By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
Mrs Adebimpe Ishola (not real name) is heartbroken. She is one of the several women whose military husbands died fighting to rescue Nigerians from Boko Haram insurgents. Years after her husband’s demise, she seems to have been forsaken by the very country her husband died fighting for.
Today, she still sheds tears when she recalls that her husband, a soldier, was drafted to Bornu State in 2018. There was no premonition that when he left, it would be the last she would see him alive. The apprehension of the night before he travelled was doused when he assured her that he would be fine and promised to be sending money for the upkeep of their children. Serving in the military was a passion for the man.
He never made it back alive. He was 40 years old.
With tears coursing down her cheeks, she recalled: “We had four kids. He loved his children and me dearly. He died in Maiduguri. He was in Maiduguri for two years before they went to the battlefront where he was attacked. I was not told anything until more than a year after his death. Before I was eventually informed, I had gone to Maiduguri twice to find out about him. They kept telling me he was missing in action. It was after a year plus they declared him dead. The attack was in 2018.
“He had always loved his profession. I was a full time housewife before he died.
“We have been paid benefits in August 2020 but they are yet to pay the insurance. His mother and younger siblings are still alive.
“Life is very tough. The last time we spoke was the day he was being taken to the bush. He said he called to inform me because where he was going there was no network.
The children are missing their dad daily, he was a good man.”
For Nana Abraham (not real name) from Adamawa, she doesn’t know how to make lemonade out of the lemons life has thrown at her. “My husband died in 2015 at 44 Nigerian Army Reference Hospital, Kaduna after a prolonged illness relating to the liver. He just told me to look after his children before he passed. He was nearing his retirement when he died.
“We have been given benefits but not life insurance. We have four children. My son also joined the army but sadly he was killed in Maiduguri in April 2020. He was the one helping me to take care of his younger ones. He was paying the school fees of the last born who was a boarder in Command Secondary School. After his burial, I sent my daughter who was preparing for her wedding, to go bring his belongings in Maiduguri and that was how she was kidnapped. She has been in Boko Haram captivity now for the past seven months. She too was one of those assisting me. One day she called and asked me to send her N8, 000 recharge card. She now assured me that they are still alive, I just said okay. I advised her to continue to hold unto God.
I have not heard anything from the government. All I want is for them to help secure her release. I am always thinking about how she is coping. I was so heartbroken I had to go to my son’s grave and prayed. I told him his sister had been kidnapped and that he should fight for her release. My son was not married before he was killed.”
The above are part of the tales of woe that wives of fallen heroes told Saturday Sun. the major problem, they said, is non-payment of life insurance years after death. This is attributed to the issue of Next Of Kin (NOK).
Most wives of fallen soldiers revealed that after their husbands died, family members of the deceased descended on them, confiscating their property even as they collected the benefits meant for the fallen heroes. This is because the soldiers filled the names of their family members as next of kin, instead of names of their wives or children. As it stands, there is no hope that they will get the life insurance benefits if and when the government eventually pays.
Military authorities however claim that they have persistently requested for soldiers to update their information and change their NOK because mostly, when these soldiers join the army, they were young and unmarried and it was only proper for them to fill their brothers or parents as their NOK. But when they get married, they forget to change it. At the point of death, it is only the NOK filled by the deceased that will by law be entitled to receive the life insurance benefits.
Some of the widows, who spoke in separate interviews, said it was unfair for their husbands to pay the supreme price trying to keep the nation one only for their families to be denied the benefits that can help them live comfortably. They said many of their children have stopped going to school because the scholarship too has stopped coming.
Joan said she lost her soldier-husband when he and his fellow soldiers were ambushed in January, last year in Niger State. The mother of one, said despite appearing with her mother-in-law for documentation and verification to confirm the next-of-kin at the Military Pensions Board, she is yet to hear from them.
“He was the first child and was everything because they lost their dad. He was wonderful. It was the best six years of my life. I met him in church when he was a cadet. He was dedicated to the profession. We used to pray together every morning whether he was in town or not. The day he died, we did the same thing.
“He told me he was fixing one of the operational vehicles after several requests to the authorities without response. When we got back, I kept calling him, but he didn’t pick. Eventually, when he picked, he said he would call back. His voice was tense, as if they were running. That was the last I heard from him. I didn’t sleep; I kept calling his lines, his mates and everyone I knew. Then I called his second line. A Fulani man picked. He was laughing and saying, na me, and speaking his dialect. I had to run out to inform my neighbour to help me listen to what he was saying. But he dropped the call. When we tried calling back, the line was switched off.
“My husband was good to me. I never saw myself becoming a widow. He was in Maiduguri for years and when he survived that, we did thanksgiving. I will not advise anyone to join the army. I have turned a lot of my friends down that wanted me to endorse a form for their children to join the army. Look at some of these widows, some of them will be driven from their homes soon, and they have not been paid.”
President Muhammadu Buhari has, however pledged that his government would never abandon the families of the fallen heroes who paid the supreme price defencing Nigeria.
