By Adebayo Lamikanra
Almost 44 years after the end of the Nigerian Civil War, there are so few eye witness accounts that any addition to the meagre store at our disposal must be celebrated, if only on this score alone. The passage of time means that further addition to our store of knowledge is an unlikely possibility, seeing that most of those who have anything of note to tell us are now well past the age of seventy and even if they are still willing to talk about their war time experiences, finding the energy to overcome the inertia which has sealed their lips so far is as unlikely as their ability to turn back the hands of time. For these reasons the book The Tragedy of Victory by Godwin aka Abdul Rahman Alabi-Isama must be regarded as a treasure, to be studied in every way and all it has to say to be taken apart in the manner of a skilled anatomist studying a newly discovered species through dissection. The challenges facing our imaginary anatomist are perhaps nothing compared to what is in store for anyone mining Alabi-Isama’s book for the gems of interest which it must contain.
A convenient starting point for our anatomist is the author and any appreciation of what he has written can only be from his perspective as a soldier, not from the point of view of his profession only but perhaps, more importantly from the point of view of a practising soldier. After all, perhaps the majority of soldiers in armies all over the world including Nigeria have managed to go through their entire career without ever having to fire a shot in anger.
In this wise, Alabi-Isama was more than a soldier, he was a warrior who for the whole of the 30 months during which the civil war raged was continuously in harm’s way in three different sectors of the war even though the bulk of his soldiering at this time was in the Atlantic front on which the Third Marine Commandos, TMC, arguably the most dashing formation of the Nigerian Army in that conflict was involved.
The first formation to capture the imagination of the Nigerian public in the civil war was the 1st Division, which in any case fired the first shots to commence what was called a Police operation to end the Biafran secession but quickly followed that up with the capture of Enugu, the Biafran capital, quite early on before the conflict was upgraded to a full scale war. Thereafter the 1st Div. went about their work with quiet efficiency so leaving the public none the wiser about the character of the men who were responsible for the war in their sector. The 2nd Division under the command of the forceful Murtala Muhammed, the man who was to become Nigeria’s most adored but sadly, shortest lived Head of State, was in the limelight for the right reasons only for the short period of time it took the Division to throw the Biafran forces which had infiltrated the Mid-West back across the Niger. Thereafter the costly failure of this formation to capture Onitsha and move further into Biafra tarnished its reputation and it was hardly ever in the news for the right reason until the end of the war. This left the field clear for the TMC to capture public imagination and made it possible for us to become rather intimate with the leaders of this Division, especially its charismatic commander Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, arguably the most dashing warrior of them all. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold and even when they failed to do so, the public image of Adekunle was so high that it appeared that he could get away with everything including murder and he even got away with that because he was, to my knowledge, the first man in this country to execute a man, one of his own soldiers, in front of cameras.
Having gone through the book, it is safe to say that it will not win any literary prizes but for all that, it is such an enjoyable read that it is one of those books that the reader will find difficult to put down once he has got stuck into it. This is perhaps due to its lack of artifices which task the imagination and tend to get in the way of a good story. Alabi-Isama appears to be unaware of the possibility of resorting to such artifices and this is one of the strengths of the book written by a man who in his seventies remains a boy at heart as he has been all his life. He tells us at the very beginning of the book that although he was not a reluctant soldier he was more interested in becoming the sports master in a girls’ school and would probably have realised that modest ambition but for the fact that he lost his heart to the beauty and precision of an army march past fortified by his love of sports which the Army would and indeed did encourage maximally once he took the Queen’s shilling by enrolling in the Royal Nigerian Army shortly before the country became independent in 1960. All through his life he has unashamedly and even proudly been a Mama’s boy and this could not have been otherwise given his mother’s constant and pervasive influence not just on his life but even in the furtherance of his career even though she was vehemently opposed to his becoming a soldier in the first place. Her interest in his performance at the war front is shown by the fact that she not only visited her son on the war front but continued to give pointed advice to her son about his conduct in war. Although Alabi-Isama’s book is principally about the war it contained several gems of human angle stories which helped to take the edge off the grimness of the book’s subject. Even in war, men and women still found ways of getting together in the most unlikely if not out rightly dangerous places. The incident in which Alabi-Isama came across a soldier in the arms of his mistress in a frontline trench which subsequently came under enemy attack was hilarious especially when after fighting off a determined rebel attack during which the lady, undaunted by flying bullets remained in the trench and coolly passed filled magazines to her man as he replied enemy bullets with his own.
