By Henry Okoroafor | Premium Times
A mere mention of the Island of Guantanamo (GITMO) Bay, Cuba evokes a feeling of austere and solitary confinement, strict isolation and perhaps exclusion from normalcy. The United States Naval Base on the Island of Guantanamo is the oldest U.S. military base overseas (122 years) and the only one in a communist nation. It is a very beautiful and blue water Island, enclosed by the Caribbean Ocean.
The serenity of the Island is enough to facilitate extensive mental rejuvenation and deep reflection or induce occasional depression. It all depends on what one makes of it. The detention operation, which most people know the Island for, is just a small portion of its mission. The main purpose of the base is the processing of coal and a hub for the U.S. Navy’s major ship carriers.
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GITMO as we call it, is known to an average person as a place that houses one of the most fortified detention centres in the world and one of America’s most fortified bases. But the story and image of GITMO are totally different for me, Henry Okoroafor (from Imo State), Igo Wordu (River State) and Abass Adigun (Oyo State). We met several years ago, while on active duty service on the Island just by leap of faith. This was when news of war against terror and the detention of suspected terrorist occupied world daily news media.
I was an Army logistics non-commissioned officer; Igo, a Navy broadcaster and writer; while Abass was a Navy electrical engineer. In addition to our basic military jobs, we had acquired additional skills through extensive and rigorous training, based on the provisions of our service components. Abass was a Navy Seabee – a group of special Navy teams that performed highly technical engineering tasks under water. Igo was an analyst and a specialist in speech delivery and I am an Army combat parachutist (Paratrooper).
As an Army (soldier), I was on a rotational mission at Guantanamo, while Igo and Abass were Navy (sailors) on a permanent mission. This meant they had better living conditions than I did since the base was the Navy’s. Those who knew us at GITMO could not tell who was in which service when we were out of uniform. We did things together and took care of each other as brothers would, because our friendship had developed to brotherly status and the respect we had for each other was very mutual. For several months on the Island, we went through the rigours and the challenging work environment, as well as the feelings of separation from our families in the United States. Some days, the morale was high and other days, it was very low. But each of us knew it was only a matter of a weekend and we would get together in our usual kitchen, where we made Nigerian food and talked about home. The three of us are great cooks and we made okra, egusi and vegetable soup from time to time and every now and then, Abass would make a special food like akara.
We spent weekend evenings reminiscing about our childhoods in Owerri, Ibadan and Port Harcourt. We would talk about our future in the military and after. Abass told us stories of how he used to follow his mother to a local market in Ibadan to assist with sales in her petty trade (a factor that shaped his adulthood to appreciate everything he has been able to accomplish). Igo was the youngest of us three and he often told us about his lovely mother who passed away when he and his brother were little children. He narrated how his mother handed them over to their family friend to care for, in her final days. The friend treated Igo and his younger brother as her own children. Igo is a very appreciative human and full of life.
My story was usually about my wife, our young marriage and our daughter. She was a full time college student then in Georgia, and we were expecting our second child. I was unable to make it home on time for the birth of our baby and that thought weighed heavily on me. In those periods and in our various challenges, we supported each other by any means possible. These two brothers, Abass and Igo, would later meet my family and become part of them till today.
Our friendship has flourished over the years. When I am away from my family or deployed to combat zones, Igo and Abass would call and check on my family, as well as write to check on me and offer their prayers and support. While Igo was pursuing his doctorate degree, I would check on him and sometimes issue treats as an older brother to ensure he maintains a good academic standing. Abass went into politics and we both encouraged him…
Igo and Abass decided to leave the military, and we talked about it extensively. Abass had met the service conditions for retirement and he did, while Igo disengaged honourably, with numerous service excellence awards and commendations. I decided to stick around for a little longer because military service has always been my calling. Of note is the fact that we have remained supportive of each other ever since and through thick and thin. Our friendship had never been about who gained what from whom or who is better than the other. At no point did we discourage each other from set goals. All we did was discuss the pros and the cons, hoped for the best and wished each other well. For some reason, our personalities have played out well for us. Abass is compassionate. Igo is very sociable and I am the disciplinarian. I have had both of them in check at all times, while Igo created lighter moods. I ensured we did not get off line, especially in social environments and Abass kept us humble and reminded us of our background as Nigerians.
What I remember the most are the numerous discussions we had about our future. Abass always talked about making a difference in the lives of children from Oyo, who come from the same background as he does. He is passionate about changing the impacts of neglect, especially in education, which the people of his constituency have experienced over the years. Abass has a very big heart and would give anything to anyone, if need be. We often feel bad for him because he doesn’t know how to say NO to anyone. Abass talked about going back home to serve his people and ensure he provides the kind of leadership he had seen in all the places he traveled to on military assignments. His passion and zeal made us nickname him “Aare Ona Kakanfo” The warrior of Yorubaland (this was not intended in any way to make cheap the revered ancient title in Yorubaland though).
Guess what? He is serving his people now and with that same passion he displayed then. His constituents say he is a good man and they love him. Igo wanted to engage his knowledge in global affairs, after military service, where he would be able to work on issues that affect Africa as a whole. This goal took him to the United Nations, where he served and made notable impacts, while pursuing advanced degrees in the University. As a Doctor of law and policy, he continues to consult and make a difference through his foundation. As for me, I applied for the officer commissioning programme and got accepted into United States Army Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I graduated and earned a commission into the Army Adjutant General’s Corps. I am still in active service with the United States Army Europe and have continued to attend advanced degree programmes and professional development courses.
This is where we are now: Henry Okoroafor (Major, U.S. Army and a Fellow, Institute of Defense and Business, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Igo Wordu (Doctor of Law and Policy, Northeastern University, founder and president at Clei Group, Houston Texas; Abass Adigun Agboworin (Hon. member, House of Representatives, representing Ibadan North-East/South-East Federal Constituency.
Our friendship has flourished over the years. When I am away from my family or deployed to combat zones, Igo and Abass would call and check on my family, as well as write to check on me and offer their prayers and support. While Igo was pursuing his doctorate degree, I would check on him and sometimes issue treats as an older brother to ensure he maintains a good academic standing. Abass went into politics and we both encouraged him and sent our support as often as we could, even after a few unsuccessful attempts. None of us have the mindset of “what we stand to gain from the other”. It is just pure friendship. This is what has made our brotherhood flourish and our friendship unwavering. We are not selfish and we have trust. But above all, we are genuinely happy for each other and we are proud Nigerians.
Henry Okoroafor is a Major with the U.S. Army and a Fellow of the Institute of Defense and Business, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
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