By Alita Anslem
Until the week they arrived, Aba has always been calm. Aba smells of hard work: a seething cauldron of ingenuity; garnished by the roughness and the pseudo friendliness that lives in a commercial area. The faces of its inhabitants were stamped with hardship and good humour; by hunger for success and survival, which hits one like a stench once one steps into Aba. Even the potholes and dirt, which sit like dotting mothers on the roads to Aba, remain an inspiration: telling stories of men who bristled with hope-that tomorrow will be better; striving, sometimes, honestly, to fish out good life from the strangest of places; men who daily jumped hurdles in the firm belief that muddy hands beget oily mouth.
Apart from the sales, we had talked about the news that swept through Aba: Nnamdi Kanu, the new hero everyone sang his praises. We cheered him at nights in our homes, in the markets and our local bars. We heard his name called out on radios. At night, Mmiri, Daniel and I, stayed at Ekene’s. Ekene’s father, a stoutly built man, with blood shut eyes and a hunched back- a faithful stalwart of the Biafra cause; who like a rifle, reeled out stories like live bullets; stories of what Nnamdi Kanu was doing for the Igbo people and how the federal government were trying to silence him. On Sundays or any other day the IPOB group had their meeting, we stayed longer into the night listening to him tell us about the outcome of the meeting. He told us of the agenda to Islamize Nigeria and the need to gain our freedom early enough and not fall victim to the hideous agenda. Like this, bit by bit each night, he burned off our dross of ignorance and kindled the ember of nationalism in our hearts; as though waiting for us to be totally drowned by the fires of this new found love. He co-opted us into IPOB group. On Sundays we left for Nnamdi Kanu’s house for our meetings and returned late in the evening; our hearts engulfed by the zeal for self-determination like a wild harmattan fire. It did not take long for us to be obsessed with everything Biafra. We talked about Biafra everywhere, carried it boldly on our faces like a large scar and listened faithfully to radio Biafra. We wore Biafra mufflers and hoisted the Biafran flag at the entrance to Ekene’s father compound. I had a little flag attached to my motorcycle, so does Mmiri. In our neighbourhood, we became well known for spearheading the Biafra cause, we became little heroes.
The tension between our leader Nnamdi Kanu and the federal government had grown. Blistering words and threats were traded. His courage emboldened us. We still met at his house. In his characteristic manner, he would lash out at the federal government with virulent words; then the catcalls and snide remarks for the highly placed Igbo personalities, who are doing nothing for the Biafran cause, but only bent on filling their pockets. He called out some of Igbo leaders who went to Abuja and were churned into homosexuals and stooges, just so as to gain favours. We cheered him up. Trouble always happens after celebration, we knew that trouble would come, but we didn’t expect it so soon. So, when soldiers began to fill up the streets of Aba, we weren’t disturbed at their sight.
Like rain drops from a leaking roof, they trickled in with their heavy armours and began stationing themselves on the major roads of Aba. Their faces were gridlocked into a tight bow countenance, like death. At first, we had taken no notice of them and went about our daily duties. We only whispered about them at night. Rumours had roamed, that they had come for an operation, which will be helpful to us. They called it Operation Python Dance. When the issue was raised in our meeting, our leader had warned us, that they have come for us and we needed to stay on the alert. Aba still busted with life and people went about their normal routine, bristling with good humour. The soldiers stood at checkpoints and from a distance their expressionless face looked harmless and glistened with superb nonchalance.
Then one afternoon, news spread like a wild fire, that Nnamdi Kanu’s house has been invaded by the military men; who were armed to the teeth. Some of the IPOB members there, who had tried to oppose them were gravely injured, killed or taken hostage. Nnamdi Kanu had managed to escape. A heavy silence soaked up all the noise in Aba, in split seconds. We only heard the wicked sounds of boots and the roars of gun shots. Fear swept through the whole of Aba. People only peeked out from their homes at intervals like snails from their shells, to hear the latest news. Like newly lighted cannons, the military men that dressed the streets of Aba began to explode: they harassed young boys, men and anyone who looked suspicious; and subjected them to the most inhumane form of treatment. Those who proved stubborn were cudgelled to submission and those who tried escaping were shot down. People ran from the markets. Ariaria market was shut down. Mothers, wives and girls, made calls; they searched for their sons, their husbands and fiancés, to know if they were safe. At the road side, a woman spread and crumpled herself, like a piece of paper; her eyes were large with unfinished weeping. She had gotten the news that her son was found dead at Ariaria market.
