“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living” – Cicero
In early February, after a prolonged battle with Boko Haram, a lieutenant colonel in the Nigerian army died somewhere in the North East with all the men he led. Within days, he would be buried in Maiduguri, along with hundreds maybe thousands of other soldiers who have all been denied the befitting military burial they deserved. If there was a choice, it seemed like no choice at all. The family and friends of Lt. Colonel Japheth Amanze would not be able to pay their last respects to the person they loved. And every visit to his grave would be a journey to the place where he died.
Over the last couple of months – more than at any time in recent history, the Nigerian Army has come under public scrutiny: $15 million in cash seized by South Africa which was allegedly meant to procure arms; Its involvement in postponing the general elections; The allegations of abuse of power in the 2014 Ekiti gubernatorial election; The suspicion and growing understanding that the army is not neutral (and might never have been) to politics; and the bewilderment at the sudden efficiency in regaining lost territory from the terrorists. But this is different. It is a new low that speaks to issues about the morale, welfare and motivation of our soldiers: the mutinies, the wife-barricades at the barracks and the desertions.
By all accounts the least that Lt. Colonel Amanze deserved was a 21-gun salute burial at the Abuja Military Cemetery where top brass of the military would be in attendance with the President/Commander in Chief or his representative. This is the least that should happen for all our officers who die in battle.
Instead, on being informed that he was wounded and in hospital at the Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, Lt. Col. Amanze’s wife left their two young children in the United States and rushed home. No arrangements were made by the Army to meet and brief her. When she found her way to Army Headquarters, she got the run around until someone finally told her that her husband had been dead for over a week and would be buried in 3 days in Maiduguri. On questioning the decision to bury her husband in Maiduguri, she was informed that this was the practice for soldiers who died there and no, there weren’t any arrangements for family to attend.
Lt. Col. Amanze, from public accounts of friends who mourn him, was the type of man we want more of in the army. Dedicated, disciplined and determined to conduct himself with the dignity his office and role deserved. We bristle at comparisons but if the United States Army can arrange for body parts of American soldiers to be transported thousands of miles from Iraq and Afghanistan back to the United States, then surely we can bring back dead soldiers from the North East so that their families can mourn and honour them.
As early as August 14 2014, the Chief of Army Staff at an event emphasized that “welfare and training where the motivating factors for any military force”. One would think even more so during a war. We do not have to know Lt Col Amanze and others like him personally to feel hurt and betrayed – they are symbols of our fallen soldiers and the state of our military.
There are some who think that regardless of what is happening within the military we must support our troops. Asking the right questions is supporting our troops. Demanding that they and their families be treated fairly and humanely is support for our troops. Wanting to know why the army is not burying soldiers the way they should is support for our troops and the place to start with the questions would be the Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defence.
Why are soldiers on mission for 24 months instead of six? How many officers have we lost in the North East compared to our time in ECOMOG? Will we get a memorial in the heart of Abuja with the names of all the soldiers who died defending Nigeria from Boko Haram so we never forget their sacrifice?
Nigerians are going to have to distinguish between the soldiers who are sacrificing their lives for us and the men who are taking decisions from behind huge desks and even bigger stomachs. We owe our soldiers much more than the occasional tweet, the punchy hashtags and lame headlines. When this war is over, those leading the Nigerian Army better be ready with answers.
Rest in peace Lt. Col. Amanze, Captain Ayo Oluruntoba, Lieutenant Utibe Ekong and all those who died together that day. Our prayers are with your family and the families of all the other fallen soldiers.
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photo credit: author