I did not hear about the bomb until I returned from school. The first one, ten days ago, we heard it. We even felt it, because it had trembled our school buildings. Our teacher said it was a very big explosion to shake the buildings of our school about a kilometer away from the impact zone. A kilometre was close. A big blast could tremble a building farther than that. I was used to explosions. But not the one that killed people; it was the one that blasted rocks. Before my father was transferred to Kaduna, we lived three kilometres from a quarry in Mkar, and the sound and trembling of the blasts were what we experienced at least three times in a week.
Today, the bomb they talked about when I got home happened to tremble my family: the bomb had killed my father. He was a policeman, attached to the Bomb Disposal Unit. The story was that he was trying to disarm a bomb when it exploded.
I had found it hard to understand why our English teacher had insisted she had to bring me home. I knew how to cross the road. And I have been trekking to school and back by myself for a year. Our compound was full with people carrying mournful looks. As my teacher walked me past them into the sitting room, every eye fell on me. Some pointed, I heard something like ‘That is his son’. The shuffling from the people in the room toward my arrival caused my mother to turn. She sat on the floor with her face in the cushion. She stared at me like someone she did not know. Someone quickly signalled my teacher to take me away from her. She walked me away, and spoke to me for an hour, saying things that did not make sense.
Everybody was saying my father died as a hero, trying to save other people’s lives until my uncle, Vincent arrived from Abuja and rubbished all the song about heroism. He had come almost immediately when the news reached him. He was saying strange things, and trading big blames. After speaking to my mother, he said he was going to the hospital. I asked to follow him. His driver drove us to the hospital in his jeep. I overheard the doctor telling my uncle when we got to the hospital, “We did our best to suture him back together.” Anyone who had not witnessed what happened would agree that they brought the body of my father to the hospital in tiny pieces, probably in a big polythene bag or several small ones. When I saw him, I did not recognize who or what it was. There was no face. What was left of his face was a patchwork of stuffed flesh that resembled badly burned plastic. I did not know how I managed to stand there without vomiting, like they said my mother did; without collapsing, like they said my mother did, just staring at his corpse. My uncle was shedding silent tears. It was a bad sign. I did not know what it meant losing someone close to you. I stood there feeling that I would wake up the next day to see my father in the doorway. I could not weep because I was taken out of this world, thinking beyond human imagination. Nothing had been this strange to me.
When we returned from the hospital, Uncle Vincent told my mother that there were too many things wrong with the circumstances surrounding my father’s death for him to keep quiet. He vowed to take action. He stopped at that. He did not say what action he was going to take. Uncle Vincent was not only good at doing the things people regarded as impossible; he was a man of his word. He believed too much in himself. Some people even said he was arrogant; too full of himself.
The next day, I did not see my father in the doorway.
Four days after the death of my father, some men came. They said they were from the government. Their visit, unfortunately for them, coincided with my uncle arrival. He was his best when he was angry and that made him always angry at the slightest annoyance. The government men were to receive a bit of my uncle’s avowed action of father’s death as first recipients of his wrath.
He chased them away, together with the TV crew that had accompanied them, using every nasty word he could afford. I should mention here that Uncle Vincent was a big, powerful lawyer. He had done even bigger troubles with people than scream out nasty words. The check that had been resting on my mother’s laps was whisked away from her by Uncle Vincent and flung back at those men. One of the men chased the piece of paper in the air but could not grab. It landed at the foot of another, who picked it and put in his suit. They were wondering what madness has come over this man. They gathered themselves and while they left, Uncle Vincent sent words flying after them.
“And wait to hear from me!!” he said to them when they were at the door. “You kill my brother and then you brand heroism on him?!!” he mumbled angrily.
After he had chased those men away, he told my mother he had been asking questions and things were looking very interesting. That he was having more reasons to take action. My mother was not in the position to discourage him. In fact, before she could even say a word, Uncle Vincent had told her she and me were only spectators for what he had in mind. “It will come. You will see it,” he said.
All the while, I had not had time to ask my uncle a personal question that had burned me all the while. Five minutes in a good mood was the only chance I had.
“Was my father a hero?” I asked him at the best chance. It was what people had been saying. And I already knew Uncle Vincent’s position on this. Still, I had that urge to ask him.