Speaking on Thursday in Maiduguri, Borno State, Buhari said the nation owes a debt of gratitude to military men and women, and security agencies currently tackling security challenges in the country, particularly the many who paid the supreme price. He assured family members of deceased soldiers that the government would continue to support their loved ones.
“As I send my heartfelt condolences to the families of our fallen heroes and pray for the souls of the departed, I want to assure you that my administration will spare no effort or resources to ensure that the widows and children of our fallen heroes who paid the supreme price in defence of our beloved country, are well cared for,” the president asserted.
Saturday Sun asked military authorities and the Minister of Finance why widows are left to suffer when their husbands die in active service.
But the Military Pensions Board told the reporter that the life insurance payment was outside its mandate. “We work with information given. Our mandate covers pensions, gratuity, and death benefits and we pay as soon as we get the list of cleared beneficiaries,” the reporter was told.
Sources at the Ministry of Defence said the delay in payment of insurance benefits to fallen heroes is due to bureaucratic bottlenecks. The source revealed that firstly, before now, there was just one-year budget plan approvals for the benefits, it was learnt that if the funds are not released on time by the Ministry of Finance, there would be delays.
When soldiers die during the buffer of the approvals, they might not be captured for that year and may not be paid.
The source said, however, that President Muhammadu Buhari has now approved a three-year budget, adding that the insurance company now has clearance for verifications and nominal roll sent for verification.
The source said the total outstanding group life insurance for three years is N11.1 billion.
The source said: “The 2019-2020 budget was approved in January 2020. This covers December to November 2019-2020. We have written seven reminders. The outstanding sum for the three years is N11.1 billion, N3.7 billion for each year. We have already sent that of 2021 and sent a recent reminder like two weeks ago.
We feel this should be prioritised because soldiers are dying everyday. Every permanent secretary that gets posted here writes a reminder. This is not how to boost the morale of those paying the supreme prize for our collective safety.”
On the allegation by one widow that her husband’s NOK was swapped from her to his brother, the source further stated: “The military doesn’t joke with NOK. They don’t tamper with it. It is the man that will decide. It’s clear the husband did not make her NOK. How does she know? Did she see the record of the service of the officer? I know the military; they don’t change those things because this is dear to them. That is why they advise their officers to choose their next of kin. I know of a case where the next of kin is the deceased younger brother. In fact, he was practically forced to part with a substantial amount for his brother’s widow before he left there. They brought both the man’s brother and wife together and said the next of kin is his brother but this is the wife. What are you going to give the woman? But the bottom-line remains that it is the man that will decide. When you see your late colleague’s wife going through problems, you will want to correct that.”
The source advised that government should work on bureaucracy to speed up the processes to boost the morale of those that are still in service.
He also explained why those that have not been paid for about eight years are in that predicament. “Those are the ones that fell into the gap period, when the Federal Ministry of Finance does not release the premium on time. That was why the president approved this for three years at a stretch to bridge the gap. But they will be taken care of by the government and not by the insurance. This is because they were not covered so the insurance cannot pay them. It has to be the government that will pay them but it will take time. For instance, the whole of 2014, they were not paid at all. It is not being processed in the Ministry of Finance for payment. They are not covered by premium insurance but at least the next of kin will get their entitlements. It might not be as immediate as those covered.”
Findings by Saturday Sun revealed that from January 2020 to date, all those that died and should have naturally been covered are not covered because of the delay. This also affects the former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, who died recently along with others.
Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, exonerated herself, explaining that funds had been provided for claims by the Department of Security Service (DSS) because the requests were made promptly, adding that the same is not the case with the armed forces.
Ahmed, speaking on the cause of the delay, said her ministry had just received the 2013 request, which unfortunately has not been captured in the 2021 budget.
She said: “We just received it. So, it wasn’t planned for. It wasn’t budgeted for. And this has happened all these years. It’s in this 2021 that this request is coming. So, now, we’re left with the work of having to raise money to be able to provide for those families to be paid. And we’re discussing how we can phase it because it was not provided for in the budget. And then the question you should be asking is: where has it been kept all this time? Why is the request just coming now?”
But the Ministry of Defence countered that numerically, DSS officers that get killed in active service cannot be placed in proportion with the number of soldiers who are dying in their droves everyday defending the nation.
Kayode Ajulo, human rights lawyer, who has handled most of the cases for widows of slain soldiers, regrets that most soldiers do not put their houses in order by specifying who the NOK is before they died. He maintained that the case is rampant and the problem stems from wrong imputation of NOK or refusal to update it when they get married. He was also piqued by the delay or non-payment of life insurance benefits.
“If there has been delay in the payment of their life insurance, that is pure corruption. Corruption in Nigeria knows no bounds. It doesn’t even respect the dead. It does not respect someone who has laid down his life for the country. I think that basically, corruption in the sense that as long as that money continues to be in a bank, it’s generating some interest until such a time they can no longer hold on to it. It is deliberate. Their breadwinner died, the children are young, the wife is young, you jeopardize their schooling. It is the same peculiar mess in the name of corruption.”