SPECIAL REPORT: For fallen Nigerian soldiers, families risk suffering socioeconomic woes

After Leebart Olalekan waited for months to hear from her husband, she suspected the worst, and she was right.

Isiaka Dauda, the corporal she married seven years earlier, was declared dead last March, becoming another of Nigeria’s frontline fallen heroes fighting to stave off the insurgency of extremist groups in northern Nigeria.

If he was sturdy in physique, his appetite for justice was even firmer, his wife said. This was why he joined the army in 2009.

Born in Côte D’Ivoire, the polyglot moved to Nigeria in 2004 before clinching a higher diploma from the Nigerian Army College of Environmental Science and Technology, Makurdi (NACEST).

The 32-year-old father of a six-year-old daughter was conscripted for an operation in Maiduguri but never returned.

Isiaka Dauda

For Leebart, his wife, life came crumbling at her feet.

War against terror

What began as a crisis in some parts of Borno, Nigeria’s decade-long war against Boko Haram and Islamic State’s West Africa Province terrorists has spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in the northern part of the country with millions of people dependent on aid while the war shows no sign of slowing.

Frontline casualties were estimated to be over 35,000 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). But the full human cost of the war is much greater, the UNDP said.

When the indirect consequences of the conflict, like damage to agriculture, water, trade, food and healthcare were factored in, the toll estimated by the UNDP reached 350,000 and around three million displaced persons.

The spokesperson of the defence headquarters, Wap Maigida, faulted the UNDP figure but could not provide the military’s official frontline casualties. He declined further comments when he was called on November 22, four days after the first call. His colleague in the army, Onyema Nwachukwu, declined comments too.

Having remarried with a year old daughter, Leebart, a graduate of Kwara State College of Nursing and Midwifery, said she is “lucky” as she has been able to turn things around for herself.

“I would say I am lucky to have turned things around for myself,” she cut a happy figure as she spoke, adjusting her niqob (veil) for the umpteenth time.

The 30-year-old Ibadan-based nurse with over 10 years experience runs a pharmaceutical shop at the Olodo area of Ibadan, where she also offers medical and trado-medical consultancy, the latter, a skill she learnt from her new husband, Ismail.

Even though she is still expecting the third tranche of her former husband’s entitlement, she has moved on. On average, she rakes in about N150,000 weekly. The same cannot, however, be said of other widows of fallen servicemen.

Empowering widows with marketable skills and giving them opportunities to be productive is better than giving them gifts and palliatives, Grace Okeke, a project coordinator with Asake Foundation, a non-profit aid donor, said.

Sullen hope

Meeting a stranger in a bank hall and entrusting her to make deposits on your behalf is a risk most would rather not take, but that was how Peter Onyema stole Blessing Ayaku’s heart in 2011.

Pressed by time, Mr Onyema had to dash out of the bank that afternoon, but he had not fulfilled his obligation there.

Peter Onyema

That was where Ms Ayaku came in, someone he had only met less than 30 minutes earlier. They exchanged contacts and kept in touch. The embers of love were kindled, and it has continued to glow since then — even in death.

Marrying Mr Onyema, the man who sponsored her education through the University of Uyo, on December 29, 2011, was Ms Ayaku’s new year’s gift.

She was camping for the compulsory National Youth Service scheme in Akwa Ibom in August 2017 when a bombshell dropped: her husband was missing in action, a military designation for someone whose whereabouts are unknown, but whose death is not confirmed.

Fearing the worst, the 34-year-old mother of one rushed home and when she had further details she passed out.

Her husband, 42, a corporal at the time, who joined the army in 1997, was ambushed while leading troops providing cover for an oil company on a mission to fix an oil well in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

This happened barely two months before he would be promoted to the rank of sergeant. Months later, he was declared dead.

Before that, the assailants had attacked Mr Onyema’s outpost, but under his lead, the unit foiled the attack, killing five of the attackers believed to be cultists.

Ms Ayaku believes the attack was a reprisal from Greenlanders, a notorious mafia-styled street gang that sprung out of the armed militant groups engaged in criminal acts of violence and voodoo in Port Harcourt and Emohua local government areas of River State, where over 100 cult groups operate, according to SBM Intelligence, a research firm.

Rivers State map showing where cult groups operate. [PHOTO CREDIT: SBM Intelligence]Between 2007 and 2020, SBM said no less than 639 persons were killed in gang violence in Rivers, a grossly conservative figure, about 73 per cent of which were recorded between 2015 and 2020.

