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Doing one's duty is supposed to be a good thing; something for which one should have an easy conscience, if not pride. But since it is not given to mortals to predict the course of the storm, it is also true that there are times when doing one's duty might not be the right thing. And double woe betide you if the demands of duty clash with the demands of conscience. Do not ask me what happens if the demand of conscience is double-edged and double-fanged.
Life. This thing called life. A mystery... But then Fate can be tougher than an armor-piercing rocket, and more agonizing than a pain-wracked woman giving birth to a stillborn. Life.
Major Dangayana Kufa met with his closest friend on the morning after he returned from the United States from a seven-month course.
"Major Dan speaking," he spoke into the mouth-piece of his Nokia mobile phone, barely suppressing a yawn.
"Tell her to roll off your bed now," roared the baritone voice of Major Kala Thomas. Dan chortled, the last vestiges of sleep disappearing from his eyes.
"Craze man," he said. "Where you dey?"
"You won't believe it but I am in your hotel reception. Was reliably told you checked in last night with a bosomy, delectable..."
Dan laughed. The old bastard's wicked sense of humor was unchanged. "Na wa. Come up, at the double."
"Yes sir". The line cut.
Four minutes later the door of Dan's tastefully furnished hotel room flew open to reveal a medium built, muscular, dark-skinned, clean-shaven, handsome young man who wore the olive-green uniform of the Giberian Army as if he was born in it. Everything about him was a sight for sore eyes.
Both men grabbed each other effusively.
"Welcome home, Dan," beamed Kala.
"Old boy, you look like you just passed out of Sandhurst," Dan
commended him. Kala smiled, then frowned abruptly as he took in the room.
"You should have told me you were due yesterday. Nobody's sharing that lonely apartment at the base with me."
Dan apologized and tried to explain. Tight schedules, winding-up being much earlier than planned. He had planned to call at his friend's office first thing this morning. With a smile Kala waved aside the excuses. "No problem. I learnt of your return from Major Tumba." Tumba was a mutual friend who had been in the States, though for another course. "Wash up and let's get out of here. When are you supposed to report to your new unit?"
"Tomorrow morning but duties begin after a two week break. Gosh, I need it."
Kala nodded mischievously. "Indeed you do. Small wonder you chose here instead of my place."
"What do you mean?"
"You need to exhaust that duty-free carton of condoms you imported from Yankeeland."
Dan thought he was going to die laughing. Mirthful tears rolled down his cheeks as he rushed into the bathroom. A stranger hearing Kala's jokes would conclude that any hour he spent away from his official duties was in the laps of ladies. But Dan knew that his friend was an exception to the ancient W's that constituted military pastimes - wine and women.
As he dressed Dan thought about their friendship. They had a lot in common. Both turned thirty-two on the same day three weeks ago. Both had the same height and build, though Dan was chocolate-complexioned. They met for the first time as members of the 309 Regular Cadet Course Intake at the Giberian Military Academy. They had opted for the Army and gone through the rigorous five-year academic and professional training, graduating with bachelor's degrees and commissions as second lieutenants. They had the uncanny privilege of serving simultaneously on the same peacekeeping mission two years before Dan was posted to the Upland region prior to his nomination for the 974X Special Operations Course at Fort Jackson. Above all, both men were soul brothers. In an army that reflected the distorted differences of the wider society, such a bond was fast becoming an anachronism. This could be appreciated if it was known that Kala belonged to the Haya tribe in the Lowland region, and traditionally they are not the best of friends with Dan's Shabu stock from the Midland region.
As they tucked into a rich breakfast in the buffet room downstairs, their conversation flowed as if they had always been together. Kala had been posted to the 311A Brigade in Kasmoto after his tour of duty in conflict-riddled Sierra Leone. Eight weeks after his friend was sent off to the States he was posted to the 130B Infantry Brigade, Ogkwom. Now Dan had rejoined him as an officer of the newly established Special Operations Unit.
Kala looked into his friend's laser beams and said, "Hope you've not contracted the political virus?"
"What do you mean?" asked Dan curiously.
Kala cleared his throat. "I gathered that quite a few of our compatriots on that course took time off commando drills to run their mouths on Giberian politics. Some of their views went well beyond the pale. Like Captain Tonga's explicit views about recent National Parliamentary deliberations on armed forces spending". His tone was relaxed but his eyes were hawk-like.
