Why our military deserve appreciation

Nigerian military troops salute Nigeria’s President during his visit to troops on front lines of Boko Haram conflict, on November 28, 2018, in Maiduguri as part of a military staff annual conference. – Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari urged troops to show more commitment in fighting Boko Haram despite scores of losses in a recent assault as he visited the key northeastern city of Maiduguri. (Photo by Audu MARTE / AFP)

Have you ever given a thought to this—that for sleeping peacefully in your home, someone is in the dark forests taking the bullets for your sake? Has it ever occurred to you that dead at night, while you cuddle your loved ones, fighter jets are up in the skies circling the enemies’ camp and taking them out so that they won’t come near you? In the course of this, the terrorists called Boko Haram—and their collaborators from other countries—are firing deadly anti-aircraft missiles and bringing down the aircraft and their occupants in flames. What could be more risky!

What thoughts have you ever spared for the families of those who have sacrificed their lives in the service of this country—the people usually called the fallen soldiers? These questions are necessary because it amounts to a mere diversionary illusion for anyone to assume that for every fallen soldier, it is the responsibility of government to cater for their families. It is a mere self deceit and a great unpatriotic act to look the other way in times of war instead of asking the ultimate question, which is ‘how can I appreciate our men in uniform?’ War is not a government affair. War is declared, fought and sustained by the citizens.

To many Nigerians—depending on where they live—the war against Boko Haram is a mere distant cry. It is not real because they are far from where it is happening. They only read about it in the newspapers and even change the channels of their television sets whenever the news about it is broadcast. It is common to hear someone remark, ‘I don’t like seeing blood.’ The question is,’ what have you done to stop the blood from flowing?’ Since they are far from the war theatre, they have not seen corpses litter the streets. They have not seen houses burnt. They have not heard earth-shaking explosion of killer bombs. They have not lost any loved one to the war.

You do not need to experience any or all of these to appreciate the cost of this war. People have died—innocent people whose only offence is to be found at the right place at the wrong time. Our men and women in uniform—the army, navy and air force personnel—have sacrificed their lives for your sake and for my sake. They have left young wives and young children behind. Some have married without a honeymoon. Others have children born to them the very day they were killed by the enemies. Some have left aged parents behind—parents who looked up to them for a living. Let truth be told, we are all victims of this war.

Let me tell you a short story that should prick your heart the same way it brought tears to my eyes. It happened on Tuesday January 8, 2019. Venue was the Military Cemetery, Karmajiji in Abuja. It was an emotional platform. Suddenly, a sound like that of trumpet was heard. Some well-dressed military personnel, moving in precise, rehearsed steps, walked into the open space. Placed on their shoulders—and carried with dignity—were five coffins decorated in the national colour of green-white-green. A few minutes later, the five coffins were arranged on wooden tables as the soldiers stepped backward, awaiting further instructions.

Inside those coffins were people who were alive a few days earlier. They did not commit suicide. They were not killed for committing any criminal offence. They got slaughtered by the enemy while defending this country and shielding you and I from harm. They walked into harm’s way so that we can dwell in safety. This is what the men and officers of the Nigerian military have passed through—not just in recent years—but since the emergence of the terrorist group called Boko Haram. Soldiers march off to war only to return in body bags.

At the cemetery, dozens of sympathisers with tear-wearied eyes watched in silence as the military ceremony for the burial of the heroes unfolded. Captured in the emotion-laden crowd were wives, parents and family members of the men in the coffins. Then streams of tears started pouring as discordant sounds of agony came from the crowd. The anguish of losing loved ones was becoming unbearable. From the crowd, you could sense the thoughts and feelings of aged parents, young wives, and that ignorant child who could not understand why daddy should be in a coffin instead of tossing him in the air and catching him midway.

Six days earlier, while everyone was still in celebration mood, welcoming the New Year with food and drinks in their homes and at recreation centres, five young men, trained to stand in harm’s way, boarded a military helicopter—Mi-35M—loaded with sophisticated arms and ammunitions and got lifted into the cloud. They were members of the fighting squad of the Nigerian Air Force. One of them was said to have married just a few days earlier. He was not allowed the luxury of a honeymoon. At the time he was carried in a coffin into the cemetery that day, his wife was barely a month pregnant.

The mission of these young combatants was to provide close-range air support to the ground troops of 145 Battalion, Damasak in Borno State who were on a mission to confront the terrorists. Somehow, things did not happen as planned. The enemies struck mercilessly and the killer hawk came crashing in flames. The following died: Flight-Lieutenant Perowei Jacob—Pilot in Command; Flight-Lieutenant Kaltho Paul Kilyofas—Co-Pilot; Sergeant Auwal Ibrahim—Flight Technician; Lance Corporal Adamu Nura—Gunner and Aircraftman Meshack Ishmael—Gunner.

These were young men in their prime. Today, they are no more. Permit me to paraphrase the words of the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Abubakar, who said that while we mourn the death of our departed heroes and courageous Nigerians, we must also be thankful to God that such men lived. In their last moments, these heroes showed courage, diligence and unparalleled commitment to pursue the terrorists’ vehicles and fight them to finish so that the lives of our soldiers of 145 Battalion Damasak—and indeed your life and mine—could be preserved. We should ever remain thankful to God for giving these men to us. They demonstrated patriotism in their service to their fatherland.

These gallant heroes saw death coming to them but they were mindful of yours and my safety. They lost their lives in the pursuit of peace which we all enjoy and often take for granted. As Abubakar noted, “The loss of these courageous and professional gentlemen must spur the rest of us not only to rededicate ourselves in the service of our nation, but also to resolve that we expose and fight all agents of destabilization and extremism in our society. We must throw in everything we have to this fight to ensure that our departed colleagues did not die in vain. We must do everything possible to bring the ongoing insurgency in the North East to a speedy end that is favourable to our nation.”

Nigeria was inside that chopper. You and I were there. We the citizens—represented by the five brave soldiers—were there. They fought on our behalf. They faced death with our collective courage. They refused to give up because they considered us more than themselves. They kept fighting in the face of death. They died and we live. While we cannot bring them back to life, while we cry and mourn their sudden departure, while we still wish they were alive, their families—which by extension are now our families—still live. They face each passing day in agony. Their breadwinners have sacrificed their lives on our behalf, it’s time we translate our grief into care for them.

As I reflected on this, I had a call from a beloved friend, Wapinu Ndule. We got talking about Nigeria and she made some startling statements: “Is this country still worth dying for? I cannot understand why I still sing the national anthem because it breaks my heart to repeat without proof that the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain. I do not think so. I have lost a lot of friends—even a soldier uncle. Just imagine this ongoing war against Boko Haram. Our soldiers die daily. Their families are left at the mercy of lonely suffering. Their children have become orphans without hopes. Their wives and aged parents are groaning in pains of poverty. Where is our sense of brotherhood?”

Those words broke my heart—that the widows and children and parents of these fallen heroes are left at the mercy of lonely suffering. It is followed by that rhetorical question—where is our sense of brotherhood? If we ever needed to demonstrate our sense of brotherhood—something that is very traditional in the African culture—now is the time. Now is the time to stand up and be counted. To every Nigerian, the labour of our heroes past must not be in vain. We must rise as ‘one nation bound in freedom’ in support of our men women in uniform. Let us show the bereaved families that we care.
See the remaining part of this article on www.guardian.ng
Akpe is Abuja-based journalist

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