I never really liked Soldiers. They were always too clean. Their uniforms were always too immaculate. Their boots were often so spotless you could make up your face while staring at them. For some people in the days of the dictatorship, those boots sometimes kicked their butts because some soldiers felt like stretching their legs.
It didn’t help that, as kids, even the baby soldiers kicked our collective butts at Independence Day and Children Day’s parades. We used to spend hours over several weeks practicing our marching steps and, even at our best: we knew we were competing for second best.
Those brats from Army Children School in Mokola in Ibadan always seem to move like robots. It was never a fair competition. I remember the first time another primary school won, the whole of Liberty Stadium erupted in cheers. We had beaten the common enemy. Until the next parade.
Growing up, I associated the army with everything that was wrong with life and Nigeria. All you had to do sometimes was step out of the house and you will some military men flogging motorists or asking hapless citizens to frog jump as if it was an Olympic sport trial. If you flipped through the newspapers, you were likely to read of military combats in distant lands with frightening casualty figures.
It didn’t help that in school you read about how the army killed your heroes in the first Republic and proceeded to engineer a civil war that killed hundred of thousands of Nigerians. It didn’t help that one of your earliest memories was of a certain General Muhammadu Buhari took over as Head of State and the sign of progress were long queues of people trying to buy rice and sugar because of some weird economic policy that only soldiers can dream up.
Then one day while working as a staffer on Capitol Hill, I happened to be at a Veterans Day event where I met a war veteran that looked like my age mate. He had lost a limb in the Gulf War and, apart from his stern mien, he didn’t show any bitterness. When you work in politics, you have to show a heart and that starts with knowing the people you serve. So, I got talking to the kid.
I wanted to know why he would do such a silly thing as joining a fighting force and going to war. He didn’t even blink or stutter when he responded that it was an honor to fight for his country and he would do it again. He melted my heart. It occurred to me that this kid was ready to lose his life so that liberal, anti-war, skirt-chasing, hard-partying propagandists like me can be safe in our cozy beds at home.
That day, I started looking at the rank and file of the military in a different light. I didn’t feel I owe them my life but I know they deserve my gratitude.
When I think of the military these days, I think a lot of the Nigerian army as they battle for the soul of the country. It must be a dire situation for an army that never expected to fight a war within Nigeria.
Yet, some Nigerians seem to revel in the advance of the insurgents, thinking it’s a cloud over Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency. It may be. But, this is not Jonathan’s Nigeria. It is our Nigeria. And, the only winners when we’re this divided are the enemies, namely Boko Haram.
The army deserves our praise, not condemnation. Yes, they run from the insurgents sometimes. But, they also do die keeping us together. Yes, they lack the wherewithal to fight an effective battle. But, do we know that when the Generals were in power they decided to strip the military of infrastructure, weapons and training so as to keep a tight leash on political power? Do our politicians know that every loss of life and acreage is not the President’s loss but Nigeria’s? Do we realize that one day Jonathan will cease to be President but we will still have Nigeria?
The Boko Haram warlords probably go to bed at night with the sounds of a section of the Nigerian media as lullaby. The media seem too eager to up one another in glorifying the dastardly act of the insurgents whose only contribution to Nigeria is mayhem. When you flip through the newspapers after another attack, you get a feeling that Boko Haram must have written paragraphs of the report. It’s worse on the social media. It feels like we celebrate the death of compatriots.
In all these, we seem to forget that the army is dying for the country. They put their lives on the line for a country that does not seem to appreciate them, a military command that doesn’t seem to have prepared them adequately for battle and a political leadership that sends mixed signals to the battlefield.
One day very soon, these long suffering men of the Nigerian army will win all of Nigeria again. We shouldn’t wait until that day to show them our gratitude. We should start now and everyday. They may be soldiers but they are Nigerian soldiers, fighting for Nigeria.