A man at the start of his life wants to be many things. In the end his desires are fashioned by the devices of such a thing as a merciless and ruthless reality. As the years rolled into each other, he shrunk. Like a weary traveler he slumbered from time to time; snoring, jaw hung open, while slouched in his chair, his whitened head sunk in his chest. Sometimes he heaved; his chest rising only to fall, just as dramatically. The years had conquered his mortal body, and the months of swift hours; the acuity of his mind. He often forgot himself, yet he would always remember that one story that he told whenever he was excited. He had fed our superstitions fat on the reality of its strangeness, and with a strange fire burning in those tired eyes sunk into an ancient face that bore many furrows and ridges in a skin that was now leathery and had given in to the conquest of time, he would begin.
As he told the story, he would chew his toothless gums, pondering a while, perhaps on our worthiness, maybe worried that we might think his story too fantastic for our age, but he was relentless, just as he had been several years ago fighting the Biafrans in the civil war, against his sisters’ wish, for he was the only male child of his parents. His name was Ajemobi. The sojourner, whose sunken, tired eyes have seen a thousand deaths, dangers, and calamities that form the human experience, the one whose memories were as wild as the feral elusiveness of the mountain goat. In a shaky voice he would say, as if he were trying to impress upon our minds the very letters of his words,
‘When a man is saddled with too much power, he becomes dead to good sense; he becomes excited only when he is praised or patronised. The truth becomes to him, a scourge in his skin, and lies; the victuals of his emotions. This is the burden of the powerful, their unfortunate lot in life…’
Ajemobi was my grandfather. He was a man who had been plagued by the familial ties to his village. As a young man who had been lucky at the outset of his life, he had gotten all but the difficulties brought upon one’s life by an unprecedented fortune. He had been born to a wealthy unlettered cocoa farmer, who had sworn that his male child will get what he never had––the white man’s knowledge––and following that, had sent him to the city to live with his uncle, who was a teacher at the prestigious White Hall College, in the hope that the young lad––who was almost eighteen––would find his inspiration in a lettered existence. He had caught the wind of ambition early enough, spurred by his uncle’s goading, and had sat and passed––not in a small degree––the entrance exams into White Hall College. In those days––and it was in 1946––a secondary school education was much like a university education, for in quality, education held a greater significance, a means much examined for an essence deeper than the joys and convenience the ends promised. In some other fortunate development, as a clerk at the Railway Corporation, he had been chosen to travel to England for some training, and had stayed back to get a university degree in London.
On arrival in 1962, two years after Independence, he had gotten a job at the new Nigerian Airways. For one thing, he avoided visiting his people at home in Itelu, and today he still swears on his ancestor’s skull, that that was the best decision he had ever made, not his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, and not his later employment at the Power Distribution company. He had been led by the wiles of his people: no, do not join the army. No, not that. You can’t marry her, she is from the city. Being in politics will bring you nothing but disappointments. And when he got a job during Balewa’s time as prime minister, with the Power Distribution Company as a store keeper, he received a telegram:
DO NOT ALLOW THEM TO TRANSFER YOU SO OFTEN
He was a man, who when younger, was much disposed to the wild usurious pleasures of youth: the partying, the cheap abundant booze, and women with nothing on virtue. He––when he had the chance––never thought of visiting home, for his father might not even have supported it. He had a lot of humorous stories that he told, but they seemed hidden in the shadows of his mind, and were only recalled whenever the light of his mood touched upon them. He would chuckle, a deep throaty chuckle, before he related them: ‘I used to have a friend who is late now. Solomon was his name. When I was in White Hall College, he would sit in my living room, dressed in my whites, and the scarlet red tie of the college and say to any visitor, ‘I am Solomon Boluwade, a proud pupil of dis one,’ and he would point to the emblem of the college, ‘I be educate, but I no half education.’ He was the only one I knew, who would use the word ‘prevent’ in place of ‘present’, he was one hell of a man.’ Ajemobi was much inclined to the studiousness that had been stamped upon the countenance of his faculties, for he still read even as he advanced further in age. He had contemplated writing down that story that so much fascinated him, even in its recall. He had claimed that his own father told him the story. We supported that he wrote down the story, for he never finished the telling; he would sleep off in between and then start again some other time.