Dan's smile did not reach his eyes. The Giberian Army was riddled with jaw-wide sieves. The major was not inclined to talk about the less-than-professional indiscretions of some of his course mates, given that some like Tonga were his buddies, and that the report of their misdeeds had preceded them.
"Too bad," he said laconically.
Kala nodded. "But then you can't totally blame them. Not with the mess our so-called leaders are making of our so-called democracy."
Dan jolted. He glanced round the almost empty room. The few guests were uninterested in the two men, one in a uniform, the other in mufti but with a decidedly military bearing.
"Kala, not here."
"Why not?" asked Kala tersely. He lowered his voice but it did not lose its intensity. "Look, politics is everyone's affair and we are affected by politics. Especially the brand these clowns are playing".
"Sure. But remember your profession."
Dan knew it was a waste of saliva. Kala had always been keenly interested in the management of Giberia's affairs. He was fiercely critical of the antics of the guys who manned Giberia's power seats since the stop–gap general hopefully ended military intervention in the country's politics seven years ago. Not that that was unusual; President Kaje was not the man of the moment in many circles, but then many within those circles dared not contemplate a return to the gun-toting, helmet-crushing, boot-stomping days.
Dan's face hardened. "Snap out of it, major. Now. If my course mates chose to talk off their heads that's their business, not yours or mine."
Kale smiled. "Cool it, Dan. Though I think these guys deserve citations for being outspoken." Before Dan could react he chirped, "Let's start looking for wives."
Dan nearly choked on his toast. "What?"
"You heard me."
"Are you under parental pressure?"
Kala laughed, then glanced towards two suited young women eating four tables away. They caught his look, smiled. He smiled back. "Maybe they just could be what the doctor prescribed."
Dan could not believe his ears. What had happened to his friend in the past seven months? Kala grinned as if he read the returnee's thoughts.
"We go yarn later," he said, getting to his feet. "Age don dey come small small." He gave Dan a friendly thump on the shoulder and left.
Dan shook his head.
Their conversation two evenings later went into turbulent waters when the topic turned to the state of affairs in Giberia. Kala's ringing criticism of the government was logical and downright brutal. The sad thing was, it was honest. When he paused Dan downed the beer in his glass and gave his friend a searching gaze.
"Kala, you are barking up the wrong tree."
"There's still time to become a lawyer or a journalist. Thank God you just rounded off your law degree. Quit the army if you want to make a change."
Kala's granite-hard eyes fumed like the tip of his gold-tipped cigarette. His only vice was tobacco and he enjoyed cigarettes, especially the brands produced by British-American Tobacco.
"Ever read 'Seven Days in May'? Great novel." His mild tone, and the seemingly irrelevant question, did not fool Dan one bit.
Dan nodded. "What's...?" Kala raised his hand.
"Since you are an enlightened man the novel must have taught you a few things about the moral burden of the military in a democracy run by incompetents."
Dan sighed. His smile was cold. "If you read the book aright General Scott and his band were planning a goddamned coup against President Jordan Lyman of U.S.A. Don't tell me anything in our training or ethics says we should turn the guns on an incompetent C-in-C."
"No". Kala shook his head vigorously and began to pace his elegantly furnished sitting-room. Dan thought, this guy is heading towards a rocky road if he doesn't watch it.
"Look, I'm not insensitive to the downtrodden's cry in my country. I care about what goes on. Kaje is an asshole, God help us, but let us give democracy a chance". His tone was sober. "Let the armed services recover from years of political sodomy."
Kala turned abruptly, holding his cigarette like a weapon. "You sound like you're trying to talk me out of a coup." He sounded amused. Dan shrugged. "You were sufficiently threatening."
"You should hear General Zazo." Zazo headed the 91st Strategic Planning Command. He was one of the foremost advocates of a non-politicized Giberian military. Dan had heard some of his comments about government policies at a conference. They were suave swords.
Dan smiled humorlessly. "You know where I stand. I hate bad governance. But I'm a soldier thus my profession imposes limits on me." He eyed Kala glacially. "And you, too".
"But my conscience must be appeased."
"Then form a lobby or pressure group. 'Seven Days in May' may give you some hints."
Kala laughed. "Oh, boy. Can you imagine me lobbying those yo-yos at the National Parliament?"
"Yes," said Dan jocularly. "Just line them up and belch out, Left, Right, Stamp! They'll do your bidding fast when you add your salary to the lobbying fund."