“Your father was a fine policeman, Ngutor, but he was not any hero,” he said in a vexed tone that had changed too sudden. “That is some negligent people’s idea of trying to cover their bad decisions. Your father was ordered to his death. There is nothing heroic about ordering anyone to his death. They will pay.” I knew that there were so many things that Uncle Vincent did not want to say to me so as not to make me confused. He even mentioned it. “Some things here have details that are too technical for you.” But I have heard most of his conversations with my mother. “It is my own to handle it. One thing is your father did not die as any hero. His death was avoidable.”
Avoidable? Could one avoid death? Sometimes, really, I knew my uncle was someone who could never be understood.
“So he did not die trying to save other people’s lives?”
Uncle Vincent said there were no lives to save. “The place had been evacuated to a diameter of one hundred metres,” he said in puffs of angry words. I did not have time to measure what distance that was because my uncle was still speaking on and I was keenly listening. “Tell me my brother –your father—had to save then. For no reason he was subjected to a hazardous working condition without protection. When everyone is held responsible for their actions, it will be better.”
Two weeks after the burial, Uncle Vincent visited again. I have seen him angry all my life. But after the death of my father, he looked far more bitter and fierce. Uncle Vincent was a small man. They said I resembled him. They said I had only little growth left for me. I was thirteen but everyone thought I was nine. It was on a very cold night. I had gone to bed earlier because I had a fever which wasn’t an issue. I was a strong lad. I never was grounded by mild ailments. But after everything that happened, I could not help myself but continued thinking about things that were even beyond my understanding. Then I began to have fever, and lie in bed. Uncle Vincent came to my room and sat on the bed. I was not asleep yet but could have slept any moment had he not come. As he felt my body to check the level of my temperature, my mother walked in, groaning and trying to knot her loose wrapper. She looked weak herself. She had not recovered. I wondered whether she would. She felt my forehead and asked me how I was.
“Better,” I mumbled. It was an unvarying optimistic response. I have heard people, who were ailing to death, telling those who have come to wish them recovery that they were better when asked how they were feeling at the moment.
Uncle Vincent broke the news that had brought him all the way from Abuja. The surprise on my mother’s face showed they had not spoken about it. She was sniffing every now and then.
“I have sued the government for what happened to John.”
My mother sighed, the same way you would resign to giving up a fight you knew even right from the beginning that you could not win. Nevertheless, she still argued, clearly for the sake of just saying something in disagreement.
“Suing the government would not bring my husband back.”
There was too much devoutness in my mother, so Uncle Vincent always said. Not everything was left to God to handle. People have to take charge of their situations.
“We are not suing the government to bring John back. They have to be responsible. People have to be responsible for their actions.” I had struggled to sit up now. “Everyone must be responsible for his actions. You remember when this house got burnt in what was clearly no one’s fault? These same people from the government were inconsiderate enough to make John repair ‘government property’.” He patted me on the shoulder, almost drawing me to rest my head against his chest. “It was this boy’s school fees and the food you had to eat that he used to do that.” He patted my shoulder again. “I paid this boy’s school fees for a whole session because John’s salary was for repairing ‘government property’. I can take care of you as long as I live. Even after that. But if I don’t do this, I will never forgive myself. Because tomorrow another person will be a victim. I am seeing this case to the end. We will set an example.”
When my uncle spoke like this, there was nothing one could do to change him. He hardly listened to advice and had never come out on the losing side in any argument. If he did not know about anything, he did not talk or engage in anything about it. And Uncle Vincent knew a lot of things.
When he was leaving the next day, he told us to believe in what he was fighting for. He also told us that he had worked to assemble the most “formidable legal team” for such a “high-profile” case. He said another thing that my mother only reluctantly agreed to. “We are not just fighting for John. We are fighting for the right thing. And, if I don’t fight for you too, who will I fight for?” The story of why Uncle Vincent was still single at forty-two was too complicated for me to keep in my head. He did not have his own family. We were all he had.
I believed my uncle, but it was the excitement of how he was going to wrestle a whole government down that really overwhelmed me. I understood my mother’s weak faith in this. She had told me, and I had seen too, that there was no right thing in our country. Schools were bad. No electricity. No water. No food. No roads. No shelter. No jobs. No hospitals. And now, as the communal crises seemed to have come to an end, an invisible group emerged, and again people began dying in hundreds, from bomb explosions. They said these were acts of domestic terrorism by some miscreants. But Uncle Vincent came up with his own theory about why bombs began exploding at will all over the country. He said people at the top had gone back on their words that had serious political importance. He called it ‘breach of trust’. A political war then erupted, masterminded at the top. And then those on the bitter side began using the lives of the common people to advance. He said when things took a “political angle in a third-world country, it becomes a nightmare for the common man”.
