An army patrol vehicle zoomed into the Army Headquarters, AHQ Garrison at Mogadishu Barracks in Abuja and the soldiers all disembarked in a typical military style, for a rest. The only female in the team also jumped down the vehicle and hopped into a ditch behind a building in the midst of her male colleagues. Nothing gave her out as a woman – no make-up, no wrist bangles or earrings; she was just like the men until she threw down the helmet, revealing a well-curled hair.
She slung her rifle smartly from her left shoulder and rested it on the concrete wall of the ditch, with the nozzle pointing up. The soldiers all sat in accustomed positions, cramping together like long-time buddies with their legs interlocking.
A male soldier appeared from an office and shouted a nickname when he sighted the female soldier, and she hollered back, as she bantered with another male colleague sitting next to her. A hawker came around and the soldiers each bought a cake and a bottle of soft drink. They chatted enthusiastically as they munched and drank.
“When you’re a soldier,” said Augustina Madambo, a master warrant officer and one of the most experienced female soldiers in the barracks, “there is no female; everyone is a soldier.” Madambo, 47, was the only girl that was recruited by the Nigerian Army from Adamawa State in 1986, and one of the 39 female recruits for the year. They trained for six months with over 740 men at the army depot in Zaria.
The military, especially the army, which is the largest military arm in the country, was largely regarded as a male turf for a long time, until recently. More young women are now attracted to military life and are enlisting along with men to serve their country. From a mere 39 recruited by the army in 1986, nearly 1,000 females are now recruited yearly out of thousands of applicants. The magazine learnt that many girls have developed so much interest in the military that some would plead that “they are ready to do anything to be recruited.” And their numbers are on the rise.
However, authorities of the Nigerian military prefer to keep mum as regards the exact number of the female members in the 130,000 strong army, navy and the air force for reasons of national security, says Ibrahim Attahiru, brigadier-general and director, army public relations. “They run into thousands, but I cannot give you the figures because that borders on national security”, he insists. According to Attahiru, women started joining the army in the 1960s. “They were in corps such as medical, and they went into supplies and transport later but as time went on the army diversified and started having women performing combat duties,” he recalled. Those who enlisted in this other corps have so far been sources of pride to the Nigerian military. For instance, by the time Major-General Aderonke Kale retired in 1997 she had the record of being the first female to become a two-star general in the West African sub-region. She rose to become the director of Army Medical Corps.
Now a septuagenarian, Josephine Okwuekele Tofele reportedly the first female to wear the rank of an army captain in the country also served in the Nigerian Army Nursing Service, the precursor of the Medical Corps. Perhaps if she had not retired in 1967, she probably would have created more record if she did not emerge the first general.
The second woman to be decorated with the rank of a two-star general is an architect. Itunu Hotonu, who was decorated a rear admiral in December 2012 is the managing director of the Nigerian Navy Post Service Housing Scheme. They all got to the top through hard work and a rare display of intellectual acuity. Hotonu, first female military officer to attend the National Defence Academy, NDA, (formerly National War College), Abuja, graduated best all round student in 2004 in a class of 73. Tofele and Kale are among the pioneers in the military.
For about five decades after independence women were not allowed to enlist in the combatant corps in spite of the fact that they all underwent the same rigorous military training. Hotonu who was enlisted in the navy in 1985, said in an interview with a national daily, “Training was tough and the best way I can describe it to you is to multiply what they put you through during National Youth Service Corps 20 times.” The woman who was earlier denied entry into the Nigerian army because they said there was no place for ladies in the engineering corps, is today a star in the navy.
The year before she became a two-star general she was in Liberia, on the invitation of the government of that country to mentor females in the Liberian Armed Forces. Those she ministered to must have been further encouraged on hearing the news of her ascendancy as the first female rear admiral in the sub-region. She had said after that promotion, “I am happy about my promotion to the rank of a rear admiral in the Nigerian Navy and the fact that it is during my lifetime that females are now being recruited into the Nigerian Defence Academy to train as regular combatant officers.”
That was a clear indication that the era of limitation is over for women in the military. In fact, President Goodluck Jonathan gave credence to that in his comment after decorating Hotonu and 22 other generals in Abuja. He said, “so when will I see Nigerian women flying jets? We will want to start training women at the NDA to become regular combatant officers, those who are strong enough to face the rigours. In some years to come, may be the commander of the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) can be a woman.” The story of Blessing Liman, the 29-year-old flying officer who enlisted into the Nigerian Air Force, NAF, two years ago is a testimony that that dream is about becoming a reality. Liman is today celebrated as the first female to fly a fighter jet. Things are really looking up for women in the armed forces.
