Does Shiroro fallen soldiers’ blood matter?

Festus Adedayo

(Published by the Sunday Tribune, August 20, 2023)

When death became ubiquitous and cheap as air, afflicting the young and the old in their scores, Yoruba of old said it had become three-for-a-penny. There was what they called iyo olo’kan (one-penny salt). Ookan was a penny and the least of the denominations of the money of the time. A mound of salt was sold for a penny. Death that harvested people in their prime, unannounced, they also likened to creepy, parasitic mistletoe – afomo. It is a leathery-leaved parasitic plant which grows on apple, oak, and other broadleaf trees in the forest and also sticks to trees, either of cocoa or kolanut. Farmers watch out for an afomo on their crash crops because, the moment a tree gets infested with it, it is on its way to barrenness. While the mistletoe has no root of its own, it bores roots inside the trunk of its host and starves the tree of nutrients.

Afomo, however, has a dual usage. In refrains of chants for mercy and favour, afomo is a regular. It is chanted to remind the universe that all trees of the forest, including palm trees, have mercy on the mistletoe – ti’gi t’ope ni s’anu afomo. They also chant that the mistletoe has no roots but has every tree as its kindred (afomo o ni gbongbo, igi gbogbo ni ba tan). Wherever you see the afomo, it is a bloodsucking leech. That is what death has become in this land; it puts its hideous cap on the young, the old, male and female while those put in charge of lives of the people dance on unconcerned.

Last week, on August 14 and 15 respectively, like an afomo or, if you like, in the surreptitious manner of a wolf, men of terror crept into the Nigerian and Nigerien military forces. By the time they were done piercing their maniacal incisors into the raw flesh of soldiers of both countries, caked blood, mangled flesh, weeping and wailing were left in their trails. Terrorists and bandits literally washed their bloodsucking hands with the gallant blood of patriotic soldiers. The Nigerian soldiers were killed in two attacks. The first was in an ambush around Kundu village in the Shiroro local government area of Niger state and the second, the downing of a Nigerian Air Force MI-171 helicopter on a casualty evacuation mission near Chukuba village in same Shiroro local council area. While the Nigerian Defence spokesman, Major-General Edward Buba, itemized fatalities recorded in the attacks to include three officers and 22 soldiers, with seven wounded, foreign news agencies said the casualties were “at least, 36.” The downed Air Force Mi-171 helicopter killed all occupants on board which included 14 officers and men, inclusive of two pilots and two crew members. The number also factored into it bodies of those earlier killed in action in the earlier operation. If the afomo must cling to every tree of the forest, must it weave its parasitic self round well-tended trees as well?

A day after the Nigerian attack, at least 17 Nigerien soldiers were also killed in an attack said to have been masterminded by armed groups at a place near the Nigerien border with Mali. A detachment of the Nigerien Armed Forces (FAN) roving between Boni and Torodi was ambushed near the town of Koutougou, 52km southwest of Torodi by a deadly band of terrorists. Twenty of the soldiers were mortally injured and eventually evacuated to Niamey, the capital. The Nigerien army however said it “neutralized” more than 100 assailants as they retreated from where they inflicted sorrow, tears and blood on Niger. This particular area, which is the border area, a convergence point for central Mali, northern Burkina Faso and western Niger, had been noted to be an epicenter of violence by armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) in the Sahel region. This repeated bloodshed has provoked anger in the Sahel, fuelling military takeovers in three African countries of the Sahel since 2020. Niger Republic is the latest casualty of this military takeover as the coup which ousted President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26 was attributed to the growing insecurity in the country.

On a national television last week, Edward Gabkwet, Air Commodore and Director of Public Relations and Information of the Nigerian Air Force, was contrite at the thought of wastages of the lives of his military colleagues. In his defence of the Nigerian army however, he made it look as if death was a regular afomo for soldiers that required no societal hoopla. Which should not be. In a release he issued thereafter, entitled We will not give in to terrorists’ propaganda, Gabkwet said, “like all military organizations involved in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, incidences of fatalities, mishaps and crashes are sometimes inevitable.”

The Nigerian Army has struggled to defoliate the gravity of the Shiroro attacks. Both Gabkwet and Buba, deploying all euphemistic equivalents available to them, have attempted to mis-tag the downing of the military helicopter as a crash due ostensibly to foggy weather. This must be in apparent deference to patriotism. Two military sources however told Reuters that the Air Force helicopter was most likely brought down “after gang members shot at it.”Abdullahi Abubakar, a renowned terrorist who is also popularly known as Dogo Gide, later claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter. In a viral video, he said, “By God’s grace, this is what we will be showing you. These are dead bodies of Nigerian soldiers that attacked us with the aim of killing us. They wanted to kill Dogo Gide. But Dogo Gide by God’s grace is still alive and he will not die (by soldiers’ bullets). These are soldiers lying on the ground. Look at them…and their helicopter lying wasted. I want you people to repent because we don’t have any problem with anyone. We’ll not kill anyone except those who plan to attack us.”

It will be recalled that in the last two years, especially under former president Muhammadu Buhari, bloodsucking gangs of heavily armed men called bandits, terrorists or other synonyms, have wreaked irreparable havocs on Nigeria’s northwest. They kidnapped Nigerians in their thousands, killed hundreds and rendered life unlivable in that part of Nigeria. Forget the bally-ho and muscle-flexing, attacks coordinated by gangs, especially the deadly ones who are locally referred to as bandits, have seemed to confound Nigeria’s security forces. The frightening number of casualties recorded in the process will appear to daily test the brawns and resolve of Nigerian soldiers to the limits. In August 2019, highly influential The Wall Street Journal had alleged that, on the eve of Buhari’s visit to Borno State, over 1,000 soldiers massacred by insurgents were secretly interred at a secret cemetery in Maimalari Barracks, Maiduguri. They were suspected bodies of soldiers killed in a then recent attack on the Melete barracks. The journal quoted military sources, some of whom said, “They moved the bodies from the morgue into the unmarked graves under cover of darkness… We could see the headlamps and the torches of the engineering division digging the graves.” While the Nigerian Army flatly denied this allegation, many families who were secretly contacted were said to have exploded in cries and anguish.