Since her husband’s death, Ms Ayaku has been solely responsible for the care of her only son, Remaliah, 6, and two stepchildren, Rachel, 21, and Jotham, 16.

Making ends meet

Because she was unemployed, parenting the children alone was overwhelming. Her only source of livelihood was the N19,800 monthly stipend she received as a corps member.

Weeks later, her husband’s ATM card with her expired. She complained to the bank but was denied access due to privacy.

Lagos-based banker, Sheriff Hamzah, said “it is not possible” to transfer the account of a deceased “unless there is a will” or an administrative letter with two signatories, issued by a court after presenting a death certificate. Ms Ayaku had none.

Ennui crept in and she occasionally had seized breathing, taking her in and out of the hospital and dealing a great blow to her mental health.

Pushed to the wall, her two stepchildren were sent to the street to hawk tiger nuts drinks, a sweet, milk-like beverage.

If this was all she was to contend with, then it probably would have made light of her worries. Nothing prepared her for the ordeal she would face in seeking to know who killed her husband.

With the mission of turning “waste to wealth” and improving the welfare of troops, the Nigerian Army, in 2008, renamed the Army Welfare Holdings Limited (AWHL) to Nigerian Army Welfare Limited/Guarantee (NAWL/G).

The company coordinates the activities of the hitherto independent subsidiaries like the Nigerian Army Post Exchange (NAPEX), Nigerian Army Properties Limited (NAPL), Nigerian Army Small-Scale Drug Manufacturing Unit (NASDMU), Post Service Housing Development (PHD), Post-Service Homes Savings and Loans (PHL), and Nigerian Army Welfare Insurance Scheme (NAWIS).

Through NAWIS, Ms Ayaku was paid N150,000 and later, N250,000 as burial allowances.

The allowances should ordinarily offset her urgent financial needs, but no. As she could not take her mind off knowing how her husband died, she decided she would stop at nothing to know, even if it takes using her last kobo.

Her resolve was understandable. Solate, the fond name she called her man, showed her unrestrained love. The labour of her son, Remaliah, took about three days, but her man was with her all through, she said. He shared her pain, cried with her as she laboured and kept cheering her on.

When she was discharged, the man cooked for her, did all the home chores and bought her a new Gionee M2 phone and a beautiful dress “to say thank you.”

“Solate is like a light to my life. He loved good things. He wanted me to go far,” she sobbed.

“For several months, I was relying on God. Everything became so hard that even to feed the children was something else,” she said with a pause, before heaving a heavy sigh which soon gave way to light sobs. The silence in the air hung for a few more minutes. The emotion that followed was too tender for further interview.

Finding the dead

Mr Onyema was declared dead by the army after about one and a half years of his disappearance, and “life has been difficult since then,” the Onyema widow said.

Having repeatedly asked the army for months for details about her husband’s death, she was given no tangible information as the army said its findings were “confidential.”

“The names of the people that went for the operation were not given. The company itself where the attack happened did not send any condolences or take any responsibility,” she said.

Teniola Tayo, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), an African think-tank, said “it is important that the loved ones of fallen soldiers are informed about the conditions around their passing, provided that this was the wish of the soldier.”

Teniola Tayo, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

Tired of asking, Ms Ayaku began to sniff around. Then she met Lucky, whom she said was a cultist and had contact with the Greenlanders gang.

But Lucky wanted money. At first, she parted with N150,000. Then she transferred another N200,000 to him.

Lucky told her her husband was lured with the kidnap of an expatriate of the oil company. With him on the mission to rescue the victim, before he could get there, he was captured, hogtied and shot.

“They (the army) couldn’t find his corpse,” she said. “It was like a set-up.”

Even though there was no way she could authenticate Lucky’s claim, she trusted him and did not feel she was scammed. She has since lost contact with him.

Months later, she was paid her husband’s death benefit amounting to about N3.5 million, one she used to purchase an uncompleted building in Kaduna, but she continues to stay in the barrack in Akwa-Ibom.

At the brink of dropping out of school

Now in her third year studying medicine and surgery at a university in Uganda, Halimah Jafaru, 23, pays $6,500 per session as tuition, an amount that would take her father, Jafaru Musa, with his rank as a master warrant officer (MWO), his entire salary for over three years to meet.

Jafaru Musa died of cardiac arrest

Ordinarily, she only became a student of the school because of the goodwill of her uncle who took her and her cousins to the East African country due to incessant academic strike back home. But that goodwill ended last year after the uncle died.

