Lie-gerian Army’s 1000 Unmarked Graves, By Festus Adedayo
Bankole Folorunso Adedayo was my blood brother. Born in 1973, he was a soldier of the 1 Brigade, Nigerian Army, Sokoto. In 2000, a terse posted letter arrived the News Room of the ANN Plc., publishers of the Tribune newspaper, my erstwhile employer, from his own employer. That letter shattered the walls and world of my family. Bankole had been killed in the thick of fighting in the Sierra Leonean war, so said the letter to me, his next of kin. Till now, that terse 2-paragraph omnibus letter is all that has transpired between our family and the Nigerian Army, 19 years after he died on Nigeria’s assignment. The date he died, how he died, his corpse and all that are swallowed in the bowels of the Nigerian Army. Nothing can be more painful than knowing that the Nigerian Army reduced my beloved brother to a one-paragraph letter.
A few days back, the highly influential Wall Street Journal caused a furore when it alleged that over 1000 soldiers like Bankole were recently secretly buried at night in unmarked graves at the Maimalari barracks, Maiduguri. If you are one of the defenders of our Defence Headquarters and ipso facto rubbishing the report because you are a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or All Progressives Congress (APC) faithful, draw your chair closer and let us talk. I have walked that painful path before. I have seen the irresponsibility of the Nigerian Army at its rawest and I am entitled to suspect that, all things being equal, the WSJ report is very true. The report brought back afresh the wound in the heart of our family and its painful cicatrices. You can imagine millions of families secretly sobbing at the avoidable deaths of their loved ones who strayed into the Nigerian Army either out of love, joblessness or patriotism.
Bankole had joined the Army barely a year before. Jobless after school, I was shocked one day when, upon arrival at home, I heard that he had enlisted and had been posted to Sokoto. Less than six months of his joining the Army, a letter arrived from him. With no training and no experience, the 27-year old was right inside a forest beside Freetown where a military jet which airlifted him and his rookie compatriots had dropped them. They were in the forest for about a month, feeding on raw cassava and fruits. No food, no water. When the Nigerian soldiers eventually entered Freetown, he called me fairly regularly on Tribune’s telephone number to ask us to pray for him. I broke down one day when he was talking to me and, in the background, I heard rat-a-tat volleys of guns. We were glad when, a few months after, he came home, dressed in the green overall uniform of the Nigerian Army. He was proud of it. He had taken excuse duty from Freetown. He regaled us with grisly stories of how hundreds of his colleagues were killed by Foday Sankoh and another rebel commander called General Mosquitoes. He returned to Sierra Leone two weeks after. And that was the last we ever saw of him. Or his remains.
Death blew vuvuzela in my father’s compound and all its emissaries – sorrow, tears, wailing and agony – converged to hold their dreadful meeting on its soil. It became their temporary place of domicile. Sure they had got another colony to temporarily occupy, they sat regally like a royal bard who had come to pay the village bridegroom a surprise visit. Residents, passersby and the entire neighborhood knew we had been visited by strange guests who served us grisly dinner of tears, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Those who could roll on the floor did without a care in the world; those whose modus operandi of acknowledging the thorny handshake of our uninvited guests was to wail, wailed like a sparrow whose child had just been shot dead by a slingshot. You didn’t need anyone to tell you death had given us the bitter end of meadows to chew.
A few hours earlier, I had arrived my father’s compound in Akure, from Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, with a piece of news for my father and mother. For hours, agreeing on the mode of its delivery turned me into an effeminate little urchin. I had to plead with his elder sisters to help break the news of the child he loved most to him, killed by a Nigeria that bothered seldom about her children.
The Nigerian Army, with that eerie, blood-red logo of its of a diffident eagle perching on a crest like a bird of passage, had just sent me by post a letter which shot sorrow coursing deep down into my marrows. My younger brother, the terse and incorrigibly unsympathetic two-paragraph letter had volunteered, had been missing in action in the Sierra-Leonean war. It broke the boundaries of my English Language mastery. What did the English mean to say someone was missing in action? I asked restlessly, amid a pall of sorrow that enveloped me. Some said ‘Missing in Action’ was an euphemism for my brother having died; others said he had probably gone AWOL and some others said the Nigerian Army, incompetent like everything Nigerian, probably couldn’t find him in a few weeks and concluded that he was missing. I put a call to his Sokoto Army base and a colonel spoke with me. Ambivalence was the echo that I heard ring in my ears. So, dejected, emotionally calibrated, I had come to hand over the terse letter to my parents about the death of a child they couldn’t hide the fact that, in his lifetime, he was one they loved most of my siblings and me. That was the last interface between the Nigerian Army and us – Bankole’s family. No commiseration, no dime as payment or allowance for his martyrdom; not even the ‘honour’ of ever seeing, perhaps, his mutilated corpse. And my father never recovered from this loss, until he joined his boy about nine years after.
When I read the WSJ expose, I imagined how that ululating, tearful dirge that heralded the most sorrowful, most traumatic day ever in the life of my extended family some years back, had been amateurishly cloned and played in thousand homes across Nigeria. WSJ, writing in a very descriptive, difficult-to-disbelieve prose, clearly articulated the peremptoriness, the casual murder of our sons and daughters in a war which the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, General Muhammadu Buhari, had off-handedly dismissed as having been won by Nigeria. A war he collected $1billion of our common patrimony on, allegedly to procure armaments. Even if you are as unfeeling as to be able to crush the head of a tortoise with your teeth, you should by now be weeping for Nigeria.
“The sprawling secret graveyard in Maiduguri and an official cemetery at the base, the operational command for the north-eastern front in Borno State, now hold the bodies of at least 1,000 soldiers killed since the terror groups began an offensive last summer,” the WSJ had written. The well-respected newspaper, quoted soldiers, diplomats and senior government officials who said that soldiers’ corpses were surreptitiously transported in trucks from a local mortuary at the dead of the night and hurled into “trenches dug by infantrymen or local villagers paid a few dollars per shift…(at the) Maimalari barracks.”
I wonder what the Army thought of the morale of living soldiers who it recruited to drag corpses of their fallen colleagues to their miserable graves at night. The Yoruba among them, as they dragged the corpses into the makeshift graves, would remember the saying of their elders, to wit that he who would bury his elder brother naked should remember to take his younger brother along. He will surely bury him naked too. If the Army could give their fallen colleagues this miserable farewell, who says theirs won’t be more miserable? So, why do we look too far off for answer to the “insufficient willingness to perform tasks” allegation from General Tukur Buratai against Nigerian troops in the war when the troops all know that the empty armaments, analogue armory of the Army, against the sophisticated weaponry of Boko Haram would sooner than later make others drag their own corpses into miserable graves like these too?
WSJ reported a deceased soldier’s wife, Mercy, whose husband, Lance Cpl. Tamuno, had been killed by Boko Haram terrorists at an outpost in Cross Kauwa, about 100 miles north of Maiduguri, who stubbornly demanded to see the grave of her husband. “She was taken to the official cemetery at Maimalari, where graves are marked with plywood headstones. There, she was led to a spot marked with a plastic bottle with her husband’s name written on it,” said the report. She told WSJ: “It was the only one marked in this way. I’m not sure it was his grave but that’s what the army told me.” Tamuno’s soldier mates from his unit reportedly said he had been buried days earlier in the secret graveyard.
Not having the capacity to disappoint its greatest critics, the Nigerian Army rolled in its familiar Armored Tank of phantasm. I have read the release from the Acting Director, Defence Information, Col. Onyema Nwachukwu and nowhere was there a denial of the alleged 1000-plus soldier casualties. The Army was more bothered about a pitiable relic of British bequeathal of giving dead soldiers befitting ceremonial funeral, a bequeathal which it said it still upholds.
“The Defence Headquarters has noted with dismay an article purporting that the Nigerian military maintains secret graveyards in the North-East theatre of operation. The armed forces of Nigeria have a rich and solemn tradition for the interment of our fallen heroes. Therefore, it must be unambiguously clarified that the Armed Forces do not indulge in secret burials, as it is sacrilegious and a profanity to the extant ethos and traditions of the Nigerian military,” was all the Army could volunteer.
A couple of years ago, I had been on an intra-United States flight from Baltimore to Denver Colorado, en-route Sacramento and was awed at the veneration by America for her young soldiers wearing the US Army operational camouflage attires, their rucksacks hunchbacked. Their presence was announced as soldiers fighting in one of the wars abroad. Their disembarking from the flight was given priority as a matter of course and even mid-flight, the Captain announced that the airline was delighted to have them on board. Here in Nigeria, we drag our soldiers’ corpses to their makeshift graves by the bloodied scruffs of their trousers.
Between WSJ and the Nigerian Army, Nigerians know whose averment to believe and whose, ab-initio, is prone to lies. The Nigerian establishment lives a life of abysmal lie-telling, its daily activities riddled with reeling out tissues of untruth and falsehood to its constituents. If, in 1914, Clara Shaw had an inkling of today’s Nigerian Army, she should have conveniently and aptly christened Nigeria, Liegeria. Conduct opinion polls on people’s perception of their government and you would find out that Nigerians who believe that their governments live a life of lie are about 99 per cent. President Buhari, Army chiefs and erstwhile Minister of Information, (the latter curiously said recently that he was surprised his grandchild demanded the ontology of the inflection of Lie from his Lai name!) had all told us that Boko Haram insurgents had been “technically” defeated. Exactly a week ago today, selfsame Boko Haram insurgents opened fire on a funeral on the outskirts of this same Maiduguri, and at least 65 people, according to a conservative estimate, were killed. Hundreds of such routs with astoundingly eerie fatalities are daily shrouded off our views. The victims are secretly buried and their families mourn their losses alone. The Generals smile to the bank instead. Some children can never get it right again in life as a result of these losses. Yet, Army Generals feed fat on their corpses like toads of war. WSJ further revealed that “the insurgents now control hundreds of square miles of territory across four countries around the Lake Chad basin…” yet Buhari and his army claim that not even a parcel of the Nigerian territory is in the hands of the accursed blood-suckers.
