By: Victor Azubike
General Steel the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed forces sat on an armchair, luxuriating close to the Olympic size swimming pool of the State house on a languorous evening in June. With him were Sir Marcus (Justice of the peace), Captain John ADC and Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo, his trusted lieutenants who were members of his now famous kitchen cabinet.
For a fleeting second, Sir Marcus was entranced by the bougainvillea, the countrified surroundings, the long driveway from the entrance of the villa and the blue sheen of the swimming pool. He felt an impulse prodding him to jump into the swimming pool and swim, even though he did not know how to and the caveat was conspicuously written: NO LIFE GUARD ON DUTY.
‘Your Excellency Sir, have you read the caption of the New Vintage of June 4th 1966?’Sir Marcus broke the eerie silence.
‘No, I haven’t read any of the local dailies except for the Evening Telegraph of yesterday,’ the General said.
‘What is the caption about?’ The General asked afterwards.
‘It is titled Evening of a dawn, such fine metonymy in reaction to the killing spree,’ Sir Marcus said in his usual high flown diction.
‘You have a copy here with you,’ the General replied.
‘I do Sir.’
‘Can I have a quick glance?’
‘For your reading pleasure Your Excellency,’ Sir Marcus said handing him the paper.
General Steel removed his dark shades and glossed over the cover of the newspaper.
The tabloid read:
‘Regime changes are initially populist, people on the street waving palm fronds and banana leaves, cheering in solidarity and heralding their new saviour. At the onset, the swashbuckling General was heralded and greeted with the same enthusiasm. He waved back his swagger stick at the poor lots smiling enthusiastically…In trying to be popular and sustain the momentum of support the General rendered himself unpopular with unwelcome choices… And now the atmosphere in the country is tense and the silence palpable over the landscapes. The previous days had been crimson red: violent riots erupted all over the Northern Provinces leading to the massive killing of the General’s tribesmen in reaction to the promulgation of (De) -unification decree. Lawlessness is pervasive, and the country is clearly hanging on the edge of a precipice.’
The General became restless: his breathing increased suddenly and his face wore a sombre and thoughtful look. He was in his early forties but looked older worn out by the drudgery of war and governance. Like most soldiers, he was a man of few words.
‘The situation in the North is fast deteriorating, bloodier than the Wild Wild West. This is most perilous and precarious … We really need to put an end to the riots before it spirals out of control,’ Sir Marcus said.
‘You are right Marcus. I am thinking of the right course of action. Honestly, I am torn between the devil and the deep blue sea,’ the General answered him carefully with a nuance of cockney in his ascent, which he learned by virtue of his early contact with English nobles and his military training in England.
‘Declare a state of emergency. Let the army wade in. The police in my opinion are not doing enough. A dusk to dawn curfew will be most effective in curtailing further threats,’ Sir Marcus said.
‘Marcus, imagine quaint and sleepy towns under military siege. I don’t love the idea of the army policing; l think our main duty as soldiers is to defend the country from external aggression,’ the General said.
‘But sir there is a challenging situation,’ Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo, the Director of Military Intelligence interrupted.
‘What situation?’ The General asked impatiently.
‘The bulk of the rank and file is from the North and they cannot open fire on their people; it is a tall order, they will be sympathetic to their cause,’ Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo cautioned.
‘I cannot agree more. But Gentlemen, if I give the order and the soldiers comply and dissenters are gunned down. The press will condemn my regime. I will lose support locally and internationally. The carrot and the stick appear to be the best option; I have to allay their fears of marginalization and tribal domination,’ the General continued.
‘Well said and delivered with aplomb,’ Sir Marcus applauded the General’s rhetoric. ‘With all due respect Supreme commander, I think you are trying to be a pacifist,’ Sir Marcus added.
‘Haba! My friend do you want them to stew in their juice; is that what you mean Marcus?’
‘I am so sorry ‘Supremo’ for sounding impertinent. But I think so; just like Supreme Military Council dealt with the Boro revolt, wield the big stick once more and whip the dissenters into line.’
