The Legacy of Bolewa
By Richard Ugbede Ali (Nigeria)
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Antebellum: Layers of Dust
Aging gracefully and with dignity is something most men cannot manage, yet, like the siren’s call or as a will-o-the-wisp forest firefly on a dark night, it remains something of an ideal for all men. Hence the clean shaving and the surreptitious trips to merchandise stores for tee-shirts, jeans, Timberland boots and inevitably for those vain or affluent enough, the sports car.
But the man standing that early morning on the balcony of Zinder Ranch, with his palms placed on the balustrade and leaning a little forward into space, had somehow managed it. Rose Dakyen stood concealed behind the one-way tinted glass sliding door staring at him for more than ten minutes. He did not notice she was there. His profile stood out starkly imposed on the horizon, seeming like a sort of exclamation mark against the yet emerging day. It was barely seven a.m. Such a fine man, she thought.
The man, Hamza Dibarama, stretched his arms out as far as they could go, taking in a deep breath. Hamza, Faruk’s father, was a man whose first impression on a stranger was that of an officer, a man of command and indeed that had earned him the moniker of “the Colonel” within the political establishment of the North Central State and Abuja in the previous two decades. He was tall, like his son, and even though he was already middle-aged, he still stood straight as he did when he received his lieutenant pips in the Nigerian Army forty years earlier. His signature bon mot, on being called Colonel in the cocktail circuit when he attended was to affect a mock horror and say in his deep baritone,
“Colonel is the rank, Sir, but thankfully long retired!” to which the invariable reply would go “Once a soldier…”
He had wearied of it all after a while which was why he treasured moments such as this when he was in his own house on his own grounds where he could savor that bit of nature that he had carved out for himself. Before him was a part of the Vom-Bukuru Mountain range and the sight of it, its colors a bright assortment of greens and russet browns, never ceased being novel to him for each time he saw it; something was always changed. And of course, he too was changing, growing older even though he saw his aging more in terms of his son’s increasing maturity than in the increase of his own years. Faruk was on his way to Bolewa.
Colonel Hamza stood at 5”8 inches and was made of tough wiry muscle. His face was a light brown complexion typical of the Northeast where he hailed from, that same Northeast his son was even then seeking to rediscover. He had a prominent forehead with high, strong cheekbones, thin lips and a tucked in Semitic nose. His eyes were sharp and had lost none of their brilliance nor the mesmeric quality that had been the centerpiece of his highly effective personal charm.
In the early days his reputation had been anchored on his talent for troubleshooting, for resolving the most intricate socio-political impasses.
He had also gotten a reputation, mellowed now considerably with time, for a napalm furious temper that he reserved for any person who tried to stymie any accord he helped build, this permutation of his intellect had seen the ruin of many a man who had made the mistake of being a politician when dealing with Hamza Dibarama. On the whole, however, it enhanced his efficiency for whenever he was involved in any matter, the disputants were careful to stick to the issue in contention and know very clearly what their interests were. So long as there was no vacillation they were assured of a workable compromise and the friendship of the Colonel who became even more and more powerful. The well preserved middle-aged man sighed and ran the fingers of his right hand down his salt pepper beard, thinking about the past and inevitably about Ummi al-Qassim and his son, Faruk.
“Ina kwana, Alhaji”
He turned to face Rose Dakyen and smiled one of his rare smiles, one that was easy like the gentle breeze that flowed down the lea.
“Alhamdllillah”, he replied, smiling.
Rose was the mistress of his home here in the Vom-Bukuru Mountains and she had become one of his closest friends since the death of Ummi al-Qassim. She was one of the people with whom he felt at ease for he was very aware that while his power gave him allies who feared him, he could not trust his survival, or when it came to that, his son’s survival, on any of them. Not in the way it was secure with this woman from Taroh Land who had been with him for over two decades now. Rose was a dark skinned, neat little woman whose brief frame belied her ability to administer the whole estate which lay on seventy acres of land just outside Jos City, not merely the House but the cattle Ranch as well. In the time she had been with him, she had earned his trust.
“Alhaji, your breakfast is ready” she said when she had gotten his attention.
“Ah, thank you”, he said. He spoke with an affected English accent carried over from his days in what had then been a limb of the British Army yet; he spoke also with the inflections of a man from the Northeast, with that slight nasalization of certain letters.
“How are you doing this morning?”, he asked.
“I am alright. I want to make sure you have your breakfast and then I have to go off to the Ranch, Mr Dawud is to come and pick up two bulls this morning”.
“Okay, then. How would I keep alive without you? I will be down in five minutes.”, said Hamza, adding “Rose, tell Dul to get the car ready, I will be going into town by 9 a.m.”
“Yes Colonel”, she said, bowing slightly and taking her leave.
The balcony on which he stood was done in special granite quarried just outside of Benin City and the railings were made from a type of African Walnut that grew far out on the grounds of the house. Hamza Dibarama loved this house. He thought of all the things he had done here, the tried to recall when the house had been new. Such attempts inevitably took him back to thoughts of Ummi al-Qassim who had been his wife and the legacy of Bolewa that had eventually taken her away from him.
But then, her leaving had also healed him, in a way, from the scars of the Civil War and the things that had happened then – she had given him Faruk. And now, Faruk, searching out for his mother, had, for the sake of his love albeit unknowingly, embroiled his father in a new standoff with the ethicist Mrs. Pam.
