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A Higher Duty

By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema (Nigeria)

Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema has a BA in History and International Studies. He is a teacher by day and a writer at all times. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in,, Kalahari Review and some Nigerian newspapers. His short fiction won a highly commended award in the 2005 Commonwealth short story competition. He published a novella titled 'In Love and In War' in 2020.


A Higher Duty

During the Nigeria-Biafra war a young Igbo Biafran lieutenant and his platoon of diehards from the Biafran Commandos ambushed a Nigerian army company along the bullet-riddled road connecting Mbarakpa to Ihiala town, then under brutal contest between both sides. As the Nigerian convoy rolled in, unaware of the blissful welcome awaiting them, the lieutenant saw that their commander, seated Israeli paratrooper style beside the driver of the lead Land Rover, was the Gwari boy who shared a desk with him when they were students at St. Johnís College, Kaduna; who taught him the fine art of chasing girls; who saved him and his family from rampaging mobs in 1966 and persuaded his father to ensure all of them escaped from Northern Nigeria unhurt.

The lieutenant did not order his men to open fire. He screamed the Gwari password his friend used to safeguard him and his family in those satanic days when mobs went amok, baying for Nyamiri blood. The Gwari boy, now a captain, nearly passed out when he heard it. He ordered his driver to stop. The Biafrans watched, many with almost unbearable hatred. The gashes of 1966 were still dripping blood in the hearts of most of them. But they dared not shoot because they knew the stuff their lieutenant was made of. They stayed their itching trigger fingers.

"Chimezie, donít shoot. Itís Lami; I am unarmed." The captain matched his shout by tossing out his service pistol and raising his hands as he emerged from the vehicle. His men watched, their hearts beating feverishly for they knew they were staring into the face of the grim reaper. Chimezie watched, his MAAB machine-pistol at the ready, suppressing unsoldierly emotion with herculean effort. Tension walked on two legs at that moment.

As soon as the lanky and smiling captain stepped onto the road in full sight a rifle to Chimezieís left chattered briefly but madly. Twice. Lami collapsed like a bag of water-soaked yams, blood oozing from a head wound. The triggerman was Chimezieís platoon sergeant, Nwanze alias Ďndi awusa ga nwuí (all Hausa people must die). A prosperous trader in Sokoto before the war, Nwanzeís entire family and shops were destroyed in one day in August 1966 and he virtually walked home from the North.

Undiluted shock and terror filled the earth and hearts. But Chimezie reacted with the sharp-shooting speed which had earned him the nickname of ĎJetí in the Commandos. Nwanze went down with five bullets from his machine-pistol. The Nigerians went into desperate battle. It was short, sharp and brutal. The Biafrans made quick work of them. Chimezie called upon all his resources as he shot at the Nigerians and also dodged bullets from some of his men who saw him gun down their sergeant. Ten merciful minutes later it was over. Almost all the Nigerians were dead but eighty percent of Chimezieís unit was wiped out.

The surviving Biafrans saw their commander kneeling beside Lamiís corpse, crying like a child. They paused. All of them, to a man, instantly understood wordlessly. Chimezie looked up at the bearded, scarred face of Corporal Odogwu who was next in line to the dead Nwanze.

"Corporal, he saved me in Kaduna." His voice was quiet.

"I know, sir." Odogwuís voice was soft but his eyes were lit up by hellfire.

"You know your duty, Odogwu. Will you put me under arrest or shoot me here?"

Odogwu looked at the menís faces, walked over to the lone surviving Nigerian writhing on the ground. The sounds emitting from what used to be his mouth could not be attributed to any living creature the corporal knew. The guy was still alive though his entire face had been shot off. Soundlessly but venomously cursing Ojukwu and Gowon, Odogwu aimed his pistol at the man and put him out of his misery. He swung his gun with cat-like speed on Chimezie who was still crouched beside Lamiís body.

"Lieutenant Chimezie Oke, you are under arrest for the murder of Sergeant Nwanze Ejidike, sir." The onetime Nigerian soldierís voice was cold but his eyes burned with pain. All the surviving commandos trained their rifles on the lieutenant instantly. Chimezie did not resist as two of his men took his gun and handcuffed him.

The court-martial back at the headquarters was a summary affair. Chimezie was led to a stake to await the firing-squad.

"Final words, my son?" asked the chaplain.

Chimezie smiled before replying. "Once in a lifetime a higher duty makes its demand of us. Thank God I was not found wanting when it called." Eight months after the war Odogwu used his still existing contacts in the Nigerian military brotherhood to reach out to Lamiís people. They came to Igboland and he took them to the unmarked grave in which Chimezieís corpse was unceremoniously buried by his executioners. Mama Lami stretched herself over it and wept like tomorrow would never come. "My son, my son, my true Igbo son. God, why must two brothers die like this?" She buried flowers in the grave.

A photograph of the grave adorns a wall of the Lami family home beside the picture of Chimezie and Lami in their third year at St. Johnís.

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