The fleet of cars parked around the trimmed green compound would have been enough to stupefy me, but then came the guards clutching their AK-47 rifles and striding around; this left me without words. One of the guards opened the car door to let me out and gave me a most sharp salute. I ignored the greeting, and began to admire the trimmed shape of the red ixora hedges. I hadn’t breathed in the beauty of the compound to my satisfaction before I was whisked off into the house, a bare-chested adolescent boy trailing behind me, struggling with the weight of my suitcase.
I was told that my host would be down shortly, as a guard led me into the living-room. An imposing full length mirror stood at the entrance of the living-room. I paused to smarten up. One has to make a good first impression, I thought.
I could hear the soles of his footwear slapping carelessly on the terrazzo floor as he made his way down the staircase. I’d never really met him before, at least not since I was a little child, but I had been assured that he was a nice man. The sound of the soles faded as he arrived on the carpeted floor. I made one last attempt to collect myself, rehearsing my smile and introduction. The smile was important; I had to show that I was delighted to be there and most importantly that I felt safe in his presence.
“Hello! Hello! Welcome! Welcome! My dear, welcome!” he exclaimed, his arms outstretched, beckoning me for a hug. I had imagined a voice much deeper, like in the interviews on TV. This wasn’t the introduction I had quite envisaged. I quickly discarded my practiced introduction monologue, and moved into the arms that were opened before me. Somewhere between my moving towards his bosom and retracting after the hug, I had muttered “Good afternoon, sir.”
“You are a big girl now, ehn.” He took a step back, as if to get a better view of my whole five-foot-seven-inch frame. “The last time I saw you, you were like this,” he bent to indicate a height right below his knee. “How are your parents? Did they fly in with you?”
“No, they didn’t come, but they send their greetings.” I mumbled, hoping every bit I said was audible.
“I see, I see. Ah, ah, Tam Tam baby is a big woman now.”
I wasn’t used to statements like this. I was at a loss as to how to respond, so I resorted to an empty smile. The press usually remarked positively on his urbane way of speaking; he even spoke pidgin with a certain finesse. For some reason I didn’t expect him to be so down-to-earth.
“How was your flight? Have they given you something to drink? Ah, ah, where have these people hidden themselves? Abel! Abel! Abeg come and get a drink for my daughter.”
I sat still, taking in the beauty of the living room décor, secretly admiring his choice of settees. They were not the usual bright coloured ones made from linoleum-like leather that every big man’s house in Yenagoa seemed to have; these ones looked imported. I was impressed. I wandered off so deeply into dreaming about decorating the new flat I would be moving into at the beginning of next year that I almost missed Abel’s question on my choice of soft drink.
“What do you have?” I asked.
“Aunty, there is Maltina, Coke, Fanta, and Schweppes.” Like a child learning how to count, Abel stroked each finger as he reeled off the available options. I secretly wondered what would happen if he went beyond option five.
“Or is it ogogoro you want?” my host interjected, with a sly smile.
I laughed, then turned to Abel and said “I’ll have a Maltina.”
“Hot or cold?”
“With straw or with glass?”
“Abel! Get away with all these questions, bring her straw and glass,” he interjected yet again, but this time it was well appreciated; Abel sounded like a programmed robot. I had just made it to Yenagoa through terrible traffic from Port-Harcourt and the last thing my exhausted self wanted was to fill in an oral questionnaire before I had a drink.
“Tammy girl, how is obodo oyinbo now?” he asked, his eyes fixed on the TV, both hands fiddling with the TV-remote. Without giving me much time to reply he threw out another one of those rhetorical questions.
“So, when is he bringing the palm wine for my uncle?” This time he looked at me with that same sly smile that had played on his face when he asked if I wanted ogogoro.
I chuckled. “There is no one bringing palm wine yet, o!” The ‘o’ rolled out of my mouth smoothly even though I rarely said it.