The responsibility was handed back to Mr Jafaru, who joined the army in 1990. This March, he too died of cardiac arrest after he was rushed to the hospital from work at Mogadishu Cantonment, Abuja.

Mogadishu Cantonment, also known as Abacha barrack, Abuja was where Jafaru Musa worked before he died. [PHOTO CREDIT: Yusuf Akinpelu]Now, Halimah’s mother, Aisha Jafaru, 40, who sells petty goods, has to rally to keep her daughter in school. But with no fixed income source, her daughter is on the brink of dropping out.

The death of her husband also meant footing the bills of her two children at Al-Hikmah University, Ilorin, were hers.

The school fee of Khadijah, 17, a sophomore studying basic medical laboratory science, has been upped to N1.03 million from N830,000 last year. During this interview in October, Khadijah said she had been at home for weeks. Her brother, Abdulrahman, 20, a fresher studying computer science, pays N680,000 per session.

For now, Mrs Jafaru’s blushes are being saved by her other children who attend Command Secondary School, Suleja, where they pay much less: Yahuza, 11, in JSS 2 and Hauwa, 13, in SS1.

Although the army has paid her husband’s burial allowance, it is barely enough to meet basic home needs like food, and she is on borrowed time at Mogadishu barrack where she has lived for 15 years.

Once her husband’s death benefit is paid, she will have to leave the barrack and search for her own home with her five children.

That would mean a marriage that began at the Presidential Villa 23 years ago — her husband served directly under late military dictator Sani Abacha in the Villa, while she worked as a cook in the same place — is about to be thrown into the doldrums of homelessness.
“If we can see a job, we will overcome depression. We can do any job. Even if it is home and dry cleaning, we can do it,” she pleaded on behalf of two of her widowed friends.

Rahamatu Ahmed, 38, told PREMIUM TIMES that since death ended her 27-year-marriage with Ahmed Nasiru, 51, last June, fending for their seven children and keeping them in school has been a tall order.

Wedding invitation of Ahmed Nasiru and Rahamatu Ahmed in 1994 [PHOTO CREDIT: Yusuf Akinpelu].The little the Ahmeds had was expended on Mr Ahmed’s medical tests and bills after he was diagnosed with gastro liver cancer. Last year’s nationwide lockdown due to Covid-19 slowed the MWO’s access to treatment. It ended his life. The eldest of his children is now at the brink of dropping out of college.

Ahmed Nasiru

Conservative cultural practice and imbalance in economic opportunities often mean women have to depend on men to meet basic needs. At the demise of the man, the pangs of hardship bit.

“When these financial support systems are down, the widows can barely provide for themselves and their children, and that accounts for the many out-of-school children from widowed families,” Ms Okeke said.

Grace Okeke, a project coordinator with Asake Foundation.

Some survivors of deceased servicemen said payment of entitlements can be slow to arrive, making it difficult for them to offset urgent financial needs.

But even when the money does arrive, it goes into basics and is hardly ever invested. For a woman that had not worked all her life or without any specific skill, it is back to square one.

Andrea Kwen, a legal practitioner and women’s rights advocate, believes the institutionalised albatross of inequality is both systemic and cultural and is fueled by religion.

She said whatever became of the widows of soldiers is a reflection of “the quality of the welfare servicemen themselves accessed while in service” as well as the life choices of the servicemen.

Andrea Kwen

“It is a cultural problem and now it has been institutionalised, and this is the problem with inequality,” Ms Kwen said. “When you place culture side-by-side with religion, you have a very deadly combination.”

Some servicemen take high-risk behaviours and make shoddy retirement plans which drain their funds. This leaves their widows at the risk of being often bullied and disinherited, she noted.

Unlike Mmes Jafaru and Ahmed, a 46-year-old mother of six, Halimah Musa, has to share her husband’s entitlement with her co-wife and mother-in-law.

The kunu and water she sold before her husband of 32 years, Musa Wakala, died of pneumonia last June aged 52 can barely keep her family afloat.

Musa Wakala

Now, her son, Mansur, 26, studying microbiology at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto (UDUS); Abdulrahman, 24, studying veterinary medicine in a school in Zamfara, the same state in which her twin, Hassan and Hussainah, 21, are studying nursing, have returned home due to school fee. Khadijah, 17, had just gained admission to study microbiology in UDUS, but it is uncertain she will resume due to finance.

