Many youngsters may not know him because he kept largely to himself in the last 33 years. He was a man who survived a shower of Biafran bullets. As the legendary commander of the crack Federal One Division during the first phase of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70, he managed to evade Biafran snipers and dodged not a few shots from the ogbunigwe. He was the great war tactician who directed huge armies, commanded ferrets and battle tanks and captured whole cities, only for General Muhammadu Shuwa to be felled yesterday by an amateur Boko Haram shot.
Mamman Shuwa, as he was known then, was the best known Civil War figure in Nigeria after General Yakubu Gowon. During the war years, hundreds of songs were composed in all localities all over the North and Lt Col Shuwa [as he then was] featured in most of them. He was one of the original commanders of the three Federal Army Divisions, the other two being Lt Col Murtala Mohamed of the Two Division and Lt Col Benjamin Adekunle of the Three Marine Commando Division. While Shuwa operated from the north, Murtala operated from the west after driving the Biafran Army out of the Midwest while Adekunle operated from the south.
That generation of war commanders was subsequently replaced by Lt Colonels [later Generals] T.Y. Danjuma, Iliya Bisalla, Gibson Jallo and Olusegun Obasanjo, all of whom enjoyed wartime fame and went on to play prominent roles in military and civilian governments in subsequent decades. In Northern federalist folklore, Shuwa towered above the other commanders. Endless tales [for that's what they probably were] were told to us as kids by grandmothers, teachers and soldiers returning from the warfront of Shuwa's magical powers. For many years after the civil war, any mention of his name anywhere in the North attracted much curiosity and excitement.
Major General Shuwa became the Federal Commissioner for Trade in the Murtala-Obasanjo military regime of 1975-79. In March 1978, Head of State Obasanjo announced that military officers who held political appointments had been told by the Supreme Military Council to either resign from their political posts and be posted back to military duties, or chose to continue in their political posts and retire from the military with the handover to civilians on October 1, 1979. Many officers such as Major General Joseph Garba resigned from the government and returned to the army. Shuwa was one of the officers who opted to continue serving until the handover to the Second Republic and then retire from service.
While most of his contemporaries took up residence in Lagos, Kaduna or abroad after their retirement, Shuwa went home to Maiduguri and lived there until his death yesterday. He rarely attended public occasions and almost never spoke to newsmen. Since 2006, urged on by our chairman Malam Kabiru Yusuf, the editors of Daily Trust and Sunday Trust made repeated attempts to interview General Shuwa. Despite help from his son or one other associate, a major interview with him never materialised.
Who killed General Muhammadu Shuwa? In the wake of yesterday's shooting, all accusing fingers pointed at the Boko Haram sect. The operation was similar to countless others carried out by the sect in Maiduguri and other towns in the last two years. Remarkably, Shuwa lived in Gwange ward, the Ground Zero of Boko Haram violence, and he refused all entreaties by his friends, security agents and the Borno State government to relocate in the wake of the insurgency. The great old soldier also continued to keep open house in a very dangerous place even though he told the French news agency last May that the sect could target him.
Why was Shuwa a target? Most probably due to his association with the ANPP, which rules Borno State, and in particular his close friendship over the years with the state's former governor Ali Modu Sheriff. Shuwa was a member of the ANPP Board of Trustees even though he hardly took part in national political discourse.
An exception was last July, when he suddenly spoke up in response to the charge by his old One Division subordinate General T.Y. Danjuma that Borno was a "failed state" alongside some others. Shuwa took serious exception to Danjuma's comments and went public with his criticism, about the only time in the last three decades that he waded into a public controversy.
If indeed Boko Haram elements shot General Shuwa, it was ironical that they did so less than 24 hours after a sect leader addressed newsmen in Maiduguri by teleconference and offered a conditional ceasefire. What could have happened? One of the many possibilities is that the Boko Haram ceasefire offer was a ruse. Or maybe it was genuine, but the shooting was carried out by a faction opposed to the ceasefire offer in order to undermine it. Or perhaps, it could have been carried out by the same sect leadership that made the peace offer in order to dispel any notion that they have been greatly weakened by military operations in recent months. Or even that the hit squad that carried out the killing received their marching orders long ago and could no longer be called back. These are some of the many possibilities.
Yet, in carrying out the killing of such a prominent military and local community figure, Boko Haram made a huge strategic gamble. Many prominent local clerics, ward heads and politicians have been killed in the course of this insurgency, the most prominent ones being the ANPP governorship candidate Modu Fannami Gubio and the ANPP national vice chairman for the North East zone, as well as the former Comptroller General of Immigration Ibrahim Jarma. Shuwa is far and away the most prominent victim of the insurgency. His cold-blooded killing on a Friday morning is unlikely to please the elder statesmen that were nominated by the sect just a day before to broker peace between it and the government.
How the security agencies would respond to the killing of a great Army General is another big question mark. Not too long ago, soldiers of the Joint Task Force were accused of going on a rampage to avenge the killing of some of their men. They may not apply the same violent espirit d'corps to the killing of a man who left the army 33 years ago, but it could spur Army commanders to unroll unpleasant new counter-insurgency measures.
How do we summarise the killing of a legendary old war commander by a gunman probably his grandchild's age and whose knowledge of weapons and warfare is pinpricks compared to the General's? It is akin, for comparative purposes, to a mafia gunslinger on the streets of New York walking up and shooting to death General William Tecumseh Sherman. Or as my late outspoken grandmother Hajia Allami used to say, it was a case of a dog killing your Sallah ram.