He laughed in response. He had a particular noisy laugh that sounded like it could only have come from a group of people not just one man. His phone started ringing just as Abel was coming in with a tray of cold Maltina and a glass.
“Ehn… I’m at home now, ehn… my niece just arrived, Solo’s daughter. Ehn… No, ah, they have been in UK for many years now. Yes o, she is the youthful face of our struggle over there.” He got up from the chair and made his way out of the living room.
“Aunty, food will soon be ready.” That was Abel again. Somehow he managed to interrupt my daydreaming of my life abroad.
“Thank you. What are you preparing?” I asked.
He laughed. “Aunty, it is not me cooking, it is my mummy. She is making plantain pottage.”
“Is she in the kitchen? Let me go and greet her.” I picked up the bottle of the already opened Maltina, ignored the glass and straw that Abel had brought with it, and walked to the kitchen with him. As Abel opened the kitchen door, we were greeted by a cocktail of aromas. A big plump woman stood humming and swaying her hips from side to side completely engrossed in her cooking, as the pottage simmered on the gas stove. She had her back to us. ‘Chief Ebitari Douglas for Bayelsa’ was written across the back of the t-shirt she was wearing. Printed in the middle of the shirt was a smiling face of the gubernatorial aspirant. She seemed not to have heard us come in.
“Good afternoon, Ma.” I tried to project my voice over all the noises in the room, but she still didn’t hear.
“Mama, Aunty is greeting you.” Abel’s voice wasn’t particularly louder than mine, but it must have been a tone she was familiar with, so she turned around.
“Ah, my daughter welcome, doh!” Her face was puffy; beads of sweat had formed under her nose like a liquid moustache.
“Good afternoon, Ma,” I said again, curtsying in the traditional fashion.
“Seri. Welcome ehn. I hope you like kekefiai, you eat fish?” Without giving me much time to react, she looked at me almost sternly and said “Proper Ijaw girl must eat fish.” I wasn’t particularly fond of the way they prepared fish back home. I eat fish only when it is filleted and boneless. But I dared not say that to Abel’s mother; the abalaba in her hand was big enough to knock the oyinbo out of me.
It must have been past midday when I woke up to a knock on my door. I shouted to the person to come in as I made an attempt to get out of the bed.
I thought it was Abel, but instead, a girl a lot younger than him walked in, dressed as though she had just come back from church.
“Good Afternoon Aunty. Uncle said I should call you.” She swayed and played with her fingers as she talked.
“Is he downstairs?”
“Yes, he is in the big parlour,” she said, making sharp turns from side to side as she made out every word. I loved the way she smiled; it revealed her two missing front teeth.
“I didn’t see you yesterday. What is your name?” I asked, as I started getting into my clothes.
“My name is Favour.”
“What a pretty name,” I said, and then thought to myself, Favour! What a name!
I continued talking to the little girl, who had somehow made herself comfortable on the bed, and was now trying to open my laptop.
“Okay, Favour come and show me where Uncle is.”
I cleared my throat and greeted him when we walked into the parlour. “Good morning, sir.”
“Good afternoon dear. I hope you slept well.”
“Yes, I did sir; I wasn’t quite sure what time you people were going to leave for service,” I lied. I knew most services started at nine in the morning, but I was too tired to get up then, so I decided to sleep in.
“Ah, these people left around nine in the morning.”
“You are going to the evening mass?” I don’t know why I asked this question, because I knew for sure that he was an Anglican.
“Evening mass ke, no, I don’t go to churches.” He released a grin, and searched my eyes to see if I was going to say something reproachful.
“I see. Why not?” I asked, betraying nothing.
“Next Sunday, go to the service these people go to and you will find out why. Churches of today have become scamming houses.”
He laughed. “Why do I need to pay a fee so I can give thanksgiving in church? Ehen, dear, let’s talk about this your matter now,” he added, deftly changing the topic. I was glad. Finally, we could discuss why I came down to Yenagoa to see him.
