A small girl in a tulip-yellow dress, tears gathering along her quivering chin, sobbed before the newly filled grave of a Nigerian soldier killed in the deadliest attack on peacekeepers trying to calm Sudan’s Darfur region.
Mourners at Friday’s military funeral — colleagues and relatives of seven Nigerians killed in a weekend attack by Darfur rebels — vowed Nigeria would continue a long history of sending its sons and daughters to try to secure peace across the world’s poorest continent.
“This is the sacrifice Nigeria is making for the world. We must view it as a badge of honor,” President Umaru Yar’Adua said in remarks delivered at the funeral by an aide.
“There is no sacrifice Nigeria won’t make for the African man, the black man,” said Yar’Adua, who was traveling abroad Friday.
Nigeria has long been a leader of Africa’s homegrown peace initiatives. The country has the continent’s largest population — 140 million people, split between Christians and Muslims — one of its largest militaries and among the world’s largest oil deposits.
No call for Nigeria to withdraw troops
Earlier this week, an army spokesman said the deaths might prompt a rethinking of Nigerian peacekeeping. But there has been no national debate nor calls to withdraw from Darfur; Nigeria has lost more troops in previous peacekeeping forays.
The country’s troops battled rebels in Sierra Leone — now at peace since a decade-long civil war ended in 2001 — and Nigerian negotiators have hammered out peace deals in various countries.
While Liberia was in the throes of its 1989-2003 civil war, Nigeria sent a former military leader to Ghana to lead peace talks sponsored by a regional bloc based in Nigeria.
After rebel representatives began arriving at the long-running talks with new suits and sunglasses, the Nigerian envoy cut their daily food allowance and moved all negotiators from a four-star hotel to more downscale lodgings.
A deal was soon at hand, and Nigerian troops became the vanguard of a peacekeeping force that is now among the largest anywhere in the world. Liberians handed out cigarettes to the Nigerian troops and chanted “Thank you, oga,” a Nigerian term meaning “boss.”
“Nigeria has committed itself to a number of pan-African processes ... to put out the fires of conflict. It sees itself as an African leader,” says Ross Herbert, an analyst with the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs. “To their credit, they’ve shown some commitment to ending conflict and recognizing that’s there a contagion effect for the whole of Africa.”
Nation leads the AU peacekeeping force
Nigeria’s Gen. Martin Agwai leads the African Union peacekeeping force that has struggled to stop Darfur’s bloodshed for four years. In the weekend attack, the AU post of 157 peacekeepers and support staff was overrun by some 1,000 Darfur rebels. Three other African troops were also killed, and three Nigerians are missing.
The attack has spurred new calls for swift deployment of the joint force of 26,000. The first troops are expected to arrive this month, and the new mission is expected to assume responsibility for Darfur on Dec. 31.
Nigeria, which has a battalion of about 800 troops in Darfur, has said it will likely send another battalion to join the joint AU-United Nations force.
The slain Nigerian troops were meant to be home by Christmas, rotated back after a nine-month stint in Darfur. About 500 people attended their funeral on an open, grassy plain in the capital that serves as the main military cemetery. The slain troops’ boots stood on their flag-draped caskets.
'We must all help each other'
The Muslim soldiers were taken out of their caskets and placed into the ground by hand, following Islamic custom, while the coffins of the Christian troops were lowered by ropes.
The sobs of the girl in the yellow dress pierced the silence as family members laid bouquets of plastic flowers.
“Anywhere you have war, you will have losses,” said Matthew Edoh, whose uncle, Lance Corp. Danjuma Madaki, was among the seven buried. “But if you can go for peace, even if you sacrifice yourself, you must go. We are all fellow human beings.”
“We’re all African brothers, so we must all help each other,” said Sunday Ebute, a 25-year old shop clerk burying his uncle, Pvt. Samuel Orokpo. “But Nigeria, Nigeria is the king of Africa, and it must settle the peace.”