They were not just lovers but comrades in arms! In war one must expect casualties but the ways in which some soldiers died in the cause of duty were evocative. One such occasion that comes readily to mind is the young officer, Capt. Afolabi, who as life ebbed away from him wanted to know from his commanding officer, Alabi-Isama, if he had done his best and the tearful response of his commander was creditable. After all, war was shown not to be able to erase all traces of humanity from the breast of hardy, war tested soldiers. The book gave a detailed description of the battles in which the TMC were involved throughout the war but it has to be said that the description will best be appreciated by trained soldiers but even to the untrained, it is obvious that great acts of heroism were performed by what otherwise were fairly ordinary men and women who were confronted with situations of great danger in the line of their duty and who rose to each occasion with as much competence and courage as the situations demanded. Those of us who lived through the war as non-combatants far away from the theatres of war could only imagine what it was like and one of the credits of Isama’s book is that it has gone a long way to making the picture clearer in our minds even if it is with our own connivance.
Alabi-Isama was a tactics instructor before the war and can therefore be described as a cerebral soldier who was more concerned with what went on before a shot was fired in any military engagement and indeed was responsible for drawing up the timetable for action. It is apparent from this book that he was however not content to be just a planner and retained a very lively interest in how his plans unfolded on the field of battle by taking a leading part in whatever offensive he had helped to design in his head. It is interesting that as a student of war, his tactics were secured on the base of the history of previous conflicts and his allusion to action in the first Iraq war suggests that he retains a professional interest in battle tactics. It is his adaptation of tactics used by famous warriors rather than from his own limited experience that helped to disguise the fact that he was only 27 years old when his active service began as Chief of Staff of the TMC and was obliged to plan attacks on a massive scale and was in doing so, responsible for the lives and welfare of many thousand men, a very high percentage of whom were senior to him in age. The tragedy of victory is not about war alone and this being so raises a nest of thorny questions which are still begging for answers. It is intriguing for example that the officer corps of the TMC was overwhelmingly Yoruba and remained so till the end of the war.
Following from that, it is no less intriguing that apart from Majors Innih and Tuoyo as they then were and of course their end of the war commander, Colonel Obasanjo, no other officer from that Division who took part on the war was rewarded with a political appointment as minister, state governor or any non-military posting after it. Was this accidental or coldly deliberate? Whichever way it was, it is certainly a question which is worth pondering upon. Other speculations must concern the career of the charismatic commander of the TMC, the flamboyant Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, the only commander in that war that acquired a widely recognised nick name, Black Scorpion, for his exploits on the war front. He rose like a meteorite and fell like one before the cessation of hostilities and his exploits nearly blotted out of public consciousness by his successor who emerged from deep shadow but rose to become perhaps the most influential Nigerian of them all. Why did Adekunle fall so spectacularly from grace and why was he ‘detained’ in Lagos for all of 51 days at a time when his troops were engaged in manoeuvres leading to the capture of the glittering prize that was Port Harcourt? Did he fall or was he pushed and if he was pushed whose hand executed the shove that led to the scorpion losing its sting? Had Adekunle not fallen, what would have been the history of that conflict and how long would the duration of the war have been shortened?
