10th August, 2020
By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
I encountered Nigeria very early. Age 4 or 5, I think. I remember they said Nigeria had become a Republic. We marched. Danced. Ate rice. Drank Fanta. Not that I knew what a republic meant. It did not matter. We celebrated with teachers. And adults. We danced lustily to songs which wording we corrupted. But the spirit was the game, was the real thing. That feeling, that spirit for our country. Our teachers made us believe. Without Nigeria we were nothing. Our parents too. Nigeria was the real deal! And we sang a national anthem that taught us ‘Though tribe and tongue may differ/in brotherhood we stand! We believed. It was our Nigeria!
Things worked. We went to school. Everyday. We were taught. No strikes. Strikes? Only dockers went on strike. School was big deal. We learnt new things. The teachers were passionate. Some visited our homes to ensure we worked for our parents at home. We respected (and feared) them more than our parents! Power supply was regular. Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) would announce that there would be power cut from 4pm to 7pm. On the dot of 7pm, power would be restored. Electric bulbs lasted for three years, sometimes. The Post Office was big deal. We posted and received letters. We knew the postman. He knew us. He brought letters to our doorsteps. Letters from abroad. Letters from Lagos to Sapele; from wherever! That was our Nigeria!
In 1966, I felt the coups. January and July coups. My dad listened to the radio. Always. He talked about Awo. He talked about Zik. His interest in the bloody affairs of Lagos, of Nigeria, caught my attention. His life was my life; you know! My life was built around his, around him. So, everything that caught his attention caught mine. I loved school. If dad was there, I’d go to school. I’d get education. I’d become a professor. Can you imagine me dreaming of professorship at that age? Such temerity! Dad was my hero. He meant a lot to me. He was a civil servant who lived by the rules. A Christian who lived by the rules. The world was ordered. The next world was guaranteed if we lived by God’s laws. So, it was a sure life. That was Nigeria!
The 1966 killings hit close. Kind of. Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, (‘Omimi Ejoh’, we would hail each time he visited Sapele) Finance Minister was proprietor of my school in Sapele. He was killed. He was buried within the church premises sharing a fence with our classrooms. I used to stare at his grave, sometimes; it was well kept. Flowers. Glass wreaths. Some said there was no corpse there. His body, we were told, was dragged till it was torn apart by bloody coup plotters. Fact and fiction, fiction blended with fact, and exaggerations, were part of the narrative. They said he was very corrupt. But we also knew he was very rich before he entered politics. But we bought the narrative. Corrupt politicians of the First Republic deserved to die! But the January killings of politicians were skewed. All Igbo politicians survived. How? Why? President Azikiwe was conveniently outside the country when the soldiers struck on January 15. Of course, Zik knew what was coming. He even sent back his non-Igbo ADC back to Lagos from abroad! I suspect the other politicians knew something dastardly was in the offing. But no certainty about the date. The highly revered Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello was killed by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu. Akintola. Fani-Kayode. Tafawa Balewa. All politicians were slaughtered. Ademulegun. Maimalari. Sodeinde. Largema. These were officers. Alive one minute. Dead the next. Sometimes before their families. That was our Nigeria!
The tension in the country, I found out later in life, was very high. Our parents discussed in hushed tones. I felt that one. Awo was in jail; it was an act of oppression. He was a man of truth. But the powers-that-be, supported by a pock-marked traitor in the Southwest, joined the cabal to jail Awo. Now, we know better. There was indeed a plot! Or was there no plot? I remember how my father always talked about Justice Sowemimo’s ‘My hands are tied’ line in his judgment! It became a sing song for injustice, for a judge not taking the right decision because the federal authorities had his hands tied. It took me a long time to read between the lines of that poignant, ominously pregnant statement, when decades later I met a son of that judge as a fellow student in the University of Lagos! A personal dimension to history. That was Nigeria!
The countercoup of July was bloody. Head of State, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed in Ibadan. His host Fajuyi, sacrificed his life. So, the countercoup produced heroes and scoundrels. It was to be followed by ‘araba’, secession by the North. But reason (?) prevailed. ‘Araba’ was jettisoned. And the north grabbed power at the centre. That unitary form of government, started by Ironsi, hated by the northern establishment, has become the instrument of strangulation in the hands of Abuja. The nation is trying to shake off that yoke, fifty odd years later! That is Nigeria.
Then the war started. It was called ‘Police action’ by General Yakubu Gowon, Head of State, from August 1st, 1966, after Ironsi’s assassination. Officers led by Murtala Mohammed and Theophilus Danjuma avenged the January killings. But Nigeria was never the same again! Descent into anarchy! Biafran soldiers occupied Midwest and took over Sapele. I was with mom in the market. Buying foodstuff against the rainy day. They entered Sapele. They looked fierce. Not friendly. So, we hated them. They seized VIPs and beautiful ladies in the town. Took them away. Some did not return till the end of the war. when one returned, his wife had already been taken over by a friend of his! Some friend! They brutalized civilians. Humiliated some of our parents. We lived in fear. Ojukwu’s foot soldiers didn’t understand that they must win our minds to their side. We were conquered. I remember our parents huddled round a radio set listening to federal broadcasts. They had to do this surreptitiously. Death to you if you were reported as a ‘sabo’ (saboteur) to the occupation forces. That was Nigeria!
The day federal troops entered Sapele it was my intuitive mother who guessed right. She said the heavy gbigbgigbi sound of artillery fire was different, not like the krakrakra Biafran stuff. Not in so elevated language though. What did she know about artillery? The sound was heavier. Dad doubted. We listened to husband-wife debate. Too good to be true! Alas, it was true. Without firing a shot, the ‘Biafran rebels’ fled before the ‘Nigerian vandals’! Hahahaha! One Nigeria! became the singsong. We went to the streets, waving the Nigerian flag, TO KEEP NIGERIA ONE IS A TASK THAT MUST BE DONE! We welcomed Nigerian troops. They were led to homes and property of Igbo people. Aniocha and Anioma people became targets too. I saw them when they plundered Justice Adimora’s house! The Anioma were neither Igbo in Igbo sense, nor Midwesterners in the view of ferocious federal forces. Then the federal troops started their own reign of terror! Their Nigeria began!
Professor Eghagha (who writes from the University of Lagos) can be reached on 0802 322 0393 or [email protected]