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Memories of Doctor Death by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo

Memories of Doctor Death by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo

Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013

They came for us that morning, all sixteen of us. It was very early in the day, no earlier than 7 a.m. in my thinking. But I had to squint as I stepped outside the building that housed the cell, the rays of the February sun sharp like darts on my pupils. I kept my eyes to the ground partly due to the rays of the sun and partly because all the others ahead of me in the single file also had their heads bent down. It was then that I noticed the position of my shadow and it dawned on me that I had been wrong about the time, that it was almost noon. This realization suddenly made the marching band in the left side of my chest increase its frequency. I knew that they loved to do it in the afternoon, that the C-in-C always talked about it, about how his father, a farmer, had taught him that the best time to kill a thieving rat, one that has been feeding on the yam stored in the barn, was in the afternoon so that its carcass can be left to dry under the sun and be feasted on by vultures.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight, imagining for a brief moment what it must feel like to be blind. It was the first time I had been out in the sun in so many days. The cell where they kept us had been specially designed not just as a put away for opponents of the government but also as a place to purge them of their blasphemy and treachery before sending them to their deaths. So, they kept the light away. So dark was the cell that one couldn’t make out the five fingers of his palms held to his face. The only light we ever had in the cell was from the guards’ torch light when they came to feed us once a day; and from the tiny pink rays of the sun as it prepared to set seeping in through the small square openings that circled the top of the cell walls like a halo. Those rays that appeared for a brief moment at long intervals had helped me keep count of the days. By my calculation, it was now the twentieth day.

“We are moving you to Abuja,” one of the armed guards whispered to me in response to the question my eyes desperately asked. I had recognized him among the team of half a dozen armed men marching us from the cell house to a fleet of waiting cars. He was one of the boys I had personally recruited into the S-Squad and trained. I imagine he must have felt such deep sympathy seeing me in those handcuffs that he didn’t hesitate to take the huge risk of whispering to me. I hoped my brief wink registered my appreciation even though he had looked away almost immediately. By that time, there were a thousand boots marching in the space where my heart used to be. My trepidation had started the moment the guards arrived at the cell that morning and instead of slipping the plate of food beneath the iron gates as they normally did, unlocked the gates and with the beams of their torches flooding the cell and blinding us, ordered us all to get up and march out in a single file. My first thought was that the end might have come. So when the guard whispered our destination, though I was happy to know, I almost lost control of my bladder. It was certainly the end, I thought. My entire body shook almost in rhythm with the beating in my chest. I took deep breaths repeatedly as the siren-blaring convoy conveying sixteen of us sped off in the direction of Jos airport. I did this to calm my nerves, to make me composed to face my death. I thought it was important to face death bold, not quivering like one in the peak of a fever attack.

It was then over three weeks since the Special Military Tribunal completed its sitting. Not like the sessions had mattered anyway—we were already all guilty and condemned the moment the decision was taken to include us on the list. But the C-in-C needed to make a statement to the world that he was a fair Commander in Chief unlike all the other dictators in Africa. That he really believed in the ideals of democracy and fair trial and was benevolent enough to allow coup plotters the right to a lawyer. As a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army I knew that coup plotting had only one punishment: death. And every day since I was pronounced guilty and then sent into the hell hole in Jos, I had been waiting in fear for the final day, aware that every extra second was a blessing I was not promised.

Hand and feet in cuffs as the plane took off, my mind fluttered back to the series of events surrounding the coup and how I became a condemned character in a script I had authored myself. It was the first time since my arrest that I was giving it much thought. Perhaps it was because the end had finally come. I wondered how it would be done, if they would line us up before a firing squad or send us to the hang men. Being a doctor in the military, I knew a lethal injection was the best, that it provided the easiest passage. I had administered a few myself and had admired the way the victims slipped away without so much struggle as the fast-acting poison went to work on their heart muscles. Indeed, that was what first warmed me to the C-in-C, my suggestion of lethal injections as a means of eliminating his high profile opponents who were in detention. The injections made their assassinations seem like a heart attack. Besides the admiration of the C-in-C, It had also earned me the name “Dr Death.” It felt a little amusing that I was about to face the same fate. I, Dr Death, had been condemned to death.

My arrest was on a Friday. It was Jumaat and usually in the Villa, everyone in the S-Squad dressed in kaftan as we accompanied the C-in-C to the National Mosque for the weekly prayers. That day’s prayer was a little special. Not only was it the Muslim service in commemoration of the Armed Forces and Remembrance Day Celebration, it was also the first public appearance of the C-in-C since the aborted coup by his deputy, General Kola, was announced in December.