Kala roared again. The picture of the pot-bellied politicians stomping to the ramrod commands of the major was stomach-turning. Dan also laughed, but at the back of his mind he remembered that General Scott's right-hand man had locked up a U.S senator in a secret base out in the desert.
The explosion shook the earth.
Dan was nearly hurled out of his bed as his sleep-riddled senses jumped to hundred percent wakefulness. The awful explosions rang out again. The major's heart nearly fell out of his chest. These were not angry thunder cracks.
Ann Dubo, his lawyer girlfriend, cried out in fear. Dan patted her head and got to his feet. He yanked out his pistol from a desk drawer. "Get into the bathroom," he whispered urgently. A shot of pity stabbed him as the thoroughly disoriented young woman scampered away like a rabbit.
Footsteps raced down the bedroom passage. Dan pulled back the safety-catch, aimed at the main door.
"Who is it?" he growled, determinedly ignoring the fear tearing at his insides. The booms continued.
"Babo, sir." Babo was his batman.
"Come in with your hands raised." Something crazy was going on, and until he could make sense of it, he had to be careful.
Babo wisely obeyed the gutturally uttered order. "What's going on?" Dan asked, lowering his pistol.
"No idea, sir. But it looks like some kind of sustained attack." He gasped. Dan blanched as the four-letter word shot through his mind like a high-velocity bullet. There was only one thing to do. He reached for his uniform.
Babo liked his new kind-hearted boss. "Sir," he said urgently, "if it is a coup, be careful. Loyalties are doubtful." He was a bright but poor lad who could not join the Army as a cadet despite his good school certificate. His lack of a godfather was a serious minus in the Giberian military.
Dan opened his mouth but a sudden sharp cackle of small arms fire uncomfortably close shut him up. "Thanks," he mumbled. His cell phone rang at that moment.
Kala's voice was detached. "Get out of the base, Dan. Go now".
"What's wrong? Tell me!" Dan did not need his friend's confirmation. White-hot shock nearly spun his head off his neck.
"Do as I say. Your life is in your hands." The line cut. Dan looked at the Nokia uncomprehendingly. Outside, Armageddon approached the door.
The major looked at Babo. Jesus, what a mess. But then you do not survive seven months at Fort Jackson if your knees are made of jelly. There was only one course of action if he was a soldier of the Giberian Army. He turned to Babo.
"My girlfriend is in the bathroom. Ensure she gets home in one piece." Babo nodded. Dan instantly patched on to the commander of his guard team. Sergeant Yamani came on line at once.
"Men at their positions, ready to resist attack from any quarter, sir".
"Good. Now, Sarge, there's a coup in progress and I have to get to the SOU Headquarters. Where's your loyalty?"
"To you and the High Command, sir."
"Good. Get Privates Ndanusa and Mali ready. I may need back-up. Move it!" He pulled Ann out of the bathroom and handed her over to Babo. "All will be okay, darling. Take care." He kissed her, grabbed his submachine gun from a chamber no-one knew existed in the bedroom and ran downstairs.
Ndanusa and Mali were waiting by his Peugeot. On a hunch Dan made for Ann's new model Volkswagen. It was far less known by his colleagues and thus less likely to be a target. The journey to hell began.
Shots filled the earth. Now and then an explosive tore the night. Incendiary devices wrecked havoc on targets beyond SOU headquarters and the base of 130B. The coup plotters were clearly out for success at all costs and not even a sea of blood and a valley of corpses were going to stop them. As Mali drove like a trained lunatic Dan prayed they would not run into an ambush. He kept on trying Colonel Labran Mbadiwe's number. Labran was his unit commander. It was a risky move because there was no telling where Labran stood, but then chances had to be taken. His efforts to reach Captain Linus and Major Otogbo, the only SOU officers with whom he was fairly close, were unsuccessful. A sword of fear stabbed his stomach.
"Getting close to E road, sir," said Mali. E road led to the diversion that connected SOU's formidable HQ.
Heavy gunfire tore down the road. At once Mali swept the Volkswagen into a nearby thicket and everyone drew his gun. Before Dan could speak, his phone cried. Heaving a sigh of relief at getting some communication, even if an enemy link, he pressed the 'answer' button.
"Major Kufa," Labran strained to be heard over the orchestra of gunfire in the background.
"Listen! Are you with...?"
