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This week's Featured Author:
Kenneth C Ryeland
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Excerpts from Tribal Gathering, by K C Ryeland.
Eight stories set in 1960s post-colonial West Africa.
Story # 1. Hot Metal
....After walking through thick forest undergrowth for twenty minutes or so, the two men found themselves in yet another clearing situated at the foot of a small, rocky escarpment some fifty or sixty feet high and about two hundred feet long. To one side of the sheer cliff-face was a wide, dark fissure in the rock. The boy stopped close to the gaping crack and turned to face Peter and John as they struggled to free themselves from the vines and undergrowth that clung to their feet and legs with the tenacity of leeches. Both men looked at each other as the boy spoke with the strange, grown-up voice again, asking which of them was “Mr Staffo.”
Peter, amazed at what he thought was his name being used, said, “Do you mean Stafford?”
The boy nodded.
“How did you know my name? Who the hell are you anyway?” said Peter, irritably.
The boy said nothing. He simply motioned with his right hand for Peter to follow him. John made to follow too, but the boy told him he must stay. Peter found the boy’s influence almost overpowering. Something inside him wanted to obey the boy’s every word. Turning to John, Peter said in a low voice, “You stay here, just in case. I’ll call you if I need help.”
Reluctantly, John agreed, giving Peter the thumbs-up sign as he watched his friend follow the boy towards the gap in the rock-face.
One minute the boy was directly in front of Peter, the next he’d disappeared from sight. Only when very close to the huge fissure did Peter realise he must follow the boy through into the very heart of the rock.
The huge, triangular-shaped crack was about four feet wide at the base and ten feet high at the apex, although it soon reduced to little more than three feet wide and five feet high some nine or ten yards inside the rock. It proved to be something of a tight squeeze for Peter with his large frame, but he managed to stay close behind the boy despite the heavy going and the almost total darkness.
The internal surfaces on both sides of the fissure were dripping wet and covered in what Peter imagined to be mud and slime, for he could see nothing. As he moved slowly forward, Peter felt his shirt and shorts becoming wet and sticky, especially when forcing himself through some of the narrowest places. At one point the gap became so confined, Peter began to panic thinking he would become permanently stuck inside the dark, living rock. However, gentle encouragement from the boy, a yard or so in front, soon dispelled Peter’s fear and spurred him on.
Several minutes and many yards later, Peter and the boy saw daylight ahead and this encouraged them to move more quickly. They soon emerged from the gloomy, dank interior of the cliff into a strange, crater-like clearing completely encircled by high, rocky cliffs. When Peter’s eyes became accustomed to the light, he opened them wide and his jaw dropped at the scene before him.
Story # 2. Juju-Men
....“Well, well. I know some of the ignorant people out in the bush are afraid of the white man’s so-called juju, but I did not think people in the township were taken in by all that nonsense. It just goes to show the world is full of surprises. I have been the tyler, that is our name for the outer guard of the Lodge, here for the last twenty years and I can tell you nothing but good has come from this place. It gives me great pride to see our people making headway in the white man’s world. I just do not understand all these bushmen (ignorant people) who complain about the white man’s magic. After all, we Nibanans are the absolute past masters at that sort of thing.”
Before Musa or the boy could make any comment, they heard a scuffling sound coming from the narrow corridor. Without hesitation they moved towards the noise with the tyler close on their heels. Moments later, Bande, still gripping his hostage around the neck, confronted them halfway along the corridor.
When Musa saw the knife at Ajayi’s throat, stark, terrifying memories came to the fore and a strange feeling of anger and fear began to build up inside the old soldier.
The tyler reacted to the situation by shouting and pushing his way between Musa and the boy so he could get closer to the problem.
“Hey, what is going on here?” shouted the tyler. “You,” he pointed at Bande, “put that knife down immediately and let go of our cook.”
Bande screamed at everyone to get back or he would kill the cook. The tyler, realising the seriousness of Bande’s threat, immediately moved back pushing Musa and the boy along with him.
Musa moved mechanically, his mind conjuring up scenes of desperation and horror, but with little clarity. He closed his eyes and the pictures in his head slowly became clear. Musa could see the muzzle and grenade flashes punctuating a pitch-black night, the split seconds of light illuminating a jungle scene in torrential rain. He could hear the explosions and the gunfire, the screaming, the yelling and the constant braying of terrified pack mules. He could feel the cloying mud underfoot and the needle-sharp rain on his body. Suddenly an oriental face loomed before him, its features contorted with hate and pain, then another and another. One by one the images raced through Musa’s head until he fell exhausted against the wall, his eyes still closed and the sweat running down his face in torrents....
Story # 4. The Visit.
....Arthur’s dilemma ended when a man, wearing green silk robes of the finest quality, suddenly appeared to his left. He addressed Arthur quietly in Pidgin English, telling him to remove his shoes and bow low before walking towards the emir. The man went on to explain that Arthur would be permitted to sit on the simple wooden stool that had been placed about ten feet away from the base of the raised dais.
After bowing low and taking a last glance at his shoes, which had been neatly placed on the floor near the doors by a servant, Arthur walked forward at a slow pace. At the command of the green-robed figure at his side, Arthur sat on the stool. Suddenly the emir began to address Arthur in the Usmar language and almost immediately the green-robed man began to translate.
After about five minutes of welcoming speech from the emir, it was Arthur’s turn to speak. When he’d finished carefully explaining his reasons for requiring an audience with one of the most powerful men in northern Nibana, Arthur waited patiently whilst the green-robed interpreter relayed the message. For a fleeting moment, Arthur detected what he thought was a smile from the emir. He couldn’t be sure because only the man’s eyes were visible. Nonetheless, Arthur felt certain that between the heavy veil drawn across the lower portion of the emir’s face and the bright green turban covering his head, the dark eyes had twinkled merrily in response to the interpreter’s words.
The reply confirmed it. The emir, according to the interpreter, had expressed great pleasure at Arthur’s visit and looked forward to meeting his old friend Hyde-Beecroft again after so many years.
Somewhat relieved that the interview had gone so well, Arthur thanked the emir and made to depart. However, before he could move, the interpreter said the emir wished Arthur to remain for a while longer and partake of refreshments. Arthur’s heart sank. He had wanted to get out of the throne room as quickly as possible because his English suit and the dreadful smell from the torches and the smouldering sticks of incense were making him feel so uncomfortably hot and nauseous.
As suddenly as he’d appeared, the green-robed interpreter disappeared through a door to the left of the emir’s dais. Then, much to Arthur’s surprise, the two heavy-duty guards also departed through the same exit.
Somewhat bemused, Arthur found himself alone with the emir, wondering how he would communicate. Arthur’s command of the Usmar language was basic, to say the least. No more than ‘kitchen Usmar’, fit only for stewards and smallboys not the most respected Usmar leader in the whole of the Northern Region.
The emir beckoned Arthur to approach the dais and began unwinding the huge length of cloth that formed the veil around his face and neck. The turban was the next article to be discarded and, as the emir stood up, he addressed Arthur in perfect English.
“Mr Meadows, I do hope you will partake of a cooling drink in my private quarters. I meet so few Europeans these days. Please collect your shoes, put them on and follow me.”
Forgetting momentarily that the emir had attended university in England, Arthur hadn’t expected to hear such impeccable English from a man who looked as though he’d just time-travelled from twelfth-century Arabia. It took Arthur several seconds to realise he was staring at the emir with his mouth partially open. Closing his lips tightly, Arthur quickly retrieved his shoes and followed the now bareheaded figure through a door on the right of the dais.
The emir led the way through a number of dark passages for what seemed like an age. Finally they emerged into a beautiful garden with fountains, green lawns and wonderful flowering shrubs that must have taken an army of gardeners and many thousands of gallons of water to keep in such excellent condition. In the centre of the garden was a bungalow, not dissimilar to the one Arthur and his family occupied. Typically colonial in style it had large verandas on all four sides and large, glass-panelled double doors leading into the living, sleeping and dining areas....