General Kola was one of the sixteen of us on the flight headed to Abuja. Impulsively, I searched the plane for him. He was sitting across the aisle, his overgrown beard looking like whiskers. Like most of the others, his head was bent over as if in prayer. It was being in their company, like an antelope in the company of lions, more than the feel of the chains against my ankle that made me worry in those early days of my incarceration. I was responsible in some part for their incarceration, you know. But ironically, it was General Kola who first talked to me a day after I joined them in the dark cell. He crawled to the corner of the cell where I had ostracized myself and asked if I was well. It was a simple question but it struck at the root of my heart. The way he said it, his voice so calm and genuinely full of concern made me fight back tears. Tears of regret and shame. Regret for my past actions, for the role I had played in framing him and shame for my present state, that fate had brought me to be there with them.

The other fourteen also warmed to me. We shared jokes as we sat in the L position, our backs against the walls of the cell. They were popular military jokes. We all had heard them a million times but in the cell they felt new and we all laughed at them till we cried. No one ever talked about the C-in-C or the fate that awaited us all. The fear was all embedded in the deep throaty laughter. I had waited with trepidation for the day one of them would say something about the irony of my incarceration and I had feared I wouldn’t have anything to say in response. Graciously, no one did. I suspected that they all appreciated the guilt I was living with and had decided it was enough torture for me already.

In many ways they were right and I was thankful, for no day went by without thoughts of the betrayal eating at my soul. I couldn’t cease to wonder when and how I got into the bad books. When and how exactly I began to be seen as an enemy of the state—for that was what all coup plotters were considered to be. My ordeal began that Friday morning, that day of special Jumaat prayers, when Captain Tambuwal walked up to me in the Presidential Villa coffee room and told me Akilu wanted to see me.

There was nothing unusual about that, or so it seemed initially. Akilu was the CSO to the C-in-C. He coordinated the overall security for the Head of State. I was in charge of the S-Squad, the special team that guarded the presidential villa. Together we oversaw national security, for national security was in reality the security of the C-in-C. The two of us had been in a closed door meeting through most of the previous night fine-tuning the security arrangements for the day. There was always an elaborate security arrangement whenever the C-in-C was leaving the villa for any function, something he now seldom did. So when I was told that Akilu wanted to see me, I imagined he wanted to discuss something that must have been left out in our plans.

But the way Captain Tambuwal lingered after delivering the message told me immediately that there was more to the summons. I was his superior and normally he would have saluted and walked off immediately after delivering the message, but he stood there as though he had more to say, his pronounced Adam’s apple gliding up and down his throat as though he was swallowing hard. Withdrawing the cup of tea I had been drinking from my mouth, I employed my eyes to ask him if there was anything else.

“He said you should come immediately, Sir,” was the reply. He paused long enough for me to swallow the tea in my mouth and replace the cup on the table before adding, “I am to escort you to him, Sir.”

As I rose from the table, Captain Tambuwal solved what was beginning to seem like a puzzle by asking me to surrender my arms. That was when I knew I was being arrested. I was conversant with the drill. I had arrested others, including General Kola, in like manner. Akilu had asked me to personally lead the team to pick him up. At the time, I had thought it a special privilege. I had stormed the Guest House where he was holed up with a mistress late that night, taking him and his security guards by surprise. I had walked into the bedroom where he was struggling to get into some clothes, having heard the commotion outside, and with glee, had asked him to surrender his arms, my eyes enjoying the terror in the face of his young mistress at the sight of my shiny pistol.

Without any argument, I handed my service pistol over to Captain Tambuwal. Ironically, the pistol was a gift from Akilu. He had given it to me as a birthday gift. I liked the pistol because of its glistening silver frame. I had developed an attachment to it like a child would a toy. But as I gave it up, I didn’t feel any loss because something more serious bothered me. My first thought was that a coup, a real coup, was taking place and I was worried about the C-in-C whom I had sworn to protect. As I struggled to come to terms with the unfolding events I asked Captain Tambuwal what this was all about.

“Sir, my instruction is to escort you to the CSO,” he replied impatiently, as if the question nauseated him.

Another officer immediately emerged with a pair of handcuffs. Obviously he had been waiting in the shadows for me to be disarmed first. He was a much younger officer; I knew him very well. He was one of the boys I had personally recruited from my state to join the villa security team. I knew his mother and had been classmates with his elder brother. He couldn’t look me in the face as he fiddled with the cuffs. He was very jittery and I imagined he rued being chosen for this assignment. Really, I felt pity for him remembering briefly the day I had to arrest my father-in-law myself and how I had whispered apologies even as I fastened the cuffs around his wrist.

