By Lasisi Olagunju
THE Boko Haram war has been on for eleven straight years. It will enter its 12th in 2021. As terrorists, everyday, shot at this young soldier and his comrades, he asked repeatedly why the insurgents were killing everybody in the North East. What is their mission? He was sure even many of the terrorists themselves had no answer to that question. They kill Muslims as they murder Christians; they attack mosques as they attack churches. So, how could this be a religious war? What really is this about? The answers are lost in space. As a student of literature, I know of art for art’s sake, I have never heard of killing for killing’s sake – in wholesale proportions, continuously for eleven years. This soldier joined the army in 2016 and was immediately posted, after training, to face fire in Nigeria’s corridor of hell. In the last week of June this year, he was on a two-week break from the war front. He decided to spend that period of rest with his parents in Iwo, Osun State. He told them stories of fiery flames of enemy fire, of misses and near-death experiences. His mother shivered at those tales of death and dying. She begged her son not to go back to that job. Son smiled and told mother that there was an offence called desertion. He would be guilty of that, he told her. Mother’s jaw dropped.
On July 5, 2020, his leave was over, he had to go back. The day before was a Friday, the mom was troubled; she decided to stay back at the Jumat mosque for more prayers. She had a special request to ask from God: Her son meant everything to her; he must not die. She prayed hard. Satisfied that God would answer those prayers of a mother, she went home calm. The following day, the soldier-son left home, bade dad and mom bye. Did they hear from their son again? They did. He called them that he arrived in Maiduguri safely; that was on July 6. Father and mother danced and thanked God for that grace of safe arrival. Then, the following day, a message came from the war front that there had been an ambush. What is an ambush? Husband and wife asked, looking at each other. The worst had happened; their son had died in that Boko Haram ambush. The sun had set at noon. Just like that? They looked at the chair he sat on two days earlier; they remembered his ‘amen’ to their parting prayers on his way out to what was now eternity. For the couple, the world just came to an end. You could read the bitter sobbing of Moshood Isamotu, that soldier’s cousin, as he wept on his Facebook wall on July 8, 2020 telling his story. “The slaying of Lekan brings to me the war of Boko Haram more than ever before,” he cried.
Such searing deaths occur almost daily. And they are not determined by rank. Colonel Kenneth Eze Elemele was last year the Chief of Staff of the 29 Taskforce Brigade based in Borno State. He was looking forward to his son’s passing out at the Airforce Secondary School, Iyana Offa, Ibadan, scheduled for Friday, July 19, 2019. On Wednesday, 17th, he was in transit from Damaturu to Maiduguri and got killed in a Boko Haram ambush alongside five other members of his team in the Jakana area of Borno State. Report said the Colonel from Omoku, Rivers State, left behind a wife and four kids, including a five-year-old son.
It is only dogs that bark in the forest and their cries are not heard at home. Fires, when they rage abroad, send their telltale home for the afflicted to wail over. There is a way in which troubles claim victims in far-flung places. For these two families and thousands of others with similar experiences, the Boko Haram war is more than a North East tragedy. This war has proven to be that proverbial tree which falls in the farm but kills the one sleeping at home. The unending disaster in Northern Nigeria is personal to every household that nurses such wounds which won’t ever heal. The Yoruba say “eni to kan lo mo (he who feels it, knows it).” Soldiers from the south and the north die in Borno almost daily because it is a war zone with a full complement of treachery. We rarely mourn the dead and acknowledge their sacrifices. I have friends’ friends and relations of friends fighting in that war. Every news of attack on troops there put us on edge. I check a soldier-friend’s WhatsApp profile daily for the time he last used the platform. A minute is a long time in the life of a soldier at the war front. It is that crazy, scary. Which is why I do not find funny Governor Babagana Zulum’s railing on soldiers last Monday. Zulum of Borno State said on national TV that the “Nigeria Army has failed us; they have failed in discharging their role of protecting commuters.” He said instead of protecting his people, soldiers and policemen were just “collecting money.” He was reacting to the killings and abduction that occurred along Maiduguri-Damaturu road two days earlier. The Nigerian Defence Headquarters fired back in defence of its troops. It said its men “are patriotic and focused on their call of duty.” You don’t think the altercation was needless, unfortunate?
