Thirty two-year old Lawal Ahmed is a Corporal in 115 Battalion of the Nigerian Army. The Funtua, Katsina State-born soldier enlisted in the Nigerian Army on 27 August, 2003, and served in 6 Battalion, Akwa-Ibom State, 1 Brigade Garrison, Sokoto, as well as State Task Force (STF) Jos. His service number is 03/54/5867. On 22 April, 2014, Lawal said he applied to the Chief of Army Staff for voluntary discharge to enable him contest a seat in the Katsina State House of Assembly, but that the army turned down the application. He claims the working conditions in the army is terrible, and has therefore decided to take his case to the media, since, according to him, his employers won’t listen. He spoke with Chuks Akunna
Can you please start by introducing yourself and why you are here?
My name is Corporal Lawal Ahmed of 115 battalion, Northeast. I am 32 years from Funtua, Katsina State, and attended Government Science Secondary School, Paskari, Katsina State. I joined Nigerian Army on 27th August 2003. I was posted to 6 battalion Nigerian Army, Ibawa, Abak, Akwa Ibom State and served from December 2003 to 2006. In 2007, I was promoted Lance Corporal and posted to 1 Brigade Garrison, Sokoto. From there I was taken to STF in Jos. Before STF, I received training at 1 Div, Kaduna. In 2011, I was promoted to the rank of Corporal.
Can you recall the names of some persons who joined the army with you?
We were 30 boys, one girl – Ajaiyi Kemisola, she was the only female among us, as private.
Why are you here?
I decided to come to THISDAY to speak on the terrible working conditions in the army.
Are there no ways of channeling your grievances in the army?
None. We are discouraged from asking questions. Twice, I applied to leave the army to continue my life as a normal human being, with dignity. On both occasions they rejected my application. That is why I left.
Isn’t that AWOL or desertion?
Call it anything. I am ready to sacrifice my life for the betterment of the army. The conditions are terrible.
Let me give one example. When we were taken to STF, according to the brief of former Chief of Army Staff- General (Azubuike) Ihejirika, we were to spend six months. We ended up spending close to four years without being changed and without explanations. You needed to see how tattered our uniforms are, not to talk of the weapons. This is not how armies operate in other countries.
I was in Sudan in 2005, under the African Mission in Darfur. I went there for peace keeping, as protection force.
How many of you went from Nigeria?
Actually, army headquarters garrison provided one company, six batallion provided another company. A company is made up of betweem 100 – 250 soldiers. My commander was Major H. M. Labo, I don’t know his rank now in the army. My commander in the STF was S. A. Sangonuga, a Yoruba. I don’t know his present rank.
Which other officers did you remember?
We had Lt. Col. Olakola Micheal and Lt.Col. Rasheedudin, my battalion commander.
Why did you join the Army?
I joined the army to contribute to the growth of my country.
Not because you were looking for work?
No. However, sadly, right from the time I joined the army, I began to see many wrong things. There I saw people who served the Nigerian Army for 35 years and retired at a rank of Lance Corporal. This is bad.
You saw them where?
I saw them in 6 Battalion, I worked with them.
How did they feel?
They felt terrible because their juniors, are always ahead of them. Imagine someone that entered the army in 1980 remaining a Lance Corporal and someone who joined 20 years later rising to the rank of Staff Sergent. How do you expect the Lance Corporal to feel!
From that moment, I began taking notes on the bad things I felt should be addressed in the army. I consider myself lucky to have reached the rank of Corporal in about 13 years. Several soldiers in my units had spent more years than me, and did not commit any offence, yet are Privates.
What is your status? Are you still in the Nigerian Army?
I am still in the service. I wrote on the 23 April, 2014, for voluntary discharge but the Army refused to release me.
What reason did they give?
Who did you write to?
I wrote through my commanders to the chief of army staff. Till date nothing has been heard of my letter. My sector commander was Col. Olagunju. But one soldier with whom I trained in Jaji told me that the reason may be that the army is under-manned.
You trained in Jaji?
Yes, we were over 800 soldiers. Some were turned back due to medical reasons. Gen. Okoro, who was Commander, Nigerian Army Infantry School, addressed us that we were going to receive new weapon training. I never saw any new weapon, apart from the weapon used in my unit.
What kind of weapons?
A-K47, 60mm Commando Mortar and 10mm mortar, even though nobody ever came to teach me how to operate the mortar guns. The truth is that most soldiers don’t know how to use such weapons because they have never been taught.
I don’t know. There was this funny incident when I was in 1 Brigade, Sokoto. When our annual range classification was conducted, my commander said soldiers with motorcycles should assist those who didn’t have to the range. Imagine the army didn’t provide a vehicle to take us there. My commander at the time, in 2008, was Lt. Col. O. A. Dada. I don’t know his rank now.
Did you serve in the Northeast?
In 2014, I served in Gombi, Adamawa State. From there we headed for Fella Junction, in the name of going to see new weapon, but there was none. The APCs we used were so old. At some point some were used to tow-start the others. We didn’t have tanks. It was after spending three days with our advance that we were able to borrow four new APCs from another battalion. We didn’t have communication.
How did you operate without communication?
