By Sunny Awhefeada
Nigeria has become a country that eats up her own both in war and in peace times. And we have lost count of how many of her own she has eaten these last twelve years. Many Nigerians shuddered and shed tears as the funeral obsequies of the twelve soldiers who were killed by bandits in Benue State two weeks ago was aired on television. The slain soldiers died in active service as they were on a mission to restore peace when they were killed in an ambushed at Bonta in Konshisha Local Government Area of Benue State. The twelve gallant soldiers have gone the way of many other comrades at arms. Soldiering is a profession fraught with risk, but it is a noble profession to which only the truly brave and patriotic are called. Once an individual signs up for soldiering he has surrendered his life to the state. He becomes a defender of the state and is ever ready to lay down his life for it. Soldiers wear an unseen badge of courage and their hearts are resolute in defence of the state. To train to become a soldier is a rigorous engagement that drains the individual physically, psychologically and mentally. That is why they are tough so that they can defend the state. Soldiers are respected if not dignified all over the world.
Growing up, many of us romanticized the Nigerian Army. We grew up in the era of military dictatorship and in innocence buoyed by ignorance we celebrated the military as they bestrode Nigeria in starched khaki and jackboots. The soldiers first shot themselves into power in January 1966 and invaded public consciousness. The guns smoked again in July of that same year. And by the next year Nigeria was at war with itself. After the war, one coup begot another and friends plotted the assassination of friends just as friends presided over trials and sentenced friends to death by firing squads. It was a long and bitter era for soldiers as they undid themselves for political motives. Friends who just had pepper-soup or burukutu began killing one another an hour later. Subalterns and sergeants took colonels and generals hostages. Wives became widows and sons and daughters became fatherless. The sad examples of Illiya Bisalla and Murtala Muhammed as well as that of Mamman Vatsa and Ibrahim Babangida depict the murderous character of soldiers in politics.
The foregoing was a long time ago. When a new civilian dispensation was inaugurated twenty-two years ago, many had thought that military adventurism which destroyed esprit de corps would end. The new government embarked on a purge that saw all soldiers who participated in politics remotely or otherwise being shown the way out. It was supposed to discourage those unaffected from participating in coups and politics. So much in-house cleaning was carried out to ensure professionalism and the military became an attractive profession again. No more fear of being set up for a coup, no more fear of phantom coup and the other ills which bedeviled the military in the days of yore. This new found lease inspired many young men to join the military. Mothers who had swore never to allow their sons to join the army, felt reassured enough to change their mind and be called Mama Soja. The barracks bubbled with life again.
The euphoria turned out to be ephemeral. Serially incompetent successive governments plunged the nation into social crises that eventually mutated into multifaceted criminality: militancy, insurgency, terrorism, banditry and kidnapping. The nation’s overindulged and extortionist police couldn’t tame the criminality. The military, especially the army and the air force, was called out to intervene. If the nation and the soldiers thought that it was going to be a walkover defeating the criminals, they were wrong. Determined and well armed, the criminals showed capacity and consistency and gave the military a good run for their fighting strength. So much has been said about the destruction wrought by the criminals and the heavy toll it has had on the nation. The criminals turned their guns on the military and so far it has been tragic for the soldiers and their families.
The Konshisha killings of soldiers is one too many. This is in addition to the plane crashes involving air force officers on support mission for troops fighting insurgency. Many of these soldiers are young with their life and future cut short and their families thrown into perpetual grief. The Nigerian Army remains one of the best fighting armies in the world. Our soldiers showed courage in the Congo in the early 1960s.
They were gallantry personified in Lebanon. They put Chadian soldiers to flight in the early 1980s. They restored peace to Liberia and Sierra Leone when world powers thought it was impossible. What then happened that the same army is becoming a mince meat?
What is afflicting the military toady is reflective of the character of the Nigerian state and its culture of deep seated corruption and inefficiency. We have been inundated with stories of how money meant for the purchase of arms were put on the table and shared like “dinner” and “supper”. The military has also become too ubiquitous in our daily lives that the citizens now see it as a nuisance. The appointment of commanders and army chiefs has also become politics instead of being about competence and capacity. The army has also behaved unprofessionally in many instances. Soldiers have invaded and destroyed communities in search of just one or two criminals. They have also serially violated human rights to the extent that a section of the populace loathes them. Some of their actions have been political and informed by ulterior motives. Just last year the Benue militia leader Gana was killed by soldiers on his way to accept a negotiated surrender. The army also has saboteurs within its rank and file that have continued to undermine the fight against criminality. The army has become victim. But this is not right. This is not good for Nigeria.
The military is about the only truly national institution that Nigeria has and it must not be destroyed. Who or what can save the military. Only the military can save itself. Those who overtly or covertly undermined the military are within it. They must look inward and hear the cry of the souls of their comrades at arms that have died in the ongoing senseless insurgency. They should know that one day the chicken would come to roost and they would become the victims of the order they instituted. Nigerians must do something, may be raise a monument to all the soldiers who have died in active service trying to restore peace to our fatherland. Nigeria must remember them.