By Ogaga Ifowodo
Starting today we will begin 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 characters privately and in unsavoury social encounters caused by the relentless logic of the radical curtailment of freedom. Book your copy in advance!
Everything depended on what the parrot remembered, but Colonel Jonas Akalo was a clever military intelligence officer who privately boasted his mastery of psychological and unconventional warfare. Privately, as this was only revealed at the end of his ingenious effort to unravel the secret of a failed coup.
When he arrived with his men too late at the house of Chief Gregory Okotie, the civilian ringleader of yet another coup attempt in Nigeria, he sought at once, on seeing a parrot in a golden cage to put this mastery to use. For Colonel Akalo, nothing was ever too late and every case remained permanently open. So he did not think for a second of accepting defeat or even returning to plot a new line of inquiry in his den at the Directorate of Military Intelligence.
The parrot transfixed him with its beautifully tinged orange, blue, and yellow plumes that contrasted so nicely with pearly eyelids around intense yellow-grey eyes and a ferociously curved ivory beak. With an almost imperceptible angling of its head, the parrot looked disdainfully at the intruders, then returned its gaze to the window as if willing its fugitive master to come this moment and rid the house of these unwanted guests.
The cage was on top of an antique gramophone cabinet in the brightest part of the parlor, and sitting there the parrot appeared every bit its own master now and a step away from showing Colonel Akalo the door.
Then one of Colonel Akalo’s men coughed, a waiting-for-your-order-sir cough, and snapped him out of his parrot-induced trance. Colonel Akalo looked around. Nothing in the parlor betrayed conspiracy or flight and it seemed that any second Chief Okotie might walk in the door to pick up his forgotten briefcase.
Or that someone would emerge from a room. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead, Colonel Akalo took two quick steps forward and, pointing, declared with surprising vehemence, “That parrot knows the secret of the coup!” He ordered his bewildered aide-de-camp to bring the cage to him.
The parrot remained icily indifferent to the green-clad men now violating its peace and privacy by this forcible relocation. Colonel Akalo took personal custody of the cage and right there began to build the case against the bird. The parrot had to have heard something, and must remember what it heard, about the planning of the coup and the well-orchestrated escape of most of the ringleaders. Surely some midnight gatherings had taken place here. And of course none of the plotters would have cared for an instant about being overheard by a bird.
This was the perfect occasion to make use of the training in psychological and unconventional warfare that Colonel Akalo claimed to have received at a military academy in England. At Sandhurst, precisely, as the Inspector-General of Police, a childhood friend, would later reveal.
The Inspector-General had joined the police the same day Colonel Akalo headed for the army recruitment center, and he was the only source of intelligence on what the press very quickly dubbed “the mad colonel’s case.” But he was quick to add that he’d thought nothing of his friend’s claim when he’d heard it five years ago. “I believed it to be a drink-induced boast at the end of a long evening at the police officer’s mess,” he said.
Now holding a caged parrot that had doubtless overheard a coup plot, Colonel Akalo was almost delirious recalling how, a week after the commencement of experiments, the academy’s laboratory parrot had repeated whole bits of classroom conversations. He smiled, and his young aide, a lieutenant, was even more puzzled.
But when Colonel Akalo then declared the parrot a traitor and ordered that the bird be arrested, the aide uncharacteristically lost military composure for a moment. His salute seemed merely demonstrative, and his compliant “Yes, sir!” too loud to hide his incredulity. Colonel Akalo overlooked the impertinence and declared the operation over. Yes, he would crack the mystery of this coup, the only one to have fooled him completely.
How had mutiny gone from incubation to execution without his getting wind of it? He considered it a personal affront that he, before whom even generals with the remotest connection to coup plots quailed “like women in labor,” as he never tired of saying, had failed to nip this one in the bud.
As the convoy of a pilot car, a jeep, his staff car, and two trucks full of “combat-ready” soldiers raced back to his DMI fortress, Colonel Akalo worked up a strategy for making the parrot tell him all that it knew about the coup. For maximum privacy, he would interrogate it in his bunker office, three floors below street level, from which no sound, however bloodcurdling, could be heard. With growing satisfaction he looked at the prisoner sitting in its golden cage beside him, as the sentry soldiers, on sighting his approach, threw open the gates and stiffened into green statues. He was sure of pressing every detail of the coup out of the parrot’s throat.
Just before going underground, Colonel Akalo called General Musa Barawo, the self-styled President and Commander-in-Chief, made a preliminary report, and asked for twelve uninterrupted hours before the first briefing. He knew what he had to do with his prisoner.
He would painstakingly provoke the bird into confessing. He would compel it to disclose the whereabouts of Gregory Okotie and all the traitors who had escaped. “But parrots are tricky animals,” he said to himself, once again recalling the precious lessons of his special training. “And I’m going to have to be very patient.” He would follow every lead, however faint, in order to identify the gap in his net of surveillance. After the last coup attempt, he had promised General Barawo that there would be no other—certainly not in the next three years. That was how long he estimated the patience of the populace would last.
Their anger, already at boiling point, was being stirred, quite propitiously, by increasingly troublesome democracy and rights activists. Colonel Akalo’s aim was to make himself indispensable when General Barawo’s undeclared but widely suspected plan of dropping his uniform to become a civilian president was finally out in the open, and the country, in a tumult, was once again ripe for the taking.
