A HANDFUL OF MEN— By Obi Ikpeazu

I’ve been thinking lately about these things. This curious Monday ‘sit-at-home’ syndrome in the South East has always intrigued me for its lessons in mass behaviour.

Initially, it was a phenomenon ingrained in the local population by force of sheer fear that had taken root in the minds of most. The consequences of non-compliance were clear for all to see and could range from grievous to fatal. Gory videos of violators being violated by enforcers certainly helped the spread of the syndrome. The terror that permeated the populace was quite remarkable, considering that the enforcers were an avowedly non-terrorist organisation!

Lately though, the terror factor has receded considerably. One can now observe with some bemusement how a laissez-faire attitude among the people has taken over. On Mondays lately, the city of Onitsha for one, has now shed the nature of a stark concentration camp and taken on the character of a rustic holiday destination, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

Igbo traders, once renowned for their unrelenting, industrious application to their enterprise, have languidly embraced and normalized a three-day weekend. In addition, they even look forward with eagerness to further days of idleness, such as whenever there is a court date for the famous treason trial in Abuja, five hundred kilometers up country! It is intriguing how a handful of people can successfully manipulate and alter the psychology of multitudes comprising not just the irrational but a good swathe of the nominally rational as well.

Take for example 1966. Igbos were doing very well within the Nigerian federation, even dominating in diverse socio-economic spheres, such as the Civil Service, the Public Service, the Forces, the professions and business. Then along came a bunch of middle cadre Army officers of mostly Igbo origin and truncated all that. Of course, disingenuous South Eastern revisionist raconteurs will attempt to dispute the apparent tribal nature of the coup. That however, is merely to be discountenanced as laughable, if not mournful.

The ethnic lopsidedness of the high-profile murder victims of the coup was as evident as that of its plotters. Whereas the most prominent personalities of Northern extraction were slain, this was not the case in the South, where their counterparts largely went scot free and ultimately roamed the streets. Most notable among the said Northern victims were the seminal Sardauna of Sokoto and the cerebral Tafawa Balewa. The murder of the former however was arguably the unkindest cut of all, as far as the Northerner commoner was concerned.

The Sardauna was not just a wildly charismatic and exoteric leader of his people but a virtually mystical and esoteric avatar to his devotees. The provocation evoked by his butchery is arguably approximate to how the slaughter of a Queen Elizabeth might have incensed the British or the annihilation of a Dalai Lama enrage Tibetans. In light of that, the pogrom that ensued in the North, far from being justified, may be understood, albeit with some effort. The First World War was triggered by far less, namely the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a handful of terrorists but following which twenty million lives were lost nonetheless.

A handful of men again it was, who engineered the Nigerian Civil War that followed the coups: Gowon and his band of young Turks on one hand vowing to keep Nigeria one and Ojukwu with his crew of rebels on the other, claiming justification and clinging insanely to it for the next three suicidal years.

Inside Biafra, millions mastered the art of starvation while the perennial handful yet wined and dined. I remember the pathetic sight of a lean and gaunt old friend of my father’s at our makeshift house one day. He had been a highly respected University don before the war but was now reduced to a very lowly, beggarly station. He mooted to my father a plan to organise a handful of intellectuals and lead a solidarity delegation to Ojukwu in support of the war, even though he admitted sheepishly that it had already been long lost. So why was he so desperate to lead the hypocritical delegation? With his head bowed miserably, he confessed his true motive: Ojukwu’s bunker was virtually the only place in Biafra a man could enjoy air-conditioning and drink a chilled beer! On top of that, he was dying to smoke a real cigarette, which he had not set eyes in two years. He was aware that Ojukwu smoked his preferred brand, ‘State Express 555’, regularly imported for him from France. He was so pathetic, his memory still haunts me.

Fast forward to 2006. The mantra in the East became all about how to regain our freedom, again at the prompting of a handful of men. Some might have thought the Igbo had unfettered freedom of the Nigerian national space with their unbridled entrepreneurial aggression, buying and selling, hawking and trading, wheeling and dealing, in every single space, nook and cranny.

Buying property everywhere, they built business empires as well, even somewhat dominating the hapless locals, who cheerfully patronised them, making them stupendously rich in many cases. On the other hand, one would look down East and survey the bee hive of Northern peasants, who labour and slave as drawers of water and hewers of wood, cobblers and shoe shiners, gate keepers and meat roasters. He would often wonder if these latter people were not actually the ones in dire need of freedom? But then, what do I know? Apparently, the most important indices of freedom and inclusiveness are the offices of the Presidency and the Service chiefs, all which I remember our handful of majors threw away by themselves in ’66.

A few men can indeed radically alter the lives of multitudes. All they need to do is convince themselves of a mission and then sell their vision. As the dubious Cassius famously said in Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar, “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Or misfortune.” as the case may be, I dare to add.

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