One of the most iconic images in world history is that of a man whose name no one knows for certain, whose identity and fate remains to this day a mystery. He is known today simply as the Tank Man but has come to represent the quiet heroism and resilience of the human spirit. His unplanned act of defiance on June 5, 1989, has reverberated around the world and continues to do so until this day, 32 long years after.
It was a day after the Chinese Red Army had massacred hundreds of protesters at Tiananmen Square in the capital, Beijing. After the gory deed, a column of tanks was driving away from the crime scene when one man, in a white shirt and black pants, armed with two shopping bags stood in front of the tanks, blocking their path. They could have easily rolled over him, crushing him to death, especially after the brutal crackdown of the day before but the war beasts rolled to a stop. The lead tank moved one way and the man too moved. A standoff. This deadly dance between a frail man and the savage machines continued for a while and was captured by five different photographers, some of whom managed to smuggle their films out of China. One of them was Jeff Widener whose photo for the Associated Press became the most widely used. Thanks to the internet today, a short clip of that confrontation is available on YouTube for the world to see.
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What the photos did not show was the man, after holding up the tanks for long, being dragged away into the roadside crowd by a couple of men in blue. Some said these men were members of China’s secret police. Others said they were just concerned members of the public. In any case, Tank Man disappeared behind the line of bystanders and has not been seen again.
Just who exactly is he? What happened to him afterward? Well, rumours that he was executed, forced into exile, left alone to live out his life in peace have been bandied about. But if anything demonstrates how quickly heroes rise and vanish, sometimes into the dust of history to be remembered with misty-eyed adoration or spit-inducing ignominy, it is the story of the Tank Man.
Yet, like those tanks in Beijing, there have been a lot coming at Nigerians, from the deplorable economic realities, occasioned by rising commodity prices and shrinking income, to the galloping insecurity that has seen thousands of Nigerians needlessly killed and thousands of others kidnapped for ransom, many losing their lives in the process. In many instances, it seems both the economic vagaries and the criminals enjoy a free reign, swooping and decimating hapless Nigerians, almost unchecked. Occasionally, heroes like the Tank Man rise to give Nigerians some reprieve, some hope and something to cheer about. The likes of the late Lt. Col Muhammad Abu Ali who will enjoy that adoration after being killed in battle by Boko Haram and the other gallant soldiers who have given their lives for this country easily come to mind.
Others, like the policeman Abba Kyari, whose heroics are well-documented and celebrated, whose courage in confronting these beasts ravaging Nigerians would neatly fit into the Homeric Iliad or the lyrics of the griot singing about the age of heroes, there are questions to be asked and answered.
For someone coming from the police force, which has over the years garnered a reputation for incompetence, human rights abuses, non-responsiveness and that annoying “anything for the boys” beggary approach to policing, and other notoriety, Kyari was a shining star, a hero to change the narrative, the one man who leads his team of dedicated men to respond to distress calls and does so selflessly. Testament of his selfless service to the country and random individuals he has helped are all over the place.
But these revelations by the FBI about Kyari’s association with a known fraudster, Ramon Abbas alias Ray Hushpuppi, by all parameters, is not only damning but a tragedy, not just for Mr Kyari but for the long-suffering Nigerians desperately in need of heroes.
Kyari has maintained his innocence. Fair enough. Yet his explanation of his liaison with Hushpuppi, whose reputation as a cybercriminal is well-chronicled and published well before the Dubai police raided his home, is watery in the face of the documentation and phone records revealed by the FBI.
Of course, the temptations revolving around policing here are too numerous that it is always a miracle to find a clean cop in Nigeria, but collecting payment from a known fraudster to arrest, torture and detain another fraudster to allow the first fraudster to complete a ‘job’ is simply not in the books of good policing. The evidence has been presented, in a law court and the court of public opinion. Mr Kyari has a tough job proving his innocence. Yet for a man who has done so much for the police, and given so much for the country, he at least deserves the right to clear his name.
But the most PTSD-inducing thing in this instance is the image of Kyari being dragged by the twin character of avarice and corruption, like those two men in blue who dragged Tank Man into obscurity. If this would be the fate of Kyari, it would be a sad end to a glittering career. But it wouldn’t be the first.
Just of recent, a few ‘good men’ have risen as allies of ordinary Nigerians in the fight against the things that want to eat them from chronic bad governance to criminal hordes.
When an army of glutinous zombie politicians rose, rolled towards Nigerians like those tanks in Beijing, one of them, Faruk Lawan, rose to be the Tank Man. He earned the moniker Mr Integrity and almost every Nigerian went to bed believing that at least one good man was fighting their cause. But he too was dragged away to ignominy by those two demons when he demanded a bribe to save a company ripping Nigerians off. Now he is serving time for his crime and Nigerians are nursing the pain of that betrayal.
When an army of zealots rose under a black flag in the name of Boko Haram and was devastating the northeast, many brave soldiers were sent to their deaths by an army too ill-prepared, ill-equipped and ill-motivated for the fight. Defeat after defeat prepared the ground for the rise of a hero. Lt Col Abu Ali answered this call, changed the narrative of that war, led his brave men to push back the terror. So much enthusiasm did his exploits ignite that it resonated through the ranks of the army and enveloped Nigerians. No single soldier’s death in combat elicited as much national grief as his did in 2016. Of the heroes gone too soon, his was the most painful loss and the one that would linger most fondly in the memory.
The one who comes close perhaps is Dr Ameyo Adadevoh, whose bravery helped hold the door against a host of Ebola virus that was about to be unleashed on the country in 2014. She did not live long enough to tell her story but for a country desperate for heroes, she became a ray of hope.
And now Abba Kyari.
Much as one would love for his innocence to be proven, realistically it is hard to see how in the face of the documents presented. But with investigations by the police still ongoing, it becomes imperative for the authorities to be diligent in this case and ensure that no cop, super or ordinary, is available for hire to criminals.
For the true victims here, the Nigerians for whom these marauding tanks keep coming, the consistent loss of our Tank Men to the fingers of obscurity is a monumental tragedy. Without reprieve, we keep losing heroes faster than we can raise them. No people should suffer so much pain from themselves, their enemies, their government and their heroes.