Harboring Ibos


A little light leaked into the cabin from under the curtain the flight crew had pulled to stifle their hushed conversation. All the other passengers were asleep on this long haul over the Sahara from Rome to Kano. Except me. Watching the smoke from my cigarette curl up the shaft of my reading light. Now and then taking a pull from the pint of duty-free brandy hidden in the inside pocket of my sport jacket. Not for in-flight consumption, of course, so I had to keep an eye out. A dangerous individual. Had been since I boarded the connecting flight from Geneva. Even on the train going to Geneva. Traveling under an assumed identity. Avoiding contact in the transit lounges. Revealing my passport only when necessary. I could be a young businessman, a fugitive, an Interpol agent, a spy. A kid coming home for the holidays.


I started drinking on the train. A beer to celebrate my escape. Boarding school had certain advantages, but I was glad to be out of there. Hours to be on my own, free to be myself, to be my so many other selves. Anonymous in this artificial space between countries. Adrift in imagination. Enjoy it while it lasts.  Back to reality when I come out of customs on the other end, into the arms of Mom, Dad, and my sister waiting on the other side of the glass. Until then I could be any nefarious character I imagined, sneaking hashish into the country in a false bottom suitcase, fingering the gatt in my pocket.


Eventually I fell asleep. Next morning I had a hangover and half of the bottle of brandy to deal with. I could have just stuffed it into the seat pocket in front of me, but what a waste. It would be safe in my jacket as long as I didn’t do something stupid to give myself away. This was before the metal detectors and terrorist watches, when even a teenager wore a jacket and a tie to fly. Just be cool and the customs inspector and passport control won’t suspect a thing.


But my family wasn’t there to meet me. Just some guy from the AID office in Kano. A tall lanky guy who dressed like the rancher he had been in Colorado, now advising Fulani herdsmen how to adjust from a nomadic lifestyle to living in towns, keeping their cattle behind fences. “Your Dad asked me to pick you up,” he explained, “and take you to his hotel to wait for him.” Hotel? This was really strange. We lived in Kaduna, a few hours south of Kano, and we never stayed in a hotel here. Always drove straight home in our red Ford Falcon station wagon, with cold drinks in a cooler and sandwiches to munch on the way. “Your Dad is on his way back from Sokoto, and he should be back at the hotel by early this afternoon. He can tell you all about it when he gets here. I’m sorry about this, but your Dad is doing something important. He’s a brave man.”


Alone in the hotel room, I jumped from conclusion to conclusion. Was somebody sick? If so, why go to Sokoto? There were better hospitals in Kano, or Kaduna for that matter. Kaduna was the capital of the Northern Region with all those big shots in long flowing robes, so they had to have the best of care right there, unless they opted to fly off to a clinic in Europe, and the international airport was here in Kano. It didn’t make sense that Dad would drive up here and then go to Sokoto. Unless there was somebody sick in Sokoto that needed to be evacuated. But Dad didn’t have any agents in Sokoto that I’d heard of. I’d never been there, but I’d heard it was a sleepy town at the edge of the desert inhabited by nomads and camels. Not much agriculture up there for an extension program. My mind was racing.


But first I had to decide what to do with this bottle in my pocket. My Dad would kill me if he found out about it. At first I was going to finish it off, but then I’d be smelling of booze when he got back, a dead giveaway. Hell, I wasn’t even supposed to be smoking these cigarettes. The permission slip he and my mother had signed was for pipe smoking only. Instinctively I took one last pull of the brandy—I’d heard about the hair of the dog but in my limited experience hadn’t felt its remedial effects yet—and stashed the brandy in the bathroom waste basket under some discarded tissues. I was to retrieve it a couple of times after that as I paced the room wondering what was up, and by the time my father arrived it was no longer effectively hidden.


I heard him fumble with the key on the other side of the door, and when he stumbled in, briefcase in hand, I could see that he was exhausted. We embraced briefly, and he dove spread-eagle onto one of the beds mumbling something about explaining it all once he’d rested. I sat in the chair watching him sleep, strangely calm now that he had arrived safe and sound. I had many questions of course, but the answers could wait. I must have dozed off myself, staring at a blank TV screen—there was only one channel in those days, and it only broadcast a few hours in the evening, so I doubt there was even a TV in the hotel room—or reading an Ian Fleming novel, but I honestly don’t remember what I was reading in those days.


My Dad was already packing when I awoke. He asked about school and about my being picked up at the airport. Everyone at home was fine, and my sister had returned from her boarding school in Ibadan. When he finally got around to explaining what he had been up to, it was almost anti-climactic. Turns out he had been on a rescue mission.


There was a small American community in Sokoto, mostly missionaries, and because they were so remote one of the Baptists had set up an illegal shortwave radio transceiver so they could stay in contact with the other missions in the country. Newly independent Nigeria was a member of the Commonwealth, and they used the British system for licensing radios. Because there was no reciprocal licensing agreement between the Commonwealth and the United States, American citizens were forbidden to license and operate CB or “ham” radio transmitters in Nigeria. I knew about this because I was on the verge of getting my ham ticket in the US and had set up a ham rig in my bedroom anticipating being able to present my American ham ticket to get a Nigerian license as my British ham friends had done. Instead I had to take a back seat in my British friends’ radio shacks while they made contacts all over the world and collected QSL cards from ham operators attracted to their exotic “5n2” call letters. I soon tired of being a second-hand ham and moved on to other things, but that’s another story.


