Heroes and Villains

Posted on 24/10/2013


Permit me to respect all former protocols – after all, we have been here before; the characters may be different, the generations may have aged, there may be the younger ones who know nothing of what we speak about – but the rules have not changed, the major cast has always been the same. Ours has been one long, treacherous, consistently harrowing rigmarole. Nothing is new, nor sacred.


All through history, empires have been created through the blood, sweat and tears of peoples. Histories are awash with stories of war, conquest, uprisings and rebellions. Freedom has always been fought for and won. Examples abound: Modern China has perhaps gone through the most upheavals of change. With thousands of years of continuous history, China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. In between eras of multiple kingdoms and warlords, Chinese dynasties have ruled parts or all of China; these successive dynasties developed bureaucratic systems that enabled the Emperor of China to directly control vast territories. The conventional view of Chinese history is that of alternating periods of political unity and disunity – there were many multiple periods of failed statehood in Chinese history, culminating most recently in the period of the Chinese Civil War, which led to the creation of modern China. Heroes emerge from the rubble of instability. The civil war in China created two defining heroes, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. These were the father figures of the modern regimes in both Taiwan and Mainland China. Although China’s communist party has also gone through many transformations, today the country is regarded as the world’s fastest growing major economy, the largest manufacturing economy, and one of the leading economic powers in the world. Taiwan itself has experienced rapid economic growth and industrialization, and is now an advanced industrial economy. As one of the Four Asian Tigers it is also the 19th largest economy in the world. Strong nations become strong because they had worthy heroes.


There is also the story of the fall of the Russian Empire under Tsar Nicholas II, as a result of Russia’s devastating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and the rise of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin, who ousted moderate revolutionaries and created the Marxist/Communist state of the Soviet Union. There were others: Stalin, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, were they heroes, or villains? With the resultant breakup of the Soviet states, newer heroes emerged, perhaps others would castigate them for that crumbling development: Gorbachev, Shervadnadze, Yeltsin, heroes, or villains?


The French revolution had its (in) famous guillotine; America had its Wild West years and slavery days. And we are reminded every now and then how that nation came about, by the existence of native American settlements on restricted reservations, quarantined away from the larger American society. It has long been recognized that Native Americans today are dying of diabetes, alcoholism, tuberculosis, suicide, and other health conditions at shocking rates. Beyond disturbingly high mortality rates, Native Americans also suffer a significantly lower health status and disproportionate rates of disease compared with all other Americans. Land of the free, indeed! The British once prided themselves over a once-great empire, stretching up to the Far East and around all of Africa. Of what relevance is the Commonwealth of Nations today? Nevertheless, all these nations had their heroes and great leaders of men, who stood up to the test in times of strife. Men, and women who went beyond the norm, raised the ante; brave men who were not afraid to lead, and to die, if that was the only option to freedom. Great men like the American founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, great scientists and inventors. The British will cite names like Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill, General Montgomery, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher – people who could rise to the occasion when England needed them to. Napoleon Bonaparte may have ended his life as an outcast, but his many conquests and achievements for French glory had no rival in world history. And no French president has yet attained the status of a man called Charles De Gaulle. Closer home, Tanzania had Mwalimu, the teacher; Julius Nyerere, Ghana had Nkrumah, Rawlings and Kofi Annan. Kenya had the elder Kenyatta, and his Mau Mau warriors, and of course, Nobel prize winner, Wangari Mathai. Only one man changed the fortune of the South African nation. His name is Madiba! Nelson Rohilala Mandela. Well, Bishop Desmond Tutu could climb upon the same pedestal, if his humility would not deter him!


Nations are built on colourful, kaleidoscopic histories. Nations were built on blood, sweat and tears. All nations go through ups and downs. Nations survive and thrive because at different stages of their evolutions a few brave men and women come to the forefront. They did not call themselves heroes, we did. History has, and will continue to find its heroes. But they did not decide to become heroes; they just did what they had to do because it was the right thing to do. Heroism is just that simple!


Who are Nigeria’s heroes? Do we truly have heroes? Where are their statues and monuments? Why do we have more epitaphs than cenotaphs? Are our Nigerian heroes the founding fathers who wrested independence from the British, Herbert Macaulay and his co-nationalists like H.O. Davies and Ernest Ikoli? Who among the First republicans can be called a hero? Awolowo perhaps? Maybe Zik? Possibly Tafawa Balewa? Anthony Enahoro? The major’s who spilt the first drop of blood: Ifeajuna? Nzeogwu? The Generals who came after, some of whom have gone nowhere since? Ironsi, Gowon, Murtala, Buhari, Idiagbon, Babangida, Abacha, Abdulsalam? Which of them deserve the honour, ‘hero?’ Who amongst them should be rightly tagged, ‘villain?’ How about the innocents who died on either side of the hopeless Biafran game of war? Was Ojukwu your hero? Or are our heroes among the hundreds of men and women churned out every year in Abuja with an emblem pinned on their chests? MON, MFR, CON, GCON, GCFR…Grand Convicts of the Federal Republic, or truly honourable men and women? Perhaps we would find our heroes among the one’s we have totally ignored and forgotten, the lost and unsung, the plane crash victims, the ones killed in robberies, or in terror, the children and others murdered in Boko Haram tragedies. Are these ones our true heroes? Who are your heroes? While you ponder, let me tell you who my heroes are – and this comes in no preferential order:


