures.
I was journeying from Ozalla, Nkanu West council of Enugu State, to Awka in Anambra, in a public transport. I held two wraps of my delectable okpa in my hands, peeled this Igbo moin-moin cousin delicacy and was wolfishly downing it with cold water. I had passed Udi, Oji River, Ugwuoba and was busy relishing the cool and quiet of this countryside. Due to the punishing, nightmarish snail speed of construction works on Onitsha-Enugu expressway, this was commuters’ only alternative to navigate Enugu and Anambra states.
All of a sudden, at a place called Agu Awka, our vehicle screeched to a halt as we ran into this long queue. One, then two and now three hours, vehicles in their hundreds, were trapped in endless hours of staying ramrod on a spot, subjected to very harrowing moments of stillness. And then, we got to the cause of the artificial gridlock. Soldiers, with faces as stern as Stalin’s, their guns on the ready, manned a ragtag checkpoint, just like Samuel Doe’s Liberia, insisting that all passengers must walk barefooted past a barricade of heaps of stones and woods. Wait for this: As they walked past, each passenger must raise their two hands up to heavens. Like conquered people.
I was livid but the soldiers’ red eyes and their guns, menacingly strapped across their broad shoulders, tempered my simmering temper. As I walked past the barricade, my hands raised up, I diffidently approached one of the soldiers to ask why my hands must be raised up. Are we in a war? Then his crudity reminded me of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Souza Boy. In a coarse voice that sounded like grating of laterites, scented by deep intrusion of Hausa, the Souza Boy bellowed: “Raise the hands or I shoot you!” Then I remembered my children at home. I raised the goddamn, infidel hands up, to a height far more than the Souza Boy’s expectations. Then I saw Stalin beaming that sadistic smile of his.
A few days before then, I was trapped in the Enugu war front. That foul-mannered belligerent, Nnamdi Kanu, had locked the gates of the Southeast from his base in London and threw the key into his pocket. I was under room arrest for over 48 hours as I scoffed at the momentary Satanic thought of even walking to my room door. Worse still, I couldn’t dash to my favourite Otigba Roundabout Dolphin restaurant where my greed of making a choice between ofe nsala, onugbu, white soup on oat meal always came to play.
I was still in my detention centre somewhere on Nza Street when last Tuesday President Muhammadu Buhari evoked his infamous Nigerian civil war narrative. Though it was not October 7, to the people of Southeast Nigeria, with that speech, Buhari rekindled unpleasant narratives of an unforgettable gory bloodshed in Asaba, present Delta State, which occurred that day in 1967. It was as though the day Buhari made that provocative statement was the anniversary of that blood spillage that has infamously come to be dubbed the Asaba Massacre.
As plenty as narratives of the Nigerian civil war are, the most gripping in its horrendous texture is that Asaba massacre. In August, 1967, three months into the war which began on May 30, 1967, Biafra seemed to be making inroads to capture Nigeria. In fact, Biafran troops, within a day, had advanced past the Midwest region of Benin and were on the verge of taking over Ore in present Ondo State. They had less than 300 kilometers to take Lagos, the Nigerian federal capital city. With 37-year old Colonel Victor Adebukunola Banjo and Major Albert Okonkwo at the vanguard, the Nigerian Second Division federal troops, under the command of Colonel Murtala Muhammed, however repelled the advancing troops, with heavy casualties on both sides. This is what has come to be known as the Battle of Ore, which forced Biafra to retreat backwards. This victory propelled Murtala to repel Biafran troops further down to the River Niger area. In the process of fleeing, Biafran troops blew up the Asaba bridge to block the Murtala-led troops from advancing eastwards. Banjo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Philip Alalae and Sam Agba were later executed by firing squad on the order of Odumegwu Ojukwu on September 22, 1967.
Having repelled Biafran troops, on October 5, Murtala’s federal troops victoriously shelled their way into Asaba. As expected in a war though, they wrecked untold hardships on the people, killing, raping and maiming them. Hundreds were said to have been murdered in the process. Then on the morning of October 7, Colonel Murtala summoned Igbo living an earshot to this Niger River to a meeting slated for the open square Ogbe-Osowa village. Gathered were young and old, men and women. To convince the Murtala troops that they meant well, the villagers all came singing “one Nigeria.” They were dressed in the akwa ocha (white) ceremonial attire and before finally getting to the meeting point, had danced round the streets singing a “one Nigeria” mantra song. Upon their arrival, the 2iC to Murtala, a man known as Ibrahim Kagara, an Ogbomoso-born colonel who was to later take up the name Ibrahim Taiwo, ordered that all of them be separated, men, women and young children. Taiwo ordered the troops to open fire on them with their machine guns. While 700 men and boys were reportedly eliminated in one fell swoop that day, one of them being the father of Mrs. Maryam Babangida (nee Okogwu), about 1,000 in total were killed in the Asaba environ alone by these troops as at the end of the war in 1970.