I had exams to write so I was not opportune to be in court even for this second time but a lot of stories were told after the court hearing, even before the details that appeared in the papers the next day. Allow me to sound lighthearted here: my uncle was on top of his game. They said the hearing had turned dramatic when my uncle introduced the strangest item people were expecting to see in the courtroom. It drew a lot of attention and just on its second day, the case went into full-blown publicity and became a talk of the country. The news at night showed my uncle in an interview after the hearing. Beside him was this huge overall suit with a helmet. His face was in the microphone almost touching his lips but his finger was pointing to the strange clothing. “If my brother was wearing this, he would still be alive. And I suppose they expected his wife to buy this for him.”
The next morning, several newspapers captured the case. One of the most striking of the headlines read: PLAINTIFF IN THE HIGH-PROFILE CASE AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT STORMS COURT WITH ADVANCED BOMB SUIT. Another read: FAMILY OF LATE SERGEANT JOHN TIMBIR IN COURT SEEKING ONE BILLION NAIRA IN DAMAGES.
I had to ask Uncle Vincent, “How much does it cost to buy a bomb suit?”
“It doesn’t cost up to what it takes to put just breakfast on the table of the President in one morning.”
I was in court this time. I missed school. I have never been in court. But I have heard things like if you talked in court when you were not allowed to, or did something the judge did not like, he sent you to jail straight from there. Today, my uncle said they were going to “close arguments” and would “reach judgment”. The court was filled to the full like an undersized stadium hosting the town’s star football match. In one corner, facing us, a group of people sat there, every single one of them with a tag on their chests that read: JUROR, looking more serious than any other person in the courtroom. Uncle Vincent had explained to me in simple terms when I asked him why they were there. “Their job is to determine whether the facts hold water.” That was the most simplest way he could put it to me without adding any legal jargon to it.
When we were about to enter the courtroom, I had seen and heard a TV reporter saying, “The historic battle between the family of Late Sergeant John Timbir and the government would end today. The big question is, in whose favor?” She was still talking but by now, Uncle Vincent had led us into the courtroom.
Uncle Vincent had bought me a new suit and tie and shoes. The night before, he took me to cut my hair. So I dressed looking like someone nominated for an award. I wished my friends in school had seen me dressed this neat and beautiful, in a suit, remember. Uncle Vincent bought my mother clothing too. Hers was a dress with a belt. She would have been a delight to look at, if she was not wearing that sorrowful look.
When the judge was coming in, we all stood, as a sign of respect, I guess, after a man in uniformed commanded us to stand. I looked around for anyone who did not stand so that I’d see what the judge would do; whether he would send the person to jail straight from here. Everyone was up. Jail was for none of these people, at least, for now. The judge was younger than I thought. The other lawyer, whom my uncle said was leading the defense team looked even older than the judge. I had thought it was a rule that the judge must be older than the lawyers.
My uncle was the first in line as the one who brought case to court. Before my uncle spoke, he turned the court’s attention, especially those people whose job was to determine whether the ‘facts hold water’, to a white board. The board was showing pictures that came from the light of a machine on the table in front of the judge where a woman sat and typed quickly on a laptop. The pictures were newspaper headlines:
PRESIDENT ACQUIRES BOMBPROOF CARS
300 BRAND NEW SUVS ACQUIRED FOR LEGISLATORS
Uncle Vincent signaled the lady that it was enough. The board went blank. Then the strange clothing that has drawn so much attention was unveiled. I saw the bomb suit with my naked eyes. It felt like finally meeting someone I have admired on TV. My uncle was facing the jurors squarely now.
