BY SANI USMAN KUKASHEKA
January 15 every year has always been the day the Nigerian government and people celebrate the armed forces of Nigeria (AFN). The day marks the climax of almost two months of activities which always starts with the launch of the Armed Forces Remembrance Day emblem and appeal fund in the preceding November, by the president, commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The remembrance emblem which was like the remembrance day poppy worn in other countries such as the United Kingdom.
These activities are replicated across the 36 states of the federation and the federal capital territory and are conducted in conjunction with the ministry of defence, the defence headquarters, services, and the Nigerian Legion. A visible element of all these is the sale of the remembrance emblems across the federation as part of the fund raising. This annual event is a mark of honour, respect, solidarity and appreciation of the importance and sacrifices of members of the AFN.
Millions of people buy the remembrance emblem and adorn their dresses with it, usually worn on the top left-hand side of their attires, close to the position of the heart, symbolising deep concern for the fallen heroes and veterans. The adornment lasts until January 15 after the wreath-laying ceremony day.
It is curious to see some people wearing it long afterwards, either out of ignorance or love for decorations and the armed forces. Depending on the organisers or mood of the nation, major activities associated with the armed forces and remembrance day celebration include book launch and symposiums on national unity, the importance and role of the military and special prayers in places of worship.
Depending on which of the days come first between Friday and Sunday before January 15, both the Christians and Muslims faithful hold special prayers in the form of interdenominational service in all military churches and special Jumma’at prayer on Friday at various mosques across military barracks and cantonments. At the federal capital territory, the special Jumma’at prayers often take place at the National Mosque, while church service is conducted at the National Christian Centre. The special prayers are followed by well laid out colourful activities on January 15 as the climax to the Armed Forces Remembrance Day celebration.
In Abuja, the activities include inspection of a static parade by the president, commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Federal Republic of Nigeria. The parade is mounted by AFN and the Nigerian Legion at the National Arcade, opposite Eagle Square, Three Arms Zone, Abuja.
The parade activities include wreath-laying ceremony at which the president, vice president and other top government functionaries including the senate president, speaker of the house of representatives, chief justice of the federation, ministers of defence and that of federal capital territory, all lay wreaths in front to the statue of the Unknown Soldier. From the armed forces, the chief of defence staff and service chiefs lay wreaths. Others are the inspector-general of police, national chairman of Nigerian Legion, the doyen of Diplomatic Corps, and a representative of the widows of our celebrated fallen heroes. Wreath laying is done in a solemn mood and participants towards the wreath laying spot in slow march.
The chaplains and the imams offer prayers while the detachment of the Artillery Corps of Guards Brigade of the Nigerian army release volleys shots from their weapons in honour of the fallen heroes. The president also releases white pigeons from a special cage placed within the remembrance arcade, before signing a special register at the arcade. The wreath-laying ceremony is often very nostalgic and emotional for serving and retired military personnel and their family members, especially those of the deceased members of the AFN. Therefore, it is a momentous event.
The activities of this day are also replicated at the state level with varying sequences of actions and personalities laying the wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the Remembrance Arcade. However, the sequence and mode of these activities have been affected by current realities occasioned by security challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic with its ever-evolving dangerous variants. Consequently, the tradition is often tampered with hence it may not take the usual standard order.
The armed forces Remembrance Day Celebration dates back to 1919 when the British Commonwealth member states used the day to mark the end of the first world war and honour the memory of those who died during the war. On gaining independence and republican status, the day was changed to honour the veterans of the first and second world wars as well as those of the Nigerian civil war solemnly but grandly. It was then called Armed Forces Remembrance Day and was celebrated on the 11th of November every year. However, at the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, Nigeria decided to adopt the January 15 to commemorate and honour her armed forces and fallen heroes, with additional emphasis on those living and serving.
Keeping a day aside to celebrate the armed forces by nations is a worldwide phenomenon and a commendable gesture that recognises the importance of the military in national development and their increasing role in the quest for peace and security. The day and the activities around it boosts troops’ morale, gives them hope and greater sense of belonging. Therefore, the recognition and honour are rightly deserved, especially given the increasing role of AFN in internal security operations, with troops deployed in over 34 states of the federation and the federal capital territory. Despite these routines and rituals, the armed forces Remembrance Day Celebration should be an occasion for sober reflection and critical appraisal of the AFN in the drive to make it more professional, responsive, effective, and better to meet up with the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerian citizens in these contemporary trying times. As an individual who served and voluntarily retired from the service about three years ago, I regard this important and critical institution, as a symbol of national power as the required instigator for our national development.
The AFN has been noted worldwide as one of the most courageous, loyal, and professional military with a history of successful battles, exploits and military campaigns during the first and second world wars. It’s gallant contribution to world peace and security through peace support and enforcement operations under the auspices of the United Nations, the erstwhile Organization of African Unity (now African Union) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) from the 1960s to date, which are unquantifiable. There is no gainsaying therefore that the AFN has been a stabilising factor for our national unity, and it is the vanguard of democratic governance, especially since 1999.