“I hear you are writing an article or something about the great General and LAND.” He tapped the chair beside him, gesturing for me to take a seat.
“Yes, I was planning to write an article about him, for the 10th anniversary of his death, and I thought there was no better person to interview than you.”
He beamed. “Ah, ah, the great General was my mentor. In fact he was like the father that I never had.” I could see the pride in his eyes. I didn’t even need any icebreakers; he seemed very eager to talk. “What and what do you want to know?”
“I’ve just finished reading the book he wrote, but I want to hear something more directly from you about how he got involved in the struggle and what LAND stands for today.”
“Ok, ok,” he nodded. “Favour! Are you playing in the rain? No, no, no, come inside you’re going to get a cold.”
“Is she your daughter?”
“You mean Favour? No oh, Favour and Abel, are my cousin’s children – the lady that was in the kitchen yesterday, ehn. Our mothers are from the same village – Odi, but unfortunately she lost her husband not too long ago and they were having a hard time in the village, so I asked her to come and look after this place.”
“Eyah, I see.”
“Ehn… I’m not usually here in Yenagoa; the house is empty most of the time, so at least they have a place to stay and continue with their lives without any wahala. In fact it’s because your father told me about this, so I said let’s come into town, because it would be difficult for you to get to me at the other place I stay.” He went back to talking about my article. “This thing you are writing, are you the one publishing it?”
“Well, yes, the organization I work for would publish it in the issue that we are dedicating to General Omuna.”
“Okay, okay, yes your dad mentioned it to me, he told me about the organization. He talked about the courageous work you are doing for us in the UK, that’s very good. I was very happy to hear that, ehn… Tamara hasn’t forgotten her roots… ah, where do I start, what specifically do you want to know?”
“I’m sure you have something to say about how he started LAND, his detention, the trial and all that.”
“You see, my dear,” he cleared his throat and began to rub his eyes as he spoke, “the great General was one of the first, one of the first persons from a minority to stand up against the government of this country,” he said, gesturing with his index fingers as he spoke. Before he could continue his phone rang. “Sorry dear, I have to take this call.”
“Where you dey?… You say what? Yes, now. I sent Andrew an email very early this morning, ehn, OK, I dey for my place in Yenagoa.” He ended the call then turned to me. “That was my second-in-command, Wellington.”
“I see. I’ve read of him in the papers.”
“He’s coming here now; maybe you can also have a chat with him.”
“Oh yes, of course,” I lied again. I didn’t want to have to talk to Wellington. I had seen interviews with him before and felt sorry for the interviewers. It wasn’t that he was on a strategic mission to avoid giving answers; it was just that he wasn’t literate enough to understand some questions, and instead of asking the interviewer for an explanation, he would answer with a couple of rehearsed lines that had nothing to do with the issue.
“Ehen! Where was I? Gen. Omuna started the Liberation Army of the Niger Delta, the one we call LAND. That was, if I’m not mistaken, in early ninety-three… yes, it was right after I was called to the bar. And you know, although he called it Liberation Army, LAND back then didn’t have any militant formation. This one is a very recent change of operation.
The great general believed too much in dialogue. I’m sure you must know that since you read his book. He was gifted in talking, his rhetoric skills, ehn. That was why he was very fond of me. When I was still practicing, I was fire in the court. If you saw me when I was addressing the court… I was something else.” He paused. “Talking doesn’t take you anywhere o,” he continued, “at least not in this country.”
“Is that why you stopped practicing?”
“It is very frustrating to defend people when their fate has already been predestined.”
“You were one of his lawyers during the trial?”
“No now, I was arrested with him. There were eleven of us arrested with the general. We had the best defence lawyers, but our fate had already been decided. Five of us got acquitted, and of course you know what happened to the general and the other five; Judgment Day.” He crossed his arms, and shook his head. “I will never forget that day. General told us we had to be strong, you know, he said, whatever the outcome we should put on a brave face. Let them not feel like they had succeeded in breaking us. Because, you know the way the trial was progressing, we could see that we were in trouble. The whole thing was masterminded, you know. When they read out his sentence, my legs just gave way; I felt I was going to collapse. In fact, he was the one who tried to calm me down, telling me to compose myself. I just couldn’t imagine it, you know.”
