The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
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Postbellum: Petals of Roses
General Hassan Abba, the Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, erstwhile Minister of Defense and after his surgically precise and successful third coup d’etat, Head of State, sat in his towering brown leather chair with the national coat of arms embroidered in golden thread and rich colors prominent over his head, listening to Miles Davis and Johnny Coltrane’s ‘Kind of Blue’. 1959, he thought.
The office of the C-in-C was a massive room, the size of which had been concealed by breaking the eye into locales of concentration. The entire room was done in cream white paint and plush deep brown wall-to-wall carpet covered every inch of the floor.
Coming through the main door the eye first met a picturesque view of buildings in the state house put there for that effect and the cityline of Abuja far behind in the background. Beneath this picture window was a chair set comprising a neutral, predominantly camel brown seven-seater leather settee with seven other chairs made of a taffeta cloth material surrounding it. The Nigerian coat of arms was designed into the carpet with the horses and eagle facing the main settee where the C-in-C usually sat with whichever august guest he entertained. Aluminum and glass stools, made in the Scandinavian minimalist style, were between the seven individual chairs and two on either side of the seven-seater settee.
When a visitor sat there, his eyes eventually wondered to the other part of the office where works of art representing cultures as varied as a Benin mask and a replica of the Attah Igala’s ritual ejubejuailo mask adorned as if suspended in the air of the opposite wall. Opposite to the masks was a wall of books, leather bound encyclopedias and such books that betrayed the truth that the man who owned this office knew literature enough to sometimes consult Britannica, John Locke and western theorists. Among the names on that shelf, the African names, were Yusuf Bala Usman, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Achilles Mbembe and oddly for some, Christopher Okigbo’s “Labyrinths”. The heart of this part of the room were three low Queen Anne chairs at the center of which was a large table with an LCD screen on it that was set by default to a ten foot square map of the country.
The third part of the room was separated from the second by a screen partitioning of sheet glass that allowed only minimal visibility from the side of second part. This was the C-in-C’s office; he could see everything in the entire office from his seat on his side of the partition. The General’s office was mostly brown wood paneled and had no windows at all, the black ebony wood desk and the crest above his leather seat dominated the room. Two seats of the same brown leather stood on opposite sides of the table from him. On the table was a computer, never read newspapers and abandoned papers in front of General Hassan.
General Hassan dominated the room.
The General was a bulky man with a wide chest, wearing the sleeveless uniform and single eagle shoulder boards of a five star General, which was the highest non-wartime post in the Nigerian Army, a post he had attained three years before his latest coup and which the Army had grudgingly given him -in spite of there being a seating military junta in which he participated, headed by another five star General- because the Army had no other posts to give him yet could not dispense of him. He had light brown skin and the supple yet firm features of a man long accustomed to giving commands. He wore dark sunglasses, which were now placed on the table before him. Beneath the sunglasses were thin lips flanked on both sides by Kanuri tribal scarifications. He had a thin Semitic nose and curly black hair, and the effect of this face, when he smiled, was that of fearsome beauty and power.
All these made it seem trivial and hardly noticeable that the General was not a tall man and stood at just one point seven meters.
He was the last of that generation of officers who inspired loyalty in the rank and file and in every battalion of division in which they served which in his own case was every sub-division and division of the Nigerian Army. He was the last of a dying breed and he knew it.
While the General listened to the fantastic rhythm of Miles Davis, an unspoken prayer that his power would last out long enough for his purposes kept repeating itself in his heart. Ever since the coup twelve months before, he had found himself praying that prayer so often that he never even noticed it anymore. It was not the waning of his power over the men and civilians of the Armed Forces Ruling Council and the Federal Executive Council that he feared or that of losing power from senility or stupidity. He was so secure that he had been known to sleep beneath his dark glasses through the deliberations of these two bodies which inevitably went on and on because none dared wake him up in the former because of his rank and in the latter because they simply lacked the courage to do so. No, his fear was that of diabetes.
General Hassan Abba sighed and fixed his gaze to the far end of the office where a portrait of Sir Tafawa Balewa was placed on the back of the glass partitioning. He always found himself looking at the picture of the late Prime Minister whenever there was a national emergency at hand, as if seeking guidance from a long gone age of which only he and a few others remained. 1957. When Balewa had first become Prime Minister. The golden sixties of such optimism and belief and hope seemed to him a different age entirely now, unrecognizable so much that he would have distrusted it had ever been were it not for personal memory and participation. It all seemed to him like a far off age though it was barely four decades; what was four decades in the life of a country? But he knew. It was plenty.
The General sighed just before his Aide-de-Camp, a Major from the petroleum producing Delta State who had been increasing his power in the face of the current crisis there, came in and saluted. He had thought of sacking the man and wiping that grin off his face but then, he also admired a man who was willing to put himself in a potentially adverse situation within the murky substructure of military politics, it was trait that the General in his youth had been partial to and a genius at reading. And Major Illoba was a talented Army Intelligence officer quite without par in the other services. The Major reminded him of Ibrahim Dibarama when he was young, an intelligent Intelligence officer. The General returned his salute, put on his snake green cap and together they headed into the corridor of power that led to the council chambers where the Federal Executive Council waited.
At the door of the chamber, Major Illoba saluted his commander and handed over the thin brown folder to him.
Then he opened the door and the General stepped into the quiescent, nervous and anticipated weekly meeting.
After three hours of exposure to the hot air of the council, General Abba was back in the air-conditioned ambience of his office. Many times he despaired even the weekly council meetings with all the talk and talk. He knew that every problem had only one solution and that if he spent three hours or more on a problem for which top military officers and the crème of the intelligentsia drawn from the campuses and civil groups and including a Nobel laureate were giving twice as many solutions as there were people in the council chamber then the problem was not in the problem but with the problem solvers. Yet, he had to include everybody in the government, leeches most of them, in order to have a command structure. And the structure was crucial. The civil society groups, bored and attention seeking intellectuals and other metropolitan misanthropes were already making noises about transition to civil rule programs. As if he had planned a damn coup only in order to step aside after the bloody job.
No, the General thought, a light frown creasing his forehead under the impressed line of his military beret, the structure is important. All he could do really was reshuffle the cabinet and replace old leeches with new ones.
And now this impasse in the oil producing south.
