The common ‘House of Commons’ located beside the just-infested site of an aged auto-mechanic recently hosted a troop of old-time patrons in Ohafia of Abia State.
As the air was clouded with the smoke of assorted cigarettes and rum trickled down the lips of the now-tipsy patrons, they discussed the ailing Biafran warlord, Odumegwu Ojukwu.
The congress this time was facilitated by Old Soldier, after whom the roundabout just ahead the House of Commons was named. ‘Old Soldier Junction’, ‘Old Soldier Junction’ was mouthed by commercial bus conductors as well as vehicle passengers (constituted mostly by underpaid civil servants, farmers, traders, students of civil servants and the unemployed – at least, those of them who haven’t resorted to robbery or kidnapping), Media broadcasters – the usual ones being those that hosted phone-in programmes on television and radio stations, talking about love, relationships and their attendant poisons; and most importantly the die-hard fans of Old Soldier. Old Soldier himself had cultivated the daily habit of sweeping clean the premises of the roundabout spot – decked in the paraphernalia of a madman’s identity. Covering the skinny head of Old Soldier was a ragged blanket of cream-relaxed strands of hair, kept clean and free of stain apart from the appearance, gradually, of age.
At some point during the congress, when the friendly discussion had reincarnated into a hot debate session, Old Soldier doused it by offering a narrative into the origin of his name (not nickname because he too must have forgotten his own name), Old Soldier, his relationship with Ojukwu and how he got to become a proud owner of a sprawling roundabout. He was all-smiles and not a single thought to how his impoverishment has got him to become the longest-standing beggar, as fate would have it, at his own proudly owned roundabout.
It is quite interesting to note firsthand how Old Soldier was conscripted into the army at a rather young age. He mentioned figures and he spoke of facts; yet sometimes, very rarely though, he derailed into gibberish.
Old Soldier’s battalion was stationed in Chad, where he was engaged in keeping peace during the civil war that raged in that country starting in 1965. To him, the Chadian engagement was a sublime experimentation at warfare. Yet, it had a better vista to the grave than what he was later to be put through at his home country.
While in Chad, news filtered in of the political cum secessionist grandstanding of the military governor of Eastern Nigeria and his bold speeches. Old Soldier and many of his comrades were excited about the development of such an idea in the first place that it became as easy as saying it to draft them back into the Biafran army, when the Nigerian civil war finally broke out. The rest of the story is a well-known history!
Through that protracted war of attrition, whose fate was decided by the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, when the latter cordoned off the Biafran Republic from the world (only later cutting it in half), Old Soldier and many of his Biafran friends lived as forest guerrillas in a demonic forest somewhere close to Abia State.
They were positioned there to ward off straying detachment of the opposing Federal Forces. Through 1967, 1968 and 1969, they communicated only with themselves as every contact with the rest of the world was cut off. Even when Phillip Effiong called for a cease-fire on the 12th of January, 1970, there were no hunters to give them the news. Worse still, at the time when even the stationary telephone system was far above the reach of common Nigerians merely conscripted into the Army for patriotic reasons, the mobile devices to tap the news conveyed by unseen and unheard media waves were largely unavailable.
Old Soldier and friends were therefore left to their own fate, while though still hoping that their ‘messiah’ (who had by then fled to Ivory Coast) would successfully establish their independent country of Biafra and put a smile on the faces of their family. This was not to be, however!
The war ended but they continued their sojourn in the primeval forest. They survived through six more unproductive years after the war, living on rations of stray animals, unlucky fruits and vegetable leaves that appealed to their ‘senses’.
Every strange sound became a sign of invasion to which they reacted with awe as well as with hope. Friend or foe? However, the crackling sound of breaking tree-branches was despairing to say the least. Once, an elephant had strayed to their community. They hoped to receive humans, who must have come with news, irrespective of whether they were foes or friends. At least, news of any kind would have been welcome!
Alas, the appearance of an elephant with her retinue shocked Old Soldier and friends to the marrow. They were frail and malnourished; yet, they gathered all the strength they could muster to bring down at least one of the elephants. What further animated their resolve was a blend of anger and hunger. They hit the elephants with whatever it was they lay their hands on – stones, tree-branches, hard shells and, madly, sand. Unfortunately, they only managed to scare the elephants away, sinking back to their state of squalor and apathy; but the elephants will never forget. They were later to experience more disturbing invasions!
The number of patrons at the House of Commons was by then reduced. Sifidifensi (he was so named because he worked with the Civil Defense Corps), student and Coach had left the joint without paying. Sifidifensi usually defrayed the expenses whenever he had money. He would even order for more sticks of cigarette and more rum. But whenever he was broke, which was not too often, he would leave for home earlier than usual to avoid being called upon to pay. This was his situation that day Old Soldier told his story for an umpteenth time anyway; student and coach, bored from the retelling of it, also left early for other important engagements.
What they left behind were four pairs of eager ears intent on hearing the last word of Old Soldier’s story. Corper, as he was fondly called by the indigenes who were also members of the congress, demanded that Old Soldier be given another pack of white London cigarette sticks to mint his throat. Old Soldier lit a cigarette with the one he had almost dragged to the butt and continued with his story, now more boisterously.
Starved of Maslow’s basic life needs including food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex and sound sleep, nothing else mattered. Old Soldier’s narration steeped now in a gloomy aura. They lived as dirty and mad animals with their hope for survival lost to the protracted absence of humans.
A long time passed and there was still no change. With such circumstances, the imagination tells one a hundred years must have gone by. It was not until a tired-looking hunter strayed near them that they were discovered, apathy worn as garb. He rounded them up with ease because, even if he was a foe, they lacked the strength to resist. His interrogations revealed to him that they were abandoned soldiers since the war ended and, having no means to communicate with the world, they remained as they were – obedient to the first command, “As you were!”
He guided them through the many forests on the way to the nearest village, only tolerating their eccentricities, where they were given tattered clothes and once again abandoned to their fate. They were to find their ways to wherever they liked. At least, now they had hope – an opportunity to begin again! They all went their separate ways….
With an air of narrative satisfaction and a billow of cigarette smoke, Old Soldier announced, “Na so I reach Ohafia, Abia State and wey I come take get roundabout be that! E pain me say we lost Biafra that time…but soon, ve
ry soon, I hope…”
Few days later, when they met at the House of Commons again, everyone was eager to share what they knew about the then developing story. Old Soldier was however there not to speak but to listen since he still had no means to own a radio device to convert air waves to sound.
It was apparently the approaching end of an era – the generation of the first phase of Biafra was being curtained.
Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Ikemba Nnewi is seriously ill! The great Biafran warlord is battling with stroke in a far-away London Hospital. And back home, family members fight over the scattered properties the warlord left in the country. Joining the fray is the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). The organ that was in the vanguard of creating an independent and sovereign Biafra out of Nigeria seems now to have a new calling. And this is most baffling to the Honourable members of the House of Commons – Massob being in the vanguard of wrestling an independent and sovereign property from the hands of the Ojukwus…. But the warlord himself would not give up so easily.
Old Soldier’s attention is very much removed from here as he busied himself with cigarettes and liquor like a starved addict!