By Alapa Peters Odugbo
Not too long ago, roughly three decades backwards, while we were still kids, we saw real hell when the military ruled. It was quite a long memory, I must say, that spilled into and blended with several scattered complicated bitter and regretful pieces of stories or experiences lumped into a piece constituting a fabric in the construction of the history of a fledgling nation- Nigeria.
By 1994, I was only about three years old, too young to understand what was happening. Of course, we were diseased by childhood naivety, innocence and freedom as everything we saw, were told or read later on only spiralled to the very zenith of a kind of fun we had never experienced, not even till date.
Several harrowing experiences of those days in retrospect now merged into one single tremendous tragicomedy, stand out in my mind. It is what for the lack of a precise labelling term I have termed “the age of no-nonesense, idolized khaki brazen bravery, commanding sublime reverence through plainly naked acts interpreted as pithy pieces of senses by a fear-riddled congregation of ever docile and submissive Nigerians”.
The early 1990s was for me dismal and gloomy, the wake of Nigeria’s nightmares. At that time Nigeria stood at the very verge of an abysmal disaster. The age carried the full reflection of the past power tussles that characterized the Nigerian Mephistophelean political landscape.
Then, some people fought so hard to cling to power, to establish a life-time claim over it, desiring to remain there ad infinitum. They were the military. The age bore brutal occasional punctuations figuring a few coup de tats’ attempts to unseat themselves.
The masses were left to languish in indescribable deplorable situations. It was real hell. Our roads, totally neglected, became bloodthirsty, came back at us, consuming countless careless sacrifices of human lives daily. Hospitals were bad. Only very few homes could afford hospital bills. Likewise, foraging a living was like a real dog-eat-dog affair. Nigerians would fall heads over heels at any opportunity repleted with the proclivity of putting food on their tables, mindless of the danger human lives may be plunge into by that act.
As for me, this particular time sew a diabolic seed in the Nigerian story. Armed robbery springing up at a rather slower manageable speed at that time, snapped out of control precipitously and rose at a break-neck speed. Robbers and 419ners were like spirits everywhere in the country; no one was spared.
It was such a horrible time! People lived in fear. No one would love to help anyone even their close relatives. One couldn’t like in the past approach their neighbours for a help to meet a serious pressing need without being turned-down. Those who have, for the fear of being charmed rather preferred to feed one with a line, place themselves in more serious situations than those desiring their help, to boycott lending helps.
Children then began to miss. Adults too were stolen. When one wasn’t seen after school, or hadn’t returned home from work or anywhere else, it was concluded that he/she had been stolen and killed for money ritual. I still remember a good number of persons who went missing and had never been found till date.
As if working in cahoots with the circumstance around, nature immediately responded fiercely. Soon, terrible diseases first began to take children away, and then adults, due to malnutrition and frustration. Our river (called in Hausa, “kogin mutuwa”- direct translation- ” the river of death “) gladly drown daring children who run out of home to swim, when left to their own devices by their parents. This precarious situation placed a limitation on the freedom and benefits childhood accorded us at that time. For instance, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere outside the company of an elder and were stopped from accepting gifts from strangers, picking anything found on the ground and eating anything offered to us by our own friends or their parents whether at home or in school. The rule was strictly kept to the letter.
In no time, the boredom it bore, stole it’s way down through many other things children our age love to do, to dampen and destroy them. Christmas ended. We never went out to visit friends and eat with them, and if offered anything by the people Mom’s trust for was extremely thin, the food or gift was hauled into the wastecan accompanied by mighty prayers meant to break its supposed evil intentions. The long and short of it was that money had disappeared from our land. Very few had it, they were our military leaders, whose bank acounts in the country and abroad were swelling at breaking points with stolen funds, a proportion akin to the level of poverty that reigned in the land. They sought more and held it back from circulation. Thus, for the common man on the street, it was the case of the devil take the hindmost: people befriended evil, seeing that as the only last option to survival.
Khaki men came in to salvage the situation.1994 was a big disaster. It was Sani Abacha who was on seat. He had ruled with an iron hand. He was a god. People said he always knew all things even before they were hatched. There was no estimation to the number of persons he had “eliminated” on the preceived notion surrounding their being party to hatching vindictive plans against him.
His regime was real fire. Guns and boots spoke, not rules, not the constitution again. In fact all our rules were set aside. There was no court. What we had that bore the semblance of a body of rules depended on the whimps and caprices of the those in the Khaki. Those kind of rules were authentic chamaeleons, they change form easily. They could be one thing now and another thing the next minute, or support one thing and then turn round to oppose it at the blink of an eye. It was a new era, in which the mantra “the fear of soldiers, is the beginning of wisdom” seemed to have been acclaimed by all. Violence reigned freely unchallenged. Dare speak and your life will serve as a collateral!
This, however didn’t deter the dogged determination of the pens from not giving in, been muted or strangulated. It was the last beacon of hope, that indefatigable obstacle which once crossed meant all was finished. With their pens our heroic writers lodged a battle of no-retreat-no surrender against guns, boot and brutalities of unimaginable proportions. Earlier on Dele Giwa was murdered with a letter bomb. Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995 was silenced by hanging. A lot of others exiled, but still chose not to remain silent for even a split second and watch evil triumph freely over good.
That regime was worst off. It was a savage beast. It lacked a human heart. The brutalities it had unleashed on innocent Nigeria instilled a natural undying fear and respect for soldiers in us. Till date that fear still lurks somewhere in me.
There was this morning our compound awoke to the wailings of one of our neighbours whose husband was a driver. He had been away for some days on the road. We ran down to her room. The whole compound. A long moment passed by before any effort made to placate her began to have an impact. In fact what we heard spread an infectious shiver in the room. She had only had a terrible dream that her husband was manhandled by some soldiers. Our mothers began to sob quietly. A circle was immediately formed around her and earnest prayers were said. By the time we were leaving to catch up with the day’s activities, it was drawing close to mid noon. That afternoon the husband’s miraculous return still pulled the compound together. He had sung several choruses before revealing his experience. He was only waved to the roadside and delayed for a while, while a serious scrutiny was conducted on his particulars.
Frankly, dealings with soldiers was the worst thing one could face at that time. They would cover up an irritation under the veneer of smiles and friendly gestures, only to burst up at the end and do unthoughtful things.
The period gave soldiers unimaginable freedom. They took free rides up and down the country, could barge into a shop take whatever they had wanted and leave without paying. People dared not argue close to them. Once they take a side, blows or slaps were employed in resolving the argument. Nevertheless, as children, we saw all these as heroic and harboured and savoured the preoccupation of becoming soldiers. Almost every child in our compound nursed that ambition, albeit with vindictive intentions. To us anyone who had to prove being a man only had to join those in the Uniform. The truth is we saw soldiers as gods. They knew all things, knew when one said the truth or not and how much dosage of manhandling could pull one to come clean on any issue.
In our neighbourhood in the early 1995 a dusk to dawn curfew was once imposed to curtail criminality at its tender stage. By 7 pm each evening the compound was always as dead as a cementry. To keep troubles at bay, the compound’s gate on a unanimous arrangements closed by 5:45 pm on the dot. By 6pm most people were already million miles away on their beds. All doors would have been shut tightly. Anyone seen even outside in the compound doing any business would be in real soup. At times soldiers would climb the fence of a house to ensure no one was daring them.
It was at that time that in a park not more than a couple of miles away from our compound, where business women who came down from Benue to Numan with a variety of fruits slept at nights and did there business in the day, a loud wailing once cut through the silence-stricken neighbourhood one night. No one went out. But by day the story came to us. One of our neighbours had visited the business women’s pile of fruits covered with thick tampoles, helped himself with a couple of fresh succulent apples, but was sighted when returning by one of the women who had instantly raised the alarm. He sped down as fast as his feet could carry him. No one dared come after him. Unfortunately, around the corner that led to his house two soldiers headed in another direction did a quick u-turn to the direction the cry had emerged. Our neighbour ran directly into them. The apples right in his hand. He got the beatings of his life. He was returned home the next day half-alive. On top of that, it was told that the woman who had raised the alarm was traced and sanctioned with a few slaps for disturbing the peace of that night.
