GIDEON ORKAR: Ten years after the coup-a look at the man

 Thursday, April 27, 2000

 Tonye David-West, Jr., Ph.D



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In the United States, the question is often asked--where were you when president John F. Kennedy was assassinated? Of course, as expected, there would be millions of answers to this question as all those who were alive then were engaged in miscellaneous activities on that fateful day of Friday, November 22, 1963 when the 35th president of the United States of America was gunned down in Dallas, Texas. That was a very mournful day for the nation and all mourned his death regardless of party affiliations or political persuasion. Similarly, all Nigerians, home and abroad must answer the question---where were you when Major Gideon Orkar, son of Benue state, struck on that fateful day of Sunday, April 22, 1990? Where were you and what were you doing?

The coup occasioned by Major Orkar and his men on that day was significant in many respects and many of us are just now beginning to reckon this point. It was not his coup that really mattered, it was the message behind it that was and still is of consequence. His coup was markedly different from the previous ones we had been bequeathed to by ignorant and power-hungry Generals. It was not laden with the usual tired verses at the lips of every army officer. There was something different about this coup---it was actually aimed at addressing the apt inbalance of power in the country. Major Orkar was endowed with foresight and vision, he was not a prophet, yet he had visionary tendencies. By all standards, he was still a junior officer in the army but yet was able to see well beyond his experience and age. Orkar made nonsense of this saying of our elders which goes thus---"what an elder can see sitting down, a child cannot see standing up." Orkar saw the mayhem and tribulations awaiting us sitting down while many of his elders [seniors] in the army could not see that same mayhem and tribulations standing up, a reverse case of the saying. He saw clearly the tyranny of the north with the likes of IBB and Abacha holding on to power by all means necessary, including murdering innocent citizens and overturning our economy. He saw the injustices, the intentions of men like Sani Ahmed Yarima, IBB, then his commander-in-chief, Abacha, Major Hamza Mustapha who was then a mere private in the army, etc.

He knew that Nigeria was going to be troubled with the intolerant behavior of the north and he knew that Sharia was on the drawing boards. He knew that Nigerians were going to talk about the "MISTAKE OF 1914" in more details and insist on renogiating the country. He knew Nigeria like the back of his hand. It was thus not a surprise that he excised the north in his coup just like a father asks his son to go to his room until the son knows how to behave or corrects his behavior. Similarly, Orkar asked the north to take a hike and shed itself of the cloak of contumely before reapplying to join the civil union called Nigeria.

He was smart in many ways and commanded the respect and admiration of his colleagues. While he was alive and even in death, he reminded me of another Major who was involved in the 1986 coup of Maj-Gen. Mamman Vasta, then Minister of Abuja, FCT and IBB's blossom friend and confidant who [the Major] was consequently executed along with General Vasta. His name was Major Mike Iyoshi from the then Bendel state. He was young and brilliant, just like Orkar, a poet, like General Vasta and a graduate of the Nigerian Defense Academy, graduated with military distinction and undertook further training at Britain's elite Sandhurst with the likes of Captain Thomas Sankara, Head of State of then Upper Volta now Burkina Faso in West Africa.

He spoke impeccable English, one that would make the Queen herself quiver in her wits. His words were crisp with a knack for the Elizabethan variety. He was a man of humor and it was often said that even the devil would laugh at his jokes. He thrilled his colleagues, friends and even his superiors to endless laughters and it was no different when I made his acquaintance in the Officers' Mess in Lagos only two years before his demise. All three men [Orkar, Iyoshi and Sankara] were visionaries. It seemed they all read from the same page and were born of the same mother. They had foresight and were enemies of injustice and inequity.

Unfortunately, of all these three men, only Captain Thomas Sankara had the opportunity to change his country, from the day he assumed office in 1983 to the day of his assassination on August 4, 1987. He turned Burkina Faso around and installed in Burkinabes the importance of hardwork and the need to be honest and selfless. He uplifed the plight of women in his country and appointed many of them to top ministerial positions. Both Iyoshi and Orkar had such visions for their country, but were short changed by life. They sought to overthrow an undemocratic and despotic system the best way they knew how. To them, since it was not a democracy, Nigerians did not have the option of impeachment and so they [on behalf of the Nigerian populace] went through the only means available to them--coup. Orkar was not interested in power, rather, he was interested in redressing the inequality in the country, the injustices and the economic and political crimes being visited on the country and its innocent citizens by the fatuous dictator.

Both Major Mike Iyoshi and Major Gideon Orkar were brave men in their own right. In the case of Major Mike Iyoshi, on the day of his execution, after they had tied him to the sticks, he looked at Maj-Gen. Mamman Vasta who was tied next to him as if to say "this is the end, soja". Even at that fleeting moment of life, he cracked a joke at which they both laughed, it was reported. He was unperturbed by his lot. It was not surprising that he averred the following words well encapsulated in singer Fela's famous lyrics, when asked to offer his last words---"Soja come, soja go, but aspirations go remain the same." With these words, he took his fate with bravity and with much temerity--just like a soja. Yes, he was right. Soldiers have come and gone but the aspirations for justice and inequity remain the same and would ever be present.

In the case of Orkar, he refused to even offer a word during his trial, saying that the outcome had already been concluded and that the trials were just a formality. When asked even by his counsel to speak in his defense, he smiled and refused to utter a word, he knew the end was just around the corner. In several days of trials, he maintained a muted response to all questions and only offered his last words just before the bullets rained on him in an execution supervised by then Brigadier Ishaya Baimiyi, General Abdulsaalami Abubakar's Chief of Army Staff who retired only last year and is currently in prison on assorted criminal charges. An execution, hurriedly carried out about 9 p.m. under the cover of darkness and well out of the curious view of any civilians. He was brave up until the very end, unflappable in his resolve to end the northern tyranny of Nigeria and the bastardization of its affairs and resources. Standing very tall, he took Babangida's bullets like a warrior, a true champion, a true soldier, a true son of the land.

All three men, Orkar, Iyoshi and Sankara took the bullet like men, and even president John F. Kennedy, suffered the fate of the bullet as well although clearly under different circumstances. It seems all great men go this way---Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, etc,. Kennedy was a liberator, they were all liberators, albeit, I must hastily make the point that they weighted differently in the grand scale of apperception, but their message, was nevertheless, the same. Kennedy's legacy of making America free and fair for all through his civil rights efforts is still very much echoed today, more than 36 years after his death. All of these men fought to bring about justice and equity to their country, a struggle, they have left for us to pursue and accomplish. They had a human message, a message that transcended all languages and cultures. And so on this 10th anniversary of Orkar's death, I say, BRAVO, Major Gideon Orkar. The struggle continues unabated.

Tonye David-West, Jr., Ph.D
Political Scientist

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