"Thank God. We're under massive attack at the HQ. They caught us by surprise. Most of our officers are loyal but seven are dead. Get over to 105 depot now. Do what you can with our men there. Lieutenants Paul and Nyaka are the only officers there. If SOU goes down 130B is gone! You're the only reasonably senior SOU officer around! Move!"
Dan swallowed. Before he could reply Labran came on for the last time. "Kala is the coup leader in Ogkwom." The repeated blast of gunfire that terminated further discussion was almost visible to the major.
He turned to his men. "You heard that".
"To 105, then, and God help us."
"Amen," replied Ndanusa. Mali swung the car east.
Dan gritted his teeth. Kala... He shook his head free of cobwebs and gripped his SMG tightly. Not even the authors of 'Seven Days in May' would have anticipated this five-dimensional play-out of their plot. Could Kala finish this? It was his duty to stop him.
He sighed heavily and caressed his gun for comfort.
The coup plotters were fast, extremely ruthless and effective. Many middle-ranked and junior officers were the back bone of execution, while the seniors provided guidance, logistics and both legal and administrative cover. Unfortunately for 130B many of its units were pro-government. But the putschists under Lieutenant-Colonel Dojay, Majors Nwaeke, Ogomgom and the daredevil Kala, had or seized command of strategic units in 130B. They were not unsparing in employing massive firepower, and taking prisoners was not their guiding principle.
One of the earliest targets was the Special Operations Unit. This newly created unit, roughly patterned after the U.S. Special Forces, had only one fighting arm which was located at 130B. The arcane logic and politics of the Giberian Army High Command had compelled the brass to site the fighting arm in the home region of President Kaje while the ceremonial/administrative branch was quartered in the national capital.
SOU had a small detachment at 105 depot about fifty kilometers from 130B. It housed mostly some back-up equipment for the training of recruits at the bigger and further Training Depot. Dan and his men had to work through an ambush to get there. Fortunately SOU boys are the top of the Army cream so they blasted their way through, killing three of the ambushers and wounding two. The rest scattered. The Volkswagen was pulverized. Mali took a bullet in the head while Dan and Ndanusa escaped with wounds. They made the rest of the journey on foot.
Amazingly 105 was not under attack. Maybe Kala's group did not have sufficient troops or they felt 105 was inconsequential. Nyaka and Paul had done a good job, rousing out the two platoons and placing them on high alert. Dan's heart heaved. If these brave men were hit by Kala and Co. their fate would not be unlike that of Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae.
Nyaka allowed the major and the private in after proper identification. The depot's communication system was dead, knocked out by the volleys aimed at the central military communication link. Dan phoned repeatedly and feverishly but could not reach any officer outside SOU who was likely to be a loyalist. Labran could no longer be reached. Only God knew if SOU was now a coupist enclave.
Dan summoned the lieutenants and Staff Sergeant Samson.
"Men," he spoke briskly, determinedly ignoring the small man somersaulting down his spine. "We are at the crossroads. But our duty's clear and our commander's orders are definite. If we must go down let it be while saving Giberia from a nightmare. We're going to repel these coupists." His eyes were livid coals of determination.
The three soldiers looked at each other. Nyaka asked softly, "Do you know that Major Kala is the ringmaster, sir?"
Dan's eyes became sun-baked granite. "Yes, lieutenant," he answered harshly. He paused, focused laser beams on each soldier. They nodded, simply committing themselves to what was by all accounts suicide.
Deploying such a small number of men was hell. Dan tried his superiors once more. No success. A crazy idea came into his mind. He rang Kala and got him on the third try.
"Yes?" His voice was controlled as usual.
"I know. You did not take my advice which is usual for a stubborn goat like you."
Dan caught the emotion engulfing his voice just in time. "God, Kala, do you know what you are doing?"
"Putting an end to the mess that has ripped this country to pieces since the Brits left."
"Jesus, man, you're destroying the country. Reports coming in show that your co-conspirators failed in the capital and some other regions. Give up this thing!" He might have been talking to an APC. Surrender was one tactic Kala never learnt at the Academy.
"For the last time, leave. Do not bank on 105. They won't be left standing much longer." Kala cut the line.
Dan took a deep breath. The Rubicon is right here, not in Italy, he thought grimly.
Forget the action movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nick Cage. In real life warfare, numbers count, and a maverick, mobile special unit of commandos, no matter how effective, cannot do the job without armored support, reinforcement and heavy fire power. But 105 was determined to do or die.
