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To my friend, the unknown

By Dare Babarinsa
15 November 2018   |   3:58 am
On Sunday November 11, world leaders gathered in Paris, the French capital, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Descendants and successors of the old belligerents participated in the solemn ceremonies. The world has changed dramatically in the past 100 years but whether humanity has changed that much is…

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd L) and his wife Sara (4th L), Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (5th L) Moroccan King Mohammed VI (7th L) and his son Moulay Hassan (6th L), US First Lady Melania Trump (C), US President Donald Trump (6th R), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (5th R), French President’s wife Brigitte Macron (4th R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (3rd R) attend a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11, 2018 as part of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice, ending World War I. (Photo by Francois Mori / POOL / AFP)

On Sunday November 11, world leaders gathered in Paris, the French capital, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

Descendants and successors of the old belligerents participated in the solemn ceremonies.

The world has changed dramatically in the past 100 years but whether humanity has changed that much is a different matter. Today, mankind possess enough weapons to destroy the world many times over.

Few hours after the Paris Summit, President Donald Trump threatened that the United States would abrogate its old treaty on disarmament with the defunct Soviet Union and its successor, Russia. With this, the world may be at the threshold of another arms race.

All the world leaders today are fully aware of the horrors of war. The First World War happened because of failed statesmanship.

The war was sparked off when on June 28, 1914; a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo.

With this, Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on the Serbs and with the intricate alliances across Europe involving all the major powers; Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, the Ottoman-Turks and the smaller powers, the entire continent was soon at war.

The war spread to other continents because the belligerents were all major imperial powers with colonial possessions in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

The cost of the war in which about 70 million soldiers participated was high. About 10 million people died as a result of the conflict, including seven million civilians.

The war led to revolutions in several countries, including the October Revolution of 1919 which ended the rule of the Tsar of Russia and the establishment of the first Communist Regime in the World.

It was the prelude to the Russian Civil War in which more than 10 million people died and almost 15 million were to die also in the Soviet Gulag.

The incidents of so many exposed corpses on the many battle-fields may have led to the influenza epidemic of 1918 which ultimately became a pandemic leading to the death of almost 100 million people world-wide.

That Second World War broke out again in 1939 showed that mankind did not fully learn the lessons of the First World War.

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, the world has witnessed many other wars, but not in the same scale of the First or the Second World War.

Today, there is the United Nations where the old victorious powers of the Second World War: the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France, each hold the veto power, at the Security Council.

Despite repeated promises, the Security Council remains an elite club and neither Africa nor South America is represented on it among those who wield the Veto Power.

The First World War had serious significance for us in Nigeria. Defeated Germany was forced to surrender her overseas colonies to the victorious powers. Thus Cameroun was divided between France and Britain.

On the threshold of Nigeria Independence, British Cameroun was given an option in a referendum to choose whether to team up with French Cameroun or to remain in Nigeria.

Southern Cameroun chooses to join French Cameroun. Northern Cameroun preferred to remain in Nigeria. Thus the seed of the protracted Bakassi Crisis was sown.

If Northern Cameroun had chosen to belong to Cameroun, Adamawa State today would not be part of Nigeria and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, former Vice-President and presidential candidate of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, would have been a Cameroonian.

Nigeria was part of the world-wide British Empire, the largest empire in history which occupied one-quarter of the world.

In defence of that empire, Nigerians fought in the First and Second World War.

Therefore for many years, Nigeria was part of the November 11 celebration of the Veteran Day where wreaths were laid at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Idumota, Lagos.

It was when General Olusegun Obasanjo became Nigerian military ruler that he changed the Veteran Day to Armed Forces Remembrance Day which was now puts on January 15, to commemorate the formal ending of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970.

Obasanjo was the General Officer Commanding of the famed Third Marine Commando Division during the war and he was the one who received the formal surrender of the Biafran High Command on January 12, 1970.

I had looked forward to meeting General Obasanjo again at the 70th birthday celebration of General Martin-Luther Agway, one of Obasanjo most outstanding protégés, Africa’s leading international soldier and former Chief of Defence Staff, CDS.

