In my 6th year in the Nigerian Military School, while preparing for our final WAEC exams, I and a group of friends, BOOKATEEs as they used to call us, would stay back and read late into the night, come back to the hostel together, fix something to eat, gist before we went to bed, It was a routine. We did this back to back, rinse, and repeat.
On this fateful day, while on our way back from the classrooms, we saw a light burning in one of the dining halls, Echo (Abuja) company dining hall to be specific. Out of curiosity, we all went to see what the source of this light was, it was a clay pot filled with red sand and a candle half-buried in the middle of the pot burning with a clear blue flame. There were about 8 of us and for some reason, none of us was scared, we were just transfixed. Nobody said a word, we just kept looking into the light, hypnotised. Then one of us moved, I can't remember who it was, he picked up a stone and threw it at the pot. That singular action brought us all back to life, then we all started throwing stones at the pot trying to put out the flame. I still cannot remember if we were successful because from nowhere, some soldiers, permanent staff as they were known, started calling out to us:
Who are those boys there?
It was way past bedtime, ideally, no boy should be awake or outside at this time. Once caught, there will be no explanation, nothing said can be used in a court of law, in fact, there will be no court of law, you will spend what was left of the night in the guardroom. Armed with this knowledge, we didn't need to have a consensus, everybody took off and the soldiers chased. We all ran in different directions, each boy to his room or to the nearest room. I quickly dashed into my room, but it was too close to the dining hall. A soldier spotted me, he came to my room, I didn't bolt the door. He shone the torchlight in my face and dragged me out and I could see the shock on his face. He didn't expect to see me there. Back in secondary school, I was one of the good ones, he knew me for my academic performance and dedication to my faith. He let me go without a word. I could see the surprise, shock, and disappointment on his face. There was no gisting or eating for us that night, our routine was broken but at least nobody was locked up, everything was okay
The next day, I was summoned by the adjutant, he sent a soldier to come to get me from my class. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. When we got to his office, I banged my right foot and gave a sharp salute in military-style. “Morning Sir” even though it was afternoon. He didn't look up and when he spoke, his voice was cold and clear:
Imanah Shehu, I am very disappointed. How can you of all people be the leader of the cult members in NMS? How can you, our Amir be a leader of secret cult members in NMS. And you come from a humble home. Who is your father? This behaviour is unacceptable and we will get to the bottom of this. There is no room for cultism in the military!
I was so shocked that I could not even say anything. The adjutant, Ranger as he was popularly called was no joker. If he says that you are leaving, it meant that you will be expelled. Then it dawned on me that the soldiers had twisted the tale. I was being set up and there was nothing I could do or say to save myself, the whole incident was pinned on me. The perpetrators, most likely the soldiers, had moved quickly to report the incident and pinned it on me. I was still trying to process the situation and the implication of the whole event when a classmate of mine marched into the office, I can never forget! He was wearing camouflage and marvel fair boots, one end of his jungle hat covering his left eye and the other flipped upwards like a cowboy - he was the calvary! He banged his right foot, gave a sharp salute, and shouted, "Morning Sir!" This time the adjutant looked up at him as he said:
I was with him sir, we are not cult members sir!
Now that I think about it, this classmate was not part of the BOOKATEEs so he most definitely would not have been there that night. He just heard that I was in trouble and came to support. This was during the Abacha era and his father was a military general serving as a minister. The adjutant saw what had happened and must have been impressed because there and then he warned us to desist from bad behaviour and let us go. No guardroom, not even 6 strokes of the cane, he just let us go.
Up till today, we never discussed the incident with my friend. I still can't for the life of me place a finger on why he stepped up to help me. To be honest, we really weren't that close, I was too much of a goody-two-shoes to be in his circle. When I brought up the matter years later, he seemed to have forgotten. He went on to become a lawyer and we are still quite close till today. After that incident, I got nicknamed <strong>Member</strong> - alias for cult member. It was hurtful at first, but when I embraced it, they let go. The gist amongst my close friends and I were that the soldiers that chased us were the ones involved in some sort of ritual. I held on to that narrative up until recently.
The truth is that without concrete facts, we can never really tell what was going on and who was responsible. For all you know, our prime suspect might not have been involved. He probably reported the matter from his own perspective. This was in 1998 when there was no internet in Zaria and no social media to spread fake news, but that incident could have changed the course of my life if God hadn't sent in a lifeline. It could also have destroyed the soldier's career if reported from our POV without verifying. The importance of verifying information before sharing cannot be overemphasised, without concrete facts, you can never really conclude on a matter!
...without concrete facts, you can never really conclude on a matter
We have all seen how stories can be doctored to push narratives that in most cases are false. We have also seen the implication in Lagos and other parts of the country. There are times when we, by no fault of ours, have responded emotionally to issues, this is understandable. Emotions make us human and it is okay to respond emotionally, but afterward, it is important to analyse rationally and be objective with the facts. It is on this basis that decisions should be made.
The truth sometimes leaves trails and if we dig deeper, we might be able to connect the dots. I am being very careful with words as I do not want the lesson from this writeup to be lost. And yes, this writeup is in response to the recent EndSARS protest but I am not speaking for or against it. The truth is that when issues like the incident at the Lekki Toll Gate and the carnage that followed occurred, who is RIGHT or WRONG becomes secondary, LIVES have been lost!