The General sat leaning forward on the ebony table, his forearms held together in a clasp of his palms, his bare elbows resting on and forming a triangle over the edge of the table.
The little black telephone on the table rang.
“What is it?”
“General, Sir. Lieutenant General Dipo is here to see you, Sir!”
“Send him in.”
Dipo was the Chief of General Staff and his defacto deputy. The CGS was a tall man, much taller than his boss but very much awed by him and fearfully reverent. General Abba had picked him out ten years earlier just after his second coup that had ushered in the I. B. Randa, the feudalist hawk from the North Central. General Randa hadn’t lasted barely five years when he had to step aside after an almost successful putsch by junior cadre officers, Hassan Abba had put down the insurrection and gradually eased Randa out of power because he believed that the military establishment was overheating. The transition had produced a retired Yoruba General and Civil War hero as civilian president and Chief Oba Segun had made two mistakes; he had not realized that Abba had been the power behind the scenes and so he left him in office as CGS and second, he was afflicted with gargantuan hubris that even the longsuffering Nigerian population, known for suffering and smiling, grew fed up.
By the time discontent had reached its peak, Hassan Abba had already overhauled the military establishment and thirteen months before, had staged a coup d’etat so perfect that the only civilian political casualties were President Segun and the Senate President who were killed along with a loyal detachment of the Brigade of Guards and their commander. In these events, Hassan Abba had not forgotten Dipo and carried him around, putting him in the military positions he wanted and ensuring he was promoted as desired. With the latest coup, Dipo, who was from the same ethnic group as the late civilian president, became the Chief of General Staff.
Dipo, wearing the complete field uniform of an infantry General officer, marched in quick strides and saluted smartly before the General who was wearing his trademark dark sunglasses. General Abba returned the salute with a limp raising and lowering of his right arm to his temple.
“Sit down Dipo”, the General said easily, pointing to the seat opposite him on his left. His voice was that of camaraderie reserved only for those General and Flag officers with whom he was on first name basis with, and his especial friends. Yet, there was steel fluting beneath the reed of his voice, a quality his inner circles over the years had learnt to ignore even as it was impossible not to notice it.
“Your Excellency, I was asked to see you.”
“Yes. I want to know what you really think about the South-South problem.”
The trouble with the C-in-C, or part of his mystique, was that beneath those sunglasses one could not see his eyes and without that key it was impossible to preempt him. This fact and the related impossibility of inference flit through Dipo’s mind for he knew that the question he had just been asked was a dangerous one. In the two weeks since the gridlock had begun, the C-in-C had not made a position apart from ensuring that security was maintained in the Delta State.
“Your Excellency, the Army and other services merely await your orders. Once you decide on a course of action, we will execute immediately.”
The General nodded and then casually removed his glasses from his face and in an affected motion, placed them on the table before him. Then he looked at his CGS and asked again.
“Dipo, as my General officer, what do you think of the condition in the South-South?”
“It is dicey.”
“Good. And what is the way to resolve it?”
“General, on the one hand we have the environmental angle to it and Ben Befi Nima and his Ogoni Movement has his pulse in the international press and green politics; then we have the crooks who have been bunkering oil over the last decade, they are criminal civilian elements but they are armed and can threaten national security, a point our predecessor and his civilian politicians were too inept to consider. Thirdly, we have the pressure of the international community and their call for a return to civil rule. Our government is placed between these odds and all are interlinked.”
“General, Ben Befi Nima’s movement is environmental and his grouse is with the oil companies but the last four years of civilian rule has seen him become more and more political, a possible permutation is that of a secession. The Ogoni’s cannot do it on their own, but if they somehow overcome the sheer number of distrustful factions and create a league with the other ethnicities in the Niger Delta, it becomes grave because they have bunkered oil worth enough money to make the Biafran secession a joke compared to what they can do. The area is small but our Army and Airforce will be of very little effect; the Navy will not be able to manage a full scale war in the southern creeks.”
The General nodded.
“The oil bunkerers who were created by the Segun administration present the most pressing problem to this regime. For so long as they operate, with their own forces, they are effectively a state within a state. We cannot have effective territorial control if we still have pockets of criminals operating under the radar of this regime. Yet, they are of the ethnicities in the Niger Delta and they have been marginalized over the last thirty-five years, the West would croak ‘ethnic cleansing’ if they are not carefully handled. To further complicate the picture, a part of the United States government is pursuing a sub policy in which the possible dismemberment of the country will be in America’s tactical interests in terms of commodity.”
“So on all fronts, we are hemmed in.”
General Abba was pleased that his deputy understood the nuances of the chessboard on which they were playing.
“And your advice?”
“We militarize immediately, General. We can contain it now.”
But the sunglasses were already back on the General’s face and his countenance had once more become inscrutable and Dipo could not read any reaction to his recommendation. Yet, he pressed on.
“General, a good number of the midlevel boys are partial towards militarizing the Niger Delta. The annual military games have been suspended for five years now and they look forward to such a deployment.”
“I am aware. Thank you very much for your advice,” dismissed the C-in-C and the light General immediately stood up, a slight dread coursing through him, and saluting stiffly he made his way out of the C-in-C’s office.
The General leaned back into his chair. Dipo had confirmed all he had wanted to know; he had found out that while the Army command knew the facts of the Niger Delta situation and could create possible modules of permutations, they did not grasp the sheer intricacy of the situation. Not for the first time in his career, Hassan Abba knew he would be almost alone to figure out how to keep the unwieldy nation in one piece through yet another battering of its in borne disintegrative force.
Like Ibrahim Dibarama in Jos, General Hassan Abba was a realist and he knew that Ben Befi Nima would make a mistake soon and give him the pretext he needed. The real trouble would be with the civil society and their western handlers. He did not relish the drama of I. M. Randa’s five year old transition but the Civil Society had danced to that until the very last and even after that they had still wound up with Oba Segun, the most incompetent of all incompetents in power.
General Abba knew if he chose to stage such a symphony the civil society would still dance so long as America and the West got their crude at 10% below the OPEC prices. He had been with Randa and he knew the procedure and result of the ‘democratization experiment’. Yet, things were much easier then with the Soviets still holding down the West, but the war in the Gulf had betrayed a new American arrogance that he had leaned to be weary of.
“Sir,” his secretary said, after he had put the black mouthpiece to his face with a curt “Yes.”
“The Minister of Finance is here to see you.”
