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Heroes to villains and the murkiness in-between

In 1916, when one of the longest battles in history was over in the French town of Verdun, after 300, 000 people had been killed…

In 1916, when one of the longest battles in history was over in the French town of Verdun, after 300, 000 people had been killed in the fighting between France and Germany in the First World War, one person emerged as the hero. General Philippe Petain became known as the Lion of Verdun and was made Marshal of France.

A few short years later, when the Second World War broke out and France was surprisingly quickly overrun by Hitler’s blitzkrieg, the Lion of Verdun who had defeated the Germans in World War I, found himself heading the authoritarian Vichy Government in France that became infamous of collaborating with Nazi Germany and helping it commit war crimes. Suddenly, the hero of France’s WWI triumph became a sleazy villain of its WWII capitulation. After the war, Petain was tried and convicted and sentenced to death. But his WWI service and his old age helped get his sentence commuted.

When the character of Harvey Dent in the Dark Knight movie said, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” he was referring to himself, but he could have been referring to Petain, and the many men and women who started off as heroes and ended up on the other side, or vice versa.

Often, we have seen how men’s place in history shifts from the glory pages of heroes to the ignominy of villains. For some, they stay in the grey and you never know exactly what they were or where to place them. 

This week, General Oladipo Diya, the number two man in Nigeria’s last dictatorship passed away. He served in the infamous Abacha regime and was next in line to the strongman until his fortunes changed in 1997. His death at the age of 78, has seen Vice President Yemi Osinbajo issuing a statement celebrating his life, and the National Assembly as well doing the same, with the House of Representatives calling on the federal government to immortalise him.

For the trouble he got into in 1997, Diya could have said he was gifted another 25 years because when a military tribunal found him guilty of treason, principally for orchestrating the overthrow of his boss and the government he served in, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Diya would be executed, in the fashion of the criminals that used to be dispatched at Bar Beach in the days before.

He was sentenced to death and was only saved from the hangman, or more precisely, the firing squad when his boss, General Abacha died rather suddenly, in June of 1998. A dramatic turn of events for Diya, who somehow managed to outlive both his judge, General Victor Malu, who sentenced him to death and his boss, General Abacha.

Although Diya has maintained his innocence throughout, he has given interviews in which he admitted his pride at serving in the Abacha government and even spoke glowingly of his boss. But the principal witness against Diya, General Ishaya Bamaiyi has doubled down over the years to insist that Diya had tried to recruit him into a coup plot against Abacha. 

The truth of that coup remains a mystery to this day. Was it a phantom coup, as it has been daubed, or was it real? A soldier who played an active role in that saga at the time said while Diya spoke some truths about some of the incidents, he was silent about a lot of others. 

But where does Diya sit on the side of history? As the pro-democracy hero that he is made out to be for purportedly wanting to overthrow Abacha who was branded the anti-democrat in a coup Diya insisted was fictional? You see where the confusion arises?

Is it surprising that if Abacha had lived, perhaps handed over power to someone else, perhaps democratically elected, it is quite possible he would be celebrated as a hero, not the villain he had been portrayed as?

The hero-to-villain arc is way too common that we have seen it happening to heroes of yesterday, brilliant revolutionaries like Robert Mugabe, whose status drew the likes of Bob Marley to perform at Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. But in the years since, Mugabe held onto power, transforming himself from the hero who made Rhodesia Zimbabwe to a monster who made his country poor, impoverished and the laughing stock of the world with a currency that was astronomically rubbish, a man clung to power so much he lost dignity peeing himself in public and unravelling before the eyes of the world until he was ousted way too long after he should have been booted out and died as a loathed villain.

There have been men like Muammar Gaddafi who was once the hero of all Libyans when he overthrew the monarchy, transformed his country from impoverished to rich and his citizens benefitted. In the end, he lived long enough to become the villain, being murdered by his own people, like a handbag thief caught on a Lagos Street. Thanks to international instigation.

The list of these heroes-to-villain stories is long. You can add the likes of Saddam Hussein to it. Hero when he fought Iran. Villain when he turned on his paymasters and greatest supporters, the US. One could even add to this list a certain skinny Arab man by the name of Osama Bin Laden who was once celebrated as a philanthropist and freedom fighter when he was leading the Mujaheddins to frustrate the Russians in Afghanistan. Suddenly, he became the most wanted man in the world and died very much a villain, even if he still has his admirers.

In Nigeria, the constant shift between heroism and villainy, like the characters in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is so confusing that often when Nigerians wake up in the morning, they are not sure on what side of the line yesterday’s villain would be.

Imagine going to bed thinking a figure like bandit leader, Bello Turji is the devil incarnate only to see him being feted by the state government who granted him amnesty and housed him in government lodgings.

I remember in 1990 a certain Great Ogburu was one of the most wanted men in Nigeria for alleged involvement in the Orkar Coup. He escaped the country and his fellow plotters were lined up against some nondescript wall somewhere and were shot to death. Mr Ogburu returned 10 years later and became a politician. He ran for governor of Delta State in the recent elections.

Perhaps one of the more puzzling cases is the recent appointment of the infamous MC Oluomo, the NURTW chairman in Lagos, who doubles as the Agbero general of Lagos and a political muscle man (insert thug) as an ambassador.

While the connection between drug use and the NURTW may be obvious, one would think Mr Oluomo’s reputation of violence should make the NDLEA think twice about such an ostentatious conferment of title on him. But I guess if you have money, you can get away with anything and MC Oluomo is not a poor thug.

Not many people have the fortune of a figure like Nelson Mandela, a freedom fighter in the eyes of a good number of people, apart from apartheid white South Africans who jailed him for most of his life and the Americans who listed him as a terrorist until 2008. Yet long before his death, he was acknowledged as a universal hero and model human. He also had the grace and good sense to bow out and rest when the ovation was loudest, unlike Mugabe.

For others, the only thing constant is the number of times they flip, from heroes to villains to heroes and back to villains again. In this unique category perhaps one can situate someone like President Muhammadu Buhari, once noted for his astute uprightness in the military, to his ignominious days as a military tyrant and then Nigerians plucked him out of retirement to be their democratic hero to now this person whose government is leaving behind a legacy of pain and suffering and careless disregard for the Nigerians who had all that faith in him.

All said and done, he is still a hero in some people’s eyes, as is Bin Laden and Trump, Bush and Dimka are, I suppose. Maybe even Hitler. One man’s noise is another’s lyrics as they say. And one man’s hero is another’s villain. 

Being someone’s hero or villain is often a matter of perspective.


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