To preserve one’s life is generally speaking, a duty but it may be the plainest  and the highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man’s duty not to live, but to die.

One 7th of November 2016, seven bodies encased in coffins covered with the Nigerian flag were lowered into the ground at a military cemetery in Abuja. At the ceremony attended by Nigerians from all walks of life including, the Chief of Army Staff, a man who by his training had been conditioned to accept the grim reality that death in battle may sometimes be the fate of the faithful and conscientious soldier, could barely hold back tears when he read the funeral oration of one of the deceased soldiers. Some days earlier the Army Authorities announced the loss of some soldiers during a clash with Boko Haram insurgents. While the soldiers repelled the attack and captured some arms belonging to the attackers, an officer and six other soldiers lost their lives. In some respects, the announcement was no different from many which had previously been released by the army after such clashes, yet in so many respects, it was apparent that the events reported were different and that this time there was a real feeling of loss. Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Abu Ali was reported to be a gallant officer who had always shown exceptional bravery in the fight against the insurgents. He is reported to have led the assaults which culminated in the recovery of several swathes of territory previously held by the insurgents. His bravery and dedication to duty had earned him accelerated promotion to the rank of Lt.Colonel and also the special commendation of the Chief of Army Staff. Due to his uncommon valour he was even touted amongst his peers as a future Chief of the Army.

However I do not intend this write up as a tribute to the late officer and his fallen colleagues. Many others, some of whom are better positioned than me by virtue of their affinity with the deceased and first hand knowledge of his dedication and exploits have paid and continue to pay tribute to him. Many of them were colleagues with whom he shared a battle ground and with whom he bled in the heat of battle. In military culture no better form or source of tribute can exist. What I do intend is to draw attention to the valiant and supreme sacrifice of this fallen soldier and countless others who had gone before him, not so much with a view to securing for him a monument to his memory as so many have canvassed, but to examine, within the limited space this article affords, the enormity of that sacrifice and the circumstances that sometimes motivates some to pay the ultimate sacrifice in serving the cause of others.

To be certain, wars have been fought and soldiers have bled and died on the field of battle since all of humanity. Men and nations have fought over just about anything that could ignite a feeling of nationalism amongst them territorial borders, natural resources, slavery and political freedom. In all of these instances soldiers have left their homes for the battlefield never to be seen again and often leaving behind them very tragic stories and heartbroken loved ones. During the second world war, four brothers of the Niland family based in New York went to war. After the reported death of three of the brothers at the war front, the last surviving brother, Frederick Niland was pulled from the war front and sent back home to complete his service. However one of the brothers already presumed dead was later discovered alive in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp in Burma. Perhaps for the bereaved parents the survival of two sons offered some measure of comfort for the loss of two others. On the 14th December 2003, Staff Sgt. KimberleyVoelz, an explosive ordnance disposal expert stationed in Iraq died when a bomb she was attempting to disarm exploded. She died in the arms of her husband who was a fellow soldier and who happened to be stationed nearby. In 1916, Captain Christian Diwetrichsen of the British Army led a company of soldiers down the streets of Dublin in a show of force that the British felt would be enough to intimidate the Irish and thereby stop the uprising that had been planned for that easter period. The Captain in the course of the march ran into his wife and children whom he had earlier sent to Dublin to escape the German bombardment of British cities. Briefly stopping to greet them, he assured his wife that his unit was not likely to see any action and promised to see them again in a matter of hours. He never made it. He was cut down by a sniper’s bullets metres from the spot where he had shared those last brief moments with his beloved family.

But just what is it that compels or motivates men to give their lives for others? Why do men, and if I might add, women, voluntarily enlist in such professions such as the military in which death in battle is a constant factor? Do these men and women have in them special genes or some other biological marker that separates them from the generality of the populace, for whom, truth be told, preservation of their lives by any means necessary is the ultimate virtue.?The answer to this may not require a rocket scientist to answer. The fact is that circumstances exist and often occur when a man determines that rather than preserve his life, sacrificing it may be the highest duty required of him. Soldiers such as the late Lt. Colonel Abu fall into this category. This fact is greatly illustrated in the words of Lord Coleridge CJ in R v Dudley & Stephens  (1881-5) All E.R Rep. 61 where at page 67 he stated as follows:

To preserve one’s life is generally speaking, a duty but it may be the plainest  and the highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man’s duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers, of soldiers to women and children, as in the noble case of The Birkenhead – these duties impose on men the moral necessity not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice, of their lives for others, from which in no country – least of all it is to be hoped in England- will men ever shrink, as in deed they have not shrunk.

Countless Nigerian soldiers have by their conduct heeded the duty stated above. It is my hope that understanding the basis of their sacrifice will help those they have left behind and those for whom they have sacrificed, appreciate better the nobility of their actions and that Nigeria may eventually be better for it.


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