One day he had garnered courage, and had picked a pen to write, he had looked stronger, appearing as one in good spirits, fit to tell the story again, but this time in the careful lettering of his scribble, and he had begun with a certain thoughtfulness of the didactic significance of the story:
…For a man’s worth is adjudged upon the abilities of possessing himself, since he might, if unguarded, soon be possessed by the vices of his habit.
I am Ajemobi. Two or three times I have fallen prey to my desires of glory and a self-centered quest for honor. I have observed the men that ruled the country. They were as young as me. Soldiers. Ideological warriors like Thomas Sankara of Guinea, I felt, should be a part of the action. And so I joined the army against the wishes of my sisters and my people back at Itelu. Soldiers are gods. Or so I thought. They made themselves present everywhere we could see them. They made the headlines: Captain Ifeajuna Wins Gold at the Commonwealth Games. We saw them on the roads, in street corners. In short, the government was constituted by soldiers after the revolutionary sweep.
I was a second lieutenant at the break of the war in 1967. My wife, Sade, pregnant with our first child, went with her brothers to Itelu when the voice of Gowon came through the crackling static of the radio that was always on the wooden table in our living room. That day, the young men had huddled round the radio. One of them, Jide, adjusted a dial. It was police action. ‘What was police action?’ One of them asked, puckering his brows. I had passed them not saying a word, from my room to the door, to the full glare of sunlight outside, where Amina eyed me. She would know something. She always knew something. After all, it wasn’t news that Amina who sold beer at the mammy barracks slept with some of the generals. She was a young, pulchritudinous woman with a fine, fair-complexioned skin and a huge rear that that day shook in a flowing adire robe. ‘Good afternoon, leftnant.’ She ambled with an affected feminine grace. I asked her what the news on the radio was about and she drew her mouth into an expression of bemusement, clapping her hands derisively. ‘Your senior officers want Gowon to finish the Igbos. They don’t understand why he hasn’t done that since Ojukwu ordered his people home.’
When I met him, I thought he had something about him that was darkly enchanting, enchanting so that one would want to watch him as he smoked, puffing whorls of smoke shirtless, and sitting up in his chair, a foreboding graveness on his mien. There was something inexplicably evil in the gap-toothed, dimpled smile that he rarely wore and the manner in which he pointed at the men with the restless charisma that he bore. When we were at training, we would hear his laughter; a high pitched cackle much like that of an excited hyena, as it preceded him, and his slight form and the mid-parting in his full grown hair. Once he had said, ‘You see, out there is a place where I know not friend or foe. If you stand in my way, I will kill you.’ The men didn’t think much of it, until Akwa Ibom, until shirtless and driven by an apoplectic murderousness that shone through his eyes, he had killed a corporal that he had found to have raped a girl at Ikot Okpora, ‘I want no weakness around me.’ And then one day as we, his senior officers, gathered around him for a briefing on the assault that we planned for that night, after the morning drill and inspection, he had named me his assistant field commander. Black Scorpion was like that; calculated and afflicted by nature with bouts of dangerous spontaneity. That day, in the old classroom of the community school that we used as our command post, the officers had looked at me. I could almost hear their thoughts which feared for my failure and the consequence of failing. ‘Ajemobi, I can dig a grave all by myself, and yes I can bury a big man like you in it too.’ He would be deadpan, and then he would laugh at my taking him serious. He was like that too, a jester, one could hardly laugh off.
That I didn’t get killed by him was on one hand the prank of a hideously sarcastic fate. That I wasn’t cut in halves by furious shells was on the other hand the design of a sadistic chance. To be alive and to be haunted by the images of the war, the cackling hyena laughter of the man; an assault rifle held in one hand, while he drew slowly with the other his machete to hack a man in chunks of bloody, meaningless flesh, or as he put his service pistol to the head of a stick-thin infant, ‘To end its misery.’ The overwhelming, gut-wrenching smells of blood and of death, of torn open carcasses; of fighting men and lumps of rotting flesh blown into unrecognizable bits in bush paths concealing swamps of reptiles lying in ambush, still plague me. Back in Lagos, I was there to recollect with him at the tables that bore bottles of beer in bars that had profligate women, to the hearing of the other officers, the desperate pleas, the screams of grown men as they soiled themselves when he made to decapitate them. We had an understanding, he and I. He knew he could have been betrayed during those days that his notoriety assumed legendary dimensions, if he had someone else but me as an assistant field commander. It wasn’t so much for the lies he told at headquarters, but for what secrets we shared of his invincibility and my part in keeping them.
