(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 7 March, 2022)
Ken Saro Wiwa’s Soza boy (soldier boy) looks around. He sees inside one pit, the head of a soldier, and in another pit, the leg of a soldier. Everywhere he turns, he sees “so so human flesh in small pieces! Finger, nail, hair, prick, blockus…” One of the best literary pieces on the Nigerian civil war is Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy. The author describes it as “a novel in rotten English.” But it is not just the English of the novel that is rotten, the walk through the fires of war, the death and destruction strewn on its canvass are also pungent in their dreadful rank. War is arbitrary and indiscriminate in its wickedness. Like the irony in Stephen Crane’s “War is Kind” poem, those who have not seen war’s horrendous howling and shelling think only fighters fall in battle. Bystanding friends and family fall too. Total direct flight duration from Ukraine to Nigeria is six hours, thirty three minutes. But we’ve seen how very close Ukraine could be to all of us. There is hardly anyone who does not know someone who has or had someone in beleaguered Ukraine. We had five thousand young men and women in that country schooling. Nigerian parents and relations who had or still have wards in Ukraine have had to experience what it means to be victims of a war very far away and yet so dreadfully near. A war they ordinarily knew nothing about.
War without death and suffering is no war – literally. People must die; people must suffer, and they must be many, the misery must be wholesale. It is the nature of war; it knows and has no boundary. That is why it must be avoided at all costs. To Svetlana Alexievich, author of The Unwomanly Face of War, “war remains…one of the chief human mysteries.” Two years ago, Margaret MacMillan, historian and professor of History at Oxford, published a book titled “War: How Conflict Shaped Us.” The Alexievich quote above is from an excerpt of that book. MacMillan explores that thesis and says war “raises a range of emotions from horror to admiration.” She says some dread it so much that they think the mere thought of war “somehow brings it closer,” yet, some others are “fascinated by it and can find in war excitement and glamour.” When the war in Ukraine broke out on February 24, 2022, this Nigerian reporter braced for the excitement of another Gulf War covered beautifully live by the Cable News Network. But the reporter soon learnt of the displaced and the trapped from all countries of the world. There were Nigerians there. Boys and girls he knew from infancy in his neighborhood were in Ukraine as victims – disoriented refugees in a hostile, foreign land. He had to drop the popcorn of the job and get involved in salvaging what he could. The reporter is a casualty too – because he is involved.
But excited (and excitable) Nigerians are taking sides: Russia is right, Ukraine is stupid; Ukraine did no wrong; Russia is evil. The division in Nigeria on this war is so unbelievably deep, deeper than the ongoing 2023 elite scramble for the carcass of Nigeria. Why would we leave the leprosy of our deathly hopelessness and be treating the ringworm of international politics? If you know what your palm kernel suffers at the hands of both the upper stone and the one below, you won’t be quick to hail a side. Neither Russia nor Ukraine has ever chanted what we call the golden rule: Love your neighbour as yourself. No. With them, there is even no neighbour to share any love with. Both are blood-deep hostile to the black man. I read a report last week on what Africans suffered at the hands of the weeping soldiers of Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers were doing apartheid with the refugees at a border, some Nigerian students asked questions. The Ukrainian troops told them that they were only letting pregnant women on the train from the city of Lviv to the Polish border, but the blacks saw them stop some pregnant African women from getting on board. “When we asked why they were doing this, the soldiers pointed guns at us, endangering our lives,” one of the students told Reuters last Friday in Abuja after the Nigerian government assisted him and others to complete their escape home. Such reports are common and chilling. Even the Ukrainian victim of Russian terrorism had the time to terrorise Africans. But we cannot be silent on what is going on there because the world has become a village; our fate is twined with that of the hostile Ukrainian world. There are Nigerians everywhere.
Yet the war is escalating. Like all wars, we’ve only seen the beginning; the end is incubating in the womb of dreadful time. As we wait and argue over unanswered questions on the whys of this war, the carnage’s casualties are daily buried in its rubble. Explosives with wide impact areas, heavy artillery shelling, cracking small arms fires, airstrikes and multiple launch rocket systems continue to pound the living and the non-living across Ukrainian cities. There are horrendous reports of children and women, grandparents and grandmothers murdered daily in this war of questions. A British newspaper, Daily Mail, last week published photographs of some dead victims. One of the photos carries the caption: “six-year-old Sofia, the daughter of police officer Oleg Fedko, was killed along with her mother and weeks-old brother as they attempted to escape.” Yet, under her photo is an even sadder one with the caption: “Police officer Oleg Fedko’s parents Oleg and Anna were also killed in the attack.” That is a whole family wiped out. And they were just the ones lucky to get mentioned. In the unexplored piles of the dead and the charred flesh of the injured could be persons related to you or to your next-door neighbours wherever you are. That is the reason we all must be involved beyond arguing over the propriety of Ukraine joining NATO or whatever else made powerful Russia mad.
