By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
How does one handle the rumour of being declared dead while one is still alive? This is the fate of Sergeant Cheer Agba, a Nigerian soldier from Benue State but currently serving in Rivers State.
But he’s not the first. On November 4, 1989 former President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was widely reported to have died, with claims that burial plans were already in full swing. it was later discovered to be untrue.
In March 2007, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was reported dead in Germany while in that country for medical attention. Former President Ibrahim Babangida was also reported dead while treating a foot condition abroad. Even President Muhammadu Buhari was reported dead in 2016 while treating a nagging ear problem.
This time, Sergeant Agba, an indigene of Aliade in Gwer-East Local Government Area of Benue State, is the victim.
Agba is a serving soldier who had served in the North-East, fighting insurgents and other terrorists. He is still very much alive, working at a Shell facility in Rivers State after the Nigerian army redeployed him there. But to some of his friends and co-workers, with whom he lost communication, he had long passed away in battle.
When the fake news broke, it was distressing for his wife and kids because, at the time, he couldn’t reach them on phone because telephone service was absent in his area of deployment. This, of course, caused major panic in the entire extended family, including among his six siblings, until he got to know of his purported death. He then began making attempts to contact his family that he was not dead. In fact, his apartment in the barracks became the scene of a sombre gathering when the news broke.
Colleagues deployed to other areas had talked about his alleged “death” while remembering other people they lost during their deployment tour in Maiduguri. Therefore, he has had to deal with the trauma of the phone line being dropped on him whenever he says his name when he tries to get in touch with folks he had lost touch with.
The Premium Times had previously written on Agba’s use of his spare time to tutor kids in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp before the news of his death went viral. His excellent efforts were also a part of the viral dead narrative.
His ordeal began in August 2016 when online publications and blogs published reports of his death along with images.
Hear him: “I was serving at 93 Battalion stationed in Takum Taraba State before I was drafted along with 149 others to Maiduguri under Operation Restore Hope Joint Task Force 2013, a mission that would last nearly five consecutive years. I was redeployed in 2018 and finally posted to 5 Battalion Elele Rivers State in July 2020.
“The news of my purported death broke as we were working in Borno to clear out towns and villages where Boko Haram had abducted residents and taken over throughout the state. IEDs and direct enemy fire resulted in numerous casualties for us. Since I was deep in the bush and distant from where I could easily be reached by phone, I was unable to connect that news to any specific occurrence.”
The story, which was lifted from The New Tribes of Nigeria and shared severally read thus:
“As shared by The New Tribes of Nigeria (posted as shared)……
“We’re glad to open the stories on this page with the Story of Platoon Sergeant, Chier Agba. Serving in the armed forces of Nigeria, he was posted to the volatile north eastern part of Nigeria to face the Boko Haram insurgency.
“Sergeant Agba served with heroism, and with heart. Leaving behind a wife and four kids, including a two-week old baby. For over four years, he bravely served to recover the territories taken by the insurgents and to return normalcy to the region.
“What was more, however, is that Sergeant Agba dedicated his spare time to educating the children in this volatile zones in an improvised open air classroom, with sand-crete (sic) blocks as chairs and a flattened cardboard nailed to a tree as a blackboard.
“We are grateful for the service of Officer Agba and it is our pleasure to highlight him as our first icon of nationalism on this page, a proud Tiv man and a detribalized Nigerian. Thank you for your service.”
Agba said his attempt to call his former supervisor in ECOMOG while in Sierra Leone was met by a dropped call on Sunday, November 20, forcing him to post on his Facebook page once more that he was still very much alive.
He posted: “Don’t know how many times I need to do this. So I got his number and called, been years since we parted in a foreign mission during ECOMOG. Someone picks the call, I introduce myself then he abruptly ends the call. I dialled again and he cancelled the call. After a while, I got a call from a strange number, I pick, try to find out who. Another colleague from long time ago introduces himself and asked for same. I mention my name, line goes dead. Finally, a colleague here on FB calls to tell me there is confusion, that some people still believe I have been long dead. They are so confident of this fact having seen the news online. The argument is that I may be calling from heaven.
“Well, I am still in purgatory Nigeria, hope to end up in heaven, somewhere in Europe or America.”
When asked what transpired that caused people to think he was deceased, he replied: “While I was stationed in Maiduguri, in the North-East, there was an incident. In 2016, online publications and blogs reported my demise, and taking that down has proven to be challenging. And it’s challenging for me to connect with everyone. Some people do not use social media.
“Additionally, it becomes really challenging, particularly when we lose touch with friends and family members who need to know that we are actually still alive. It has therefore been difficult.
“I posted about the second one on my Facebook page on Sunday, which was yesterday. However, a lot of people still believe that I am dead, especially those who do not use social media.
“No, my family is back in Taraba State where I served before I was redeployed to Rivers State,” Agba said when asked if he was with them.
When questioned about why the Nigerian Army has not refuted the report of his death, he responded, “I’m sure they will do so eventually. Officers and lower ranks are handled differently under the military system. But I’m obliged to come out today because of the daily embarrassment I endure. They are treating me like a ghost.
“Occasionally I run into folks who I’ve known before, and they just take off. Sometimes I find a phone number of someone with whom I haven’t spoken in a very long time, and when I call, they simply don’t want to talk once I introduce myself. As a result, it has been quite traumatising. It hurts terribly when individuals avoid you or believe you to be a ghost. The most recent one happened a few days ago, and I had to share the experience I had yesterday (Sunday) again on my Facebook page.
“I got a number of one of my bosses whom I worked with many years ago in Sierra Leone during the days of ECOMOG. I had to make the call. He immediately cut the call when I introduced myself. He is currently in the Nigeria Armed Forces Resettlement Centre (NAFRC) Oshodi. He is retired. So, I dialled the number once more, and he disconnected. So after some time, another caller rang. I answered the call and tried to identify the caller. He then identified himself and I discovered he was someone I knew. When I gave him my name, he disconnected the call.
“I was at a loss as to what to do. After some time had passed, a co-worker with whom I had been communicating via social media on Facebook messaged me to inform me of the controversy surrounding my existence. He claimed that people had called him to inquire as to whether I was still alive, because many soldiers in different groups in various areas have been talking.
Normally, we discussed some of our colleagues who passed away in Maiduguri and other locations. So, I was one of the people whose death had been mentioned everywhere. I found that to be really challenging.
“I had to convince him to help me talk to them that I am alive and not dead. I am aware that some of them don’t use social media, especially the vast majority who are either not well educated or moderately educated enough to use social media. Therefore, it has proven to be extremely difficult. So on Sunday, I simply shared it on social media in this manner and posted the newspaper page that reported my demise with the hope that I will put this nightmare behind me.
“I remember that something happened in the past. The army authorities would not permit me to grant media interviews and all that until any media house got approval from the army headquarters. So I never had the opportunity to do that. An article about me was published in Premium Times in 2015 or thereabouts. That one wasn’t a bad article; it was about some of my IDP-related activities at the time. I’m not sure how they (Premium Times) managed to capture me on camera, but I was truly seen under the tree in the jungle, teaching the young kids.
“They were children that we saw in the bush who had lost their parents to the activities of Boko Haram. I don’t know how it happened, but the next story that appeared was an obituary. That’s how it has been. Nobody has taken any action. I wasn’t really worried at first. But my friend who contacted you saw my post, even though I was still trying to make light of the whole thing. He realised how frustrated I was when we spoke and decided to get in touch with you so I could tell you my story.
“I’m currently at a Shell facility in Kolo Creek. I’ve been in River State for two years and three months since I was redeployed from the North-East in 2020 and the news of my death was posted in 2016.”