‘We have used compulsion, whips and rifles to get the people do the right things in the recent past; I am sick and tired of the vicious circle,’ the General replied.
‘Sir I catch your drift and l admire your sense of service, and love for the masses. You are clearly doing your best to avoid the toga of a junta and a dictator, but snap out of it. We are afraid to strike, because it is the right thing to do,’ Sir Marcus said.
General Steel became solemn; he never saw fear in that light, that it was caused by the anxiety of doing the right thing. He used to pride himself that he was not lily-livered or afraid of pulling the trigger. Some were made of ice; some of wind; some of fire; some of clay or brittle earth, but he was made of steel. This was the legend of the General.
‘I fought in the Second World War and even in the jungles of Congo and escaped death by a whisker. I have fought enough wars to last me a lifetime, I don’t want any more bloodshed in the land. l only want history to be kind to me,’ General Steel said.
‘I trust your judgement Sir. You are a trail blazer, a man of many firsts and feats: Equerry to the Queen; Military Attaché to the High Commission in London; first African to command the peace keeping force in the Congo; first Indigenous General Officer Commanding and Major General. Very impressive resume! Hopefully Sir by the end of your reign you will be described in flattering terms as the greatest of all time by all and sundry,’ Sir Marcus said.
‘Greatest leader of all time? Marcus you flatter me.’
‘No sir, it is not the usual tongue in cheek remark, I meant every word of it.’
‘I see that really as a backhanded compliment, thank you all the same my most able con-si-glie-re.’
The twilight was now pronounced and the deliberations on options of co-option and the alternative of coercion had fizzled out. As the evening progressed a far weightier thought began to agitate the mind of the General. Unverified reports of an impending coup had reached him some days ago from a military acolyte Colonel Udo Onuigbo in a private convivial atmosphere. The General was astounded.
‘Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo what do you think of the rumours of a coup d’état making the rounds?’ The General asked finally broaching the issue.
‘The rumours of a counter putsch are rife. We are in the process of gathering intelligence,’ he answered in a measured tone.
‘Any information on the mutineers or likely suspects?’
‘None yet sir that I know of.’
‘That is no answer. I Need intelligence not speculation, damn it!’ The General barked and drew his pistol out of the waistband holster in a sudden fit of anger pointing the gun at the chest of Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo.1
Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo maintained his composure and didn’t show offense at the General’s tantrums and theatrics. He knew it was a matter of time before the General would apologize, saying I am sorry Colonel Lanugo I lost my temper.
‘I don’t want any chink in my armoury,’ the General uttered.
‘I speak the truth, Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo,’ the Director of Military Intelligence affirmed.
‘It would be very foolish and unwise to do otherwise in the circumstances,’ the General retorted angrily.
‘But if I may add, we should quickly try the mutineers of January. The boys are getting impatient and the resentment is growing in the barracks.’
‘What are they saying?’ The General asked.
‘From the rumour mill, they are saying tit for tat; a tooth for tooth; an eye for an eye,’ The Director of Military Intelligence answered.
‘That is primitive: a throwback to the Hobbesian age, a state of anarchy, when the logic of the big fish prevailed: the big swallowing the small.’
‘If the mutineers are executed, it will keep the army in check and instil discipline. We should not be toothless but ruthless.’
‘You now sound like the fourth estate of the realm and the fifth columnists that always talk of the analogy of a toothless bulldog. We must be seen to bark and bite. In all honesty, the equivalence is not necessary. Colonel we are soldiers not dogs. Calm the boys. The military is our primary constituency. l assure you the law will take its course as soon as possible. The panel will soon come out with its findings and the rebels punished accordingly.’ The General said.
‘Okay Supremo.’ The Director of Military Intelligence said.
‘In the interim get spies to infiltrate the officers’ mess. Tap their wires and keep tabs on Brigade Commander, Major Ike-Okongwu, Major Sango and Brigadier General Ibrahim the Adjutant General. Keep me posted,’ the General ordered.