In every war, depending on where the observer stands, there is always the right side and the side that is bad and wrong. The Christian Bible in Revelation 12:7–10 tells an interesting war story between good and evil: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” So, between Ukraine and Russia, shall we ask who is Michael and who is the great dragon? Six years ago, an analyst described Ukraine as “a pivot state on the Eurasian chessboard” and very vulnerable to “manipulation by Great Power diplomacy” (See John Berryman’s Russian Grand Strategy and the Ukraine Crisis: An Historical Cut; 2016). I think the board is now beyond the horizons of Europe and Asia – beyond the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula and the Japanese Archipelago. It is global. And the dragon of this war is not stopping the pounding soon. He is not seeing any Michael strong enough to hurl it off the underdog. He will kill and kill until his carts are filled with abundance of evil.
The Nigerian government has so far done well in evacuating willing Nigerians back home. I would commend Buhari and whoever counselled him to do this good. If other matters of state are that promptly and efficiently attended to, we would not be calling his tortoise ugly, bad, absent and unfeeling. He did well; his foreign affairs people did well; Abike Dabiri, his diaspora person did very well attending to complaints, counselling and giving traumatised parents at home assurances. I should acknowledge this here. I have friends who experienced her excellent interventions. But beyond the joy of the evacuation exercise, the president should be worried that there are Nigerians in Ukraine who said they preferred the artillery fires of the war there to the unremitting state failure here at home. Reports say many turned down the free offer to escape back home. They won’t come because there is no home to receive them. The president should be worried too that on his watch, his countrymen, about 115 young men, last week, were at the Ukraine Embassy in Abuja with a bizarre offer. They offered to join Ukraine’s fighting force in its fight against Russia. The embassy asked them to write their names, and they did. A day or two later, they were jolted by an Ukrainian request: each of them must provide $1,000 for flight ticket and visa. Of course, we may not know many things but we know that if the indentured has money, he will not be a labourer on his owner’s farm. One of them told a Lagos-based national newspaper: “They said we should provide evidence of military experience, passports, and $1,000 for tickets and others. When I asked what the salary is, the guy first said $7,000 and later changed it to $3,300 per month. I showed him my military and training certificates.” If I were the president of Nigeria, I would be utterly ashamed of a system I preside over which baked people like this desperate man who claimed he needed the Ukrainian money to take care of his family of six children.
Russia is killing Ukraine but the Russian president says he is cleansing it of Nazism. What does that mean? The Ukrainian president, 44-year-old Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a professional actor and comedian until his election in May 2019. Should he have handled his matter with Russia’s Vladmir Putin differently and with better tact? I honestly cannot answer that question. The Igbo man warns that a man who knows that his anus is small must not swallow udala seed. The Yoruba say an elephant swallows a bunch of palm fruits because it knows the size of its anus. In this Ukrainian tragedy, I see bullying snowballing into a genocide. That is the picture the media shows every minute. It is tragic. Unless the powerful is persuaded to press the brakes, it looks very much like only the dead will be the lucky ones at the end of the darkness. There is no kind war. It dehumanises the human and disfigures the beautiful. For the living, the suffering is great already, it will get worse going forward. Saro Wiwa’s sozaboy character says it: “True true, these men were not looking like the people that I have known before. If you see how all their eyes have gone inside their head, and all their hair have become palm oil colour and they have dirty dirty rag shirt and all their bones are shaking inside their body, I am telling you, if you see all these things, and you think about them very well, you will know at once that war is a very bad and stupid game” (Sozaboy, page 151).
Back to MacMillan, the Oxford historian. In 2013, she published ‘The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914’. The ẹntire book I have not read but I have had the fortune to read excerpts and its super reviews. MacMillan’s position, in that book, is that the First World War started small and was avoidable but it happened because a few powerful people thought their powers existed to be used powerfully. And she named the culprits – across Europe. A reviewer (I can’t find his/her name) notes that World War I “followed a period of sustained peace in Europe during which people talked with confidence of prosperity, progress, and hope. But in 1914, Europe walked into a catastrophic conflict that killed millions, bled its economies dry, shook empires and societies to pieces, and fatally undermined Europe’s dominance of the world. It was a war that could have been avoided up to the last moment—so why did it happen?” The world was still finding answers to that question when World War II happened and wreaked even greater havoc. It also started small and was thought Favoidable. But again, it happened.
From Troy to Vietnam, as noted by Barbara Tuchman in her 1984 book, ‘The March of Folly’, humanity learnt nothing. From Vietnam to Afghanistan and now to Ukraine, nothing is learnt again. There are fears that the Putin fire in Ukraine could be leading humanity into another World War – the possible final end to peace. I am not a war expert but I know that unless the leaks in Ukraine’s dam are swiftly contained by those powerful enough to manage the shutters, a flood is coming. And if that is allowed to happen, the world may see more than the gory sight of the six-year-old Ukrainian “girl in pink unicorn pyjamas” bombed in her room by Putin, her sobbing father holding the lifeless child’s hand, her mum holding her slippers, her pompom scarf and her bobble hat, and a doctor telling a press photographer: “Show this to Putin: The eyes of this child, and crying doctors.”