Arresting my father-in-law was how they had confirmed my loyalty. The man, my wife’s father, was a wealthy politician, one of those who had financed the June 12 election that the C-in-C had annulled in order to assume power. The politicians, especially those from the Southwest where my wife Tolu came from, led the opposition to the junta because it was one of theirs that had been robbed. They held pro-democracy rallies, castigated the military in the newspapers which they owned, and were always granting interviews to foreign media where they kept uttering treasonable felony. The C-in-C hated them all and called them cockroaches. So to test how committed I was to the Head of State’s security, they made me arrest my father-in-law right in the middle of his daughter’s wedding. When I returned from that operation, the C-in-C had given me a pat on the back like a happy father would a successful son and called me a man. It was the first time I met him in person. I remember that meeting because of the number of bottles of beer set before him in his office, some sitting right on top of official memos. Akilu had stood beside him like a sentry, his face bearing a grin that reminded me of a puppet character in Sesame Street. He too had a bottle of beer in his hand that day.

It was that same grin he had on that Friday morning when Captain Tambuwal led me in cuffs to his office. At first, I was relieved that it was not a new coup against the C-in-C, as if that made things any better. I knew how things worked—how once you got arrested by the government it was next to impossible to prove your innocence. At that point I still didn’t know that my arrest was in connection to a coup plot. I didn’t think it remotely possible because the coup idea, just like the lethal injection, was my brain child. Indeed, the coup plot didn’t exist. Not this one, not the one before it.

The C-in-C was getting hysterical about the mounting opposition against him, especially since he mooted the desire to succeed himself as a civilian President. The initial tactic was to arrest and throw opponents into detention, but that gave Human Rights Watch and the many other annoying agencies of the West a strong point to harangue the government about. So Akilu formed his hit team that chased the opponents who had the ill-luck of still being in the country around town, killing a lot of them in cold blood in scenes staged to look like armed robbery attacks.
He was like that, Akilu. Brutal. It was his way of making up for what he lacked in intelligence. We had met as young cadets in the Nigerian Defence Academy and had become close because of our common interest in Indian movies. He was so familiar with those movies that he could now speak a smattering of Hindi. But I had gone on to study medicine and became one of the first set of Nigerian army doctors who took over the running of the new military hospital in Ikoyi. Akilu was a regular officer. He was attached to the C-in-C, who was then General Officer Commanding the 3rd Mechanized Division in Ibadan. I knew he had failed his Captain to Major promotion exam but the C-in-C, who was very influential even as a GOC, had lobbied the board for his promotion. So he owed the C-in-C a lot and was ready to do anything to ensure they held onto power.

When too many fingers began pointing at the villa as the source of the unexplained killings by Akilu’s Hit team, the C-in-C became even more hysterical. That was when I suggested the phantom coup strategy. I knew no country, democratic or otherwise, treated coups d’états lightly and nobody would question a government’s punishment of a group of people caught in a plot to overthrow their government. The C-in-C was ecstatic at my idea. It worked very well against the politicians and gave the junta some breathing space and now that the C-in-C was preparing to succeed himself as a civilian President, it was employed again to weed out all the top army officers in the government who might constitute a clog in the works. I couldn’t imagine that I had become one of them.

Some turbulence nudged me out of my reverie. I looked out of the window and could see the thick cloud we were slicing through. Then suddenly, it occurred to me that the flight was taking too long. That a flight from Jos to Abuja should have landed. I looked around the cabin again. There were three fully armed guards standing along the aisle like air hostesses in a regular flight. The nozzles of their guns made semi circles in the air as they turned from side to side, their eyes looking to pick out any suspicious movement as if men bound by their hands and feet could stage an escape so high in the air. I wanted to beckon on the one closest to me to ask what was happening, why the flight was taking this long. But I knew even he wouldn’t know, that Akilu kept his plans to himself till the very last minute. I caught myself whispering some Christian prayer, the sort I always overheard Tolu my wife whisper beside me in bed when she woke up in the morning.