‘As you please; Your Excellency.’
The General looked on wearily. He wondered whether his eyes sometimes gave him away. He wasn’t sure he had the support of the top brass anymore; he had no inkling of who was waiting on the wings to steer the behemoth ship of a nation to a safe shore.
The last time he inspected a guard of honour, he was scared shitless of his boys breaking ranks and turning it on him (the last coup had been a gun practice/ simulation exercise at night-time). His eyes darted left and right, he took long strides and hurriedly gave a firm salute and left the scene. Gunshots were ringing everywhere in his mind and martial music resonating on air.
A coup was initially lasted for March and titled ‘the Ides of March’ by the malefactors for settlement of scores (a return match). This very apprehension of an imminent danger had made him a little bit discrete.2 Intermittently, in the evenings after the close of work, he would steal away to the lagoon and take sea rides with a naval gun boat exploring and listening to the zephyr and flora.3 He would get lost in the vastness of the waters, sucked up by the world and he could not find his way back to the starting point. In his introspection, he would ask himself pertinent questions; questions about reality, about the country; questions about its past, its present and his own future.
He figured solutions to his persistent questions. He had to deal with his fears; he had to deal with procrastination precisely, but he takes no actions afterwards and returns to his comfort zone.
The questions still lingered, in the recesses of his mind. After a while, he gave up the sea rides and the reflections not because he found peace or answers or a newer revelation but because his routine had been found out by moles .There was no more going back, so he could not think anymore as he ought.
But after a couple of listless days, he started to visit the sea again like a voyager and ask these questions again and more: questions about beauty, commitment, loyalty and trust. Where did it all go wrong, precisely at what moment, at the start or in the mid of his regime? What should he have done differently as Army chief: quell the coup by the five Majors that killed the politicos and back and continue with the remnants of the civilian government that had lost its legitimacy or conduct fresh elections in the interlude? It was a jigsaw puzzle that he was working to resolve.
Captain John, the Head of state’s Aide de camp was pensive and mute throughout the conversation, he was fond of Pidgin English creole and hadn’t time for intellectual discourse. He was stout, the epitome of the quintessential soldier, a man with so much brawn and courage, with tribal marks graciously outlined on his face that made him less personable. He was content at standing at attention, and within earshot.
Before his elevation to Adc, he was the General’s choice driver. He easily swapped positions from a car owing military officer who drove in the morning in his jalopy to Dodan Barracks in Ikoyi to a driver. He had driven the General for ten years in the General’s black Benz. Unlike most massive military bosses who would sit at the back seat and bark orders to the underling on the steering, the General loved sitting in front with Captain John conversing in pidgin and alternating in Hausa and enjoying the freemasonry of the rank and file. Apparently, it wasn’t feigned humility and it was uncommon for a man of his stature and exposure. He encouraged camaraderie in the force.
And notwithstanding the General’s leniency towards him, he still regarded him a lot; he was his godfather in the army who had rescued him many times from outright dismissal. The General was also the one who made it possible for him to go on foreign missions a year ago.
His latest blunder was still hanging like the sword of Damocles over his head. He was involved with a local Sudanese woman during the last military mission. But the General loved doing such favours taking one’s matter as his -softening the ground. Captain John was convinced some top unknown military guys were out to humiliate him on account of his undying loyalty to the General.
You must have heard of Captain John’s misdemeanour and the impending Court martial,’ the General said.
‘Yes sir. I heard of the involvement.’ Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo replied.
‘So sad. Enfant terrible,’ the General muttered looking towards Captain John, who was still standing uneasily like one under the weather.
‘I gather the lady is pregnant and seeks to come into the country,’ Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo continued.
‘But is the lady a minor?’ Sir Marcus asked.
‘No she is not a minor but a fully-fledged local Sudanese woman,’ Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo answered.
