By Gambo Dori
PAUL Tarfa swept into my consciousness in 1976 as the no-nonsense Colonel who as Provost Marshal of the Nigerian Army was head of the Task Force charged with the unenviable and very unpopular assignment of bringing order to the chaotic Lagos traffic.That year, I was a member of the 4thNYSC set posted to Lagos State and lived in Mende village, Onigbongbo, Maryland at the intersection to Ikeja from Ikorodu road.Mende was truly a village then, cut off by sizeable bushes and streams from Anthony village on one side and Ketu, etc., on the other. Ikorodu road with its many lanes and flyovers was under construction then leaving a haze of red dust on a seemingly permanent gridlock of traffic.
Moving about Lagos was always a nightmare due to the human congestion and the sheer number of vehicles on the road as well as the unruly behaviour of Nigerian drivers. No wonder Lagos, that year, lost its status as Federal Capital to some barren place called Abuja in the hinterland. A trip from Maryland to Lagos Island and back could take the whole day most of it in the traffic. The new military head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, however had an immediate job to accomplish. The Festival of Arts and Culture,Festac ’77,was due to take place in Lagos the following year bringing the entire black race to Lagos.
For the festival to be successful, the traffic situation in Lagos must be tamed or the reputation of the nation would be soiled forever.That’s how this yeoman’s job was handed down to the Provost Marshal. And typically Paul Tarfa and his men rose to the occasion and executed it with aplomb. To do that, he and his team had to think out of the box. Besides the novel introduction of the odd/even vehicle numbers on alternative days,Tarfa also allowed his foot soldiers to make liberal use of the horsewhips popularly known as koboko or bulala as a final deterrent to the recklessness and lawlessness of Lagos drivers. The measures were largely successful and made for a traffic-free Festac.Of course, the usually raunchy Lagos press called Tarfa the Koboko Chief, a name that stuck to him throughout his illustrious trajectory in the Nigerian Public Service as Military Administrator of Oyo State, Commandant Nigerian Defence Academy and MD Nigerian Railway Corporation.
These were a few things I knew about General Paul Tarfa even before I laid my hands on the beautifully crafted revised edition of his autobiography, A Profile in Courage, which was presented to the public in a well-attended ceremony, about a month ago. Fortunately, I owned the earlier edition of the book that was published some ten years ago and therefore looked forward with anticipation to whatever additions the General would come up with. Overall the new edition did not disappoint and I consider it certainly an improvement to the first edition.
General Tarfa’s A Profile in Courage is not just about his role as the Koboko Chief- probably that would be one of the least and forgettable roles. What would make the book stand out would be because Tarfa was for much of his military career directly where the action was roaring.In the very early stages of his military career, Lieutenant Tarfa was posted to the Brigade of Guards – then called Federal Guards – an elite unit of the Nigerian Army meant to protect the Prime Minister and key installations in the capital city of Lagos.He remained there in the centre stage of coups and counter coups that bedevilled the nation in between 1966 to 1975. He witnessed the madness that beheld a section of our soldiers who conspired and snuffed the lives out of the country’s political and military leaders at that unholy hour of the morning of 15th January 1966. Tarfa was also in the theatre of the countercoup of July 1966 even though he didn’t spell out his role. His book is therefore an important addition to his counterpart, friend and boss, General Joseph Garba’s Revolution in Nigeria: Another View. In between,Tarfa was also deployed to the theatre of the Nigerian civil war. He commanded a brigade that saw action mainly in the then Mid- West. His experiences at the war front would be one of the most enthralling components of the book.
The book, however, is not just a chronicle of war, coups and countercoups and other exploits of his in uniform. General Tarfa wrote lavishly about his upbringing from his humble beginnings in Garkida and in particular the role of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria renamed EYN (Eklesiyar ‘Yan Uwa a Nigeria) to the growth of the town. He wrote lovingly about the small village of Garkida in the 1940s where he would have remained tending sheep and goats had fate not intervened in the shape of a cousin who took him under his wings and made sure that Tarfa’s educational progress was not interrupted. At Secondary School Yola he was an all-round achiever in academics, sports and leadership. After listening to Sir Ahmadu Bello the Premier of Northern Nigeria who on tour to various secondary schools in 1960 urged students to join the Nigerian Army, young Tarfa’s mind was made up.
As soon as he tidied up his final exams in Yola, he travelled to Kaduna for the Officer Cadet Qualifying exam. Out of the hundreds who sat for the exam and were interviewedTarfa qualified along with Shehu Musa ‘Yar-Adua, a Muhammadu Buhari and several others that in the following years would be playing crucial roles in the destiny of this country.We shall return next week with snippets from the book on Tarfa’s roles in the events leading to the coups and countercoups, the civil war and life after retirement. Keep a date with this page.
Re: “Are the First Ladies Winning?”
M T Usman sent in this retort. Please read on:
A superfluous question because they have already won; the power of the three rooms of a house is incontestable.
But not all are enamoured of the institution of First Lady now in practice in the country. There is, among some, nostalgia for the eras of Mrs. Flora Azikiwe, and Mrs. Victoria Gowon, the wives of two former leaders of Nigeria who performed the role of what’s now known as “First Lady” sans the razzmatazz that appears to be its soul today. They visited the sick at hospitals, donated to “the Baby of the Year” on New Year’s Day, attended Red Cross events and were Patron of the Girl Guides.
The current practice of First Lady-ism has deviated significantly from the accepted norm. First Ladies today run virtually parallel government, complete with a Council of States – its meeting just held! This congregation is replicated at the state level; lacking sophistication, consorts of Local Government Chairmen content themselves with being put on the payroll of their local authorities.
Unsatisfied with just national stardom, one former First Lady crossed boundary to (help) form a group, the African First Ladies Peace Mission (AFLPM) as the “complement” of the African Union. Another offered Nigeria as the host of the AFLPM and commenced the building of a befitting headquarters for the organisation whose meetings held mostly here, with us picking the tab for the expensive jamborees.
First Lady-ism has not been a beneficial influence since it berthed here about three decades ago. None of the programmes initiated by successive First Ladies has survived the departure from office of its promoter because they lacked philosophical underpinning and were funded one way or the other from the public purse. One would make an exception of the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, the one with the evocative acronym WRAPA. It’s clearly waxing strong, engaging with international philanthropic organisations to deliver on its mission. To avoid a similar fate, the Future Assured Initiative of the present First Lady would do well to seek guidance from this veteran NGO.
M T Usman