24th December, 1996.
Our house on the ever busy Ogunbowale street buzzed like a beehive just as it always did in the days leading up to Christmas. We had a number of relatives visiting. Uncles who dressed slaughtered birds and helped to lift heavy stuff around the house, amid all the banters and back-slapping. And aunts who made the house over, did the dishes, and prepared food while gossiping. I spent time with the dudes while they discussed football, then went ahead to eavesdrop on the ladies’ small talk. When I wasn’t doing any of these, I was taking time out to pluck forbidden fruits- the chocolate bars and packs of ice cream stocked in the refrigerator. Dad had insisted we wouldn’t touch them without his say-so. But they had been overstocked, so no one noticed when a couple of bars or packs went missing. All in all, preparation for the reunion gig was in top gear just as the feeling of Christmas hung heavy in the air.
Then news filtered in that my Dad and his partner were wanted by some powerful people in government; that secret agents were on the prowl; their command had been issued loud and clear. They were to bring in the rogue auditors who wanted to give government a bad name. Dad’s partner had narrowly escaped arrest. He had hidden in the roof while soldiers ransacked his house, molesting his driver and security guards in the process. His wife had gone on to make that all-important call.
And then some really nervy moments followed the news of this unholy clampdown; Dad was whisked away to somewhere safe. Mum paced around the house restlessly; Uncles who had fun reliving the conquest of the Dream Team at the Olympic Games went mute. A dead silence replaced the buzz that had earlier filled the house.
Moments later, our feeling of anxiety was heightened by a solid knock on the door. It persisted for a while until I finally opened. And when I did, I found three men standing. The one who appeared to lead the group had this short rotund figure, a calvous head and three strokes of tribal marks on either side of his mouth like a pussy cat. He led two other fierce looking men who stood reverently behind him. He tried to be friendly. He said they were good friends of Dad who had travelled far just to see him. He made a flippant joke, comparing their visit to the sojourn of the wise men to the birthplace of Jesus. He had a smile that stretched those tribal marks on his cheeks, yet I couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was something hideous about him. The facial marks strangely did not help matters.
He must have realised his tricks weren’t getting him anywhere because he pushed me aside with gentle force and asked of my Mum. As he walked past, I noticed the holstered weapons he carried for the first time. Their mission to our home dawned on me instantly. They were the ‘bad’ guys Mum said were supposed to come for Daddy. I wanted to cry, but I just stood there and watched while they questioned Mum. They told her the Head of State wanted to see Daddy. And that they hoped it would be a harmless meeting.
“His Excellency just wants clarifications on the report written by your husband.”
Mum kept insisting that Daddy wasn’t home; that he wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Then one of them drew out a walkie talkie and spat what sounded like a command into it. Before we knew, a couple of deranged soldiers barged in through the front door. They flaunted their guns and walked stealthily looking around the house with so much intent. One of them gave orders.
“Search everywhere. He may be in the house.”
“…and make sure you get the report.”
He placed more emphasis on “The Report”
My kid brother was screaming and calling out for Daddy. One of my uncles who tried to stand up to their assault was knocked out by the butt of a rifle. I just stood there wishing it was all a nightmare, that I could wake up and realise I was dreaming.
I knew none of all that happened had been Daddy’s fault. A Federal Agency vested with the responsibility of intervening in environmental issues nationwide had received counterpart funding from an International Organisation few years back. The guys who ran the Organisation had been interested in finding out how the monies were appropriated. Dad came into the picture when his firm was hired to carry out an independent audit. He had spent the better part of the year away from home, fulfilling his contractual obligation. He travelled around the country, peering into large financial books; questioning those who needed to be questioned. And at the end of the investigation, his report had indicted the Head of State and his cronies.
I was only nine then, but I probably knew too much for my age. I knew what it meant to be in the bad books of the wicked General. It didn’t take much. You just had to be forthright in your dealings or at least be perceived as forthright. Dad had been a big fan of the TELL news magazine and I usually read every issue with keen interest. I had read about the widespread criticisms that followed unjust excecution of Ken Saro Wiwa. I had read about calls made by friends and family for the release of incarcerated journalists. I had read about Alex Ibru’s attempted assassination early that year. And I was indeed petrified by the thought of having Dad join NADECO chieftains and activists like Olisa Agbakoba on that haunted list.
And while the soldiers turned every little thing over, I silently wished Christmas away. I wished I could make it all go away so that everything would return to normal, so that Daddy never had to leave home again.