The stamp-stamp of the disciplined rhythm of boots hurled his stomach into his mouth. He quickly sat up from his reclining position against the wall. Was this it? But the tribunal had ordered that the sentence be carried out in forty-eight hours and only twenty-four hours had elapsed. Bereft of a watch there was no way he could know if midnight had gone.
Perhaps it is better they fast-forward the whole thing, he thought grimly. It is far better than instalmental death by imagination.
So when the heavy prison door flung open to reveal two rifle muzzles aimed into the cell Emmanuel Ifeajuna was on his feet, an impassive look on his boyish face. But the rifles did not belch flame. Four other soldiers marched in and two promptly seized his arms though he was handcuffed. Emmanuel recognized their thin-faced leader.
‘‘Lieutenant Oko, you have forgotten your training so soon? What do you do when you see a superior officer?’’ He spoke authoritatively.
Oko sneered. ‘‘I don’t salute traitors. If matters were in my hands you would have long become manure.’’
As they half-dragged Emmanuel down the dimly lit passage he wondered if they would shoot him, Victor, Sam and Philip together. He knew they would ride in separate Black Marias unless the deed would be done secretly, probably within the prison grounds. Enugu Prison had ample space.
He breathed deeply. The flutter in his belly was gone. Not that he was afraid; once they were arrested he realized that the end had come. Ojukwu was not going to spare them. The charade before the Justice Nkemena-led tribunal had been to fulfill all righteousness. Although Victor had fought hard Emmanuel had not held any false hopes. The eyes of the tribunal members had screamed the unpleasant message.
Through a maze of dimly lit passages they marched. They rounded yet another passage and halted before a formidable door with an in-built slide panel high up. What is going on? Emmanuel wondered as he eyed the two giants at the door.
Oko nodded. One of the guards turned, knocked.
‘‘He is here, sir,’’ he announced to the panel.
The door swung open. The two soldiers dragged Emmanuel forward with such brutality that he gasped.
‘‘Stop that nonsense.’’ The vibrant voice dripped an Oxonian accent that contrasted with the thick beard which almost hid the mouth from which the order was issued. The two flunkies promptly released Emmanuel’s arms.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was leaning against the desk in the middle of the room. A ceiling fan groaned as if in labour. A bulb hanging directly over the desk emitted moderate illumination. Ojukwu was clad in ironed fatigues and military cap. His uniform was devoid of insignia and the Rising Sun emblem. He was no giant but his solid frame radiated strength which contradicted the softness hidden in his eyes.
The two soldiers saluted smartly. Ojukwu waved them away. The door shut behind them and the man concealed in the shadows behind it emerged. Emmanuel did not turn because he could spot him anywhere despite his civil service uniform of suit and tie and glasses. His name was Bernard Odogwu and he was Biafra’s chief spook.
‘‘Leave us,’’ Ojukwu said quietly.
Odogwu hesitated. Emmanuel could not help wondering aloud:
‘‘Think I am going to beat him to death with these?’’ He raised his handcuffed hands.
Ojukwu smiled. Odogwu left quietly.
For a tense minute both men bored their eyes into each other, trying to strip each other’s thoughts naked. Ojukwu’s heart lurched as he saw a younger, shorter man with a fair complexion and a round face that, even at this dark moment, retained an arresting comeliness. His lips were firm; his nose finely cut like a girl’s. His eyes were small and close-set. Usually they sparkled. But now they were so flat that the Biafran head of state wondered if he was with a fellow human being.
‘‘Sit down,’’ he said, waving him to a hard-backed visitor’s chair. He reached in his pocket for his cigarette packet.
Emmanuel replied calmly. ‘‘You know I don’t smoke. Or is this the last fag before the final bullet?’’
Ojukwu did not answer. He busied himself getting his cigarette going to his satisfaction, went round the desk, pulled the other chair and brought it round. He sat a few feet to Emmanuel’s left. Emmanuel’s gaze remained on the wall opposite him. Ojukwu’s words jerked him out of his armour:
‘‘Why? Gini meelu iji betray m, Emma Vancouver?’’ The Igbo words had a slightly histrionic inflection. A soft flush of fatty pride pierced by razor-sharp pain stirred in Emmanuel at the use of the nickname which his gold medal at the 1954 Commonwealth Games earned him. Words flooded his heart but they were not what issued from his lips.
