Hero Of Our Time – By Sam Omatseye


During the Iraq war, I collided with some of my American students over its raison d’etre. Nationalist fervour trumped common sense among them when I contended that President George W. Bush and his cabinet had not shown Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Some loathed me; I toasted the facts. They joined the mass fury of the public and lapped like cat the tendentious milk of White House’s propaganda.

One of my students vacated the class to Baghdad’s smoky streets. A year later, quite a few of them accosted me to tender their apologies for tarring me as a hater of their country. The fog may have cleared, but the dead could not knock their way out of their caskets. Day after day, the tv screen treated a sad country to picture after picture of boys who had petered out over the apocrypha of their leaders. The surreal apparition tanked Bush’s rating, but the man remained defiant and impregnable. Few remember the boys today. I don’t know if my student, a ruddy and eager youth, survived the inferno. In the words of the poet, W.H. Auden, “Even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.”

I contemplate that as I view footages of Ukraine streets. Whole buildings tarred black by mortar, whole families in peril, whole families perished, whole day treks in snow and fear, mothers and daughters on the run, the aged lumber along like a minute old calf, a nuclear plant bonfire, a scenic street tranquilised by an armoured tank, a baby asleep as rockets whistle past.

The story comes home. Nigerians run against death, and also against prejudice. Some have arrived home, leaving a wreck behind, their surviving self being the remnant wreck. They have their pieces to repair. All of this because of a geo-political game gone awry. Vladimir Putin, the villain of the century so far pitted against Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the hero of the century so far.

Even if Putin is wronged, he has no excuse to wrong the nationals, humans who hold no guns or grudges.

Some Nigerians project lies. One, that NATO had an agreement not to expand. Two, so he had a right to invade. I would like anyone to tender that agreement signed by NATO. When the Soviet Union was about to crumble, Russian Mikhail Gorbachev, signed no deal to forbid NATO to expand. In 2014, here was Gorbachev’s words: “Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either.”
At the Visegrad Declaration, Poland, Hungary and then Czechoslovakia, sought guarantee to join the European security system. In 1993, President Boris Yeltsin wrote President Bill Clinton that, “Any possible integration of east European countries into NATO will not automatically lead to the alliance turning against Russia.”

A certain entente knitted US and Russia. The US inspected their nuclear weapons and signed a deal with Russia that Ukraine got rid of its nuclear weapons so long as Russia guaranteed its independence and sovereignty. If Ukraine had those weapons, Putin would not be flexing its muscles.

Just as U.S. was an imperial bully in Iraq, so is Putin. He is revising history as a pretext to pulverise Ukraine. America will not satisfy Putin’s sanguinary thirst. They are sacrificing Ukraine to make it the graveyard of Russia’s economy.

NATO can be blamed for expanding. But blame Russia first who cannot endear itself to its old subjects. All NATO members are by choice. Putin is trying to force another nation to love him. Love does not come by fiat. If not, he would not want or need all that weapons and get all that resistance. Not Crimea, or Estonia, nor Moldovia, or Georgia want Russia. Putin sees them as pigmy nations. He may conquer the land, but not the soul.

American learned that in Iraq. As novelist George Elliot noted, “Power finds it place in lack of power.” The former Soviet bloc countries sought embrace with NATO. Russia is the jilted bully.

If America has gone so far with NATO, Russia cannot roll back the clock. It is called Realpolitik, a term enunciated by German writer Ludwig von Rochau and popularised by such men as Bismarck, Kissinger, Kennan and Lee Kwan Yew.
Rather than think of clever ways to undo the NATO swagger, he is hectoring the innocent. Putin sulks in his saturnine throne. He distorts power like his forbears: Stalin, Brezhnev. Charles de Gaulle, himself a lover of coercive powers, says this of Stalin: “This is not the domination of a party, nor of a class, but that of a single man. It is not a regime of the people. It is against the nature of man. We will have them on our hands for a hundred years.” How prophetic of the stiff-necked general.

But the man of the hour is Zelenskyy. There have been fewer men like him in history. Not de Gaulle, who had to plant himself in London to growl over the airwaves, or Churchill who had America over his shoulders. Not Mandela ensconced in a jail. He is not seeking shelter. He is fighting for the soul of his country. Not a warmonger, he forbids “a legend of 300 Spartans. I want peace.” He tells America, “I want ammunition; not a ride.” Like the great French play, Le Cid by Pierre Corneille, that decries the shame of dying without having fought.

He is that sort of leader we want in Nigeria. Not one who has not seen struggle, who has not faced the loom and danger of a tyrant’s whip. Not one who has not abandoned family and friends to lay down his life for freedom and democracy. We want a man with sacrifice and spirit of Zelenskyy in 2023. Not those who have only known air-conditioners and fried rice and private jets.

Zelenskyy also united his people. More than economic revival, the first task of Nigeria’s leader in 2023 is to unite us. To play down tribal fealty or fanatical faith, and clasp everyone to one bosom. That is why Zelenskyy is the hero of our times, a direct opposite of Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov’s novel of an anti-hero.

– Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation

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