Soldiers who die fighting so that we may live deserve decent burials

While the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) group recently accused the military of secretly burying soldiers killed by Boko Haram insurgents on the battlefield, the response from the military authorities has, to say the least, been disappointing. For many years, Nigerian soldiers who died in peacekeeping operations abroad were usually brought back home under the cover of darkness and buried secretly like paupers, sometimes without the knowledge of their kith and kin. The practice started with the Liberian civil war when the military regime in power was scared of any controversy arising from possible protests against the arrival of body bags from the West African country where Nigerian troops formed the bulk of the ECOMOG, the peacekeeping force in Liberia.

In fact, a former ECOMOG Commander, the late General Victor Malu, once admitted that he ordered the secret burial of some 800 dead Nigerian soldiers killed in Liberia, saying he did so “in order to avoid national uproar and panic.” There was no further statement as to whether the families of the dead soldiers ever got to know of how and when their loved ones died. This was a gross disservice to the memories of those who put their lives on the line in the service of their country.

Seven years ago, former Senate President David Mark condemned the practice of secret burials for Nigerian soldiers. Speaking after he was decorated with the 2011 emblem of the Armed Forces Remembrance Day in Abuja, Mark, himself a retired military officer, declared: “If not for anything else, they (the fallen soldiers) deserve national honours,” adding that “Those who die in wars or peacekeeping missions are heroes that must be celebrated.”

As we have had course to point out in the past, no country has more soldiers dying in wars or peace missions in foreign countries than the United States of America. From the First and Second World Wars to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, up to the contemporary battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, there had been no instance where America’s dead soldiers were buried secretly without their families’ knowledge. All the dead bodies were usually accounted for, and taken home to the United States draped in the national flag, for interment or in certain cases buried in American military cemeteries abroad.

However, in all cases, families of the dead soldiers are informed about the fate of their loved ones. Those who wish to have a private burial for their dead family member are usually considered under certain conditions. Even up till today, the Quartermaster General of the United States Armed Forces still receives and responds to enquiries from families regarding their sons and daughters who could not be accounted for or were listed as missing in action (MIAs). Only recently, the North Korean authorities returned the remains of some American soldiers who died during the 1950 Korean War for heroic burials.

The implication here is that America accords maximum respect to the men and women who wear the uniform of its armed forces. This explains why every American soldier is ever willing and proud to die in defence of the national flag. It is the same with most countries where premium is placed on the lives of those who not only serve but are also willing to stake their lives in promotion of the ideals for which their nation stood.

There is therefore no reason why this should not be the same here in Nigeria. The men and women who answer the call for national assignment in the form of peacekeeping should be treated as the heroes they truly are. They deserve decent burial. We therefore urge the authorities to ensure that all Nigerian dead soldiers buried secretly without their families’ knowledge be exhumed and reburied accordingly and with honours. They deserve nothing less.

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