The believability of WSJ claims is strengthened by empirical evidence that can be corroborated by science, decades of news integrity and logical sequence of how the news medium must have arrived at its claims. On the reverse, the Nigerian Army’s only tissue of rebuttal – if one can access its thought process – is, that weather-beaten imperial thesis of subtle subjugation of Africa, decades after the end of colonialism. Shortly after independence, we came to find out, to our chagrin, that that hogwash won’t wash any longer; that our greatest threats are actually the imperialists within. One of the imperialists is the platoon of multiple-epaulettes military officers with big fat stomachs – apologies to Fela Anikulapo Kuti – and their abettors in Government Houses. So, no imperial forces are behind WSJ story. It is journalism, simplicita.
Chief among the loci of information-gathering mechanism for White House, 10 Downing Street and other world capitals about occurrences in the Third World are donor agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations. Western governments fund them heavily. They penetrate nooks and crannies of government, agencies and parastatals to funnel out information which are sent to their home countries. They have access to sophisticated monitoring equipment. More importantly, the agencies identify critical, but most times disgruntled actors who supply them information at nocturnes. They get information of dalliances between top military officers and the insurgents through which the insurgents get critical information with which they launch their offensives. They get information that fat-stomached military officers, in cahoots with officials of government, sit on billions of naira meant to buy military hardware, thereby subjecting fighting soldiers to needless hara-kiri in the hands of well-equipped insurgents. In its lazy rebellion against this sustained system, the Nigerian Army attempts to fight the agencies which have been able to, in the last decade of the metastasis of the Boko Haram insurgency, funnel damaging and critical information out which landed on the laps of decision-makers of the world. For a Nigerian Army whose operations are garnished with crude inhumanity of man towards his fellow man, allegation of imperial poke-nose is always an alibi whenever its inhuman records become subject of global scrutiny.
In 2018, Brigadier General Sani Usman Kuka, the Army spokesman, issued a statement laced with a charge against Amnesty International (AI’s) operations in the Northeast, particularly in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram. In another statement signed by Sani Kukasheka Usman, Brigadier General and Director Army Public Relations on December 17, 2018, the Army accused “hitherto well respected” Amnesty International of having “deviated from the core values, principles and objectives of the original Amnesty International domiciled in the United Kingdom.” It claimed that it had “credible information that the Nigerian branch… is determined to destabilize the Nigerian nation… through fabrication of fictitious allegations of alleged human rights abuses against the Nigerian security forces and clandestine sponsorship of dissident groups to protest, as well as unfounded allegations against the leadership of the Nigerian military.” It went further to say that AI had “tried over the years using Boko Haram terrorist conflicts, Islamic Movement in Nigeria, some activists and now herders-farmers conflicts” and that the NGO was “at the verge of releasing yet another concocted report against the military, ostensibly against the Nigerian Army.” It thus said it had “no option than to call for the closure of Amnesty International offices in Nigeria.” The Army therefore ordered AI to leave the country. On Friday, December 14, the Army equally accused UNICEF of training Boko Haram spies in the Northeast and briefly suspended its operations. It had to reverse itself when outcries the world over literally threatened to drown Aso Rock Villa. A few days ago, your-guess-is-good-as-mine gathered some apparently paid protesters to demand that AI should leave Nigeria.
As if responding to the stimuli of violence across the country that is mounting by the day, at the tail end of last week, five pastors of the Redeemed Christian Church of God were abducted by kidnappers, prompting the church’s G. O, E. A. Adeboye, to confess that he had never witnessed this level of insecurity in Nigeria. As my pen was drifting to a close on this paper, the pastors were said to have been rescued. And to those who say that some of us who write about Fulani herdsmen being the culprits of the kidnapping in the South were concocting lies, one of the pastors kidnapped but released, Mrs Ibelegbo Chidinma, openly testified at the Redemption Camp on Saturday that those who kidnapped them were Fulani herdsmen. Yet, a top pastor of that same church who is Nigeria’s Vice President, was on a visit to the United States a few months back where he told America that the stories of violence and kidnap in Nigeria were over-bloated. Unfortunately for the VP, the American power apparatchik that he was bayoneting with such volleys of lies is in possession of the minutest details of avoidable killings that have become hourly occurrences in Nigeria. These are kidnaps and killings which Yemi Osinbajo and his boss were either too busy to reckon with, too insouciant to know the values of lives under their watch, or were too engrossed with the fripperies of power to bother about. If not that God is capable of making mockery of those who give false witnesses, hiding behind the veneer of His name, why would God choose the Redeemed Church of all places, where Osinbajo is or was pastor, to mock his false claim this globally?
May the souls of Bankole, the thousand secretly buried in the graveyards of Maimalari Military Barracks in Maiduguri and the other cemeteries in the North East, find peace with their Creator. May God give the Lie-gerian Army, its C-in-C and their commissars of lies the humility of spirit to acknowledge that, in Boko Haram of the Northeast, bandits of the Northwest and herdsmen terrorists of the South, mixed with their own gross ineptitude, eerie silence, abetment of the villains and morbid incapacity, they have turned our lands into burial fields.
Festus Adedayo is an Ibadan-based journalist.