‘Then he is not culpable,’ Sir Marcus rationalized.
‘I am afraid that defence will be dead on arrival. He disobeyed a standing order given to the Contingent in Darfur Sudan, he had gone out partying with long haired Sudanese women and ended up having an affair with one,’ Lieutenant Colonel Lanugo said.
‘What is the punishment that will be meted to him?’ the General asked.
‘The possible punishment among other things is a demotion in his rank or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years,’ Lieutenants Colonel Lanugo said.
Shivers ran down the spine of Captain John at the mention of the penalty. The last thing he wanted was to be imprisoned or demoted from a Captain to a Lieutenant, it would be a big blow to his blossoming military career.
‘I suspect foul play; the commanding officer did not investigate the matter. Beside it is a matter that he can summarily dispose. The Sudanese government is out to discredit Nigeria soldiers before the United Nations. Our foot soldiers are the largest and best in Africa. Africa will always remain our centrepiece, ‘the General stated.
‘Absolutely right Sir,’ the Director of Military Intelligence concurred.
‘I will deal with it. I will talk with the President of the Court Martial. The charge will be struck out and Captain John will be admonished accordingly,’ the General added.
‘Be more circumspect, and be professional in all your dealings,’ the General admonished Captain John.
‘Sir I am extremely grateful for your kindness.’ Captain John said smiling churlishly revealing his broad white teeth, the glimmer of the moon in a dark night.
For a moment the military held an attraction for Sir Marcus. He nurtured the idea of being commissioned as a soldier adorning the tan green camouflage happily like a recruit with a rifle. But no one ever knows what he loves until opportunities come- the kind of opportunities that ultimately decide who one becomes.
General Steel left the porch, removed his civvies and jumped into the swimming pool in his shorts. He did some freestyle stroke and some backstrokes. Some minutes later he was out of the pool, drenched to the consternation of his adjutants.
‘The water is chilling, criminally cold,’ the General chipped in his jovial candour.
‘I guess you have other things in your mind beyond the chill of the pool,’ Sir Marcus said.
Yes I do, I am an idealistic officer with hopes of changing his dear country embroiled in turmoil,’ the General said drying up himself with a shot towel.
‘Get me my whiskey Captain John,’ the General said.
‘What brand sir.’
‘The Johnny Walker.’
The General quaffed some shots of whiskey and rose up with his swagger stick.
‘Are we suspending the unitary decree?’ The Director of Military Intelligence asked.
‘No,’ the General answered dismissively.
‘The country is bleeding. We need to trouble shoot and do some damage control,’ the Director of Military Intelligence intoned.
‘Yes we will do damage control and explain to the public that the whole essence of abolishing the regions and banning tribal associations with political leanings is to unify the country and eradicate factionalism-nothing more. Please Marcus tell the Secretary of Government to prepare modalities as soon as possible for a nationwide tour to explain our position to the public,’ the General asseverated.
‘I will do so, right away,’ Sir Marcus replied.
‘Happy weekend to all of you, this is the end of our tête-à-tête and rendezvous, enjoy your Saturday, we all see at the Council meeting on Monday to further deliberate on the state of affairs,’ the General said ending the brief meeting.
The General retired to his study room with Captain John after the engagement. The Lp of the Majors band was playing in the background with some bluesy renditions. The General had slight premonitions but never knew the scale of what laid ahead- the macabre killings to come on the maudlin Thursday and Black Friday. The night horizons were aglow with the reddest afterglow. It was the evening of a dawn or the dawn of the evening whatever that meant to him.
1Did Ironside possess the mean streak? How accurate is the account of him browbeating soldiers and holding members of parliament hostage at gunpoint. The perspectives to the invitation to takeover are both Northern and Southern, so much for historical inaccuracies-a century from now what will be left of this farce, who is saying the truth?
3 https://www.thenigerianvoice.com/news/192381/1/dogs-eat-dogs.Yemi Kotun accessed on the 1st of April 2018.