Perhaps the greatest question of all and one which led Alabi-Isama to write his book is, how influential was Colonel Obasanjo to ending the Nigerian Civil War? General Obasanjo had written a short account of what he did in the war in his book, My Command, and Alabi-Isama devoted no less than one 129 pages of his book to rebut virtually all his former commander’s assertions about his command. His contention is that Colonel Obasanjo, far from being the architect of the victory that has always been ascribed to him, was indeed the beneficiary of the competence of his subordinate officers who were pointedly ignored when it came to sharing the glory of the end of the war. According to Alabi-Isama, far from being the man who ended the war, his erstwhile commander actually hindered the march to victory, which is why the title of the book is the tragedy of victory. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that Alabi-Isama’s rebuttals will strike a chord in the mind of the Nigerian public. After all, the slogan coined after the war is no victor, no vanquished, and this has become a convenient fig leaf with which to cover the nakedness of virtually all the actors in the war. If Ojukwu, the figure head of the Biafran secession, was pardoned for what has been seen to be no more than an indiscretion, it is highly unlikely that the charges against Obasanjo who has since risen to much greater things will be given anything more than scant consideration. This is however not a negation of Alabi-Isama’s book which because it is a permanent record of historic events may in the future justify the expenditure of the effort which brought it about. I found The Tragedy of Victory to be informative and entertaining but it would have been more so on both counts had it had the benefit of more rigorous editing. That he has presented this book to the Nigerian public must be regarded as encouragement for other actors in the Nigerian civil war to follow his lead and give us other eye witness accounts of the most important event in the history of Nigeria. NIGERIA – THE RELENTLESS EVOLUTION OF INEQUALITY
It is not often that I have the title of an article before I write it. Rather, a theme runs around my head before I sit down to write and having developed it to my satisfaction, I go through what I have written a couple of times before deciding on a title that best describes what has been written. I find that this process gives me the freedom of expression to put my thoughts across to my putative readers without the fear of the possibility of straying from any appointed paths of thought.
From time to time such as now however, the topic of interest is so focussed and so dense that I have no fear of straying from the path appointed or not as to permit myself to sit down to write on a set topic which in this case is inequality, the cancer which is destroying this country as surely as an inelastic collar of hemp rope around the throat of a condemned man standing on the scaffold.
Unlike what I hear many people say around me, Nigeria is a very poor third (or even fourth) world country and there are many items of demography which can be quoted to support this statement emphatically; the number of people who have to subsist on less than the un-princely sum of $1 a day, the hordes without access to potable water or adequate shelter. The large army of the unemployed and largely unemployable people, young and old, the teeming masses of those who have been denied access to meaningful education, the abysmal lack of safe or effective transportation all over the country, the woeful lack of penetration of modern healthcare facilities in all parts of Nigeria including the urban slums in which the majority of healthcare personnel are concentrated leaving the vast majority in rural Nigeria out in the cold; the lack of industrial capacity in any part of the country including Lagos, Kano and Port-Harcourt which in days past could boast of small but very promising nests of industrial endeavour, a tragic and nearly terminal collapse of anything resembling an agricultural sector of our comatose economy; all these, to mention but a few as the list of our indices of our crushing poverty is longer than the day is long. Given the above recitation, it is clearly fraudulent for anyone to even think that Nigeria can be counted as one of those countries that are wealthy by any stretch of an over-active imagination. And yet, no day goes by without some Nigerian, especially those of our ruling class getting up to thank God who in His infinite mercies has blessed Nigeria with incalculable wealth, even though it is clear that God has refused to make any country wealthy since wealth can only be created and those that neglect to create wealth must face up to a life of grinding poverty.
