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Woman, soldier and combatant: The evolution of the Nigerian Army Women’s Corps

By Owei Lakemfa

THE International Women’s Day of March 8, 2018 had a lot of promise for women across the world as they measured how far they had travelled on the road to integration. In Germany, that day marked the centenary of the women’s right to vote. It also served as reminder that Germany has the highest gender-based wage discrimination in Europe, with the gap being 21 per cent.

In Nigeria, it was a day of lamentation. While the country was still grappling with the after effects of the April 14-15, 2014 abduction of 276 girls from the Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State by the Boko Haram terrorists, another abduction had occurred on February 9, 2018, just 29 days before the Women’s Day. On this occasion, 110 girls of the Government  Girls’ Science and Technical  College, Dapchi, Yobe State were kidnapped.

However, the next day, March 9, 2018, the Chief of  Army Staff, COAS, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai gave Nigerian women something significant to cheer about: the establishment of the first army women corps in West Africa, the Nigerian Army Women’s Corps, NAWC.

Army

It is not that women had never served in the 155-year-old army. In fact, the Nigerian Army had the distinction in 1990 of producing the first female General in a contemporary West African army when psychiatrist, now retired Major- General Aderonke Kale, was promoted Brigadier-General. What was significant this time, was that General Buratai – the first COAS with female soldiers accounting for most of his personnel and who has promoted the recruitment of women combatants – established an entire female corps in the army.

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In taking this historical step, General Buratai must have recognised the capacity and competence of women soldiers in the army he is the Chief. More importantly, it does not make sense for a country with females accounting for over half its180 million populace, to neglect or shut out this huge human resource  from the task of defending the motherland and the populace. Also, it is a process of educating and conscientising the army to the fact that women are not inferior, and that our Constitution rejects discrimination in any form or guise.

The integration of women fully into the army at all levels is also international best practice. In this sense, the COAS is modernising the army and equipping it for roles in an increasingly globalised world. In establishing the NAWC, General Buratai explained that: “The Corps will give the Nigerian Army an opportunity to recognise women in order to derive the maximum benefit from their contribution to the defence and security of our nation.’’

Prior to his appointment as COAS, General Buratai was the Force Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force, MJTNF, fighting the Boko Haram terrorists. His resolve to establish the NAWC might partly have been informed by his experience in this deadly war in which women have been used in the most disingenuous way in the history of warfare.

In her book, Boko Haram, Beyond The Headlines: Analyses of Africa’s Enduring Legacy, Elizabeth Pearson wrote: “Boko Haram deployed its first female suicide bomber in an attack on a military barracks in Gombe State in June 2014, and since then, it has far outstripped any previous terrorist group’s deployment of FST, Female Suicide Terrorist, whether religious or secular. As of February 28, 2018, a recorded 469 female ‘suicide bombers’ have been deployed or arrested in 240 incidents, and they have killed more than 1,200 people across four countries: Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Almost 3,000 more people have been injured.”

Pearson explained further that the use of  female suicide terrorists has five key advantages. “First, the ‘shock value’ of initial use of female attackers may ensure publicity and therefore have a propaganda effect. Second, women and girls can have easier access to targets because females are less often ‘suspected, inspected, or detected’ as attackers. This can be especially true in Islamic societies where there are strong social barriers to predominantly male security officers subjecting Muslim women to checks.

This ultimately renders FST a short-term tactic since security forces can and do adapt. Third, the use of female suicide attackers avoids disrupting predominantly male lines of leadership, particularly if men see women as ‘burdensome’. Fourth, militant groups suffering shortages of male recruits amid, for example, an intensification of external pressures, can resort to FST in an act of ‘desperation’. Fifth, FST can be used to shame men to fight.”

Given the above figures and analysis, and the fact that the terrorists target girls for kidnapping, it is logical for a general leading his troops in battle, to analyse the tactics and strategies of the enemy and develop appropriate responses. The NAWC is clearly part of the responses  of the Nigerian Army to defeat the terrorists.

Women combatants have demonstrated in many countries that being a good soldier is not gender-based. One of  the most vicious wars in contemporary times is that against the Islamic State, ISIS, who virtually take no prisoners and took pleasure slitting the throats of even hostages. It was against this brutal group, female soldiers of the Kurdish Peshmerga  fanned out in June, 2014 participating in the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, and seizing the city from ISIS. Two years later, 1,000 female Peshmerga fighters trained and went into battle against ISIS leading to the liberation of Kirkuk and the nearby oil fields. The women are also leading some of the units in completely wiping out ISIS.

Female Nigerian soldiers are engaged in a similar war against the terrorist Boko Haram. Reporting in The Nation Newspapers of July 9, 2018, Funmi Omotosho wrote: “I was caught in an euphoria I could not instantly explain, when I listened to the fervent voice of a young Nigeria Army officer, identified as Sergeant Blessing. She was addressing the Nigerian Army top brass and leaders of Nigeria at the recent Chief of Army Staff Conference, COASC, at Monguno, Borno State, at the exhibition stand whilst Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo was being conducted round the various stands. She said: ‘We have been trained to help combat the scourge of terrorism, especially suicide bombings that are usually carried out by women. We are not just the first Service (Nigerian Army) to establish the Women Corp, we are proud to be part of the Nigerian Army’s success against Boko Haram.”

I am sure the Acting NAWC Commander, Brigadier-General P. B. Fakrogha must also be proud of the corps he has helped to midwife. The  Nigerian Army Women’s Corps, NAWC, is one which has come to stay; it might turn out to be the most significant innovation and contribution by General Buratai as the COAS.


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