Missing, Wounded, Killed in Action: Tracking the cost of valour in Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram (2)
At a time he was unsure of what path to settle for in his life’s journey, the young and active Ziggy (not real name), eventually decided to join the Nigerian Army. It didn’t just happen; Ziggy, the Lagos boy, was in a commercial vehicle going to Ojota when a soldier, beautifully adorned in his camouflage-uniform flagged down their bus, and hoped in, sitting right beside him. Admiring the soldier, the curious Ziggy made sure he got the information needed to join the Nigerian Army.
Ziggy now looks back to the day he took an oath to join the Army, and his eyes are filled with tears.
I HAD TO RUN TO MY PARENTS FOR BETTER TREATMENT
In August, 2014 when Gwoza was attacked, Ziggy and his fellow soldiers believed that the intelligence officer attached to them, one Colonel Salisu, must have gotten intelligence report prior to the attack. “We began to notice this when he started withdrawing VIP-civilians out of the town,” Ziggy says. “But he kept the information from us– soldiers who would engage these terrorists for that matter. We didn’t know that these insurgents had already infiltrated the town in the evening. Where I was, I saw the convoys leaving the town.”
In the morning, the soldiers started hearing sporadic gunshots coming from many angles. “When you hear gunshots like that, you quickly ask your fellow soldier, na we abi na dem (is it us or the insurgents)?” Ziggy explains, adding that it became very hard to confront the insurgents. “If we’ve been privy to the intelligence report, we could have still repelled the attack, maybe.” The attack met some soldiers resting inside their trench. Ziggy recollects that a sleepy soldier who came out and who didn’t open his eyes on time to the reality was shot by the terrorists. “You watch and then you shoot, but his eyes weren’t fully opened, and he sluggishly carried his riffle and staggered into the bullets of the enemies.”
Ziggy’s vehicle wasn’t having enough armor and the barrels had developed faults. However, the dogged spirit every soldier carries at the warfront pushed him to go after the terrorists. “I still moved out with that machine and my gunner fired at those idiots,” Ziggy boasts. “You know, it is also fun when you are firing at the enemies,” he adds, flashing a smile. Ziggy survived the attack, but with few bruises on his body.
A second attack was deadlier. “I lost my gunner,” Ziggy painfully recollects. “We were advancing when our vehicle ran into mines and the machine was thrown out of the track. And there, the insurgents opened fire on us.” Ziggy, crawling on the ground to reach for his riffle was already bleeding from his nose, ears and mouth. “I couldn’t breathe,” he says. Ziggy was lucky, however. Waiting to breathe his last, a surveillance aircraft of the Nigerian Airforce flying over them signaled the jet which came to evacuate him and the now lifeless body of his gunner.
He was immediately taken to the Airforce hospital and Ziggy says the care he received there was far better than what he got when, after a few days, he was brought to the Army hospital. “All wounded Army personnel at the Airforce hospital were taken to the Army’s where care given here is nowhere close to what we got at the Airforce’s.”
Ziggy in a conversation with Ripples Nigeris’s Femi Owolabi
When Ziggy didn’t get the right treatment, as soon as he got a pass -permission granted to personnel to allow them to go off their military installation whenever they are not required to be on duty- he had to run back to his parents in Lagos who took him up for proper treatment at a private hospital.
“Nobody gives you proper treatment at the military hospital here in Maiduguri. They only give you this pain relieve called Tramadol. Tramadol may only reduce the pain but it won’t heal it. If, for instance, you have sustained an injury and the damage now involves amputation, they will just cut your leg and then give you Tramadol. However, when they can’t handle you anymore, you will be referred to the 44 Hospital in Kaduna. They don’t have anything here to treat wounded soldiers”.
At the hospital, a medical officer admits that they don’t have enough for treatment, and the little available are reserved for extreme emergency cases. “When we ask for money to get some of these things, the authorities would say there is no money”, a source within the hospital says.
While he was recuperating, Ziggy’s mum pleaded with his son to withdraw from the Army, and stay in Lagos to resume his previous computer programing job. Ziggy laughed it off, and as soon as the cuts all over his body were properly stitched and he could stand firmly on his feet, he ran back to Maiduguri. The resilient soldier, still nursing bits of the wounds, has returned to the war front; he only wishes that the authorities could adequately provide treatments needed for these soldiers who have sworn to uphold the sovereignty of this country, even with their lives.
I WAS DECLARED AWOL/DENIED SALARY WHILE SEEKING TREATMENT
When Gogobiri (not real name) was drafted into operation Lafiya Dole, his duty, as a gunner, was to be on standby at a particular junction that leads into Sambisa Forest where the dreaded insurgents have a stronghold. “When you are shooting, the bullets go out but the empty shells drop by”, Gogobiri explains. Sometime in 2015, troops were advancing and Gogobiri was atop his game inside the bush, emptying his barrel on any enemy caught in sight, when bullet shells accidentally hit his left eye.
