The Guardian
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Old soldiers never die


President Muhammadu Buhari

It appears the towering Governor of Ekiti State, Ayodele Fayose is surprisingly having a hard time coming to grips with an otherwise commonplace maxim in our clime. The very outspoken governor gives the impression he has not heard of the phrase ‘’old soldiers never die.’’ That phrase was among the first quotables we knew by heart growing up in the First Republic; I was later to be intrigued by it during the civil war. Although I hadn’t been conscious of their significance at the time, but it later dawned on me in my teenage years that I had made very tiny, if innocent contributions, in the 1967-70 Civil War efforts to preserve Nigeria’s unity.

As a member of the then Second Obalende Boys Scout Troop, I had been one of the lads that were regularly dispatched to the military hospital in the Yaba district of Lagos to attend to the non-medical needs of convalescing wounded soldiers. Typically, our legendary Scout Master, Mister Eniafe-lamo (I cannot now recall his initials for the life of me!), who had doubled as the Head Master of Saint Georges Boys Catholic Primary School at Falomo-Ikoyi, hadn’t deemed it necessary to fully educate us on the fine details of the ongoing war before sending us forth on those novel assignments. Almost from my first day at the military hospital I became deeply awed by the military profession. The scale of the injuries was simply jaw-dropping; ranging from completely scorched skins, to blown off limbs, through to shattered bones. There was blood all over the place; too bloody for ‘’bloody civilians’’ I might add. I used to subconsciously say to my colleague then that ‘’the hospital wasn’t a place for fainthearted lads;’’ call it the gesture of a kid whistling in the dark to shore up sagging courage, and you would be correct.

Expectedly, those voluntary assignments at the military hospital were a huge learning experience for me, as I believe they were for my colleagues. Such assignments are classical tutorials for children on selfless service to one’s country. Many years later I would share that experience with some of my National Youth Service Corps co-members in Port-Harcourt, who had felt that the NYSC call was a needless intrusion in their career paths; and such of them as had missed out on the opportunity to be of service in the Civil War efforts would subsequently confide their regret in me.

Before my military hospital encounter, like other children, I had heard adults glibly mouth the words ‘’old soldiers never die,’’ but had never had cause to ponder their full meaning. So, when I didn’t see any wounded or dying old soldiers in any of the wards that I had served at the military hospital, curiosity caused me to become preoccupied with the four-word maxim. Was the maxim to be taken literally? Or, do soldiers become automatically indestructible in old-age, or was it their accumulated knowledge of warfare that enabled them to evade the many hazards of the warfront? I kept wondering; but I soon learned that it was only the young soldiers that were involved in the ongoing war. Years later, I would learn in a roundabout manner that soldiers who were skilful enough to survive the numerous wars (conflicts and intrigues) of the typical military career, upon retirement at the apex of their profession, these are expected to literally live forever. Evidence of this abounds in Nigeria. Gowon; Obasanjo; Danjuma; Buhari; Babangida; Abdusalami, constitute part of these old soldiers. Had the dark-goggled one not tasted of the forbidden apples on a fateful night, the Kano born, four-star general would most probably still be presiding over Nigeria as a civilian president, and maximally implementing the undemocratic 1999 Constitution, which the cult of retired generals clandestinely foisted on Nigeria. That infamous document was inspired by the old soldiers, written on their behalf, solely for their perpetual hold on power. The old soldiers never die maxim thus became a constitutional reality since 1999. (Recall that when it was feared that President Buhari’s health had taken a fatal turn following three successive cancellations of the Federal Executive Council weekly meeting, the cult of old soldiers quickly held a hush-hush conference in Minna, Niger State, apparently to decide on a contingency for Aso Rock, the extant Legislature notwithstanding – did I hear someone say ‘’constitutional democracy indeed!’’). Only recently, Prof. Ben Nwanbueze, the distinguished constitutional lawyer, in commenting on the ongoing constitutional amendment exercise by the Eighth Assembly, re-echoed his considered opinion on the 1999 Constitution: Don’t amend the extant constitution; rather substitute it with a true people’s Constitution through a referendum. I couldn’t agree more.

The miraculous recovery of our septuagenarian president from protracted medical challenges is yet another proof that indeed old soldiers never die; they, at worst, fade away slowly. Evidently, this is proving increasingly insufferable for the masses of Nigerians who have waited long for the full bloom of ‘’democracy dividends’’ from their stupendously endowed country in natural resources. However, there seems to be a glimmer of hope that the excruciating trajectory is about to change. The returnee old soldier just as miraculously exudes the body language of a military-dictator newly turned democratic servant-leader(?) Few days before details of his return trip was made public, Buhari was reported to have said, ‘’I now feel well enough to go back home, but I am still here because of my doctors’ orders. I have now learnt to obey orders, rather than give orders…’’ That brief statement is worthy of close attention.

Whilst not discounting the possibility of a Damascus-conversion experience for the devout Muslim, I should like to guess that Buhari’s protracted medical vacation, nay circumstantial solitary confinement afforded him ample time for deep reflections. If the import of his aforesaid remark proves to be part of the proceeds of those reflections, then the medical vacation and its concomitants would eventually redound in huge investments in Nigeria’s highly challenged democracy. The point here is that the supposed new convert is expected to now not only respect the wishes of the Nigerian masses, but would also evangelise to his class of old soldiers to stop interfering with Nigeria’s democratic development. Going forward, therefore, the nationalistic contents of President Buhari’s subsequent decisions and actions should now become the conversation rather his delicate health.

• Nkemdiche, an engineering consultant, wrote from Abuja.

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