Last Tuesday, at a meeting with Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, at the State House, Abuja, Buhari tweeted his surprisingly extempore comment to the INEC boss, with a video of the intervention going viral on the social media. He warned those who “were maybe too young to understand the gravity of war” by burning electoral offices that “those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” Igbo wondered whether Buhari was referring to the Asaba massacre treatment as “the language they understand.”
The Liberian, Sierra-Leonean and Rwanda wars, all occurring from the immediate years preceding and leading to the 1990s, are three wars that bear the bloody texture of the Nigerian-Biafran war. While Liberia’s raged from 1989 to 1997 and killed between 150,000–300,000 people, its Sierra Leonean version, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, resulted in 70,000 dead, with 2.6 million people displaced. Of the three, however, remembrancers point at the quick healing of Rwanda as worthy of emulation. Within 100 days in 1994, a river of blood flowed in Rwanda, leading to about 800,000 people being slaughtered like cows by Hutu ethnic group extremists. The speed of the slaughtering and the scale of the war brought the turbulent history of this Central African country to its final denouement.
The immediate cause of the Rwandan war was put to the assassination, on April 6, 1994, of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, whose plane was shot down with anti-aircraft missiles, just inside the space of the Kigali airport. Habyarimana was returning to Kigali, the state capital, with his neighbouring Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, Suddenly, the plane exploded, killing Habyarimana and Ntaryamira, as well as Rwandan Army Chief of Staff, General Nsabimana, the three-man French crew of the plane and several other dignitaries. Another Hutu, Pasteur Bizimungu, whose largely ceremonial six-year presidency revealed the fractures of the fault lines of Rwanda, took over from Habyarimana.
Forty one years old Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Rwandan Prime Minister who had once acted as Rwandan President from July 18, was also assassinated by unknown persons in the morning of April 7, 1994, within hours of Habyarimana’s assassination. Mostly known as Madame Agathe, Uwilingiyimana was a Hutu. An enquiry into Habyarimana’s death, instigated by his widow, also named Agathe and relatives of the French crew of the ill-fated presidential jet, was launched in 1998 and it concluded that Paul Kagame, who was leader of the rebel Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriot Front (Front Patriotique Rwandais; FPR) at the time, was behind the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane. Judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, who gave this ruling, then proceeded to issue arrest warrants against aides of Kagame who he said masterminded the attack. Kagame had by then become president of Rwanda.
Although Rwanda had travelled a rough road littered with the blood and skulls of compatriots, visitors to modern Rwanda have continued to talk about the physical transformation the country has witnessed since 63-year old Kagame took over as president on September 12, 2003. However, what I consider the most fundamental of Kagame’s magic wand is his ability to erase the tribal fault lines in Rwanda. I witnessed this. In 2019, I spent about one week in Kigali, later journeying six hours by road from Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, through Kamembe and back to Kigali. In company with some other Nigerians, I had visited the Genocide Memorial centre at KG 14 Ave, Kigali. Wiping dripping tears from our brows upon being conducted round the centre, we went to the bookshop located within the centre to purchase books on the genocide. Therein, one of us asked the female book attendant whether she was Hutu or Tutsi. Smilingly, she said “I won’t be able to tell you; it is in fact a crime for you to ask me.” We were confronted by same pattern of people literally erasing their ethnic fault lines when we asked our cabby the same question. I later found out that this was almost a national pathway.
In the 1990s, the cliché “Road to Rwanda” meant road to disaster, war and national calamity. Today, road to Rwanda signifies a transition from national tragedy to monumental transformation by a people who are resolute on putting their past behind them and have rather elected to walk the road of Renaissance in togetherness and devoid of the bitterness of their sorry history.
Conversely, the road to Nigeria approximates a people who thought they stood ramrod straight but are on the verge of falling. Both Presidents Buhari and Kagame inherited countries that were riven by a bloody war and burning ashes of discontent. While Kagame has almost totally succeeded in obliterating those ethnic fault line narratives in Rwanda, widespread consensus is that Buhari is amplifying them in Nigeria.