She is Christian, Tolu. I met her in London during my freshman years in medical school. It was at the launch of the Nigerian Students Association. The army had just toppled Shagari’s government and everyone was talking about it. There were mixed views. Some of the students thought it was a great development, that the politicians were too corrupt and that their endless bickering would tear the country apart. But another group to which Tolu belonged insisted that the military had no business in government and could not be trusted with power. She had addressed the gathering that night, her diminutive figure rising just slightly above the podium stand. I fell in love with her, with the way her glasses balanced on her nose, with the way she ended her sentences in high tones. I walked up to her at the end of her talk and she was happy to engage me in an argument the moment she learned I was an army officer. Many lunch dates followed and not even the difference in creed could keep me from marrying her.

As Captain Tambuwal led me away from Akilu that morning of my arrest, it was to Tolu that my mind had gone. I could hear her voice clearly that night almost four years ago when I came home and told her about the call from Akilu and the invitation to join the junta. She had stayed awake all night crying as she begged me not to accept the invitation. She had said she didn’t feel right about it, that power had a way of turning things around, a way of changing people, and turning them into things they are not. Of turning them into beasts. She said that it was an invitation to my death. Tolu was like that; beneath her strong vocal self was a soft part, so soft that she often sounded petty and superstitious. I brushed her worries aside and assured her that everything was fine, that it was a call to national service. That I was only going to be the C-in-C’s personal physician and nothing more. She wasn’t convinced but I went ahead and resumed the next day.

That was the first time I ever lied to Tolu. I knew there was more to the job that Akilu had offered me. His voice over the phone in the surprise phone call that came just as I completed my ward round was firm and persuasive. Akilu had his smart moments. He knew me and knew how intelligent I was. He needed someone to help him succeed as CSO so he came for me. I didn’t argue. I signed up. It all looked attractive, like the kind of adventure I had really sought when I enrolled at the Defence Academy to join the army. It was an obsession that had grown from my love for James Bond movies and books about international espionage. I didn’t tell Tolu I would be involved with the C-in-C’s security because she would have disapproved. The personal physician story seemed perfect at the time.

But she had continued to complain. Once, she threatened to divorce me. That was when I led the team that arrested her father at her sister’s wedding. Thankfully, he was immediately released, given it was all a test of my loyalty, and my story of the arrest being a mistake saved my marriage. But then, she harangued me no end. She insisted that we leave the country. That she was not comfortable with what she read in the papers. That the people felt the government was responsible for all the killings going on. That she read a foreign magazine at her hairdressers’ and saw my name mentioned as the one injecting the political prisoners with lethal material. I denied it and swore by the grave of my late great grandfather, the one I never met, that all the allegations against the C-in-C were false, that they were malicious, that they were meant to paint him black. I blamed it all on the Western media and how they never saw anything good about Nigeria and how they would stop at nothing to discredit the government and embarrass her leadership. I assured her I was not a killer and that the injection story was beer parlour gossip. I even feigned anger in an attempt to create the impression that she was beginning to irritate me with her worries. She didn’t say more but I knew deep down that she didn’t believe me.

When the plane finally landed and I discovered we were in Kano and not Abuja, confusion increased the fear that had spread like chills to every part of my body. Even the guards seemed confused. I saw it in the way they whispered into their radios and exchanged unsure glances. I was trained in security matters of that nature and I could read their codes. Soon after I joined the junta, I had been sent to Libya and then to North Korea for special training. It was upon my return that I established the S-Squad. I had worked so diligently in my resolve to make sure the C-in-C was safe at all times. And I had been very loyal. That was why I was particularly irked when Akilu, on that morning of my arrest by Captain Tambuwal, had said I was a total disappointment and a saboteur.

He had not been able to look me in the face that morning, hiding his guilt behind dark glasses focused anywhere but on my face. He sat, stood, and paced about the space between his swivel chair and the wall on which the picture of the C-in-C hung, right next to the nation’s Coat of Arms. He talked like he was drunk, saying many unconnected things without saying exactly why I had been arrested. He talked of the friendship we shared and how he had tried to save me. He talked of the weighty evidence against me and how the C-in-C had ordered that I be arrested. He spoke rapidly, not allowing me to say a word, as if a word from me would make all the lies he was spewing obvious. I kept my cool, my mood oscillating between surprise and anger as I continued to assure myself that this was some serious mistake. It was when he hinted of my involvement in the General Kola coup, the coup that didn’t exist, that I lashed out as if to attack him. But my hands were behind me so I couldn’t do much. That was when he ordered them to take me away, his voice ringing out like a white garment preacher at dawn as he repeated the command like a nursery rhyme.

