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Fire on the Road

Introductory Note: Speaking in April at a rally in Soweto, Winnie Mandela was reported as saying, “Together, hand in hand, with our matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.”* In South Africa “necklaces” is the word used for tires filled with gasoline that are placed around the necks of collaborators and traitors to the cause of liberation, who are then doused with more gasoline and set on fire. Mrs. Mandela later said the press had distorted her speech and she repudiated the statement. But this kind of punishment and this kind of death have been practiced in South Africa for some time, to the horror of some and as a warning to others. Black policemen in flames in South Africa, like witches burning at the stake in Europe, and later, during World War II, Jews set on fire by Nazis in Warsaw and Bialystok, are victims of the same cruel myth, a belief deeply rooted among all fanatics, that fire is not only punishment but the only true purification—that all evil, if one wants to be really rid of it, has to be burned out in an absolutely literal sense.

The vision of fire as the highest agent of punishment and condemnation appears in many faiths and religions. It is one of the most suggestive images of the Apocalypse, a horrible sight, which from childhood admonishes us against temptation and sin—or else we will be hurled into the eternal flames of hell. But there is yet another, “educational,” side of this phenomenon, well known to those who, by putting their opponents to the torch, treat suffering as a spectacle: by passively observing a man being burned alive we indirectly become participants in the crime, take part in it, have implicated ourselves.

What it feels like during the moments before one is set on fire I experienced myself when I was reporting on the first civil war in Nigeria in 1966 (the second war, which erupted soon thereafter, was over Biafra). The conflict I describe here touched off a series of internal clashes, coups, and upheavals in this most heavily populated of the African countries. They continue to this day and in two decades have claimed more than one million victims and caused enormous destruction. During the past twenty years only one Nigerian government came to power through elections (in 1979, the government of Shehu Shagari, now deposed). At all the other times, those who gained power gained it through coups (1966—Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi; 1966—Colonel [later General] Yakubu Gowon; 1975—Brigadier Murtala Muhammad; 1976—Lieutenant General Olusegun Obansanjo; 1983—Major General Muhammadu Buhari; 1985—Major General Ibrahim Babangida).

Most often these takeovers of power are bloody, and those who stage them either perish themselves soon thereafter at the hands of rivals (as did Aguiyi-Ironsi and Murtala Muhammad), or end up in exile (as has General Gowon). Over the last quarter-century the Nigerian officer corps, rent by tribal and political conflicts, obsessed by an implacable struggle for power, has been decimating itself at such a rate that few of those officers who were in the army when Nigeria gained independence in 1960 are alive today. Whoever wants to understand the history of those battles and the tensions and passions behind them should read Shakespeare’s plays, and keep in his mind’s eye the royal throne constantly dripping with blood.

translated by Klara Glowczewski

January 1966. In Nigeria a civil war is going on. I am a correspondent in that war. On a cloudy day I leave Lagos. In the outskirts police are stopping all cars. They are searching the trunks, looking for weapons. They rip open sacks of corn: Could there be ammunition in that corn?

Authority ends at the city limits.

Now the road leads through a green countryside of low hills covered with close, thick bush. This is a laterite road, rust colored, with a treacherous uneven surface.

These hills, this road, and these villages along the road are the country of the Yorubas, who inhabit southwestern Nigeria. They constitute one fourth of Nigeria’s population. The heaven of the Yorubas is full of gods and their earth full of kings. The greatest god is called Oduduwa and he lives on high, higher than the stars, even higher than the sun. The kings, on the other hand, live close to the people. In every city and every village there is a king. The Yorubas are proud of this—they look down on the rest of the world, because no other nation has so many kings.

In 1962 the Yorubas split into two camps. The overwhelming majority belongs to the UPGA party; an insignificant minority belongs to the NNDP party. Thanks to the trickery of the Nigerian central government, the minority party rules the Yorubas’ province. The central government, which is dominated by the NPC (National People’s Congress) from the north, prefers a minority government in the province as a means of more easily controlling the Yorubas and curbing their separatist ambitions. In this situation the party of the majority—the UPGA—found itself in opposition. The deceived and embittered majority went on the warpath. In the fall of 1965 there were elections in the Yorubas’ province. It was obvious that the majority party, UPGA won. Nevertheless, the central government ignored the results and the mood of the Yorubas and announced the victory of the puppet NNDP, which went on to form a government. In protests against the official election results, the majority created a government of its own. For a time there were two governments. The members of the majority government were imprisoned in the end. At that point the UPGA launched an open war against the minority government.

And so we have misfortune, we have a war. It is an unjust, dirty, hooliganish war in which all methods are allowed—whatever it takes to knock out the opponent and gain control. This war needs a lot of fire so houses are burning, plantations are burning, and charred bodies lie in the streets and along the roads.

The whole land of the Yorubas is in flames.

