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…

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