What’s in a Name?

Last Sunday, as we prepared for church, I checked my wallet to see if I had enough money to meet the usual offertory requirements. As I counted my paltry stack of notes, my wife jocularly called me “Khashoggi.” That was her cheeky way of reminding me to contribute more of our meager earnings to the Lord’s vineyard. Ordinarily, I would have replied with a joke, but for an inexplicable reason, that name awakened the anthropologist in me. I decided to ask about thirty people, mostly born in the 80’s and 90’s, if they knew the origin of the slang, Khashoggi. They must have thought it was dumb question to ask, and all said it meant someone with a lot of money, or as one put it, “someone with a lot of cash and swagger.”

I doubt if Adnan Khashoggi knows how famous he is in Nigeria. The infamous Saudi arms dealer and businessman will surely be more intrigued to know very few Nigerians know him, or can pick him out in a photo album, yet his name is instantly recognizable. One of our colloquial descriptions for a successful and wealthy person is the surname of a man known for gun running, money laundering and bribery. At the peak of his wealth, Adnan Khashoggi was one of the richest men in the world, worth over $4 billion. A lot of that wealth was linked to various deals like the Iran-Contra arms for hostages deal, Lockheed bribery scandal and money laundering at the behest of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Here we remember his yacht, Nabila, used for the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again. It is convenient to forget the yacht was later sold to Donald Trump, as a broke Khashoggi moved from one prison to another.

Like Khashoggi, Francis Arthur Nzeribe was a notorious arms dealer.  He was known for his willingness to replicate real life version of the computer game, Call of Duty, in several African countries. In Nigeria, he is best remembered for the bloodless coup against democracy in 1993. The story of how Bassey Ikpeme wrote her judgment at midnight in Clement Akpamgbo’s chambers has been repeated over several hectoliters of beer, so it is befuddling how Arthur Nzeribe can still walk the streets of Oguta without a false moustache. To rub salt into our collective wounds, he was “elected” into the National Assembly as a Senator, representing Orlu constituency, and served two terms. Thankfully, Osita Izunaso spared us more agony, and defeated the self-acclaimed democrat in 2007.

Let’s move forward to a few weeks ago where I heard two former governors in the South West hailed as messiahs by the popular Yoruba musician, Yinka Ayefele. I doubt if Mahatma Ghandi or Lee Kuan Yew were ever praised with such eloquence. These men, who should be listening to the sonorous voices of mosquitoes in prison, sat pretty among the crème of the society. My biggest concern was an incumbent governor who witnessed, with a smirk, how his fraudulent predecessors were “ostracized” by society. No doubt, he is a wiser man after that experience; he won’t dare steal a penny from the public purse.

It is similar to how our Universities dish out honorary degrees, and traditional rulers fall over themselves to give chieftaincy titles, all to individuals who should be behind bars. We abhor corruption on the pages of the newspapers, yet we honour and accommodate corrupt family members and associates. Our monuments and streets are named after criminals, yet we want generations unborn to wipe the slate clean.

If you need proof the joke is firmly on us, look no further than the location of the EFCC’s Lagos office. For those who are yet to be invited, it is somewhere in Ikoyi on a street named after Festus Okotie-Eboh. But then again, what’s in a name?


The Punishment for Treason is Death

I originally encountered Max Siollun  when I read Oil, Politics and Violence (OPV), his excellent book on the history of Nigeria between 1966 and 1976, a period dominated by military coups and a bloody civil war. Soldiers of Fortune is a deserving sequel to such a powerful book. Siollun does an excellent job of curating the power tussles and resulting coups that dominated the 80’s, and traces the transition of Nigeria’s military from an ideological group to one intent on shedding blood and seizing power as a means of self-preservation. The book is a unque peek into the subterfuge and paranoia that defined Nigeria’s leadership between 1985 and 1993; and how a small group of professional coup plotters played a deadly game of musical chairs with the Nigerian polity.
There are three key themes from this book. Firstly, it reminds the reader of how military coups need a complicit populace to succeed. The term “coup baiting” explains the deliberate attempt by civilian interests to form public opinion against a sitting government, setting the tone for a military takeover. This explains the false dawn that accompanied coups, and the unearned legitimacy the populace gave to succesive military regimes. Despite questionable economic policies and laughable diplomatic gaffes, the militarry managed to rule Nigeria for 16 years without interruption. This is a lesson to Nigeria’s political class, and a reminder that the mistakes of the 80’s and 90’s can re-occur easily. Secondly, the Orkar coup demonstrates how coup plotting was driven by ethnic allegiances and perceived victimisation of particular tribes/people. The perceived exploitation of the Niger-Delta was a key theme of this coup, and it was not coincidental that the key actors were mostly from that region. The suppression of ethnic protestations by successive military government explains today’s instability where several parts of the country are under siege from regional warlords. Finally, we are reminded of how unprepared Nigeria’s leaders have been. It is arguable that apart from Babanginda and perhaps Abacha, Nigeria has been ruled by accidental leaders. Soldiers of Fortune is a reminder of how the country’s growth was stunted by a mix of leaders who were unwilling and/or unable to develop a clear roadmap for growth and development.
My most poignant chapter of the book is the portion devoted to the trial and execution of Major-General Mamman Vatsa and nine others. I remember reading about this coup in the papers, and watching footage of the trial on television. It was difficult not to shed a tear for General Vatsa, shackled in leg chains with handcuffs occupying his wrists beside an expensive wrist watch. He looked out of place, but maintained a resolute and dignified posture while men around him crumbled. In the end, the soldier and poet was killed to satisfy his childhood friend’s paranoia despite pleas from different pressure groups. It is ironic that General Bali remains the highest ranking officer to publicly question Vatsa’s guilt, when the same man delivered the terse nationwide broadcast that announced Vatsa’s execution. Siollun reminds the reader of those terse words, “in the military, the punishment for treason is death.” It is the biggest indication of the game of Russian Roulette that defined my childhood. A time when the mantra was first self preservation, before the common good.