In Life of Pi, Yann Martel writes, “I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life.” I grapple with the sense of his truth because whenever I hear a car crushed a young man to death, I worry I will die soon. Or when I attend a funeral and watch people cry. Or when I travel by bus at night in this country. Or when I’m alone in a room. I always think black-faced death is looming on my horizon. That I’ll celebrate my thirtieth birthday in a coffin. This is because my uncles, almost all my uncles, who were barely on the cusp of middle age, were lowered into their graves.
It is 2014.
See me squished on a G.U.O luxurious bus. I’m travelling from Anambra to Kebbi, where the federal government has posted me for a compulsory one-year National Youth Service, and I don’t like it. A voice in my head tells me the long bus will summersault and squash all of us like watermelons. I don’t like that the voice tells me dark-lipped armed robbers with spiky hair and bloodshot eyes will stop our vehicle with their AK47, snatch my luggage (which contains my unfinished manuscript, books and everything) and put the bullet through my chest. I worry that Boko Haram terrorists will detonate a bomb on the roof of our bus and we will explode; our bodies, torn into pieces and ashed, will curl into the sky like smoke from a burnt offering and paint the blueness black.
This demon called the Fear of Death follows me till we arrive at the camp, and stays with me. When it is announced there’s rumour of Boko Haram blowing up the NYSC camps in the north, my heart splits like a weak calabash and the world begins to tilt like a ship on stormy waters.
So one cloudy day, I urge other jittery corps members who are Igbo to escape; we will scale the petite fence and run. We will run, run, and run, until we reach the Land of the Rising Sun. But they are afraid, so they say no, no, no. And I understand the no: running means losing our discharge certificates. It means no further education. It means joblessness, drunkenness, uselessness.
And so we settle down. Then we un-settle down: the news that a suicide bomber has blown people up in Nyanya, a satellite suburb of Nassarawa close to Abuja, is a blade in our hearts. Corps members from the east and south start a wasteful debate about this imminent attack. But I do not join them. God . . . I do not want to join them because I hate monotonous, fruitless conversations. I love actions; I yearn to take flight. But I cannot fly without the NYSC certificate which is my wings. And so I stay until the rumour dies and our stay in the camp expires. And the demon called the Fear of Death follows me to Kamba, my Place of Primary Assignment.
We, the fresh corps members, are lumped into a mice-infested room in the tranquil Government Secondary School, and I don’t like it. I don’t like the spring bed. I don’t like the plumes of dust streaming into the room. I like the novel in my hand. It is a romantic novel. It reminds me of Kosi, my newest girlfriend who the federal government has put a chasm between us. She moves in me like malaria. I stagger to the window, my love’s name, Kosisochukwu, playing a melancholic tune in my chest, a bird dying in my throat.
At sundown, the luggage and the boxes: they are covered in a haze of dust under a cobwebby wardrobe; they morph into coffins, into bodies, into strange and scary things. Everything reminds me of death. Everything makes me bite my lip and cover myself with a blanket. The blanket makes me think of coffins and I shut my eyes tight and let my heart kneel, humbly, before Sleep.
Sleep, to my mild surprise, answers my prayer: it wraps its arms around me, and my Fear is drowned, my insomnia with it. But in the midnight, a mouse drops onto my foam and I jerk awake, hauling fear up from its deep sleep. It stares at me, Fear, and I stop breathing. Then I hear Fear’s tiny voice in the distance; it rises and streams in through the open window and sits close to me. I shift in the creaking spring bed and look out the window to ascertain whether someone is coming to cut off my head. Oh, I am wrong, I am happily wrong: nobody is coming at me. The things I see, under the glow of the bulb, are dozing sheep and dozing goats. I huddle myself up, shivering and praying that the ancient building will not collapse on my head.
2:00 AM. I’m still awake. Owls are hooting outside, the wind is whistling, making a chorus with the leaves of the dogonyaro trees. Rodents traffic up and down in the ceiling as if they’re playing a Champions League final. Then Kosi phones to say she’s missing me. After I convince her I’ll eventually leave the north and return to the east, I switch on the dust-coated fluorescent bulb in the room to push back the eerie darkness and work on my manuscript. But when I begin working on the manuscript, a satire, my sense of humour claws off the window and flaps away, leaving no white feathers behind.
Beer, then, right? Right: I drink and drink and drink. And then I write and write and write. A dramatic activity that continues until the Fear of Death descends, grips me, and my fictional characters transform into demonic voices. I relinquish the book and the pen and walk out of the room, my characters’ high-pitched screams ringing in my ears long after I have banged the rickety door shut in annoyance and frustration.
Beneath the smelly neem trees, I lower myself, limp with depression, on one of the benches belonging to the Christian Youths’ Fellowship. What are the corps members thinking about my eccentricity? Do they assume I have schizophrenia, I’m demented, or a little crazy for staying up in the midnight poring over voluminous books?
The demon called the Fear of Death follows me to February, the month the 2015 general election is conducted.
“Every corps member is automatically on the ad hoc staff and will conduct the election on 14th February,” the Dandi local government inspector announces, during one of the sleep-inducing Corpers’ Welfare Association meetings at Kamba. “No exceptions. All of you. This is an order from the federal government.”
The announcement paralyses me, stultifies me and some fellow corps members who are Igbo or from the east. My brain concludes that I’ll die on or before Valentine’s Day in the north. I wish the inspector guffaws and remarks he’s kidding. But the glamorous inspector with a whitening beard creases his face like an aluminium foil and launches into a horrific story: In 2011, countless corps members were slaughtered like lambs by party rogues, he says. One gorgeous girl whom he knew very well was decapitated and dumped in an uncompleted building by faceless thugs. The lady was Igbo, the lady was Christian. The lady died ostensibly because she refused to compromise. “She was perhaps a born-again Christian,” he adds with a chuckle bereft of mirth. After a minute of gloomy silence, he advises us to drop the ballot boxes and papers and flee if our lives appear to be in danger.
“Run for your lives!” he says. He adjusts his cucumber-coloured cap with hands trembling, not from fear but from some neurological ailment. “Corps members will be targeted, as we witnessed in 2011 presidential election. It’s only an insensible person who obstinately clutches ballot boxes when a gun is pointed to his or her face.”
The word “gun” causes my heart to jump. My heart is still jumping when I arrive home. In my book-littered bed, I tell myself party rogues will certainly brutalize a sea of corps members and my face will appear in the “fallen heroes” sections of the NYSC newsletters and NYSC magazines.
The sky is a curtain of primary colours the day the inspector lifts one of the rocks on my shoulder. It’s not explicitly mandatory that every corps member will conduct the elections, he informs us, and we see his kola-stained teeth exposed by his unfathomable enthusiasm. We see his point: we all must remain in the state for peace to reign. We all must cling to our Places of Primary Assignments. We all must discharge our duties diligently. We all have fear, but mine, on hearing this good news, pours itself on the dust like water from a broken calabash: we all will be safe. We all are relieved because party rascals will not have the opportunity to stab us to death at polling units.
See me, see wahala: as soon as the sun drops behind mango trees, I start hearing that some locals are out for our blood. So I run to Oga Emma, an Igbo trader at Kamba Market, and narrate my story. Other Igbo corps members run to him and narrate their stories.
If President Jonathan wins again, many of us will be attacked, Oga Emma says in Igbo—and, of course, our people will embark on a murderous mission of revenge in the east. The roads will be blocked. No movement. Niger Republic and Benin share common boundaries with Kebbi. In any of these nations, we’ll be safe. He has already planned to tie some of his goods—sacks of rice and beans—and little children and wife on his motorcycle and escape to any of these countries through bushes and through deserts.
My heart cannot stop thumping. I think, God, the roads will be blocked! The roads will be blocked! The roads will be blocked! I fumble around the lodge, picking dead leaves and imagining the hereafter. At night, I have the worst nightmare: the elections are over and the streets of Kebbi are littered with the bloody heads of corps members, and their parents, including mine, cry to the state with calabashes to take home the heads of their dear children who have died for Nigeria. The nightmare worries me for days, and then my worries give birth to stones. The stones hit me so bad that I fall and fall and then fall sick.
I buy drugs. I swallow them.
I buy fruits. I eat them.
I pick medicinal leaves. I sniff them.
They do not work.
My sickness galvanises me, a half-atheist, into praying, and I say prayers to the tattered clouds for my quick recovery. A prayer, silent and solemn, and yet I still expect untimely death. And when untimely death, a reckless enemy, seems close, I think of running and I think of giving up. The elections, unheeding and unhinged, approach swiftly with blood-stained feet, and now I have to run.
It’s a week or two before the presidential election, but I am running away with Nebuwa Henry, an Igbo boy who, like me, worries he’ll be bludgeoned to death. He worries, as I do, that we may be stopped. But we keep running. We keep running because the roads will be blocked the following week for the national and state elections. We keep running because we have a plan and our plan is this: purchase a G.U.O Motors ticket in Sokoto, nap in Henry’s friend’s flat in the city, and then escape to the east at the first cockcrow.
But at sundown, we hear that the elections have been postponed. Some people parrot it is because the federal government needs to curb the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in some north-eastern states. Some opine the postponement is to enable more voters to collect their Permanent Voters’ Cards. For the Muslim cleric on the TV, it’s a calculated plan for the incumbent to cling to power. I do not know the truth. I do not want to know the truth. What I want to know is the freedom of birds; I want to grow a falcon’s wings and soar into a violence-free world where a brass band plays, where the fields are lush green, where hibiscuses bloom, where the Fear of Death that trails me cannot locate.
As we expected, the postponement of the presidential election galls the youths of Sokoto; they pick up weapons—axes, machetes, bamboo sticks, guns—and jump onto the roofs of buses. They drive wildly around the city, raising clouds of dust and vociferating that the People’s Democratic Party is afraid of losing the election because Muhammadu Buhari’s “Change” mantra has won the hearts of Nigerians, particularly northern Nigerians, and so the President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and the Independent National Electoral Commission chairman Attahiru Jega shifted the election. “Till further notice,” the radio says. But to them, they echo, “To enable them rig the election. To enable them humiliate their Muslim brother.”
And they will not accept that. Never. They vow to set Attahiru Jega’s house in his hometown of Jega ablaze because he’s the INEC chairman, a Muslim for that matter, who’s giving the foe that’s PDP an opportunity to topple a man (their Buhari) chosen by God. They cut down trees. They burn car tyres. They claw at anyone who doesn’t belong to them. They fire ear-splitting gunshots randomly. The horror continues until soldiers intervene. The intervention is cold water running across my heated chest; everywhere quiet like a war-torn city, silent and smoke-filled. The Spirit of Death who has been pursuing me emerges from this smoke, evidently fatigued and defeated, sighs and retreats like a sad ghost in a sad movie. But at night—oh at night—it returns with gunshots. Bullets rain on the zinc, on that sink, and we shiver. Nebuwa and I, we shiver. We shiver and we wonder out loud: what if they start attacking?
Suddenly, angry hands pound on the gate and we dash to the fence. But we cannot climb it. Henry flashes indoors and I follow him instantaneously.
In his friend’s living room, he holds my shaking hands and says an incoherent prayer. Then we sit and we sing and we pray and then we sleep with one eye open.
See us awake at the first cockcrow. Radios whispering. Lights dimmed. Phones ringing.
We take the call. We take the call because the caller is a fellow Igbo corps member, Uchman, who escaped last night.
He is calling from the city of Onitsha, this Uchman.
He says innumerable Igbo people—traders, corps members, civil servants, etc—escaped with them.
He says northerners, too, are fleeing the east through Onitsha Niger Bridge.
He says he advises us not to relax because the elections are postponed.
He says he thinks it is wise for us to escape from Sokoto by all means.
And, boy, how we rush to grab the last advice from him like two starved dogs at a single bone.
See us, back in Kebbi, and tremulous. See us thinking, pacing, contriving to sneak into Benin Republic. See at us the borders now, but they are blocked with rusty metals and blocks and tree branches and custom officers. We do not have the courage to plunge into the desert, so Henry prays and we accept death.
We are six Igbo friends who accept death—corps members Henry, Emma, Maduka, Iyke, Ugo, and myself.
Maduka and Iyke will conduct the presidential election, but why? It is because they need the money and they need the experience. Henry, Emma and I equally need the money and the experience, according to Maduka, but we are cowards.
But, Maduka, am I truly a coward? Yes, perhaps, but Emma is worse than that: Remember Emma has broken many of the ceilings. Remember Emma wants to climb into one of the holes like a mouse. Remember he wants a secret place where he will pray and cry if the thugs invade our residence with rifles and cutlasses.
Oh, see us after the elections. See us watch the corps members who conducted them come back, emaciated, exhausted, dishevelled, and reeking of unwashed armpits and ill-gotten money. See me listening as they recount their experiences.
