We conclude the serialisation of short fiction by Ogaga Ifowodo, the award-winning poet, columnist and activist. The stories to be featured are from his work-in-progress entitled The Hostage, beginning with the story “The Treasonable Parrot,” his fiction debut featured in the AGNI Portfolio of African Fiction, edited by E. C. Osondu and William Pierce, published in volume 72 of the magazine in 2010. At the heart of the collection is the title story, a novella. As the general caption of this special serialisation suggests, the stories are set in Nigeria’s recent history of dictatorship as experienced by charactersprivately and in unsavoury social encounters caused by the relentless logic of the radical curtailment of freedom. Book your copy in advance!
He drew his service pistol and pointed it at his prisoner, but somehow remained calm enough to repeat his simulated conversation to the point where he thought he’d heard the bird speak. Again the parrot squawked, and this time he was sure. But what was that? He was unable to make any sense of it, though there was no doubt now that his prisoner had, indeed, broken its silence (To avoid repeating this word, just three sentences after, in the same context). He went through the conversation for the fourth time, pushing his nose right to the metal of the cage.
“Well, Chief Okotie, we know how much you are risking in this operation. We also understand that, being a civilian, this is an unusual venture for you. But vice president and minister of finance for four years, that is more than enough reward, you will agree? Moreover, we promise to arrange an election to make you president in due course. Surely you can’t expect more?”
The parrot squawked again, clearly now: “Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool!”
Colonel Akalo was puzzled. After pondering the parrot’s strange words for a few minutes, he decided to go over his simulated conversation for the fifth and final time to see if he might get a clue from whatever the parrot volunteered next. Colonel Akalo spoke as if making the early morning broadcast. “Fellow Nigerians, I, Major Gordon Shija . . .”
“Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool!” the parrot repeated.
“Is that a code? What does it mean?” Colonel Akalo yelled at the parrot. But the bird was silent once again, burning his forehead with its cold stare. Colonel Akalo was finally unable to restrain himself. He aimed his pistol at the parrot and warned it for the last time. “Now listen to me, you bloody parrot. Still in your golden cage, you probably don’t know where you are. This is a bunker, far from your master’s parlour in Ikeja. If you don’t answer my question now, I will either shoot you dead here or have you shot elsewhere. One more chance to live. Tell me, what does ‘Musa is a fool’ mean?”
“Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool,” the parrot screeched, this time with a definite smirk in its tone.
Colonel Akalo squeezed the trigger. It was a muffled pistol, so he heard himself yell, “Bloody bastard, no man or beast dares me and leaves this room alive!” The bullet hit the reinforced concrete wall, bounced off the desk and fell at his feet. Colonel Akalo was bathed anew in his sweat. He dropped into his chair, sensing himself swaying slightly, lightheaded from the mental exertion. The whisky too had begun to take hold. Then quite unbidden the parrot screeched again, “Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool!”
“All right, Musa is a fool, is that so? Soon you will know who is a fool.” He picked up the spent bullet and put it in his right flap pocket. Then he lifted the handle of the green rotary telephone to summon his aide-de-camp. A door opened and he was shocked to see not his aide but General Barawo. And now he felt like a man whose time was up, a prize-hunter lured out of safety and thrust in sight of his wounded quarry. Why had the Commander-in-Chief come in unannounced? Had he really just come in, or had he seen him shoot at a caged parrot? Colonel Akalo tried his best to regain composure enough to loosen his tongue. He heard himself say, “Your Excellency, sir, what a surprise. I was just about to—”
“Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool!” the parrot said in a stunningly human voice, an unmistakable taunt in its creaky laughter.
“What was that, Colonel Akalo?” General Barawo asked. “I’m not sure I understand you.”
Colonel Akalo again willed life into his tongue. “Pardon me, Your Excellency, sir, but I didn’t say anything. Sir, may I ask what you heard?”
