Missing, Wounded, Killed in Action: Tracking the cost of valour in Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram (1)
“We are going to carry this as a war and I appeal to all and sundry to give this operation maximum cooperation,” Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, the Army chief, said in 2015 while launching Operation Lafiya Dole as a new code name by the military to fight Boko Haram terrorists. “We will respect human dignity, we will not trample on anybody’s right,” the Army chief assured. Most importantly, on the Nigerian Army’s official page here, it is clearly stated that; “Militaries (all) over place welfare of its personnel a top priority. Nigerian Army (NA) is not an exception. The NA has over time introduced and still introducing various welfare packages in order to meet its moral component strategy which would produce a well-focused and morale motivated troop to win all battles…”
As soldiers deployed to this operation continue to put in their best into ending the war against insurgency, have the authorities kept its [welfare] promise to those who are missing in action, and or wounded, killed in action? Do these soldiers, or their families have a share of dignity and respect from the authorities?
MY HUSBAND HAS BEEN MISSING FOR THREE YEARS
Rabi Ibrahim, mother of five, is daily overwhelmed with sadness since the news came to her that her husband, Corporal Bello Ibrahim of the Artillery Regiment (333) is missing in action—a term used to say that a soldier cannot be found after a battle and might have been killed or captured by the enemies. Bello had just returned from Mali where he was mobilized for a peace keeping operation, and his next point of call was Gwoza, a southern Borno town where the Boko Haram insurgents once hoisted their flags and claimed the territory as the headquarters of their caliphate before the town was eventually captured by the Nigerian military.
It is a hot afternoon in Maiduguri as Rabi, veiled in her hijab, comes out from their apartment on the ground floor of Block D28, Maimalari Barracks. She is accompanied by her eldest son, Surajudeen, 18, and with a smile that speaks volumes of hospitality, she offers her visitors sachets of water and a bench, under the shade provided by the tree in front of their block. Her face begins to swell with sadness as she recollects a story she must have wished was a dream.
“It was the attack in Gwoza,” Rabi says, keeping her teary eyes away from her visitors. “He left for Gwoza and for months, we didn’t hear from him because there was no communication network in Gwoza at the time. And the day he eventually called us was the day they were attacked.”
According to her, Corporal Ibrahim and his fellow soldiers, seeking a safe place from Boko Haram bullets and bombs that were seemingly consuming them, climbed the mountains and when he had reached a certain top, he, coincidentally, found network on his mobile phone.
“Be praying for us, we are under attack,” a troubled Ibrahim told his wife over the phone. “His heartbeat wasn’t steady,” Rabi says. The dislodged soldiers were running through the mountains to Cameroon, a West African country sharing borders with Nigeria along that axis. They found shield in the mountains and two days after Boko Haram had dislodged them, Ibrahim was still able to reach his wife.
“We are still hiding inside the mountains,” Ibrahim told his wife. Rabi explains that the soldiers were unsure of what to do; if they should return to Gwoza—with the thought that it had been two days and the insurgents may have relaxed—or find their way to Cameroon.
“When my husband called again, he said he was worried they may not make it out”, Rabi says. “And he began to beg me to take good care of our five children. I wouldn’t understand what he meant by that, and he asked me to promise him that I will take care of the children”.
Rabi’s husband confirmed to her that where they were, wasn’t far from Cameroon and the soldiers were hoping to see a reinforcement team that would come to their rescue since they believed that the news of how the terrorists had dislodged them would have reached the authorities. After the wait and nothing was forthcoming, the soldiers, who were out of ammunition, pulled themselves together, about thirty of them, and took the risk of finding their way back.
“That was the last time I heard his voice”, Rabi says, pushing the tears back. Corporal Ibrahim didn’t sound like a wounded soldier over the phone, and this built the hope for his wife who thought that it was only a matter of time before her husband and his colleagues would be rescued.
Rabi became restless, and continued to check at the Army’s office inside the cantonment. She was repeatedly told that her husband has been missing in action. “They always tell me that they don’t know if he is dead or alive”, she says, adding that even though he was alive, they don’t know where to go search for him. “At a point, I gathered from some soldiers here that my husband and some of his colleagues were taken to Bama, and shortly we heard that the insurgents attacked Bama, dislodging soldiers there again”.
In July, 2016, the Army authorities stopped paying missing Ibrahim’s salary which the wife and his children had solely depended on for survival. “They declared him dead”, Rabi mutters with a teary voice. She was then given N250, 000 as payment for the burial expenses of a husband whose remains she is yet to see. “That is what we lived on since then”, she said. And in March, 2017, seven months after being paid the burial expenses, Rabi was told by the authorities that the process to getting her husband’s insurance money had started.
When she didn’t see anything on the expected date of payment, she was reminded by the authorities that, not all widows get their husbands’ entitlements. She was then advised to travel to the Headquarters in Abuja, to facilitate the process.
Rabi in tears, as Ripples Nigeria hands her a token
Rabi, however, is yet to give up that her missing husband is dead as declared by the authorities. “Even if it gets to twenty years, I don’t want to believe that my husband is dead”, she cried. “Let the Army bring his dead body, I want to see”.
I NOW USE MY FATHER’S MOTOBIKE FOR COMMERCIALS SO WE CAN FEED AND GO TO SCHOOL
Surajudeen misses his father, and so do his four siblings. “My father would give his all to ensure we all go to school”, Surajudeen says. The 18-year-old who is preparing for his Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination and whose dream is to become a lawyer, is afraid his educational journey may end at the secondary level because his father is no more there to give him the needed support.
Since Rabi, their mother was a full-time house wife who was not allowed to work, and the money given them as payment for their father’s burial expenses had since been spent, Surajudeen now uses his father’s motorbike to run Okada business within the Maimalari Barracks. “I thank God that my father bought this bike when he returned from Mali, shortly before they were deployed to the bush”, he says. “When I return from school, I take the bike and work with it till evening”.
In a day, Surajudeen says he makes between N1, 500 and N2, 000, and it is from this money the family feeds, and the kids’ school fees are paid. “I want my junior ones to go to school, and I don’t want them to lack books, bags and sandals”, the son of the missing soldier says, expressing the fact that his father would have done same if he were around.
Surajudeen standing beside his motorbike
Surajudeen, who is almost in tears as he speaks, explains how badly women whose husbands are missing, or killed in action are being treated. “Sometimes, donors would come with items meant for soldiers’ wives whose husbands are either missing or dead, and they will invite my mother to the Church here in the barracks where the items are meant to be distributed.
“When they get there, the donors are not allowed to give them the items directly. Some big-big Army personnel will collect the items on the women’s behalf with a promise of distributing the items accordingly, but the items never got to them. My mother would go and return with empty hands. But we keep hearing the lies that the women have been given the items”.
HE WAS TRYING TO FIX THE FAULTY SHILKA
On the 5th of August, 2014, Sergeant Ishaka Yakubu, a (’96 NA) 41 intake of the Nigerian Army deployed to Gwoza, struggled to get communication network to reach his wife who has been anxiously waiting for his return. “They don’t use to have network inside that bush”, Ishaka’s wife recollects as she shares the painful story of her husband. “We had barely spoken for a minute before the thing went off and when I tried calling back, his line wasn’t reachable”, she adds.
The next morning, Ishaka’s wife, who was now used to not hearing from her husband regularly, still set out for her daily business; the shade in front of her block inside the Maimalari Barracks where she fries and sells akara. Soon, two soldiers came for breakfast, and they started talking about their experience as they munched their akara.
“Oh boy, God saved us in that Gwoza yesterday o”, one of the soldiers said, and the mention of Gwoza struck Ishaka’s wife. She got up from the frying pan, and moved closer to the soldiers. The soldiers, thanking God for their own escape, told Ishaka’s wife how they were dislodged by the terrorists and soldiers scattered everywhere. Ishaka’s wife was trying to check if the soldiers knew or saw her husband, but the soldiers weren’t sure who her husband was.
She pulled herself together and went back to the frying pan as the soldiers talked on. “But, that soldier driving the Shilka tried o”, one of the soldiers said (Shilka is a lightly armoured self-propelled, radar guided anti-aircraft weapon system), Again, Ishaka’s wife jumped out and was paying keen attention to the soldiers. According to them, when they were being dislodged, this particular soldier drove out the Shilka, and it suddenly stopped working. “From where we were hiding, we saw this man trying and trying to fix his Shilka”, one of the soldiers recollected, expressing his anger over how they were being given outdated Shilka to confront Boko Haram insurgents.
When the insurgents closed in on them, they ran, losing visual on the soldier who was still trying to fix his Shilka. “That driver, how does he look, does he have tribal marks?!” a perturbed Ishaka’s wife held the two soldiers, screaming for an answer. It soon dawned on the soldiers that the woman is the Shilka driver’s wife. The soldiers who couldn’t handle the outburst of Ishaka’s wife, who was now crying, rolling on the ground and calling for help, left their akara and went away.
Earlier, when Ishaka spoke with his wife, he had complained about the faulty Shilka he drove. “Anytime we get to talk, he is always telling me that he is repairing his Shilka”, she says, with her eyes laced with tears. “I ran to meet one of his colleagues whom I understand was also deployed to Gwoza. Where is my husband? I asked him. Tell me this thing I heard from those soldiers is not true!”
The husband’s colleague confirmed to her that her husband had gone missing. “It was around 5pm yesterday”, he told her, adding that he didn’t know how to break such news to her and that was why he couldn’t come to her place.
The Army office, eventually, confirmed that her husband was missing in action. The mother of four, who cries every day, praying for the return of her husband, ran from one office to the other asking if her husband has been found. Four months after the husband had been missing in action, the Army stopped his salary and the family depended on what Ishaka’s wife made from her akara business.
Unsurprisingly, on the 5th of August, 2016, a year after, Ishaka Yakubu was declared dead by the Army, which for months, had continually urged her to endure as her husband was only missing in action. Ishaka’s wife was given the burial allowance and was subjected to the unending processes of getting her husband’s entitlements.
Army certifying Ishaka’s death same date the Army claimed he was missing in action
One of Ishaka’s children whom the mother thought was on a scholarship in one of the Army’s Command schools returned home this term to inform his mother that he will not be allowed to write tests if his fees wasn’t paid. “I had to fry and sell more akara to raise the N9, 000”, Ishaka wife says. The school bursar, however, has promised to refund her, but she’s yet to get the refund and in less than a month from now, the term would end. “Their father will not forgive me if he hears that his son(s) was sent out of a test class because of school fees”, she says.
ENTITLEMENTS NOT FULLY PAID
In December, 2013 when Bama was attacked, Lance Corporal Joshua Oke was one of the soldiers ordered to join a reinforcement team to give supporting hands to troops stationed in Bama and other civilians who may have been hit by the insurgents. “Their APC ran into mines and it somersaulted”, Jonathan, Oke’s son says. They were, immediately, surrounded by the insurgents and while they were struggling to get themselves out, they were fired upon. “He died of bleeding, and his body was eventually brought here for burial”, the son explains.
The authorities promised to keep paying Corporal Oke’s salary to his family until the family gets all entitlements meant for the late soldier. The salary, however, stopped coming barely a year after his death. “We were paid his burial allowance, and the state governor gave soldiers’ widows some money which, thankfully, my mother was one of the beneficiaries”.
Oke’s widow and one of his sons have been running from one place to another, in attempts to get what belongs to the late corporal, but not much success has been recorded. The authorities, which at a point, paid Oke’s children’s school fees has stopped doing so and the family, now feeds on what their mother brings home from one of the kitchens where she works as a cook. The widow also faces threat of eviction from their Barracks apartment, but she insists she goes nowhere until she is paid all her husband’s entitlements.
“My mum says except they come to drag her, she won’t leave”, Jonathan says, adding that “if not because of one of my late father’s ogas who has always stood by us, they would have thrown us out of here”.
Danladi is yet to get over the shock of his brother, Corporal Yusuf Bafar’s death. “He left here on Thursday and he was announced dead on Saturday”, Danladi recollects. In 2013, Bafar, a soldier with the 212 Battalion in Maiduguri was sent to Bama to fix a mechanical fault on one of the APCs (Armored Personal Carrier) when he was caught in a trap. The soldiers were overpowered by the insurgents and Bafar’s forehead was drilled with hot bullets.
Bafar, a father of five, had sent his wife and kids to his home in Bauchi for the holiday while he and his brother stayed in the barracks in Maiduguri. It had been rumored that the place had been surrounded by the terrorists, and not enough soldiers were on ground to withstand the coming attacks, but Bafar had no choice than to obey the last command. His lifeless body, with that of others, was returned and buried at the military cemetery in Maiduguri.
“My brother’s entitlements have not been fully paid,” Danladi laments, adding that the authorities had already sent a letter for the family to quit their apartment in the barracks. “My late brother’s wife has remained in Bauchi with the kids, and the little money raised by the family members is what they now live on”.
LUCKY HADIZA, SHE KNOWS A GENERAL UP THERE!
April 4th, 2015, Hadiza was returning to Maiduguri to see her husband, Sergeant Mohammed Abubakar whom she and the kids had not seen in almost eight months that the soldier had been coming in and out of the bush, fighting Boko Haram terrorists. Mohammed had sent his family out of Maiduguri when it was rumored that the Barracks where they live had been marked for attack by the terrorists.
A few kilometers to Damaturu, Hadiza’s joy of seeing her husband again was renewed when her husband called her over the phone, telling her to beep his phone as soon as they drove past Damaturu. The soldier’s plan was to go wait for his wife at the park, since Damaturu to Maiduguri is a few hours’ drive.
Abubakar, with a heart bubbling with thoughts of how memorable the night would be with his wife who has been away for many months, was waiting for his wife’s call when, unexpectedly, duty called. As an instructor, Abubakar was called to oversee a test-firing exercise for some soldiers who were being prepared to advance into the bush and fight the insurgents. Hadiza, on getting to Damaturu, continually placed calls to her husband’s phone and when it eventually got picked, she was told all was fine, that her husband was on an assignment and that she will be picked up at the park.
Many things ran through Hadiza’s mind, but she kept her calm. Unknown to her, few minutes after the couple spoke, Abubakar had been mistakenly shot by one of his trainees. The trainee lost control of the heavy gun and turning away from the target, the muzzle aimed the trainer’s head, and fired him dead.
Two months after his death, grieving Hadiza was moving from one office to the other to get her husband’s entitlements. When nothing was forthcoming, she reached out to a superior officer whom she describes as “our tribal man” and who would help her facilitate the process from 3 Division in Jos. She eventually, got a call from the Army Headquarters in Abuja. “I was given N1 million compensation cheque”, she says.
“They said the money is from the president”, she adds. Although, she’s yet to get the burial expenses, the husband unit’s gave her N470, 000 which Hadiza calls NAWIS (Nigerian Army Welfare Insurance Scheme) money. In September 2016, her husband’s salary was stopped. Upon enquiry, she was told by one finance officer that salaries of killed in action soldiers stop after one year of being killed.
She, however, gathered from the clerk that wives of soldiers killed in action should still get the salaries of their husbands pending the time all the entitlements of the late soldier is paid. Hadiza was going to give up when she remembered a former Garrison Commander who is now a Brigadier General and has been moved to the Headquarters in Abuja.
“When he was leaving here for Abuja, he gave me his number that I should always reach him if I have any problem”, she explains. “The General directed me to go and see the Commanding Officer in charge, saying, truly, the salary shouldn’t have stopped since we are yet to get all my husband’s entitlements. The Commanding Officer said he didn’t know that things like these were happening, because payments are facilitated by the finance people”.