Story # 5. Boom Town.
....Later that morning, Charlie packed a canvas rucksack with clothes, spare bush boots and other personal items. He then visited Scroggins’ office at the site, which, due to its considerable distance from the branch, had escaped destruction. Some forty minutes later, Charlie drove to the bank in Sapula. After completing all his business there he clambered back into the company Land-Rover, drove a few miles out of town, engaged its four-wheel drive and took to the bush. As he negotiated the scrub and undergrowth, Charlie thanked all the deities he could think of for the vehicle having been saved from the inferno when the chief clerk used it to look for the parachutist.
When the main Sapula Creek came into view, Charlie carefully followed its meandering course until he came to a suitable spot, well away from any form of habitation. Having parked the vehicle he changed into the clothes he’d packed earlier that morning and left what he’d been wearing in a neat pile on the driver’s seat. He then locked the vehicle, deposited the keys into the tailpipe out of sight, and walked away through the bush. On reaching the main road some ninety minutes later, Charlie hitched a lift to Port Hassan in one of the many oilfield trucks that plied the roads day and night.
Before leaving the hotel that morning, Charlie had paid his bill and deposited a sealed envelope with the receptionist, telling the man to give it to the branch chief clerk when he called at the hotel. The hotel staff knew the chief clerk well, and Charlie had ensured he would visit the hotel the following day by arranging a meeting with him, ostensibly to discuss an insurance claim. Charlie knew no insurer would pay for an act of war, mentioning it was simply a smokescreen.
The envelope, marked ‘Strictly Confidential’, contained a letter to the chief clerk.
Dear Mr Atayi,
Please ensure the company Land-Rover is collected from the main creek, five miles east of Sapula. The ignition keys are hidden in the exhaust tailpipe. Please do not try to find me; by the time you read this I will have gone to a better place. The loss of my good friend Bruce McKinnon and the destruction of the branch, which I built up from almost nothing, are just too much for me to bear.
I gave the UK bank draft we talked about, which was due to be paid into the Chief Edenyi Estates’ account at the bank in Sapula, directly to Mr Scroggins at his office on the morning following the accident. Thank goodness I was able to save it from the inferno. The company’s total debt to the Chief for the land and building work is, therefore, cleared. The receipt I received from Mr Scroggins for the total amount is lodged with the bank manager. Our insurers will reimburse the company when you make the claim.
I have also arranged with the bank manager for you to sign on behalf of the company from now on. There is sufficient money in the company’s account to pay you and all the men’s wages for one more month, after which time you will all have to find other work. The oilfields are booming and, with the general shortage of manpower, none of you should have any trouble finding new work.
The balance of the company’s money has been transferred to a special account that only the directors in Laguna and the UK can access. The bank manager said they might have to wait until the end of the civil war before they can transfer the money to the UK. As you know Obiland has yet to organise its foreign exchange arrangements.
I have tried my best to balance the company books, but as you know most of the information was destroyed along with the branch. However, with the rough notes I kept in my room at the hotel, I have been able to establish that I owe the company about nine hundred Nibanan pounds. The attached balance sheet should show how I arrived at this figure and all the other figures.
All my personal belongings are deposited with the hotel and I have instructed the manager to hand them over to you so you can sell them to offset the debt, but the company will have to forgo most of it I’m afraid. I have no more to give and, by the time you read this letter, I will not even have my life.
Mr Atayi, please say goodbye to all the men and thank them for me, and I thank you personally for all your help and support through the tough times.
Charles A Robinson.
Branch Manager, Warunda.
Story # 7. Tief-Man.
....Idewu waited nervously near the old European cemetery. The lateness of the hour and the darkness played tricks on his mind and he began to imagine all those dead Europeans rising from their graves and chasing him. He nearly had heart failure when the unsavoury character from the marketplace grabbed his shoulder from behind.
The two men had walked but a short distance along the Enube Bridge Road when an old Datsun taxi stopped and picked them up. In addition to the driver one other man sat in the vehicle, but Idewu wasn’t introduced to either one and so the journey continued in silence.
They hadn’t travelled more than a mile when the driver pulled on to the forecourt of a large out-of-town hardware store. The store’s night watch approached, exchanged some words with the driver of the taxi and then disappeared into the darkness.
“OK, this is it, everyone out,” said the unsavoury character.
“A hardware store? What is there of value here?” said Idewu.
“There is a safe inside with the day’s takings. It could amount to over two hundred pounds,” said the driver. “So shut up and do as you are told!”
Idewu’s part in the burglary required him to keep watch at the front of the building and warn the others if any traffic or pedestrians came along the road. The other three men disappeared around the back to where they intended get into the offices by means of a rear door that the night watch had arranged with one of the staff to be left unbolted.
All commercial premises and most private houses in Nibana had anti-theft bars fitted to window openings. Very often wooden doors would be reinforced with steel plates to prevent them from being smashed open. Therefore, to successfully carry out a burglary, it required an insider who would ‘inadvertently’ leave a door unlocked or some other means of entry for the thieves.
No one came along the road to disturb the thieves and within forty-five minutes they had finished. The night watch returned to collect his cut and that of the staff member who’d left the door unlocked. Moments later, Idewu and the thieves departed in the taxi.
“What about the night watch? He will be sacked the moment they realise the place has been robbed,” said Idewu from the back seat of the taxi.
“He will say he was praying,” retorted the driver. “The white manager will know the night watch could not have left the door unlocked because he has no access to the building. The manager will soon work out it must have been an inside job. It will take weeks to sort it out. You know how well we Nibanans can string white men along. In the end the manager will get fed up and employ additional night watches. Anyway, the old boy we saw tonight is due for retirement soon, so he will not be worried.”
“Oh, I see,” said Idewu, rather feebly.
They dropped Idewu and the unsavoury character off at the cemetery and the Datsun headed into town.
Idewu’s companion gave him twenty pounds and said if he wished, Idewu could accompany them on more robberies. Idewu said he would think about it and meet his companion in the market at the usual place the following afternoon to discuss his further involvement....
Excerpts from The Up-Country Man, by K C Ryeland.
A personal account of the first one hundred days inside secessionist Biafra
Chapter IV: A Testing Time
....The following day, as Fred and I walked through the main gate, we were greeted by Sergeant Musa who gave us the usual smart salute and told us, in his very formal way, that the GSM wished to see us right away. He then did a very strange thing. He turned to me and said that he was sorry that Nigeria was going through a bad patch now, but that he was sure it would all be sorted out very soon. My reply reflected his feelings on the subject, but stressed that he could in no way be held responsible for all the palaver in Nigeria.
“But I am to blame in a way, sir,” retorted Sergeant Musa. “Had I stayed in the army and tried to knock some sense into these young officers, then perhaps the problems would not have existed. When we had British officers, there was none of this tribalism. It is destroying our country, sir. The only hope we have is for Her Majesty to intervene and stop Ojukwu in his bid for secession.”
I could think of no appropriate reply except to nod slowly, make my excuses and walk away in the direction of the GSM’s office. As we walked, Fred grabbed my arm and said urgently, “Why was old Musa talking to you like that. Apologising for all the palaver and all that stuff about the Queen?”
“I don’t know, Fred. Perhaps he knows something we don’t.”
Edward met us at the door to his office and invited us in.
“How are you both this morning? Fit? Well? Good, the coffee is on its way. Nothing like coffee to chase the cobwebs away in the mornings is there?”
We both knew that Edward was feeling tense. He always talked too much when he had something difficult or unpleasant to say. We sat down and wondered what was coming next.
