Institutional Memory and National Destiny


As it has been famously noted, it is not the land that has no heroes that is unhappy. It is the land that is in need of heroes. Yet as it is often the case, it is not the shortage of heroes that is the problem. It is the absence of a solid parameter for defining heroism. In any nation convulsed by clashing values, one group’s hero is another group’s villain; one section’s freedom fighter is another section’s terrorist. Consequently, it should be obvious that a nation without national memory cannot have a shared destiny.

The crisis of memory is part of the foundational crisis of Nigeria and its aborted nationhood. This past week, the tragic crisis of national memory played out as a group of distinguished Nigerians gathered in Asaba to commemorate what is known as the Asaba Massacre which took place when loyal federal troops arrived to repossess the ancient city nestling on the bank of River Niger. It had been overrun as Biafran troops made a breathless dash across the Niger in a brilliant and relentless strike which was finally repulsed at Ore.

It was said that when federal troops arrived in Asaba, they gathered many of its denizens together as if for a party before subjecting them to a historic slaughter. Only a few lucky ones lived to tell the tale. It was a most senseless carnage; a chilling and premeditated mass-murder which freezes the nerves even fifty years later. War is indeed hell, as William Tecumseh Sherman, the American Civil War commander, famously rued.

Yet while the commemoration of this tragic chapter in Nigeria was going on, it was obvious that few of the illustrious people gathered also remembered that there are documented cases of ethnic atrocities also committed by Biafran troops in Benin and Asaba as well. But these were uncoordinated and ad-hoc incidents of elimination which could not compare with the severity as savagery of the Asaba massacre. Just like the revenge killings that accompanied the second coup of 1966 , the savage response was wildly out of proportion in comparison with the original infraction. But as it has been observed, war is often not about who is right but who is left.

In an irony of ironies, the man who caused it all and who hailed from the nearby village of Okpanam was resting in a quiet grave in a federal cemetery in Kaduna where he lived with his parents before joining the Nigerian Army. By all accounts, Major Chukwumah Kaduna Nzeogwu was a brilliant and outstanding officer; a pan-Nigerian nationalist and patriot who was moved to precipitate action by the plight of the Nigerian people.

But the blatantly partisan nature of the coup he led in the north, the ethnic and selective pattern of its killings and the unwarranted ferocity, left a blotch on his name and career forever. The savage reprisal, which was a response to the decapitation of the northern military and political leadership, plunged Nigeria to a civil war which led to the death of an estimated two million people.

Yet even in war, a few sane voices remained. When Nzeogwu was killed in battle, General Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian Head of State, in an act of exemplary statesmanship and quality leadership, ordered that his remains be taken to Kaduna to be given full military honour and a fitting burial. In a moving tribute which this writer recorded as a youngster, Gowon described his fallen colleague as a “misguided idealist” who meant well for his country. For Gowon, it must have been a tough and exacting task. But this is the route to national memory.

Grim irony, however, continues to stalk the nation. This past week, the tame and temperate General Gowon got his own historic comeuppance, when Professor Omigbodun, a daughter of the martyred Colonel Victor Banjo, launched a plaintive appeal to the former head of state to return some personal items belonging to her father taken from their residence on the express order of General Gowon.

The late Banjo, executed by his friend, Col Emeka Ojukwu, was the nearest thing to a Yoruba military avatar and a literary genius to boot. Irascible and supercilious, he had reportedly swaggered into the office of General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, a burly no-nonsense soldier who had no time for dogonturenchi. Ironsi promptly had him arrested and locked up. Those who witnessed his subsequent execution reported that the colonel was defiant to the end, insisting after each volley that he was not dead yet until a fifth round finally silenced him.

They are not dead yet, all these victims of our unhappy history. The Asaba victims, Col Banjo, General Zakariah Maimalari who was dispatched by his Brigade Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, General Samuel Ademulegun who was assassinated in bed by the crack Major, Tim Onwuategu and all those whose remains litter unmarked graves. Nigeria has a problem with memory. As the Brits and Spaniards are discovering many centuries after, there are memories that stand in the way of complete national integration. The sooner we deal with these the better.