“Send him in.”
The Minister of Finance was one of those nauseating fellows he had had to bring onboard because of his civil society background, just like the man he had put in Information who was a former journalist. He particularly considered both of them toads. Yet, Ibrahim had been right, the presence of these two men in his Executive Council had blunted some of the thrusts from their primary constituencies.
He also had a particular problem with the Minister of Finance, the man was an intellectual from the troublesome south-south and one of the few men from there who had bothered to remain in the academia long enough to have a PhD in International Economics. Yet, Dr. Erakpor’s politics was anti-Igbo even though the Igbo people ran things in the South-South. There was something so terribly against the grain about having an otherwise intelligent man betray so repugnant an inadequacy as to have no ideology save ethnic paranoia. The General had great respect for the Igbo’s and he was irritated by these Ijaws and south-south minorities for whom Igbo blood had been shed in the Civil War only for then to turn around and betray that relationship; it was a sort of treason, this denial of the Civil War. But the man was Ijaw and had been brought into the government. Yet, while he had been able to silence his civil society buddies, he had no influence whatsoever in the creeks where the criminals lived.
Was this the sort of slug who would govern the South-South if it broke away from Nigeria? There would be such a scramble that the one in Berlin would have been tame. Scramble for the Niger Delta and the worlds seventh most productive oilfields, and he was expected to leave that fate of the Balkans to the stupidity and greed of men like the Finance Minister. Allah ya kiyaye, the General thought.
The Finance Minister was a black, round tub of a man who always wore a sort of caftan native to his people and a Cowboy hat. On their first meeting, Hassan Abba had told him to always make sure his Cowboy cap was in his right hand whenever they happened to be in the same room. Cheeky son! Did he feel less of a scab with that hat on his head?
“Good Afternoon, your Excellency”, said the Minister, giving a low dissembling bow and no doubt pondering what flatteries he would use on that particular occasion.
“Good afternoon, Tonye, please sit down.” The C-in-C’s face was now inscrutable behind his glasses, his lips thin and unsmiling.
“What is this you were saying about shortfalls in crude earning at the meeting just now?”
The Minister gave a long windy explanation on price difference and technicalities to which the General remained unmoved. He was looking at a little mole of the left side of the Dr.’s face that quivered as he spoke. Wallahi, I will do something about this man.
“Okay, thanks you Dr., any other thing I need to know?”
“Not really, your Excellency. Only I will be going to bury my mother in law. The traditional rites are Tuesday next.”
“Okay then, keep me informed.”
Hassan Abba looked on the retreating back of the Finance Minister; he would send him some money before Tuesday. That is what the burial of the mother in law meant. Cheeky bastard!
“Mairo”, he said into the phone, “kira mana Aliyu Bala pronto!”
Major Aliyu Bala arrived within five minutes, he was a Fulani man in his early thirties and his Security Adviser, one of the few competent people he had close to him. He saluted sharply. The C-in-C’s glasses were on the table in front of him.
“Carry on,” the General said, “sit down”, he added in Hausa.
“The man in the North Central, has he been redeployed?”
“Yes, General. To a desk job at Army inventory.”
“Good. Good. He almost made a mess of the Benue trouble the other time.”
“Retired Colonel Dibarama made a surgical job of it, Sir. He is one hell of a tactician, if you permit my language.”
“I permit it, Hamza is a bloody fine strategist too. Now, this south-south issue.”
“I don’t want surveillance on Ben Befi Nima and his boys, I want penetration. On the inside and I want to know everything he does.”
The Major shifted his foot and looked up to his Commander.
“General, I already have two men inside the movement. I only just got confirmation that they were in place within the hour.”
“Alhamdlillah!” General Abba beamed, “Good thinking Aliyu!”
Major Aliyu was one of those men, like the CGS, who had been picked out from relative obscurity and made part of Hassan Abba’s machinery and he consequently lived for his General’s praise, he was the sort of man who would do anything to protect his boss and so had wound up, he the son of a peasant bororo Fulani, in the post of National Security Adviser. A post long the provenance of feudalist Fulani who used to reign and now ruled the Fodio emirates. Without the patronage of Hassan Abba, he would not have made it this high up in so little time, barely a decade.
Major Aliyu was an officer who never questioned and never said and Hassan Abba was the only one to whom he suggested anything, he was a man of effect yet even he could only follow the nuances of the General’s mind and could only wonder what strategy was in execution to solve the South-South impasse.
“I want you to ensure that Colonel Buba gets the money he needs pronto.”
Colonel Buba was the military governor of the Southwest state. Abuja kept an eye on the southwest because apart from being the home turf of the media and NGO’s, it was also the state where the recently removed Chief Oba Segun came from. Amongst Colonel Buba’s tasks as Governor was ensuring that the South West never forgot that while their son had been in power he had not done anything to improve their infrastructure. A lot of money was being pumped into the South West.
“Arrange a meeting next week Thursday with the Divisional commanders and on Friday I want to meet the service chiefs.”
“Yes sir. Would that be all?”
In the wake of his coup, Hassan Abba had spilt the Army structure, making the regimental commands more powerful in concert with the military governors; the erstwhile structure of divisional general and flag officers was retained but the generals and admirals were less powerful that they used to be. There were still three Army Divisions, Ibadan, Jos and Kano and he retained three Admiralty Commands. Most of the regimental commanders, Brigadiers and Colonels, were his handpicked loyalists; he had the country firmly in his grip.
“That will be all for now.”
The General followed his security adviser out of the main office, leaving him off to sit on one of the chairs at the center space where the digital map lay. He picked up a stylus and touched the screen, blowing up a detailed map of the Delta State and its mass of creeks formed by the Niger delta, lands abounding with petroleum and in the windings of which lay criminals well fed for too long who threatened his regime.
The screen began to fade and he pointed his stylus once again and it resolved itself into a political map of Asia. He leaned back into the cushions and the clear eyes of Nigeria’s latest military dictator lingered long on China and India with thoughts of possibility and mortality on his mind.
Rahila Pam was impressed.
She held on to Faruk’s arm as they followed their escort, a handsome young soldier who had been waiting for them with a black Peugeot staff car at the airport as he wove them through the marbled halls and offices of the Presidential Villa. She was a bit overawed at being at the very center of the country’s power vortex and wondered how Faruk could carry on as if it was the most normal place in the world for him to be. She held on to his arm a bit tighter and he smiled mischievously at her. The soldier, Haruna Jacob, was wearing the camouflage dress of an Army Captain and he walked with his broad chest in a vertical parallel with his biceps that seemed to burst out of his folded sleeves, his arms moved in tandem with his feet; here is a soldier, she thought.
