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Dodging a bullet

Like most children growing up, I went through a phase where I idolized the idea of becoming a soldier. The guns, the jackboots the adrenaline……

Like most children growing up, I went through a phase where I idolized the idea of becoming a soldier. The guns, the jackboots the adrenaline… and the testosterone! It was awe-inspiring. I remember thinking that the world would come to an unceremonious end if I was not enrolled into the Nigerian Military School, Zaria. I was not enrolled, and the world did come to some kind of an end following that.

I don’t know if it was my resignation to the fact that I was not going to get what I wanted or something else – perhaps obeisance to one of the 48 Laws of Power – the one about hating what you can’t have, but the idea of being in the military sounds quite juvenile to me these days. Maybe I came of age and threw off that starry-eyed cluelessness of a kid who has watched too many American and Indian action films… who has soaked up too many nighttime tales about the Gandokis and Iliya dan-Maikarfis, a kid who grew up when military juntas ran the world I lived in. What’s not to like?

Last week, a group of soldiers on a peace mission were ambushed and murdered in a Delta State community. It was reported that among the dead were the commanding officer of the 181 Amphibious Battalion of the 6th Division of the Nigerian Army and three other senior officers and twelve soldiers.

The aftermath of the attack was discovered early Saturday, with soldiers recovering fourteen lifeless bodies of their killed colleagues. While some were found beheaded, others had their stomachs and hearts ripped out. According to reports, their bodies were found scattered along the NDDC jetty and river banks, showing the extent of the brutality.

The moment the news broke, I remember thinking to myself–what if I had become a military man? What if I had become a military man and I was part of that mission? What if I had become a military man and I was part of that mission having survived tours of duty into Sambisa, Mali and Birnin Gwari? Did I dodge a bullet?

Then I also remembered a line from John Donne’s No Man is an Island: “Any man’s death diminishes for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee”. Everyone is someone’s beloved and with every death, a heart is broken. And when the deceased lost their lives in service to a whole identity, the sadness reverberates across the full spectrum of that identity. As it turned out, I did not dodge that bullet.

But almost immediately, reports emerged about the panic among the residents of the community. They knew what was coming. I knew what was coming. Everyone knew what was coming. If I knew what was coming, the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria more than anyone knew what was coming. He almost certainly heard about the ambush before I did.

Being quite new to the levers of power, including commanding the armed forces of a regional superpower, Tinubu had all but declared war on the Republic of Niger as one of his first acts in office. He obviously wanted to take that baby for a whirl. It was a misfire by a “bloody civilian” who knew next to nothing about the politics of military power even though said civilian is an acclaimed maestro of the politics of agbada power. Because I take it for granted that he knew before I knew, I also have to take it for granted that he signed off on the “revenge mission” that was coming. It was coming; and that is something as sure as the blight of darkness coming after a long day.

And it did come. Apparently, many more bells have tolled since then. The thing is, if it is painful when a man or woman who wore the uniform of the Nigerian Army paid the supreme price in the line of duty, it is orders of magnitude more painful when a citizen of this republic has to pay that same price but not in the line of duty.

Clearly, we are still under a colonial authority. An occupying force stays effective by disincentivising an attack or seditious disobedience against any symbol of its authority. That is something it seems they want to make clear. Are the Nigerian Armed Forces still nursing a colonial hangover? Did they not swear to serve and protect the same men and women they so callously cut down with or without orders?

It is quite normal for military men to lord over their uniforms and their rifles against the same people who paid for those rifles and trained them on how to use them so they can protect us against threats to our lives and property. Just how disconcerting is it when our men in uniform constitute themselves into the same threats we hired them to guard us against? Is that not a paradox of reality?

Nigerian military men walk the streets as fascist dictators would walk down the corridors of power. Would I have been one of them? Would I have been conditioned the same way colonial military commanders would have trained their men: to not recognize the kinship they share with the folk they live with. To disregard consider the immediate institution that pays their salaries over and above the laws of the land and the unwritten covenant in force between them and the men and women that live around them?

Would I feel so good about myself being so power drunk, would I gladly brutalize my own kith and kin just for kicks? Would I consider myself a “man’s man” simply because I can force my way through anyone or anything?

So did I dodge a bullet? Most probably. More than one bullet, I reckon. The deaths of the sixteen officers and men of the Nigerian Army certainly diminished me. It is not clear how many lives may have been lost in Delta State as a fallout of the attack against the soldiers – the Defence authorities have denied planning or carrying out reprisals against the community so it isn’t clear what has happened.

Nonetheless, I am diminished by the loss of life on both sides.

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