… Nothing ever prepares you for when you kill a man for the first time, at that moment, you may not understand the gravity of what you have done because really you are just trying to live but later at night …”
I grew up in Lagos, within the busy streets of Ogba and at a time when the digital age was just growing into stride in Nigeria. We mostly played outside with children from down the street, and televisions and phones were a luxury of some sort. If there was anything that growing up in Lagos showed me, it was that good deeds were a rarity. The first act of selflessness towards me that I can recall happened when I was five. Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” ushered in the presence of the ice cream vendor into the neighbourhood, and I hurried out of the house hoping to be first to buy one. There was usually a line and the ice cream finished within minutes. I caught up with the man down the street and waited for my turn, I was last in the queue. When it was my turn, I realised I had left my money at home. I pleaded my plight with the sincerest face I could muster, and he smiled and said I need not worry. He gave me one of the last two ice cream cones with a smile on his face and filled my cone to the brim. I waited the next day so I could pay him for his kindness but the only things that remained the same when the ice-cream truck rolled in the next day were Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and the ice cream.
These days, selflessness and integrity have become needles in haystacks. My father told me that during his youth, strangers could walk up to your house just to watch Nigeria play football. Stores allowed certain people to cart away with goods because they trusted them knew they would come back to pay for the goods. A time when integrity was not so hard to find that we had to seek it in the words of failed statesmen and dishonest politicians. Nigeria has developed a habit of not rewarding its heroes appropriately until when forced to. Remember Stella Adadevoh? The woman that gave her life to save millions of Nigerians by stopping Patrick Sawyer from spreading Ebola through Lagos and consequently Nigeria? Remember Dora Akinluyi? A lady that dedicated her life to forcing nationwide crackdowns on sale of expired products and counterfeit drugs. What about the soldiers that lay their lives down just to keep a nation at war safe? Shouldn’t their sacrifice be recognised?
Serving your country as a member of the armed forces is one of the most selfless things a man can do, and as we know war is never fun. If you live in the South-Western part of Nigeria as I do, it does not seem like the country is at war, and these headlines of bombings and causalities in Northern Nigeria just feel like numbers in an arithmetic equation you could not be bothered about. A while ago, beyond the hills that once sheltered the residents of Iseyin, Oyo State during times of the Oyo Empire war, I sat with Ibrahim*, a soldier in the Nigerian armed forces. I was in the town completing my mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) three-week camp training when I noticed Ibrahim, a soldier that always had a smile spread across his cheek at all times. This was a rarity for me, Nigerian soldiers were renowned for being stone-faced and being quick to inflict grave amounts of pain when necessary; an aftereffect of Nigeria’s time under military rule. I offered to buy him a drink in exchange for the tales of his service in the Nigerian Army, he declined the drink but besought me with his story nonetheless.
War demands sacrifice of the people. It gives only suffering in return.”
— Frederic Clemson Howe
Being born in Northern Nigeria, schooling in Eastern Nigeria and living in South-Western Nigeria provided Ibrahim all the diversity he needed as a Nigerian. He could speak Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo fluently and it was hard to tell which tribe he belonged to—a rare case in a country pre-disposed to tribal bias. Ibrahim grew up hearing stories of war from his father who was a soldier that fought during the Biafra war. “When you grow up in that kind of house, and especially that type of environment, sometimes that life is all you ever see and all you ever want to be,” his eyes were searching, perhaps for succour and he chose his words carefully, I think this was a thing with members of the military, they never wanted to be caught wanting or have their words misconstrued or maybe it was the military training that stiffened their throats and hardened their words.
There are two ways to join the Nigerian Army, through the Nigerian Defence Academy and the Depot. The Nigerian Defence Academy is a military university and it was established in January 1964. The admission requirements were similar to what you will need to get into a Nigerian university, and the training spanned five years. The Depot was different though, all that was required was a Secondary School Leavers Certificate—a certificate that was given to you to indicate that you finished secondary school but the catch was that you could not advance past the rank of Army Warrant Officer without a University degree. “I joined through the Depot, I spent six months there, the training was intense and as expected, people died,” he says this casually as if it was a ritual that I must have heard of; he was not entirely wrong. It was drummed into my ears growing up that joining the military would have you sign your death warrant; you were as good as dead and many have been known to die during the training process. Ibrahim was in the special forces within the Nigerian Army and he was sent out to Bama like many others to fight Boko Haram insurgents. Bama is the second biggest town in Northern Borno state, and it accounted for over two hundred and fifty thousand residents according to the 2006 census. Bama was a major trading post on the road to Cameroon and it suffered one of its earliest attacks from insurgents in the summer of 2013.