Faruk wore a cream white colored danshiki caftan with black leather slippers and a predominantly light brown Borno cap on his head.
They tuned left after a short flight of steps and stood before a door that opened after a few seconds. They were in an office where a young woman of about twenty-eight, dressed in an iro and buba, looked up at them and smiled.
“Faruk. Rahila. The General is waiting for you.”
The captain who had accompanied them simply nodded and turned to them, speaking his first complete sentence since he had introduced himself at the airport.
“You may go in. I hope you have a long stay at the Villa.”
Then he smiled a beautiful smile, bowed to Rahila and turned away through yet another door. Faruk opened the door and together they walked into the office of the C-in-C, Rahila still gripping his arm. And like hundreds of guests, she was temporarily awestruck by the first part of the office with its foreign ambience, her eyes lingered awhile on the masks on the wall. Even Faruk’s eyes lingered awhile on the high realism of the bronze Igala mask.
General Hassan Abba looked up and saw a stunning if rather slim girl with the most unusual brown complexion, a flawless oval face and clear gifted eyes, thin lips. She wore a brown ankara print material sewn in some modern style that became her frightfully well, her strong hips counterpoised the delicacy of her features, complimenting the light of her eyes. Striking, he thought, so this is the girl who has replaced Ummi al-Qassim?
The General was up and across the side of the table in one fluid movement and Faruk was grinning ear to ear, like a little child, while he was gripped in an embrace by a head of State who was equally beside himself in delight.
“You young scamp!” he exclaimed, for that while Rahila was not a part of their reunion, the acme of what tarried off the past and the dream of the future. The General let go of his nephew after they kissed each other on the cheek. Rahila felt warm amidst their affection.
They broke their embrace and the older man became a General again, turning to her and giving her a smile with a slight tilting of his head. The man had clear eyes and though he was just a little shorter than she was, he was a fine man in a powerful arresting way. Something about him reminded her of Faruk’s father, the Colonel, in Jos, a certain quality of a bygone age; only that here that quality was more fortified than with Ibrahim Dibarama.
“And you must be Rahila Pam”, the General declared in his slightly accented but virile voice, “The one for whom my scamp of a nephew almost set the North Central ablaze for.”
“I don’t know about that General”, she said and the other laughed out loud, winking indulgently at Faruk.
“Please, please, sit down. I have looked forward to meeting you.”
They took their seats before him.
“Faruk, what will you have, Rahila, you? Water? Okay, Faruk, over to the cabinet there and get the drinks. Mix me a half scotch on the rocks will you?”
“So how is the government, sir?” Rahila asked, at once taken by the bustling energy that suffused from this man, fascinated by the tribal scarifications on his cheeks. He smiled.
“So so. One cannot complain but I will tell you, it is a thankless job.”
“You look to be bearing up splendidly.”
“That’s very nice of you to say. Thanks. How is your mother?”
It was a question that had not come up in quite a while but it did not feel out of place coming from this man and even though she had not seen Mrs. Pam in over two months, she smiled and said her mother was fine.
Faruk returned with the drinks; a soda for her, malt for him and the colorless scotch with tiny ice cubes floating on it for the General.
“Thank you” General Hassan Abba said with that slight tilting of his head and then he raised his glass and said a toast.
“To the legacy of Bolewa”
“To you”, Faruk said, and Rahila found herself joining in.
The General smiled flittingly at this and then swallowed some of his drink. Rahila was just a bit surprised that he, a Muslim, drank alcohol but then he was a soldier and this was Abuja and nothing, not the normal rules at least, applied to Abuja and the military. She thought that that was what she liked about the capital, how everything flowed seamlessly without the imposed and irrelevant boundaries, like the complementing hues of a rainbow.
“How is your father?” he asked Faruk.
“He sends his love to you and ‘ya Zainabu and the girls. How are they?”
“Alhamdlillah, you will see them all within the hour. You both will be staying with me at the villa while I and your man deliberate, ko?” he said, referring to Rahila who nodded.
They finished off the last of their drinks.
“You must be tired. I understand your plane was delayed.”
“Someone will take you to the house. I will see you both tonight when I return insh’allah.”
“Insh’allah”, Faruk replied.
They were met at the secretary’s office by Haruna, the same man who had brought them from the airport, he told them the C-in-C had detailed him to them and that if they needed anything at all they should let him know. Faruk said he would need a car. Then they followed him out of the office after saying goodbye to the good-natured girl iro and buba clad girl.
In the office, General Hassan Abba sat back into his chair and noting the beauty that had just left the room with the two young people, he once more realized that the greatest and most fatal aspect of his life’s work was just about to begin.
The car, a tinted black Peugeot 406 staff car was already waiting for them together with a soldier Haruna introduced as Chika who was to be their driver at any time of the day they wished to go out into the city. They were to give him fifteen minutes notice before embarking and let him know where they wished to go. It was just about one p.m. and the sun was up when they entered the State House and were taken through its passageways, passing people going up and down the corridors until they reached a quieter part of the house where Haruna knocked on a door and heard a low reply.
In the room was an elderly woman who had been watching a mute television screen with the news showing and when she turned to see Faruk, a sunrise of a smile broke across her face.
“My husband, my husband,” she beamed, getting up to hug Faruk and fuss over him, how lean he had grown and a hundred endearments. She seemed an Arab woman in her fifties and she was very beautiful. Later on, Faruk told Rahila that she was not Arab but Shuwa from the Northeast where he was from but at that momentary time, Rahila, just as in the General’s office, was forgotten amidst all the affection.
“Yaya, meet Rahila Pam, my fiancée.”
The C-in-C’s wife noticed Rahila and still smiling appraised the younger woman for a moment and satisfied, she turned to Faruk.
“You sure picked a stunner”, she said, grinning and turned back to Rahila and hugged her with as much kindness as she had Faruk. The captain, Haruna, was still standing by and was having problems with his hands in such an emotional show. The woman turned to him and her voice changed immediately.
“Haruna, go and ensure that they are refreshed.”
