As Nigeria marks this year’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day, families of soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice while fighting the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and other security challenges across the country are crying for help.
Daily Trust reports that while many soldiers fighting Boko Haram insurgents in the North East have been killed in the battle front, many others lost their lives while tackling other security challenges in different parts of the country.
The Armed Forces Day is observed annually by nations around the world to honour their military forces.
In Nigeria, it is marked on January 15 to honour members of the Nigerian Armed Forces who fought in the first and second world wars and those who served or are still serving in various peace support operations worldwide. The day is also marked to appreciate those who fought in the Nigerian Civil War.
The event, which is usually held at the federal, state and local levels, has become a national ritual as military personnel including the Army, the Navy, the Air force and the Nigerian Legion converge to celebrate and give honour to the fallen and living heroes.
In Nigeria, the exact number of soldiers killed in the battle front is not given because of secrecy in the military circle.
Some relatives said they learnt of the deaths of their loved ones through other sources as the military had not informed them officially.
Documents show that in the last few years, Nigerian military operatives have been involved in Internal Security Operations (ISO) in 32 states to contain different threats including the Boko Haram insurgency, farmers/herders clashes, banditry, kidnapping, ethnic confrontations and militancy.
The military had also recorded huge successes including liberating many communities, rescuing thousands of kidnapped victims and rehabilitating and paving way for reintegration of repentant criminals.
Our plight – families of fallen soldiers
Some widows and relations of troops who lost their lives while fighting the Boko Haram insurgents recounted the difficulties they now encounter in their struggle for survival following the exit of their breadwinners.
Sylverna Alawade, widow and mother of a 4-year-old daughter said her husband, Lance Corporal Shefiu Alawade, was declared ‘missing in action’ at Metele in Northern Borno in May 2019 and was later confirmed dead in battle.
“When he was leaving us for the front line, he left his ATM card with us to be withdrawing money. Unknown to us, he was bidding us final farewell. However, when we did not see or hear from him a month after, I suddenly remembered that Metele had been attacked, and he could have been a victim. My fears were later confirmed,” she said.
She, however, lamented that her late husband’s entitlements have not been paid yet a year after his death.
“It has been hell with me and my daughter; I have been going through tough times. The army is yet to reach out to us. It is a painful thing that my husband defended the country but we are now suffering,” she lamented.
While appealing to the federal government to do something about her plight, Sylverna said: “Since he was declared missing in action more than a year ago, they should pay us the compensation because he spent six years in service before the incident happened. If they pay us the compensation we can use it to address some challenges we are facing now.”
The experience of another widow who gave her name as Ogechukwu is different from that of Sylverna.
Ogechukwu said her husband, Staff Sgt. Ibrahim Waziri, was killed in combat with Boko Haram at Damboa in southern Borno on October 29, 2016.
The mother of three said: “It has not been easy with us since we lost him but by the special grace of God, we have been managing. Only his gratuity has been paid which is what I have been using to do some business for the sustenance of the family. The military is sponsoring the education of the children.
“It has been very difficult living without my husband but we are managing,” she said.
Lance Cpl Oluwafunmilayo Ogunubi said she is the widow of Cpl Idowu Emmanuel who died during the battle with insurgents at New Marte in northern Borno on January 8, 2017.
Funmilayo, who acknowledged that some of her late husband’s benefits have been paid, called on relevant authorities to do more.
“My husband’s burial expenses, gratuity and insurance have been paid and that is what I have been using to run some business to train my children and sustain the family, but I don’t know anything about pension,” she said.
Timothy Olanrewaju who is a journalist said his elder brother, Samuel Olanrewaju, who left teaching to enlist in the Nigerian Army in 1997 was declared missing in action between Baga and Metele in March 2019.
“He was later confirmed to have been executed by Boko Haram. My brother was deployed to the theatre of Boko Haram war from the Nigerian Army Infantry Barracks, Owode-Yewa, Ogun State. In June 2019, I approached the army that video a footage released by Boko Haram showed that he was executed by the insurgents.
“Before then, nobody from the army authorities ever told us that he was dead after his abduction alongside others by the insurgents in December 2018.
“Later, his wife called on phone and told me that the army authorities had officially informed her that her husband had been killed in battle,” he said.
Olanrewaju also said they were shocked when they later found out that the bank account of his brother was blocked.
“His salary bank account was blocked in June 2019, few months after his death. An account opened by an individual is the property of the individual. This singular act has plunged Samuel’s family into a very precarious situation: no food for the family and no school fees for his two sons; and no support from the army, not even Operation Lafiya Dole Theatre Command where he served before his death; his, entitlements have not been paid and following up is a very long procedure.
“This has thrust a heavy responsibility on me,” he said.
Maintaining that the families of fallen heroes should not suffer, Olanrewaju said the reverse was the case with regards to his late brother as his family was suffering because of the long procedure of getting the entitlements paid.
Losing a soldier is like losing Nigeria – Senator Ndume
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Army, Senator Ali Ndume, said losing a soldier is like losing Nigeria, noting that it is not the number of lives lost that matter. Speaking in a telephone interview, Senator Ndume said he could not tell the number of soldiers that died within the year, adding that the sacrifice made by soldiers to fight the war is huge.
“Nigerians should have the patriotism to feel the huge loss that the country recorded, not just count the number because every life matters.
“The most frustrating thing in the war is the way Nigerians are looking at it and is the same thing that has compounded the problem. If Nigerians today will accept the war as a challenge for all, and the government to concentrate holistically on the war, the result will be a huge success. “The war against insurgency and banditry is for the whole Nigeria not the military alone,” he said.
It could be recalled that on October 15, 2019, Ndume had said that 840 Nigerian soldiers were killed by Boko Haram terrorists between 2013 and October 2019. The senator said the fallen soldiers were buried at the military cemetery in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
No verified figures of military casualty
There are no verifiable figures of casualties suffered by the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram and other criminalities as official figures are kept secret by military authorities on ground of security.
Last July, the Wall Street Journal published a report claiming that secret mass burials of about 1,000 soldiers were conducted by the military at the Maimalari Barracks in Maiduguri over a period of one year.
The military had since refuted the claim.
“Several of my comrades were buried in unmarked graves at night. They are dying and being deleted from history,” the paper quoted a soldier as saying.
Sources said the reason for the secrecy may not be unconnected to the desire of unit commanders to preserve their scant budget allocations and also the desire of the military to protect its image in a war it claimed it had already won.
Fallen heroes deserve to be honoured – Expert
The Executive Secretary, Centre for Crisis Communication (CCC), retired Air Commodore Yusuf Anas, said heroes living or dead are usually celebrated locally, nationally and internationally.
He said it was a very important and positive way to encourage people in the military to honour troops who have laid down their lives for their country.
“The Nigerian military has a codified way of honouring fallen heroes as specified in the Harmonized Terms and Conditions-of Service (HTCOS),” he said.
He said the provisions were also explicit on how the families of fallen heroes should be treated in the HTCOS.
“If there is a lacuna or shoddy handling in giving appropriate and befitting burial to honour our deceased officers and soldiers, the blame falls squarely on the military leadership at all levels,” he said.