“Fighting at Bama was my first time in a real war and fighting there was difficult. We were blocking borders that went carried people through to Cameroon, and we were always under fire. It was sort of like a hot zone. I could barely sleep because you never knew when the next attack would be.” Ibrahim’s words made it feel like the military spent most of their time being on the defensive and he was right. Insurgents seized control of Bama in September 2014 but the Nigerian army regained it in March 2015. Since the Nigerian military regained control of Bama, some of the internally displaced people have returned home, many others remain in IDP camps having lost all of their possession to the terrorist attacks. Since the initial attack in 2013, there has been an incessant back and forth at Bama between Boko Haram insurgents and the military with the most recent attack occurring six months ago.
Do you know what it feels like to not know if you’ll see the light of day tomorrow? To set out and know that this may be the last time you breathe air?”
Ibrahim’s greatest fear was feeling like he was never coming back home and the skies at Bama would be the last beauty his eyes would behold. He has attended multiple funerals of his fellow servicemen and sometimes he thought about how it could have been him within the confined walls of the coffin. When I ask if he feels the military was sufficiently armed, he gave a quick nod and smiled a reminiscent smile before he said “We were but these guys had a better armory and we struggled to feed so many times. We were not taken care of properly and the money we are paid doesn’t compensate for what we go through.” In a November 2018 attack on Metele, Borno state, several soldiers deserted their base after being overrun by Boko Haram forces. Soldiers who spoke anonymously to the local press mentioned how many soldiers were brutally murdered and they lamented their lack of sophisticated weapons. “The situation has gone so bad that it has gotten to a stage that soldiers would be rushing to pack up their camps and flee upon hearing the news that Boko Haram fighters are advancing.” A soldier said following the incident. Although the army reiterates that Boko Haram is not better armed than them, there have been soldiers that have disputed this claim. Following the desertion at Metele that claimed hundreds of soldier lives, deserters were subsequently court-martialed.
Men fear death as children fear to go into the dark and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.”
— Francis Bacon
On the first time he killed a man and if the experience changed him, Ibrahim started in plain English but he switched to pidgin English when the weight of loss bore on him: “ Nothing ever prepares you for when you kill a man for the first time, at that moment, you may not understand the gravity of what you have done because really you are just trying to live but later at night, reality sets in and then it haunts you, but you realise it’s them or you and you make yourself okay with it. It used to haunt me a lot when I first came back but I remind myself that these people killed my friends also. I am getting better now.”
Within the Nigerian army, many soldiers suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An Independent UK report on the overwhelming number of suicidal military members in the UK and the neglect they face was quoted to have said “At the turn of the 21st century, both the military and governments in the UK have come to recognise the issue of military-related suicide but despite the increase in mental health awareness and support campaigns for both serving soldiers and veterans over the past two decades, concerns over deaths continue”. Nigeria is a country still warming up to the realities of mental health awareness and treatment. Many within the army do not know what PTSD is, and even if they do, they are afraid to speak up because they fear they may be unfairly adjudged to be mad. This is the reality of Ibrahim—whose memories of war sometimes haunt him—and many others. When I ask why he always had a smile that stretched his lips thin, he said “ I have seen the extreme parts of life and I am just grateful that I am here to see a new day”. Ibrahim is married to a fellow soldier, but they do not have kids yet. He hopes when he has kids that they would see a better and safer Nigeria. I reminded him that my offer to buy him a drink still stood and then I thanked him for his service to his country. I felt him steel himself, and his lips trembled a bit before forming into a familiar smile. He stopped a single teardrop from crawling its way down his left cheek and he did not say a word after, and neither did I.
*Names have changed.
Ifeoluwa Falola is a Nigerian storyteller focused on telling African realities and documenting the stories of those who have been to those who are yet to be. Have you ever kissed someone and known it to be the last time you’ll ever? Ifeoluwa has and he is determined to not only capture euphoria and fleeting emotions with his writing but also make you feel the emotions you ought to feel but choose to neglect. Leaving a piece of himself in every work of his, Ifeoluwa believes if you ardently piece together his art, you could help him discover himself as you have caught him at a weird space in his life. He lives in a melting pot of inhibited ambitions and purposeful nothingness that some people refer to as Lagos, Nigeria.