Dan posted out two groups to the government-owned telecommunications company and the Governor's Mansion. It was an audacious move but he needed those targets. The last group was to hold out at the 105 base under the command of Lieutenant Paul. At the last moment he got through to a senior officer of the 554 Battalion. Recently promoted Lieutenant-Colonel Taiyi was the battalion's acting commander and had successfully repelled an attack by the putschists. He was willing to send in some help.
"It is vital. Kala holds fort at the Mansion."
"Then this is my battle plan, sir."
Arés was in full control.
Nyaka led the assault on the telecommunications company. They tried to move in quietly but the enemy was on high alert. A fear-coated shot was fired too soon, and the world went wild. Bullets blazed. Nyaka and his troops were bent on taking the company. The coupists were also bent on keeping the ground they had won. In a thrice Nyaka and his men were savagely decimated. The badly wounded lieutenant called 105 and was told that the troops from 554 were on the way.
"Storm the communication center!" he commanded Corporal Bala, his deputy.
Bala and seven of the remaining troops moved as their fast dying commander and the rest of the men faced the overwhelmingly superior force within the compound.
As a bullet pierced Nyaka's lungs the rumble of trucks and an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) reached his dying ears. Two truckloads from 554 cut loose with all they had. The enemy was totally neutralized. As the new arrivals deployed round the bullet-ravaged compound two more trucks and another APC raced towards the Governor's Mansion whose recent occupant slept in a shallow grave in the backyard.
Dan led the assault by the commandos. Once the SOU moved in they opened up with RPGs, rifles, light machine-guns and grenades. But Kala, backed by the hard core of his men, would be damned if he just handed over the keys to the Mansion. Dan's troops were mown down like fresh corn and he suffered a flesh wound. Another bullet nearly took his left arm off at the elbow.
But they persisted. Down to ten men, Dan wondered what God, or Satan, would do with his soul. He smiled grimly.
The music of gunfire jerked back his thoughts. He turned to the two soldiers who had kept pace with him.
"Cover me. We go in now."
They nodded, their eyes feral with lust for battle. He dashed forward with each man on either side. As they let off their grenade launcher-equipped M-16s on the run, he cut loose with an Uzi. Bullets hurled the two gunners into oblivion but the grenades slammed into a couple of trucks that shielded some of Kala's troops. Fuel tanks burst and the world went red.
The rumble of the 554 trucks could be heard over the din of war. The battle became close. Kala was not known for surrender. He was in full battle dress and carried an M-16. A light machine-gun slung across his back while the front of his body was crisscrossed with bandoliers. Surrounded by his viciously loyal personal squad, they holed up in strategic corners of the Mansion and slaughtered their one-time comrades like goats.
Dan's left arm was bound in a bandage as he and Captain Jimoh of 554 led the sweep through the Mansion's grounds. Kala and his men were relentless and ruthless but the loyalists were in no mood to turn tails.
Then Dan and Jimoh ran Kala and three of his men aground in the guest house annex.
"Come out with your hands in the air!" roared Dan.
Bullets screamed in response. The two officers and the two corporals with them hit the ground.
"The next one will be terrible," announced Kala.
"Come out! You have run out of grenades," shouted Jimoh.
"But not bullets," snarled Kala defiantly. Their guns boomed. The soldiers dive-rolled but Jimoh and the two corporals were not fast enough. Slugs snapped their spines.
Maddened beyond reason, Dan rolled and hurled a grenade through the door. He scarcely felt the blast's dying waves even as he came up a split second after the explosion, firing his Uzi at full automatic in a deadly sweep. The gun raced like a garden hose till the firing pin clicked on an empty chamber.
He approached the remnants of the door of the shredded room, his sidearm at the ready.
Kala lay amidst the entrails of his men. Half of his head was gone.
Dan lowered his pistol, stared at the headless thing with whom he had shared the past thirteen years of his life. Tears filled his eyes. He approached the prostrate form, bent and plucked the small necklace round the gore-ridden neck. It was a gift he had given Kala when he turned thirty-one.
What a fate, he thought, blinking back the mist that blurred his vision. His chest heaved but something held back the sobs at the roof of his mouth. Mysteriously, Brutus' words on coming upon Cassius' corpse on the battlefield echoed through his mind: "I shall find time. I shall find time".
He slid his gun in his holster and left.
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