In the last few years, it has been the lot of Nigerian soldiers to ceaselessly tackle violent, deadly herder-farmer crisis in the north central. This includes a 13-year old interminable insurgency waged against the Islamist groups of Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the northwest. Added to all these is the spate of general insecurity in the southwest and the blood-baiting nuisance of Unknown Gunmen in the southeast.

As the menace of insecurity has become a common security decimal in Nigeria, it stands to reason that Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) must naturally elude Nigeria. In a report by the Punch newspaper last week, at least 77 percent of both North-Central and North-West states are today struggling with low revenue, poor foreign investments and huge debt profiles occasioned by incidences of banditry. The states are Zamfara, Katsina, Niger, Plateau, Kano, Jigawa, Kebbi, Nasarawa, Sokoto and Kaduna. The paucity IGR in those states has resulted in their entering the unenviable foyer of states that can seldom survive without federal allocations, said Punch. In the last two years, the states had borrowed over 12 times more than they earned. As no investor takes their wealth to volatile places, the report’s finding was that “at least 60 percent of both North-Central and North-West states did not attract any foreign investments in two years due to the rising cases of banditry.”

With the above as backcloth, it was anticipated that President Bola Tinubu, while nominating his cabinet ministers, would properly factor into the nomination the prime place of a secure Nigeria. The connect between security and investment has been said to be immeasurable. Those who would man Nigerian state security architecture were thought to be men who would be above the vagaries of politics. But Muhammed Badaru and Bello Matawalle were all we got as Ministers of Defence nominees.

While many an appointee has perforated the thesis of pure professionalism as answer to the drudgery and underperformance in public office, no one has been able to render redundant the place of experience in public office performance. It reminds me of the Tapa tribe and its estimation of the potency of unorthodox medicine. The Nupe, traditionally known as the Nupawa by Hausa and Tapa by the Yoruba due to an ancestry they both share (this was where the legendary Oba Sango’s mother reportedly hailed from) are an ethnic group dominant in Niger and Kwara states. When a local herbal medical practitioner flaunts the efficacy and healing powers of their phial in the presence of a Tapa, they ask if the practitioner had suffered from the ailment they profess to heal and, was it the same medicine that let them off the hook? It is a medicinal philosophy that harps on practice.

Badaru’s Jigawa, as governor, was one of the most volatile states in the northwest. Same is Matawalle’s Zamfara. Like most of the states in the region, both states convulsed under attacks by gunmen, known locally as bandits. Bandits’ subjects of attacks in those states were mainly rural communities and travelers. Thousands of people were killed while abduction was one of the notorious manifestations of the absence of authority in the states. Zamfara, for instance, faced one of the worst kidnap-for-ransom syndicates in the history of Nigeria under Matawalle, resulting in the kidnap of 29 phone repairers last year. Under him, Zamfara was a lawless haven for bandits where life was a replica of the Hobbesian brutish, nasty and short life. So, how did the duo of Badaru and Matawalle, the physicians who could not satisfy a Tapa’s practical quest for self-healing, by healing themselves, heal Nigeria’s insecurity?

Between the two countries of Nigeria and Niger Republic, they lost over 50 soldiers to attackers last week. While the governmental and military elites of the two countries see figures in those fallen soldiers, their families see breadwinners, fathers and children whose lives were cut in their prime. In the homes of those fallen soldiers, melancholy must have been an unwelcomed guest which forced itself in at dinner time. Many of the children of the fallen soldiers may never be the same again, with several destinies forced to make u-turns and emergency fatal landings.

Decision-makers should not make death the peremptory afomo that clings to patriotic and gallant soldiers at will. Doing this will necessitate adequately equipping soldiers to confront enemies of the people, as well as making wars only last resorts. Nigeria has fought so many wars in Africa and beyond and came out garlanded. In Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Somalia, Darfur and many other wars, Nigerian soldiers emerged with garlands and encomiums. To now imagine that same soldiers are now expendable in the hands of poorly trained local bandits and insurgents is a matter for concern. As Gabkwet said, indeed soldiering involves counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations and soldiers, by that very fact, will always record incidences of fatalities, mishaps and crashes that will cling to them like afomo. However, casualties can be minimized and soldiering should not necessarily be a death sentence.

Each time a soldier falls, I imagine the cataclysm that befalls their homes. I have witnessed it and speak from experience. When ECOWAS flexed muscles about the D-Day for Niger war on Friday, I wonder how many of those leaders’ children will lead the battalions of fighters. It is an avoidable war and for the sake of all mothers, just as they do in recitation of incantations, let us all chant to ask that ECOWAS leaders, as afomo mercifully embraces all trees of the forest, have mercy on mothers of soldiers in those West African countries as ti’gi t’ope ni s’anu afomo. The alternative is to have Bola Tinubu, Faure Gnassingbé, Nana Akufo-Addo and other West African leaders’ children lead the platoons to war. If the leaders do this, they will feel the pinches, the midnight sleeplessness, the worries, the nightmares that mothers of soldiers at war go through. And eventually, the indescribable pain families feel each time their sons are plucked in their infancies. This is not to talk of the eternal latex – the oje – that oozes out of their body stems each time mothers get bereaved of their gallant soldier children.

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