When his secretary had served the coffee and departed, Fred immediately got up and stood in front of Edward’s desk. All I could do was take a deep breath and pray for him to keep quiet. He did not keep quiet of course; instead he began to rant at Edward.
“Now listen to me, Edward. I am not going to the east for you, the general manager or anybody. So you had better cancel me out of any plans you may have in that direction.”
Fred began pouring out all the old arguments, but it was clear from the expression on Edward’s face that he was livid at such an outburst. At an appropriate moment Edward stood up and shouted, “Sit down, Fred, for God’s sake. Nobody has asked you to go anywhere have they? Instead of bawling and shouting at me why don’t you wait your turn and let me do the talking around here?”
My mouth remained closed. However, it did cross my mind that Fred had been a little premature in his outburst. He should have waited for Edward to say his piece before jumping in at the deep end.
Edward eyed us both angrily for a moment and then he began to speak.
“I was going to spend some time explaining the reasons for the decision I have reached, but there’s no point now. So here it is, no frills. Fred, you’re staying put, which will please you no end I am sure. Ken, you’re going to Enugu to relieve Charlie McKay.”
Even though the decision had been half expected, it did not prevent me from being taken aback somewhat. As the information began to sink in, my hands started to sweat and I decided to protest.
“Bloody hell, Edward. What about all this talk of rebellion and white men on chopping lists and Biafra and everything?”
Edward managed a smile and then said, “Oh, come off it, Ken. You don’t really think they know you from Adam, do you? How can you be on anyone’s death list? You’ve only been in the country for five minutes, and anyway all that nonsense was last year after the second coup.”
Since there was no answer forthcoming from me, he continued talking.
“Charlie McKay has been there for ages and he has his family with him. So there’s nothing to worry a young chap like you.”
A sudden thought entered my head and I voiced it immediately.
“Just a minute, Edward. The whole point is, this McKay bloke is coming out and I am going in. Just as all the bloody trouble is about to start.”
Edward tut-tutted and said, “You’ve been listening to all those old buggers at the club again. I do not think it will come to a fight, and even if it does, it will be over in five minutes. They don’t have the nerve for it, the Ibo, especially against the northerners, and you can bet your bush boots that these Yorubas will keep right out of any fighting if it comes to it.”
I thought about what had been said for a moment and concluded that Edward was probably right. Everyone who had expressed an opinion to me was convinced that the Yorubas would back away from anything that hinted at physical violence. The biggest problem, according to the pundits, was the Hausas. They would fight the Ibos given half a chance, and they were good at it too. They had a long tradition of soldiering with the British when Nigeria was a colony. I thought about Sergeant Musa and concluded that he would certainly give the Ibos a bashing, despite his age. The sound of Edward’s voice calling my name interfered with my train of thought.
“Ken. Ken, are you with us? You should be ready to leave on Sunday. You had better see the carpenter right away and ask him to make you a load box; he knows the form. The box will be quit valuable. He makes them from best mahogany you know. Of course, it is as cheap here as pine is at home. Do not forget to dash him. Ten shillings will do.”
My further protestations at having to leave so soon were met with a steely gaze and an explanation that McKay was now well overdue for leave and had been making quite a fuss about his replacement. Resigned to my fate, I said, “Presumably someone will give me a lift to the airport on Sunday, and whom do I see about the air ticket, Edward?”
He eyed me carefully over his glasses and said slowly, “Only general managers and up-country personnel travel by air. There’s a brand new, UK built series IIA 88-inch wheelbase Land-Rover station wagon due for delivery to Enugu, and I have delayed its departure for you.”
“Whaaaat? I am up-country personnel; you have just confirmed it, Edward. Why can’t I go by air?”
“You are headquarters personnel at the moment,” said Edward calmly. “You won’t be up-country personnel until you actually get to Enugu. Do not worry; you will have one of our own drivers to take you there. You won’t have to rely on a casual driver.”
Highly irritated at being caught in a “Catch 22” situation, I tried not to it let show through.
“How bloody far is this Enugu place from here then, Edward?”
Edward tried not to notice my belligerence and replied very calmly, “Oh, about 350 miles. It depends on how much of a detour you have to make because of bad roads.”
“Bloody hell, Edward, 350 miles in a bloody 88-inch station wagon. I won’t be able to sit down for a week, particularly if the roads are bad.”
“You are lucky my lad,” he retorted. “The rains have only just started. Another week or so and the roads will be completely washed away in certain areas.”
My irritation ensured a continuous stream of questions and belligerent discussion until I could think of nothing further to say about my transfer to Enugu. Fred had remained silent throughout my exchange with Edward. No doubt he was feeling somewhat guilty over the whole business....
Chapter XII: Cowardly Action
....The Abakaliki Road had a tarmac surface for most of its length from Enugu to Abakaliki and beyond. However, this did not signify that it was in any way remotely similar to a conventional tarmac road. The surface, a single, thick layer of tar overlaid with gravel, would have been applied directly to the graded laterite surface many years ago and simply patched every now and again. However, it would only be repaired if the Ministry of Works were able to coax enough money out of the Ministry of Finance. Inevitably, the years had taken their toll and the road now consisted of a series of potholes joined by short stretches of tar. In certain areas, particularly on bends and gradients where the road was susceptible to erosion by rainwater, bare patches and corrugated sections abounded. Some of the potholes and bumps were big enough to jolt a vehicle so hard that any occupants were in danger of being propelled off their seats with the same acceleration as a Saturn V rocket going into orbit. On this road forty miles an hour was fast, very fast indeed.
On one or two occasions during the journey out from Enugu, Joe had misjudged the depth of a pothole or the frequency of a series of corrugations and had sent me flying off my seat. However, it soon became second nature for me to jam myself against the backrest whenever we hit a bad patch. Considering the appalling state of the road, Joe had managing very well. He was a good driver and kept us moving at a reasonable speed in spite of everything.
Throughout the return journey, my body was wedged in the “rough road” sitting position. My feet pushed hard against the metal dash and my back forced into the corner of the seat back. It was comfortable enough to permit me to doze off from time to time between the bumps. No doubt, the two bottles of Star beer had contributed significantly to my overall feeling of tiredness, because the next thing I remembered was Joe telling me that we were approaching the Enugu roadblock.
This roadblock was similar to the many other roadblocks that had materialised in recent times. It was situated some three or four miles from the outskirts of town on a straight stretch of road with good visibility in each direction. At the actual checking point, the road was reduced to a single lane by strategically placed oil barrels and tree branches. Close by, under the shade of a clump of thorn trees, were some large army tents around which a dozen or more soldiers lounged on their groundsheets.
It was noteworthy that since the army had taken over roadblock duties from the police they tended to employ twice the number of people, and most of them appeared to spend their day eating, drinking or sleeping.
As a rule, there would be a minimum of six soldiers on duty at any given time: two to check the vehicles from each direction and two to observe and cover the four checkers. Much depended on the volume of traffic, and since the Abakaliki Road was very quiet on that day, they had deployed the minimum number of guards. Naturally, the soldiers on duty were armed, but there was no pattern to the type or calibre of the weapons they carried. I noted that at this roadblock, two of the soldiers were armed with modern automatic rifles, whilst the others sported Lee-Enfield rifles and Webley side arms dating from the Second World War.
It was clear to any casual observer that the average Biafran soldier was not as well disciplined as his contemporary in the police. Since the army had assumed responsibility for the roadblocks, there had been several reported incidents of innocent motorists being shot dead because of irrational and drunken behaviour on the part of young, inexperienced soldiers. It was with this thought in my mind that we approached the roadblock.
I was now wide awake and sitting up in my seat looking ahead to where the soldiers were gathered. I was trying to gauge their mood and determine what state they were in, remembering that they had been drinking palm-wine when we passed through the checkpoint earlier in the day. It was difficult to tell what sort of reception we would get because they all looked sober. However, their looks were no guarantee that they were.
