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A lion who is afraid


I attended the symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti, the late chairman of Campaign for Democracy, CD, and hero of our struggle for democratic rule, on Wednesday February 10, at the Airport Hotel, Ikeja. At the event, we were reminded that Beko’s son Enitan, a brigadier-general of the Nigerian Army, has been imprisoned after his military trial for serious misconduct. Mohammed Fawehinmi, son of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the late lion of the bar who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Beko in the struggle to free Nigerians from dictatorship, told the audience that Beko’s son faced interdiction because he would not march into battle to face the Boko Haram insurgents.

Brigadier Ransome-Kuti was one of the few officers who joined the troops in protesting against superior officers for allegedly starving the military of sufficient arms. However, we have not heard his side of the story. Ransome-Kuti was the commander of the troops when Boko Haram insurgents attacked Baga, Borno State last year. They appeared to have been taken by surprise and after a fierce battle, the soldiers made an orderly retreat leaving behind weapons that were later looted by the terrorists. It would be interesting to know why a Ransome-Kuti retreated from battle.

From generation to generation, one thing that has singled out the Ransome-Kuti of Abeokuta is courage. They loom large on the pages of modern Nigerian history. In contemporary times, we remember Fela and his famous brothers, Olikoye, the professor of paediatrics who for about eight years was the minister of health during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. Beko, the baby of the house, was the irrepressible human right crusader. He was a physician, who devoted his practice to helping the poor and the helpless. Now it is Beko’s son that is making news and we have not heard his voice.

Sometimes it takes courage to turn your back to battle and say no more. At the height of the Nigerian Civil War, Colonel Alani Akinrinade was one of the top commanders of the Third Marine Commando Division. He grew a beard as befitting an officer pre-occupied with the demands of war. But the General Officer Commanding the division, Colonel Benjamin Adekunle was a tempestuous soldier who loved to take risks. Akinrinade felt the division was losing too many troops needlessly. Adekunle would not agree. Angrily, after one of their showdowns, Akinrinade left the battle field and came to Lagos. Adekunle sought his arrest so that he can be tried for AWOL (Absent without leave). The military high command overruled him. Akinriande was not to return to the war front until Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo was posted to take over command from Adekunle in 1969. He was the right hand man of Obasanjo when the war was concluded in 1970.

More dramatic, however, was the experience of Colonel Murtala Muhammed, the GOC of the 2nd Infantry Division. After troops from Ibadan stopped the Biafran forces at Ore, in the present Ondo State, Muhammed’s troops swept them out of the then Mid-West (later Bendel and now Edo and Delta) states. He moved on to Benin where the Military Governor, Colonel David Ejoor, had escaped from the city on a bicycle as the Biafran forces were knocking at the city gate. There and then, Muhammed appointed one of his officers, Major Samuel Ogbemudia, a Bini man, as the acting governor of the Mid-West. Lagos was later to confirm the appointment and Ogbemudia was to rule for eight years, the longest in the history of the defunct Bendel State.

But that was perhaps one of the few points of agreement between Muhammed and the High Command headed by the Supreme Commander, General Yakubu Gowon. Though the division suffered heavy loses in the attempt to directly take Onitsha from Asaba across River Niger, Muhammed was to lead his troops into other less costly victories. There was often disagreement between Muhammed and the High Command over the supply of weapons and provisions for his troops. In the end, Muhammed accused Gowon of trying to sabotage his war effort and angrily resigned his command and moved to Lagos. The military High Command later posted Colonel Bissala to replace him.

Since the end of the Civil War in 1970, the Nigerian Army has certainly become more complex and modern. Today no officer can resign his command as Mohammed did and expect no sanction. However, as it was in the beginning, so it is now. The military remains a closed shop and those peeping in may not see clearly. Only the initiates can really know what is going on there and fewer know the full story. It would therefore be expecting too much if we think the military would reveal the true story of the Baga fiasco. But a brigadier-general is not a small fry, hence the interest of the public to know the full story. In view of recent revelations since the Sambo Dasuki saga began, it is not out of place that the military need to revisit the case of those troops who refused to fight Boko Haram insurgents with “inferior weapons.” This is an issue that should not be glossed over in the name of military justice.

For Brigadier-General Ransome-Kuti, this provides a poignant irony. His family was noted for its opposition to the old political military. His family house, including his father’s clinic and his uncle’s club, the Afrikan Shrine, was burnt in 1976 by “unknown soldiers.” Fela, his uncle’s many songs, including Authority Stealing, Zombie, Coffin for Head of State and many others were waxed to attack perceived exceses of military rule. His grandmother, the legendary Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, heroine of Nigerian struggle for independence, was assaulted and wounded during the attack on the Kalakuta Republic in 1976. It is indeed a telling irony that a child brought up in an atmosphere of political integrity and struggle for social justice could still decide to join the army, the ultimate establishment institution. That is courage if nothing else.

It was good that Fawehinmi reminded us about Enitan’s present quandary during Beko’s anniversary. I can just imagine the troubles he must have gone through in those days of General Sani Abacha when he was a young officer and his father was in prison. Beko had been arrested by military police at his Imaria Hospital, Anthony Village, Lagos, for his constant criticism of the military over what it called a coup attempt. Among those arrested were former deputy Head of State, General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Chief Meredith Adisa Akinloye, the politician, Chris Anyanwu, the publisher and Akinloye Akinyemi, a retired major. As the dragnet spread, it brought in former Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, TELL reporter, George Mba and Beko and several military officers and civilians.

They were all brought before a special military tribunal presided over by one Patrick Aziza, a brigadier. Beko was accused of being “an accessory after the fact of treason!” It is a pity that Beko never get round the duty of writing his biography to explain his role in our unending struggle to build a just society and give us a personal insight into those uncertain days.

Speaking at the symposium Odia Ofeimu, the poet, said friends of Beko owe him a duty to write his biography. It is necessary to document the footprints of such a giant for future generations to ponder at his courage, his commitment and his loyalty to his people.

With the Enitan saga, another chapter has opened in the Ransome-Kuti story. Why would a Ransome-Kuti turn his back on battle? How can a Ransome-Kuti be accused of cowardice? A lion that is afraid is a baffling oxymoron.