How could he have been killed at Opobo, dying from a hail of bullets from a well-organized ambush, and then resurrect in Lagos to brief Danjuma? I knew everything he did; from the thing he drank every morning from a gourd, muttering in Yoruba, to the way he sometimes came through the door with his back. He always seemed to know the next move of the enemy. He was always in anticipation of what he knew of their movements, and then in his style; he hacked and put shots to the head. What I have always wanted was the power and the glory of revolutionary coups, not the war and the yells of men being disemboweled and left to look at their ripped abdomens and bloodied, foamy tharms while still alive.
The insanity that had been eating at him slowly began to wear at my tolerance. I watched in rage as he ordered the men to burn down a whole village at Andoni and poison the river with arsenic. ‘Not one of them will live long enough to alert them in the next village. I hope you all understand that this is an effective military action to save all our lives. I do not believe in half measures.’ The men believed in him. As his knowledge of the enemy was enough to save their lives at the beginning. And then, just like the warrior that thought he was invincible and because of that charged into the thick of battle only to reemerge with a mortal wound, he began to make costly mistakes.
The men, carried away by the man’s reckless inattention, fell into the barks of small arms and the heavy hail of machine gunfire. From one ambush to another, they hit the swamp and soft, red, muddy ground in salute of death and the call of a blatant lot, squarishly grim in its eventuality, ‘Our men are dying, one too many.’ He had looked at me, his face clamped, in all its fierce contempt. He was beginning to come across to me as one that dangerously lacked control, yet he seemed to have held what I have always wanted, but not in the manner of my wanting it; the glory and the power, not of coups, but to unmake and to spare. Maybe I was not just after order in the ranks but after his power as well, to substitute for my powerlessness, that became more and more apparent, that as his assistant I wielded nothing but my fear of his digging my grave and the consternation of burying me in it.
My powerlessness gave me cause to reflect on my desires, that I, who had joined the army to exert control over others, was now repressed. Repressed much that I now think only of what could happen if I turn my back on my field commander. And so I watched. I watched him tell an adolescent boy––on our march on Eket––he could make it alive if he could escape as he counted to five on the fingers of his left hand. That smile was there on his face: the gap-toothed, dimpled smile. But it made his eyes gleam with wickedness. His eyes were trained on the boy who kept falling and rising, blood on his face and bruises on his arm––he had earlier been beaten and kicked with booted legs by the men, furious with the way they were being killed––as the adolescent ran, I saw him from the corner of my eyes as he collected one of the soldiers rifle, aimed it, and then fired. At that point when the boy hit the ground, his body contorting in the throes of death, the sputtering coughs that brought blood from his nose and mouth, I broke. The war became to me, ended.
‘Sir, I am done.’ He had turned sharply to face me––from his backing me, his arms akimbo––his eyes hard and his body tense, ‘What did you say?’ My arms that had been behind me, and my feet that had been planted apart all came back to their natural position to support that my grounds were beyond military ethics. I was done and meant it. Not even the fear of death at the hands of my field commander could hold my conscience to ransom. ‘If you step out, I will make sure you don’t make it alive.’ I had, and had felt his eyes hard on my back, hoping to be thrown forward by a bullet from his service pistol. Again, fate wagered against my destruction. Days later, when I was back at the headquarters, I found he had enemies, powerful enemies that wanted to support anything that he detested. I found out because these men held against him when the Black Scorpion reported my insubordination.
Men are either too old to remember or too young to know, or in between. I was neither too old to remember, nor too young to know. I was in between where men remember but do so with regret. Regretting what better that could have been done with their lives. I shouldn’t have joined the army; nor should I have been in that war. I should have determined to make the most beautiful recollections of an earlier life rather than the dusty old images of a failed humanity as my companion in old age. This is my regret.
Image: Moyan Brenn via Flickr (cropped, blurred)