We are not united by common heroes

The Nigerian military is a bundle of paradoxes and contradictions. Over the years, it has appeared to be the most nationalistic institution in the country – the glue that has held the country together at its moments of greatest fragility. It is an institution in which loyalty to the country and military espirit de corps often – but not always – trumps ethnic and religious sentiments. However, at many junctures in our history, the federation has almost been rent asunder by the excesses of its soldiers. Our soldiers have fought and died for this country as much as they have been major participants in all the ills that have bedevilled the country since 1960.

Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and his colleagues murdered the country’s first and only prime minister – Sir Abubakar; the North’s premier – Sardauna Ahmadu; and the premier of the Western Region – Aare Onakakanfo Akintola. He is probably the most hated Nigerian soldier in the collective memory of the North. Yet, many other Nigerians see him as a revolutionary. Many intellectuals think that the coup was justified – the tribalistic and corrupt regional leaders needed to go. The intentions of the coupists were maligned. Even Obasanjo has not hidden his admiration for Nzeogu. He wasn’t brought to justice for decapitating a region, throwing it into deep mourning, truncating a vision. The North felt that a criminal was allowed to go scot-free.

When Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in 1976, he was mourned all over the country. Almost immediately, buildings and places began to bear his name – the nation’s most important airport, the longest streets in major towns and cities, a major Niger bridge, educational institutions, a major mosque in Kano was built by his grave. Musicians waxed moving elegies to commemorate his death. Yet, when Nigerians remember and mourn him every February, increasingly in recent times, the long-suppressed story of the Asaba Massacre pops up, which is as soon dismissed by most people as if with the unspoken adage – all is fair in love and war. The Asaba Massacre is a well-documented war crime that was perpetrated by Nigerian soldiers under the command of Murtala Mohammed and Ibrahim Taiwo. In that eternal disgrace to the Nigerian Army, hundreds of non-combatants – mainly boys and young men – were murdered and buried in mass graves in the Nigerian town of Asaba. The soldiers abducted women, extorted, pillaged. Years later, Col Taiwo, as the governor of Kwara State, was killed in the coup of 1976 that also consumed Murtala. I doubt if the people of Asaba would have joined the rest of the country in the national mourning of 1976, less than a decade after the abomination in Asaba.

While Ojukwu is seen by many Nigerians as the reckless rebel who plunged Nigeria into a costly civil war that nearly disintegrated our dear country, other Nigerians see him as the brave warrior who fought to liberate the Igbos from a choking union, a visionary leader who strove to free Biafrans from an unjust federation.

Abacha is undoubtedly the most hated person that ever wielded power in Nigeria. Having turned Nigeria into a pariah nation and stolen it blind – the magnitude of his robbery continues to unfold several years after his death. Having taken the country to the very brink of disintegration. Having jailed many citizens from all parts of the country who clamoured for democracy and freedom. Having sat on the mandate of the millions that voted for Abiola across the country. Having done all these – it was not a surprise that many jubilated when his death was announced. Millions saw his death as a prayer answered. Yet, the rank of his supporters has been steadily swelling over the last two decades, with people openly remembering him in a fond manner and organizing prayers for him, displaying his pictures on their buses and bikes. Other people watch in disgust and horror.

Lt. Gen Ibrahim Attahiru, the Chief of Army Staff who died in an air crash yesterday seems to have joined the ranks of such national marmites. As many Nigerians, including your correspondent, from across the country expressed their shock and sympathy, others – especially from a region of the country – have openly rejoiced at his death. It’s all over social media. While his mourners see him as a national hero who has played a significant role in the war against the nihilistic Boko Haram terrorists, a gentleman and an officer, an honest and decent fellow, the intrepid brass hat who dared to say what many before him could not say – that people have stolen money meant for weapons – his critics remember him for playing a leading role in the Operation Python Dance II that was said to have led to the killing of Igbo women, children, and youths in Abia and Rivers in 2017. Some are peddling the canard that he was the GOC of the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army during the period. Some even attributed to him what he didn’t say. He was alleged to have said, ‘Over my death will Biafra, Oduduwa emerge as new Countries’. A fact check revealed that the exact thing he said was, ‘The Nigerian Army under my leadership would remain proactive and jointly work with other security agencies to decisively deal with threats facing the nation. The Nigerian Army under my watch remains resolute and is poised more than ever before to decisively deal with individuals or groups that threaten the peace, security and stability of our great nation’. The peddlers of this falsehood that has gone viral see his tragic death as just recompense, a divine revenge for the carnage he presided over. While a lot of people, especially from the North, are aghast for their lack of sensitivity, they carry on with passion.

All our icons have feet of clay. While many people cannot see the feet of clay hidden in jackboots of religion, ethnicity, and regionalism; others see only the bodiless feet of clay.

What a section of Nigerians sees as black, others see as white. No grey areas. No nuances. No complicated understanding. What some people de-emphasize or are blissfully ignorant of, others see as the only reality. In the same country.

We do not have the same heroes. We do not have national heroes. We are not one nation. Yet.

Perhaps, we don’t need national heroes.

But, certainly, we need justice, fairness and historical accountability.

May God rest the souls of those gallant men and women who have fought for justice, peace, and stability in our country.

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