“I conducted the election in a desert. The people pulled out knives and threatened to kill me when I told them it was midnight and therefore I couldn’t continue. So I shut up. They lit their lamps and I trembled as they—old men and women and children who were not yet ten—cast their votes. My university pal, Corper Dave, said no to those twelve-year-olds and the villagers stabbed him, but he didn’t die. We Kamba corpers are lucky none of us died.”
“Charles is nowhere to be found. I pray he’s still alive. I hear the youths wanted to harm him. They beat me up with firewood and I screamed and dropped the ballot papers and everybody thumb-printed. Even babies.”
“Me, I collected thirty thousand naira from each of the two parties’ agents under the table and watched them with a smile as they did whatever they desired with the ballot papers.”
“My PDP agent ran away with the bag of money, pursued by axe-wielding villagers. They caught him and he agreed to share the national cake with them. None of them voted for Jonathan.”
They buzz on until the sun goes down and some of them disperse, and the Spirit of Death returns. Those of us who stay behind in the filling station wait in mute trepidation for the radio to announce the winner. Henry rushes in with his BlackBerry, panting and sweating, and announces with both fear and glee that President Goodluck Jonathan is leading.
Oh, Henry, how the pro-Goodluck corps members amongst us are suddenly swept up in the tornado of enthusiasm. Oh, Henry, a seeping fear fills my chest with hotness and my chest fills my mouth with anxious words. Oh, anxious words: win, our president, win.
Oh yes, yes: truly I say, I want our president to win and I do not want our president to win. I want Henry to say he wants our president to win and he does not want our president to win, too. But Henry, thinking that I didn’t hear him or pretending that he didn’t hear me, repeats himself in a tremulous voice. Oh Henry, Henry, my heart: it stops.
Oh, Henry dabs his glassy eyes. Henry picks up his leather slippers as though he’s desirous to run away from Nigeria. Henry scratches his scalp with quivering fingers.
Henry, Henry, I am thinking, and I am tottering. To the window to think how not to think. But end up thinking: What will happen to my mother if she hears that her son’s head has turned a Kebbi river scarlet with its blood?
When the news breaks that Buhari has surpassed the incumbent and he’s on the way to win the historic election, we jump and we jump and we jump. Like banana-receiving monkeys. Like a winning team. Like the overexcited kin of the new president we’re surrounded by. They watch us and then they hug us as if the result thrills us, the overexcited corps members from the east.
The imminent victory doesn’t alleviate all my fears. My worries: What if President Jonathan protests that the election isn’t free and fair? What if President Jonathan refuses to concede defeat? What if President Jonathan folds his arms as the blood of Nigerians floods the nation? But on that 31st day of March, Oh President Jonathan, he shocks the world by conceding defeat. Oh, President Jonathan, how you concede defeat even before the results from the thirty-six states have been announced.
The demon called the Fear of Death turns back with disappointment and retires.
See me heaving a sigh of relief. See me and listen to me. See, boy, see, girl, see, ladies and gentlemen: since I’m a survivor of all these horrific events, particularly the horrors of the 2015 presidential election, I think that the Fear of Death will not come to grip me again, but hardly have I stepped into my city of Onitsha, the commercial hub of eastern Nigeria, than gunshots begin shattering my eardrums.
It is the Biafra agitators.
They’re not happy with the new president. They march violently with wilting placards that say “President Buhari, Free Nnamdi Kanu!” They chant, “Divide this zoo called Nigeria!” They chant, “To hell with One Nigeria.” They tear off Nigerian flags. They hoist Biafran flags. Nigerian soldiers shoot them dead and they shoot Nigerian soldiers dead. Herdsmen attack them with daggers and knives and they attack them in turn with machetes and planks.
And now, I am in my study. The odour of bloody death wafts into the room through the open windows and hangs in the air. The hideous wings of death seem to be wheeling around my head. And I am worried because:
- I am young and I don’t have a personal house.
- I don’t have a wife, I don’t have children.
- I have not completed my novel.
- It will be unfair to lose these, to lose all these, and die today or in the nearest future, and be forgotten in a hurry.
Ebelenna Tobenna Esomnofu is a writer and educator. He teaches English on social media (Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, etc) and coaches teachers in their schools. His Facebook page is “English with Esomnofu.” He was longlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He has no wife or girlfriend, so he sleeps with novels and poems. When he is not busy listening to poignant songs, he Googles Cristiano Ronaldo.
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