At the 25th Kigali Genocide Memorial held in 2019, even as he lit a remembrance flame, Kagame told a huge crowd at the centre where bones of more than 250,000 victims, scavenged from across the country, were interred, that “in 1994, there was no hope, only darkness. Today, light radiates from this place. How did it happen? Rwanda became a family once again.” For 100 days, exact number of days it took for almost one tenth of Rwanda to be massacred in 1994, Kagame ordered mourning of the dead. Inspiring Rwandans to forget the past and move forward, the president said: “The arms of our people, intertwined, constitute the pillars of our nation. We hold each other up. Our bodies and minds bear amputations and scars, but none of us is alone. Together, we have woven the tattered threads of our unity into a new tapestry.”
In Nigeria, over half a century after the massacre, the war victims became the 5 per cent who didn’t give Buhari votes, who he still sulked at and who he has consistently vilified. Last week, Buhari unbowelled the putrid resident in his belly for the Igbo with his acidic “those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.” That outburst was bereft of the reconciliatory texture of Kagame’s own remembrance of the genocide in Rwanda. Nor did it have the texture of Nelson Mandela’s speech at the burial of Chris Hani. Hani had been killed on April 10, 1993 by radical right-wing Polish immigrant, Janusz Walus, as he stepped out of his car in his Dawn Park, Boksburg home. Walus had pumped two bullets each to Hani’s chest and head and during his trial, it was revealed that he aimed that Hani’s killing would plunge South Africa into a race war and deconstruct gains made in reconciliation ahead of the then forthcoming 1994 elections that Mandela won.
Though riled by Hani’s murder by a white, Mandela didn’t call for an uprising against President Pieter Botha and the white. Rather, he urged the people to “let us pay tribute to his memory by forming such Peace Brigades throughout the country. Let them be part of the reconstruction of our country, ravaged by the war waged against us over 45 years of apartheid rule.” Those were examples of leadership.
That putrid mindset seems to have found lush and flourish in the north. Abubakar Malami, Buhari’s Minister of Justice, had earlier riled the world when he, in innuendo, insulted same Igbo as spare parts sellers who he claimed were in the same mould with Fulani herders.
Of a truth, no leader of a country should stand by and allow the kind of descent into anarchy that the southeast is fast becoming. Ahmed Gulak was assassinated right there in Imo and the blood had barely coagulated when a judge was killed in Enugu, in broad daylight as well. So-called Unknown Gunmen are busy setting police stations and INEC offices ablaze. These are criminal elements and any sensible government must bring them to justice. Every attempt must also be made to bring Kanu to justice if he is found culpable of the carnage.
However, in that we “will treat them in the language they understand,” Buhari was profiling and criminalizing Igbo nation like any ordinary street urchin or ethnic bigot on northern Nigerian streets do. That is the worry and we should not allow it to subsist. This is because he is supposed to be the leader of Nigeria. It is worse when it is noted that Buhari’s own northern Nigeria has constituted itself into the blood trough of Nigeria where blood of thousands of Nigerians has bled for over ten years now. The north is also where a huge chunk of our national resources is incinerated for procurement of armaments. In spite of this irritancy of Northern Nigeria, when bandits of the northeast, who have made Nigeria ungovernable by kidnapping school children and demanding ransoms strike, all Buhari does is plead with them. Why doesn’t he plead with criminals of the southeast as well?
By the way, if a scoundrel could shut up a whole region for days as Kanu did, it should get any sensible Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces worried. Buhari will do well to treat bandits, Boko Haram and criminal elements in the southeast “in the language” that criminals all over the world understand.
Transiting from this palpable bigotry against Igbo into suspending Twitter as Buhari has done, lends credence to the earlier story that, in cahoots with Malami, his government has perfected martial law plans against Nigerians. Gaggling free speech in this mould is one of the manifestations of despots. Buhari seems to be getting into good company of the likes of Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada, Baby and Papa Doc of Haiti and Nigeria’s next door neighbour tyrant, Gnasingbe Eyadema. The good news is that they all ended up in the waste basket of history.
In all these however, Nigerians should be happy, even when the news came out that Malami has ordered any user of Twitter to be arrested. I will use it if I can. The reason to be happy is contained in the story of Alaafin Sango, ultra-powerful Yoruba god of thunder, whose insignia of authority was a double-headed axe. He was so powerful that when he bellowed, like the dragon, fire spurted from his mouth. One day, Alaafin Sango got over-drunk with power and slid into his usual petulance and indiscretion. In this state, Sango destroyed everybody and eventually destroyed himself at Koso. As award-winning poet, Niyi Osundare warned in his Eye of The Earth: The people always outlive the palace.