I am driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive. I am driving to see if a white man can, because I have to experience everything for myself. I know that a man shudders in the forest when he passes close to a lion. I got close to a lion so that I would know how it feels. I had to do it myself because I knew no one could describe it to me. And I cannot describe it myself. Nor can I describe a night in the Sahara. The stars over the Sahara are enormous. They sway above the sand like great chandeliers. The light of those stars is green. Night in the Sahara is as green as a Mazowsze meadow in Poland.

I might see the Sahara again and I might see the road that carried me through Yoruba country again. I drove that road up a hill and when I got to the crest I could see the first flaming roadblock down below.

It was too late to turn back.

Burning logs blocked the road. There was a big bonfire in the middle of the road. I slowed down, and then stopped, because it was impossible to keep going. I could see fifteen or twenty young people. Some of them had shotguns, some were holding knives, and the rest were armed with machetes. They were all dressed alike, in blue shirts with white sleeves. Those were the colors of the opposition, of the UPGA. On their heads they wore black and white caps with the letters UPGA. They had pictures of Chief Awolowo pinned to their shirts. Chief Awolowo was the leader of the opposition, the idol of the party.

I was in the hands of UPGA activists. They must have been smoking hashish because their eyes were unconscious, mad. They were soaked in sweat, possessed, berserk.

Now they descended on me and pulled me out of the car. I could hear them shouting, “UPGA! UPGA!” On this road, UPGA ruled. Now UPGA held me in its sway. I could feel three knife points against my back and I saw several machetes aimed at my head. Two activists stood a few steps away, pointing their guns at me in case I tried to get away. I was surrounded. Around me I could see sweaty faces, jumpy glances, I could see knives and gun barrels.

My African experience had taught me that the worst thing to do in such situations is to betray the moment of despair, the worst thing is to make some movement of self-defense, because that emboldens the people you face and unleashes a new wave of aggression in them.

In the Congo they poked machine guns in our bellies. We couldn’t flinch. The most important thing was keeping still—to learn that keeping still takes practice and willpower, because everything inside screams to run for it or jump the other guy. But they are always in groups and that means certain death. This is a moment when he, the black, is testing me, looking for a weak point in me. He fears attacking my strong point, because he has too much fear of the white in him—that is why he looks for my weakness. So I have to cover all my weakness, hide it somewhere very deep within myself. This is Africa, I am in Africa. They do not know that I am not their enemy. They know that I am white, and the only white they have ever known is the colonizer who abased them, and now they want to make me pay for it.

The paradox of the situation is that I am to die out of responsibility for colonialism, I am to die in expiation of the slave merchants, I am to die to atone for the white planter’s whip, I am to die because Lady Lugard ordered them to carry her in a litter.

The ones standing in the road wanted money. They wanted me to join the party, to become a member of UPGA, and to pay for it. I gave them five shillings. That was too little, because somebody hit me on the back of the head. I felt pain in my skull. In a moment another bomb went off in my head. After the third blow I felt enormous fatigue. Tired and sleepy, I asked how much they wanted.

They wanted five pounds.

Everything in Africa is getting more expensive. In the Congo soldiers were accepting people into the party for one pack of cigarettes and one blow with a rifle butt. But here I’ve already got it a couple of times and I’m still supposed to pay five pounds. I must have hesitated because the boss, who was supervising things, shouted to the activists, “Burn the car!” and that car, the Peugeot that was carrying me around Africa, was not mine. It belonged to the Polish state. One of them splashed gasoline onto the Peugeot.

I understood that the discussion had ended and I had no way out. I gave them the five pounds. They started fighting over it.

But they allowed me to drive on. Two boys moved the burning logs aside. I looked around. On both sides of the road there was a village and the village crowd was watching the action on the road. The people were silent; somebody in the crowd was holding up an UPGA banner. Most had photographs of Chief Awolowo pinned onto their shirts. I liked the girls best of all. Naked to the waist, they had the name of the party written on their full breasts: UP on the right breast, and GA on the left one.

I started off.

I could not turn back—they allowed me only to go forward. So I kept driving through a country at war, with a rooster tail of dust behind me. The landscape is beautiful there, all vivid colors, Africa the way I like it. Quiet, empty, with a bird taking flight in the path of the car every now and then. The roaring of a factory was only in my head. But an empty road and a car gradually restore calm.

Now I knew the price: UPGA had demanded five pounds of me. I only had four and a half pounds left, and fifty kilometers to go. I passed a burning village and an empty village where people were fleeing into the bush. Two goats were grazing by the roadside and smoke hung above the road.

Beyond the village was another flaming roadblock.