Sadly, for a long time, there was no means for him to leave the bush –even if he had a town-pass– and come for treatment in Maiduguri where the Army hospital is. All that was available from their battalion were paracetamol tablets. Making a joke out of his own predicament, Gogobiri says, “I still maintained my position, firing on, since all I need to shoot is one eye while the other is squinted”, He, however, admits that the pain which comes with chronic headache, at a point, was becoming unbearable. Months after, a Brigadier General was on a bush patrol when news reached him that one of their key gunners has been hit in the eye and may need urgent treatment. The General had asked if there was any problem with any soldier. “When he saw me, he asked that I join his convoy to Bama where I passed the night, and the following day I eventually arrived in Maiduguri”.
A Nigerian Army ambulance
Gogobiri was diagnosed at the Army hospital, but unfortunately, the hospital does not have what it takes to treat the eye. He was then referred to the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, UMTH, where he has undergone series of tests, and last month, he had an eye surgery. “You book on Fridays, while Mondays are for surgery,” he says, adding that at least, four out of eight surgery patients are soldiers. After the surgery, the gunner explains that the lowest in price of the eye-drops prescribed for them goes for N1, 500. “We are supposed to get these at no cost but the hospital doesn’t have most of these drugs and so, we are advised to go and buy them”. He, however, notes that soldiers enjoy a large discount at the Federal Government NHIS (National Health Insurance Scheme) covered pharmacy inside the hospital, but some drugs are not just readily available.
Gogobiri who now goes for routine check of his eyes at UMTH, explains that his pass was extended to a sick leave. Shockingly, his February salary was not paid, on the grounds that the soldier has gone AWOL. “They now claim that I wasn’t admitted into the hospital”, Gogobiri laments. “I asked one of the soldiers; did you come to ask for my whereabouts at the hospital and they told you I wasn’t here? Even our liaison officer knows I am here. Well, mine is even minor, some soldiers are being owed five to six months’ salary. Another soldier was admitted here, he lost his salary and he was declared AWOL, and when he recovered they sent report to the unit and the unit said, oh, we don’t know that he was admitted.”
Gogobiri, who, for the month, has not been able to feed his family back at home, regretting his inability to pay his daughter’s school fees, alleges that some officers may be diverting salaries of soldiers who are on pass to come treat themselves. “To achieve their aim, they conveniently declare such soldiers AWOL,” he claims.
“Wounded in action is the best thing that can ever happen to any soldier,” Briggs, an American Army officer, in an informal email exchange, tells Ripples Nigeria. “The soldier gets life insurance and 100% salary based on his rank. And depending on the severity of injury, the fellow might even get free housing among other benefits.”
LACK OF EQUIPMENT
Tracing what could have led to these cases of missing, wounded and killed in action soldiers, Ripples Nigeria gathered that most of the equipment given to soldiers in the warfront are either outdated or not enough. “We have lost so many soldiers in this operation, and sadly, these are avoidable deaths if we have all the equipment,” a soldier explains. He further alleges that the equipment they are using till date is the ones bought by former President Jonathan, few months to the 2015 general elections.
“There is a tank called T72; we call it T72 because it was produced in 1972 by Russia and Ukraine, and that was what was imported then which we used to reclaim some territories from Boko Haram. The barrel is automatic, not like the ones we used before where we use hands to load the bombs. This one picks bomb by itself. But because these tanks were bought as secondhand, they always develop barrel, air-filter and general engine faults. Most of the tanks imported have been overused, and that’s why you see them all parked somewhere waiting for repairs, and in fact, sometimes, especially when in the bush, we will be looking for these village mechanics to help us fix the tank, and we’ve had a case where one of these mechanics was a Boko Haram informant.
The T-72 is a Soviet second-generation main battle tank that entered production in 1971. About 20,000 T-72 tanks were built, making it one of the most widely produced post–World War II tanks, second only to the T-54/55 family.
The soldier explains that, “the tanks imported weren’t enough, about 37 I think, and how can 37 tanks cover for Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states where we have these insurgents? We have only few that are currently functioning, so many times, because of the shortage; we withdraw tanks from one location to advance to another. We don’t have minesweepers that should go in front of us to detect buried IEDs on the road, and a lot of times our soldiers have been ambushed and killed this way. Boko Haram will plant IEDs on tarred roads and cover them with stones.
“In numerical strength, we are more than Cameroon, but we dare not think of confronting Cameroonian soldiers in battle front. They have the equipment. In this kind of war, it is the equipment that matters. Check how properly kitted a Cameroonian soldier is. What a Cameroonian soldier is putting on– his gadgets and his arms– is worth more than a million naira. When a Cameroonian soldier comes out, you will say yes, this is a soldier! Ours is a sad case. We buy our uniforms and other kits by ourselves. Sometimes, you will see soldiers in the bush running after Boko Haram in sandals. In the 80s, we heard that the 63NA were always given uniforms and kits and various allowances. But sadly, that was then.”
With adequate equipment, many of these soldiers are confident that the insurgents will be totally wiped out within a short period.
“It shouldn’t take more than six months before a soldier is deployed out of an operation like this,” a soldier says, adding that some of them have been in the operation since 2012. Some also lament that they could be inside the bush for one year without given a town-pass. “A soldier who is meant to keep a clean shave now looks like a village farmer, because he’s unable to attend to his bushy beard,” one of them says.
