Christmas In Sambisa: A Young Soldier’s Tale Of Death, Hunger And Suffering

Posted on December 25 2018 , at 08:15 am
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  • As the rest of the country marks Christmas Day, there are thousands of troops on the front line of the war on Boko Haram. This is the story of one of them.

At 1100 hours on Christmas Day, Lance Corporal Augustine will commence the three-hour ride on pickup van into Sambisa Forest from Konduga where he had been stationed for the twenty-five months. Last year, he had spent several weeks in the vast savanna that has now become the headquarters of terrorist organization Boko Haram and its offshoots. Augustine thought he wouldn’t have to join the troops in Sambisa for another two or three months, having been shot twice this year; once with an armour-piercing round that miraculously only nicked at his rib after getting through his bulletproof vest. This time, however, he knew he was being punished and sent to the thick of battle- similar to how the biblical King David did Uriah. Except that he didn’t sleep with Bathsheba; his superior officers discovered his communication with a politician who wanted him to make a video denouncing President Buhari.

“He told me that if that video goes viral, the president will lose the forthcoming elections because Nigerians will believe even soldiers are not backing him”, he says. In the text messages, Augustine declined to make such video. But that wasn’t enough for his commanding officers. “They said it’s because I’m where there’s network, that’s why I can use Whatsapp. By the time they throw me deep inside Sambisa, there won’t be a way for me to message the outside world”.

“I don’t want to die. I’m not afraid of dying. There are so many people that I won’t just be able to hear from while I’m in there… that’s my only concern.”

Augustine is a 23-year old whose experience and stoic resignedness belie his age. Five years ago, he made a decision that completely altered his life in ways that even he couldn’t imagine. Osaze, his best friend joined the army straight out of secondary school in Benin City. They grew up in the barracks together, sons of retired army officers. It was Osaze’s lifelong dream to follow in the footsteps of his father and soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the army. Augustine on the other hand never had this dream. He had watched his mother toil with his sick father and four other siblings. His own dream was to be a musician or an actor or a footballer, the teenage ambition of anyone who had ever seen 2face or Ramsey Nuoah or Victor Moses. But as the block they lived in buzzed at Osaze’s enlistment, it suddenly occurred to him to do the same. Without informing his parents, he put his name down to become a Nigerian soldier. “I just joined without their consent”, he says. “They were unhappy when I joined the army because they wanted something different for me. Osaze and I grew up together so when he enlisted, it just occurred to me to do the same.”

A 2015 parade for retiring infantry officers at AFSCS Jaji. Photo: thenationonline.

They were bussed from Benin to Jaji, the Army Command and Staff College located in Kaduna State where they were given a basic two-week infantry training and sent off to Borno State.  There was no preparatory period for the boys; once they earned their Private stripes, the army deemed it fit to have them fight the country’s war against Boko Haram.

The Konduga outpost is under the command of 7B Division, Maiduguri. In the last decade, Borno State has been a hotbed of intense battles with insurgents who have completely taken over nearly 700sq kilometre entirety of Sambisa Forest. For four years, Boko Haram advanced at will and killed hundreds of Borno residents each time they struck. In 2013, the Nigerian government mounted an offensive that forced the insurgents into Sambisa but only for a while. As the Goodluck Jonathan administration declared a state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, Boko Haram preyed on vulnerable subjects: first, the Government Secondary School in Mamudo was attacked, killing more than 40 students. Then came the Buni Yadi massacre where 60 schoolboys between the ages of 10 and 19 were killed; before the Chibok attack that gained global attention.

It was against this backdrop that Augustine started his military career. As a lance corporal, officers like him are on the second to the lowest rung of the army hierarchy (the lowest being Private, which all enlisted grades start at). The pay is low and the responsibility, whilst it may not be the most sensitive is certainly one of the most important. After the generals draw up strategies, the army needs men like Augustine whose job is to carry the weapons and simply, fight.



Nunu for breakfast, kunu for dinner

Fulani woman extracting milk from a cow.

At the end of each month, his mother receives the sum of N20,000 in Augustine’s account that she keeps for him. In theory, the monthly pay is supposed to be saved for him but less than a year after he joined the army, his father died. As the only son among five sisters, he felt- and still does- that the family has become his responsibility. If he had not been in the army when his father died, they would have been evicted from the barracks they had lived all their lives. Augustine doesn’t allow himself to think of his family’s economic situation, instead, he focuses on being alive to be able to continue contributing his monthly pay. “You can’t afford to think about that, you just try to survive and see the next day.”

“I don’t even care about the salary,” he explains. “It will get into the account whenever it does. But feeding is the worst part.” For him and his fellow soldiers, hunger is a constant, haunting companion.

The feeding is the worst part. There are times we have to go to Maiduguri for our welfare supplies. Although Maiduguri is less than two hours away, it’s always a dangerous journey because Boko Haram can attack us at any time. If they overpower us, they go away with whatever we have. So by the time we get back to camp, we have very little supplies left. You can use one sachet of pure water for two or three days…”

He continues, “The full salary is N49, 000 but N20, 000 is paid into our bank accounts and we’re given N10, 000 in cash. The remaining is supposed to be for our feeding and welfare but nothing actually happens. We have to find a means to survive by ourselves.”

“We don’t eat breakfast. In the afternoon we drink nunu (freshly squeezed milk) and bread. At night it’s either kunu (blended millet) or eba, if any of the other boys have stew. Sometimes we get lucky and get meat from hunters that catch animals in the bush who are going into Maiduguri town. Those are the ones we ask to buy us stuff like bread, water and recharge cards.”

“All we can do is ensure that we keep our morale high. We sing and entertain one another when there’s no action to deal with. But mostly, we fight and patrol with nagging hunger. Day and night we perform sentry duties.”


The President has failed us and our superiors have sold us

Repeatedly the Muhammadu Buhari administration has claimed that Boko Haram is “technically defeated”. For young soldiers like Augustine in the thick of battle, that is far from accurate. In 2018 alone, Konduga has seen no less than ten different attacks with various numbers of casualties. Just this past November, the 157 Task Force Battalion in Metele on the northern end of Borno was overrun by insurgents and more than one hundred soldiers were killed. The Nigerian Army denied that the causalities were that many, a statement that the president’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina doubled down on while on a television programme. In his words: “All over the world, the military does not or rarely disclose the figure of its casualties. ”

Augustine does not know if that is correct (it is not. In actual fact, the global best practice is to release the names 24 hours after the families have been notified) but he does know that he has experienced thirty –two attacks and lost several colleagues. His best friend Osaze was one of them.

“I didn’t realize I took a wrong turn until when my friend died. He was shot and then beheaded by Boko Haram. That was the person I grew up with and joined the army because of. Shot and beheaded like his life didn’t mean anything.”

“A lot of people are not aware that their children are dead. When an attack happens, there are always soldiers that are M-I-A (missing in action). The families are not told that they have not been seen or heard from for one whole year. That’s when they’re assumed to have died. Then the military informs the family that they were killed in action.”


He doesn’t think Boko Haram has been defeated simply because the blatant attacks in major cities (such as the UN Building bombing of 2011 in Abuja or the several bus park attacks in the federal capital) has ceased. He describes the insurgents as unearthly, people who have no fear of dying and would fight until the last man is dead. Then they launch yet another attack, either to conscript local boys into joining them or to overrun military bases and take over their ammunition as it has been seen on several occasions.

Earlier this year, a group of soldiers protested at the Maiduguri Airport. They were rounded up and are facing court-martial for mutiny. Yet in October, another group were seen in a viral video protesting against what they called the obsolete equipment they were given to fight with.

Augustine agrees, saying all he has to execute the orders given to him is one AK-47 rifle.

“All I have to fight is one AK-47 rifle and four magazines. That’s all. There are thirty bullets in each magazine. Once you’re out, it’s over. You have to wait until reinforcements are brought in from the Maiduguri division headquarters. If you’re lucky, a colleague may be kind enough to share some of his with you otherwise you’re doomed. The only thing you can do is to run. We can’t fight back and that’s how Boko Haram gets to overpower our men; you resort to fleeing when your ammunition runs out.”