Funmilayo Ransome Kuti and her three sons, Olufela, Bekolari and Olikoye. Mrs. Kuti’s pedigree has been well-retorted, but permit me the brief rehash: She served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation during which her political activism led to her being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria. She was a very powerful force advocating for the Nigerian woman’s right to vote. As far back as 1947, she was described, by the West African Pilot, as the “Lioness of Lisabi” for her leadership of the women of the Egba clan that she belonged to, on a campaign against their arbitrary taxation. That struggle led to the abdication of the Alake Egba, Oba Ademola II in 1949. I am sure I do not need to spend as much effort explaining why Fela’s name appears on my list beyond the fact that he was a prophet who saw the future, and who used his music as a potent weapon against all forms of injustices. Fela’s music is the soundtrack of Nigeria’s unstable political history. Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti was a gentler kind of motivator. He was a change agent par-excellence who used human rights activism as his weapon. He helped to form Nigeria’s first human rights organization, the Campaign for Democracy, which in 1993 opposed the dictatorship of Abacha. In 1995, a military tribunal sentenced him to life in prison for bringing the mock trial of Olusegun Obasanjo to world attention. He was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and freed in 1998 following Abacha’s death. Professor Olikoye Ransome Kuti was their elder brother. He goes down in history as one of Nigeria’s finest Health Minister’s ever. He went on to become Deputy Director General of the World Health Organisation, WHO. But I have more vivid, personal reasons for adoration. During the fuel scarcity days of the nineties, I had cause to queue up for fuel overnight, alongside scores of other Nigerians, at the fuel station at Alagomeji bus stop in Yaba, Lagos. By the time I had gotten to the queue, my car was ninth or so on the queue. Just as I exit the car to join others around the station in the many anti-government discussions on the fuel situation, as we all waited for the tankers to arrive and offload their contents, a VW Golf drives into the station to join the queue. We are all amazed to find out it was the former Minister, himself! Yes Prof. Olikoye Ransome Kuti, in person! We pleaded with him to drive his car right up to the beginning of the queue, but the man totally refused, and even decided to stay with us at the station all night long! It was unbelievable! That’s the stuff that heroes are made of!


There are also many Nigerians who earn my hero worship because they were felled by dastardly means in the line of duty. Most of them spoke out against unethical practices of government, or were regarded as enemies of state. A few were just pawns in the devilish insider intrigue and power games that go on within the halls of power. This is where I will inscribe names like Ken Saro Wiwa, Bola Ige, Alfred Rewane, Harry Marshal, Obi Wali, Aminasoari Dikibo, Ogbonnaya Uche, Abigail and Barnabas Igwe, Bagauda Kaltho, Dipo Dina, Funso Williams, Kudirat Abiola and Moshudi Kasimawo Olawale Abiola. And quite a few others I may not now recall. Was Dele Giwa a hero? For his journalistic prowess, and what he stood for, for me, he certainly was. Not that I think much of his former colleagues at the once famous Newswatch magazine.


Three names stand out on my list for the selfless nature of their devotion to mankind and whichever causes they believed. Tai Solarin and his wife, Sheila both have a special place in my heart, and I’m sure, a very special place in Heaven. How many times have we all driven by corpses on the roadside, and all we do is tie up our noses and scurry quickly past? Not Mr. Tai Solarin! The devoted educationist and his wife were selfless to a fault. As hard as government after government tried to rubbish him, his legacy has never wavered and can be found in the public attributes of the institutions he left behind and all his students, past and present at Mayflower College, Ikenne. What an example to emulate? Weakened by age, his wife, Sheila carried on his good deeds until her death on 21st October 2012, at the age of 88. Although she was more Nigerian than most Nigerians, Sheila, who was born British, was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for services to education in Nigeria.


The other person needs no introduction. Gani Fawehinmi was the Senior Advocate of the Masses, SAM. Gani consistently campaigned against corruption and misrule in Nigeria, until the day he died. At the price of frequent beatings, repeated imprisonment and almost incessant intimidation, here was a man, nay, colossus who continued to mount legal protests against those who abused power and made off with our abundant communal wealth.


But even before Gani, there was one name that was considered worthy of mention. Ayodele Awojobi was that name. Professor Awojobi was an academic, author, inventor, social crusader and activist, often considered a scholarly genius by his teachers and peers alike. He quickly advanced in his field to become the youngest professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Lagos, in 1974. Earlier the same year, he became the first African to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Science (D.Sc) in Mechanical Engineering at the then Imperial College of Science and Technology, London (now Imperial College, London) – a degree only exceptionally and rarely awarded to a scholar under the age of forty. His research papers, particularly in the field of vibration, are still cited by international research fellows in Engineering as lately as the year 2011. In the wake of the presidential election results that returned the then incumbent, Shehu Shagari as President in the second republic, Awojobi became very vocal, going as far as suing the government for what he strongly believed was widespread election rigging. He used the universities as a bastion, going from campus to campus to make speeches at student-rallies, hoping to sensitize them to what he perceived as the ills of a corrupt government. To his memory, the Lagos State government recently dedicated a statue of him at the Onike Roundabout, Yaba, Lagos.