But then, since that day these women got full night protection every night. It was a compulsive give-or-take deal designed by the soldiers. The women were raped to be protected. One of them had told my Dad. She had to rush out of the business in shame, and return home to carry a pregnancy for an unidentified soldier amongst their lots who had slept with her.
Today as I look back, I can dare say categorically that our soldiers had failed woefully in retaining a wee bit atom of that intrepidity, bravery, stoutness and gallantry it was once known for. As a result it’s a common knowledge that they are as insecure as the masses who are constantly attacked, killed, maimed and displaced daily in the country. The uniform doesn’t command as much respect and reverence as it did in our time. It is simply a garment carrying a fast fading glory.
It’s a big pity Sambisa fail to fall into their hands dues to varying acts of sabotage claiming their lives and those of innocent citizens. Terrorists command more respect than them.
Although, I see their past legacy as shameful, I still hope they would rise to the occasion as an independent body to checkmate the security challenges bedevilling our nation rather than remain cheap tools or lickspittle for political and religious ulterior motives.
There is no time again. So many lives and properties have been lost already. The military should wake up from its slumber; rid itself of all manner of corruption, disloyalty, and arrogance destroying its image by piecemeal. It should fight these wars Nigerians lack the capacity to face. It has to prove being equal to this sensitive task, rather than manhandling innocent citizens with the uniforms and guns purchased for them with the citizens’ own money.
A few years ago, precisely about three years, some top recently retired Nigerian Military officers were accused of siphoning funds earmarked for procuring ammunition for combating insurgency in Maiduguri. Of course that was the very height of abomination. As one would expect, the issue was swept neatly under the carpet, only those who failed to stand with the present administration were sent behind bars. The others, in spite of their involvement in this unforgivable act, on the condition of standing behind the current administration, turned saints overnight, rose to instant fame, and were honoured with political appointments, mindless of the lives they like the terrorists had destroyed.
As luck would have it, the ugly discovery further uncovered several other abominations our top military men had committed within that short time. Most of our soldiers engaging the Boko Haram in Maiduguri were deprived their full allowances and equipped with antediluvian ammunition which when compared with the sophisticated weapons the terrorists had looked only like sticks and stones, which as a result led to death of a lot of these soldiers. While they laboured and placed their lives in grave dangers their superiors were out there flexing with stolen money. In fact on the day some of them, sometime last year were laid to rest in a mass burial the Number one citizen of the country was absent, somewhere on campaign.
Towards the end of last year and early this year, some soldiers had in the heat of the presidential election’s campaign abandoned the battleground for the Fulani herdsmen and Boko Boys to have their way. They were seen detaining newsmen and gagging news houses for no reason. This is the level the military has reduced itself to: people who fear immensely for their lives and would fall into action as far as the stupid order comes from “the above”. If not, isn’t the press as important as the Military in this critical moment; and what is the police meant for that the military should be found detaining people? It’s this same military who plays down the slaughtering of human beings by reducing the figures of people killed by these terrorists, arguing with the Press on this issue as though it were only some chickens that have been chased to the backyard and slaughtered, not humans.
Thus, one can dare say that the real terrorist isn’t the one who terrorizes, destroys human lives and properties at will, makes life unbearable, and peace difficult to come by, but, is the one who by any way or act, whether by merely being party to sabotage through fear, silence, pretence, or inactions, stands in the very way of uprooting insurgency. Such a person is the worst terrorist in life. He/she is a total disgrace to the profession of the military and humanity as a whole.
I call upon the military to turn a new leaf, to disentangle itself from what seem a pathetic permanent hug with politics, and to remain faithfully married to its very noble call in life. It should place more value on human lives, protect it with every means and knowledge at its disposal, at all times. Otherwise, sooner Nigerians will rise to defend themselves and plead with the Military to return their ammunition and evacuate the battlegrounds.
But for now, I feel the Military had failed woefully. The Uniform is a rugged old repulsive rag!
Alapa Peters Odugbo is an astute campus journalist, an interesting storyteller, a poet, and a compere for official events. He is equally a final year student in the department of Religious Studies, University of Ibadan. He could be reached via email: email@example.com.