• Friday, July 19, 2024
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BusinessDay

The self-loading rifle (SLR) and 500 years of Nigeria’s history

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It is one of the ironies of history that the amalgamation of Southern and Northern Nigeria by Lord Frederick Lugard in 1914 was somehow contradicted shortly afterwards by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] has been vigorously denouncing: “We don’t recognise it and we will never recognise it. Inshallah, this is not the first border we will break. Inshallah, we shall break other borders also, but we start with this one inshallah. The oppressors broke up the Islamic caliphate and made it into countries like Syria and Iraq, ruled by manmade laws. We’ve begun today to unite in the face of the plots of the oppressors. Their plot was to divide and conquer.”

Somehow, we appear to have underestimated this powerful force or factor in deciphering the sheer brutality and blood-chilling cruelty unleashed on Nigeria by Boko Haram insurgents who have been unrelenting in terrorising our beloved country. The figures speak for themselves. Boko Haram is undisputedly at the top of the global league of killing machines with ISIS a distant second.

Perhaps it is necessary to explain that the Sykes-Picot document was a secret Anglo-French agreement to partition the Ottoman Empire in anticipation of its defeat in the First World War which raged from 1914-1918. France would take over southeastern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and northern Iraq while Britain would be bequeathed southern Iraq, Haifa and Acre, and Jordan. Russia bagged Istanbul and the Turkish Straits. Palestine was rebranded and placed under “international administration”.

Also, much intrigue has been woven around the identities of the signatories – Sir Mark Sykes was a civil servant and former Tory MP while Francois George-Picot was a French diplomat. For the 100 years thereafter, the area has known no peace and there is not much likelihood of anything but turmoil and conflict in the foreseeable future. Indeed, warning of future trouble came early. The agreement was signed in May 1916 but according to the historian Andrew Roberts: “The worst day of bloodshed in the history of the British Army occurred on July 1, 1916. On the first day of the Somme offensive in northern France, no fewer than 19,240 men were killed and 35,494 were wounded, with thousands more captured. Almost half of the 120,000 men who went ‘over the top’ that dreadful morning had become casualties by the time it ended, a truly terrible proportion for any military engagement, ancient or modern.”

Whether we are dealing with amalgamation or fragmentation, the relevance of William Shakespeare is confirmed by his ominous verdict: “Whatever is created by force, must by force be held together.” However, the weapons at our disposal are profoundly different. Just before Nigeria’s Independence Day on 1st October, 1960, those of us in the military cadet unit of King’s College, Lagos were lined up for parade in the improvised parade ground in the forecourt of the college. There was excitement in the air. My rank as a “sergeant” entitled me to swap my rifle (single bullet) for a Self Loading Rifle (automatic)! Now, with the benefit of hindsight (56 years after) I can only conjecture the thrill the experience of the change-over must have meant to those who opted to join the military the following year rather than proceed to the sixth form. They all achieved remarkably rapid promotion in the military – Duro Ajayi eventually became Deputy Chief of Army Staff with the rank of major-general; Babatunde Odedina became a commander in the Navy; Kunle Elegbede was a major in the Army; Juventus Ojukwu became a lieutenant in the Army, and Nnamdi Obi-Rapu who was our junior by two years became a commander in the Navy. Also, Olaseinde Ishola-Williams (a year behind us) retired with the rank of major-general from the Army.

Subsequent events have reinforced the poignancy of that moment when all of us teenagers (just above the age of child soldiers) were handed those lethal weapons of destruction – SLR (Self Loading Rifles). Previously, what we were provided with were the sturdy wooden rifles with a carefully counted number of blank ammunition (bullets). Now we had the real stuff and in addition we were provided with live ammunition with the strict warning that under no circumstances were we to point our guns at anyone – not even in jest. It was left to our in-house “Commanding Officer” (Sergeant-Major Fort Lami) to belt out the orders and proceed with the drill in full glare of the rest of the college.

In order to further emphasise our new status a section of Hyde Johnson’s House was carved out to serve as “The Armoury” to which all weapons were dutifully returned. Before the day was over, we were also introduced to the “LMG” [Light Machine Gun] as well as the intricacies of how to dismantle it and swiftly reassemble it. The sense of power that came with cradling such weapons was awesome.

Then came the introduction to the even more lethal hand grenades. It turned out that the same introduction was going on at Barewa College, Zaria. In their own case, several of their old boys were already in the army – Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon who had been the senior prefect (and would become military head of state in 1966); Brigadier-General Zakariya Maimalari [B.573]; Lt. Colonel Abogo Largema [B.601]; Colonel Kur Mohammed [B.627], and Lt. Colonel Yakuba James Pam [B.722]. Straight from Barewa College, they proceeded to Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy in Camberley, near the village of Sandhurst, Berkshire, about 55 kilometres southwest of London. That is where all officers in the British Army are trained to take on the responsibilities of leading the soldiers under their command.

Duro Ajayi was at Sandhurst and Nnamdi Obi-Rapu went off to the Navy equivalent – Brittania Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. I had the privilege of attending his graduation dinner in the Officers’ Mess. The sheer opulence and splendour of the dining room would rival even Buckingham Palace.

Considering we were teenagers, we should be forgiven for missing the historic significance of what we had witnessed at first hand – the changing of the old guard (hand-held wooden rifles to be slung across the left shoulder were being supplanted by the SLRs and SMGs). With the old rifle, the rules of engagement demanded that you would cock the rifle; then aim at the target; hold your breath and press trigger. What followed was a loud explosion. Whoa! If you wanted to take another shot, you would have to reload and start the drill all over again. However, with the SLRs and the SMGs, the weapon did all the work! It just went off tut, tut, tut. All you needed to do was to press the button or trigger and all hell would break loose. The result was instant; the target was guaranteed to crumble. The firepower was simply overwhelming, ruthless and vicious.

It was not until several decades later (in 1992) that the then president of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Babangida summed it all up as the “Balance of Forces”! Little did we know back in 1960 that the military would be the dominant force for most of the succeeding decades – in one way or the other (directly or indirectly) right up to now that we have a former military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari, as our democratically elected president. We have now gone full circle and we are back to the climate of fear and suspicion.

J.K Randle