That afternoon, I decided to start calling my host ‘Uncle.’ I had survived the first day at his house, trying to avoid calling his attention to anything, and when it was necessary I would mumble ‘sir’. He noticed this and later told me that even though he wasn’t a brother to either of my parents, I could call him ‘Uncle’ because “this is Nigeria”. I felt a soothing sense of comfort in his presence and a familiarity which crossed out the need to address him formally. We continued chatting even through lunch. Wellington met us well and got served his own portion of steaming hot pepper-soup with white rice.
There was something about Wellington though; I didn’t need Uncle to tell me that he felt intimidated by my presence. He responded to all my questions with the barest of words. With his eyes averted, and his fork fiddling with the fish in the soup, he would murmur things I couldn’t make out. There were moments he would just ignore my presence altogether. He would turn to Uncle and speak in Ijaw, then proceed to joking loudly and laughing wildly. I didn’t mind. It was the perfect moment for me to observe his character, and learn more about Uncle’s involvement in the militancy in the region.
When the agitation in the Niger Delta had escalated at the turn of the millennium, several civil society groups had sprung up from corners of the Niger Delta, all preaching indigenous autonomy over oil resources. The Liberation Army had flourished like a successful business enterprise. Word on the street was that Uncle had secured arms deals from Coat-of-Arms, who was one of the region’s most notorious gunrunners. Throughout our afternoon conversation, he had detailed how Gen. Omuna got the Liberation Army together, wrote out a bill of rights and even held international campaigns. He spoke of the gruelling trial, in front of a prejudiced tribunal. But he didn’t quite get to the part where LAND became one of the prominent militant factions in the region.
After lunch, Uncle asked me to excuse them. I retreated to the kitchen to chat with Mama Abel. I was desperate to know the kind of life Uncle lived in private. My parents and several other Ijaw people I had met in the UK held him in high esteem, but I had my reservations.
Mama Abel had told me how helpful he had been to her when her husband died. She talked as tears gently streamed down her cheeks. She took out a handkerchief which was clamped under the strap of her brassiere. As she dabbed her eyes, she told me how Uncle had even helped her and her husband restart their life after the incident in Odi. This man threw her a lifeline; he could do no wrong in her eyes. She told me she was scared “they will do to him, like they did to General,” struggling to get those words out.
Wellington had just left when the night sky started to twinkle. Uncle was sitting at the balcony catching some fresh air; he didn’t see me coming. I stood by the doorway behind him and asked “What made you change LAND’s mode of operation?”
He made a sudden jerk, as if I had just pulled him out of a dream. “Ah, ah, Tam, you have not finished with your interrogation?” he said humorously, then tapped the cane chair beside him. We sat together in silence, enjoying the cool Bayelsa breeze. It was the first time I was noticing how tall the dongoyaro tree was. Here, I assumed, he could dream in peace. He was probably reminiscing on the days when he led an unadulterated struggle. Here the spirit of the great general could visit him. It was almost as if the general was speaking to us in little whispers while the crickets chirped. We can remodel the struggle, I thought to myself.
I was away in the land where dreams play out like reality, when Uncle said “Odi,” in his softest voice. “After Odi, we had to change.” He looked into the night as if he were begging it to help him recall the incident in Odi. “When the government treat your people like sub-humans, when they see you as only things worth exploiting, you shouldn’t give them the chance to experience peace of mind. Our people were de-humanized; what took place in Odi was genocide.”
Uncle had travelled to Odi, just after it had been levelled by the Nigerian armed forces. The army had invaded Odi in search of a few criminals, and then the devil in them had been unleashed and they demolished the entire village.
