In Nigeria, we have a volunteer military. Every Soldier, Rating and Airman/Airwoman choses to serve. There is no conscription. Yes, the most important sacrifice a Nigerian commissioned or enlisted personnel makes is not when he or she dies at war. It comes when he puts on the military uniforms and decides to fight for his country. The decision to serve is a choice that comes with pride. It also comes with risk, risk of death. Every commissioned or enlisted personnel go to war knowing that he or she may or never return. For some, the manner of their death (not returning) captures wide public attention. Most of them don’t.
But for every one of them in uniform, there is always someone who stays back home, praying and wishing that their loved one come home alive. Sometimes, they do. Sometimes they don’t. And when they don’t, it confirms the worry, the fear of those on the home front. It makes them live in shock at the how the thought of what might be came to be. For those whose loved ones don’t come back alive, the wait for a spouse, parent, brother, sister, nephew, niece, cousin or neighbor to come home, comes to naught.
Then comes the lonely wait for the remains to be buried. Some are buried in their hometowns, some in the nearest military cemeteries close to the theatre of war. The Theatre Command, Operation LAFIYA DOLE gave a befitting military burial to 19 out of the 23 officers and soldiers of 157 Battalion that paid the supreme price in the battle against Boko Haram on November 18, 2018 at Metele, Borno State. They were buried at Maimalari Cantonment Military Cemetery, Maiduguri, Borno State.
Some are buried at the National Cemetery along Airport Road, Abuja. Majority of the soldiers whose death captured public attention are usually buried National Cemetery. Notable among the names on the list is the highly regarded Lt. Col Muhammed Abu Ali, who along with six other soldiers were ambushed and killed by Boko Haram on November 4, 2016. He was buried on November 7, 2016. In August 22, the Nigeria Air Force (NAF) buried late Flight Lieutenant Akweke Junior Nwakile who died in a helicopter crash in Bama, Borno State on 21 July at the National Cemetery Abuja.
Unfortunately, it was the same Nigerian Air Force who on Tuesday at the same cemetery buried two of its pilots and three crew members. They died in the NAF Mi-35M Helicopter that crashed in combat on January 2 while providing close air support to troops of 145 Battalion in the war against Boko Haram in Damasak, Borno State. The Damasak Five include Flight Lieutenant Perowei Jacob – Pilot in Command, Flight Lt- Kaltho Paul Kilyofas – Co-Pilot, Sgt. Auwal Ibrahim – Flight Technician, Lance Corporal Adamu Nura – Gunner, and Aircraftman Meshack Ishmael – Gunner.
At the somber ceremony laced with unfathomable grief by family members and colleagues in uniform, the remains of the officers and Airmen were laid to rest with full military honours, amidst wails and tears by family members, wives, relatives and sympathisers.
Generally, the death of such national heroes does not evoke emotions to the generality of Nigerians unless they are related to them. Maybe because there is usually no special mention of the dead in local, not to talk of national media. Nobody remembers. Very little attention is paid to a life cut short in service to our nation as in the recent Damasak Five. Families of those killed in action are soon left to face their grief as well as they can, often alone. They live with the reality and constant reminders of war that bad things do happen to good people.
And like all things Nigerian these days, the death and burial of these national heroes has turned into just another run of events to be forgotten as politicians jostle and look for way to outwit each other to win the next elections and Nigerians struggle on how to take care of their lives and family. It doesn’t have to be so.
From independence and the indigenization of the Nigerian Armed Forces, the first batch of massive casualties came during the Nigerian/Biafran civil war (1967-1970) in which thousands of lives were lost. Then, the deaths of serving personnel who died on the war front used to be distant events until the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) military interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Then, the war in the creeks of Niger Delta came. But no war in recent memory has consumed more Nigerian military officers and other ranks than the war against Boko Haram terrorism.
Perhaps, because of the effects of the civil war on the psyche of Nigerians and the long years of military rule, many of our citizens only feel a sense of dread of the military. This may partly explain why the death of a Nigerian soldier is still treated as a sort of elitist Government issue up till today. Whatever caused the apathy against the military, it is time for new thinking. These military men and women are giving up their comforts every day and prepared to give their lives, if need be, in defence of the common good.
Seven years ago, former Senate President, Senator (Brigadier General rtd) David Mark, said when he was decorated with the 2011 emblem of the Armed Forces Remembrance Day in Abuja that “if not for anything else, they (the fallen soldiers) deserve national honours. Those who die in wars or peacekeeping missions are heroes that must be celebrated.”
On this Armed Forces Remembrance Day, it will do a lot of good for us Nigerians to take a moment to remember and honour the men and women who have died that we may have our own lives, that we may have a country. Every death on the battlefield is a great loss. To each family that have experienced such bereavement, to parents, spouses and relations, like Oluwatobi Akindele Diepreye, the wife of the Nigerian Air Force pilot who got married and lost her heartthrob in three weeks and few days, they will all have to live with and cope with this deeply life-changing personal tragedy. They need not feel alone. The nation and the citizens should rally around them.
As activities are rounded up for this year’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day, we can all continue to honour the service and sacrifice of our serving and retired military personnel by simply thanking and appreciating them anywhere we see them. Can we start the process of thanking them when we see then in public places like markets, shopping malls, churches and mosques, airports or other community events?
Those who can afford it should donate cash to improve the comfort and welfare of members of the Nigerian Legion or the Retired Army, Navy and Airforce Officers Association of Nigeria (RANAO). The time has come for Nigeria’s transport companies – rail, airlines and buses, businesses including shopping malls to start giving special discounts to our serving and retired military men and women.
Also, Nigerians, multinational and local businesses, Ministries, Departments and Agencies of federal, State and even Local Governments and even Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) should help organize events honouring serving personnel especially those who are serving or just returned from deployments in the frontline. This can be done in conjunction with local military authorities. We are all today carrying out our businesses and tasks because of the sacrifices of these men and women. The environment would have been unsafe to live and conduct any meaningful business without their efforts.
Onuorah is Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of The Authority Newspapers