History was such a funny circus that he thought it would have been suspect if Faruk had not shown his heritage in this especial manner; the boy was after all his mother’s son – as well as his father’s. The Colonel sighed again and pulled his arms tighter across his chest before turning to go in and have his breakfast. He realized that he felt the cold December chill more in his bones than he used to.
The green Peugeot 505 staff car pulled out of the gilded gates of Zinder Ranch and into the deserted macadamized stretch of road, followed not long after by a white Mercedes V-booth sedan, the Colonel’s command car. In the Peugeot were Jamilu na’Hauwa, his security officer and former batman in the Army and John Vongkyem, who drove. John was a relative of Rose Dakyen’s. The Colonel sat behind Dul Pam, his driver, in the Mercedes. He had the writing board down in front of him and was busy putting final anecdotes to his papers which would be his first oeuvre in this dangerous new drama to be played out between him and Mrs. Pam.
He was dressed in an immaculate sky blue babanriga with a mostly russet red embroidered Dipcharima cap on his head; he wore black leather Arab slippers on his feet. Also in the car was Turaki Ahmed, his political officer, a bespectacled Fulani chap who had graduated from the Ahmadu Bello University years before whose belief in getting a practical political education had led him to offer himself to the Colonel during one of the latter’s trips to Zaria. The Colonel, impressed by Turaki’s audacity and his intelligence, had told him to find him whenever he was through with his schooling. That had been seven years before.
One thing with all the Colonel’s men was how easily they became loyal and how easily time spent itself in his service. Those of them like Dul and Vongkyem who had been with him in the early days still had memories of him as a brooding young man whose young wife had died, given to sudden isolated explosions of anger, but basically a humane and generous man. He knew all their family; most of them, with the exception of Turaki, lived on the grounds at Zinder Ranch in accommodations they could not have afforded even on the generous pay he gave them. The allegiance of his men to him accretized with their increasing respect for a boss who believed in and lived his life by the obligations of nobility.
“Where are we going today, Colonel?”
Hamza Dibarama looked up, remembering he had not told them the day’s itinerary. Jamilu was aware, of course, but the others were not.
“We’re going to the Plateau State Polytechnic, I will be there for maybe two and a half hours and then we will go to the office.”
“Okay, sir”, John, a man in his late thirties, said, relaying the instructions to the staff car just ahead of them.
The Peugeot reached and intersection took a left turn that leading them into the city. They soon passed the Policy and Strategy School where the Colonel had guest lectured years before.
They arrived at the Polytechnic at 10.30 a.m. just as the Students Union program was starting up. The hall was full of students. The Union President and his top EXCO were on hand to receive him, the President leading the Colonel to the dais while the others found a seat up front for Turaki Ahmed. Jamilu preferred to stand at a corner that gave him a sweeping view of the hall, not that he expected anyone to pull a stunt here today but then, it never paid to relax ones guard in the security business. He had three men in the hall and his sharp eyes picked two of them, dressed like students, they sat among the crowd and kept an eye on things there. The third man, he knew, monitored the crowd from a van on the premises. He looked at the Colonel and nodded slightly.
Mrs. Pam was on the dais when Hamza Dibarama arrived with the Student leader, she had found out too late that they had invited him to give the lecture. The student leaders were her political partisans in that she had influence over them, they respected her a lot and she wished to use them for her own causes.
In the political terrain of the North Central during the military dictatorships, the political leaders were either truly powerful so the military had to do business with them or they were powerless stooges placed in order to have some sort of representation in the cabinet. The trouble with the latter was that they easily became local champions, rather like the literary bull in the china shop, whose only claim to power was a tenuous geographical justification. These ones caused a lot of trouble for the regime or at least threatened to; the regime threatened right back and then both would draw back.
Hamza Dibarama and Mrs. Pam were of the first type, those who had real political power, even during a military regime. Both had been influential for close to two decades but the basis of their power were as different as black was from white. Many of the grandees on the dais knew Hamza Dibarama and stood up to greet him and let him pass, he was ushered to a seat just on the other side of the chairman from her. He looked across to her and smiled his greetings.
“Good morning, Madam”, he said.
“Good morning, Alhaji”, replied Mrs. Pam, half-heartedly, having trouble keeping her resentment in check.
“And how is Rahila?” he asked.
Mrs. Pam looked sharply at him and said just as sharply.
“Fine,” she said in a clipped tone of voice.
He has some nerve! she seethed. God damn that girl, she thought. Was it not enough that someone like Hamza, a man from the Northeast, was so influential in what she considered to be her turf; did he have to take away her daughter also? For to her, Hamza had come to symbolize an alien breeze come to bury the mementos of her life in dust.
The North Central state presented such problems because of its sheer variety, it had been the autochthonous cradle of Nigeria and in a way it still was. It had more ethnic groups than any of the other five states. The Northwest was predominantly Hausa while the Northeast State was Kanuri and Fulani together with allied and well-integrated minorities. The Southwestern State contained the Yoruba; there was hardly anyone else there. The Igbo ran things in the Southeast State and though they also ran half of the Delta State, the Delta was haven of the ever confliction trio of Uhrubo, Ijaw and Itsekiri, all of them under the cultural matrix of the Oba of Benin.