“You detached your Biafra flag from your motorcycle?” Ekene asked, with stony eyes.
“Yes, I did” I said, without looking up and continued to wash my motorcycle.
“Why are you such a coward? Just a few gun shots and you are already denying your cause ehh ? You are a real saboteur” Ekene fired, his eyes still blazing with fury at my supposed betrayal.
“Nnaa, this is not about being a coward. We need to stay alive to fight. Haven’t you seen the kind of guns these men have, they are armed to the teeth. Going to fight them this way is simply playing into deaths hands. At this point, I prefer to be a coward nna m”
“So, that’s enough reason to throw away your flag, your identity eeh kwa? Is this not the best time to show you stand with our cause gbo ?
“Where is Nnamdi kanu? Ehh where is he? Do you think you are more patriotic towards the Biafran nation than he is? No my brother. They said he escaped. They brought war to his father’s compound and he escaped. You know why? I will tell you. He knows the difference between foolery and bravery, so he ran. Probably he may come back another day or he may not, but at least he is alive. My brother, these people are arresting anybody with any article relating to Biafra. I will advise you to go and pull down that flag still flying in your father’s compound for now, for your own safety. A na kwa ebu uka n’ isi nwanne m, no one carries the church on his head. You carry it on your shoulder, so that when it becomes unbearable, you drop it for another to carry”
Ekene stared at me for a while. I knew he has seen the point in what I said, but knowing him too well, he would likely not acquiesce at the moment, so as to nurse his bruised ego. He began to wheel out of my compound with brisk steps, like a solitary figure of wretched defiance.
“Won’t you come in for Kola nut?” I called after him, trying hard to suppress a good laugh.
“I don’t eat kola nut in the house of saboteurs” he fired back
It was at 1: am in the morning, when Ekene called me. He said his father didn’t come home. They had waited for him all night and called his phone, but it was switched off. “Let us wait till the day fully breaks, if he is not home by then we’ll go and in search of him” I said. Ekene was at my door at 6:30 knocking and I knew his father hadn’t returned. We headed then to Mmiri’s compound. As we passed Ekene’s home, I did not see the hoisted Biafra flag. I smiled. We dragged Mmiri along; he was reluctant to go with us. He was scared to leave the house; he said military men roamed the streets. It took my taunts and Ekene’s unfriendly glares to bully him out of his house. We equally co-opted Daniel too. The road was totally deserted as we marched into it. We walked in silence, our eyes dutifully travelling the length and breathe of the road, trailed only by the click clacks of our feet. We’ve walked for about fifteen minutes when we heard them.
“Stop there at once! Your hands on your head” A voice thundered behind us.
The meanness of the voice made us obey even without looking back to see who it was. It was when we were ordered to turn around, that we discovered the military vehicle, a dark blue Hilux, with four heavily armed men sitting at the rear. We were ordered to hop onto the back. Once we did, they ordered us to lie down. Daniel hesitated; the space was too small to hold the vast number of people squashed into it. The vehicle was already creaking in protest. Then like a lightening, he fell heavily on me, he has been struck by the boot of a gun. I felt a hot liquid run down my trousers. An oppressive silence fell and we heard only the screeching of tires on the worn out roads.