Undoubtedly, the AFN of Nigeria has not fared badly over the years, even in the prevailing circumstances in the country. They are in the vanguard of the fight against terrorism, kidnapping, banditry, and other security challenges. Yet, despite all these sacrifices, the level of understanding and appreciation of the AFN is not commensurate with the tremendous role it is playing, and daily sacrifices. Over the years, the AFN and indeed the nation, have lost so many gallant officers, soldiers, ratings, airmen and women, as well as, many equipment in the course of national duty.
Many have been injured, losing limbs, sight, and other parts of the body. The army, in particular, lost its then chief, Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, along with other senior army officers and his personal staff on Friday, May 21, 2021, in a plane crash that occurred at Kaduna while on an official duty. The unfortunate incident occurred barely four months after he was appointed, chief of army staff. All these are irreparable and indelible losses to the nation and humanity.
Beyond that, the various services under their able and respective chiefs have been discharging their duties creditably. The renewed jointness and synergy of efforts amongst the services and other security agencies under the strategic direction of the chief of defence staff, General Lucky Irabor, is indeed commendable.
The renewed synergy of efforts coupled with the launching of newly acquired military weaponry and equipment such as drones, the Super Tucano, mine resistant anti-ambush protective vehicles and armoured personnel carriers by the Nigerian army and the Nigerian air force and the reclaiming of parts of Lake Chad by the Nigerian navy and the current wave of operations in the north-west geo-political zone are gradually yielding results. While there is a need to do more, kudos be given to the military who needs to be celebrated as obtainable in other parts of the world.
However, despite the various achievements, efforts, and sacrifices by the gallant AFN, some pessimists have not seen the reason for the remembrance and celebration. The reluctance on the part of some these Nigerians to appreciate and celebrate the AFN and the veterans, stemmed from a lack of understanding of the AFN, its role, and the conduct of a few misfits in the system. This calls for more enlightenment for Nigerians to understand the unique nature of military service, which involves being patriotic, requires able-bodied men and women, to be absolute loyal and dedicated to duty. It should be noted that the service comprises of Nigerians who voluntarily enlisted to defend the territorial integrity of the nation, making personal and group sacrifices to the extent of losing their lives for the comfort, well-being, safety, and security of others. We, therefore, need to support and encourage them as they continue to discharge their duties creditably, dispassionately, and professionally.
Therefore, Nigerians have every reason to celebrate their armed forces based on these accomplishments and for the sake of boosting their morale.
On their part, members of the AFN should also understand that Nigerians expect a lot from them, and their line of duty and purpose is a matter of trust. Whatever they have and hold, in terms of equipment, weapons and platforms are in trust for the Nigerian people and should be used bearing that in mind. The AFN must remain apolitical and professional men and women devoid of any extraneous variables.
There is no doubt that the AFN is overstretched, given their deployment in internal security operations and other policing duties in different parts of the country. The AFN have collectively gone beyond their statutory responsibilities of defending the nation to undertaking numerous internal operations and humanitarian activities in aid of civil authority and to needy Nigerian communities, all in the efforts to maintain peace and security in support of democratic governance in our country. This is something to be cherished, proud of and proudly celebrated.
Nigerians need to support and appreciate the AFN, possibly by providing information which will assist in their operations and by identifying with the Remembrance Day celebration activities through the purchase and adorning the remembrance emblems from the month of November to January 15. The government needs to do more in shoring up the capacity and the capability of the AFN, by kitting, equipping and increasing the human resource holding. The other security agencies must be given similar treatment. The budgetary allocation of the military and other security agencies must be proportionate to the existential threats facing the nation. This will allow them perform their assigned roles and provide security for the nation thereby creating an enabling environment for development.
The Armed Forces and Remembrance Day celebration is for both for the dead and the living. Consequently, there is also the need to review the welfare packages of the military to ensure that they live, move and fight in comfort. The severance packages and entitlements to the families of the deceased need to be reviewed and paid as at when due. In particular, the government needs to fund and pay all outstanding group life insurance and other entitlements owed to the families of our fallen heroes. The federal government should, as a matter of urgency, streamline the payment process and harmonise the lingering animosity between the ministry of defence and defence headquarters as regards the administration and welfare of veterans and deceased heroes’ families. A situation where our veterans’ resort to protest on account of non-payment of entitlements reminiscence of the terrible years gone by should not be allowed to repeat itself.
Therefore, Nigerians should know that the AFN is theirs and whatever affects the AFN has corresponding multiplier consequences on our national security and unity. Thus, the unnecessary distraction and campaign of calumny against the leadership and the AFN are generally not in this nation’s best interest. It is time for Nigerians to come together and support the AFN to succeed in their assigned constitutional responsibility, especially now that we are celebrating them.
Indeed, the AFN has continued to move to greater heights, discharging its constitutional roles, despite the apparent distractions and protracted security challenges, with meagre resources. They need our collective support and understanding, let their efforts and sacrifices not to be in vain. May the gentle souls of our departed heroes continue to rest in peace. Consequently, I join millions of other Nigerians to celebrate the AFN, now and always, wishing our gallant troops, wherever they might be deployed, a happy and prosperous 2022!
Kukasheka, mni, voluntarily retired from the Nigerian Army in February 2019 as director of army public relations and spokesman for the Nigerian Army at the rank of a brigadier general.