To the iconic Lagos Airport Hotel’s Banquet Hall this past Tuesday to bear historic witness as a gale of tributes showered on a great naval hero and a worthy associate of almost fifty years: Godwin Ndubuisi Kanu, former military governor of Imo and later Lagos State; former member of the Supreme Military Council and later Armed Forces Ruling Council and indefatigable mentor to generations of top naval officers.

It was also the case the previous Thursday as yours sincerely traversed almost the entire length of Lagos to reach Elevation Church at Pistis Conference Centre, somewhere in the Lekki Peninsula for an evening of music and songs in honour of the late Admiral put together by the children.

Themed, “Your Admiral, our daddy”, it was a grand pictorial panorama; a memorable feast of joyous singing and dancing which revealed a rarely seen side of the man with the disobliging frown as an aficionado of the arts who cultivated and enjoyed music and dancing at their sublime summit.

If music and dancing be the food of familial love and affection, let them play and waltz on till the end of time. The late retired Rear Admiral was a man of immense personal charms, class and charisma. Bazookas and bullets are one thing, ballets and ballerinas are another. In a fitting climax, the evening concluded with a bravura performance from the family repertoire of musical memorabilia. It was a theme from the immortal Sound of Music. The hall responded with applause.

Our paths first crossed in 1975/76 while yours sincerely was a Youth Corper in the old East Central State. In the first week of February 1976, the old state was split into Imo and Anambra states with the youthful Commander Godwin Ndubuisi Kanu appointed as military governor of Imo while the late Colonel Atom Kpera remained in the Governor’s Lodge at Enugu, the physically imposing and widely adored Col Anthony Ochefu having been dismissed for some earlier infractions. It was a development which provoked weeping and wailing in the entire Igbo nation.

In a national broadcast bristling with gusto and thunder, the fiery and tempestuous Murtala Mohammed warned darkly that neither jubilation nor protests would be entertained by the military authorities. It was the time of no-nonsense military rule. Barely a week after this command performance, Mohammed himself was assassinated in an abortive military uprising led by a completely inebriated Colonel Bukar Dimka who promptly declared a “dawn to dusk curfew.”

The abortive coup provoked a ferocious state response and the bloodletting was almost at par with the reprisal counter-coup of ten years earlier. The entire country was gripped with fear and trembling. In the secondary school where yours sincerely was serving as the pioneer corps member, there was a tall gangling chap called Chigbu Okoroafor who served as Laboratory Assistant.

Chigbu also happened to have been a kinsman and cousin of the new military governor. Yours sincerely had been embroiled in a fierce dispute with the Youth Corps authorities in Enugu which led to the confiscation of his allowance. I cannot now recall whether Chigbu followed his new mentor to Enugu airport to confront and denounce the Youth corps officials before a visiting and visibly scandalized Colonel Solomon Omojokun, but I recall Engineer Sola Alabi, aka Shaft, a fellow corps member, volunteering as a backup and human ambulance in case shooting erupted.

Having berated one for a breach of protocols and for showing up at the airport barely clad, the bemused and avuncular former Mathematics teacher ordered an immediate restoration of entitlements with a stern warning to the NYSC officials that corpers must be treated with the dignity and respect befitting senior civil servants and prospective leaders of the nation. Thus began the myth of the naked corper at the Enugu Airport.

Chigbu must have informed the then Commander Ndubuisi Kanu of a serving corper who was a likely candidate for a future military firing squad. The future Admiral, himself a closet establishment rebel, must have duly noted and quietly applauded. Thus began a lifelong friendship and association with Ndubuisi Kanu.

Almost three decades later in 2004 on the morning of 15th March upon arriving in Nigeria from San Antonio to deliver the inaugural Afenifere Lecture, one had been pleasantly surprised to discover that the chairman of the occasion was none other than Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu. Now retired and enjoying life as a private citizen having barely survived the relentlessly brutal siege of General Sani Abacha, the Ovim born naval officer had emerged as one of the authentic heroes of the struggle against military despotism in Nigeria.

But there were more surprises in the offing. As one was about to commence the lecture, yours sincerely was accosted by the calm and dignified retired admiral beaming a cherubic smile and politely asking the guest lecturer to identify the equally smiling gentleman standing beside him.

It was Chigbu Okoroafor. Three decades after Isuochi now in Abia State, the former Laboratory Assistant had gone to University and had transformed into a flourishing oil exploration logistics expert and business associate of the Admiral. It was the stuff of outlandish fiction.

Godwin Ndubuisi Kanu was that rarity among the old Nigerian military officer-class: a brilliant and first-rate senior naval officer who was also a dedicated and unflinching democrat. There is a contradiction somewhere and this contradiction led directly to a fatal conundrum for the post-independence military. Before it worked its way through the system, it was to lead to severe purges, cruel dismissals and a bloody self-decimation of the Nigerian military.