We walked together to his study. He brought out a big brown envelope, it had ‘ODI NOV 99’ written across it in bold black ink. I held it, and was going to open it right away but he stopped me. “You need ogogoro for this one,” he said. This time it was without that sly smile. I looked at him; this was certainly no time for ogogoro jokes. He walked towards one of the shelves, got a glass and poured me some Seaman’s schnapps.
“It is difficult,” he said, then turned his eyes away. I didn’t know what to expect. I dug into the envelope and grabbed what felt like pictures. I recoiled at what I saw. He saw my reaction, looked at me with sincerity in his eyes and said, “That made me change the mode of operation.”
My legs were already growing weak, so I took a seat. The first picture was the ruins of a market place. I slid it under the batch. The second picture was a decomposing body in a cassock, still clutching a bible. Looking over the dead reverend was a marble statue of Christ in front of a St. Barnabas Anglican Church. The third picture was a charred body of a little girl no more than ten years old. The pink beads in her braids were still visible. I started feeling nauseated. I took a sip of the schnapps. The fourth was the body of a woman holding two babies to her bosom, like a fertility statue, lifeless. I gasped for air. Uncle came and took the photographs away from me.
“Take a look at these ones.” He handed me another batch.
I took a deep breath, and flipped over another photograph. This was the photograph of an inscription on a buckled gate. The handwriting, so beautiful like that of a school teacher’s, read: “We were sent by the government to kill and burn your community; take heart.”
Another one, on the ruins of what would have been a duplex, read: “Odi people, no be our fault, na una government.” Then another one which was authored by a Mr. Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, it read “Idiot! Make Egbesu come save una, next time make una play with soja.”
I had seen enough. I wanted to tear up, but I couldn’t. Fela Kuti’s ‘Zombie’ song began to play in my head. “Tell am to go kill, a joro, jara, joro.” I sat in still silence, sipping the schnapps at little intervals. Uncle didn’t say a word either.
During the weeks that followed my stay in Yenagoa, Uncle began opening up to me about the operations of LAND. For the first time he also criticized activists abroad. “You can’t sit down over there in obodo oyinbo and begin to talk about the issues that people in the creeks are facing. When I heard you were coming over, I was pleased. You must acquaint yourself with the raw politics of the struggle. It’s not your fault that you are elite. In fact, I commend you for coming down here to get the concrete facts on what’s happening from the real players like me.”
It soon became clear to me how deeply LAND was colluding with various local politicians. I was aghast at the number of seemingly innocent government officials that had taken part in procuring illegal weapons through LAND for their criminal political purposes. Through these activities, Uncle had been able to successfully create his own mini empire, complete with a crowd of loyal followers. And with this success came jealousy, even from people within his circle.
One Sunday, Uncle seemed uneasy over breakfast. I didn’t know what was wrong. He fell into these moods sometimes when Coat-of-Arms messed up or delayed transactions.
I waited until Abel had cleared the table and Uncle had moved to the sitting room before I asked him what the matter was this time. He remained silent for a prolonged while; he didn’t have to tap the seat before I sat beside him.
“Tamara, I am a marked man.” He wiped his clean-shaven head from the back to the front. “My days as the leader of LAND are numbered.” He then burst into his characteristic multitudinous laugh. Hearing him, I imagined a group of traitors laughing.
“That’s the truth,” he said.
I didn’t know where to look, so I kept my head down, my arms remained crossed, and I think I was unconsciously toying with the hem of my left sleeve. I could feel he was looking directly at me; it made shivers run down my spine. He remained silent for a while, and I just sat there struggling for the news to sink in, trying to think of what next to say. “You can’t surrender now,” I blurted.
He chuckled. “The end is almost near; I have to believe that, so I can carry myself with pride during my last days as a free man.”