This morning we bring you another dark episode from our history excerpted from a forthcoming book. Underground in My Fatherland.  It is about the murder of Chief Alfred Rewane.

The Death of Chief Alfred Rewane

As progressive forces and democratic voices began to suffer one reverse after the other in the wake of General Abacha’s seizure of power, particularly after the detention of M.K.O Abiola and the hounding of so many into exiles,  a few of us began to think of ways of keeping hope and the struggle alive without directly involving the political class. The Nigerian political class has been a curse to the nation.

As we continued to mull the idea over several sessions and several telephone calls, one name kept popping up as the person most likely to be of use and most likely to be financially sympathetic to our cause if were to need urgent financial assistance. It was Chief Alfred Rewane, the late industrialist and tireless financier of progressive causes since the fifties. He was a great and trusted ally of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and reputed to be one of the financial wizards behind the Action Group’s remarkable solvency during the First Republic.

We decided to approach the old man at a date to be agreed upon. We left the matter at that, probably due to other things requiring our urgent attention somewhere else. I was at this time closely and crucially involved in the attempts to get politicians of all hues together for an All Politicians Summit to chart a new course for the country.

On Saturday 7th of November, 1995, I had decided to pay a customary courtesy call on an older friend, mentor and one of the most principled and indefatigable apostles of the late Chief Awolowo, Chief Wumi Adegbonmire, in his bookshop at Ile-Ife. Strategically located on the main approach to the town from Ibadan, the bookshop doubled as office, reception centre for the politically traumatized and an engine room for future commotions.

The ever combat-ready politico, a.k.a Omo Ekun, (Son of Tiger) was a master of political and literary hostilities. You could spend hours with the old man trading ideas and political tackles. It was at the point when you appear to tire out that the old man would begin to warm up for a fresh round of intellectual offensive. He was a man of bearish strength both physically and cerebrally. He would tell you that the Yoruba are always at their best when it comes to leisurely paced long-distanced hostilities.

“Wo aburo, ija idera ni’ja Yoruba” (“Look my younger brother, the Yoruba are masters of leisurely warfare”), he would interject with hilarious irreverence and then switch into flawless English with joyous foreboding. “Look, you know that this thing can go on for the next thirty years”.

A man with a prodigious capacity for political affray, Omo Ekun once sternly admonished yours sincerely that it was not the mark of a serious and committed politician to be going about in the traditional three piece Yoruba agbada dress.  “How can you be going about in flowing Agbada?” the great man exploded. “ What if a civil war breaks out? They will just round you up in the big for nothing nonsense and throw you on the ground”.

For good measure the political pugilist gave the example of a recently decamped youthful SDP senator who was widely acknowledged as a strong pillar of progressive cause but who suddenly and dramatically switched sides. “You see,” Omo Ekun began with a testy grin, “whenever I saw that boy with his flowing agbada smiling his wretched smile, I knew that he was up to no good. See the way he has ditched us for that military thug”.

Apart from his love of politics of the radically progressive hue which began as a youthful affliction and endured till old age, Chief Adegbonmire was also a bibliophile and a master of the damning historical detail. As he massaged his tangled beard with a scornful grimace, political anecdotes tumbled out with wicked punctuality.

One of my favourite anecdotes was the one involving Chief Obafemi Awolowo and one of his favoured and most fervent younger disciples. According to the chief: “You see whenever the young man began his usual Aluta nonsense, substituting hard analytical thinking with empty and barren sloganeering, Chief Awolowo would size him up with a laughing frown and then suddenly thunder: ‘hold it, hold it there! Collect your thoughts. Marshal your argument. All this political effervescence will get you nowhere!’ And it finally got him into trouble”.