But the North Central State contained over a sixty ethnic groups ranging from the Nupawa in the west to the Jukun in the eastern reaches near the Cameroonian border, each of them no more than two million people. And then there were others, a sizable number, many of them born in the North Central, whose parents were from elsewhere in the country. The successive military regimes in the country had had the effect, unforeseen by the soldiers, of ethnicizing the North Central. It took the 1989 uprising of the Southern Kaduna people, led by a retired Brigadier, for Abuja to realize how explosive the North Central had become.
The very name of the state presented problems. In parts of the state there were remnants of Uthman Fodio’s 1804 emirates who for political exigencies considered themselves closer to the Northwestern Hausawa than to the myriad ethnicities of the North Central while most of those ethnicities themselves disliked the fact that North Central was not a geographical position, feeling the name had been tagged on to further humiliate them. Many would have preferred just Plateau State.
Simply said, Hamza Dibarama thrived on the concentrating forces within the socio-politics of the vast state while Mrs. Eunice Pam thrived on its disintegrative forces and this antipode, more than anything else, defined their friction.
The Lecture started and soon the preliminaries were dispensed with. Then the Union President came up to introduce the guest Lecturer.
“Greatest of the greatest of the greatest Nigerian Students!” he hailed repeatedly, each time getting increasingly crazed responses of “GREAT!” from his fellows. When he was satisfied, he went into.
“I want to say . .. ”
“Say!” the students responded.
“I want to talk . . .”
“I want to yarn . . .”
“I want to say that it is my great pleasure to introduce to you our guest lecturer today”, he said, finally, in a voice so calm it was hard to reconcile it with the leftist popular agitation he had started with. Hamza looked on and smiled, fascinated, for he had not been in a hall with students for over fifteen years. And then, the general alarm had been that of their increasing radicalization.
How time changes, he mused, who would have thought then that Marx would become a meaningless ornament on our campuses? The Student President continued.
“He is no other than Alhaji Hamza Dibarama, a retired colonel of the Nigerian Army and one of the most respected pundits in the country today. He has had a long career of keeping this country together and has been so busy the last twenty years he forgot the students. He realized his mistake when my EXCO and I reminded him and thus extracted a promise from him to not only attend this gathering but also to deliver a paper. Please, greatest Nigerian students, I use this opportunity to crave your ears as you use your hands and feet to give our guest lecturer a rousing welcome.”
The hall erupted in applause as the Colonel made his way to the podium. There he raised his hand up and the clapping subsided with everyone sitting on his or her seats again. He scanned the hall and started.
“Great Nigerian students!”
“Great!”, they chorused in unison.
His deep baritone seemed to surprise them and it endeared them to him even without hearing his talk.
“Before going into my talk, I would like to say your President is right and apologize for my lapse of having ‘forgotten’ the students of Nigeria. It is also true that I realized how important you all are when he came to my house a fortnight ago to invite me to this Public Lecture; you are, after all, the future of Nigeria. I know you will forgive me that, for even though I have a son who studied in the university, I myself did not attend one. I took an officers course at Sandhurst and so lost out on the aluta during my youth. But then, I believe in making up for lost time, hence my acceptance to deliver this lecture today. I hope you will give me your ears. My chosen topic is ‘The place of Compromise in Nigerian Identity”.
With this he cleared his throat and plunged into his lecture.
One of the most life threatening problems that has bedeviled the modern, African nation state is the question of identity, the question of who belongs and why or simply the parameters of inclusion. The peculiar problem of Africa is that the boundaries of nation states amongst themselves did not evolve in time as those in Europe or even in the Americas but was rather an imposition by the colonial powers. The unfortunate effect of this arbitrary definition of boundaries was that it assumed the political structures on ground before the colonial intervention, the structure that the nation-state came to replace, had somehow withered away and died off during the colonial period. Whether these assumptions could have been validly held by the colonial powers, in Nigeria’s case, Great Britain, or whether they were done in mischief is not within my purview, I am more interested in the reality on ground, the fall out of that fatal assumption. It has been our experience in Africa that those pre-colonial political structures had merely gone into hibernation and when the nationalist movements following the Second World War ended in political independence for colonial dominions, the nationalists realized they were marooned on tenuous islands with myriad ethnic fault lines.
The hall was silent and one could hear a pin drop as they listened to Hamza Dibarama describe the impossible paradox of the African nation state. One could hear a pin drop as they listened raptly to the drone of his baritone. Then he went into the genesis of the civil conflicts, veering into the Nigerian Civil War in which he had participated. The roots of the Civil War do not lie in the massacre of Igbo’s in the north and certainly not in any personality clash between Ojukwu and Gowon. Ojukwu and Gowon, even the massacre of Igbo’s in the North in the late 1960’s were but actors on a stage scripted even before they were conceived. The war finds its roots in the Southwest where Azikiwe’s party was denied power after a curious spate of cross carpeting that saw validly elected NCNC members of Western Region parliament overnight become legislators for Chief Awolowo’s ethnicist Action Group Party. I am speaking of 1951, fifteen years before Ifeajuna and Nzoegwu, or Gowon and Ojukwu. I lay no blame on anyone but that was the symptom that ethnic identity became a plank for political power and those politicians then were the crude forebears of those today for whom ethnicity is not even enough a factor to manipulate, those who have gone on to mix religion and a doctored history into an already heady cocktail. I participated in that war, the Colonel said, his voice dropping an octave, but I was in the maelstrom of it and it was much later that I realized what the problem had been, where it found its origins, that all the while it was the misuse of identity.