Four of the six soldiers on road duty were sitting on the oil drums chatting, whilst the other two were reclining close by on the dusty ground.
As Joe began to slow our vehicle to a crawl, my eyes scanned the road in each direction. I was looking for other vehicles that may be in the vicinity, but the scene before me confirmed that we were alone. A feeling of apprehension enveloped me and I began to worry. It was far safer to be among a large crowd of vehicles at the road checks for two very good reasons. First, the soldiers were less likely to bother a white man if there were plenty of Africans from whom they could extract dash. Secondly, they tended to get bored very quickly and wave vehicles through if there were perhaps more than three or four waiting for the dubious pleasure of their attentions.
At the beginning of the emergency when the police were responsible for the roadblocks, they tended to concentrate on checking the vehicle’s documents and the identity papers of the people on board. They would only demand dash if they found fault. To be fair to the police, this was a less prevalent occurrence than was generally held true by popular belief. The army however, tended to concentrate on searching the vehicle, albeit in a most arbitrary way, after which they would apply all their powers of persuasion to extract the maximum amount of dash with aggravated menace.
Throughout my time in Biafra, I cannot recall being asked for any form of identity at roadblocks manned by the military. Clearly, they never doubted that the name, occupation and destination I gave them were anything but true. However, a more likely explanation was the inadequate training given to the majority of the Biafran soldiers who were conscripted immediately before the initial mobilisation. They had probably not been told that there was a government decree requiring all expatriates to carry their passports at all times. However, not that knowing about it would not have made much difference, very few of the young conscript soldiers could actually read.
Our vehicle rolled to a gentle halt close to the roadblock and almost immediately two of the four soldiers who had been sitting on the oil barrels got up and stumbled toward us. I swore under my breath. “Bloody hell, they’re both pissed as newts.”
Joe looked across at me and said, “Whatin, sa?”
“Don’t worry, Joe,” I replied. “Just be careful with these two, they’re drunk. We don’t want any palaver.”
When the soldiers reached the front of our vehicle, they split up: one to my side and one to Joe’s side. With an ever-increasing feeling of trepidation, I watched as the individual on my side of the Land-Rover lurched unsteadily towards me.
He was little more than a teenager really, and he had that gaunt, hungry look that often haunts the post-pubescent young of our species, regardless of race or colour.
Although he was a very slim youth, his uniform was quite clearly several sizes too small, which must have presented a somewhat comical sight to any casual observer. I made an effort not to smile openly at him. However, when I looked at his face any thought of smiling was dismissed when I noted that it was flushed and shining with sweat, thus indicating a surfeit of alcohol. It was easy to spot the blood-gorged tissue around his cheeks and neck, despite his dark complexion. His pupils were large and brown, but the whites of his eyes were extremely bloodshot: a maze of minute, fiery red veins. They looked as though they were bleeding freely.
The red face and neck, the bloodshot eyes, the unsteady walk and the glazed expression confirmed that he was as drunk as a lord. My diagnosis was further reinforced when he tried to ask me where we had come from. The youth was so drunk that he was unable to string two words together successfully.
A vague awareness of raised voices on the other side of the vehicle alerted me to the possibility of a problem. However, I took little notice, concentrating instead on keeping my soldier sweet and trying to understand what he was saying to me.
After the third attempt, he was able to make me understand what he wanted. However, as I began to relate the story of the Coal Corporation truck and how we were returning from mile forty-two, the soldier on the other side of the vehicle wrenched open the cab door, grabbed Joe by the scruff of the neck, and began to pull him out of the vehicle. Being unprepared for this violent action, I did not recover my senses until Joe was sprawling on the ground at the feet of his attacker.
I shouted and tried to open my door, but the young soldier on my side was pushing against it imprisoning me inside the cab. Shouting again, I put my shoulder to the door. The youth must have realised that he was in no fit state to bar my exit for very long. Rendered useless by alcohol, he suddenly let go and staggered to one side. When the Land-Rover’s door swung open, I almost fell out. I quickly regained my balance and saw that Joe had been dragged to the front of the vehicle and was being systematically kicked by the other soldier. From the wild look and manner of him, it was obvious that this soldier was in the same drunken state as his chum.
It was difficult to believe the brutality that was taking place before my eyes, and in some desperation I scanned the faces of the other troops sitting around, but none of them were paying the slightest attention to Joe’s predicament. If this palaver was to stop, it was up to me to stop it, because no one else would.
I made a move towards the kicking soldier, screaming at the top of my voice.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing to my driver, you bastard? Move away from...”
My words were cut off sharply by an arm that closed tightly around my neck from behind. Quickly and instinctively, my right elbow was thrust rearwards into my attacker’s ribs. The young soldier in the tight uniform was so severely winded and knocked off balance that he immediately let go of my neck and fell heavily to the ground.
The soldiers who were supposed to protect and cover the searchers had been half asleep at the side of the road, but now they were alert and fully aware of what was happening. In no time at all, they were running towards our little group with their automatic rifles at the ready.
I had already reached Joe and was attempting to pull him up out of the dust, but his attacker, who was still lashing out with his feet, frustrated my efforts. However, he was so drunk that his aim and balance were less than perfect, and it did not take more than a momentary grasp of his boot during mid-kick to have him sprawling on the ground along with his colleague.
When the other soldiers arrived on the scene some few seconds later, Joe, who had now recovered somewhat from his ordeal, stood at my side and we both raised our hands high in the air. Determined to convince the soldiers that we posed no threat at all, I began to speak to them in the calmest voice I could muster.
“Everything is fine, gentlemen,” I assured them, “there is no need for any palaver here. It is just a small misunderstanding. Let us all remain very calm. We don’t want any shooting palaver, do we?”
My words were drowned out by the abuse being hurled at us by our attackers who were now sitting on the ground feigning injury and looking very sorry for themselves.
The incident had also alerted the other pair of vehicle checkers and most of the off-duty soldiers too, because I could see about a dozen of them walking towards us from their camp under the thorn trees some twenty yards away.
Watching the potentially dangerous situation forming in front of my eyes, I swore to myself and wished we were somewhere else....
Chapter XVIII: Deliverance
....The roadblock into Aba was very badly situated immediately after a sharp bend in the road. The curve was so tight that when all our vehicles had finally halted, those of us who were at the front could not see the cars at the end of the convoy. I had to alight from my vehicle and cross to the right hand side of the road before it was possible to see the DHC’s car at the head of the convoy. I was soon joined by many of the people from the vehicles in the immediate vicinity of my Land-Rover, most of whom stood silently watching as the DHC negotiated with some incredibly scruffy-looking volunteers at the barrier.
Without warning, several of the CDVs broke away from the general confusion of the main group and headed in our direction. As they approached, I noted with some dismay that they were armed with shotguns, home-made rifles and hunting guns. As they trudged up the slight incline the armed group began to shout and scream at the people who were still sitting in their cars, ordering them to get out and stand at the side of the road with their hands up.
My words were whispered to myself.
“ Bloody hell, what are these bastards up to now?”
It was not really necessary to ask myself the question. The answer was obvious as far as I was concerned. They were probably going to rob us of our personal possessions, steal the cars and leave us stranded with no possible way of reaching Port Harcourt.
The CDVs moved from car to car and screamed abuse at those who were slow to react to their orders. As they came closer, it became clear that they had been sleeping rough for some considerable time. Their clothes were dishevelled, they were dirty, and their hair was matted and covered in laterite dust. Most disturbing of all was the glazed look and the excessively bloodshot eyes, a sure sign that they were all drunk, or drugged, or both. As the men continued to stagger towards us shouting and bellowing at everyone in sight, they carried their weapons at the port ready for instant use. I decided not to play games with these people. They would certainly be dangerous if provoked.