“Yes ma,” said the soldier and bowing slightly at Rahila again, he turned and marched briskly out of the room, closing the door behind him.
“Sit down my pets. Every time I keep asking Hassan, get Faruk to come and see us. He hasn’t been here since just after my husbands coup”, she said to Rahila, whom she had positioned just beside her on a divan of traditionally tanned cow skin beside her, “and that time he came with his father for just a day”, she continued and Rahila was immediately taken by this woman who spoke as she thought just like Nabila’s mother, as she had been with the General himself.
And the younger girl was fascinated by how seamlessly Zainabu Hassan had assumed a voice of command when she spoke to Captain Haruna and how the woman could refer to her ‘husbands coup’ in such a flip and cursory manner. There was something of this woman in Mrs. Pam.
Faruk sat on a chair and it was his turn to be forgotten as Zainabu asked Rahila question after question and he felt pleased that all his family, Yagana Ibrahim, Rose, his father, General Abba and his wife, approved of Rahila. But then, he had known they would. Reaching out was much easier for some people than it was for others.
“Haba yaya, one would think that you are not going to meet again, all this chattering and chiterring!”
“No way, you hear. If you are tired of listening to us, be gone. Go and find your room and put it together, maybe go have your bath or something. You will sleep with me, my darling”, the older woman said, turning back to Rahila who smiled and said yes while Faruk stood up and shook his head with gladness brimming in his heart.
His room was a full suite just off the corridor where Mrs. Abba’s rooms were; it was the room of a nephew of Mrs. Abba’s who was away studying medicine in Zaria. He went in and found that his luggage was already there waiting for him and smiled to see that Rahila’s luggage had been sorted out and probably moved to Zainabu’s rooms. It was proper and to be expected for Zainabu was more conservative than the General who could sometimes be shockingly avant-garde.
Faruk took off his clothes and soaked for an hour in the bath, soothing away all the tensions and worries of the last year and feeling himself falling into a state of calmness where everything worked for the good all the time and where rising up was the only posture worthy of a man. And though he had doubted many times, in Bolewa and Jos, he had always known that this particular state of grace where he was had been all the while inevitable.
As he lay down to sleep, he was happy.
Chika, who turned out to be very funny and chatty for a soldier, drove them back into the State House just after seven p.m. Rahila and Faruk had been out visiting relatives of Rahila who had of course heard all the details of her affair with Faruk Ibrahim and had planned a cold reception only to be taken over by the sight of a Presidency marked staff car with a soldier driving it and when they finally met him, by the beauty and humanity of Faruk.
From there they had gone to a cinema where they talked and contemplated how lucky they were to be together and hardly watched the movie. They talked about General Hassan and his family, five children, all daughters and Faruk wondered what the underlying reason for this especial invitation was because knowing his father and the General so well, he knew there was something going on though he did not fear that the dimensions of the chessboard would be clarified to him in time. For the while, they would enjoy themselves and be young far away from the spying eyes of envy and age. They would be happy and life would be uncomplicated for as long as it could be.
Chika told them funny stories and it was very easy to like the young Igbo man, just about their ages. When he dropped them off he wished them good night and that he would see them in the morning. Another soldier was already waiting for them in front of the house and he led them through the corridors back to their part of the house and informed them that dinner would be served at eight and that the General would be expecting them. He then added that someone would come and take Faruk to the dinning area at five minutes to eight. Faruk kissed Rahila lightly on the forehead before making his way to his suite with the memory of the twinkle in her eye lodged forever in his mind.
“But General, why is it that we consistently pick the wrong leaders?” Rahila asked.
They were sitting in General Hassan’s study after having an hour-long dinner, he had asked them to join him so he could hear of their parents and how things were in the North Central. Inevitably, the talk had gravitated towards politics.
Hassan Abba was a fine raconteur and in no time, he had put Rahila at ease and the presence of Faruk, who also contributed to the conversation, reassured her. The study was a rather small rectangular room with a wall of books on either side and a table and three chairs at the far end of it in front of heavy brown cotton drapes. The floor was carpeted in red and the walls were light, almost caramel brown, a small circular oriental rug lay spread in the center of the room. Vents set up high into the walls gave a chilly air conditioned freshness to the room and aromatic Turkish coffee that kept replenishing itself from a large transparent glass kettle kept them warm so that talk was easy and sincere.
Rahila’s question hung in the air.
“Do you agree with her, Faruk, and if you do, why do you think that is so?” the General asked.
He wore a simple blue Polo shirt with the two buttons undone showing a mass of still black hair, the shirt was tucked into a black leather belt holding up a pair of black chinos trousers. The dark glasses and beret that were permanently associated with him were nowhere to be found and he looked more the part of a Broad Street investor than head of State. Rahila noticed that he liked to smile and that when he did, his face became even more attractive. Even his walk changed from the Ariel Sharon like swagger of the office to a more leisurely step at home.
Faruk shrugged, “I do agree with her that some wrong leaders have been picked in the recent past but then, Nigeria has really not had the option to choose its leaders for quite a while. We never chose I. M. Randa, and”, he added with a smile, “We never chose you either.”
“Of course, of course”, his uncle said, “But what of the leaders chosen, like Oba Segun? What of him?”
Rahila cut in, “There is something else. What I mean is not even conscious electoral choice, but the subconscious choice of a people, how is it that Nigeria has only been able to throw up a certain type of malignant political class, whether they are civilians or soldiers?”
“In order words, why have we not had either altruistic democrats or benevolent dictators?” General Hassan Abba stated.
“I don’t know,” Faruk replied, noting that yet again his uncle was turning the spot on him, “I think something broke a long time ago, long before I was born and it is still broken. I don’t even know what it is. Yet, I think it is something trivial, like a domino effect. Just one trivial but fortuitous flaw.”
“And you, Rahila, what do you think? What is the answer to your question?” he asked, looking her in the eye.
“I don’t know. I thought you would,” she said, indicating in a small arc with her arm to the books behind them, “You have been reading and you have been here long enough to know.”
“Have some more coffee”, the General said, standing up to take the kettle himself and refill Rahila’s cup, her fourth for the evening. Faruk was already on his fifth cup.
Then he sat down again.
“What if I know the answer to your question? Even what if I told you? What will you do with it; will you fix that error? Can you, what would you be willing to give to right that wrong, your life, money, your words? Tell me.”