They hall still listened absorbedly to the Colonel but Jamilu and his men were tense as they scanned the hall, noting points of dissension where possible danger might be encountered. One thing they had going for them was of course that no one had seen the text of the Colonel’s speech so there was no possibility in this crowd of organized aggression.
Mrs. Pam listened to the talk and saw clearly that while the Colonel had said nothing that was untrue, he was also misrepresenting the realities of the country; he was guilty of oversimplifying history. And she knew he was also trying to reach out to her while at the same time criticizing what he saw to be her methods. He could of course not see that she too was an aspect in time much as he was and that they both had to do what they felt was right. There was really nothing he could do to justify the embarrassment his son and Rahila were causing her, no, not even a thousand speeches.
But I do not have a problem with ethnicity in Nigeria; on the contrary, I think our lingering myriad ethnicities are a good thing. It has had the effect of preserving a cultural heritage that would have been lost if the country had become homogenized. The Igbo’s, the Yoruba and the Hausawa, even the people of the Northeast have been able to retain their culture out of the fear that if they lost it, it would mean their absorption into another culture. But the North Central presents a peculiar problem. Unlike in the other states of the federation that comprise no more than three ethnicities, the North Central contains at least sixty. The trouble is that some of the politicians in the North Central State preach ethnic based balkanization, not realizing that they will not be better off if the federation were to disintegrate into ethnic groups, if the Nigerian project fails.
For example, the Gbagyi ethnic group, if Nigeria disintegrates and they became a new country would number about two million and will share a border with the Northwestern Hausawa who number in excess of thirty-five million people. The North Central will become would become a belt of petty states in between four or five super sized nation states and a buffer state is not an enviable position in terms of strategy or tactic or even common sense. Larger states have been known to poach on smaller and weaker ones. It happened to Poland, it could happen to the fragmentary ethnicities of the North Central. If any state in the current Nigerian federation has a stake in the status quo remaining the same, it should be the North Central.
The Colonel had stirred the hall and the noise was increasing, he had stimulated them to think and reconsider the assumptions they made based on jingo and transient but dangerous political sentiments. Then the Colonel stopped speaking until the hall went silent again, then he plunged back into his paper. He had been talking for over half an hour then.
Religion is a dangerous thing to play with, its just like fire, once it starts burning its not so easy to put in out. Yet your leaders in this state have continued to recklessly infuse the differences of religion into the identity equation. I see it but they do not, or pretend not to see, that this playing with so powerful a fault line as this can only lead to misery much in the same way the AG’s manipulation of the Western Regional Assembly popular vote led ultimately to the Civil War. Need I remind you that most of the soldiers who died in that needless war were young men, a whole generation of this country’s finest, from the ethnicities of the North Central. What did the Taroh or Jarawa or the soldier from kasar Igala have to do with the Action Group party or the NCNC party, or for that matter with the Hausawa and their presumed quarrels with the Igbo’s? Nothing. Yet it was they died in droves, in nameless trenches trying to end a war they did not start.
You are intellectuals, the Colonel continued, and you should know the fate of thousands of innocents, their very lives, lie in how your generation interprets Identity and more importantly, how it does not misinterpret it. I have spent the last two decades of my life trying to workout the midway through impossible situations most of you might never ever get to hear of, I have fought the disintegrative forces that seek to balkanize the country for that long.
I am now an old man and soon I might be a dead man, but I have a son who is young, just like you all and I intend to do everything expedient to protect him from the tragedy unchosen because tragedy had been forced upon him. . And that is why I have come here today; to remind you all here that you each have a right to determine the future and you must not abdicate that right to any politician. It is important that each of you here, most of you born here in the North Central, learn that compromise is necessary in constructing a Nigerian identity and we must exclude such indices that will ab initio render our harmony impossible.
The Colonel felt drained, tired in an overwhelmingly bodiless way as he made his way back to his seat, hearing the applause resonate around and over his shoulders. He doubted if they had all understood what he was saying but he hoped that enough of them did. Mrs. Pam stared at him icily and he knew that at least on that front, clear resolution had been achieved.
He had wanted her to know that he did not wish to hurt her, that hardball need not enter into the equation between them, but also that where Faruk was concerned, he had no scruples picking up the gauntlet if she cared so much to throw it down at his feet.
The office did much to corroborate the Colonel’s air of sophistication, everything about it from the deep oak panels on the floor to the paintings on the wall induced a gasp in every man who stepped in. On the floor, dominating half of the room was a nine feet square Persian rug which could tell a dozen stories, depicting the background of as many events and then there was the abundance of dazzling white wall, broken only by two paintings, one by Bruce Onobrakpeya of a waterside and another colorful cubist abstraction of a woman he had picked up in California years earlier. At the far end of the room, behind an impressive black mahogany table on which was an LCD computer monitor and papers was a high-backed black leather chair. The Colonel broke the gathering awe of a first time visitor with a smile that disarmed in its sincerity. Behind his head were a replica of the Nigerian coat of arms and a picture of Sir Tafawa Balewa in black robes with tassels of gold threading.
