I am of the view that notwithstanding the stark political divisions presently rocking the polity, it was grotesque and base to celebrate the tragic death, in an air crash, of eleven officers of the Nigerian Armed Forces, including the Chief of Army Staff, General Ibrahim Attahiru. I am not saying that anybody be made to feel obligated to mourn. But the least they should do is to refrain from mouthing crude obscenities at a time like this!
Not even an open war would have sanctified such a reaction, unless the victims were felled by deliberate hostile fire, in which case those responsible for the felling will be entitled by conventions of war to thump their chests in celebration of their own military feat. Open celebration of the accidental deaths of even enemy combatants at war is, by convention, considered barbarous and unchivalrous!
A few historical examples of chivalry will drive home my point. In May, 1968, Colonel Joe Akahan, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff during the Biafra War, died gruesomely in a helicopter crash, at the age of 31. Ironically, the mood in Government House, Enugu, Biafra’s seat of power, was most sombre. General Ojukwu, still at war with Nigeria, grieved, and promptly offered Nigeria his condolences. It was not an act of weakness on Ojukwu’s part, nor did it dim the ferocity of Biafra’s military engagements afterwards. It was strictly in keeping with the noblest traditions of civilized conduct.
A year earlier, on the 29th of July, 1967, to be precise, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, whose January, 1966 coup set off a chain of events that eventually culminated in the Biafran war, was caught up in an ambush at the Nsukka sector, while fighting for Biafra. In the same ambushed car was Ojukwu’s younger brother, the half – caste Tom – Biggar, then a war correspondent with a foreign wire service. Both Nzeogwu and Tom – Biggar were finished off by a grenade blast ignited by Nigerian soldiers. When Captain Shehu Yar’Adua, the commanding officer, arrived the scene of the tragic ambush, he grieved. Both Nzeogwu and Tom – Biggar had been his friends. He immediately did two things: he ordered that their remains be treated with dignity, and arranged to have them conveyed to Kaduna, where Nzeogwu was subsequently buried with military honours. Yar ‘ Adua did more: he journeyed to Warri, and handed over Tom – Biggar’s personal effects to a mutual friend, who handed them over to his family after the war!
History is littered with other stunning examples of moving chivalry. Clashes between Christian and Muslim armies during the 3rd Crusade in the 12th Century were fierce indeed. But Emperor Saladin, the Muslim Army Commander, was a man whose respect for his greatest foes transcended religious differences. He was fighting against King Richard “Lionheart”, the English Monarch, who led the Christian armies in the battle of Jerusalem, when suddenly the English King was thrown off his wounded horse. Instead of finishing off the English King who continued to fight nevertheless, Saladin ordered his brother to lead two horses to the King in the middle of the battle, with the message: “A man so great should not be on foot.” Later, in the course of the same war, when King Richard fell ill, Saladin sent him peaches, pears and shaved ice to help him recover.
Saladin’s epic restraint is historically well known, and was even depicted in the 2005 movie, “Kingdom of Heaven.” Yet, Saladin was one of history’s ablest generals, and certainly, the most successful Muslim commander whose exploits included the conquest of Jerusalem. Saladin continues to be remembered all through history as one of the greatest sages of chivalry, unsurpassingly brave, a warrior who cherished honour and valour above all other qualities.
While, as we have seen, some acts of chivalry are performed by the solitary commander, others could be by a populace, or even an entire army! One such act of chivalry seized an entire army on December 24, 1914, in the heat of the 1st World War. British and German troops faced one another across a line of sordid trenches in France. At midnight, some German troops stopped shooting and started singing Christmas carols. The British soldiers joined in. By morning, soldiers on both sides had climbed out of their trenches and were playing soccer and exchanging gifts and cigarettes. The truce came to an end once Christmas ended, and an even more ferocious exchange of gunfire then resumed.
Acts of chivalry are performed in gratification of our shared humanity, and never as a sign of weaknes. Chivalry elevates, and never demeans. I am not unaware of the converse occurrences of barbarities in civilizations in which such virtues as chivalry are totally unknown, civilizations that even justify and rationalize the eating of captured prisoners of war. Such civilizations gloat at accidents and natural disasters. The Vandals were one such civilisation!
The tragic death of General Attahiru reminds us all of the fragility, despite advances in technology, of the human condition. Such a death, no matter the divisions that abound, is a humbling lesson for us all, and should never be an opportunity for gloating. That people actually gloated, and passed obscene comments, demean us all.
Were I in any position to advise any of our separatist groups presently fighting for freedom, the moment of Attahiru’s tragic passing would have been an opportunity to humanize the organization and further ennoble its ideals. A heartfelt condolence expressed, if not to the Government and people of Nigeria, but to the grieving families directly, would not have been an act of weakness. It would have been a tremendously disarming act of chivalry capable of winning minds, by portraying their leaders as humane and thinking men!
By Kenneth Ikonne