Faruk answered, “If I can fix it, I will.”
“And if you cant?”
“There will always be a synergy of people who can. If that error could be fixed in one act, individual or collective, then it is worth doing.”
“Because I think the answer to that question lies the possibility of meaning in our national life.”
“You wrote an article some years back, Rahila, about the crisis of Nigerian identity; do you still stand by that article, your belief that the country has mutually exclusive currents of identity and the friction between them would explode in time?”
“I never knew you read my articles, General”
“Of course, one needs to know who is joining the family, don’t you agree? But then answer me.”
“That article was written for the Campus Lancet, before we met”, she said to Faruk, who had grown silent in the face of this sparring between these two.
He knew Rahila could take care of herself.
Rahila Pam threw her head back and took a deep breath and in the spate of that breath, she appraised all that had happened to her since meeting Faruk and how much her paradigm had shifted since that time. Gone was the strictist existentialism; gone was the cynicism that had almost contaminated her thoughts.
“My paradigm has changed since then, ” she said.
“At that time, I saw the political history of Nigeria as really beginning from the early nineteenth century with the Fodio jihad. Its aftershocks formed the template of my political thought. As I saw it, the Hausa Fulani had strangulated much of where I come from under an unfair hegemony and I felt that our histories were consequently parallel. I don’t think that anymore.”
“What do you think now?”
“Nigerian history began long before the Fodio jihad, long before the coming of the Europeans. Nigerian history has to begin with the autochthones from whom the present tribes developed, wave after wave, languages differentiating themselves, culture entrenching itself and perpetuating itself. Yet, at the hearts of it all is the blood of autochthones, making all but branches in a common historical tree. I do not mean this literarily, but figuratively, and metaphorically. Nigeria is fated to be and all the currents of identity point towards one common source.”
“Interesting. Okay,” the General said, snapping his fingers, “I will tell you.”
“The death of ideology in this country began in the seventies, after the war and no one was any the wiser to its spread. And with ideology went optimism and in the absence of optimism, it was easy for national disintegrative forces to concentrate themselves and bid their time. What you did not realize when you wrote that article was that the explosion had already occurred, a series of explosions really. Maitatsine, the southern Kaduna uprising, your own crisis in Jos a few years back, the troubles in the Benue just a few weeks back, all these are the dissipations of that deficiency in ideology. In the forties, fifties and sixties, there was a pan African identity and even though it was unattainable, it was so lofty an ideal that it let a national identity be for granted. But after the war, it all changed. A generation of men who would have remembered that zeitgeist lay dead in the lands and creeks of ill-fated Biafra. Balewa was dead, Nkrumah was out of power, Zik was treated with suspicion and nobody took Awolowo seriously for indeed his ethnicist politics had sparked off the disintegrative forces in the fifties. Then right on the heel of the war came the oil boom and it’s burst nine years later. Structural adjustment and the destabilization of the middle class only made it worse because the middleclass was the only stratum of Nigerian society that could have recreated that optimism, the middleclass that alone had the complement of opposing ideology that sparks out optimism, lay decimated. With the middleclass broken, the fate of the country lay in the whims of an atavistic military-bourgeoisie-intellectual elite and an uninterested poor on the other. In that way, the leadership ‘consistently thrown up’, to use Rahila’s words, has been representative of that decay in the fabric of the Nigerian spirit.”
They listened to him speak about the problems of the country and they filled him in on how they saw it, they who were young and they as representative of their sociopolitical class. An hour passed, and then two hours, still they talked. Rahila asked about the civil rights groups and the NGO’s, she distrusted them but she expressed the fear that they were the only ones to protect the citizens from the arbitrariness of the government.
“Most of the human rights activists are insincere but I would rather have them making all the noise than having soldiers treating citizens anyhow they please.”
“But you see, it is not in my interests for there to be any disturbance whatsoever so the fear of brutality from the soldiers is not really valid, not so long as I am in power.”
“And how long will that be?”
“Long enough”, the General snapped. Then he smiled and said.
“The thing is, I am a dictator and I am not obliged to listen to anyone, not even the human rights crowd. The fact that I do listen to them and share their sentiments must not be construed to mean I am any less a dictator, you see. I am a law unto myself. I listen to all the intellectuals and professionals every week in the Council and they cannot answer in plain terms how to solve the South-South impasse. Yet I know what I must do, but if I go ahead and do it, the Lagos press will start howling about my arbitrariness, they forget I am a dictator and do not need to listen to them deliberate while situations deteriorate.”
“But is not a dictatorship an anachronism?” Rahila asked.
“In Nigeria, is not a dictatorship a necessity? Only a few minutes ago, we spoke of the inability of the country’s citizens to make quality choices for themselves. Should not such a choice be made for them?”
“I still think the people should be allowed to choose, even to choose the wrong people for leadership.”
“Exactly, Faruk” beamed the General, his outburst of only minutes before now forgotten, “The Nigerian people must be able to make a choice. Between A and B and maybe even C, surely they cannot choose between A and A or B and B, can they? You are young, my pets, and what I would like you to see is that a restructuring is needed, not just of the socio-politics of Nigeria but of the mindset of the Nigerian himself. He is too accepting, too compromising, because he had no ideals or principles, ideologies to restrain him.”
“And what if when he is given the choice, he chooses not to choose you, General, what would happen then?”
“I never will be an option to be chosen” Hassan Abba returned and they all laughed, but when he said this he had looked Faruk straight in the eye for one brief but intense second before looking away, then he glanced at the clock on the far wall, it was already midnight. He tilted his head and ever so delicately wrung his fingers as if dispensing of some invisible thing.
“See how the time has run off, its midnight and I have a country to run tomorrow, not like you who can afford the finer pleasures of discourse. I am not twenty anymore and I must get some rest. The two of you are beautiful together, but I will need your help. I will need you to stay here in Abuja for there is more work here, all the social theories and all the lessons you have learned from your parents and your lives before you, here in Abuja you can put them to practice. And since you both can sit here and criticize me while drinking my coffee, I think you are resilient enough to face the disintegrative forces full on. But I do not pretend that you do not need experience. So, you will stay with me?”
He rose up as he was saying this and they rose with him.
“We will consider it, uncle.”
“Do that”, he said, patting Faruk on the back and placing his arm on Rahila’s shoulder as they left the little study.
