EVEN countries that are formally at war do not routinely lose as many as 30 combatants in one fell swoop through an ambush by a supposed ragtag band of bandits or even terrorists. The victims were not killed in any designated theatre of war. And certainly not in a community that had been identified as a hotbed of sectarian insurgents. On the contrary, the report was that the community had enjoyed peace for years. But the peace at the mining site in Ajata-Aboki in Shiroro local government area of Niger state in the north central region of Nigeria has been shattered. And at a huge human cost with about 30 soldiers and seven police personnel killed. Add the number of civilians and we have 43 persons dead. Some Chinese workers were also reportedly kidnapped.
In Igbo we say eburu ozu onye ozo odika ebu osisi kporo nku. A very poor English Language translation will be to the effect that when the corpse of a total stranger is being conveyed, onlookers are wont to treat and regard such remains as a piece of dead and dry wood. But in the Shiroro incident we are talking about mostly boys and young men in their prime with their lives before them. They were members of families; or persons who were in the early stages of raising their own families; or young men who were engaged to young ladies preparatory to marriage and plans for the future. Their dreams had been cut short in a most gruesome manner. And to think that negligence could have played a role in their deaths. To be sure, there had not been any formal or informal findings of official negligence in the deployment of the patriots to the rescue operation during which they met their end. But negligence comes in various forms and we will return to explore this possibility shortly.
There is no doubt that when you enlist in the armed forces of any country, you have in a sense signed your own death warrant. But the minimum expectation of any soldier who has offered to serve the fatherland is that he or she has not signed to die avoidable death. Some of us can relate to the exuberance of many young people and their sense of invincibility. I understand that the Afrobeat king, the late Fela Kuti’s adopted middle name Anikulapo could be interpreted to mean that he had death safely secured and in check in his pouch. How prescient Fela was. He lived and secured immortality for himself. In a different sense, our boys and girls who enlist in the army and even those who pursue other endeavours have this carriage of immortality.
I have three children, indeed three boys, and I can observe bravado in some of the things that they as tweenagers. Tweenagers, by way of explanation, are children in their 20s. The real foot soldiers are recruited mainly from their age group, those between 18 and 25 years. We know, however, that some rogue regimes in countries that are eternally at war as Nigeria appears to be dithering to conscript children as young as 10 years, hand them weapons and turn them into child soldiers. Such countries including Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, among others, live with the after effects of traumatized child soldiers years down the line. Because of my own children I can easily relate with the pains and agonies of the parents of the young men who were killed in Shiroro, Niger state last week. If any of my kids had chosen the path of enlistment in the Nigerian Armed Forces, I probably would not have dissuaded him. But I certainly would have been one of the fathers of soldiers perpetually living with his heart in his mouth.
And this should not be so because every profession or even vocation comes with its own hazard including death. But the stories swirling around Nigeria’s Armed Forces in their make up and operational methods have been unnerving in the past decades. Not too long ago, we heard reports about our field soldiers threatening to embark on strike on their allegation of the non provision of requisite weapons to combat the sectarian insurgents in the north east. The troops also claimed that where weapons were provided they were substandard and dated. There were claims of the supply of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) which engines stalled in the heat of battles and so made our otherwise gallant soldiers sitting ducks for the well equipped and rampart sectarian Boko Haram, Ansaru and the Islamic State of West Africa [ISWAP] Jihadists. In a celebrated case of mutiny in Borno state a few years ago, a brigadier-general was allegedly attacked and killed by his own disgruntled soldiers.
A sad testimony to the state of our armed forces is the spate of court martials, many of them in camera, of our soldiers and ranking officers including Generals. The irony is that while the rank and file soldiers are being court martialled for insubordination and disobedience to lawful orders, the officers are often being tried for stealing and pocketing the allowances meant for the soldiers. In one incident, a General was alleged to have ordered some soldiers to help him move suspected stolen money or proceeds of crime from the war front in the north east to a safe haven in the north west. Stories are replete of some Generals in our armed forces, particularly those who have retired, being probed, indicted, arrested, tried and sentenced to prison terms for fraud, misappropriation and stealing.
What did they steal or misappropriate: funds appropriated and released for procurement of weapons to strengthen the fighting capacity of our soldiers and to incentivize them through prompt payment of their allowances in the war front. These stories when they are reported in the media filter out and somehow get to the attention of the foot soldiers. And the effect is demoralization of the troops. We are no longer shocked and in awe when we read about billions of Naira stolen by those who are supposed to be professional soldiers. And officers and gentlemen. To be fair, it will be selective, harsh and unkind to expect our soldiers, their ranks notwithstanding, to be different from the rest of the Nigerian society. Or even to demand a higher standard from them. After all there is an unresolved case of the accountant-general of the federation [an anachronistic title by the way] who allegedly stole from our commonwealth monies now hovering around N200 billion. He also operates or operated in this system. So why should the massive stealing by some soldiers be different?
Earlier we alluded to the possibility of the avoidable deaths of our troops in Shiroro last week and the issue of probable negligence. It will be uncharitable to suggest that a commanding officer will deliberately set up his soldiers for ambush and to be killed in the manner of Shiroro. But it could still happen by an act of omission and by actions above the remit of the commanding officer. How do we mean? Two issues come to mind immediately. When Goodluck Jonathan was president, there was allegation then that the Islamist Boko Haram had infiltrated the armed forces. We do not recall that the claim was probed and confirmed or dismissed. We just carried on in the manner of things Nigerian. In the recent past, the convoy of the governor of Borno state Prof. Zulum was regularly being ambushed and attacked by the insurgents. He raised the alarm that there must be informants in the security forces who are either members of Boko Haram or their sympathizers. We do not recall that much was done after the governor’s outcry.
The last and most concerning issue with the ambush and killing of our children in uniform is two pronged. And the two are dangerous. The first is the federal government policy deradicalization, rehabilitation and reintegration of captured or surrendered terrorists. The policy is suspect and could be a source of our sorrows. We do not know of any Nigerian institution with the resources including professionals to successfully deliver on this policy. Not even the United States of America with its sophistication has mastered this art. The second is the allegation of recruiting or planning to recruit into the armed forces repentant Boko Haram militia. We do not want to believe this allegation. But our anxiety is that Nigeria under this President, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, has become a strange place. Difficult to recognize. What we hitherto thought cannot happen here, have been routinely happening.
So our soldiers who were murdered in Ajata-Aboki last week could be attributed to a number of factors. One could be induced complacency of the commanding officer who may have believed that the community was not in the grip of the Islamist insurgents and so neglected reconnaissance before deployment. The second possibility could be the infiltration of the terrorists among the troops. And thirdly, there could be informants within the troops or even in the community. None of these possible factors is excusable for the deaths.
Our country should never do anything by acts of commission or omission to allow the lamentation of the fiancee of one of the victims of Shiroro to fester. Aisha Yusuf said in her Facebook post; ‘I lost the love of my life on Wednesday in Shiroro, Niger state. My friend, my lover… My heartbeat, my fiance…the man who changed my strong view on inter-cultural marriage. I can’t still believe that my baby is gone. Where do I start from? Where do I pick up from? People said I should take it easy, that God has a plan but I can’t even understand why God allowed such to happen. He was diligent. He was honest and hardworking. He was a good man. A God fearing man who loved his family and his country that he gave his life for that cause. Nigeria didn’t deserve you baby…’ Sad. Nigeria can no longer afford the continuing erosion of whatever is left of its essence in the hearts and minds of its citizens.
AUTHOR: Ugo Onuoha…
Articles published in our Graffiti section are strictly the opinion of the writers and do not represent the views of Ripples Nigeria or its editorial stand.
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