‘‘I thought you have a country to run.’’ His tone was mild.
Ojukwu sighed. ‘‘Emma, this is no game. You are staring at a gun barrel.’’
‘‘Then pull the trigger. What is stopping you?’’ There was no mockery in his voice. ‘‘Your conscience, if you have one?’’
Hot anger seized Ojukwu’s head. For a second luciferic thoughts seized him. Then he remembered this was the guy who cold-bloodedly set the Nigerian Establishment ablaze a year ago. He had waded in blood.
But it was not the whole story. He dragged hard on his cigarette.
‘‘Emma,’’ he spoke gently, the softness in his eyes distinctive. ‘‘You people yielded the Mid-West to the enemy. The evidence on Kinshasa Special speaks for itself.’’
Emmanuel turned slowly. A sneer curled his lips.
‘‘If you believe that then you will believe that Gowon is from Nnewi.’’
Ojukwu lit a fresh cigarette.
‘‘For the love of God you have just a few hours left. He knows how much I cried signing your warrants.’’ Raw agony burst through the Oxonian voice for a second, then fled like a meteor. ‘‘I had to do my duty.’’
Conviction crackled in the condemned man as he replied:
‘‘Spare me the drama. It is a farce and you know it. Tribunal programmed to bring in a guilty verdict; right of appeal denied us; accusation is that we intended to overthrow you. Tell me, how do you determine a man’s intention? Nkemena had a telescope that saw into our minds?’’ He paused to get a grip on himself.
‘‘We can’t go on feeding our people’s flesh to the Nigerians. You were, and still are, unready for this war.’’ His voice hardened.
‘‘The East has suffered enough. I can’t be party to further bloodshed.’’
Ojukwu’s voice was menacing. ‘‘If you had not unleashed your unique brand of madness in 1966 we would not be swimming in Igbo blood.’’
A rocket exploded in Emmanuel’s head. He began to rise, his eyes blazing. Then he sat down. His response was steely.
‘‘You and your ilk screwed us up. We wanted to save Nigeria.’’
‘‘Indeed. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’’
Emmanuel had regained his equanimity. ‘‘And you got a princely kingdom. Nzeogwu should have taken care of you in Kano.’’
‘‘You…’’ Ojukwu ground on his tobacco with a superhuman effort. ‘‘Sure. Nzeogwu should have done your dirty job while you crawl under the bed in Nkrumah’s bedroom.’’
To his surprise unalloyed sorrow creased Emmanuel’s face. He looked so forlorn that Ojukwu had to mentally kick the sympathy forming in his belly into the night.
‘‘It is a cross I have to bear,’’ Emmanuel said simply. His mask was back.
‘‘Emeka, listen to a corpse’s words.’’ Ojukwu dropped his cigarette involuntarily.
‘‘We go back a long way. You were one of my inspirations for joining the army; first graduate in the military and all that. Sure, we do not see eye to eye politically but that is irrelevant now.’’ Emmanuel could have been on a pulpit.
‘‘You can’t win this war. The stakes are too high. You will live in our people’s hearts if you save them.’’
‘‘And how will I do that?’’ Ojukwu’s voice was dangerously mild.
‘‘Call off Biafra.’’
Ojukwu got up and walked to the door. Almost there, he returned.
‘‘Emma, it can’t work the way you January 15 boys want.’’
‘‘Did you engage in this comic opera with the others?’’ Emmanuel asked.
Ojukwu shook his head. ‘‘Not with Victor. Philip is my in-law and you know in Igbo land a man’s in-law is his chi.’’
‘‘God help you. I wouldn’t want to have your conscience.’’
Ojukwu nearly broke down. He breathed deeply and resumed his walk to the door.
As his hand formed into a knocking fist Emmanuel called him:
Ojukwu turned. ‘‘You are a soldier. Show some respect.’’
Emmanuel stood up and came to attention as smartly as his condition would allow.
‘‘Sir, please do not harm my family.’’
‘‘You have my word, soldier. Not a hair of their heads will be touched.’’ He saluted and swung round abruptly so that Emmanuel would not see his tears.