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The Wall Street Journal and nocturnal burials

By Col Timothy Antigha

THE highly respected The Wall Street Journal recently published a story where it sensationally claimed that over a thousand soldiers killed in the ongoing counterinsurgency operations in the North East have been buried unceremoniously and secretly in trenches and also in unmarked graves in the area of operation.

cemetery Wall Street Journal
Nigeria’s military built this barrier to wall off what had been farmland on the northern edge of the base in Maiduguri. An expanding cemetery lies on the other side.

Among several others, the journal claimed that: “After dark, the bodies of soldiers are covertly transported from a mortuary that at times gets so crowded the corpses are delivered by truck, according to Nigerian soldiers, diplomats and a senior government official. The bodies are laid by flashlight into trenches dug by infantrymen or local villagers paid a few dollars per shift”.

This issue is very profound and sensitive. It hits at the core of troops morale, discipline and the will to fight. It can ruin the fabric that holds the military together. The story suggests that the Nigerian Army is unprofessional and lacks the basic commitment to the preservation of the memories of its personnel who die serving the nation. It is against this background that the author of the story should have made an effort to speak to the authorities of the Nigerian Army, being the lead agency in the counterinsurgency efforts or the Defence Headquarters, rather than rely on the views of the so-called “Nigerian soldiers, diplomats and government officials”.

In Mass Communication 101 classes across our tertiary institutions, students are taught to develop the spirit of fair and balanced reporting. This is even better emphasized in more developed societies that lay claim to better standards and higher human ideals. So what happened in this instance? If as the author claims, he spoke to “Nigerian soldiers, diplomats, and government officials”, why didn’t he speak to military authorities also? Where is the basic ethics of news reporting?

I will not try to defend the burial record of the Nigerian Army in the North East per se because being an interested party, there would be the presumption that I am pushing the official position or being defensive. However, I will discuss customs and traditions of the Nigerian Army as it affects burials and how these practices have been strictly adhered to in combat, beginning from the Nigerian Civil War, the ECOMOG Operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone and Peace Support Operations which Nigeria has participated in.

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In the end, hopefully, important questions which are at the core of this controversy would have been answered. Just like weddings, burial rites of service personnel even during periods of hostility constitute an integral part of the traditions and customs of the Nigerian Army and indeed the military, as inherited from the British. The practice is that, upon the death of serving personnel, his Commanding Officer sends a condolence message to the next of kin, on behalf of the service. Thereafter, such a commander continues to render such assistance as may be required by the next of kin until after the burial, payment of benefits and relocation of the next of kin.

Funeral ceremonies of deceased serving personnel are procedural and are followed through subject to prevailing conditions. Notwithstanding, at the funeral of an officer or a soldier, the following are usually provided: escorts, firing party, bands and drums, gun carriage or horses, pall bearers, bearers for the coffin and Insignia bearers. During hostilities as is currently playing out in the North East, exigencies of the operation may not allow the usual ceremonial procedures. In this instance, when a unit breaks contact with the enemy, the commander reorganises and during the period he checks his men to determine who is wounded, missing or killed in action. Thereafter, he issues a Situation Report to higher headquarters and simultaneously commences the evacuation of medical emergencies.

Casualties are moved to the rear, where preparations are made for burial after next of kin are informed and requested to attend. In the event, where a unit is over run and there is no organised withdrawal, search and rescue patrols are usually dispatched to recover missing, wounded and killed personnel. This has been the doctrine which has guided operations in the military in Nigeria. What has been discussed above is not theory, it is the practice. As far back as 1967 when the civil war broke in Nigeria, Nigerian Army personnel were already conversant with the handling of colleagues who have paid the supreme price.

In his account of the Nigerian Civil War titled Biafra War Revisited, Major General OE Okon (retd) gives insight into the management of war casualties during “Operation Tiger Claw” launched to capture Calabar and neigbouring localities from Biafran troops thus: “The DC – 3 flights that took reinforcements from Lagos to Calabar returned with casualties. The ships, ‘Bode Thomas’ and ‘Qua River’, delivered more supplies and reinforcements and also took back casualties to Lagos”.

Elsewhere in the book, General Okon also recounts how troops of 16 Commando Brigade which were surrounded by Biafran troops in Owerri from November 1968 to April 1969, maneouvered out of the encirclement, carrying along with them “equipment, refugees, prisoners of war and even the corpse of their dead Brigade Major.” The essence of this was to ensure that the Brigade Major was given a befitting burial. These are just a few instances of the institutional perspective regarding the respect accorded Nigerian Army personnel who were Killed in Action during the three-year civil war.

During the 10-year-long ECOMOG Peace Enforcement Operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, prevailing customs, traditions and extant policies continued to guide the management of causalities. Nigerian Air Force C130 crews in particular which sustained logistics resupply of those missions regularly brought back Nigerian casualties for burial. As a United Nations peace keeper in Sierra Leone between 2001 and 2002, I witnessed the exhumation of the remains of a Nigerian soldier who died during an engagement with the defunct Revolutionary Republican Front, RUF. He was buried in the grounds of Catholic Hospital in Lunsar, but was later given a befitting burial in Nigeria.

If soldiers who died in combat in foreign and distant missions were not buried secretly and at night, it should surprise anyone that The Wall Street Journal is making such claims in the North East campaign that is largely within the Nigerian space. In fact, the Code of Conduct for troops in the North East clearly states that “wounded or killed soldiers must not be left behind”. So, is it after enduring so much to bring back a dead colleague that the remains will be buried shabbily in a “trench at night, and secretly”? Is this logical?

Disrespect of the dead is an offensive and condemnable act in all cultures of the world. The two major religions in Nigeria abhor it. In the military, it is an anathema because it kills morale which is the biggest factor in victory. So, is the Nigerian Army willingly shooting itself in the foot? Or does the Nigerian Army hate its soldiers? What could be the motivation for the alleged act?

There is no evidence that Nigerian Army authorities are disdainful of its personnel living or dead. From The Wall Street Journal report, no motive was apparent. In the wake of the criticism, information managers in the Defence Headquarters have rebutted the claim. The social media has been inundated with images of public burials of soldiers killed in the North East in day time and in the presence of bereaved families. Is it possible that these videos are fake or were hurriedly put together after the story broke? Do the videos which are available online confirm mass and burials at night which The Wall Street Journal report claims?

It is often said that there is no smoke without fire. In my view, the fire in this smoke is probably because some deceased soldiers may have been buried though properly, but in the absence of their next of kin. This situation could arise sometimes owing to the inability of the next of kin to arrive Maiduguri in time and the burial cannot be delayed for obvious reasons. However, even in such instances there is a remedy. The next of kin can demand to be shown the grave of the deceased and images of the ceremony.

This could have been the way out, rather than the resort to self-help which has given license to fifth columnists. To prevent this ugly situation from repeating, the Nigerian Army should consider introducing No-Next-of-Kin-No- Burial Policy. When next of kin compulsorily attend the burial of their loved ones, this distraction will not reoccur. At the end of the day, The Wall Street Journal story on secret burials in Maimalari Cantonment is pathetic and below the threshold of good and responsible journalism.

It was done in bad faith and in the frame of a typical biased and condescending Western media report that do not see anything good in the developing world. The report and its intent is beyond the Nigerian Army; it is about us as a people. The real message that The Wall Street Journal is passing is that we cannot even bury our dead.

*Colonel Antigha is the Chief of Military Public Information at the Multinational Joint Task Force, N’Djamena – Chad.

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