I finally learned why I had been implicated a week after my arrest. The information came through my lawyer, a second lieutenant with a boyish look—so young I would have mistaken him for a cadet were he not wearing the insignia of his rank. The government had nominated him to defend me but I never met him until the morning of the trial at the makeshift court room where the Special Military Tribunal was sitting.

“I am your defence lawyer,” he said, kicking off what was supposed to be a lawyer-client pre-trial briefing session, the moment I had settled into the wooden bench, after the armed officers leading me in exited the room. His sight nauseated me at first. I was convinced he was their agent. That he was there to act a prepared script. I didn’t think I should waste my time discussing anything with him, so to show him how uninterested I was, I began dragging the chain on my legs against the concrete floor from left to right.

“I have been asked to come here and beg that whatever your sentence is, it be reduced as a sign of mercy from the government, given the years you have spent in service, Sir,” he said, maintaining his composure and ignoring the creaking sound the chain made against the floor. “But I know you are innocent. I am convinced you are innocent, so I am asking you to plead not guilty when the charges are read to you. I am going to push a case for your acquittal.”

Immediately, the movement of the chain ceased and for the first time, I took a good look at the young military lawyer. The sharp edges of his army trousers reminded me of my younger days in the force. How I would spend so much time making sure all the edges of my uniform were razor sharp. How I went about with a shoe rag in my pocket just to ensure my boots were always shining. I saw myself in him—intelligent, bold, and daring. While I no longer doubted his sincerity, I thought he was insane for daring the government. I wanted to advise him not to worry, that the forces at play were beyond his imagination, that he should go back to his wife if he had one and stay away from trouble. But as though reading the concern in my eyes, he had repeated, “I will defend you,” as if his saying it again would make it real.

He claimed to have inside sources close to Akilu and that he knew about Akilu’s plans to become C-in-C. He claimed a coup, a real one, was in the making and that it would happen soon. Akilu was planning to kill the C-in-C and assume power and he had the backing of some forces who were opposed to the C-in-C succeeding himself as civilian President. More importantly, I heard from him why I had been roped into the plot. It was obvious even as he spoke that for Akilu to succeed, he needed to take me out, to bring the S-Squad under his control and prevent any maneuvers when he announced his coup. But there was more. He told me Akilu had a personal axe to grind with me. I had gotten into his bad books when my opinion began to matter more to the C-in-C than his. It made sense to me that Akilu was driven by envy. So with phony evidence, he convinced the C-in-C to approve my arrest, claiming I secretly sympathized with the pro-Democrats and that I had concluded arrangements to leave the country with my family.

The young lawyer hoped that his revelation would reassure me of his ability to defend me, but instead it drove me deeper into depression as I was led through the door bearing the insignia ‘Silence, Court in Progress.’ I was barely composed as I walked into the dock. I had never been in a courtroom but I was certain that what I was standing in made a joke of the judiciary. It was a T-structure arrangement of benches and tables. On the right was the prosecution team; on the left was my lone defense lawyer, and in front of them were the members of the Tribunal sited at a long mahogany table. My lawyer hardly got a chance to speak in what turned into an hour-long, futile effort to mimic a real court session. My charges were for treason and conspiracy to overthrow the lawful leadership of the country. I was sentenced to death.

A Black Maria soon appeared on the tarmac of the Kano airport and sped in our direction with full headlights. It was led by a salon escort car that had no plate number. The guards immediately began to march us into the carriage of the Black Maria, all sixteen of us. The feeling that something was amiss had now taken life inside me. I was sure. So I used my eyes to seek out that guard who had whispered to me earlier in Jos, hoping he might offer me some information. I found him and he graciously did. But it was much later when they had evacuated us to a guarded house somewhere on the outskirts of the city that what he told me made sense to me. “Oga don kpai,” he had said with a face like a cloud heavy with rain. He had seemed scared and much as I tried, I couldn’t get him to say more. When I thought about it again at the house, I realized that he meant that the C-in-C was dead. The realization immediately reminded me of my conversation with the young army lawyer a couple of weeks back and for the first time, it occurred to me that I didn’t even know his name.

Two months later, we were released by the new Head of State. Nature or what some people attributed to poisoned apples from Indian prostitutes, had beaten Akilu to his plans to take away the C-in-C and in the ensuing confusion, throwing up General Dimka, the unassuming Chief of Army Staff who was known more for his interest in polo than in power, as the new leader. Within a month, he set many political prisoners free, granted convicted coup plotters pardon, and was talking about a return to democratic rule. Unlike the other fifteen however, I was not allowed to go home. They called it protective custody.

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