“The labours of our hero’s past shall never be in vain …”, so goes a line from Nigeria’s first national anthem which is far more meaningful than the present one and which the nation may do well to go back to. But where are those heroes and heroines? Perhaps in the histories of the different communities that made the entity now called Nigeria but never in Nigeria itself especially Nigeria since the 1914 amalgamation. Nations do have heroes and remembering those heroes and heroines and celebrating them helps to transmit values to succeeding generations and to fire patriotism and national fervour and zeal as that nation travels along its journey.
Thus, in Psalm 78, the writer of that psalm underscores the importance of transmission of the Jewish heritage which is the law given to them from generation to generation “So they might set hope in God and not forget the works of God but keep his commandments.” That law and the receiving of it was the chequered history of the Jews. If ever it is forgotten and it has happened a few times with dire consequences, that is the end of the Jewish nation.
In Nigeria, on January 15, we celebrated the Armed Forces Remembrance Day when we remembered our “heroes” who fell in various theatres of war in Nigeria, in West Africa, and in the world at different times. But when these gallant soldiers fell, did they fall for the cause of the nation called Nigeria or for other causes which can never inspire patriotism in Nigeria? Truthful politician, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo said that there is no nation called Nigeria when he said the concept of Nigeria is a mere geographical expression. So, what did our fallen soldiers die for? So, who is our national political heroes and heroines who made great sacrifices for the nation called Nigeria? If we agree that there has never been, up till now, a nation called Nigeria, then logically we are saying the nation has had no heroes and heroines. There has to be a nation before we can point to the heroes and heroines of that nation, those who created values that define it.
Similarly, there has to be a nation before we can talk of fallen soldiers worthy of our acclaim. When our soldiers went to the two world wars were they fighting for the national cause? Absolutely no. They fought for the cause of the oppressive West and who would rather have colonized blacks die than the white colonizers? When our soldiers fought and died in Congo, they did for a cause that is not principally Nigeria. When they fought in Liberia and Sierra Leone, they were drafted there by an unthinking military dictator for a cause which is not primarily Nigeria in which the chief beneficiary of that war is America which refused to help Liberia for example because she said she had no interest in that country. But our men and women died a needless death in those countries. Nigeria was not in any way threatened by the joggle for power in those countries. So when we talk about remembering our fallen heroes, year after year, it practically means nothing to the average Nigerian on the street who sees it as something that is done to copy the happenings of other countries.
Even when the Northern soldiers and Southwest soldiers matched to the East to crush Biafra, it was not a war fought on behalf of Nigeria but a war fought to crush a part of Nigeria so another part may be dominant. Even when a propaganda slogan: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must done” rent the air during the war, it was apparent that that war was far from been fought to keep Nigeria one. That is why since the end of the war officially on 15 January 1970, Nigeria has been further apart even than before the war was fought. When America fought its civil war, Abraham Lincoln kept in mind that it was a war to stop slavery and refused to fight in bitterness.
In Nigeria, the civil war was fought in bitterness, and it is unfortunate that the major players in that war on the side of the North and Southwest came to play a great role in many governments that ruled Nigeria since then and they ruled either as the conqueror of the nation, especially the part of the nation that lost the war. That is why our politics even in the 2023 elections is more divisive than it was even in the first republic. That is why the Buhari government which is headed by a man who fought as a junior officer in that war is perhaps the most bitter against other sections of the country, especially the Eastern region. Let’s hope that Buhari will be the last military person from that generation that will rule the nation and that civilian politicians will learn a great lesson from this and rise to build a nation that can truly have its heroines and heroes.
Even now that our soldiers are dying in the Northeast being killed by ragtag soldiers of the insurgent Boko Haram and ISWAP, do those soldiers feel, at least the survivors, that they are dying because of Nigeria? I don’t think so and I don’t think anybody can truly think so. The country saw as some of the soldiers especially at the start of the insurgency removed their uniforms and ran from the insurgents. Why did they run? It was because they felt no commitment to the entity called Nigeria. They don’t care if the insurgents overrun the entity called Nigeria. It would be a different thing if they were to be defending their villages within geographic Nigeria. Nigeria as a nation is non-existent in their hearts and they couldn’t be bothered whether it continues or not.
The cause of the insurgency itself is a reason for low morale among the troops. When a section of the entity called Nigeria will choose to practice a religion as does not even exist in the book that guides that religion or does not accord with common sense, why should soldiers from other parts of the country lay down their lives for a cause as worthless? If we must have true heroes and heroines who will willingly lay down their lives for the cause of the nation, we must have heroes and heroines who must be genuine and not bigoted, who must see a Nigeria where there is justice and fairness. The root cause of that insurgency is the inability or unwillingness to deal with religious extremism. If soldiers from the South must be called upon to lay down their lives in the North East, they must be able to see a North East that will not discriminate against them because of their religious beliefs, a North East that will allow each and every one of them to live his lives according to their choice regulated by the laws of the nation and not by religious rules that they don’t subscribe to.
If the insurgence will be wiped out, it must be wiped first in the hearts of men and women, not just of the insurgents but of the entire entity now called Nigeria. Heroes and heroines must arise to build a real Nigeria where every Nigeria citizen must be allowed to go to heaven or hell according to his choice, where those who rule or occupy any position from the local government to the state and the federal government must not be based on political or religious connection and consideration but on competence and hard work. Why are our soldiers not fighting as hard as they should with the bandits? It is because they are aware of the social causes of banditry. They are aware of the social deprivation of the poor, the corruption of the political class, and brazen oppression by the emirs and other traditional rules.
It is said that one of the reasons that pulled together some of the military officers who took part in the 1966 coup was that they were used by powerful northern politicians who belong to the domineering tribe in the North to put down a legitimate protest by the oppressed Tiv people. These officers loathed the oppression and decided to move against the government. Banditry will stop in the hearts of the bandits and potential bandits when there is social equality and when the children of the poor as well as the children of the emir or the governor or the president can sit in the same public school with the same excellent facility, each one given an open and equal entrance and opportunity to rise according to his or her input. Until then, the talk of Armed Forces Remembrance Day or heroes and heroines will be mere hot air that transmits no value and that means nothing.
Tunde Akande is both a journalist and a pastor. He earned a Master’s degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos