Liegerian Army’s 1,000 Unmarked Graves, By Festus Adedayo
NEWS DIGEST – BANKOLE Folorunso Adedayo was my blood brother. Born in 1973, he was a soldier of the 1 Brigade, Nigerian Army, Sokoto. In 2000, a terse posted letter arrived the News Room of the ANN Plc., publishers of the Tribune newspaper, my erstwhile employer, from his own employer which shattered the walls and world of my family. He had been killed in the thick of fighting in the Sierra Leonean war, so said the letter to me, his next of kin. Till now, that terse 2-paragraph omnibus letter is all that has transpired between our family and the Nigerian Army, 19 years after. The date he died, how he died, his corpse and all that happened are swallowed in the bowels of the Nigerian Army. Nothing can be more painful than knowing that the Nigerian Army reduced my beloved brother to a one-paragraph letter.
A few days back, the highly influential Wall Street Journal caused a furore when it alleged that over 1000 Nigerian soldiers were secretly buried at night in unmarked graves recently at the Maimalari barracks, Maiduguri. If you are one of the defenders of our Defence Headquarters and rubbishing the report because you are a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or All Progressives Congress (APC) faithful, draw your chair closer and let us talk. I have walked that painful path before. WSJ brought back afresh the wound in the heart of our family. You can imagine millions of families secretly sobbing at the avoidable deaths of their loved ones who strayed into the Nigerian Army either out of love, joblessness or patriotism.
Bankole had joined the Army barely a year before. Jobless after school, I was shocked one day when, upon arrival at home when I heard that he had joined the Army and had been posted to Sokoto. Less than six months of his joining the Army, a letter arrived from him. With no training and no experience, the 27-year old was right inside a forest near Freetown where a military jet which airlifted him and his rookie compatriots had dropped them. They were in the forest for about a month, feeding on raw cassava and fruits. No food, no water. When the soldiers eventually entered Freetown, he called me fairly regularly on Tribune’s telephone number to ask us to pray for him. I broke down one day when, in the background, I heard rat-a-tat volleys of guns. We were glad when, a few months after, he came home, dressed in the green overall uniform of the Nigerian Army. He was proud of it. He had taken excuse duty from Freetown. He regaled us with grisly stories of how hundreds of his colleagues were killed by Foday Sankoh and another rebel commander called General Mosquitoes. He returned to Sierra Leone two weeks after. And that was the last we ever saw of him. Or his remains.
Death blew vuvuzela in my father’s compound and all its emissaries – sorrow, tears, wailing and agony – converged to hold their dreadful meeting. It became their temporary place of domicile. Sure they had got another colony to temporarily occupy, they sat regally like a royal bard who had come to pay the village bridegroom a surprise visit. Residents, passersby and the entire neighborhood knew we had been visited by strange guests who served us grisly dinner of tears, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Those who could roll on the floor did without a care in the world; those whose modus operandi of acknowledging the thorny handshake of our uninvited guests was to wail, wailed like a sparrow whose child had just been shot dead by a slingshot. You didn’t need anyone to tell you death had given us the bitter end of meadows to chew.
A few hours earlier, I had arrived from Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, with a piece of news for my father and mother. For hours, agreeing on the mode of its delivery turned me into an effeminate little urchin. The Nigerian Army, with that eerie, blood-red logo of its, a diffident eagle perching on a crest like a bird of passage, had just sent me by post a letter which sent sorrow coursing deep down into my marrows. My younger brother, the terse and incorrigibly unsympathetic two-paragraph letter had volunteered, had been missing in action in the Sierra-Leonean war. It broke the boundaries of my English Language mastery. What did the English mean to say someone was missing in action? I asked restlessly, amid a pall of sorrow that enveloped me. Some said ‘Missing in Action’ was an euphemism for my brother having died; others said he had probably gone AWOL and some others said the Nigerian Army, incompetent like everything Nigerian, probably couldn’t find him in a few weeks and concluded that he was missing. I put a call to his Sokoto Army base and ambivalence was the echo that rang in my ears. So, dejected, emotionally calibrated, I had come to hand over the terse letter to my parents about the death of a child they couldn’t hide the fact that, in his lifetime, he was one they loved most of my siblings and me. That was the last interface between the Nigerian Army and us – Bankole’s family. No commiseration, no dime as payment of allowance for his martyrdom; not even the ‘honour’ of ever seeing, perhaps, his mutilated corpse.
When I read the WSJ expose, I imagined how that ululating, tearful dirge that heralded the most sorrowful, most traumatic day ever in the life of my extended family some years back, had been amateurishly cloned and played in thousand homes across Nigeria. WSJ, writing in a very descriptive, difficult-to-disbelieve prose, clearly articulated the peremptoriness, the casual murder of our sons and daughters in a war which the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, General Muhammadu Buhari, had off-handedly dismissed as having been won by Nigeria. Even if you are as unfeeling as to be able to crush the head of a tortoise with your teeth, you would weep for Nigeria.
It reported a deceased soldier’s wife, Mercy, whose husband, Lance Cpl. Tamuno, had been killed by Boko Haram terrorists at an outpost in Cross Kauwa, about 100 miles north of Maiduguri, who demanded to see the grave of her husband. “She was taken to the official cemetery at Maimalari, where graves are marked with plywood headstones. There, she was led to a spot marked with a plastic bottle with her husband’s name written on it,” said the report. She told WSJ: “It was the only one marked in this way. I’m not sure it was his grave but that’s what the army told me.” Tamuno’s soldier mates from his unit reportedly said he had been buried days earlier in the secret graveyard.