Ms Kwen said the widows should be taught self-reliance as this would open their eyes to the possibilities within them. She added that rather than just financial support, the military should design a sustainability plan for widows, build their capacity and teach them to be financially independent.

Mr Maigida of the defence headquarters said the armed forces cater for the education of the children of its deceased members not studying abroad, from elementary to the university.

Those who are at the brink of dropping out, “it is either they were not documented or the armed forces are not aware,” he said. But all the women interviewed said their children were well documented.

Worth of a serviceman’s life

While Mr Maigida promised to get back, Mr Nwachukwu of the army declined to comment on the death benefit benchmark for deceased personnel’s survivors.

But judging by the total death benefits Ms Ayaku was paid, the survivors of a sergeant — the fourth highest rank among enlisted personnel — get around N4 million (about $7,000).

By law, in the U.S., the survivors of servicemen get a tax-free death gratuity of $100,000. There’s also, generally, a $400,000 life insurance payment. The payouts differ among higher-ranked officers and enlisted personnel.

The widows of the fallen South African soldiers killed in the battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic in 2013 received R200,000 ($13,000) each. But veterans described the benefit as “ridiculous and laughable” as it should not be less than R2-million ($130,000).

Fallen South African servicemen’s beneficiaries may also qualify for four types of benefits: a one-off pension; SA national defence force (SANDF) group life insurance scheme benefit; SANDF group life insurance scheme funeral benefit; and SA army foundation fund benefit, defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, once said.

“The welfare of military widows is directly linked to the morale of our soldiers. Taking adequate care of the wives of those who have fallen sends a signal to our entire defence staff that their sacrifice will not be in vain as far as their families are concerned,” Ms Tayo of ISS said.

“Their families have needs, and their sacrifice shouldn’t lead to an interruption in their children’s education, or the impoverishing of their households. This is the only way other Nigerians can have a higher regard for the call of defending this nation — something that is very challenging in these current times.”

As an annual ritual in Nigeria’s budgetary cycle, in accordance with the remuneration for the Former Presidents’ Act, billions of naira are allocated as entitlements, severance allowances and other perquisites to the nation’s former leaders, dead or alive.

The nation has budgeted over N68.8 billion in five years for its former leaders, including chiefs of defence staff, service chiefs, generals, colonels and army warrant officers.

Heavily criticised, the gratuity for some state governors is even more humongous.

Paying the ultimate price in the defence of the country does not come with such rewards.

Officer-soldier dichotomy

Would these widows allow their children to join the military? They were all consistent with their responses: No. Their reasons ranged from allegations of discrimination to poor working conditions. Some, however, said they would give their consent if their children join as commissioned officers.

The personnel of the Nigerian military, like anywhere else, are made up of commissioned officers and enlisted personnel (called soldiers by the army; ratings by the navy; and airmen/women by the airforce). The former cadre usually have specialised training and come into the service with higher educational qualifications.

During the colonial era, blacks attained rating ranks while whites were officers, a relationship characterised by morbid rights abuse.

Three ratings echoed similar opinions as all five widows interviewed. They said while western countries have renegotiated the working relationship between officers and ratings, Nigeria is stuck in the discriminatory practices of the colonial era.

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“Even a rating that became an officer is likely to be discriminated against by some group of officers,” one leading seaman said.

“There is clear discrimination against the ratings. The ratings are seen as tools.”

Three officers disagreed. They said it is “carriage,” not discrimination.

A frontline lieutenant in Maiduguri described the officer-soldier relationship as one between kings and their subject. You cannot compare them, he said.

A Lagos-based flying officer said for this reason, “the highest (ranked) rating is junior to the least (ranked) officer” and paid less.

Another lieutenant based in Keffi said ratings take more physical jobs because “they are meant to be followers, taking orders from their officers who are their leaders.”

The segregation runs deeper. Personnel from opposite cadres cannot marry one another while in service, two personnel said.

An October 18 signal from the naval headquarters seen by this reporter warned officers against “fraternising with soldiers, ratings or airmen” because it “ridicules standing tradition.” Defaulters risk being “sanctioned severely.”

This is true according to section 80 of the Armed Forces Act which says any “officer who fraternises with a soldier, rating or an aircraftman” is liable to a maximum of five years imprisonment.

Again Messrs Maigida and Nwachukwu did not return calls and text messages placed to them to ask about these rules.

Ms Kwen said transparent internal accountability mechanisms are key to earning public trust and how citizens perceive the lead experience of servicemen.

Support for this story was provided by the Media and Gender Project of Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism #CREATESAFESPACES

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