By Jeremiah Angai
Ardent followers of the English Premier League will know that the closest weekend to November 11 every year holds special significance. During that period, a small military ceremony is held in the middle of the pitch before commencement of every league game. The entire stadium stands still as the solemn bugle calls out The Last Post. A nation united as they remember heroes who fell to the death clutch of war. That is Remembrance or Armistice Day. What many may not know, however, is that Nigeria used to observe Remembrance Day on November 11 as well. The date was changed to January 15 in 1970 to coincide with the day Biafran troops surrendered to federal forces, thus ending a 30-month long brutal civil war. The Yakubu Gowon military government at the time felt it was better to commemorate the end of the war because it had resulted in unprecedented levels of disruption and death.
The January 15th Armed Forces Remembrance day has been celebrated in pretty much the same manner since it began in 1970. Activities begin with the launch of the memorial emblem, followed by religious services and sprinkles of commemorative events, culminating in a ceremony at the military arcade. Speeches are made, guns fired, pigeons released and wreaths laid at the tomb of the unknown soldier. The unknown soldier is so called to symbolise all troops killed in conflict, who may not have been identified or known. The 2020 Armed Forces Remembrance Day celebrations will hold today at the National Cenotaph, in Abuja, and in other venues across the federation. The ceremony will likely follow the same script as it has for many years now. This is a huge shame because at no other time, since the Nigerian civil war, has the armed forces been inflicted with such unimaginable levels of casualty. From the Metele attacks in 2018, to the more recent ambush of the convoy of the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, our gallant troops are constantly being felled by the ugly bullets of insurgents, bandits, militants and kidnappers. This suggests that the entire nation should at least pause and pay exceptional tribute to them.
The Armed Forces Remembrance Day needs to stop being an exclusive event for the military and top government officials. Every citizen is affected by conflict and it is important that s/he participates in remembering the sacrifices of the nation’s troops. To achieve this, deliberate steps ought to be taken, as in the example of the United Kingdom stated earlier. British families throng to stadia to watch football in their thousands during weekends. It therefore made sense to observe a remembrance ceremony there before the main event on November 11. In Australia, school children partake in a programme called Read 2 Remember. During this, they read a poem, ‘Pledge of Remembrance’ to the country’s fallen heroes and after the pledge, a two-minute silence is observed at the Eleventh hour. This ceremony re-enforces the concept of patriotism and sacrifice among young Australians. Nigeria can devise strategies to ensure that a large population of its citizens are able to commemorate the day.
This general observance of remembrance is important for three main reasons.
First, to recognise and honour those who have paid the ultimate price to protect, defend and unite the nation. Any soldier whose service to country leads to the shedding of his blood ought to be celebrated by the entire nation. In honouring these gallant officers and men, it is a huge disservice to simply place garlands on some empty tombs. These are soldiers with names, ranks and families. They are troops who performed heroic feats, displayed bravery and showed uncommon courage in the face of harsh, unforgiving conditions. Soldiers like Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Abu Ali and Wing Commander Chimda Hedima. Their inspirational stories need to be told. Their names engraved in gold. They should be an axiomatic declaration of what military service ought to be – loyalty, patriotism and sacrifice. Such honour will inspire younger Nigerians to desire service of the country, knowing that their heroic efforts would be crowned in glory, no matter the outcome to them.
Second, to show families left behind that the sacrifices of their loved ones were not in vain. To this end, the next-of-kin of deceased force members ought to have a prominent place at the remembrance ceremonies. It would be a powerful symbol of a caring nation. But beyond recognition during the ceremonies, the country owes a duty to ensure that these family members and veterans are well looked after. This can be achieved through the establishment of a Veterans’ Trust Fund, which would cater for the education and health needs of family members of armed personnel killed in conflict and the veterans still living.
Soldiers at the battle front would equally know with certainty that in the event they are killed in action, the family they leave behind would not worry about hselter, healthcare and education. This will infuse greater patriotism and zeal in the troops.
The private sector can be encouraged to contribute to the Fund. Organisations who make significant contributions should be given special presidential recognition, akin to the royal warrants of appointment in the United Kingdom. Such measures will ensure that the Fund is adequately supported.
Third, to be reminded of the causes of conflict, its brutal effect and resolve that this should not occur again. This is where the nation fails the most. Although the choice of date for the Armed Forces Remembrance Day was informed by the Nigerian civil war, discussing the war is almost anathema in government circles. The approach of government towards accounts of the war has mostly been one of outright denial. Movies about the war are banned, memorials are shunned and commemorative events shut down. Government seems to believe that if unpalatable accounts of the civil war are ignored long enough, the nation will forget them and move on. But to truly move on, there must be truthful recollection. It is recollection that will set the tone for reconciliation and reconciliation will give rise to national rebirth.
After the Second World War, allied forces in Europe resolved that the continent, which until then was a hotbed of war and strife, would never witness such bloodshed again. They immediately committed to integrating the region. They set up the European Union, promoted economic cooperation, democracy and human rights. In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its stellar contributions to the advancement of peace and reconciliation for about 70 years.
It is this kind of resolve that Nigeria would need to ensure that Remembrance Days only mark historic conflicts. In recent years, the weight of realisation that troops are still dying at the battle front, with no imminent end in sight, overshadows a ceremony that ordinarily should display the triumph of Nigeria over conflict and war.
To truly remember, the armed forces high command must also be honourable and honest. A situation where even family members are left ensnared in a gossamer of rumour and uncertainty before they are notified of the death of their loved ones is not only callous but also sends signals to the ones left behind that their mothers, fathers, daughters and sons died for nothing. It is only when this is done that this annual memorial can march out of arcades and cenotaphs and be firmly laid in the hearts and homes of Nigerians.
Jeremiah Angai, a policy and public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja