We spoke to a woman whose husband died while fighting Boko Haram
On this January evening, my friend and I were one of them, answering questions, and explaining why I was carrying a huge backpack.
When we finally locate her flat in the labyrinth of a few thousand apartments, it’s evening already.
The person we’re going to see is Bunmi. She went to school with my friend. When I asked him if he knew anyone who had lost a loved one in combat, she was his first thought, and she obliged.
As we sit down to get talking, the power goes out. Perfect Nigerian situation for a very Nigerian conversation.
“I met my husband in Zaria at the Training School,” Bunmi says, “this was 2008. We were married in 2009, sharp sharp.”
Her husband was Victor, a soldier who spent most of his service years in Northern Nigeria. He didn’t talk much. He wasn’t around much either.
“So how did you cope with not having him around?”
“Well,” she sighs, “I’m a soldier too, so I understood. He came home a few months apart. Although there were times where he went on special missions. We don’t get to see each other for up to a year.”
“Yes, he served in Liberia in 2010 and 2012.”
“Do you remember the day it happened?” I ask as carefully as I can. Tragic memories and lost Love are murky waters.
“It was in 2014, and I didn’t find out the day he died,” she continues, “no one ever does. One of his colleagues just called to say your Oga done die o. Something in you always knows this type of call might come in one day.”
“So did you get any more details?”
“Details? No one gets details. They just send a message saying M.I.A, Missing In Action. This just basically means he’s been declared dead. They don’t even send the bodies home, they just bury them there. A lot of the time, their bodies are found in pieces.”
She pauses for a moment, and checks her phone.
“My friend got news that her husband died in Maiduguri a few days ago. Someone in his unit called to tell her. So she had to go to the office to ask. They told her the same thing; M.I.A.”
If you’ve watched Hollywood movies long enough, you’ve probably seen a waiting wife go to the door, open it, and meet two soldiers at attention, one with a folded flag in his hands.
In Nigeria, what you’ll get most likely is a call from your late husband’s colleague, who’s talking over a very bad phone signal.
There are no official statements. No explanations. No courtesy calls. Just the same M.I.A.
“The Barracks is filled with widows,” she continues, “I have a lot of friends here whose husbands never returned. This woman who just got news of her husband is pregnant. Her child will never meet daddy.”
“What about entitlements?”
“Ah, that one,” she sighs. “There are entitlements. If you’re lucky and have people high up who can help you, you can get it in good time. If not, the wait is not very short.”
“Does it ever cross your mind about how he must have died?”
“I’m a soldier too,” she snorts, “I know all the possible ways he might have died. It might have been a bomb, or a gun shot. But he most certainly didn’t just drop dead. I’ve made my peace with that.”
She went on.
“Just yesterday, another friend of mine in Borno called, and we talked about an ambush he’d been in a few days ago. They walked into a Boko Haram trap. The gun battle lasted seven hours. Even though they killed many Boko Haram fighters, they lost three soldiers.”
She pauses again.
“Those three soldiers, their families probably don’t know they are dead. They might not even know for another month or two.”
“So when, say a wife doesn’t hear from her husband for about a month, first she thinks they might be in some place with no network. Then she starts to grow worried, and when she goes to ask, she gets the M.I.A.”
For most people who don’t live like this, where the difference between life and death is a connecting call, it’s very convenient for us to complain about “soldiers not doing enough”.
“Did he share personal experiences,” I ask.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. It’s most likely a bomb, or a gun battle, or something. The calls always ended with the ‘don’t forget to pray for us’. Every time a call came, there’d be that fear that this one might just be the last.”
“How did your boys take it when he died?”
“Well, they never really saw him around. The older one was 4 years old and the younger, 2. So they never really got a full grasp of it. They barely knew him, so there wasn’t much to miss.”
“Do you ever worry that they’ll deploy you there?”
She laughs. She laughs hard.
“The day they deploy me there is the day I take off their uniform,” the fire in her voice rises. “
Why would I want to fight in a war that I know nothing about? A war that’s a business for some people.”
She’s talking faster now.
“Many of these politicians and even senior officers just use this war as a business. We hear stories.”
She looks back at her phone and is quiet for a moment. I take that as a “back off” sign.
“Look at this scenario,” she starts to speak again, “you’re a soldier and Boko Haram approaches you. They are willing to offer you money you might never earn in the army, just for a little information. A few years ago, a soldier who used to live here gave Boko Haram intel. Their army unit was surrounded. Every soldier was killed, except one. At first, they thought he was kidnapped, but then they started investigating and saw some funny transactions in his bank accounts. He hasn’t been found till this day.”
“Did your husband ever try to abscond too?”
It’s a heavy sigh. “To be honest,” she says, “he tried. He had grown tired of the fighting and I understood. When he applied for a visa, he wasn’t granted. Many others just run away. I know one in the UK, and another in Spain.”
“Does the Army not notice?”
She laughs. “Which army? They might not even officially notice for months, so these soldiers who abscond still end up receiving salaries for months.”
Most people, she says, join the army due to unemployment. You get a house in the barracks, you get a salary. Even she joined because she was tired of sitting at home during an ASUU strike. Most of her friends who went on to graduate are still unemployed.
“People need to go see the suffering of soldiers,” she says. “Go to Yaba Military Hospital, you’ll find soldiers with missing legs, or arms, or eyes. A whole lot of them. Nobody cares.”
I ask her if her husband complained about the treatment of soldiers. He did, she says, but she adds quickly that from what she’s heard and seen, things are much better than they used to be.
“Are there women soldiers on the battlefront?”
“Ah, there used be quite a number. But on more than one occasion, Boko Haram would kidnap them, rape them, and kill them. So they stopped sending them to the war front. There are now just a few.”
We talk about Boko Haram fighters.
“It’s mostly boys,” she says. “They mostly look like they haven’t had proper food. The Al-Majiri boys are easy recruits. Just give them food or something.”
She talks about this time she was in Kaduna after training. She cooked some food and the next day, it got a little sour. When she offered it to an Al-Majiri boy, he not only accepted it, he helped her fetch water.
We talk more on dead friends and mourning. She speaks with so much ease that you begin to understand how much she’s learned to move on.
I look at the photos hanging in her living room. There’s one with someone who appears to be her mum. Another frame has a photo of her sons. Another, just her.
“Do they ever ask of their daddy?”
“Well,” she smiles, “they have someone they call daddy, but they know their true daddy is dead.”
She talks about possibly marrying the person she’s currently seeing in the future. She’s not even thirty yet, and she’s not only bright, she speaks with so much confidence.
We talk about male superiors and colleagues offering to show her their dicks and keep her warm every now and then. She says it with so much ease that you know it’s as common as a ‘good morning’.
The future is looking bright. Vacuums are filling up. The pain is long gone and forgotten as she’s finding love again.
Life is for the Living after all.