“Curious, very curious, Colonel Akalo. When you announced your marvelous plan for unraveling the secret of a coup by interrogating a parrot, I doubted your sanity. But you have proved me wrong before and I thought you might surprise me again, so I granted your wish. Besides, I understand you claim special training from Sandhurst. That course must have been added after my time there, I dare say! But no matter. You asked for twelve uninterrupted hours before briefing me and I granted that too. It is now three full hours since your time was up, and since you did not have any news for me, I thought I’d come see you at work. And what do you salute me with? ‘Musa is a fool!’ Is that right, Colonel Akalo, am I a fool? Well, speak up, Colonel, for I don’t have any more time to waste.”
Colonel Akalo’s tongue would not move, so he opened his lips and made a soft choking sound.
“Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool!” the bird screeched with irrepressible glee, this time startling Colonel Akalo who thought he was hearing himself speak.
“There you go again, Colonel Akalo. I see that—”
“Your Excellency, sir, I . . . Sir, it—”
“Oho, so you do have a tongue after all! I was beginning to think a parrot had taken it from you. Well, then, use it! What do I hear you say?”
Colonel Akalo realized how far he was from being kingmaker, never mind king. All he could do for the moment was explain. The Commander-in-Chief had heard the only thing the parrot had said since he began the interrogation. His error, he declared, was to have underestimated a civilian coup plotter. “I believe now,” he said, “that Chief Okotie planted the well-trained parrot with the present result in mind. Sir, I have concluded that we will get nothing from this parrot.”
“Speak for yourself alone, Colonel,” said General Barawo acidly. “We never thought coup secrets could be got from a parrot. Your aide tells me he was so astonished by your decision to arrest a bird that he very nearly disobeyed an order for the first time. Well, I should like to know what you propose to do.”
Colonel Akalo described his plan. He would turn his attention to the tribunal, to bringing the arrested traitors to justice. He could even joke: “Now that I am going to be dealing with human suspects, I hope Your Excellency, sir, will be assured of my usual unimpeachable services?”
“And the parrot?” pressed General Barawo.
“Leave the bloody bird to me, sir. I will take care of it.”
General Barawo left the room. He would have to delay the tribunal’s sitting by a day—which wasn’t a bad thing, come to think of it, as that would give him more time to decide what to do with Colonel Akalo. He was even surer now that the colonel would do exactly what he wanted with the trials, which was to send a stern message to traitors in and outside the army. Especially outside the army. The idea of wealthy civilians funding mutiny in the military had to be stamped out. He would let Colonel Akalo conclude the trials, after which he must dispense with him. He could already detect worrisome ambition lurking behind all that zealousness.
Colonel Akalo was glad to get away lightly, considering that General Barawo was not known to give second chances. And he had decided on the fate of the parrot. By refusing to talk, the treacherous bird had displayed unalloyed loyalty to its master and so proved itself a public enemy. It had also thoroughly humiliated him in the process.
The Colonel proved himself a redoubtable military jurist once more. Of the 127 persons tried, only five escaped death by firing squad. They were to serve life sentences. Because of the large number of condemned persons, the executions took place in three batches at the Bar Beach on Victoria Island. The beach, once a half-mile or so of warm sands washed and replenished by the Atlantic’s waves, had lost most of its natural charm and many of its genteel visitors. It was now a haven of derelicts, lunatics, and members of the Aladura sect in cheap white gowns offering frenzied prayers to their sea-dwelling God, of hookers looking for hard-pressed men, pickpockets, a smattering of intrepid tourists, itinerant food vendors, suya merchants, hawkers of sundry wares, buskers and beggars, peddlers of Indian hemp or marijuana and even more potent drugs (if you know what gbana is), and shopkeepers who sold beer and soft drinks from makeshift kiosks of plywood or palm fronds. The beach stretched from the perimeter fence of the Nigerian Television Authority on the right, driving down Ahmadu Bello Way from Bonny Camp up to Eko Hotel, formerly the Eko Holiday Inn. It afforded a splendid view of the waterfront skyline when you faced the shore and an unbroken ocean view that dissolved at the distant meeting point of heaven and earth. But the beach suffered its worst fate when it was chosen for the public execution of armed robbers in the hope of stemming the violent crimes that plagued the country in the aftermath of the civil war.