“Hand up, white man. Hand up. Hand up.” They were screaming at everyone, even those of us who had anticipated their requirements and obliged by raising our hands above our heads. Every twenty yards or so, one of the vigilantes would drop out of the group to guard that particular section of the convoy. By the time they had finished walking the whole line of vehicles, all our people were standing at the side of the road with their hands in the air.
From where I was standing on the bend in the road, it was possible to see at least four armed vigilantes in front of me and about a dozen of them behind. I could also see that the DHC was deep in conversation with a couple of nasty-looking characters at the roadblock, approximately a hundred yards away. The Rhodesian, who had been two cars behind me and had already joined our little group on the bend, addressed me in a whisper.
“What do you think, Ken? Are these bastards going to shoot us, or what?”
The shock of his words made me turn my head quickly and snap, “Don’t be bloody stupid, with the DHC here? They would not bloody dare. Would they?”
David shook his head and gave me one of his funny looks.
“I know these buggers from old, man,” he said. “If they get something into their bloody thick heads they will do it all right, make no mistake. No matter who is around. Man, they will even kill the DHC if they have a mind to.”
How could I have been so stupid? It had not even occurred to me that they would actually shoot us. The gist of my reply to David indicated that there were too many of us for them to handle all at once, and anyway the DHC was with us. They would not dare harm a representative of the British Government. Furthermore, most of us were British and they would not dare to shoot British people.
Further reasons and excuses for not shooting us rushed through my mind. I was desperately trying to convince myself that all would be well. However, my hopes were dashed when David pointed to where the DHC had been negotiating with the CDVs. He too was now standing up against his car with his hands high in the air. Clearly this was the point at which news commentators would have announced that, “Negotiations had broken down.”
One of the scruffy individuals with whom the DHC had been talking, left the roadblock and was now walking towards our little group with a menacing-looking double-barrelled shot-gun tucked neatly under his arm. He growled orders to our guards as he passed by and from their reaction it was clear that he was the undisputed leader of this gang of thugs. He suddenly began to shout at us in very poor English and pointing to the side of the road where our vehicles were parked.
“All dissy British somebody go for dissy side. All British go, go, go. One-time.”
We British glanced at each other and quickly crossed the road to stand against our vehicles as instructed. Quite naturally, David and all the other non-British stayed put, but this did not please the senior vigilante who must have thought that all white men were British. He began to shout abuse as he waved them all towards us with the business end of his shotgun. Moments later he began pushing David with the stock. David resisted for a moment before turning to speak to him.
“Listen, man, stop pushing. I’m not a Brit, I come from....”
David stopped in mid-sentence, and much to my relief quickly walked across the road to join us.
As he stepped into line beside me I said in a whisper, “Bloody good job you bit your tongue, you twerp. If he thought for one moment that you were from Rhodesia, he would have shot you on the spot....
Chapter XXI: Sea Dogs
....Clambering down the hatch ladder complete with suitcase and flight bag was not too difficult a task. However, as I slowly descended into the hold my senses began to detect a rapid rise in humidity and temperature. By the time I had reached the steel floor plates at the bottom, some forty or so feet below the deck level, the atmosphere could have been sliced with a knife. Not only was the hold uncomfortably hot, but also quite gloomy, despite the hatch cover being wide open. After a few minutes my eyes became accustomed to the dark and I soon began to search for somewhere suitable to park my bags.
The hold was surprisingly dry and comparatively clean. The steel floor and sides were quite brightly polished and therefore it was not unreasonable to assume that the ship had been used for the carriage of dry cargoes for some considerable time. There was no trace of damp or congealed dirt as might be expected for a general cargo ship. Of course, this was pure speculation on my part. Having never been in the hold of a ship before, all ships’ holds could be as clean and tidy as this one for all I knew.
Having found a bright spot directly beneath the hatch opening, I promptly claimed my two square metres of deck space. Moving about and arranging my things caused me to sweat profusely as the heat and humidity extracted their toll. I shuddered to think how unbearable it would be when, according to my information sheet, the full allocation of 150 adults was packed into the comparatively small hold area. It would not be wise, I thought, to spend too much time in the bowels of the ship if it could possibly be avoided. Undoubtedly, this would be the goal of every evacuee on board and therefore it was not unreasonable to assume that the open decks would be severely overcrowded for the duration of the journey to Lagos.
David Haslam and one or two of my other friends from Enugu had also been allocated to hold number two. After welcoming them to the “black hole” as our accommodation had been so aptly named, we occupied ourselves trying to make the best of our combined space allocation. Having seen to our welfare, we turned our attention to assisting the elderly and less able people to negotiate the hold ladder. We also helped them to find a suitable space and stow their belongings. It was very pleasing to note that everyone had been very sensible about luggage. There were no great sea chests or masses of household goods being loaded. Each person was bringing on board only one, or possibly two, suitcases.
Whilst waiting at the top of the ladder for more people to show themselves, I struck up conversation with a man who, it was later revealed, originally hailed from the Portsmouth area of the UK. My discussions with this ex-sailor brought home to me the full extent of the personal losses that some people had sustained due to the evacuation.
The man had been working in Port Harcourt for over ten years running a small marine engine repair shop for a Lebanese businessman. The terms of his contract had been such that the employer provided a rented house at the going rate and the employee was expected to provide his own household furniture, soft furnishings and fittings. Because of the recent political instability and the beginning of the police action, the company suffered a downturn in business. As a result, the ex-sailor’s contract of employment was eventually terminated and he had to use some of his accumulated capital to finance his day-to-day existence because he was unable to return to the UK. Now, with the evacuation of most expatriates, the poor man had been forced to leave everything he owned. Notwithstanding the precious little time he had been given to sell up, who in their right mind would buy anything of value with the threat of civil war and invasion hanging over the town? Even if he had been able to liquidate his assets, the authorities would have prevented him from taking his money out of Biafra, as we all discovered to our cost in the customs hall.
The man also told me that he had given his car to his steward for safe keeping and had asked the houseboy to look after his two dogs. He must have loved his animals very much since he appeared to be more upset over having to leave the dogs than over the loss of his money and chattels.
He had smiled ruefully when pointing out that all he had to show for ten years of very hard work were two small suitcases full of clothes, his passport and some loose change in his pocket. It shocked me to the core when he revealed that he had been forced to leave over ten thousand pounds in his bank account with absolutely no idea of how, or when he was going to lay his hands on it again.
The conversation with this man made me realise just how lucky I was in not having too many personal effects or household furniture to leave behind. Thank goodness it was the Company’s policy to provide its managers with fully furnished houses on a rent-free basis. True, it had been necessary to leave my personal allocation of linen, my radio and a second-hand set of golf clubs, but none of these items were of sufficient value to bankrupt me. My account at the bank in Enugu had been abandoned of course, but since it contained only a few pounds it was no great loss. Talking with the ex-sailor really shocked me and I wondered how many others among us were similarly affected.
It must have been about three o’clock in the afternoon when the last of the refugees began to board the Isonzo. Those of us who had already embarked had been requested to stay in our allotted places in the holds until the ship was under way. However, it was impossible to comply with this request because of the searing heat of the afternoon sun. Many people, on discovering how hot and stuffy the holds really were, simply dumped their baggage and promptly returned to the upper decks. Because of this mutinous behaviour, the decks were crammed with people enjoying the cooling effects of a slight breeze that had manifested itself during the early afternoon.
David Haslam and I spent some considerable time leaning on the ship’s rail overlooking the quay, talking and smoking as we watched the last of the refugees struggle on board. Each time we thought we had witnessed the final batch of people, yet another group would file out of the customs hall and make for the gangway. There were a surprisingly large number of European women and children among the last of the stragglers and only after close scrutiny of the children did it dawn on me as to why they were so late arriving at the ship. It was reasonable to conclude that the women were married to Biafrans since every child in their care was of mixed race. This raised several thoughts in my mind and had me wondering what sort of nonsense these women had been subjected to because of their choice of marriage partner. It was a sure bet that the authorities would have gone out of their way to ensure that their processing was made as difficult and unpleasant as possible. Indeed, we learned later that the officials had claimed that the women were trying to kidnap the Biafran children. This sort of treatment and the inevitable delay while suitable “arrangements” were agreed would certainly have accounted for them being the last to board the ship.