Activists in UPGA uniforms, knives in their hands, were kicking a driver who did not want to pay his membership fee. Nearby stood a bloody, beaten man—he hadn’t been able to come up with the dues, either. Everything looked just as it had at the first roadblock. At this second roadblock I didn’t even manage to announce my desire to joinUPGA before I took a pair of hooks to the midsection and had my shirt torn. They turned my pockets inside out and took all my money.

I was waiting for them to set me on fire, because UPGA was burning a lot of people alive. I had seen many burned corpses. The boss at this roadblock popped me one in the face and I felt a warm sweetness in my mouth. Then he poured benzene on me, because here they burn people in benzene—it assures complete incineration.

I felt an animal fear, a fear that struck me like paralysis; I stood rooted to the ground, as if I were buried up to the neck. I could feel the sweat flowing over me, but under my skin I was as cold as if I were standing naked in subzero frost.

I wanted to live, but life was abandoning me. I wanted to live, but I did not know how to defend my life. My life was going to end in inhuman torment. I was going to go out in flames.

What did they want from me? They waved a knife before my eyes. They pointed the knife at my heart. The boss of the operation stuffed my money into his pocket and shouted at me, blasting me with his beery breath: “Power! UPGA must get power! We want power! UPGA is power!” He was shaking, swept up in the passion of power, he was mad about power, the very word “power” sent him into ecstasy, into the highest rapture. His face was covered with sweat, the veins on his forehead were bulging, and his eyes were shot with blood and madness. He was happy and he began to laugh in joy. They all started laughing. That laughter saved me.

They ordered me to drive on.

The little crowd around the roadblock shouted “UPGA!” and held up their hands with two fingers stretched out in the V sign: victory for UPGA on all fronts.

Some four kilometers down the road a third roadblock was burning. The road was straight here and I could see the smoke a long way off, and then the fire and the activists. I could not turn back. There were two barriers behind me. I could only go forward. I was trapped, falling out of one ambush and into another. But now I was out of money for ransom, and I knew that if I didn’t pay up they would burn the car. Above all, I didn’t want another beating. I was whipped, my shirt was in tatters, and I reeked of benzene.

There was only one way out: to run the roadblock. It was risky, because I might wreck the car or it might catch fire. But I had no choice.

I pressed the accelerator to the floor. The roadblock was a kilometer ahead. The speedometer needle jumped—110, 120, 140. The car shimmied and I gripped the wheel more tightly. I leaned on the horn. When I was right on top of it I could see that the bonfire stretched all the way across the road. The activists were waving their knives for me to stop. I saw that two of them were winding up to throw bottles of gasoline at the car and for a second I thought, so this is the end, this is the end, but there was no turning back. There was no turning….

I smashed into the fire, the car jumped; there was a hammering against the belly pan, sparks showered over the windshield. And suddenly—the roadblock, the fire, and the shouting were behind me. The bottles had missed. The knives had missed. Hounded by terror, I drove another kilometer and then stopped to make sure the car wasn’t on fire. It wasn’t on fire. I was all wet. All my strength had left me, I was incapable of fighting, I was wide open, defenseless. I sat down on the sand and felt sick to my stomach. Everything around me was alien.An alien sky and alien trees.Alien hills and manioc fields. I couldn’t stay there, so I got back in and drove until I came to a town called Idiroko. On the way in, there was a police station and I stopped there. The policemen were sitting on a bench. They let me wash and straighten myself up.

I wanted to return to Lagos, but I couldn’t go back alone. The commandant started organizing an escort. But the policemen were afraid to travel alone. They needed to borrow a car, so the commandant went into town. I sat on a bench reading the Nigerian Tribune, the UPGA paper. The whole paper was dedicated to party activities and the way the party was fighting for power. “Our furious battle,” I read, “is continuing. For instance, our activists burned the eight-year-old pupil Janet Bosede Ojo of Ikere alive. The girl’s father had voted for the NNDP.” I read on: “In Ilesha the farmer Alek Aleke was burned alive. A group of activists used the ‘Spray-and-Lite’ method [also known as “UPGA candles”] on him. The farmer was returning from his fields when the activists grabbed him and commanded him to strip naked. The farmer undressed, fell to his knees, and begged for mercy. In this position he was sprayed with benzene and set afire.” The paper was full of similar reports. UPGA was fighting for power, and the flames of that struggle were devouring people.

The commandant returned, but without a car. He designated three policemen to ride in my car. They were afraid to go. In the end they got in, pointed their rifles out the windows, and we drove off that way, like an armored car. At the first roadblock the fire was still burning but there was nobody in sight. The next two roadblocks were in full swing, but when they saw the police they let us through. The policemen weren’t going to let anything stop the car; they didn’t want to get into a fight with the activists. I understood them—they live here, and they want to survive. Today they had their rifles, but usually the police go unarmed here. Many policemen had been killed in the region.

At dusk we were in Lagos.

translated by William Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand

  1. *

    Quoted in the Sunday Observer (April 20, 1986), p. 10.

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