By Sunny Awhefeada
Two telling lines in Nigeria’s national anthem are “the labour of our heroes past /shall never be in vain”. Both lines ordinarily should inspire and spur us to “serve with heart and might” another line in our otherwise inspiring hymn of nationhood. Unfortunately, these lines have not been able to add up and they have become part of Nigeria’s moral baggage. Like everything Nigerian, the lines and the essence of the ideals they espouse have been subverted by the virus called Nigerian factor.
Nigeria has been very unkind to her real heroes. Yes, I insist of “real heroes” because the essence and the ideal of heroism in Nigeria has been abused and negated in Nigeria. Festus Iyayi in his classic novel Heroes not only attempts a denunciation of the concept of heroism in the Nigerian context, but actually locates the real heroes and insists that they should be so regarded. Told from a vantage position, the story Iyayi tells in Heroes focuses on the ugly underbelly of history as it was told from the dominant point of view as it concerns the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970.
Last week was the Armed Forces Remembrance Day, a day set aside to honour those who fought to keep Nigeria one during the bloody internecine civil war. The exact day for the memorialization is 15th January which was also the day that the military shot its way into power and ruptured the essence of civil power and authority. The business of January 1966 was initiated by young soldiers who felt that Nigeria had become “big for nothing” as a result of corruption, nepotism, tribalism and other ills they catalogued in their dawn broadcast. Whatever, their intention was, the plotters in the words of one of them Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu did what they did in “the spirit of true Nigerianism”. He went to emphasize that “only in the Nigerian Army do you find true Nigerianism”. That was nearly sixty years ago.
The events of January 1966 snowballed into a counter coup and then a civil war which was indeed uncivil in view of the magnitude of human carnage it wrought. There was hardly a home in Nigeria that was not affected by the war. Many young men enlisted either on the Nigerian side or on the Biafran side. Many of them didn’t return. They paid the supreme price. Many of those lucky to return lost limbs or got disabled one way or the other. Those that didn’t die or didn’t lose a limb suffered trauma as a result of the horrendous character of the war. Those who didn’t go to the battle field, but were at home waiting for news were eaten up by anxiety and in many cases many of them became bereaved as they lost loved ones. It was for these reasons that the poet, J. P. Clark insists “we are all casualties”.
The end of the war opened up a new chapter in the annals of Nigerian letters as reflected in historical and literary writings. Many generals who didn’t go near the battlefront wrote offensive autobiographies, memoirs and even had others write biographies celebrating their valour during the war.
The generals who neither fired a shot nor got near the frontiers claimed that they won the war. Senior officers who found themselves on both sides of the conflict clothed themselves in borrowed robes, danced to manipulated tunes and raked in millions during the public launching of such insalubrious fictions coated as facts. The real soldiers, the rank and file, who fought and won the war were never acknowledged in such books.
Their names never came up for mentioning. They were simply confined to erasure. Those who died were forgotten. Those that were lucky to escape death got confined to the margins of neglect and poverty. It was this contradiction that provoked Iyayi’s Heroes where he insists that the rank and file fought the war and won and not the big-bellied and triple-chinned generals.
Last week, as part of the Armed Forces Day Remembrance celebrations, Channels television, one of Nigeria’s leading media houses went to town in search of ex-service men, the true heroes, who fought in the civil war and survived. All of them interviewed by the television correspondent are already septuagenarians and octogenarians.
These men, our heroes past, wept over how successive Nigerian governments neglected and impoverished them. Many of them are sick and cannot afford medication. Loneliness, poverty and palsy are afflicting them. They quivered as they spoke and they evoked pity. The framed pictures of their days in service hanging in their sitting rooms portrayed them as young gallant men in sharp contrast to their present sorry state. The crux of their predicament is the meager pension they are paid and which in most cases are either irregular or slashed by greedy pay officers.
Besides those who fought in the civil war is another category of victims emerging from the ongoing war against terrorism.
Many of the soldiers who died in the last ten years or so left behind young wives and children with nobody to care for them. Some of the widows and children that were interviewed lamented their sorry condition. Poverty, disease, lack of access to education and joblessness have become parts of their existential ordeal. The death of their husbands and fathers threw them into a vicious and hostile society and survival has become an ordeal for them. Nigeria has been most unfair to them.
The memories of those who died for Nigeria are daily being desecrated by the ruling class that promises so much and do nothing.
On the other hand, the generals who didn’t go near the battle fronts now own Nigeria. They are the oil barons, they are chairmen of companies, they own billions in dollars and could team up to sponsor candidates of their choice into political offices.
These generals are still in charge of Nigeria. They are the ones toiling with Nigeria’s destiny. They are among those confining our heroes past and their labour to nothingness. Nigeria has not been kind to her heroes past.