I had joined other friends, colleagues, relations and well-wishers of General Agwai at a symposium on November 7 at the Armed Forces Resource Centre, Asokoro, Abuja.

His excellent biography, How A Congress of Baboons made A General, written by Rebecca Agwai, his daughter, was also presented.

The book dwelt extensively on Agwai’s international service and his steady rise through the ranks to the highest level of military aristocracy.

In his Foreword to the book, former President Obasanjo stated: “He was the first CDS to oversee the first successful transition of power from one civilian administration to another, without military interference.”

One thing the book did not tell us was how Agwai escaped being rail-roaded into military politics and its sometimes gory harvest.

During his years as a military officer, more than 100 soldiers were executed for participating in failed coups.

Those who succeeded became governors and ministers. Agwai kept to the straight and narrow path which finally led him to the very top.

After the presentation of the book, I drifted into another part of the expansive Resource Centre. I soon found myself in a memorial hall where many pictures of soldiers were staring at me from the wall.

The pictures showed them in different moods: happy, excited, morose and contemplative. They were all young and they were all dead. They were part of our nation’s casualties in the on-going war against Boko Haram Islamist terrorists.

Unlike their predecessors who fought in the First, Second and Biafran Wars, these heroes were confronted with cowards who hid among women, sneak into IDP camps and throw bombs while fleeing. Not for them the heroics of earlier wars.

Now they are confronted with an army of cowards and crazy men and women who dare not show up on a proper battle-field.

The pictures on the wall remind me of an old friend who is still part of me but whose name I can no longer remember.

In 1969 when General Yakubu Gowon was marrying his sweetheart, Victoria, I was on admission at the General Hospital, (now Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital), Ile-Ife.

I had spent only a few weeks in my new school, the Ife Anglican Grammar School, when I was operated upon at the hospital and was now recuperating at the Male Surgical Ward.

My neighbour on the next bed to me was a soldier of about 20 who had been brought in from the War Front… He was shot in the stomach and had been operated upon to remove some bullets. Some of these bullets could not be removed.

We became good friends. He was intrigued by my skill at ayo, the Yoruba board game and draught.

Those skills I had acquired in Okemesi-Ekiti during the low season when the rice harvest was not plentiful and we engage at games at Baba Adeoye rice mills in Ile Obalara.

Now I could show the elders what I had learnt and at evening time, they would crowd around me and my opponent, often the solder, while we had a good time.

My friend loved to laugh despite the pain in his stomach. His father was dead, he told me, but his mother lives in Lafenwa, Abeokuta.

He was attending a secondary school but had ran away to join the army and fought along soldiers of the Third Marine Commando Division.

During his last battle, he was shot in the lower abdomen as his platoon ran into an ambush. He had the picture of his mother and talked endlessly about how he would go home, marching into his father’s compound in his military uniform. How proud and happy his mother would be!

Early in the morning the nurses would come to check the patients. Some, mostly the old men, they would touch and then try to pry open their eyes before they cover their heads with the clothes while the mortuary team wheel in their trolleys. But I and my friend were the happy lot.

The food was good and for us, water was running, the bed sheets were always clean and the light was never off. For us it was like a special holiday.

Then one morning it ended. My friend did not wake up in the morning to chat with the nurses and recite to them the happenings on the battle field. They covered his head with the cloth and then the mortuary team came and I knew he would never see his mother again.

His cherished picture was thrown on the floor as his body was wheeled away. I wept for him and became inconsolable. Later that day, I was discharged from the hospital and became an outpatient.

When I looked at those pictures on the wall in Abuja last week, I think of my friend, the Unknown.

I can imagine that they finally took his body home to his mother in Lafenwa, his coffin wrapped with the green-white-green national flag and his cap and booth on it.

While talking to journalists at after the book presentation, General Agwai said Nigerians must learn to forgive the past so that peace can reign in our land.

He knows that war is too expensive especially when you learn the bitter truth from the young men starring from the wall.