Archive for army

Chapter 12: Cowardly Action

Posted in Extracts with tags , , , , , , , , on 06/12/2008 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

Author and Friends in the Bush Nr Jos (again) 1971

Extract from The Up-Country Man

[…]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.[…]

Advertisements

Chapter 4: A Testing Time

Posted in Extracts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 29/11/2008 by Kenneth C. Ryeland
 

A Party Guest on the Veranda: Jos, 1971

Extract from The Up-Country Man

[…]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.[…]

The Up-Country Man: The Story Behind the Story

Posted in Synopses with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 23/11/2008 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

The Evacuation Ship: MV Isonzo

When the “Winds of Change” began to blow through the African colonies in the late fifties and early sixties, the author began to take a deep interest in these vast territories. Even after leaving school, he nurtured his secret desire to live and work in the ex-colonies of Africa. His ambition was eventually fulfilled shortly after his 25th birthday.

Having finished his engineering apprenticeship and obtained the necessary academic qualifications, the author joined a British company with commercial interests in the West African state of Nigeria. In the six and a half years since independence in October 1960, the people of this ex-British colony had already experienced civil unrest and two military coups. Now the country was on the brink of three long years of civil war, primarily because of an argument over oil revenues between the Federal Military Government and the Governor of the Eastern Region. The author arrived in Nigeria in April 1967, just as the Biafran crisis was about to enter its final and most devastating stage.

This book records his personal views and experiences of the events leading up to and beyond the act of rebellion that created the short-lived Republic of Biafra. The work concentrates on the author’s arrival in the territory and the first one hundred days following secession when he was resident in Enugu, the capital of Biafra. His job as a manager with one of the most important companies in the region gave him a particular insight into the bid for independence and the consequences arising from many of the policies adopted by the Biafran Government thereafter.

The narrative deals with the culture shock that everyone experiences when they arrive in a country where the lifestyle, customs and climate are vastly different to their own. It also looks closely at the relationship between the Africans and the Europeans who lived and worked in Nigeria, reflecting the reality of post colonial Africa in the nineteen-sixties in a sensitive and honest way. Though there is cognisance of the wider political machinations in Biafra, Nigeria and the UK during the period of the crisis, the work is really a personal reflection of the day-to-day difficulties and problems encountered by both Africans and Europeans as Nigeria raced headlong into civil war.

Despite being resident in Biafra for only a short time, this work captures the mood and relates some of the incidents that occurred during the build up to all out war in July 1967. These include the close surveillance of all foreigners by the Biafran secret police (an activity that caused many problems for the author); the difficulty he experienced with the Biafran military when the company driver was beaten close to death by drunken soldiers; the illegal and barbaric activity of the police and army personnel who manned the hundreds of road blocks; and the effect that all this chaos had on the lives of the people and the economy of Biafra. The work also reflects the feeling of vulnerability that pervaded the author’s daily life as the Federal Nigerian Army penetrated the northern and western sectors of the new republic and began to advance inexorably towards Enugu, the seat of power of the rebel regime.

However, it is not all gloom and misfortune. Many passages touch on the humour and grit of the ordinary citizens trying to cope with the chaos around them. The sections of dialogue written in the style of spoken Pidgin English will provide the reader with an intriguing insight into the use of English as a means of communication in a country where 250 languages are in daily use. The work is presented from the viewpoint of a young Briton, seemingly abandoned by his company, stranded in a rebel enclave, threatened by war and separated from his wife and child.

The climax of the book describes the author’s evacuation by road from Enugu to Port Harcourt. During the journey the civil defence volunteers manning the roadblocks subjected the author and the other Europeans in the vehicle convoy to many threats, and there is an account of the evacuees being dragged from their vehicles and lined up at the side of the road ready for a firing squad.

The author, together with over 800 other expatriates, was eventually evacuated from Port Harcourt to Lagos by sea on the MV Isonzo, a small, 7,500-ton Italian freighter. This was the last vessel to leave rebel held Port Harcourt and required a special agreement between the warring parties for its safe passage. Even at this late stage, however, the Biafran military continued to harass the evacuees as the ship steamed down the river Bonny on its way to the open sea.

The work will satisfy a wide spectrum of readers ranging from those interested in British post-colonial African history to the many who simply enjoy a good, true life adventure story. Though the outline for the book was written twenty-five years after the events, this does not dilute the impact of the story. Contemporaneous diary notes, a sharp memory, reflection and hindsight give the work an unusual strength and character.

This book will provide the reader with a detailed insight into the traumatic conditions that prevailed in Nigeria as the country embarked upon a bloody and cruel civil war. It was a war fuelled on both sides by the Western Powers because of the importance of Nigerian oil. No other British author has written an account of the misfortunes and sufferings of ordinary individuals caught up in the power politics and lust for oil revenues that broke the uneasy peace in Nigeria during the late sixties.