When Sunday Orji, an officer of the Nigerian Army, tied the nuptial knot with his heart throb, Emilia, in 2010, the vow was to live forever. He was already in service for six years, having joined the army in 2004.
The couple had it all planned like many others; make some money, make some babies and live together till death do them part. Indeed, Mr Orji made enough to cater for the family, he had two children with Emilia but the third promise was never fulfilled. The sun set on the soldier’s life in 2015. That marked the beginning of horror for his family.
“When I got there (Nigerian Army’s office), I was told they got a signal that my husband was missing but asked me to give them time to confirm his status. After a year of ignorance, I was later told he’s dead,” Mrs Orji said in a March interview with PREMIUM TIMES, crying profusely.
The incident described by her was in 2015.
Before then, Mr Orji was in the habit of calling to check on his family everyday but around August that year, the calls stopped coming. An apprehensive Mrs Orji decided to visit the Bonny Camp army cantonment in Victoria Island to express her concern about the sudden halt of her husband’s call. Days later, she was told that her husband died at the battle front.
For over 10 years, the Nigerian government has engaged in war with the Islamic insurgent group, Boko Haram, seeking to establish an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.
Since 2009 when it broke out, at least 47,000 people have been killed in the Boko Haram war, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Also, over two million have been displaced . One often neglected statistics, however, is the estimated 10,000 plus soldiers who have died in the war. Mr Orji with the army number 04/55/1726 is one of the fallen soldiers.
Soon after she was told about the death, Mrs Orji was advised by the Nigerian Army authorities to start processing her husband’s gratuity being the next of kin. She told PREMIUM TIMES she was able to perfect the process in due time but four years later, she’s yet to receive any entitlement
“I was the one with his ATM (card) and we got salaries for three months before the salary was blocked,” she narrated.
Life became hard for Mrs Orji and her two children after her husband’s salary of N55,000 as lance corporal was stopped. Although the army allowed them to still occupy their accommodation in the Ojo Barracks, Lagos, putting food on their table and accessing other basic life needs became increasingly difficult.
Mrs Orji used the cumulative salary to start a petty trade in groceries in 2015 but was forced to close down in 2019 due to unbearable credit purchases.
Now, the family only survives on gifts from church members and can not afford basic medications. When an illness came calling in 2019, their first child, Chukwuka, died.
“Last year, I lost Chukwuka, my eight-year-old first child in the midst of the struggle. He had convulsions which led to memory loss. Chukwuka eventually died after I could not raise money to take him to hospital. Since then, my pastor took the responsibility of paying my second child’s school fees,” she said weeping.
Mrs Orji, though battered, is still hopeful that her husband’s gratuity will be paid so she can cater for the only remaining child.
“Sometimes they ask us to go to Abuja, but when we get there, they won’t even attend to us. The Nigeria Army are not trying for the widows at all. They will tell us check back, anytime we go to Abuja, without considering the expenses we’ve made.”
She continues to live in a dingy, dampened room in a block of 10 flats reserved for widows in the Ojo Barracks.
‘Nigerian Army left my father to die, neglected us’
Mrs Orji is not alone in this hopeless state. The pain of losing a beneficiary was evident in the voice of Janet Samuel, 19. Her dream is to become a journalist but this seems far reaching since her father’s death.
Sunday Samuel with the army number 01/NA/50/725 was attacked in Maiduguri in 2017. Following official advice, he returned to Odogbo barracks in Ibadan for treatment. After receiving treatment for a while, he was transferred to Kastina to join the military in combating armed herders. His travel to Kastina was a journey of no return, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
“He was under medical (care) here but when he got to Kastina in 2018, he joined soldiers combating herdsmen in the bush. When they had an encounter with the herdsmen and in the process, the explosion of the bad guys entered his chest and he was taken to the military hospital in Zaria, Kaduna State. Following the situation of the incident, he was returned to FMC in Katsina for operation. All that happened in August 2018. He came home in December to celebrate 2018 Christmas with us before he returned (to Katsina) on December 28 that same year.”
That was the last time Ms Samuel saw her father.
“The operation carried out on him started affecting him. He spent six months in the hospital before he eventually died,” she said. Rather than take care of the soldier, she alleged that her father “was dumped in the hospital and army authorities never paid for his treatment.”
“They called my mum to come stay with her husband. The Nigerian Army neglected my father until he died on June 21, 2019. My father was attacked on duty but no one cared for him. I was left with my siblings, six in number, and could not continue my education. I had already written UTME before he died but since then, I’ve remained in the same spot. The dream of returning to school is dying already.”
While her husband was alive and even after his death, Sarah Samuel (Janet’s mother) had no job and depended entirely on the salary that comes, until the pay stopped coming
When PREMIUM TIMES visited Odogbo barracks in March, Mrs Samuel was said to have travelled to Abuja to get an update on when her husband’s gratuity will be ready.
Corroborating her daughter’s account when she finally spoke to this reporter, she said the family only received three months’ salary and nothing else.
PREMIUM TIMES asked how much the gratuity would be. She said: “not up to N2 million”.