We were dazed by the sight that gaped at us as we were pushed down from the vehicle. It was a mass of young men and old men being forcefully buried in mud water that was exultant with flies. They unwillingly gulped the water up like cat fishes amidst the rusty cheers of the soldiers, who jokes passed across their sweating faces. Anyone who tried to raise his head up was cudgelled into the mud by a nearby soldier. It was a stark horror. Some of the victims, infected with exhaustion, lay still in the muddy water with bloated stomachs; while those still alive, struggled to breathe under water, which was now drenched with excrements. We stared on in horror. The scene was strongly reminiscent of Auschwitz camp, where people who were supposed to be human beings, jeered at the cries of the small faces of children whose bodies transformed into smoke under a silent sky. I could feel Ekene’s breath grating my neck. I knew he was already seething with anger and would likely explode at any point. I tried to signal to him, to bite his lips; to keep his anger, his hate, for another day, for later; toclench his teeth and wait. The day will come but not now.
A man, apparently drowning, was pulled up by a violent cough; he raised his head and tried to let out some of the water that choked his lungs. His face brimmed with mud; but his hunched back was unmistakable. It was then that the carnage began. He was Ekene’s father. Ekene erupted like a volcano, with the shout of “Papa” rushing before him as he raced to his father. As if on a cue, the jeers off the soldiers stopped and all eyes pounced on him. Ekene pushed away the soldier whose raised leg was about cudgelling his father into the mud again. The soldier had lost his balance and had fallen on the gridlock of bodies in the mud. Ekene had begun to drag his father out, who now looked like a heavy lump of clay; his suffering still on his face. A terrific tension wounded up around us, we knew there was trouble.
As we ran, I told Daniel that we had to survive and survival meant running for our dear lives. He had wanted we stop and fight the two soldiers that raced after us from Abia-Umuahia express way. But I knew that deadly faceoff would be suicidal; fighting soldiers armed to the teeth, isn’t the most heroic way to die. Soldiers whose only aim was to either kill you or take you hostage. I didn’t have that courage.
Ekene was shot before we fled. He was shot on his chest. He had fallen facedown into the stinking, sticky, yellowish, mud water. He had protested that it didn’t make any sense telling grown up men with matured tails between their legs, some with families, to lie in mud water. He had said the action was brazenly wicked and lacked sense. The soldiers were infuriated. Their fiendish smile broke into multiples of severity. They knew he said the truth but he had no right to do so. The soldier that stood near him, whose face was labelled by heavy tribal marks, gave a dry raucous laugh; which creased even more his tribal marks and exposed two rows of tobacco dyed uneven teeth. It announced beastly wickedness. His officious posturing showed he was in charge of the group. He had collapsed his fingerprints on Ekene‘s left cheek. Before his hand could rest beside him, Ekene struck back like a ravenous hurricane wind; he swiped the man’s cheek not once but twice, with a deadly stare hovering in his eyes. The soldier had staggered like a drunken man.
I laid there with Daniel, my head furtively managing to rise above the mud water. I feared for his life, not just his, but that of his now obviously widowed mother in Arochukwu, who may not survive the news of losing his only child and husband on the same day. The soldiers corked their guns waiting for an order. The soldier who had suffered a momentary blackout recovered with blunt vengeance. He pulled his trigger and shot Ekene. The soldiers then opened fire on him, burrowing his body with bullets and drilling new holes in each opened crevice.
It was while they were still gut in this malady that we fled. Many, who lay quietly like death in the mud, equally sprang up and fled. It was here that the blood bath began. Mmiri was shot as he staggered up from the mud water to flee with us. it seemed the mud had firmly gripped his legs that he couldn’t move. The bullets slapped him back into the water. The soldiers, realizing rather too late what was happening, had sent their bullets after us. The bullets pursued us as we fled; colliding with everything on their way. We could hear the heavy thuds of people, falling at random, as the bullets ran through them. Even this, was not enough to halt the feet of those who the bullets managed to miss. The soldiers had run after us, but gradually the tempo of their frightening boots decreased. We kept running, with no destination in mind. After the event of that day Aba never remained the same. The next day we heard that IPOB group has been proscribed and declared a terrorist group. The utmost betrayal was when we learnt that the south east governors had supported the motion.
