We must treat our fallen soldiers and their families with dignity

The report in the American Wall Street Journal that the Nigerian military authorities secretly buried more than 1,000 soldiers killed in the battle with insurgents deserves more than the usual perfunctory response from the Defence Headquarters. In what has become the cheapening of the noble symbolism of paying the supreme sacrifice for country in defence of compatriots, there is an abuse of globally recognised tradition which requires that families of the fallen soldiers be informed and recovered remains be accorded decent burial. That has been the situation in Nigeria for years and there is nothing in the WSJ report that is not already in the public domain.

The sordid practice of burying slain soldiers secretly like paupers, sometimes without the knowledge of their kith and kin started with the Liberian Civil War. At that period, Nigerian soldiers who died in the peacekeeping operations were usually brought back home under the cover of darkness because 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. 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, “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 they died.

The loss of a loved one is grave enough. The memory that they were interred in uncelebrated anonymity further heightens the loss and increases the sense of futility of national service in this place. There is the worrying reality that perhaps the progress in the anti-insurgency war is not as impressive as the military and their political handlers may want us to believe. With the recent attacks by the insurgents—who have proved conclusively that regardless of what the authorities are saying, they still possess sufficient capacity for evil—there is an urgent need to go back to the drawing board. So, what the WSJ report has shown is that to win the war against Boko Haram, we must begin to treat our fallen soldiers and their families with dignity.

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.

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 by enlisting in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency should be treated as the heroes that they truly are. When they pay the supreme sacrifice on behalf of the nation, the least they deserve are decent burials. 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.