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1986: Mamman Jiya Vatsa, warrior-poet

March 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1986,* Nigerian Major-General Mamman Jiya Vatsa was shot (along with nine others) by command of his childhood friend — the dictator Ibrahim Babangida, whom Vatsa was allegedly plotting to overthrow.

A gifted writer since youth, Vatsa was just a nameless twenty-something junior officer in the early 1970s when he emerged onto the national literary scene.

In the 15 years before his death, Vatsa churned out 20-plus volumes, mostly poetry. He had a special inclination for writing for children.

Simultaneously, his star ascended in his professional sphere.

Risen to General, Vatsa was part of the Supreme Military Council of the previous dictator.

But by December of that year,
Vatsa and dozens of others were arrested.

Testimony against them — much of it of the speculative or torture-induced variety — described a ring of officers piqued at the Babangida coup (Vatsa was out of the country when it occurred) and keen to undo it. The scheme would have been only one of many such hatched or imagined in an unstable political situation that surely made the new big man nervous.

In the end, “only” ten (the nine others are named here) were stood up against the wall for the alleged plot. Many others, however, were imprisoned or purged, a lasting injury to the Nigerian brass that particularly crippled its air force.

Babangida, of course, rejected clemency appeals from the Vatsa family he knew well. He has since justified his harshness by arguing that Vatsa would have continued plotting against him in prison or in forced retirement. “Rawlings did it in Ghana,” Babangida said. “And you know Vatsa was very stubborn.”

The fatal tribunal’s judge** is less certain, and is hardly the only one to doubt Vatsa’s guilt outright.

I don’t know, nobody ever asked.
That was how some heroes died.
They died.

-Vatsa, “They Died” (Voices from the Trench)

* Some sources give March 6 as the execution date, but contemporaneous western press reports (admittedly an impeachable source) prefer the 5th. For instance, the March 6 Chicago Tribune says the executions occurred on “Wednesday” (the 5th).

** Ironically, Vatsa himself had once sat on a tribunal for another group of failed putschists, the 1976 Dimka coup.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Nigeria,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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