“Goodnight my darlings, I will see you tomorrow morning.”
And with this they followed a servant who had been waiting for them all the while to their own separate quarters, lingering awhile long enough to kiss and never once thinking that they were at the heart of a Nigerian dictatorship. So natural it all seemed that it would have surprised them to think of that.
“China and India,” declared the General from behind his desk. Faruk was sitting with him in the office and they had been talking.
Faruk looked up in askance.
“That is where the center of the world will be and we must reorient Nigeria towards Asia. America and Europe have been able to dominate international finance with a population of barely five hundred million, try and imagine what these two would do with two billion between them.”
“But will America stand aside?”
“America will have no choice. Trade flows are functions of demand and supply and there is no way America can continue driving the world without increased demand and it is impossible to do that because the American engine is overheated already.”
“They might not be able to do anything about China and India, but, uncle, they are still powerful and will fight to keep their current sphere of influence. They have the bombs and intelligence. If it feasible?”
“It will require tact. That is why I need your help; it is imperative that the Nigerian middle class be rebuilt and fast. We have over a hundred million people. If the middleclass of say thirty five million is in place, America would not be able to so easily divide and rule between and avaricious rich and a disgruntled poor of this country.”
Faruk looked up into the ceiling; his thoughts wandered to the talk he had had the day before with his uncle. If he said yes, then his life’s work would begin now but he would forgo Jos where he had grown and the memories of it. Rahila, whom he had expected to oppose the offer, had surprisingly been very open to it.
Somehow and at sometime over the last months, her optimism had increased with the increased span of her identity; now it seemed she had even surpassed him. He would have to give up his cement distributorship. He would be giving up friends like Nnamdi and the peculiar philosophical ferment in the clement air of the plateau.
The General had informed him the government was putting together an Economic Advancement and Development Fund to kick start the middleclass and he wanted Faruk to chair the Board of that agency. Banking reforms would be carried out, insurance, a long series of reforms. Then one billion naira would be disbursed to entrepreneurs with small to mid-scale business plans. General Hassan Abba believed that in as little time as a year, the real results of this fund would be evident. He wanted to create a swathe of people who would have an economic stake in the continuity of Nigeria. The General’s ends were as practical as they were political; his end was to finally curb the disintegrative forces.
He did not want Nigeria to explode merely because of a stupidity equation.
“I will take the job”, Faruk said.
The General nodded and smiled at they boy he would make his heir.
Then he reached out and shook the younger man’s hand and he said, not in the voice of a soldier but in the voice of a man who was family.
“You’ve made the right choice. I will see to everything and I will protect you, no matter what happens. Welcome aboard.”
Faruk smiled and felt gladness in his heart.
He knew that a year before, he would not have taken this job had it been offered. But a year before he had not known Rahila Pam and the story of Ummi al-Qassim and he had not yet learnt how essential melting pots were.
He was glad that at last he was beginning the work of his life.
Faruk and Rahila moved into a house in Garki, a little three-bedroom house and in time they settled into everyday living and striving. Rahila, still in her final year at the University of Jos, came in every weekend to be with her man and fawn over him. She saw how he was maturing and how much his being in his elements had worn away the more vagabond aspects of his character. The fatalism still remained, having become more nuanced and meaningful.
Side-by-side him, standing right up against him, complementing him, contradicting him, together they cut out for themselves their own place in the sun, claiming there own niche in Nigeria history.
General Hassan Abba continued to rule. Ben Befi Nima was killed and the Niger Delta impasse ended when the creeks were militarized after a surgical spate of assassinations. He was after all, an intelligence officer. A certain type of man just wound up dead and in time, there were no militants in the delta because while he was killing he ensured that the revenue from the petroleum trickled down to the ethnicities of the Niger Delta. His foreign policy was one of rapprochement with the West while he was gradually orienting the country towards Asia and establishing the template of Nigerian dominance in the West African sub-region. Faruk helped out and the middleclass began to stir, just as the General Abba had said it would.
The killing of Ben Befi Nima was the albatross around the neck of the regime. Yet, the General reasoned, he had had to send out a message that he was a dictator, that it was important that the nation understand that. He had to have absolute and effective power. Nima was a pawn; he had made himself a pawn following the Civil War. So he had been expendable. Faruk had tried to save Nima but he saw that it was impossible and he saw clearly that General Abba needed an Achilles’ heel. If only Nima had not been ethnicist following the Civil War, if only a thousand things. Faruk saw clearly the extreme idiosyncrasies of his father’s generation, the extents to which personal hubris could be pushed. Ben Befi Nima’s judicial murder was a catch 22 for the regime and they had merely chosen one option of the other, rationally and not sentimentally.
And through all this, Faruk lived and thrived, doing the best he could do towards the ideal that linked he and General Abba, a belief in Nigeria as organic as the love between he and Rahila Pam, a cause to which he was willing to stake anything.
“What’s that?”, Rahila asked.
“A letter from a friend.”
“A friend from Bolewa, here,” he said, giving her the letter.
She sat with her back on the green leather sofa and opened up the letter.
I have not heard from you in a long time.
I just wanted to say thank you and that you have been the most important thing in my life this far. I cannot imagine how my life would have been without your having come to inspire me. Bolewa is still very beautiful but I have left Bolewa behind me now. I am at the University now.
My father is well and I know he sends his regards.
How are you?
How is your woman; I hope you have been happy with her.
I have been happy, not always, but I am now.
I am engaged to a wonderful man I met.
But it was you who gave me the strength to aspire and to rise far above the life of a village girl. I am grateful.
Think of me sometimes and write.
“The girl who loved you?”
“Yes”, he replied, sitting down beside her on carpet, and placing his arm over her shoulders.
They lived in a world of forever smiles where words were unnecessary because all was said in a glance, in the nuance of eyes. The months passed and the fear that dogged them in the early days of their relationship had solidified into a comfortable maturity. The responsibility for the Economic Advancement and Development Fund had given Faruk a new purpose in his life and because Rahila complemented him, he found that he approached each day with a sense of possibility, that each of those loans he approved would form the kernel of a business that would lift countless of his countrymen from the slough of shiftless days. In the eyes of women starting their first businesses, he saw a fortitude that justified all his uncle did, he knew that people were being killed and running off to exile but they were those professional critics who make no contribution to change except their whining, those who were smart enough to never even accept responsibility because they knew they would make a mess of it.
