January 15 is here! It is the date on the nation’s official calendar that never fails to intrigue. As if you have forgotten, January 15 is Armed Forces Remembrance Day, a special date set aside to salute Nigerian soldiers who died in the two world wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945 as well as those who died during the preventable civil war of May, 1967 to January, 1970.
As the name indicates, emphasis is on members of the Armed Forces, not non-military Nigerian heroes and heroines the country has produced. Though the country has produced many non-military heroes, Nigerians are still waiting for an imaginative government to carve out a Remembrance Day for them. Aside instituting a low-key Armed Forces Remembrance Day since 2015, the Buhari/Osinbajo administration has a moral and historical duty to introduce a Heroes’ Day on the nation’s official calendar.
Fact is, celebrating Armed Forces Remembrance Day on January 15, the anniversary of the needless murder of some of Nigeria’s finest political leaders by some over-pampered members of the Armed Forces is simply insensitive. It is a double tragedy that the Remembrance is on the day that officially marked the end of the better-forgotten civil war in 1970. Heck! Are we healing old wounds? Or opening them up?
Let us recall, for the purpose of education, some of mind-bending events in the wee hours of January 15, 1966. In Kaduna, death came to Sir Ahmadu Bello, premier of the old Northern Region through Major Patrick Chukwuma Nzeogwu who invaded the premier’s lodge at a time honest men were in bed and killed the main tenant and his wife in cold blood. No member of the Premier’s security detail or member of Sardauna’s household would have believed Nzeogwu, one of the so-called “Yaran Sardauna” (Children of Sardauna) could bring himself up to the dastardly act of killing a man who showed deep interest in his career and wellbeing and whom he (Nzeogwu) fondly called Baba!
In Lagos, drunken soldiers invaded the official residence of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the nation’s first and only prime minister, disrupted his mid-night prayers at gun-point, took him away and killed him near Otta, in present day Ogun state. Also executed, Gestapo-like, were Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, premier of the defunct Western Region and Festus Okotie-Eboh, the nation’s trendsetting finance minister. Their murderers were members of the Armed Forces that the nation, ironically, salutes every January 15.
Aside killing these political leaders, the soldiers effectively ended the nation’s bourgeoning democracy and set the stage for a long military interregnum. The immediate effect of the actions of the bloody coup was the suspicion it introduced into the Armed Forces which effectively set the pace for the needless and avoidable 30 month civil war. Nzeogwu and most of his fellow conspirators are dead, but through elaborate celebrations every January 15, they are presented to Nigerians, alongside deserving members of the Armed Forces, as the best things to happen to Nigeria!
What makes the deaths of January 15, 1966 even more painful is that the victims were innocent of the cooked-up charges of treasury-looting levelled against them. None of the men stole public funds, none was accused of owning foreign bank accounts and, with the possible exception of the flamboyant Chief Okotie-Eboh, the murdered politicians maintained Spartan life styles. Even in the case of Okotie-Eboh, his killers never substantiated claims that he amassed public funds to drive his flamboyant life style.
For Sir Ahmadu Bello, his only worldly possessions were two mud houses, one in Sokoto and the other in his birthplace of Rabah, all in present day Sokoto state. On his part, the prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was still indebted to his bank for an over-draft he drew for the upkeep of his family at the time he was murdered! So, were these men killed because they were corrupt as alleged by their killers? Nothing can bring back these men but there will always be a big question mark as to why the nation continues to celebrate them.
What, exactly, do we celebrate on January 15? End of the civil war? Aside the estimated two million Nigerians lost to the war, the scar of the war are still there for all to see. If truth be told, everything must be done to stop segregationist elements in the country if Nigeria must avert another recession into either a civil or uncivil war. If we still do not deem it fit to offer a public apology for the dastardly act of some members of the Armed Forces, at least, we should be decent enough not to celebrate murderers on a date that sticks out like a sore thumb.
And lest this position is misread and misrepresented, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an Armed Forces Remembrance Day. By all means, the event should continue to be on the nation’s calendar but let another date be chosen for this purpose. For the sake of decency, let us set aside January 15 as Heroes Day to celebrate and salute outstanding Nigerian heroes and heroines.
It is time to set aside another date as Heroes Day if, for whatever reasons, January 15 is too appealing to be retained as Armed Forces Remembrance Day.
Magaji writes from [email protected] and lives in Abuja.