The Muslim prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said three sets of eyes will not see the fire and suffering that hell represents. For the purpose of this piece, I will limit myself to just one. The eyes that watch over people to protect them when they are asleep will have a nice sleep in heaven. In other words, the righteous soldier and the righteous police are destined to go to heaven unless they bring hell to bear upon themselves by being unrighteous.
They may have let us down in the not-too-distant past when they brought untold hardship upon us in 1997 – 2001, but at the height of our civil war many other of them died in the genuine defence of our motherland. I believe our current army is a crop of changed men and women. Many of them I have met in recent times pass as people who are meek, contrite and respectful.
On Wednesday this week I was driving to Goderich to interview the former vice president Solomon Berewa. The clouds were swollen and ready to burst. In fact the sky had opened its mouth a short while before. The terrible road leading to Goderich was made even worse by the rains. The bridge linking the community to Gbendembu, in a terrible state. A potential danger to the lives of hundreds who ply the route daily. More so to the president whose convoy passes through everyday.
On the way I met some well-armed soldiers, standing at attention. They were standing guard on the way to the president’s house and they must have been there for hours. Ready to die if need be, for the man who symbolises the country. This is the ultimate price anybody can pay – their life.
As they stood guard, drenched by the patter of the rains, passing cars could even splatter muddy water on them if the drivers were not very careful. Such is their commitment to duty. Such is their resolve to make amends. Such is their oath to always defend the constitution and the people’s choice.
It brought to mind an indelible impression I had during a visit to Kailahun district some five years ago. There I saw soldiers spending the night inside trees, keeping watch over the border with neighbouring Liberia. Rain or cold, they did not come down until daybreak.
Their shelter was a make-believe one. Leaky thatched houses were all they had. Even their senior officers barely lived in what could be called a house. But if Kailahun sounds far away, how about their barracks in Freetown?
It is probably a good thing that soldiers are not allowed to go on strike. The fact that they are armed makes the reason all too obvious. But what that means is that there should an effective system of looking into their grievances. Their salary is appallingly low, with some having been so indebted that what is left of their take-home pay can barely take them home. Their living conditions are appalling. How many of us are accept a job to die for others to live.
The wrongs the military did in the past was definitely inspired or facilitated by unscrupulous civilians – bad politicians. Conventional reasoning has made it apparent that the military coup of the National Provisional Ruling Council exactly fifteen years ago this week which ousted the APC government, was the handiwork of some big von in the country’s oldest surviving political party, SLPP. They felt that the APC, as was evident then, was never going to relinquish power. And the involvement of some former NPRC leaders in the SLPP today is enough proof.
The same conventional reason also indicates that the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council military coup of May 1997 bore all the hallmarks of the APC that wanted to square up. And the important role played by some of those AFRC people in the current government is probably additional testament to that school of taught.
It was the late Nigerian General, Maxwell Khobe who, while trying to talk me into enlisting in the army, assured that once the leadership of the army had been ironed, the lower ranks could not afford to remain rumpled. So politicians should stop abusing the minds of the leadership of the army, be that along the line of tribalism or some other parochial considerations.
That said the RSLAF of today, especially at the top echelons, must also not allow themselves to be misused, for want of a better word, by politicians who are only interested in themselves. This is one thing that, despite some giant strides taken by some senior police officers, it will be very difficult for the SLP to achieve any serious respect in many quarters. Reason: the current leadership of the police leaves so much to be desired when it comes to political prostitution, bigotry and dishonesty. Anything politicians have wanted to do, the police leadership will instruct that it be done. The same yesterday, the same today!
But back to the army, there is talk of further downsizing the army by 2,000 men and women. That sounds like killing a dead man or woman. These are people trained to use a gun. In a country where the majority of people, among them two-thirds of the youth population are without a job, retrenching thousands more is a recipe for trouble.
I would think the more sensible and sensitive thing to do would be to maintain the current crop and retiring them as the retirement age catches up with them. That is something they signed for – to retire at retirement age.
I know we need career soldiers. I know we need more energetic men and women to replace frail ones. I also know that we need engineers, nurses, doctors, journalists, etc in the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces. But let us not unload men and women trained to use a gun, and unleash them on the people without other jobs.
What I think should be the preoccupation now is strengthening the image of the army which I think needs to do more public relations repairs. It would seem the death of Henmarth Adolphus Samuels has taken the military’s PR into the wrong hands.
The army should be involved in some social work. They should be involved in more civil social activities such as working with civilians, involving is engineering work, and very crucially, reviving the Military Dance Band. The band is an effective way of winning hearts and minds especially among the young population.
But another thing that should be encouraged is discouraging of drug abuse in the army. The minds of soldiers should be minded off especially marijuana. Apparently because of its cheapness and easy affordability, marijuana smoking is commonplace in our army. There is no survey at present but it is presumably correct that the majority of the soldiers smoke the substance. The implications thereof are all too familiar. Not good for their finances, bad for their health and erodes discipline in the force that requires the highest standard of discipline.
What’s more is that some of the soldiers smoke marijuana openly and in uniform. This serves as an effective disincentive for people who may want their children to enlist in the military in future.
Also, people in high places should not see the army as a dumping ground for the poor man’s children. How many of our MPs, ministers, senior civil servants, or even top military officers want their children to join the army?
Whatever it is, I pray that members of our armed forces will be righteous, so that they will not know hell when they die, or travel to the world beyond, as it is believed that RIGHTEOUS SOLDIERS DON’T DIE. To achieve that, always remember the words of Robert E Lee said, “To be a good soldier you must love the army…” By Umaru Fofana