“Why do you sound so certain? What if they grant you amnesty? I mean you have the most brilliant lawyer in the country; why are you talking like this?” I said, the pitch of my voice rising. I got up from the chair and strode around agitated, while he sat reclined in his seat, with his left arm folded over his midriff and his right hand squeezing his chin. With the barest of emotions, he listened to my monologue. At a point I lost control and furiously screamed, “What about the struggle?”
“Tamara, calm down,” he whispered. He covered his face with his hands, and this time he wiped his head from the front to the back with both hands. He adjusted himself in the chair, and then he began to speak with his hands clasped behind his neck.
“Tamara, there was a time that I believed I was championing a cause. Look, I admired General Omuna. That poor man must be turning around in his grave right now. How could his very own Perewari Oruye, become this Admiral, Admiral John Bull, or whatever I call myself?”
He sucked his teeth. “Tamara, I was fighting for the emancipation of my people, but I am not strong enough; there are temptations here and there. We set up a clear game plan; see the number of youths I mobilized, ehn. But how do you fight your oppressors, if your own oppressed people betray you? Yes, that’s what they are doing. You don’t know who is who these days. Not every Ijaw man wants the liberation of Ijaw people; if his interests are at stake, bye-bye to Ijaw freedom. That Chief Douglas of a man, he has the power to make substantial changes in this place. But what is he interested in? Amassing wealth for himself, not so? What is LAND? Liberation Army my foot! These boys that join us, if I didn’t tell them they were oppressed, do you think they would know? We are not freedom fighters o. My dream to liberate our people died years ago. And it is a shame, Tamara; I am ashamed at this path I took. I was once like you, longing for change in this place, hoping for a revolution. It is all over now.”
I was not surprised when two weeks after our conversation I heard the news of his arrest on Radio Bayelsa. It was just after Mama Abel had taken her children to school. I was home alone, eating the yam and eggs Mama Abel had prepared for me, when the voice on the radio began to speak “Admiral John Bull, the leader of the militant group, Liberation Army of the Niger Delta, LAND, has been arrested.” I stabbed the yam in my plate and managed to splatter some oil on the jug of juice in front of me. The newscaster continued, “Admiral John Bull, whose real name is Perewari Oruye, was arrested on his way to his hometown in the Southern Ijaw local government area. He has been accused of treason and dealing in illegal weapons.”
Uncle was detained in Abuja. I had thought his incarceration would bring Wellington and I closer, but the distrust lingered. I flew to Abuja to see if I would be allowed to visit Uncle, but I was denied access to him.
Wellington seemed to be hesitant about my idea to carry on with the publication of the article. Of course, in typical Wellington style, he did not verbalize this; all he said to me was, “It is bad timing.”
Uncle really should have thought twice before making him his second-in-command. I was concerned about the future of LAND and what it could degenerate into, with Wellington as the acting leader. Three weeks after Uncle’s arrest, the trial had still not begun, but I received a letter from Uncle via Wellington, and it put some of my worries to rest.
I am sure my arrest did not come as a surprise to you. There are some things that I want you to do for me, as my present situation doesn’t permit me to do them. I dedicated more than two decades of my life to the struggle of the Niger Delta people. We haven’t arrived at our destination, and the journey took some immoral bends. I can find peace in saying that I have brought the plight of our people to more ears. In a state that has no respect for dialogue, there is no point pursuing a civil approach; if they respond only to violence, then so be it.
Tamara, I gave you the names of government officials who have taken part and assisted in the arms deals. Everything I told you, work on publishing it. You would have to go back to the UK, because I want to know that you are safe. I don’t know what they intend to do with me, but I will not go down without a fight. You have the contact details of the lawyers on my case. Barrister Wokoro as you might now know is a man I trust with my life. When or if I go down, I have great confidence in you two to take down all those miscreants who are feeding off the struggle.
I beg you, if this is indeed your calling, to continue and march onwards for the liberation of our people. Keep your eye on the victory. In the words of the great General ‘neither imprisonment nor death can stop the ultimate victory.’
A luta continua! A victória é certa!
Yours in the struggle,