Kanu was an illustrious Igbo patriot and ardent Nigerian nationalist. Twice in his distinguished career, he found himself raising the banner of protest and rebellion against the Nigerian postcolonial state with severe personal consequences on both occasions. On the first occasion, the stormy petrel abandoned his Nigerian uniform to team up with Biafran compatriots on the ground of perceived injustice meted to his people in the Nigerian post-independence coliseum.

It ended in defeat, tears and professional humiliation for the proud Ovim man. Kanu was only lucky to be re-enlisted after the civil war, but with a drastic loss of seniority which was to hurt and haunt him for the rest of his life. His earlier record of competence and professional brilliance must have stood him in good stead with the Nigerian military authorities. In the high noon of his career as a rebel officer, Kanu had seized a ramshackle, ill-fitted frigate with which he dealt the Nigerian Navy a black eye in a memorable encounter at Onne.

On the second occasion, Kanu, now mercifully out of uniform and in retirement, was to team up with like-minded and affronted Nigerian compatriots in what became known as the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) to fight the Nigerian military state to a standstill over the annulment of the freest and fairest presidential election ever held in Nigeria.

It was to lead to relentless persecution and the decimation of his business. On one occasion, his household was invaded and his service pistol seized as evidence and exhibit of arms importation. On another occasion when he was detained at Ikoyi Police Station, it was his wife who signed as a surety for his release in her own recognisance, just before they could throw him into the real Gulag.

Military hierarchs and ranking officers who constituted the conservative core of the old Army establishment could never understand how sane and sober officers could find themselves in the circle of civil rights protesters and all that prodemocracy nonsense. Didn’t they know that the army was founded on the canon of discipline and order?

Didn’t they know they were undermining military cohesiveness and national cohesion by extension? Once the army has taken a decision no matter how wrongheaded, it is the bounden duty of a loyal and disciplined officer to comply with that decision no matter his private feelings. To do otherwise is to invite chaos and anarchy.

Ranged against this institutional rigidity and frozen immobility were visionary and forward-looking officers like Ndubuisi Kanu. They saw the postcolonial Nigerian army as being caught in a colonial time-warp. They did not seek to undermine military discipline and order.

But they felt the army should not dabble into political matters beyond its core competence and real mandate. A situation in which a coterie or cabal of officers sat at night to annul the electoral will of fourteen million Nigerians is an affront to the national charter and hence totally unacceptable. It is a diabolical usurpation of people’s power on which the nation-state paradigm is predicated.

In a fine dialectical sense, both positions are correct. They are a mere reflection of the fact that in human institutions, societies and cultures, a dominant ethos on its way to historical superannuation will have to slug it out with an emergent paradigm on its way to national dominance. It is a confrontation steeped in blood, tears and misery. Some of the principal combatants on either side may never live to tell the story. But that is the toll of human exertions for a better society.

Given the relative peace that Nigerians have enjoyed in the past twenty one years of post-military rule and given the fact that military meddlesomeness in the national polity has been done away with for now, there can be no doubt about which paradigm has triumphed and which ethos has achieved national dominance. It is not a done deal as there are occasional murmurs and tremors.

But the fact that the military have been put where they belong underscores the significance of the battle fought on behalf of the Nigerian society by Ndubuisi Kanu and his colleagues. Many of these national heroes paid the supreme sacrifice. Some of them have been maimed for life under the military torture wrack. Some have become so economically vaporized that they are walking dead on the margins of society tormenting the psyche of the nation.

For the better part of the past fortnight, a grateful nation has been pouring encomiums and plaudits on one of its greatest children ever. In an apt and befitting epitaph, the Imo State government renamed the Heroes Square in the heart of Owerri, the Imo State capital, after the late Rear Admiral from Ovim and one of the most illustrious Nigerians to ever don the uniform of the Nigerian Navy. In a moving tribute at the Elevation Church, Vice-Admiral Jubrilla Ayinla described Kanu as his mentor and a role model to a whole generation of top naval officers.

Godwin Ndubuisi Kanu would be chuckling in his grave and probably nibbling away at his trademark kola nut. He neither sought to leverage his achievements as a warrior for democracy or his distinction as a respected and widely admired naval top shot to curry favour or seek undue advantage. He restricted himself to what he knew best and led a life of exemplary integrity.

But he would not have failed to notice that his beloved people are erupting once again in a cauldron of rebellion and insurrection after severe pacifications by both the colonial authorities and the Nigerian postcolonial state. It is a pointer to unfinished business and the unexamined expects of the National Question. But the great son of Ovim has paid his dues. May his illustrious soul rest in peace.

Culled from The NATION