The military troop gradually disappeared and we did not see them again. We began to see more of the police, it was as if they changed baton. Even with their smiles this time, we were not deceived, they were all the same. We still carried our lives in our hands, afraid of what may come next. Ekene’s father’s compound remained deserted and hopeful leaves of weeds flourished flamboyantly in their compound. His mother had given up the ghost few days, after she learnt what happened. It was not long before all south eastern states and the roads leading to them became clogged up with military personnel; another operation had begun, it was the Operation Python Dance III. Stories of harassment and bullying travelled the states, but we still braved the belly of the beast. The next we heard of Nnamdi Kanu was he was in detention charged with treasonable felony. This broke our spirit. Then we heard he had sought asylum in Isreal. He gave an online broadcast and assured us that he was fine. This news wakened our spirits again. But his parents seemed not to have quite gotten over the shock. It was not long before we heard of his father’s death; his mother’s followed not long after. In the months and years that followed the invasion, many of our members in other states, has been killed by the federal forces during peaceful protests; the news of their death swept aside by the president, as though he were saying good riddance to bad rubbish. The government was bent on stamping out any ember of Biafra agitation that glowed.
It is now almost four years since the invasion, things have not gotten better. Nnamdi Kanus prophecy about the plan to fulanize and Islamize Nigeria is becoming more glaring. Nigeria has become a horrendous nightmare: People of the South –South are grossly marginalized and they are dying like flies and no one talks about it. Boko haram terrorists, Fulani herdsmen and bandits are taking up the day. In a space of seven days things have fallen apart; blood flowed in the south east, houses are going up in flames and security personnel are butchered. The miracle that happens in Nigeria at moment is to see the next day. The real heroes are the Igbo’s all over Nigeria, who are not certain of what will happen next, but still go to bed at night with one eye closed. It seems at last Nnamdi Kanu had vindicated himself.
Yesterday, after Daniel and I, stood in a long unmoving queue, at the immigration for almost five hours unattended, we knew there was trouble. At the immigration office one could see the desperateness that hung on people’s faces, Nigeria has become quite inhabitable; it is not a country for a sane mind. It seemed the whole of Nigeria wanted to leave Nigeria; a very long queue that could make once head spin, stood like a massive wall; unmoving at the immigration office. Amidst the push and shoves, those who had long legs threw their weight about and were attended to after much struggle; while the rest of us, unnerved, stood stubbornly in the blazing sun like soldier ants.
“Is it not funny, that we clamour for Biafra and still come out here to struggle for the Nigerian passport? You see this people have us cornered at all fronts” A large man before me said, to no one in particular, as he dabbed his with a badly creased, handkerchief, that seemed to have soaked up more sweat than it could carry.
Some persons in the queue turned to look at him; the look I saw in those eyes wasn’t that of people who believed again in the Biafran cause. They acknowledged his point, but for them, Biafra was too lofty a dream. As if trying to convince them, he fired on.
“In fact, seriously, after today, if you ever see me at any immigration office to get Nigerian passport, please, cut my legs. For now, Biafra is the answer; we must get it now or never
“ Oya na Oga, leave the queue and go get your own Biafra passport” A woman fired from the back. Few people in the queue smiled; others remained unfazed as though sparing some seconds to smile could somehow delay the line from moving.
“Ezekwesili Obidike Munachi!” A lady who seem to be in her late twenties called. She looked powerful and had an expression of distilled scorn on her face. She was holding a file and her crisp, carton brown uniform, showed she was an immigration officer
“Yes Ma, na me, yes ma!” The large man shouted, running towards the lady, who had gestured at him to come; with the look of exhausted triumph settling in his face. She led him into the registration office and the door was shut.
Many, who were far ahead of the man in the queue, who apparently came before him, began to curse and protest at the injustice. I turned and looked at Daniel, he was silent, deep in his solitude; and his face was impassive. It showed no pain, no unhappiness, but it showed no joy or contentment either. He just shrugged. A shrug that said, this is Nigeria for you. An aged woman left the queue. She went and sat on the debris of blocks under a mango shade; and stared out vacantly at her place in the queue. She looked shrunken, perhaps because she had sizzled for long in the sun. She sighed heavilyfrom time to time. Her sighs seem to be full of despair, but at the bottom of her lungs, at the depth of her breath’s expulsion, there was also hope, waiting like a sleep at the end of even the most torrid day.Follow us