Without these soldiers, warts and all, would there have been a governor in Maiduguri today? Even the governor knows the answer here is ‘No’ – particularly with Boko Haram forever stalking and eyeing the state capital. Soldiers, the dead and the living, are some people’s sons, brothers and fathers. We hear stories: the ground upon which our soldiers march in Borno scalds their feet with inexplicable treachery. It is awful and tragic that innocent civilians routinely suffer death and abduction in the north east. It is equally sad, bad, and unfortunate that the governor thought the solution to repeated terrorist attacks on his people was ‘barrel bomb’ incitement of the population against soldiers. The same governor who said that soldiers had failed his people forgot that a few days earlier he announced that his people’s security under the Buhari administration had been excellent – unlike under Jonathan. Evincing such swinging judgements and opinions has consequences. The Goodluck Jonathan online forces promptly took him on. One of them renamed him ‘Pendulum Zulum.’ You know when under the influence of gravity, a pendulum swings, oscillating back and forth. Moving from one extreme to another is never a problem for pendulums, they do it with pleasure. But why? Zulum had, before this event, been stellar in performance. He must have learnt his lessons now. An elder’s word should not lock all doors, it should always leave the right door open.
Soldiers are candles in the wind – precarious, vulnerable. ‘The Honorable Absurdity of the Soldier’s Role’ is a 2003 essay by American journalist, William Pfaff. He said the soldier’s lot in life “is inherently and voluntarily a tragic role, an undertaking to offer one’s life, and to assume the right to take the lives of others.” A sensible, intelligent soldier, he said, “recognizes that the two undertakings are connected. His warrant to kill is integrally related to his willingness to die.” Which is why you hear Nigerian soldiers swear at their commission to die on land, in the air and at sea. They know and live this; their loved ones signed off on this lurking fate too. Now, when you have people who work under such conditions of “unlimited liability,” do you give them empathy or the opposite of love? When a leader publicly condemns his troops mid-battle, he strengthens the enemy. Boko Haram probably celebrated that unfortunate rant of the governor of Borno State.
I am not saying Nigerian soldiers are excellent in conduct at all times. No human is. Of course, we cannot forget Lekki and the unresolved issues of shooting and killings. My position is that errant, aberrant soldiers at the war front should be taken care of professionally without rupturing the tendons of people/troops unity – and amity. To win the Boko Haram war, the people must have confidence in the security forces. The fighting forces deserve everybody’s thanks and respect. The troops too must see the people’s safety as the reason for their commission. But all these cannot happen where troops are wantonly ridiculed by government officials who rarely speak out against terrorists. The nature of war, throughout history, requires that soldiers fight it. Borno’s voodoo hunters cannot help Borno people at the hands of well armed terrorists. Sensible nations equip soldiers with morale and weapons. The alternative is to replace our sovereignty with a reign of militias. That bend, being gradually taken as I write, is quickening the national descent to failure. We are making the choice already.
The Boko Haram war has been on for eleven straight years. Will it ever end? It will end only when the people of that region say enough. Thousands have perished; millions displaced. Two years ago, the United Nations said the war had displaced 2.4 million people in the North East of Nigeria and made 7.2 million people in the Lake Chad Basin region food insecure. It is strange that all these have not taught that zone to stop collaborating with demons. Reports of collusion with terrorists by locals are unceasing. The situation remains bad. The people wreaking the havoc there are not aliens from space. They are humans birthed and nurtured by that same environment of death and treachery. Where are their parents in all these? Or is it that the place lacks elders, a well without water? There is no hope the war will ever end. This is a pessimism I hinge on the choices that North East people make daily. They have refused to realize that the war is essentially theirs. If the flood of this war finally washes off that region, home and farm, they do not know they are the ones that would be sun-dried naked. At dusk, survivor troops from the south will go back home. Others from other places outside the North East will also go to their home as undying old soldiers. They will tell their children about a strange people in North Eastern Nigeria who loved terrorists more than they did soldiers biting the bullets to secure them.
We live in a very precarious world. Not everyone who will shout ‘Happy New Year’ on January 1 will see December 31, 2021. Thousands who have fallen so far celebrated the dawn of 2020 on the first day of the year. Boko Haram terrorists, bandits, armed robbers, kidnappers aborted the survival dreams and wishes of many; COVID-19 and its economic sorties also poured in their troops for a devastating mop up. It has been a horrible year that demands very sober reflections. We should not be heard insulting the memories of the dead with indecent, indecorous outbursts. If 2020 has been a year of howling of battle, the winking 2021 should be of victory songs. May the New Year be of success and celebration for us all. May we not be hard-pressed to do what Pastor Tunde Bakare did last week, taking the Biblical Samson option of pulling down the citadel on his head and on the head of his object. 2021 will heal and rebuild all of us.
Happy New Year. Compliments of the season.
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