In 2013, Gandoki (not real name), whose Battalion is in Lagos, was sent for a course at the Military Cantonment in Jaji, Kaduna State. Gandoki and some of his course-mates were barely a week in the training when an order came for them to be assembled and sent to the war theatre.
“They told us that we were going to spend just two weeks in the operation, and we will be pulled out to return to Jaji and finish our course,” Gandoki says. These soldiers were told to hold the ground in a particular region at the war front pending when others will be mobilized. “But look at me, this is 2017 and I am still here, and two weeks is not yet over and we are yet to return to Jaji to complete our course,” Gandoki says, letting out a smile.
At the time he was expected to have completed his course and return, his Battalion in Lagos wrote to Jaji that they’ve not seen their soldier, and responding, Jaji directed his Battalion to find the soldier’s whereabouts from the Army Headquarters. Sadly, his Battalion didn’t write the Army Headquarters, and Gandoki, who was inside the bush fighting Boko Haram terrorists, was booked AWOL. Gandoki wouldn’t have known anything about this until they were dislodged and ran out of the bush to regroup in Maiduguri that one of the soldiers in the Admin office of his Battalion was able to reach him on phone. “Where are you, do you still work with the Nigerian Army?” the soldier asked him, and an angry Gandoki who was still recovering from the effects of attack that dislodged them punched the soldier off his phone; “are you mad? What kind of question is that? If I still work with the Nigerian Army? Oh no, I am fishing and farming inside the bush!”
Gandoki woke to the reality when his wife called from Lagos that the family hasn’t received his salary for the month; his salary account had been blocked. “Your AWOL has been circulated in your unit and that’s why I had called earlier to ask if you still do Army work,” the soldier told a troubled Gandoki when he called him the second time. One of Gandoki’s superiors eventually came to his aid by reaching the authority on his behalf. “This boy is here in the warfront and you are booking him AWOL?” the superior wrote to Gandoki’s Battalion who claimed they never got a letter from the Army Headquarters that their soldier was pulled out of a course.
“In barracks across Nigeria, there are cases of pregnancies and abortion among women whose husbands have spent two years or more at the frontline,” says Jack Vince, a journalist and humanitarian who grew up in Maimalari Barracks in Maiduguri. “Some soldiers have not seen their newborn children. The more unfortunate ones die without seeing their newborns.”
A US Army soldier tells Ripples Nigeria that as part of the US Department of Defense regulations, a soldier cannot spend more than 12 consecutive months in deployment. “Normal deployment span is nine months,” he says.
Ripples Nigeria’s Femi Owolabi donating blood for wounded soldiers at the Army’s Hospital
ANGER THREATENING TO BOIL OVER
Sampling opinions of a couple of soldiers deployed for this operation, Ripples Nigeria was told that the soldiers have lots on their chest they want to let out. They dare the authorities to call for Durban, a no-holds-bared conference with soldiers, and watch how majority of them will pour out their grievances.
“Let people in ranks of Colonel and General be sacked from this operation and let Majors and Captains be in charge, and if we don’t win this war in two weeks, call me a bastard,” says an angry soldier. “Not even whatever complaints we tell journalists is taken serious, because the authorities will still come out to say the story is false,” he continues, adding that soldiers inside the bush are being denied access to the Wi-Fi provided by the Nigerian Army because of soldiers who use their phones to capture events at the warfront and post them online, unedited.
“If anyone tries to stand up against the injustice, such will be fired. You remember when soldiers fired at their GOC here? An order was given not to move, and another contradictory order came and soldiers ran into an ambush. We have seen cases where ammunitions were being transported and the trucks got ambushed, and the insurgents carting away with them. We begin to ask ourselves, how does the information leak to them? We once had a General Officer Commanding called Ebola who would count ammunitions and put in our hands knowing well that the insurgents had a double of what he had given us to go fight them.
“I was indifferent when Boko Haram flag and Quran was taken to the President in Aso Rock, with claims that we have captured Camp Zairo. Barely three days after, the insurgents struck again. There could be some sort of conspiracy here, because we heard that the President, after he had been told that we’ve captured the enemy’s stronghold, advised that troops could be redeployed to their units and or other parts of the country. But some of these top Generals and their allies who continue to corner money from this operation may have even been in the know of subsequent attacks after claims that we’ve conquered Boko Haram. With this, they still have an excuse to keep troops here and get fat budgets. In some cases, we’ve heard terrorist telling soldiers that the same person who sent you here also sent me. These guys use Thuraya (satellite phones) to ease their coms while we struggle with communication, even to reach our family members”, he laments.
In efforts to get the views of the Nigerian Army on some of the issues raised and claims made by the soldiers, Ripples Nigeria reached out to the Army through the Director, Nigerian Army Public Relations, Brigadier General Sani Usman.
Unfortunately, messages sent to his facebook messenger handle, and his official email address did not attract any response from him.
Despite the unpleasant issues with Nigerian soldiers fighting insurgency, they remain resolute, always keeping to their heart; the soldier’s creed.
By Femi Owolabi