The guidelines on administration of military pensions for personnel of the armed forces of Nigeria provides that death benefits should be paid to Next of Kins (NOKs) of deceased military personnel that died in active service.
When officers die in active service, form 9B, a death certificate, letter of introduction of their NOKs, condolence letter from their last units, sworn affidavit deposed to by the NOKs authenticating them as NOKs, the ID card of the deceased personnel, passport photographs of the NOKs and any form of identification of the NOKs are expected to be sent to military pension board at Dutse-Alhaji, Abuja, by their respective offices.
These documents are used to process the deceased personnel’s death benefits which would be paid to rightful NOKs after conducting interviews. There is an NOK Standing Committee that usually invites and conducts interviews for NOKs with a view to verifying genuineness or otherwise of the NOKs and ensuring correctness of documents.
When satisfied, the committee usually sends the NOKs with their files to computer section for capturing of their biometric data preparatory for processing the final payments.
However, the rule did not stipulate how long it should take for the final payment of entitlements to be ready. It rather states that entitlements will be paid into the bank account which NOKs provided during the interview. This loophole makes it difficult to hold the Nigerian Army to account.
The rule says the Military Pensioners Board pays death benefits in batches as they are processed subject to availability of funds. While the board assured of prompt, accurate and efficient payment of these benefits to families of deceased, those who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES are yet to access these funds, in some cases, many years after completing the processes. This has further exposed the families to suffering.
Forlorn, yet mute
Same was the story for the family of Captain I.S. Suleiman with the army number (N/14368 58RC). He was last seen at his place of primary assignment in Maiduguri Banki Junction, 81 division TF on July 13, 2018. After six months of not hearing from him, his wife, Hadiza visited Borno to know his fate.
“I wasn’t contacted nor told anything until after six months that I went to check on him. I saw the CO who told me they forgot to reach out to me. I was, thereafter, given a letter declaring him missing. I was again called in August last year for another letter saying he’s dead. Since then, we’ve been battling for his entitlement which is not forthcoming,” Hadiza said with all sense of hopelessness.
Hadiza will give no further details of her ordeal despite prodding by this reporter.
PREMIUM TIMES‘ visits to Ogbodo barracks in Ibadan and Ojo barracks in Lagos reveal that many widows are afraid to speak about their difficulties in accessing their late husband’s entitlements for fear of being kicked out of their residences and other forms of victimisation.
These widows in Ogbodo barracks now engage in production of garri, a staple food made from cassava, for survival. They produce this for their consumption and sale. Their counterparts in Ojo engage mostly in farming for survival.
Asked about their ordeals, many of the widows declined comments and frankly told PREMIUM TIMES they are unauthorised to narrate their sufferings to the public.
“What happens in the military stops in the military. If you want us to speak with you, bring a note from authorities,” one of them at Ogbodo barracks said.
PREMIUM TIMES reached out to the military pension board for enquiries but could not get response. Calls and emails sent to the board were not responded to.
Also, the Defense Headquarters spokesperson, Onyema Nwachukwu, did not respond to calls and text messages, same encounter we had with army spokesperson, Sagir Musa.
Similarly, Ali Ndume, the Chairman Senate Committee on Army, did not respond to calls and text messages.
Meanwhile, the Chairman of House of Representatives Committee on Defence, Babajimi Benson, could not also speak on how long it takes for families of fallen soldiers to get their entitlement.
“I had this discussion with the chairman of the military pension, they said that before they pay (next of kin), they meet the specific agency concerned to be able to send the file and evidence of death to them, once they get that, they pay as soon as possible or immediately. But it is that bureaucratic process that at times stall prompt payments.”
When PREMIUM TIMES told him that many families still don’t get paid despite completing all the processes, he responded saying: “Are you sure they submitted to the appropriate channel?”
“What we do is that if it is brought to our attention by way of a petition, we will go to the appropriate channel to find out why there is a delay, it could be a process delay. But they should not be delay the payments due to the deceased family.”
Speaking on the findings of this newspaper, Amnesty International’s Country Director, Osai Ojigho, berated the Nigeria Army while urging for more transparency.
“These people are vulnerable because their loved ones passed on in the line of duty,” she said. “This is because there’s no accountability and transparency in the army. Necessary authorities must as a matter of urgency see this report as a call to encourage families of those who died serving the nation.”
She called for an “open processing of entitlement and retribution for saboteurs.”
Meanwhile, Odebode Karimat, a gender equality activist charged authorities to pay cognisance to the families of fallen heroes.
“It is quite unfortunate that the government did not pay cognisance to the families of fallen soldiers. It is sad even the ones with petty trades are also not encouraged. This is not so good. It is a great dis-service them.
“We cannot deny the fact that they died while fighting for this nation. The government must cater for the economy of these families and must all hold authorities accountable.”
Also, public affairs analyst, Jide Ojo, blamed the military for its hypocrisy.
“There are lots of propaganda in the military. They keep saying the privileges of deceased soldiers are properly taken care of but your findings proved otherwise. You will agree that justice delayed is justice denied. It is sad that the military is not recognising the service of those who lay their lives for the security of the nation,” he said.
Support for this report was provided by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism with funding from Free Press Unlimited.