Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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I do not like cats. This started with my experience as a young lad way back in 1966.
In that year Nigeria was in a huge political upheaval. A coup took place to upturn the first democratic government that came to power after independence in 1960. There was a feeling in the northern part of Nigeria that the coup was ethnically motivated and that the slanted pattern of killings did not reflect our federal character.
The Ibos became game in northern Nigeria – hunted and killed everywhere. I was at the time with my maternal grandfather, Rev J E I Sai who brought me up. A muscular and fearless Christian, he was the first ever Tiv man to be ordained a Priest. As the killings spread so did his anger. He delivered several sermons condemning the mass murder of Ibos, arguing that as children of God, they like every human being were entitled to the life freely given by God.
He did not only preach, he acted. His episcopal home at Harga – a village located halfway between Katsina Ala and Takum – became a rehabilitation camp for internally displaced Ibos. Working with his collaborators – The Revs Ralph Baker and Eugene Rubing – both American Missionaries, they transported many Ibos at night to Takum where they crossed over to Cameroon and then found their way to Eastern Nigeria.
News about his humanitarian efforts soon spread and the number of Ibos at our home grew. But it was also risky. Soon he started receiving threats from the roving murderous mobs that since he loved the Ibos so much, our family would soon be wiped out with the Ibos.
As little children it was our duty to take food to the Ibos who were hidden away from public glare. We soon fell in love with Gabriel an Ibo photographer. He was an artist of sorts who mesmerized us with some funny sketches. He it was who taught us how to sing the melancholic hit song “Take a message to Mary”. We loved him. Three times, our old man took him over to Cameroon and three times he found his way back with some cock and bull story. I remember the last time he came back; the threats by the mobs to attack us were not silent whispers again but loud,scary andmenacing.
We followed Gabriel and our old man as he walked him to the little bush near our house and repeatedly asked him why he still came back at this time when the situation on ground all over the north was bad for the Ibos. He replied that he had left the north so suddenly that he forgot to carry along his pussy cat. “Pussy Cat”? our old man thundered in disbelief. Gabriel was told to go and look for his pussy cat elsewhere since he did not bring it to our house. We were very sad to see him walk into the bush at night to an uncertain fate.
After the war in 1970, many of the Ibos our old man saved and who survived the war came back to Harga to say thank you to him. “Where is Gabriel, where is Gabriel?” we the children chorused.
Gabriel was born in the north. His father, also a photographer, introduced him into the business but never took him to his ancestral home in the east. He spoke the Tiv language fluently, more fluently than his native Ibo. At the outbreak of the crisis in 1966, his father was already late and it became very difficult for him to trace his village. He fell victim to some criminal Ibo gangs in the east who beat him up, robbed and taunted him calling him all sorts of derogatory names. That explained why every time our old man helped him back to the east, he found his way back. The story of a pussy cat was a clumsy explanation of his predicament. We were told by the Ibo survivals that when he was walked out of our house, he could no longer make it to the east again. A cruel mob lynched him to death.
The mention of the word cat or the sight of it draws sad memories in me since then. I hold cats responsible for the death of the handsome and creative Gabriel.
I don’t know who gave the army the idea that its current exercises in the States that make up the Benue Valleyshould be code named, AyemAkpatema, which translates from Tiv to English as Cat Race. Apart from my ingrained hatred of cats, I had other doubts about the success of this exercise.
My knowledge of the military and their operations is limited to the introductory course I was taught in Civil/Military Relations in the 70’s at the University of Ibadan by one of the best brains in that field – Professor BayoAdekson. For the military to have a successful operation in a given environment, it needs to cultivate the friendship of the civilians living there, he argued.
Unfortunately, since the new year opened with mass killings in Benue, the affected people have been treated to a babel of unfriendly voices from the military high command. The IG of Police Ibrahim Idris told the world that it was an ordinary communal clash. When the Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom led a powerful delegation of his people to see President Buhari in search of succor, the Commander in Chief instead of sympathizing with the bereaved peopledemonstrated a high level of insensitivity by telling them to go back and be more accommodating of their compatriots. Meanwhile the DSS said the new year massacre was carried out by foreign invaders. To the Minister of Defense, Mansur DanAlli, the massacre was justified because the grazing routes of the herdsmen were blocked.
These statements from the people who are in control of our security machinery have left the Benue people who were worsted by the invaders to keep asking whether this is the kind of protection they should get from a government they elected.
Equally frightening is the contribution to the debate on the violence by one Professor Labdoand AngoAbdullahi, the former VC of ABU. Labdo argued in a newspaper interview that the killings on new year day were justified because Benue belongs to the Fulani by conquest. AngoAbdullahi similarly sees nothing wrong in the mass murder of women and children who were asleep at home.
Despite initial misgivings about the outcome of the Cat Race, this itinerant reporter wasat its Operational Base, the LGEA Primary School, MbabeghaGuma local government area of Benue State for its official flagging off. At the event,Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General TukurBurataiassured that the exercise that started on February15 lasting till March 31would address the security challenges facing parts of Benue and neighbouring states.
On his part, Governor Ortom urged the people of the state to extend support to the military personnel in order to ensure the success of the military exercise.
Also speaking, his Kogi state counterpart, Yahaya Bello in whose state the operation would be extended promised that his state would extend support to the operation to ensure its success.In his speech, Governor TankoAl’Makura, represented by his Deputy, Silas Agara lauded President Buhari for granting the exercises which would be extended to his state stressing that it came timely as the farming season was fast approaching. Senator George Akume, Chairman Senate Committee on Army was also there to give legislative support to the exercise.
I also dropped my historical hatred for cats and cast my support for this cat race. The alternative to its success will be a return to the horrors of 1966.