My discussions with David included a consideration of how much dash had been necessary to allow the children to accompany their mothers, and we concluded that the price would have been very high indeed.
As it was for everyone, the Isonzo was the only way out of Biafra for these unfortunate women and children. Had the authorities not permitted them to board they would have been stranded. Locked inside what was to become a besieged and doomed Ibo enclave until its collapse and surrender some thirty months after our departure.
Before the women and children were permitted to embark we noticed that several African men had been escorted from a nearby shed by armed police and were now milling about amongst the women at the foot of the gangway. It was clear from their actions that they were the unfortunate husbands.
David and I assumed that since the new republic was involved in a bitter struggle for its very existence, the husbands would eventually be required to take up arms in its defence. This was probably the reason for the men being physically restrained from boarding the ship by the heavily armed detachment of police. Because the men were being prevented from accompanying their loved ones, they were forced to say their farewells on the quayside in full view of everyone on board.
Saddened and bitter at a regime that could cause so much pain and misery for its people, I watched the pitiful sight with a growing feeling of helpless anger as the men, women and children enacted the time honoured ritual of saying goodbye to each other.
From my position on the ship’s rail high above the quay, I could hear the sobbing and crying as the police began to pull the men away from their families. It was hard to imagine a more heart-breaking scene. Particularly since I knew that the people involved may never see each other again. Even the most cynical of observers must have been moved at the sight of those unhappy families hugging and kissing each other, possibly for the last time in their lives. Many of us were so shocked and upset at seeing the children being wrenched from their father’s last embrace by over-zealous policemen that we began to shout and scream at the officers to let the men on board. Alas, our efforts were wasted. The police continued with their unpleasant duty and began to escort the men back to the shed at rifle point. That final, forced departure of the men-folk must have been sheer torture for the families involved....
Excerpts from The Last Bature, by K C Ryeland
A policeman’s tale set in 1960s post-colonial West Africa
Chapter VII: Blood and Guts
....The police Land-Rover approached the military checkpoint on the way out of Mokuba Township and Mike Stevens slowed the vehicle. Normally, the military would simply wave police vehicles through without them having to stop, but on this occasion the soldier on duty held up his hand in a clear signal to stop.
“What the hell is wrong with this bloke?” said Mike, to no one in particular.
“He is just a boy, sir,” said Bello. “It is probably his first time on roadblock duty.”
Mike brought the Land-Rover to a halt and the soldier walked to the driver’s side with a smile plastered all over his face. However, when he saw that a white man was sitting in the driver’s seat, his lips fell apart and he emitted two sharp sounds from his mouth.
“Ah! Ah! You go be policeman, sa,” cried the young soldier, staring at Mike’s tunic top.
Mike, now quite used to such reactions from young Nibanans, unaccustomed to seeing white men in police uniform, simply said, “Why have you stopped us, Private? You can see we are police officers on official business.”
“Sorry, sa, I never sabby master him dey for motor. I tink say na Nibana man him dey for motor,” said the soldier, in his quaint pidgin English.
“Yes, I dare say you weren’t expecting to see a white man in a police uniform. You were expecting there to be only Nibanan policemen inside, weren’t you? But what plans had you in mind if I had not been here, I wonder?” said Mike, brusquely.
It is probable that the soldier only understood a quarter of what Mike said because he looked blankly at Inspector Akure sitting in the passenger seat and said, “I never sabby what dissy master him go talk me.”
Bello, well aware of what the soldier was up to, replied in the Usmar language, “Then you had better let us go pretty quickly before this bature calls your barracks on our radio and reports you for harassing the police.”
The soldier became quite agitated and said, “OK, sa, make you go now, now, sa. Bye-bye, tank you, sa.”
“Bye-bye,” said Mike, mimicking the soldier, as he let the clutch out and roared off as fast as he could.
“Bloody little bastard, he was after dash or cigarettes, wasn’t he?” said Mike as he slowed the vehicle to a more comfortable pace.
“Yes, something like that,” said Bello, resignedly. “Since the army took control of the country these soldiers have become bolder and bolder by the month. They would never have dared to stop us three months ago, sir. It was only because you were in the vehicle that he let us go without asking for something, despite me being an inspector.”
“Yes, and it’s going to get worse,” said Mike, with a sigh. “Though it’s a good job he didn’t realise that our radio is only tuned to police frequencies, eh, Bello.”
“Oh, yes, I had forgotten that you speak Usmar, sir, It is just as well I did not say anything derogatory about you, sir,” the smile on Bello’s face indicating the joke.
Mike Stevens laughed and said, “Yes, Bello you have to be careful what you say in that lingo of yours when I’m around. Though, as you know, my Usmar is of the kitchen variety. Good only for greetings, farewells and ordering beer and food.”
“Yes, sir,” said Bello, still smiling broadly.
They made good progress despite the terrible road conditions and just as Mike Stevens was assuring himself they would arrive at Yula well before dark, he spotted a problem in the distance.
The long straight section of road enabled Mike to see quite a way ahead, but what he saw did not inspire him. It looked as though vehicles were blocking the carriageway, or rather the debris of vehicles; large trucks or mammy-wagons by the look of things. As they drew closer the three police officers realised they were going to face further delay.
There had been a head-on collision between two trucks, but there was also a mammy-wagon involved and the carnage was enormous. Apart from the distorted remains of the steel cabs and chassis, and the smashed remnants of the ubiquitous wooden bodies that were fitted to all indigenously operated trucks and buses in Nibana, the road was littered with market produce and personal belongings. There was something else littering the road too; human bodies, dozens of them, lying in grotesque forms, many covered in blood. Some of the bodies were so badly mutilated they were beyond recognition; others were simply lying there as though sleeping. There were other people who had escaped injury altogether and they occupied themselves in trying to comfort the more seriously injured, but with no medical knowledge or equipment they could do little to help.
Mike pulled to the side of the road and instructed Bello to get on the radio to the local police post and ask them to arrange for the nearest hospital to send ambulances, doctors and equipment. He and Constable Rufai then approached the scene with trepidation.
Almost immediately, the people who had escaped injury began wailing and screaming at the two policemen, imploring them to do something about the seriously injured people lying in the road. With no equipment other than the first-aid box carried by all police vehicles, Mike decided that the best he could do was to assure the hapless survivors that he had requested help from the nearest police post. This seemed to calm them somewhat and Mike began the grim task of determining how many of the victims were actually alive. He began to examine the bodies lying in the road and, after a few moments, instructed the constable to do the same.
The majority of the passengers in the mammy-wagon had been women and children, and it sickened Mike Stevens to see the extent of the slaughter around him. Some were lying still and some were moaning, others were screaming in pain. Clearly, when the medics turned up, these were the people needing attention first. As Mike tried to sort some kind of priority list by writing numbers on pages torn from his notebook and placing them on the victim’s bodies where the medics would see them, the uninjured passengers began protesting at some of Mike’s decisions. The constant panicky chatter from these people began to irritate him and Mike ordered them to sit at the side of the road and be quiet. He was more than aware that he may be making wrong decisions, but he felt he had to do something so not to waste the medic’s time.
Mike had counted fifty-four people at the scene. The two truck drivers were dead in their cabs along with six others who had obviously been passengers in both trucks, their mangled bodies hanging in grotesque poses amongst the distorted metal and therefore Mike wasted no further time on them.