Whether it is climbing obstacles with backpacks, running 40 kilometres at a stretch or handling the rifle during combat, there are no waivers for females – everyone gets the same combat training. “When you’re recruited as a soldier, you are trained together. Nobody cares whether you’re female or male; you’re just a soldier and you are expected to perform same way,” explained Agha Okoro, an army lieutenant, and one of the few women in the officer cadre. It is however understandable that a conservative outfit like the military will cautiously embrace changes that are considered fundamental. Even the United States, US, only decided in January this year to consider women for enrolment into its Navy SEALS, the special operations force used for crucial military and anti-terror operations. If approved, the relaxation of the recruitment policy for the US Navy SEALS would be coming 71 years after the special unit was created. With this leap, the American government is also lifting a 1994 ban on women serving in combat roles.
Female soldiers are serving the armies of their countries in a variety of ways, including going on domestic and international operations and assisting their male counterparts at the frontlines during combats. Domestically, apart from working in the offices in various divisions and garrison commands in the country, female soldiers are also increasingly becoming part of domestic operations. In almost all states in the North where the Joint Military Task Force is fighting Boko Haram insurgents, female soldiers are noticeable in patrol vehicles and among gun-wielding, fully-armed male soldiers manning checkpoints in search of insurgents.
Angela Bashmateka, a 20-year-old soldier from Benue State and one of the no fewer than six soldiers guarding the Mambilla Barracks in Abuja, told the magazine that she stands with her rifle at the entrance checkpoint of the barracks for as long as 12 hours on some days and nights. Bashmateka who joined the army in 2010 said she is living her dream. She fell in love with the army just from seeing soldiers who used to visit her school. After her secondary education in 2009, she got her parents’ consent to enlist in the army.
Apart from the few infantry soldiers involved in the JTF operations in the North, all the young female soldiers who spoke to the magazine said they were yet to participate in domestic or international peace-keeping operations. But they all expressed the zeal to serve, especially in international assignments to widen their horizon.
“I will feel great and honoured to be part of combat or peace-keeping operations because this is regarded as strictly men’s area,” said Abibat Olagoke, a private who joined the army in 2009. “Every soldier is familiar with the saying that ‘the job must be done,’ and whether you’re male or female, you must get the job done. I have been trained to adapt to all situations and weather and movement from one location to the other. It is all part of a soldier’s drill.”
But some with longer years of experience have been at the frontlines, facing machine gun and grenade attacks along with their male counterparts. The enemy, every soldier would say, would not spare you because you are female, and the ladies know they have to be as tough as the men. This was the experience of Madambo, one of the longest serving female soldiers in the country today. She had served in at least three major international operations, including the Economic Community Monitoring Group, ECOMOG, mission in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She was also part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan where she surpassed the expectation of her male commanders.
Narrating one of her unforgettable combat experiences, she said her team came under intense rebel fire in Sierra Leone in 2001, and she was the only female member of the team. They were cut off from their base and they could not be reached even from the air as the rebels had surrounded their location.
“We could not be reached by helicopter and we ran out of food supply. It was a very hot zone and I saw some of my male colleagues die beside me. We did many things to survive, including wearing camouflages. We were in that situation for months, but we thank God we won the war,” she told the magazine.
Asked whether she felt any emotion whenever she had to shoot and kill, she laughed and said: “Why? A soldier is a soldier. When I was in Liberia, some female soldiers were killed. The enemy would not discriminate whether you’re a male soldier or female soldier. Would an enemy say because you’re a woman he would not shoot you? I don’t feel anything.” Madambo, who now works at the desk at AHQ Garrison in Abuja, said there had been instances when women had proven tougher during assignments.
But for a woman, what is the attraction for enlisting in the army? A profession many regarded as suitable only for tough men. “I just love the army,” said Jessica Biribina, a fair-complexioned lady who enlisted in 2007. Her father died after she completed secondary school, and there was no one to assist her to further her education. “I left the house one day without telling anybody where I was going. I didn’t go back until I joined the army and finished training. My mother cried and cried, but I told her to buckle up because I’m now a soldier”. But after just a few years in the army, everyone in her family is happy that she enlisted to serve her country. “The army has transformed my life and the life of my family”, she said, stressing that she is now responsible for her family.
For Bashmateka, Madambo and many of the ladies, the love is for the uniform, and as many of them have now found out, the army also transforms lives. Bashmateka said her life has changed, and the army has given her a sense of purpose. “Apart from being a more focused person, the army is taking care of me and I am able to take care of my family,” she confessed.
The same song is on the lips of Olagoke who joined the army with a National Diploma in Mass Communication. Within three years of joining the service, she had gone back to school and acquired her Higher National Diploma. She now works as the personal assistant to the director of Army Public Relations at the Army Headquarters. “I like everything about the army. In the army everyone gets equal opportunity and you can grow to any height that your abilities can take you,” she declared.
Although she is still an army private, she said there are processes to be followed before she could be converted to officer rank to reflect her new qualifications. Madambo said the army has shown her the world and the experience she had acquired was invaluable. “Although I didn’t go to the university, but many of my contemporaries who graduated from the university respect me because I am more exposed than them. And my experience, none of them has it.”