“If Sergeant John Timbir was wearing that on that day a bomb exploded in his face, we wouldn’t have been in this courtroom today. But because his wife did not buy him that bomb suit, we are here today.” My uncle paused. There was secret murmuring among the defense team. I was very sure the judge did not notice because he was staring straight at my uncle. “I suppose every Nigerian life is just as important as another. Sergeant John Timbir was on duty to identify what was a potential bomb and disarm it. What did he have on him? A metal detector and a pair of pliers. He was ordered to his death. His death was avoidable. The deaths of so many people we have lost in this country to bomb explosions could have been avoided.” Uncle Vincent paused again. The courtroom was dead quiet now. “This is not just about paying compensation to the families of those who have lost their loved ones. It is about doing what will stop these compensations. It is about the government living up to its responsibility. This pain could be stopped. This could be avoided. Sergeant John Timbir is dead. Tomorrow, it might be one of you who would have to die an avoidable death.” The woman juror whom my uncle’s finger fell on randomly almost jumped out of her seat. I know she swore something like “God forbid!” within herself. Now my uncle spoke with surprising calmness. I’ve never heard him sound this grave. “It is your choice to make. Whether we would walk out of this courtroom today, feeling we have done something for Sergeant John Timbir, and for all those whose deaths were avoidable.” My mother was using a handkerchief to clean the tears from her eyes. She held my hand and I could feel it transferring to me. I felt a jolt of emotion, but I did not cry. Uncle Vincent had said his last word and was now back to his seat. His team was praising him in silent and secret whispers as the judge asked the other lawyer whether he had something to say. He had. And I was hearing something about my father been a hero again.
“Sergeant John Timbir was a hero. He died protecting the lives of his fellow citizens. He died serving his country. Unfortunately, his family has seen that as a reason to extort money from the government. One billion naira could build hospitals and schools. Why should we give that money to a single family?” The lawyer went on with a beautiful breakdown of how the money my family sought could change the lives of so many Nigerians. At a point, I heard something about we even being greedy and trying to take advantage of an unfortunate situation.
When he finished and returned to his seat, the judge slammed that wooden thing that looked like a hammer on his desk. The man in uniform shouted again, “All rise!” Everyone stood as the judge went out through a door almost behind his chair. Then confusion broke out in the courtroom as noise and shuffling erupted.
“Now we wait for judgment,” my uncle told us.
“Today?” I asked.
Would the facts hold water? I kept asking myself when the court returned.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?” the judge asked.
“Yes, Your Honor.” One of the jurors who answered the judge stood up and read from a piece of paper. He was the biggest man among them. “The jury has found the defendant guilty of negligence and has held as follows:” I did not know how much relevance the judgment held either ways. But the quietness and keenness of everyone in the courtroom seemed to tell me that this was a big moment. That this moment held what would fully qualify the ‘historic’ that the lady reporter had earlier spoke about. “Liable in actual damages to the sum of fifty million naira. And another five hundred million naira in punitive damages.”
We returned home. Plenty other people had felt happier than we did. Newspapers and TV networks had sought interviews with my mother but she did not grant any. My uncle’s face was in every camera, speaking at length, and every recording device they poked in his face, he spoke into it. But after the big joy of winning a case against the government, my uncle told us when we got home that it was not yet over. He said “executing the judgment” was another problem. He said there were a lot of “administrative bottlenecks” that would make this stage even more difficult to win. “We win this stage and justice is fully delivered,” he said finally.
The next day, some of my friends said they saw me on TV when their parents had forced them to watch news that night. Now I was sure they had seen my suit.
Uncle Vincent was relentless, yet there was still no sign of anything after two weeks. In the third week, a news program had me sprinting into the bedroom to get my mother. The program covered the display and distribution of different modern equipment to the security agencies. There were plenty bomb suits. And the program was titled: IN THE MEMORY OF SERGEANT JOHN TIMBIR.
I asked myself, without really needing an answer, “Was my father a hero?”
Kurannen Baaki was born in Mkar, Benue State. He is a graduate of Estate Management from Kaduna Polytechnic, Kaduna. He has completed coursework for a Post Graduate Diploma in Estate Management Law at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Kurannen is the author of Courage to go On and The Quest. His novella, The Quest, just made the reading list for the ANA/Yusuf Ali Reading Campaign in Kaduna, and is being read at the University of Mkar, Mkar, Benue State. His first novel, a high-concept thriller, ON THE RUN, which has received critical acclaim, is coming soon. He writes on his blog www.thrillersfromafrica.blogspot.com, which is dedicated to promoting the thriller genre in Nigeria. He is also a contributing writer at Iam Benue, a non-partisan online community—coming soon—with the goal of taking Benue forward through togetherness. He lives in Kaduna where he writes, and practices Estate Surveying and Valuation.