From the way in which the vehicles had ended up in the road, it was clear the mammy-wagon had tried to overtake one of the trucks, but couldn’t make it before the other truck, approaching from the opposite direction, hit both the mammy-wagon and the truck it was overtaking. It was the old, old story, Mike had seen the result of reckless overtaking many times before, and he shook his head in sadness at the waste of life and the stupidity of it all....
Chapter XVI: Dirty Tricks
....The British high commissioner sat at his desk in the High Commission building in Laguna waiting for the first secretary commercial to come to his office. When, at last, the man appeared, the high commissioner stood up and said, “Where the hell is your bloody agent, Charles? He should have been in contact by now.”
The first secretary commercial looked at his shoes before mumbling something quite incomprehensible to the high commissioner.
“What did you say?” cried the high commissioner, sorely irritated by whole situation.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve heard nothing from Mohammed Bouari since we decided he should recruit that white policeman from the north to assist him recover the weapon,” replied the first secretary.
“When did you say these damn Yubas are going to launch their coup? Tonight? You do realise that our plan could backfire on us if the Yubas are successful in their attempt to take over Nibana. That dining room steward you so carefully nurtured, and who now has possession of the device, is a Yuba. What are you going to do, Charles, if he decides to hand it over to the Yuba military after the coup? Worse still, what if he gives it to the French or actually hands it back to the Russians and the North Koreans? We’ll never get our hands on the technology then, Charles. That’s assuming we need the technology. I’ve yet to hear from those damn fools in London,” said the high commissioner, despondently.
“Well, sir, I could send more agents out there, but I don’t want them tripping over each other. I’m confident that Bouari and Stevens, that’s the white policeman, sir, will come through for us,” said the first secretary, in a hopeful tone.
“Can we really trust that Bouari fellow, Charles? After all, he is a Lebanese national and he’s a Muslim too. How long have you known him?” queried the high commissioner.
“Sir, I can vouch for him. He has served us loyally for a long time. I have no reason to think he would double-cross us now, sir.”
“Very well, Charles. I shall leave it with you, but God help you if this goes sour.”
With that, the high commissioner dismissed his first secretary commercial with a slight wave of the hand.
* * *
Nissi Offiong paced his office in utter frustration and continually cursed Major Etuk for not getting in touch, as specifically instructed, just as soon as he’d completed his mission to plant the nuclear device at the Western Police College in Ndabi.
Despite being in a foul temper, Nissi suddenly had a brilliant idea and reached for the handset of the red telephone on his desk. Thirty minutes later, he called for his ADC and barked a string of orders at the frightened man.
Later that evening, Lieutenant Memeka stood to attention in the governor’s private sitting room, having rushed to Ugune from the mine on receiving the urgent summons from the governor’s ADC.
“Lieutenant, I understand you work closely with Major Etuk, not so?” began the governor in a relaxed, casual tone.
“Yes, sir, I work very closely with the major, but I have not seen him for a day or two. Is he here in Ugune, sir?” replied the lieutenant, nervously.
“Do not question me, Lieutenant, or you will be severely punished. You are here to answer my questions. Do you understand? Now listen carefully. When was the last time you saw the major? Think before you answer, Lieutenant,” said the governor in a menacing tone.
The lieutenant began to panic as he tried to remember when he had last seen the major.
“Sorry, sir, but I think I last saw him two days ago when I drove him from the mine to see you here in Ugune, sir. When he had finished here, I drove him back to the rest house in Yula where he dismissed me and I have not seen him since, sir.”
Memeka noticed the suspicious look on the governor’s face and he decided to add more to his story in a desperate attempt at appeasement.
“I think he spoke to one of the Koreans at the rest house, sir, because I saw the two men leave in the Land-Rover half an hour later, sir.”
The governor continued to stare menacingly at the lieutenant and Memeka became frightened again and added yet further information to his report in the hope that it would somehow please the governor.
“Sir, I think they may have gone to the mine, sir, because I watched them leave and I noticed that they took the mine track. I could see the headlights heading in that direction for quite a while, sir. I have not seen the major or the scientist since then, sir. I swear on the life of my mother, sir,” pleaded the lieutenant.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” said the governor, smiling. “I want you to find the major for me, but first you must swear allegiance to me personally. Do you understand?”
The lieutenant longed to be somewhere else, but smiled back at the governor saying, “Yes, sir, of course, sir. I am a loyal officer, sir. I will swear to you my absolute allegiance and obedience, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant, you are very wise. Now then, when you eventually find Major Etuk, you will kill him and retrieve the property that he has stolen from me,” said the governor as he motioned for Memeka to sit down.
The governor’s previous telephone enquiries had led him to believe that Etuk was in Laguna rather than Ndabi, where he should have been. The red telephone connected directly to his close friend, the commander of the Arakan Barracks in Laguna, and he’d confirmed that Etuk had dropped off an army Land-Rover there, changed into civilian clothes and proceeded on foot to a taxi rank, struggling with a large suitcase. Suspicious of Etuk’s strange behaviour, the commander had had him followed. When the commander’s ADC, the man detailed to follow Etuk, confirmed that the major had checked into a cheap township hotel, the commander naturally assumed the major was there to meet with a girlfriend. At that point, he called off the tail and thought no more of it until the military governor had made specific enquiries.
The governor told Memeka the name of the hotel in Laguna where he could expect to find the major. He then reiterated that Memeka should kill the officer immediately, retrieve a large suitcase, contact him and await orders. The governor emphasised that Memeka should not open the suitcase under any circumstances; suggesting forcefully that the penalty for doing so would be extreme. However, not wishing to frighten his new man completely out of his wits, the governor went on to confirm that Memeka’s reward for success would be immunity from prosecution, promotion to captain and a lifetime appointment to the governor’s personal staff at Government House in Ugune.
Lieutenant Memeka smiled and said, “Yes, sir, I understand perfectly. I will leave for Laguna right away.”
* * *
The military attaché at the Soviet Embassy paced the floor of his office smoking one cigarette after another, thinking anxiously about the North Korean nuclear weapon. He didn’t hear the gentle knock on his door the first time, but when it was repeated a little louder some seconds later, he called for his security advisor to enter.
“Comrade, you persuaded me that your plan would work, but now we have lost contact with that steward from the British High Commission whom you nurtured and moulded for many months. Just what is going on, Comrade, are you in control of your operative or not?” growled the attaché.
“Yes, Comrade Military Attaché, I am in full control. Please do not concern yourself over this stupid steward. He has simply misunderstood my very clear and concise instructions, Comrade Military Attaché. My best agent is about to make contact with him this evening, Comrade,” replied the security advisor, nervously.
The military attaché looked at his security advisor for a moment and then said very quietly, “Very well, Comrade, but if you fail us on this, you can look forward to no less than thirty years in a corrective labour camp.”
Since Stalin’s death in 1953, senior Soviet political and military figures no longer used the common and well-understood term for the harsh system of political prisoner re-education in the Soviet Union: The Gulag.
* * *
The French military attaché stood looking out of his office window in the French Embassy on Laguna Island, almost across the street from the British High Commission and the Soviet Embassy.
“Do you think this offer is genuine or is it just a joke?” said the French ambassador as he paced the office nervously.
“Well, sir, if it is genuine we shall have the micro-nuclear technology that no other Western power possesses. If it is a joke, as you put it, well, no one will know that some Nibanan took us for fools. I can assure you of that, sir. My agent is well aware of his orders,” said the military attaché, without turning away from the window to face his ambassador.
“Very well, Pierre. Continue with your plan and deploy your agent, but do not tell me any more details about this steward from the British High Commission. I want to be able to look the British high commissioner in the eye at diplomatic parties and deny everything without feeling guilty. Just be sure to report that you have been successful when we meet for breakfast in the morning,” said the ambassador as he opened the military attaché’s door and quickly departed....