He was a man who knew well how to manipulate personal space and environment in order to give desired effects, actively participating and cultivating his own cult. Years earlier, he had made the decision that in order to ensure harmony, it was necessary to ensure a balance of strife, it was even necessary to create pinpricks of strife in order to have meaningful social preservation.
As all things are, this disposition of the Colonel came out of personal tragedies that he had overcome but the effects of which still lingered in his orientation. He had been a soldier who had been in a war and he saw things in terms of black or white, strategic objectives and tactical means; for him the only connecting dot was of course the concept of color and the need to preserve what was, for him, the objective of Nigerian unity.
On the large table was a faded picture of him in the field military dress of a Major; he was still young then, twenty-five. He liked to say he was still beautiful then and to the amused eyes, he would answer the unsaid question by quoting Wilde, not that most of them knew it, saying, “When youth goes, beauty goes along with it”. That was in 1967, during the police action, before the Eastern region secession had called for a full-scale war, a Civil war, long before the horrors of Asaba and Onitsha had happened.
The Colonel sat at his desk; his brown cap placed at an angle on the table, revealing a balding head of graying hair, the physical clue to his aging. He leaned forward into the table, his elbows balanced at the edges allowing his forearms to form an upturned V over a cup of Turkish Kahveh coffee, deep in thought. He had returned from the polytechnic half an hour earlier and had returned to his office in uptown Jos, on Ahmadu Bello Way.
His thoughts roamed wild but always came back to the lecture he had just given and the questions he had been asked afterwards.
For the first time in his life, he was afraid.
He realized how wrong he had been not to include the young people in his schema, the students; he had not fit them in for even while Faruk had been at the University, that life phase that was undergraduate life had never struck him as being an organic period in a person’s life. How had he been so blind not to see that the students were his natural allies and that the Universities and Polytechnics were the last opportunity to re-socialize children before their veins hardened and they became lost forever?
He had never thought he would have to justify himself to anyone, save himself, but that day he realized how important it was for the young people he strove for to understand the rudiments of his struggle, not merely to see its effects.
He was, after all, not God, so why had he been trying to play God, unseen and ruthlessly effective just beneath the scene?
Alhaji, she had asked, how can you expect us to understand identity when we have none? I am twenty-two years old and with the exception of the four-year Third Republic, I have no idea what a democracy is. I cannot even begin to conceive what it means to be a Nigerian. Your generation should have told me those fundamentals but you have not. I understand your belief in a united Nigeria but I do not understand what it means.
Something had gone terribly wrong and he was just realizing it. Was this Faruk’s generation? He would have to see General Hassan Abba about it, it was really monstrous, a chasm without bridges was opening up right behind them with their every step forward in realizing their shared ideal of Nigerian unity.
In a way, Hassan had started it all, or sparked it off. And now Faruk was in Bolewa and Hassan probably knew about that too, what does he think about all this now?
Colonel Ibrahim Dibarama saw how many fragments of this story, with intent so ominous on becoming tragedy, swirled around in the memories of himself and Hassan, Ya Hussena and a number of others. Then there was Mrs. Pam and her daughter who had become co-opted into this script. Prior to the lecture, he had thought it was merely a simple issue of his son being in love with her daughter, obscured by North Central politics. But the question and answer session had punctured a hole in that particular parachute. He knew Mrs. Pam could be very dangerous but now he saw she wasn’t even the start of his problems.
The Colonel stood up and walked over to the bay window and looked down at the cars passing in ever maddening rush past him on Ahmadu Bello Way, and the people, seeming like mobile cushions with embroidered dots for heads; they could not even fathom the heavy burden of history now on his shoulders.
His thoughts went back to Hassan.
It was 1972 and he had been up in Maiduguri, after the war. He had left the Army then but Hassan had remained, his wartime rank of full Colonel having been downgraded to Lieutenant Colonel in the regular Army. Hassan was then at the 21 Division in Ibadan and had come to Bolewa on a furlough and called him up to come down to Bolewa. When he arrived Bolewa from the Northeast State capital, he met Hassan Abba well and happy to see him.
Hassan was his ever ebullient self, the other ranks in the Army had called him Gegere on account of his lack of height, but he was also one of the finest tactical minds in the Army and even then he had a loyal following amongst the men and the officers. When he sat down at Hassan’s mother’s house in Bolewa, they talked a while about the Army, old friends and commanders.
“Tell me, Hamza my old friend, why are you making a mess of your life?” Hassan had said simply, after a brief, uncomfortable spell of silence.
It was the first time anyone had talked to him about his deepening drift into despair. Since he had resigned his commission two years earlier, he had drifted from Lagos to Kaduna, then Jos and finally Maiduguri, following the unseen trail of an unquiet spirit. He knew his family was worried about him but how did that stack up against the fortitude of his depression? Hassan had been one of his closest friends, there had been seven of them in the Army from Bolewa and they always kept in touch.
Hassan, though he was from Kano, was considered a Bolewa man for he had family there and he had been the first to join the Army, becoming an officer just before the British left, in 1958. Hassan sat there before him on the floor on a gray oriental rug, his eyes boring into his, demanding an answer he could not give.
Hassan Abba smiled kindly.
“I was told about Asaba and Onitsha, I know it affected you very much”
Asaba. And Onitsha. Hassan Abba had said it and Ibrahim Dibarama had then felt a frizzy feeling in his stomach, he could never say those words to himself.