That was the problem. Something happened in Fellatu Mia. Our soldiers were bringing food to us. We thought they were Boko Haram terrorists and opened fire on them. We had killed and injured many before realising they were our troops. This was very sad.
You mean field officers don’t have radios communication?
Only battalion, company commanders and administrative officers have Motorolla radios. Company commander, company sergeant supposed to have his own, but I don’t know if Nigerian government cannot provide or whether they provide the money and the top officers divert it.
Couldn’t your people have at least used GSM communication?
There was no GSM network there. I don’t think Nigerian Army do tell the families what happened to their loved ones because if they tell their families, they will take action on it. I have never seen a country that will send soldiers to go and fight without providing communication gadgets, only in Nigeria.
Can you tell us what day this attack occured?
No, I cannot remember the date because I lost my war diary. But from Fella we start advancing on the Miya -Fella road. At about 6:30pm, we ran into the terrorists around Miya and we fired almost till day break. Luckily, we overpowered them, and came back in the morning. Basically, our prayers served us because with the weapon we used, I don’t think we would have overpowered them.
What weapon did boko haram use?
They were carrying very powerful weapons. In fact, that was the first time of my seeing such weapons.
What kind of weapon?
Very big anti-aircraft guns. See. When a soldier dies in the army, the family will be in for a very hard life, because after three months, Nigerian army will block their salary.
What happens thereafter?
Some families spend more than two, three years chasing the dead soldier’s benefits. By right, the army is supposed to show love to the deceased soldier’s family to get their benefit. In most cases, the families spend all they have following up. When they run out of cash, they will abandon the money and some people will convert the money to personal use, leaving the families to suffer.
How true is this claim?
If you have any soldier from the rank of warrant officer down to private, call ask them, because if I give you any number, you might think I collaborated with the person. You are a journalist. Go and investigate.
Tell us how Boko Haram usually ambush soldiers.
The usual method is to push cows to us. They get over 100 cows and push them to us. In the confusion, they launch their attack. How they get the cows is what baffles us. Maybe they are stolen cows. And most times, our soldiers abandon their weapons and run. Some get killed. The problem isn’t helped by godfathers in the army. Very often you see soldiers and officers boasting that they are sons or relations of this General, as if Nigerian Army belongs to them. Maybe.
From your presentation, you seem to be very educated. Are you a graduate?
I am a school certificate holder. The army only allow people with godfathers to go for further studies. For people like us with none, you remain a Private all your life. I served twelve years without going for any course. And in Nigerian army, if an officer passes out from NDA, either regular or short service, the army are the one to nominate him to course, but we, other ranks, they think we are slaves to them. One should think it is in the best interest of the Nigerian Army to train their soldiers, but the Nigerian Army will block you from going on course so that you remain blind, not knowing much about your profession.
Why do you say that?
The officers love the status quo. They are afraid of you challenging them on what you might end up learning from the courses, so they rather you remained with zero knowledge. Our officers drum it in our ears that, as human beings, we have no rights, only privileges. And many soldiers have come to believe this. I disagree with them because I know that I am first a human being before becoming a soldier. Since I joined army, nobody ever showed me the terms and conditions of service, to read, to know what and what and where I will find my right. We don’t know what the Armed Forces Act says. All we know is when you commit, your superior will give directive to the clerk to prepare your charge.
This is serious.
It is more serious than you think. When I was at Eket, Exxon Mobil, the company trained us directly. mobile trained us directly. I was an orderly to a white man, and there was this day in 2005 I asked him, “why are you paying your staff overtime and leaving us with just N15,000 each month?’ Apparently, my question jolted him. He told me he was paying my Commander N90,000 for me and that I should not ask for any other over time. Imagine! Means my Commander had been pocketing N75,000 in my name. Multiply that times the number of soldiers under him and get an idea of how much he was making in our names. When I complained, my Commander responded by withdrawing me. Other soldiers accused me of ‘sabi-sabi”. They don’t care if their rights are trampled on, they just want to get by. As a Corporal, my monthly pay is N57,000, that is less than N2,000 a day. On the other hand, a Cadet, Termer 1, what you call Year 1 in the university collects N60,000 a month. He is collecting more salary than me. A Termer 5 or final year student in NDA earns almost twice what a Warrant Officer, who has put in more than 25 years in service earns. Don’t forget that the WO has a family and children in higher institutions. This is a very unjust system.
Now, we have a new Commander-In-Chief, who happens to be from Katsina, your home state. Since Buhari took office, Boko Haram appear to have stepped up its activities. What is your recipe for ending insurgency in Nigeria?
My advice to Mr. President is to retire all officers from the rank of Brigadier General. They have no use in Nigerian Army, because all of them have been feeding fat from the insurgency and it won’t be in their best interest to end it. If President Buhari will take my advice, let him look for a very capable Lieutenant Colonel and appoint Chief of Army Staff. Afterall, Gowon, I think, became Chief of Army Staff as Lt. Colonel. Several officers- Usman Katsina, Obasanjo, Benjamin Adekunle and others- were GOCS as Lt. Colonels and performed excellently well. What rank was Ojukwu when he led Biafra to war? Most of the Generals we have today have so politicized the military that there is little room for professionalism. They are businessmen and want to compete with the Dangotes and Ibrus. Let Buhari begin by flushing them out.