Chapter XXI: Homeward Bound
Mike Stevens and the others on the police launch watched in silence as the Israeli submarine slowly slipped below the waves leaving a trail of turbulence, bubbles and foam for dozens of yards. When the disturbance on the surface of the sea had subsided, it was as though the submarine had never been there.
“Well, sir, what do we do now?” said Bello, breaking the silence that had enveloped everyone on the launch.
“We go home, Bello, that’s what we do,” said Mike, resignedly.
“Am I imagining things or did Chief Superintendent Bouari steal that device from us, sir?” queried Bello.
“Yes, he did Bello. I can’t condone what he did, but at least it’s gone to a nation with some sense of morality, whose people understand the meaning of suffering and oppression. This, I hope, means they will use the technology to prevent war rather than encourage it. Perhaps Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will stop the surrounding Arab nations from constantly attacking them. Who knows, it may actually lead to peace in the Middle East. Wouldn’t that be something, Bello?” replied Mike Stevens, hoping Bello would understand his stance on the matter.
“Yes sir, that would be a wonderful thing, but I do not think it will happen,” said Bello, quietly.
Mike realised that Bello, a Muslim, found it difficult to see the Israeli point of view and so he changed the subject entirely.
“OK, let’s make straight for the coast, turn left and follow it along until we reach Laguna. We must return this launch and explain what has happened,” said Mike, addressing everyone.
Mike worked out a course and the constable, now quite a proficient helmsman, volunteered to steer the launch.
Within twenty minutes, they could see a thin black line on the northern horizon, indicating that the coast of Nibana was about two and a half miles away.
Only when a klaxon sounded did the occupants of the launch realise there was a US guided missile frigate closing on them from behind. Five minutes later a loud whooping sound drew their eyes to the left side of the launch where a Royal Navy destroyer was running alongside at a distance of about two hundred yards.
“What the hell is going on here? I should have detailed someone to watch the damn radar screen,” said Mike, more to himself than to anyone else. “Bello, we had better stop and see what these chaps want. Though I suspect they are looking for the device.”
Bello instructed the constable to close the throttles and they waited for the frigate and the destroyer to stop and send crewmen in outboard-powered inflatables.
The American inflatable arrived first with an officer and four armed marines. Minutes later, the Royal Navy inflatable turned up with an officer and two armed sailors.
“I am Lieutenant Ford from the USS England and I demand to search this launch, stand aside while we board.”
“I am Lieutenant Jackson from HMS Cavalier; we would like to question you regarding a certain device. May we come aboard?”
The inflatables had approached the launch from either side and were now lying alongside bobbing on the waves with the two officers trying to assert themselves, but in very different ways.
“Now just hold on a moment, sailor-boys. This is a Nibana police launch and I am SDPO Mike Stevens, a senior Nibana police officer. We are heading back to Laguna in the course of our duty and, if I am not mistaken, we are now well within Nibanan territorial waters. You have no right to board or question us without my express permission. Now then, how do you want to play this one, gentlemen? Sensibly or strictly by the book?” said Mike, smiling at the two lieutenants in turn as he waved his warrant card at them.
The two naval officers looked at each other across the width of the launch and shrugged before nodding their heads in agreement.
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenants, how can I help you?” said Mike, smiling again.
After scrambling aboard the police launch, the naval officers told Mike they had already intercepted the Kruger, albeit individually, and found nothing. However, when Captain De Jager told each of them the device had been stolen by some ‘pirates’ in a large launch, adding that the pirates had also kidnapped the bulk of his African crew, the Americans and the British, consulting on their ship’s radios, decided to join forces in an attempt to search out the miscreants.
Mike began to explain what had actually happened aboard the Kruger, asking the naval officers whether the crewmen from the freighter looked and behaved as though they had been the victims of a kidnapping. When the two officers conceded there had been no kidnap attempt, Mike went on to explain that Bouari had hijacked the weapon and boarded an Israeli submarine. As soon as they heard this piece of news, the naval officers became very agitated, demanding to know when and where this had occurred, and which direction the submarine had taken.
Mike gave them his best estimate of the time that had elapsed since Bouari took off and showed them the rendezvous position Bouari had marked on the chart, but he could not enlighten them regarding the direction the submarine had taken.
“It just submerged. It could have gone anywhere once it was under the water, but don’t you chaps have submarine detection devices on your ships?” said Mike, expecting a positive reply.
Both naval officers nodded, but confirmed that making contact could be difficult in a large area of ocean such as the Bight of Laguna.
“We could grid-search this area for weeks and never detect the sub, so I must get back to my ship and report to my captain,” said the American.
“I would put my money on the Israelis taking the short way home via Gibraltar,” began the Royal Navy officer. “They could go the long way around the Cape and then through the Suez Canal, of course. The canal has no lock gates and is forty-six feet deep, so an ex-British ‘S’ class sub, which is what the Israelis have, in theory, could pass through submerged, but it would be very difficult for them with all the surface traffic. Furthermore, the Egyptians manage the canal and so the Israelis would have no chance of getting through legitimately or by stealth in my view. The only thing I can do is report back to my captain and he may ask the Admiralty what they want us to do.”
“Sorry I can’t be more helpful, gentlemen,” said Mike, apologetically.
“That’s fine, sir, but I have one last request. Do you mind if we search the launch? We have to be sure, you understand,” said the American.
The Royal Navy officer nodded agreement with his American counterpart and Mike, realising they had their duties to perform, relented and said, “OK, but don’t break anything, it’s not my launch.”
When they came upon the gun-locker, the British officer asked Mike for the key to the padlock. Mike informed him that Bouari had taken it, and the officer indicated it would be necessary to force the lock. Mike shrugged his shoulders and the British officer called to one of his sailors in the inflatable. Seconds later the sailor produced a bayonet and handed it to the officer.
Five minutes later, with the lock duly prised open and the locker emptied of its contents, the naval officers thanked Mike and his colleagues, made absolutely no comment regarding the array of Sten guns, rifles and revolvers lying on the deck, saluted smartly and re-boarded their inflatables. Within minutes, the naval visitors had reached their respective ships and the police launch resumed its journey to Laguna.
It took quite while to find the creek that would lead them to the first secretary’s house where they had originally collected the launch some twelve hours ago. It was beginning to get dark and Mike was relieved when he recognised the landing stage and, as they came closer, the outline of the large, white bungalow where the first secretary lived. Having to locate the landing stage in the pitch black of night would have required the use of one of the several spot lamps attached to the top of the cabin. Naturally, Mike would have been reluctant to do this because of the curfew, still in force until sun-up in twelve hour’s time.
The nightwatchman helped to secure the launch and Mike went up to the house to speak with the first secretary, whilst the rest of the group waited patiently on the landing stage.
The first secretary nearly had a seizure when Mike told him that Bouari had been a Mossad agent all along and had hijacked the device for Israel before making his getaway in an Israeli submarine.
The demoralised man simply sat at his kitchen table staring out of the window at the shadowy outline of the launch, now moored securely at the jetty, wondering what the high commissioner would have to say when he broke the news to him in the morning....
***Note from Kenneth*** I would like to give away one of my on Smashwords as an incentive to the readers.
It's a story called "" which I have extracted from my compendium of short stories " "
The synopsis is as follows:
": is employed to open a new branch of the company in the oil-rich Enube Delta of Nibana, a failing ex-British colony on the west coast of Africa. Although he encounters many difficulties, the business succeeds until the region is plunged into civil war. Sabotage finally renders all he has worked for lost, but out of the chaos comes an opportunity for fabulous riches and a new life in an altogether different part of Africa.
A story of greed, corruption and life in a township under the heel of the multinational oil companies."
Readers can obtain the novella free of charge in any e-format by quoting coupon number HT94J before proceeding to the checkout on Smashwords. The link to the novella is http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/35262
My webpage is http://africantales.wordpress.com