With the General’s intervention, the Commanding Officer assured Hadiza that the issue will be addressed. And immediately, a letter was sent to the 7 Division, and subsequently to the Army Headquarters, and even when she didn’t get the salary for that month, September, she got for the following months.
Hadiza admits that she is lucky, as her own case is a very rare one. Out of the women she knows who lost their husbands the same time as her, she is the only one who has received the life insurance money of her late husband. “They keep referring the women to the clerk”, she says, empathizing with the poor widows. “Some of them will get there and the authority would claim that they have paid the money, yet, these women have not received anything. They will return to the office to cry and cry, but nothing would be done”.
Ripples Nigeria gathered, that there are some missing and or declared dead soldiers’ wives– scattered across Maimalari Cantonment– who stopped getting their husbands’ salaries just after two months that they had been announced missing. “Those who are missing in action are always said to have left their duty post and had gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave), and the authorities stop their salaries”, a source reveals.
A soldier, speaking with Ripples Nigeria confidentially says that at least, 5, 000 soldiers have died in this operation. “Go round the barracks across Nigeria where soldiers have been deployed here and take a count of the number of soldiers who were deployed for this operation and have died. There was a day in 2015 that we lost about 165 soldiers, in a village just 30km away from Maiduguri”, he claims. “There was also a time I was part of a reinforcement team to Gwoza. When we got to the bush, we couldn’t find our soldiers and when we traced them to the mountains, we found eighteen bodies of killed soldiers, and I am not sure the authorities ever made mention of this, and in fact, there are some terrain you hear that soldiers dead bodies are but you dare not go there to recover them, else your body is added to the dead”, he adds.
Another soldier alleges, that sometimes a soldier would have been killed and even buried inside the bush, but the authorities won’t announce this to the family until after a long time. He explains that many times they’ve seen decomposed soldiers’ bodies inside the bush and they could only identify those whose dog-tags are still on their body.
“In this barracks, we have more than two hundred widows wandering, looking for what to eat. Some of them would have to go to town to sell their bodies so they can feed themselves and their children, and in fact, some do that within the barracks here with fellow soldiers who exploit them”, a sergeant explains.
In an attempt to weigh issues on a comparison scale, since most Nigerian institutions are a replica from the United States, Ripples Nigeria reached out to a soldier serving in the US Army who is currently in the war-front. “We hardly have MiAs, because accountability is very important”, he says. “We don’t mind spending fifty years looking for a soldier, and we won’t declare him dead until there is a conclusive evidence of such death, and this means just one thing; his or her body. And in fact, government won’t mind paying or negotiating to get such bodies back from the enemy, because the government owes a duty to our families to bring every soldier home, dead or alive.”
In a 2015 article published on the official website of the US Army here, Holt, 26, a missing soldier who was assigned to Company C, 5th Special Forces Group of the US Army during the Vietnam War, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, many years after the war. According to the article, Holt “was last seen, Feb. 7, 1968, when his unit was attacked by enemy forces near Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam.
“He was reported as missing in action following the battle. A military review board later amended his status to presumed killed in action. His remains were recently identified and returned to his family for burial”.
Scientists from the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory had used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, including two forms of DNA analysis, in the identification of Holt’s remains.
Soldiers killed in action are always celebrated as the heroes and heroines that they are, the US soldier tells Ripples Nigeria, adding that each soldier has a life insurance to the tune of $400, 000 which is paid to the beneficiaries of any soldiers killed in action.
An extensive search for a list where the Nigerian Army/Government chronicles the events around these heroes returns with no result. In the US, however, records of missing in action, and prisoners of war from the era of the Vietnam War are documented on the National Archives here.
PART (2): The tale of the soldiers’experiences in their strive to keep the soldier’s creed continues on Thursday. Read what they go through fighting the insurgents under harsh conditions, using their own money for medical and logistics support, even as some overstay for months in their tour of duty.
By Femi Owolabi