It is widely believed that in the military all over the world, ladies more often than not encounter sexual harassment from superiors and even their colleagues. What is the experience of the Nigerian female soldier? Surprisingly, all the young ladies who spoke to the magazine said they had never experienced it. “I have never been harassed sexually by any male officer. I just hear rumours about it but I have never experienced it,” said Biribina who works at the Army Headquarters. Olagoke said the army is like any other profession where men could “toast” women they fancy, but not take them by force. “I have not experienced it and I don’t know anyone who has been so harassed in the army.”
In the Nigerian Armed Forces, officers are not permitted to have love affairs with female soldiers. But there have been rumours that some officers were flouting the rule and taking advantage of vulnerable female soldiers. Although the victims are expected to report such harassment formally in writing to the appropriate quarters, it is said where it happens at all, many of the female soldiers buckle for fear of victimisation. A senior officer at the army headquarters told the magazine that an officer found guilty could be demoted to a lower rank, among other options. Sections 77 – 81 of the Nigerian Armed Forces Act, 2004, prohibit sexual offences like rape and carnal knowledge, defilement, sexual relations with service personnel’s spouse, fraternisation and sodomy. The offences attract seven years imprisonment or “any less punishment” on conviction by a court-martial.
But apart from physical fitness and a height of not less than 1.54 metres, what does a woman need to become a good soldier? The female soldiers say what is needed is a dose of courage and ability to endure. “Look at me; I’m just like any other girl. You don’t have to be super woman to join the army. But you must have power to endure. The army is a university of endurance,” said Olagoke. She said that during training, a recruit would be required to climb obstacles and do things that many would find stressful. Running 40 kilometres and doing up to 70 pushups are all part of the training, and a girl must be willing to go through the drill. A soldier’s day starts as early as 5am for the morning exercise, after which they are expected to prepare for the day’s assignment. They return later in the day, except for those who are on night duty.
The military’s regimented lifestyle doesn’t give the ladies much time to socialise with civilian friends outside the barracks, but they still find time to be girls. “When I’m not in uniform, I’m like any other girl and I still find time on weekends to visit friends,” said Bashmateka.
Biribina also has civilian friends and finds time during weekend to socialise. But her civilian friends don’t know she’s a soldier. “I have friends but I don’t tell them I am a soldier. Some of them would be afraid of you and may not be comfortable with you, that is why I don’t tell them. Some of my civilian friends call me during weekends and we socialise together when I have the time. I did not tell my friends that I had joined the army and many of them do not know I am a soldier.”
Although the girls say they are given equal treatment with their male colleagues, they still nurse some grudges against the system, which they say still does not favour women. They alleged that some positions in the army are still reserved for men. But Attahiru said that there is no discrimination of any type. “Every female soldier or officer can aspire to any position once she has the requisite qualifications and she has attended requisite courses in terms of professional military education”, he insisted, arguing that, “women have gotten to the warrant officer cadre, but they might not have the opportunity to be army warrant officers because even among warrant officers, there are still categories. If a woman has the qualification and all it takes to be army warrant officer, why not? The army does not discriminate because of gender. Our army is an equal opportunity army, and it does not in any way restrict those in service.”
Perhaps this institutional attitude explains why some female soldiers like Gift Nwaobilor and Liman have scored firsts in their careers in the military. Nwaobilor became the first female tank crewman in the Nigerian Army in 2009 at the age of 22 years. She was the only female among the 59 soldiers that attended the basic crewman course for professional crewman in the Armoured Corps. On her own part, Liman, is not only the first female combatant pilot in the NAF, she is also the first in the entire West Africa. She achieved this feat at age 29 on April 27, 2012 after 12 months intensive flight training in various countries including the United States, Greece, Belarus, United Kingdom, Pakistan and Egypt. Before then, she was one of the 126 others who completed the Direct Short Service Course 2010/2011 cadets of the 325 Ground Training Group at the NAF Base, Kaduna.
However, in spite of these achievements on the part of female soldiers, Madambo still said: “We want the 35 per cent the federal government is giving to women to be extended to the military. It will encourage us the women in the army. Some of those appointed as staff officers, military observers and attaches should be females. No woman has been appointed to those positions since inception of the army. Even at the Army Headquarters’, there are chief clerks, but none of them is female. And it is not because the females are not capable of holding the positions. It is just discrimination on the basis of gender.”
But the ladies, like all soldiers, don’t like to discuss Boko Haram because the government had taken a position on the issue. However, they all believed the military is doing its best to contain the insurgency and expressed confidence that the country would survive it. “Nobody is happy that Boko Haram is disturbing our country. But we’re doing our best and I believe that very soon, God will help us solve the problem. We’re working hard and trying our best to solve the problem,” said Biribina.
Women are generally regarded as the weaker sex. But it may not be a suitable description for Nigerian ladies serving in the military.