He had looked with pleading eyes at his mentor and friend then, that night that seemed so distant now, in Bolewa and Ibrahim had rested his two forefingers on his lips, as if stopping himself from speaking out the sadness that his eyes betrayed to his friend.
“You are more resilient than that, Ibrahim”, said Abba, “I don’t want to hear any more of this nonsense about you drifting and being overwhelmed with grief. You hear me? We are soldiers and we were in a war, we did what we could do with the devil on our heels. We did it for the right cause. And in wars, things happen. You survived the war, my friend, do not disgrace your family name by letting it be heard that so fine an officer as you cannot survive the peace.
You hear me, you must forgive yourself because you must justify yourself only to you and to no one else!”
They had sat long into the night after that, drinking tea and talking; that was the last that was said about the massacre of Asaba and the senseless waste of lives at Onitsha. Somewhere in the trust of his friend, Ibrahim Dibarama had been able to find the resolve to rein in the arbitrary ambivalent emotions that could have ruined him. It was about 1 a.m. when Hassan became serious again.
“I have a favor to ask you”
“You know you only need to ask”, he had said.
“I want you to protect my honor”
“What is it?” he had asked, sitting up and wondering what nature of dishonor faced his Hassan.
Hassan had always had trouble with some of the blue blood officers who envied and despised him, a dangerous mixture. He had never really known what the suspended vendetta between Hassan and some of the other princes from Kano and elsewhere was about. Hassan came from an old Kanuri family and in such an ancestry, grudge was all too easy to develop and all too hard to forget, even by descendants many generations removed.
“There is a girl I want you to marry”, Hassan said simply.
Anything, he would have expected, but not that.
Hassan had seen the consternation on Hamza Dibarama’s face and hastened to clarify.
The girl, Habib Ummi al-Qassim was a sister to a blueblood friend of his, Zubairu al-Qassim whom Ibrahim had also known in the Army to be one of the staunchest supporters of Hassan. Zubairu al-Qassim was an important supporter for he was a nephew to the Emir of Bolewa and of course, Fulani. From Hassan’s explanation that night, the girl, still in her teens had gotten involved with two young men of means, Usman, the son of the Waziri on the one hand and Ahmed Anwar, son of a merchant woman of gold who was very powerful in the Emir’s court. The long and short of it was that in their passion for her, they had burnt down the Emir’s stables and his Highness, not too happy at the loss of his breed stock had banished them from the town. Of course, the most expedient action they could think of in order to salve their injury was to marry off the Emir’s errant niece, Habib Ummi al-Qassim.
“She is what you need, my friend, you can start your life all over again, as you have left the Army. And you will be doing me a favor.”
While it was nonetheless a delicate and potentially dangerous proposition, the one thing that Hassan Abba had not mentioned was what eventually tipped the scale between Hamza Dibarama and Ummi al-Qassim. They fell in love. Hassan had not mentioned how beautiful Ummi was. Ibrahim was to find out and fall in love with a girl who wanted to give her love to a man who loved her.
The Colonel smiled, how beautiful those early days had been! When he had his girl and his simple dissipations of a merchant, expecting the birth of his son.
Within a year, he had married Ummi al-Qassim and settled down in Bolewa, the ghosts of Asaba and the Civil War banished - temporarily as it turned out- in the bliss of a simple life to be savored and enjoyed. After the tragedy of her first two loves, Ummi felt a new sort of attraction for the soldier and felt a love for him that made her desire nothing other than to heal the scars he had, the hidden scars from which he still sometimes winced when he was alone and thought no one was there to see him, that brooding that descended on his brow and dissipated upon sighting her, almost as if it had never been. She was happy and she cradled him in her arms and gave warmth to his child.
But of course, the fragile body of tranquility forever lies in wait for a pinprick and in time, that came for the settled world of marriage, bursting forever the material of urban simplicity for him.
The chaotic madness in the streets below him, though he could not, mercifully, hear its bedlaminous chatter, brought back memories of Bolewa once again, memories long repressed breaking out of their subterranean caskets and floating up swiftly, breaking the surface of comfortable calm.
The tinderbox that Bolewa had become was piteous. Everything was tense, everyone was uptight. Relationships that had been built over a period of half a millennium verged on the edge of a precipice. Friendships dissipated like mist. The spark that was needed had not taken long in coming. And if it had not come when it did, the quality of tension itself would have become the very flames of death.
It happened when a federal police officer had been posted to Bolewa from the regional HQ. His name, the Colonel remembered, was Austin Chimezie and he was barely twenty years old when he died. He was a federal police officer posted just a week before. He could not have known anything.
That morning he flagged down a grey Mercedes that had been charting an erratic course on the main road leading to the Ciroma Bindawa Quarters itself. He got the driver, who was with two women in various stages of undress out of the car. The man reeked of beer and hashish. In the car he found two bottles of Chivas Regal and a still smoldering wrap of weed. Chimezie asked the man for identification and for this trouble he got a slap of the most shocking force coming from an apparently drunken man. So he arrested them all at the spot and called for his main force to come and pick up the offenders.
Ah! How could he know? How could he know that the man he had just arrested was Hamza, the imbecile second son of the reigning emir?
Minutes later, a truck of hallooing Dogarai chanced along on an errand for their lord. On seeing the Emir’s son cuffed at the back of a POLICE car, they wasted not much time speaking with the despicable dog infidel of a police officer. Besides he looked like a Christian. Steel shone in the sun and Chimezie’s bodiless head rolled a few feet in the dust.