It is pertinent to ask why the fiction of Nigeria’s wealth is perpetrated by people who should know better. Our leaders persist in this untruth to explain many things which would otherwise be inexplicable. We are a wealthy nation which is why the President maintains a large and expanding fleet of massively expensive aircraft even though the Prime Minister of Britain travels by commercial aircraft whenever his duties dictate that he travels anywhere by air. Nigeria is rich and so the President must be accompanied by a large retinue of aides and other hangers-on whenever he ventures out of his lair under Aso Rock. It is for the same reason that all his aides, aides to his aides and other members of the Presidential circus must, and are paid mouth-watering allowances whenever they are fortunate enough to be part of his entourage. Nigeria is said to be awash with money which is why vast fortunes must be incinerated under the pots in Aso Rock in order to feed the President and his merry men (and women) to a stupendously high point of constant satiation which their exalted station demands. Nigeria is supposedly blessed with an abundance of riches so those who have the responsibility of making the laws which govern our social intercourse, that is, all the legislators at all levels of government must be equipped at public expense with the wherewithal to lead a life of unbridled luxury, so much so that they are reputed to be the most highly paid legislators in the world even though nobody can argue that Nigeria is the richest country in the world. If our legislators are the highest paid in the world should those in the executive arm of government; the almighty President, governors and council chairman be deserving of anything less? The obvious answer is a thunderous no and as befits their rarefied status these over-privileged personalities live so high on the hog that they are, to all intents and purposes, invisible to the generic man (and woman) on the dusty streets of supposedly oil-rich Nigeria who in any case are struggling to eke out a living, the kind of living that can be provided by $1 every day and through the night as well.
It is not only those in government that enjoy the mythical wealth with which our country is said to be blessed. Our civil servants, especially those in the high echelons of service, are big beneficiaries of the Nigerian situation and the hurrahs continue long after they retire from the service of a grateful fatherland. It does not matter that some of these fat cats owe their preferment to a strange animal called federal character, they have as much if not more right than those who arrived at the top on merit, for whatever that is worth in a country that is awash with unearned wealth. Members of our armed forces are not to be left out in the lopsided distribution of Nigeria’s wealth. Nowhere in the world can you find so many rich Generals, especially those who are now retired, even if some of our geriatric Generals are still dreaming of active service even if they were hardly mentioned in despatches in the battles they fought in their youth.
Nigeria is a very rich nation which is why bank employees (not everyone that works in a bank is a banker), ‘successful’ professionals and other people in this category can afford to live on the scale of oriental emperors with their fleet of high performance vehicles, even more expensive consorts, palatial homes, designer attire complete with exquisite accessories, not to talk of frequent overseas trips taken in the exclusive and of course expensive and perfumed comfort of first class cabins in virtually the best airlines available. There are no luckier children born anywhere in the world than those born to rich Nigerian parents, especially those parents who have stashed away enough money to sustain a dizzyingly high standard of living for their children, their children’s children to something like the sixth generation. Such children are of course assured of the most expensive education available in any part of the world even if they don’t have to do anything but loaf around the streets of Europe looking to do the devil’s work. It is so long ago that one of such over-privileged brats was caught with a bomb in his designer underpants at five thousand feet!
Deep in the subconscious of all Nigerians is the realisation of the fact that Nigeria is a very poor country, one whose supposed wealth is pumped out of the ground. It is a resource that is bound to run out sooner than currently expected which is why everyone with the opportunity to divert some of the crude oil into their own private bunker does so with feverish haste, knowing that the party will soon be over. Although there are many such sharks disguised as powerful Nigerians cruising through our troubled waters, the percentage of such strange human beings is so small that it is insignificant and can be ignored.
There are however enough of them to give some hope, very faint hope it must be said to the teeming masses of the hopelessly poor praying for the miracle which was to promote them into the shark status and are most reluctant to ask questions of the system which drives their irredeemable poverty. Besides, there are so many religious organisations praying for this miracle on their behalf that they spend a disproportionate time with their eyes tightly shut and on their calloused knees. And so, crude oil continues to drive the separation of our society into the few that have too much and the vast majority which have next to nothing. It is our supposed wealth that divides our country into regions of extreme poverty and those of relative affluence. It is black gold that fuels the relentless evolution of inequality that is bringing the country to her knees. It is unlikely that the Boko Haram phenomenon driving everything before it is a coincidence and it is most unlikely that it would have arisen in the absence of the quantum of unearned wealth flowing through the land. It can even be said that this religiously convenient insurgency is a sign of the turbulent period that is now our lot to endure and the chilling thought that it is the tip of an iceberg cannot, and must not be dismissed out of hand.