“I got this picture from the person in charge of weapons. These are all the weapons we use in fighting Boko Haram. The AK 47 is a soldier’s personal rifle while the GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) is for a section of soldiers, which consists of ten soldiers and above. They are just given one GPMG while Boko Haram owns more than a thousand GPMG for each person unlike we that own AK47. This whole weapon of ours is nothing compared to what Boko Haram holds.”

“They’ve sold us”, he counters when I mention what that the 2018 budget for military operations was N75 billion. “They’ve sold us if some powers beyond our control have access to these funds and we’re suffering like this. It’s like we’re in another country. “

“From time to time, the Chief of Army Staff “ (Lt. General Tukur Burutai) visits us in camp. He comes to speak to the men, boost their morale and make promises that are never fulfilled. He promises that our salaries will be increased and that the feeding situation will be improved. It hasn’t happened.”

This is where Augustine was treated after he was shot by Boko Haram fighters.

“The last time I was shot, I spent ten days in the hut we use as a makeshift hospital. The medical corps treated me and sent me right back out.” While there he was reminded once more of the very blurred line between life and death that he lived as a soldier. One minute you’re advancing and the next, you’re running away from the highly equipped insurgents.

At this point, I ask Lance Corporal Augustine what he would say to President Buhari if he could. His reply is a damning one-liner: “The President has failed us.”



Dreams Interrupted 

Augustine thinks he could have been a singer if the situation was not the same. “I was already performing in my hometown while I was in secondary school. I even got in contact with a top Nigerian musician and he wanted to sign me. But it didn’t work out.”

“I came to Lagos three years ago. I didn’t fit in. Everything was different. It was as if I was in a different world, away from the hunger and death I had become used to in Borno.”

Most people don’t even know what is going on here.” And it is true; most people his age are oblivious to the realities of soldiers like him. On the larger scale, it appears as though the Nigerian populace is inured to the news of Boko Haram attacks. In the days leading up to Christmas, there were several concerts in other parts of the country where young people celebrated the end of the year in glee and excitement- just as they should at their age.

But even at that, the war on terror is still going on and is still claiming lives almost at will. Only this past Sunday, there were reports of yet another attack on Chibok town where seventeen people were reportedly killed. About that same time in Lagos, 1,600 kilometres away, nearly 20,000 people partied at Wizkid’s show, without any fear of being attacked or shot at.

Augustine smiles wistfully again when he’s tasked to recount how he spent his last Christmas.

“Christmas sha. I spent Christmas Eve in the trenches. That’s where we sleep when we’re in the bush. Each one is dug just to fit one soldier. That’s where I was on Christmas Eve. Things like that don’t come to mind at all… there’s no time to wait and think of Christmas.”

One of the trenches the soldiers sleep in.

If he had the chance, he’ll be out of the military to lead a civilian life, yet he fears that it may be too late for him. Getting discharged from the army is not an easy task even though on paper, it ought to be.

“It’s a voluntary organization”, he says. “You’re free to leave just the way you came in. All you have to do is write a letter of application for discharge. Then you have to settle one or two people to work on your papers. Otherwise, it could be there for years. People will purposely sit on it until you pay them. You could be there forever!”

How about redeployment to less volatile regions? Augustine has no control over that. Colleagues that are on the same rank as him have not been moved around much- all of them only get redeployed to other camps and bases within Borno State.

That time is what Augustine doesn’t feel he have right now. Not only does he have to survive, but the pressure of being the breadwinner of his family is also heavy on his heart.

“My younger sister just got admission into the university. It’s the salary that comes into my account that my mum uses, in addition to what she can get. I just can’t leave now. I need to be sure before I make that move. I have to be sure I’ll be fine when I leave…”

At 23, Augustine still has time to chase other dreams. Whether he will- or even be alive to chase them- is another matter entirely, and as he heads into Sambisa this morning, he has only one request: “Please pray for us.”



*Augustine’s name, his deceased friend’s and their hometown have been changed to protect his identity. All other details are unchanged.

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