The Colonel thought how it is always depicted in works of art that Minerva, goddess of Rumor is rendered as a typhoon wave; rumor, with its underlying even if distorted truth begins as a tiny ripple far away and ends hard by as a tidal wave imbued with the power of wrecking vengeance. The people of the tense town of Bolewa were one minute going about their routine lives; traders at the square, the mill grinder grinding endlessly his corn meal, children in school, drunks in the gutters, muezzins silent . . . everything in its place.
The news reached the town about twenty-seven minutes after Chimezie’s death. By the time it reached Ahmadu Bello Way at the heart of the town, there were at least two disparate but equally damning versions of what had happened. In an instant in the erstwhile precarious town, panic and fear reigned in the stead of reason. Shops were closed up and the traders stuffed the days takings and whatever other things of value into safe recesses before fleeing into the rowdy streets.
Church bells chimed all together and at once, singing madly, muezzins calling the faithful not to prayer but to war, there were women in the streets milling and crying, searching for their children in school. Goats and rams baaa- baaaaed with no-one paying attention to them. It was said that Dogarai had killed fourteen monks and an Abbot from the Ecumenical Monastery that morning. Another story was that an Ibo soldier had shot dead the son of the Emir, shouting “Down with the Emir! Down with Islam!” on his lips. Yet another had it that the Sultan Bello himself had appeared on the outskirts of the town to two pious old men and urged them to lead the Ummah to jihad against the ahl al kitab.
But it really did not matter what exactly had happened, Ibrahim Dibarama thought, what mattered was that madness and panic had taken over and too soon too. It had been a scene of apocalypses and Armageddon was at hand. He was a soldier and what lingered in the eyes of the people of Bolewa on that day, forty years before, was bloodlust. No one knew of Chimezie and what had happened that morning until long after the Devil with his host of evil Jinn had come and gone.
He had known only because he had been coming into the town that morning. He had seen the prince slap the officer and had seen them fumbling. He saw when the Dogarai came and saw the flash of steel. He saw the boy was dead before he arrived where he had fallen. But the town had gone mad. Hamza Dibarama had tried to calm as many as he could but soon he realized that in the midst of the frenzied madness his native town had become, his single voice of reason was as ineffectual as a match flame at sea. So he did the next most logical thing.
He had taken his young wife and all the jewelry she had and after arming myself with his service revolver and his father’s S&M automatic, jumped into his car and drove out of Bolewa amidst cordite smoke and the sound of bullets.
And yet, here in Jos, so many decades later, he still heard those sounds that drove Ummi al-Qassim mad. There were many sounds that dread day –the muezzins were silent, the church bells hollow and lost amidst the sound of Dane guns and six-shooters and the defining “GBOOM” of Woodsman rifles and the blood rapid rattle of death from a submachine gun.
He remembered. Ummi huddled weeping at the back of the car. A gunshot whip whizzing past his head and shattered the back windscreen of the Duisenberg. Ummi screaming, beseeching Allah, but she was okay. He remembered he had smiled. He had smiled then because he had heard distinctly the sound of a Lee Enfield pump-suction rifle. And he had heard it but two years before, in the fields of cemeteries where only the dogs of war run wild. In thrusting himself into the face of fatalism, into the face of Death, he refused to cringe; if Death dared it would have to take him with a brave and bitter smile on his lips.
The sound of bullets that day was the muezzin call of Death.
It hadn’t just been the call of his death.
Ibrahim Dibarama and Ummi al-Qassim had survived that day of madness but he realized, alone now and decades later, how history changes when religion and guns meet and how the entire superstructure of civilization disintegrates. In that instance, the bullets signaled the death of Bolewa and what it represented, an order of co-existence and peace into which he and Ummi al-Qassim, Hassan Abba and all the rest of them had all been born. One that had formed our bones and fluted out our years and joys and toils, the land where they had lived their strivings and dreams but in which they would not now grow old and die in.
Such is the import of the sound of bullets.
The thoughts of the final days of Bolewa left a bitter aftertaste in the Colonel’s mouth. He was bitter because he wondered if Mrs. Pam and the many others like her knew the sort of fire they were playing with and he was bitter that they might not know and would burn Nigeria down to ashes out of stupidity. He had spent a lot of time protecting politicians from their stupidities and had been thinking of settling down finally at the house in Vom and living out the rest of his life tending his ranch and marking time with the Vom-Bukuru Mountains. Yet now, Faruk had brought everything back to where it had all started. And the Colonel was troubled that it should not end the way it did the last time.
He buzzed his secretary.
“Tell the security officer I will be leaving in ten minutes”
“Yes sir. Sir, there is someone here to see you from the Governor’s Office. A Captain Nda Johnson. Shall I send him up when he arrives?”
He sighed. The Military Governor was one of Hassan’s protégés and no doubt, he wanted to discuss security issues. Hamza Dibarama knew by then that Mrs. Pam would have started putting together her master plan for ethnic discord, merely because her daughter was liberal enough to fall in love with a Muslim boy who happened to be his son.
“Send him up. I have just ten minutes to see him. Tell Hassan that I will be leaving in fifteen minutes and not ten”
“Yes sir” she said, as he dropped the handset back into its cradle.
The Captain was a tall dark chap from the North Central, he was of the Nupe tribe and his people had been counted good friends in the Colonel’s books. He strode in, his eyes held straight ahead of him, and saluted professionally when he arrived at the desk. The Colonel nodded at this show of respect and returned the younger man’s salute.
“Please sit down”, he said, “What may I offer you?”
“Nothing sir”, the Captain replied, taking out a letter from the folder he carried, “I have a mission to deliver this to you Sir”
“Sit down”, the Colonel repeated, taking the letter from him. His secretary came into the office presently.
“Brandy?” he asked enquiringly to the Captain.
“That would do nicely Sir”
“Get him brandy then, Simi. Make me a whisky with soda”
He read the letter while the Captain threw down his brandy, and when he was through he replaced it in the envelope and placed it back on the table.
“How is the Governor?”
“He is in good health, Sir”
“Tell him I will be with him tomorrow morning”
“Yes sir. Thank you for the drink”, the Colonel nodded it away and stood up, as did the soldier. He walked the captain to the door and gave him a business card, telling him to call him anytime he needed a favor and that he could always find a use for respectful officers. The Captain smiled and “Yes Sir’d” before the door shut behind him. Eight minutes, the Colonel noted, and returned to finish his whisky and soda before going down where his car was already waiting for him.
Sometimes, the auguries of love are able to speak to two persons at the same time, linking them in a web of thought. So it was that that day, as his father’s convoy was making its way back to Vom, Faruk, feeling a long absence from his father, called him. The younger man had not contacted the Colonel since he had left save a single call to tell him that he had arrived safely and had settled into a house just beside the school he was to teach. The mobile phone networks in Bolewa, perhaps interfered with by the high mountains of the Mambila Hills, were finicky and worked in some places and not in others. It had taken him a full hard day of searching and testing to find out that phone reception was perfect just beneath a mango tree standing if front of his lodgment. Mobile phones had not hit Bolewa yet so there were every few phones about even though service was provided in the nearby towns of Maiduguri and Gombe.
The Colonel smiled, for the first time that day, as his slender manicured fingers, unaffected by the harsh hamartan season, pushed the accept button of his mobile phone.
“Hello”, he said.
“Wushe kendiro, father”
“Wushe kendiro. How are you doing, my son?”
“I am fine father. The phone networks are bad here and I have been busy trying to settle down the last days. How is Jos?”
“We are fine here and I have not fallen ill from your absence. Rose and all the staff at Vom are fine and she has kept it all running as she always has. She asked of you just this morning before I left Zinder Ranch”
“Where are you, father?”
“I am on my way back now. I had given a talk at the Polytechnic and was at the office for some hours”
“A talk father. I never knew you had started giving talks, what will be next, seminars?”
“Your absence has made me do things I do not do normally.” the Colonel said, thinking that Faruk’s absence had also made him see things more clearly. There was a brief silence as each thought of what effect the others absence was having. The Colonel loved his son dearly and even though sometimes they had fallouts because Faruk also had some of the willfulness his father possessed. Yet it had always been a given that the younger man admired and respected his father.
“What was your topic?” he asked.
“The role of Identity in Nigerian Politics”, replied his father, adding simply, “It was a new experience for me. Mrs. Eunice Pam was there”.
There was another silence, this time of distracted contemplation; Faruk thought of Rahila while the Colonel thought that it was a good thing his son would not be in the North Central for the next five months, it was a safer thing anyhow. He might have to send one of Jamilu’s men to look out for him just in case things got too tense here, but then, Faruk was safer in the Northeast.
“How is the school teaching coming? I hope you are not telling them about the history of forensic sociology and stuff you picked up at the University”
Faruk laughed very hard and the Colonel felt a certain pleasure from that familiar laughter, the same since the young man had been a little boy, and he could visualize clearly how easy the muscles of Faruk’s face were when he laughed.
“Father! It’s a secondary school. But I do teach them a not compulsory subject called Nigerian Ethics, which is in a way like sociology. I think it was one of the few things they got right the last time they tinkered with the school curriculum. My classes are always full, about sixty, boys and girls. Father. I really enjoy teaching”, he said, “because in a way it is also like learning, getting a whole new education. The students are so eager to learn and the teachers have taken a liking to me. They ask me about the North Central and I tell them and they still think of new things to ask me. I think I am discovering myself here, father”
“I am happy for you, Faruk. But remember not to let your guard down. You are still a soldier’s son, watch out for nuances and cadences in speech and action and if you have any trouble let me know of it immediately”.
“Yes father, but I expect no trouble. And I have enough funds to last me awhile”
“I will send you some more before the week runs out. How do you like the town?”
“Its an interesting place, father, our people seem to have none of the baggage of the city. They are so simple and uncomplicated and one never fears that they would come undone. There is no madness here. I have been unable to really go into the town because I am just settling down but I will”
“Keep your eyes peeled”
“Yes Sir. Well father, I have to go now, I’ll talk to you sometime soon.”
“Goodbye my son, I will send your love to Rose and everyone of Vom”
The Colonel cut the connection and looked out of the car window. They were already just outside the gates of Zinder Ranch.
Yes, he thought, Faruk is promise and I am merely his protector.
With this thought, the Mercedes swung into the long gravel driveway and Colonel Dibarama made his way into the warmth of his home with rays of newfound strength and resolve radiating from his bosom.