Rahila said the work they did to resuscitate the middleclass was in a way like love.
“How do you mean?” Faruk had asked.
“We are here together because that force has overcome the objections of the ancien regime and even our differences. Love is a heroic because it towers above dissention. And the middle class, when they are strong enough, I believe will transcend the disintegrative forces in Nigeria.”
“What a strange comparison to make.”
“But its true, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he agreed, “it is. We are doing it all for love.”
The two young people sat there in their own parlor at the very beginning of their lives and they had come to realize, almost sublimely, that outward labels were not definitive at all in social relations. Labels were more often than not conveniences and did not really approximate people. When social labels based on such criteria as tribe or religion or height or education, they realized that such criteria could not approximate the soul and spirit of each man, could not come close to approximating how much each was willing to strive to get a better deal out of everyday life for themselves and for their dependents.
“Did I tell you about the day of the durbar, in Bolewa?”
“Yes. You said you did not want to ride, you were with Miriam, weren’t you?”
“Yes I was. But I was thinking about dance, really. You say the work we do is like love, I was thinking how also it is like dancers I saw that day. When I dropped Miriam back at her house, I returned to Ciroma Bindawa for the dances by the indigenous people of Bolewa. In the square, it was a large square; you had groups of dancers each with his crowd of admirers gathered around him. And many many drums, and singing. The music was rhythmic, like the dance. It comprised young men jumping up and down slowly, trancelike, their eyes glazed but not, unlike their bodies, with sweat. They leapt and turned their heads from side to side, like the Maasai dance. And they hummed ‘humm, humm, humm’ like that, and the music, drums beating. It was intoxicating. Now that you are comparing very different things, I think of those dancers. How in the completeness of their dance, they had resolved themselves into something divine and enchanted to watch. I think also that the work we do, like the middle class, is like that dance - something without color, primordial and true for all time, indestructible. I know that General Abba has done some extreme things, but he believes in the end we set out to achieve and that is really more than his critics.”
“Yes, yes. I am afraid for him sometimes.”
“Don’t be. I think he knows that he can only hold on for just as long, they will get him sooner or later but between now and them, he will rage unchecked so that even if he drops dead tomorrow the old regime of national misanthropy cannot continue. He has the lessons of Balewa and Murtala Mohammed before him and believe me, my uncle is as mad a madcap as any of those two in putting down the disintegrative forces.”
“You know, I never really asked why they all are so fanatical about keeping the country apiece.”
Faruk smiled and drew Rahila close to him.
“Its about my mother.”
“What about her? How do you mean?”
“General Abba, my father, Yagana Hussena see the ruin of Ummi al-Qassim as unfortunate and unnecessary, and she was ruined because of love, which should heal and strengthen. In other words, sentiment killed her and made itself their enemy. The world, in which they grew, Nigeria before the Civil War, was destroyed by the religious extremism of my mother’s lovers. The disintegrative forces thrive on sentiment and so its every permutation was a gauntlet set at their feet. Anything that is not rational usually destroys if a decision is not made to force it to heal and strengthen, so love and religion, which come closest together in the ethnicist politics of disintegration, have been their particular enemies. My father has fought it for over two decades, diplomatically, politically. General Hassan now sees that he must do his own share of it, militarily, by decree. I don’t know if he will succeed but I know that all he cares is to do the most he can do.”
“But then, they have succeeded. Everything ends well, I am here with you”, she said, looking at him and kissing him ever so lightly on the cheek.
The room was scattered with papers all over the place, his computer taking pride of place together with the telephone on the floor, and in the midst of this chaos was order.
“You are right. ”
They were silent for a while, thinking how they were the consummation of the legacy of Bolewa and the perfect heirs of Ummi al-Qassim’s imperfect love and how they had made Abuja and Nigeria their own Bolewa in which they were determined that no disintegrative force would destroy.
And in that way, their love was heroic, Rahila thought.
Just then a phone rang, it was Faruk’s, “My father”, he said.
“Hello Baba. . . no father, maybe its the network. . . . we are fine, she is with me now” and he made a face at Rahila “okay, I saw him last week. . . . how is Jos?. . . okay father, what is it? . . . Allahu Akbar!” Faruk exclaimed, punctuating the attentive silence of the apartment and Rahila looked up in askance, but Faruk, with a grin on his face, was laughing, “haha, I would have thought you were too old for that business . . . .hahaha! . . . of course, father . . .. I will tell her, I will . . . . yes I will. Okay, see you next week father.”
He cut the call and dropped the cell phone on the carpet between then, paused dramatically and then looked at the questioning Rahila.
“The strangest things keep happening.”
“Oh come on!”, she said, hitting him on the back, “Don’t be a hog, tell me!”
“You just wouldn’t believe it.”
“No I wouldn’t. Try me.”
“My father is getting married.”
A moment, then Rahila burst out laughing.
“Hahaha, common, gaskiya? Wa yake aura?”
“Rose. The ranch overseer.”
They both burst out laughing again, Rahila shaking all over, holding on to her man with one hand, burying her head in the crook of his shoulders and soon tears of mirth ran down her eyes.
They tried to stop but looking at each other, another bout of merry laughter would seize them again. It was hilarious and beautiful. Unexpected, portentous. Faruk had said he would serve as guardian for Colonel Dibarama at his wedding.
But soon the two gathered themselves again.
“I am really, I don’t know, happy?- its crazy isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. I never would have thought the old souls would still be in the love and marriage business. Hah! Rose has a lot of talk to hear from me.”
But they were both happy; the laughter in their eyes was the laughter of young people drunk with happiness, sated in the comprehensive exclusivity of their ozonic ambience. They kissed, passionately, as if they were the ones to marry. Rahila’s heart was fit to burst for the old Colonel and the kindly little woman.
“You know, sometimes I wonder how we can be so perfect, so beautiful together,” she said later, in the bedroom where they had just made love, “its almost crazy. Don’t you ever think so? How everything just seems to fall in place for us?”
Faruk laughed and traced circled on the flat brownness of her stomach.
“What’s so funny?”
“My darling, of course I think of that, like you do”, he said, “but then I say to myself – we harmonize each other, what more is there.”
She laughed, like a sea sprite, like a dryad laughing knowingly at the savannah grass at the first drops of April rains, for they also were blissful children of recompensed fortitude.
Continued next week...