There are perhaps many other worthy names I have left unmentioned, but as much as we must respect and reward our heroes, by the same modicum of reference, a great nation must be able to rubbish and ridicule its villains, those who have done great harm and disservice to this nation. I also have a list of such people, and my list includes:


All former military heads of state from Gowon to Abubakar, especially including Ibrahim Babangida and Olusegun Obasanjo – men who in my view had the most defined opportunity and enormity of resources to turn Nigeria around, and who committed the greatest crimes against the nation. They both didn’t achieve much because they were in equal parts, selfish and greedy. Amongst many other faults, Babangida annulled a viable, free and fair election – albeit one in which he had indeed set up as a farcical venture, but by which per chance, the joke dropped back on his laps. OBJ had begged and pleaded for an unconstitutional third term in office and had schemed to ensure its success, including the setting up of a national conference of sort. When all schemes failed, bad sport that he is, he decided to punish we, the people; first with an ailing leadership, followed by a weak-appearing one that he wrongly assumed would be malleable. But wishes are never horses! To President Jonathan’s credit Obasanjo’s influence has been drastically deflated. Having said that – beware of the man who never forgives, nor forgets!


Then how could we ignore the Pension scammers? The scale of fraud in public sector pensions is massive. N45 billion was stolen at the Police pension office while 32 officials at the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation (HOSF) reportedly lodged between N200 and N300 million daily of stolen pension funds, eventually cornering N32.8 billion. The looting spree spread to the Military Pension Office, Immigration and Customs and Prisons where billions of naira has been stolen. Another cartel once falsified documents to withdraw N24 billion instead of N3.5 billion approved, and eventually siphoned N42 billion into two illegal bank accounts. The felons at the HOSF reportedly used accounts opened in the names of teachers, some staffers and even the account of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners to bleed N18 billion of pensions of our senior citizens. According to the report, of the 141, 790 names on the HOSF pension roll, a staggering 73,000 were found to be fictitious. While all this has been going on, the country has been treated regularly to the awful spectacle of elderly retirees collapsing and dying in the contrived pensioners’ verification queues. We have all become inhuman. When did we morph into savages? The hottest place in hellfire must be reserved for these ones, just in case they escape conviction – a high possibility, in a situation where corruption is akin to ‘mere’ stealing!


Then we must also not forget the corrupt civil servants, who abound the length and breadth of the Nigerian civil service, commissions and Parastatals, the corruption-ridden bench, the Nigeria police, which is far from being the citizen’s friend, the bribe taker, and giver, etc., etc.


It would however be unfair to single out any particular department or individual who has been in leadership position and ignore those who reported to that individual, for I have strongly believed that even though the best form of leadership is by example, we do not have to obey orders that go against our moralistic upbringing, values and learning. As the scolding mother would often tell the disobedient child with an excuse: “Would you put your hand in the fire because so-and-so told you to…?” Would you steal a billion-naira because your boss told you to…? The average Nigerian today probably would! So, the guilt is on all of us, for lowering our standards, for succumbing to peer pressure, for allowing a bunch of usurpers to take us for a ride, a very long, hazardous, unfulfilling ride. We have been scammed. Have you ever heard of Okafor’s Law? It seems the Nigerian leadership have been using that thesis on us over and over, and over, again, and still it works, every time. Yes, we have been totally screwed!


But God has been kind. There must be a good reason why this country has not yet been torn apart despite several attempts to do so, and near misses. Other nations have crumbled into shreds for less – increase in the price of bread, police brutality, ethnic rivalries, name it. There must also be a good reason why many of our celebrated villains are not in hiding and still reside among us. There is always a good reason for everything. There is a reason to hope on good luck and to pray that our patience has been worth the struggles, worries and troubles. President Goodluck Jonathan is in a defining moment of his political career. Much has been said about the upcoming national debate. Questions are being asked, some of them quite valid, bantering betwixt the terminology and intent. Sovereign? Conference? Conversation? Honest intent? And purpose? Where will the decisions take us? The President has as much stated that whatever comes out of these discussions, or deliberations, will still need the approval of the National Assembly. Is that truly what Nigerian’s are asking for? That being the case, then why discuss at all, in the first place; shouldn’t the national assembly just go ahead and do its job, already? Much has also been said about the terminal nature of Nigeria’s date with history as the much hyped 2015 approaches. As we seem to gravitate towards that destruction date like a homing missile, the President and his men have the chance in a lifetime to change the course of our nation’s history for better, or to allow it run its destined course, which in a lop-sided sort of way could be to the benefit of us all. It is not as difficult a decision as it may seem: all Mr. President has to do is to ask himself, “What do I wish to be remembered for: hero, or villain…?”

God’s guidance, always.