He put them all to sword: great royalties, plutocrats, captains of industries and military barons.  He once told me of how he subjected a leading Yoruba oba widely acknowledged to have played a dishonourable role during the June 12 saga to a withering verbal assault right in his palace before walking out for good measure. When he was stalking a big beast, his face would light up with towering mischief. “That one is an illiterate moron”, he once observed of one of Nigeria’s most celebrated generals.

A gifted prose writer himself and a notable columnist in his prime, he had an ear for the finer nuances of the language and its eccentric possibilities. He was particularly merciless with hacks and dabblers in the trade. A typical day at his bookshop began with Omo Ekun gathering all the major dailies and subjecting each write up to astringent parsing. With a red biro, he would underline every grammatical infraction and all stylistic infelicities before pushing them away with a frown.

When I greeted him that morning and he replied with a grunt without looking up, one had thought that he was involved in his usual labour of slaying grammatical fools. But when some moments passed and he still didn’t look up or even acknowledge the presence of his younger friend, one thought it was time to bait him out of his hostile lethargy.

“Chief, could it be that the military people have finally rendered you hors de combat?”, I asked tentatively trying to lure him out with one of his favourite expressions. The chief finally looked up and it was a cloudy and frightening visage to behold.

“It is not funny. They got Alfred”, the great warrior and veteran of numerous civil commotions moaned as he tossed one of the dailies at one.

“Who is Alfred?” one queried in frantic disarray.

“Chief Alfred Rewane has been killed!” the chief said as he got up and began pacing the entire length of the bookshop.

“No, no ,no, this cannot be true!” I screamed even as the bold headlines announcing the gruesome murder of the great philanthropist and one of the noblest Nigerians that ever lived confronted one with the unimpeachable evidence. The chief ignored my ranting.

“This bears all the hallmark of state execution”, the chief noted calmly as he removed his reading glasses and began wiping the cloudy mist with a white handkerchief. It was now my turn to start pacing the length and breadth of the entire bookshop as intimations of mortality lumbered up my spine. Things were getting truly nasty. Once again, the lights were going out of Nigeria and might not return for another decade. If an octogenarian could be so brutally dispatched in his bedroom by the agents of Satan, then let the younger ones take heed.

His executors were said to have spoken perfect and flawless Itsekiri and had managed to hoodwink and browbeat the security at the gate by donning the uniform of one of his companies. They had been let in on the pretext that they had an urgent message for the old man. It was a message of death. He was shot at close range, and as the bullet blasted his bronchial cavity, the chief lurched forward as if to embrace his terminator.

“My son, you have killed me?” the great man was to have moaned with a quizzical frown.

At this point, fear began to mix with a feeling of deep guilt. I was overwhelmed by a sense of personal responsibility about the death of this illustrious Itsekiri nobleman. Although we never formally met, and I had only managed to catch glimpses of him from a distance, he was a powerful presence in the life of many aspiring progressive activists who he never met. Older colleagues hawked tales about his outlandish generosity and kindness. Even the stern and austere Chief Awolowo was known to treat him with joyous and boyish affection.

That morning as one began to take in the full import of the assassination of the great patriot, a sense of guilt gave way to panic and raw apprehension. Walls were beginning to develop outsize ears indeed. It was as if somebody somewhere had been listening in to our earlier conversation about approaching the great man. The person had decided to get him before we could get to him. Nigeria had entered into one of its darkest phases. Either way, things would never be the same again.

It was the chief that roused me from my disoriented walkabout.

“This is the beginning of a chain of events the end of which no one can foresee. I see this country foaming in a river of blood. I have already told my children where I should be buried. If fighting for a better, just and more egalitarian Nigeria means certain death, so be it. I will take their bullet in the chest and not in the back like a coward. The handshake has now gone beyond the elbows.”, the old man noted wistfully and began packing his papers.

Two weeks later, I began my journey to exile.

  • From Underground in My Fatherland (c) 2017.


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