General Barawo would be under immense pressure then. He looked forward to that moment when he would be king or kingmaker, the choice his alone. And it was obvious that the path to his ambition lay in making it unmistakably clear to all adventurous officers that no plot within the army, or in alliance with civilian millionaires for that matter, would succeed while he remained in uniform.
To prepare for the session with his prisoner, Colonel Akalo picked up his heavily marked copy of Crime and Punishment, its cover now woolly to the touch. “That novel was another source of his purported training,” the Inspector-General told an astonished public, adding one more tidbit to its growing fascination with the mad colonel. As he fondled the book and rose to go down to the interrogation bunker, Colonel Akalo remembered sitting spellbound, listening to the course instructor remark on “the immense psychological resources for intelligence work which that great murder story possesses.”
By the end of the four-week class, he had read and re-read the novel three times, always delaying at the dialogues between the clever prosecutor, Porfiry Petrovich, and the murderer-with-a-cause, Rodion Raskolnikov. The clincher for him was the instructor’s view that if there can be murder to justify a theory, so also may interrogations be conducted to affirm guilt. He had been back in the memory of that realisation when he made the declaration that stunned his aide-de-camp. Well, he would show him. And he would show General Barawo, who chuckled before saying, “All right. Go ahead, Colonel. I trust you to surpass yourself once again.” Oh, he would show the whole world.
Colonel Akalo had twelve hours to be done with his prisoner before assuming his position as chairman of the special military tribunal to try the traitors arrested before they could flee. Chief Okotie or no Chief Okotie, he would deal with them swiftly and rigorously. This position as head of special tribunals had become his special prerogative. His work in the last two had pleased General Barawo so much that, but for his promise that there would be no further coups, he was sure to head every future tribunal until he retired from the army or indeed became king and not just kingmaker.
He had built a fearsome reputation from his work with the first. Every day he relived with indescribable glee that glorious hour when two lieutenant-generals in fetters, one of them the army chief of staff, his own boss, flopped at his feet and wept, begging for their lives. From the day that news of the generals’ unspeakable conduct made the headlines of every newspaper in the country, complete with photos, he was perceived as the very hammer and barrel of the gun that sustained the regime of General Barawo.
But that was now the only thing to console Colonel Akalo. He looked at his watch and was alarmed to learn that ten hours had passed since his vaunted training began to prove useless to the reality before him. In just two hours he would make his report to General Barawo, and he had yet to extract a single word from the parrot. The bird had remained so still throughout, never changing its perch once, that he had several times doubted if it was still alive. He’d done everything he could think of, from gently questioning to plucking five of its tail feathers, but the parrot had kept its beak firmly closed. At first he found its eerie stillness curious and understandable.
After all, this austere underground bunker was a far cry from Chief Okotie’s sumptuous parlour. But it wasn’t long before this feeling gave way to irritation and, finally, boiling anger. The bird, rather than answer questions, continued to stare unblinkingly at the peak of his service cap. What was it on the cap that so fascinated the plotting parrot? When he removed the cap, the parrot kept its piercing gaze on his glistening forehead. Colonel Akalo sensed himself unhinging.
“Just what are you staring at?” he asked.
He heard only the echo of his voice, followed by a silence that further frayed his nerves.
“We shall see,” he said. Then looking the bird closely in the eye, he added, “I suppose you will not talk. Perhaps your coup-plotting master swore you to silence, but you will soon know you are better off talking to me. If you tell me everything you heard while those traitors planned their coup, I will set you free. Now, talk.”
The parrot was unmoved by the bribe. A bead of sweat rolled off Colonel Akalo’s cheek. At the thin edge of fury, Colonel Akalo struck a match and threw it into the cage. The parrot fluttered without even changing its perch. The match went out and for a moment Colonel Akalo relished the whiff of burning feathers.
He laughed. Short, high pitched snorts that carried with them the depth of his burgeoning malevolence. The parrot resumed its implacable stare at Colonel Akalo’s forehead and, suddenly, an awful thought stole into Colonel Akalo’s mind. He realized now that he had one choice. He would either break the bird or the bird would be his death. He shivered and stood up, paced around his grey metal desk, which together with the chairs on both sides was the only furniture in the room, and returning to his seat, saw why his choice had become so bleak.
“I cannot accept defeat at the hands of a mere bird,” he said aloud, pounding the desk with his right hand.
He pictured the inevitable sneer on General Barawo’s face, and worse, his aide’s barely concealed smirk of victory, when he emerged from his bunker with the wretched odor of defeat preceding him. But Colonel Akalo showed he hadn’t lost it all when he remembered the theory he was out to prove, its giddy promise, and resolved to break the parrot. A bright idea occurred to him then, but how could he not have thought of it all this time? He had seen his error. He had adopted the psychological investigator’s model without his technique. He needed to change tack, but what had he not tried that could pry the furtive parrot’s beak open?
Yes, he had got it! He would simulate a conversation among the traitors, casually dropping in their names. In that way the bird’s memory would be jolted, and unable to resist its nature it would start to talk. Yes, he had got it right at last! Colonel Akalo pulled out a liter bottle of Red Label, wrung off the cap, swigged two mouthfuls, and began. He was midway through the second rehash of his invented conversation when the parrot finally squawked. Colonel Akalo was elated. He hadn’t quite caught the words, but he was sure the bird had spoken. He leaned towards the cage and stared at the parrot, but it was so still he feared he must have imagined hearing it speak.
Colonel Akalo was downcast. He tipped the bottle again and cast a bleary look at the parrot, furious that it could be so sly and aloof while he was close to despair. 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!”