On the day the last round of executions was to take place, the atmosphere was anything but gloomy. In fact, it was a sunny afternoon tempered by that soothing sea breeze that Lagosians would do anything for on those balmy afternoons when the infernal heat drove them mad. It was a perfect day for walking barefoot in sand and foam, carousing close to a suya stand away from the crashing waves, swimming if you were bold and swift enough, or wandering away to read a book or write a poem or nurture a beard under a coconut tree. It seemed both a crime and a sin to have public executions on this day, but soon a bugle sounded and the condemned men, consisting of a colonel, three majors, and two captains said to be among the nine military masterminds of the coup, were led in, their hands cuffed behind them. They were promptly tied to stakes affixed to oil drums filled with wet sand. But there was a seventh sand-filled drum to which nobody was bound. A murmur had just begun about why it was there at all when a beautiful parrot in a copper cage was brought out by two armed soldiers. The crowd surged forward, but horsewhips cracked left and right and quickly restored order. This was indeed a novelty. Those who had witnessed every execution at the beach swore they had seen nothing like it before.
The cage was placed on the drum. It was high noon when the firing squad marched in to the music of a small army brass band, followed by Colonel Akalo, who took a seat set up for him under a big green-and-white umbrella. He had assigned Sergeant Musa, the deadliest sniper in the army, to the parrot. Now it will know who is a fool. The countdown began and the crowd held its breath. A few women, children, and even some men unmanned by the prospect of the warm red blood about to be spilled, averted their eyes. “Ten, nine, eight . . . one, fire!”A mad staccato of gunshots rent the air. Colonel Akalo pulled a green handkerchief from a pocket of his speckled combat jacket. He wiped his face, which ran with sweat despite the cool breeze. Then he signaled for his whisky, ready to drink to the death of the treasonable parrot. An aide put the bottle in his hand, cap unscrewed. As he lifted the quarter-full Red Label to his lips, he noticed that an unusual hubbub had taken the place of the usual ghostly silence after an execution. In a moment he knew why. The crowd had turned almost as one person to stare at him. Slowly his hand fell to his side.
“Laila-illalahi!” he cried, losing grip of the bottle and spilling its contents onto the beach sand as if in propitiation of some new wicked spirit now in charge. Sergeant Musa’s first bullets had missed their target but somehow cut a neat hole in the cage. And now the crowd, transformed into one pair of eyes, was following the parrot as it flew straight towards Colonel Akalo. He felt the same infuriating disdain of those intense yellow-grey eyes back in the interrogation bunker. Then time slowed to a dead stop, the last grain in the hourglass, and he knew that unless he could flee the parrot and the crowd he would die. He tried to stand up and run, but the sea of men, women, and children pressing in on him didn’t permit an inch of movement. And in that timelessness, he saw Sergeant Musa tracking the parrot’s flight with his rifle. With one eye squinted shut and the other in the rifle’s sight, the deadliest sniper in the army saw only the bird. As Sergeant Musa perfected his aim, Colonel Akalo looked into the barrel of his trusted executioner’s rifle and wailed, “Don’t shoot, you bloody fool! Forget about the bird!” But his tongue was heavy, heavier than the sand-filled drums where six men had crumbled, their lives draining into the sea. Nor would it have mattered had he been able to yell in his best parade voice. In that instant, longer than a day and shorter than a heartbeat, the parrot alighted on his forehead and Sergeant Musa pulled the trigger.
A gasp from the crowd joined the thundering of the Atlantic as Colonel Akalo took three bullets in the head and fell. For a moment, Sergeant Musa and the crowd stood frozen into one solid mass of bodies. But soon enough, the afternoon sun thawed them back into individual men and women and children, and they turned to watch the flight of the parrot. It had changed direction the moment the bullets found Colonel Akalo and headed for the open sea, squawking repeatedly the only words it remembered hearing the coup plotters say: “Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool! Haa-haa-haa-haa! Musa is a fool!”