Almost 17 years after the unfortunate bloody Zango-Kataf religious riot in 1992, retired Major-General Lekwot Zamani is yet to break his silence over the unfortunate incident that claimed several lives and the destruction of property worth millions of Naira. As the dust of that riot settled down, Lekwot and his kinsmen were ordered to the gallows by the Justice Benedict Okadigbo-led Commission of Inquiry. However, God smiled on him and he thus cheated death. After wide condemnation of that harsh ruling, the then military administration of self-styled Military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida(rtd) stayed execution. Ever since, Lekwot , a respected retired General of the Nigerian Army and one seen as the emancipator of his people of the Southern Kaduna, has remained silent. He, however promised to speak on the unfortunate incidents of the period one day. All entreaties by the Nigerian Compass to make him talk were like the proverbial head of the camel passing through the eyes of the needle. The request hit the brick wall. “You know when food is not properly cooked, it purges,” he said. Enjoy the encounter…
NOTHING suggests his status in the society like his contemporaries except, of course, the military guard at the main entrance to his 10, Kninkino Road residence in the Government Reserved Area(GRA) of Kaduna State. Even at that, the civil manner the military guard receives visitors is remarkable. Courteous, polite are the words. “E bi like say e dey. Go inside. Follow the main entrance to the house,” the combat-ready military guard told the Nigerian Compass. As this reporter was ushered into the expansive house, one noticeable thing was the serene atmosphere. Inside the house, the interior décor was like one that could be found in the homes of commoners – cheap and simple. It suggests the lifestyle of the occupant. And before the reporter took in the ambience, an elderly man had approached to know of his mission and, in a military fashion, collected the reporter’s complementary card to inform the much-sought of the visitor’s presence. Discipline, humility seem to be the hallmarks of the house.
As the reporter was waiting eagerly for him, like a man pacing the doors of the labour room, a well-cultured young girl in her early 20s, perhaps, the last of the six of the Lekwots’, emerged from one of the rooms. “Has any one gone to call him for you?”she inquired, and the reporter replied in the affirmative. As if in a drama stage, another man, in his 50s came, passed where the reporter sat at the court yard to remind the General that the visitor was still waiting. At this juncture, a re-assuring word came in that “the big fish” would be with him shortly.
At exactly 12:45 am, Major-General Lekwot Zamani(rtd) mni, a former military governor of old Rivers State; former Commandant of the nation’s most prestigious military institution-the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) and a man, who once cheated death at the wake of the 1992 bloody Zango-Kataf religious riot, was before the reporter, “face to face”. The then Military President Ibrahim Babangida described that crisis as a “civilian equivalent of a coup.” The Justice Okadigbo-led Commission of Inquiry sentenced Lekwot and some of his kinsmen to death but because of public outcry, the Babangida regime stayed execution. Lekwot was later pardoned. But age is fast telling on him. Spotting a green guinea brocade and a pair of black sandals, the dark diminutive, silver -haired General gently asked: “May I be of any help to you? Do you care for drink?”
It’s still about this our interview sir, replied the reporter.
“No! No!! No!!! I told you I won’t talk. Am I the only retired General around or am I the only former military governor around?” he queried but not without a smile. Throughout the conversation, two things stood him out from his contemporaries. Principles and humility.
Reminded of how he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, Lekwot paused as if a pin had just pricked his skin, went through the complementary card offered again, then, the conversation continued thus:
Lekwot: We are retired and we should be resting. And we should be allowed to rest. We are no politicians. Go to the politicians who make news. They are all over. I am not the only former military governor around.
Reporter: And perhaps, you are not the only former NDA Commandant too?
Lekwot: Exactly, there are many past Commandants of the NDA.
Reporter: Yes! We know all these. We know that you are not the only retired General or a former military governor around, but you know, you once cheated death. There is a big story to tell.
Lekwot: (paused for a while, then went through the complementary card offered to him and tried to pronounced the surname). Where are you from?
Reporter: Benue State.
Reporter: Yes sir!
Reporter: Yes sir. But how did you know that I am from Igumale and by the way, do you know Igumale?
Lekwot: I have a friend from there; the late Major-General Sunday Ifere. You see when the time comes, I will talk. It’s not yet time. You know when food is not properly cooked, it purges. Even in Idoma, if food is not well cooked, it will certainly purge (laughter).
Reporter: You know, General, the whole world wants to hear your story
Lekwot: Okay. What I will do for you now is to give you a tribute I wrote on my late friend, Mr Ellah, who died last year. This will certainly convince your organization that you are not resting on your oars in your attempt to interview me.
Lekwot: Okay, let me bring the tribute that I wrote for you. What will happen is …but there are a lot of politicians out there who make news. Why not go to them?
Reporter: Sir, I repeat, the world needs to hear your story, something like biography. Nigerians need to know, from the horse’s mouth, the issues around the crisis.
Lekwot: Ah! Do you know that there are certain things even my wife does not know about me and you want me to start talking about how I started life? Wayo man! (laughter)… you see, apart from you, many journalists have come here for an interview but I do not want to talk. We are retired. Let us rest.
Reporter: (looking at the portraits on the wall and pointing to a particular group photograph) This is you and your family members. You must be a loving father?
Lekwot: That photograph was taken when I was in the Staff College in the United States of America in 1974. It appeared in the college magazine. Then I was a Lieutenant Colonel. Then, I had only two children. That was 35 years ago.
Reporter: Sir, let me snap your photograph for my office library collection.
Lekwot: No! No!! No!!! Don’t snap me. If you snap me without my consent, I will sue you (laughter). Don’t worry, I will give you my recent photograph. I snapped it around January, this year (2009).
Reporter: But why not give me interview too?
Lekwot (recalling). I have been misquoted in the past. So, I don’t want that again.
Reporter: I promise, we won’t misquote you. That I can assure you.
Lekwot: Here is my recent photograph. I am looking very young here, right? I am still young at heart. I still do kung fu.
Reporter: Lest I forget. You talked about a tribute of your late friend, Mr. Ellah. He must be very close to you. Who was Mr. Ellah. Was he an Idoma man because the Idomas’ bear that name too.
Lekwot: No! he was not an Idoma man. Mr. Ellah was my SSG when I was the military governor of old Rivers State. He was such a good fellow. I learnt a lot from him. You know when you are working with good men, you feel fulfilled. Mr Ellah was from the Igbo speaking area of Rivers. He was the first Biafra ambassador to the United Kingdom. When the civil war broke out, he was caught up there. He opened the Biafra embassy in the UK. But he was a good man. Even professor Tam David West was my Commissioner for Education in Rivers State when I was a military governor there. You see, Nigeria doesn’t understand the likes of Tam David West. He is good man too. When he was the Commissioner for Education, our Universal Basic Education (UBE) was the best in the country in terms of implementation. David West is a good man…
Reporter: That is why you have to speak out for us to know who is who.
Lekwot: What will I say that has not been said in the past?
Reporter: As a former governor of Rivers State, you will know a lot about the people of the area and know the panacea to the restiveness in that part of the region.
Lekwot: But they have a blue print to that and now there is Ministry of Niger Delta. Let me rest.
(Thereafter, he climbed the staircase to his room and waved at the reporter).
- First published in the Nigerian Compass circa 3rd March 2009