I was rummaging through several dusty sacks in Kaduna during the Easter break. They contained my long-abandoned books and magazines. I suddenly discovered a small notebook that I kept by my bedside in the 1980s. In those days, before senility set in, anytime I heard something interesting on the radio, television, magazine or a book, I made a small note of it in the notebook. Today I will serve you with a few story clips from that notebook.
One day in 1988, BBC reported that a locust swarm of biblical proportions was seen crossing the Red Sea from Yemen to Ethiopia. It was 24 kms long, 17 kms wide and two kms deep, estimated to contain 100 billion individual locusts. That story reminded me of locust swarms that we read about in our primary school textbooks, but which we have never seen in our lifetime. Some swarms were said to be so dense that they blotted out sunlight when they approached a town. That 1988 swarm was even small compared to one seen in the American Midwest in 1875. That one covered 198,000 square miles [more than half of Nigeria’s size], was estimated to contain several trillion individual locusts and that it probably weighed several million tons.
I had in my notebook another clip from December 1941. When Japan carried out a sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, President Roosevelt appeared before the US Congress the next day and asked it to declare war on the Japanese Empire. US Senate voted unanimously to do so but in the House of Representatives, one vote was cast against war. It was by Mrs. Jeanette Rankin, Republican of Montana. Time magazine described her as “a gray-haired pacifist who sat with a bewildered smile, muttering to herself again and again that [the Pearl Harbour attack] could be a Roosevelt trick.” How about that for cynicism? Nigeria hasn’t yet produced cynics of Rankin proportions.
I had another clip about Theodore White, TIME magazine’s Beijing bureau chief in the 1950s. The magazine under its founder, Harry Luce was so right-wing that its editors changed most of what White wrote from Beijing, so he posted a notice in his office. It said, “Any resemblance between what is written here and what appears in TIME magazine is purely coincidental.”
I had another clip from the mid-1970s when the biography of Israel’s former UN ambassador Abba Eban was published. A book reviewer wrote, “Israel has three national archetypes. The robust Zionist pioneer, personified by Golda Meir. The bold desert soldier, popularly exemplified by Moshe Dayan, and the eloquent and embattled diplomat, epitomized by Abba Eban.” He might wish to add a fourth one, the strong headed peace talks scuttler personified by Benjamin Netanyahu.
There was a clip from the day America’s first president, George Washington, witnessed the swearing-in of his successor, John Adams. As they walked out of the hall after the ceremony, everyone deferred to Washington, as they were used to. But Washington paused at the door and said, “First, the President of the United States.” When Adams stepped out, Washington said, “Next, the Vice President of the United States.” After Thomas Jefferson stepped out, Washington said, “Next, George Washington, private citizen.” Until that moment, no one was sure about a former president’s protocol ranking.
The Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had no idea that riots were going on in his capital, Tehran for more than a month, according to a 1978 clip in my notebook. Aides totally shielded him from reality. A certain princess was invited to dinner with the Shah and she was surprised by the convivial atmosphere. So she said, “Your Majesty, did you hear that there was trouble at the bazaar today?” The Shah frowned darkly and the princess was promptly hauled out of the room.
I saw another clip from 1941, just before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was about the lead the attack fleet, received a call from the Emperor’s Palace and was asked if he would we walking on the beach at 7am the next day. He did so and had a “chance” meeting with Emperor Hirohito. Emperor asked Admiral what will happen if Japan went to war against the US. Yamamoto said, “It depends on how long the war lasts.” Asked to explain, he said, “In the first year we will make territorial gains. In the second year they will stop us. In the third year of war they will roll us back, and in the fourth year they will defeat us.” That was exactly what happened in 1941-45. Yamamoto was no Nippon marabout; his statement was based on comprehensive Navy General Staff studies that took into consideration the two nations’ population, geography, food supply, industrial capacity, technology and military capacity.
There was another clip about General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander Allied Powers [SCAP] in Japan during the American Occupation, 1945-52. When he forced Japan to hold freewheeling liberal democratic elections in 1946, Tokyo’s most famous brothel owner was elected with a landslide. Japanese officials were gloating, and they ran to tell MacArthur. He asked how many votes she got, and they said half a million. To the Japanese that was a scandal but the American General said, “She must be a very hardworking woman.”
There was another clip about General Sergei Shtemenko, chief of operations at the Soviet General Staff Headquarters during World War II, who forgot some of his maps in Stalin’s office. The next day, when the Chief of General Staff and him went to see Stalin, Shtemenko said, “Comrade Supreme Commander, I forgot some of my maps in your office yesterday. Please I will like to have them back.” Stalin said, “You did not leave them here.” But Shtemenko said, “Comrade Stalin, I left them here and I will like to have them back please.” The two men argued for some minutes while the Chief of General Staff was frozen in his seat. Finally, Stalin opened his drawer, brought out the maps and handed them over to Shtemenko. It was a narrow shave from execution.
Shtemenko told other stories about the Soviet War Command during World War II. He said the National Defence Committee, chaired by Stalin, was in permanent session. It never adjourned but there were camp beds and food in the corridors. If your sector was not being discussed, a General could go and eat or have a nap. The committee constantly pore over maps, charts, field reports, operational plans and logistics supplies for different fronts, theaters and sectors. If Stalin stepped out of the meeting, Deputy Supreme Commander Marshal Georgi Zhukov temporarily took over.
There was a 1984 clip about the shooting of Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. As she walked from her residence to her office, she greeted the bodyguards in the Indian fashion but they opened fire at her. They fired again when she fell to the ground. Mrs. Gandhi had refused to allow Sikhs to be removed from her bodyguards after the Seven Holy Gurus of the Sikh religion pronounced a death sentence on her for ordering the Indian Army to storm the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhs’ holiest shrine. The operation was conducted because Sikh militants hid in the temple, from where they carried out terrorist attacks.
There was a clip about the 1981 kidnap of American Brigadier James Dozier by the Italian Red Brigades. For a month, 10,000 Italian troops and policemen could not find him. In desperation, Italy’s Interior Minister entered the prison and appealed for help from the incarcerated Mafia Boss of Bosses. The boss sent for two of his men and whispered something to them. Two days later they returned to the prison and saw the Boss, who then called the minister and told him to search the University of Milan student hostel. Cops rushed there and found the Brigadier tied up in a student’s bed.