A Baptist missionary in Lagos had picked up a transmission from his counterpart in Sokoto indicating that there was some trouble brewing and they might need help. The missionary contacted the US embassy, who in turn contacted the consulate in Kaduna. The consulate was new, with a very small staff, most of whom were new to Nigeria, or Africa for that matter, and there were very few US government employees in the area. My Dad had been working in the North since independence, and his experience setting up an agricultural extension system qualified him as an expert in the region, so it came as no surprise that he was the first to be called on to help.


It was a year or two before the Biafra war, shortly before the assassination of President and Sultan of Sokoto Ahmadu Bello, and the tension between the Muslim Hausa and Fulani tribes in the North and the mainly Christian Ibo tribe in the East was already boiling over. The missionary-educated Ibos were victims of their own success: their knowledge and business sense gave them a distinct advantage over the generally more sedentary folk in the North, and as they migrated from the more crowded southern regions, they easily established themselves as captains of industry and trade along with the Indian and Lebanese immigrant families who had traditionally been the region’s shopkeepers for generations. And as more British colonial officers and their families were assigned to the North, they brought along their faithful Ibo clerks and servants, who never really assimilated, preferring to keep to themselves in Ibo enclaves in the towns and cities. After independence, the Hausas and Fulanis began to realize that, except at the highest levels, the ruling power was not being shifted from the British to them, but to this clerical class of interlopers who didn’t even worship the same God and Prophet. Resentment that had long festered in the towns and villages began to erupt here and there, encouraged by those Imams who were reluctant to take on the British but were now emboldened to root out the African infidels in their midst. Angry mobs beat up southerners in the market places, and there were reports of Ibos murdered in the street while their houses burned.


It appeared that one such purge was taking place in Sokoto, and a group of Baptist missionaries had banded together to protect some Ibos who had been attacked by hiding them and their families in the servants’ quarters on their mission compound. A crowd had gathered at the gate demanding that the missionaries hand over the Ibos they were harboring, and only by firing shotguns in the air were the Baptists able to disperse the mob temporarily. An uneasy peace had been established and the police had promised to intervene should the mob return, but the Baptists were concerned for the safety not only of the Ibos but also of themselves and their families. Somebody had to do something before this broke out into bloodshed, so the American Consul asked my Dad to organize a rescue team.


They rolled up at the Baptist compound late in the afternoon, a ragtag convoy of personal cars and government vehicles with the USAID handshake shield on the door. They didn’t arrive unnoticed, and before long a small contingent of religious leaders, politicians and police gathered at the gate to find out what was going on. “We tried to explain that we were just there to protect our own people, but they wanted us to turn over the infidel criminals they said we were hiding. Eventually we convinced them that we would take only the Americans and their families home with us, and leave the Ibos behind for the police to deal with. That seemed to satisfy them and they left.”


“We had a hard time getting the Baptists to agree,” Dad continued, “but we had to make the local leaders believe they were getting what they wanted. If we left the Ibos behind, the mob would slaughter them, along with any Baptists who stayed behind to protect them. So we had to make it look like we  were evacuating only the Americans, and we had to stay up late into the night convincing everyone that we could pull it off.”


A couple of hours before dawn the convoy crept through the gates with the lights off, local missionary drivers familiar with the roads in the lead. Only one of the sleepy policemen posted at the gate to keep an eye on them was awake, and all he saw through the windows was white faces. Once the convoy reached the open road, the drivers turned on their lights and picked up speed. Not until they were well outside the city limits on the main road to Kano did the secret passengers hiding under blankets on the floors and among the luggage dare to show themselves. “We were so lucky!” My Dad exclaimed. “It could have gone so wrong. If the guard at the gate had taken a closer look, I shudder to think what might have happened.”


I didn’t know what to say. I’d never thought of my father playing the role of a hero. I knew he’d been an MP in the army, and there were pictures of me as a baby wearing his patrolman’s cap when he was a campus cop in college, but nothing like this. It was right out of one of those Rider Haggard adventure novels I’d been obsessed with a few years back. And he’d managed to pull it off without any bloodshed.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I just stood there fumbling with my pack of Tareytons.


“I thought you were going to stick to the pipe,” my Dad said, lighting up one of his Winstons. The pipe had been an early affectation, one that was to carry through my college years well into young adulthood, but cigarettes were my true addiction. I had a pouch of Cherry Blend in my jacket pocket, along with the pipe and its accessories, but what a hassle. With cigarettes all you needed was a lighter and a look around for an ashtray. And they always stayed lit.


“Uh, yeah, well you know.” Dad give me a wry grimace of inevitability, but I caught a flash of disappointment in his eyes. “And there’s something else you probably should know. There’s a bottle of booze in the bathroom trash I couldn’t finish.”


“I noticed that. Did you want to take it home with us?”


“Na, let’s just leave it.” We loaded my luggage into the dusty Renault station wagon with the handshake shield on the door and set off for home. “By the way, were you able to get all of the Ibos hiding in the Baptist compound into the convoy?” I asked. “It sounded like there were a lot of them.”


Dad kept his gaze fixed on the wash boarded highway ahead, and we didn’t talk again until we reached our house in Kaduna.