One cuts your head off, the other won’t pay you

Saturday August 30 2014


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Some thing strange — and terrible too — is happening to the business of soldiering, war, and general killing.

First, armies in West Africa just seem to drop their guns and run for the sand dunes (in Mali), or the tall grass (in Nigeria) when confronted by “Islamic” militants, themselves a new type of rebel.

In one of many such incidents, in May Malian soldiers fled the northern town of Kidal after heavy gun battles with Tuareg separatists. Last week, about 500 Nigerian troops hightailed into neighbouring Cameroon after clashes with Boko Haram militants in Borno State.

But perhaps the most infamous military collapse of recent times came from Iraq in June, when 30,000 government troops in the northern city of Mosul, with sophisticated American-supplied weapons, turned and took off when confronted by just 800 Islamic State militants!

Rebels and militants have changed their game; they have become more ruthless, and thrown away the book on fair treatment of prisoners of war (POW).

Islamic State executes its prisoners in the most gruesome way, and then posts the video on the Internet. A video released on the weekend by Boko Haram keeps to the same script. It shows executed captives, and in some scenes its men are seen beating prisoners to death with shovels.


Let’s get this clear; war of any sort is horrible, as is being a POW. However, the treatment of prisoners of war tells a lot about their captors.

During World War II, the Japanese used forced civilian labour and Allied prisoners to build the Burma-Siam Railway, a 415-kilometre line between Bangkok, in Thailand, and Rangoon in Burma. It was also called the Death Railway for a good reason — nearly 90,000 Asian civilian labourers and Allied POWs died building it.

So, while both Boko Haram and Islamic State talk of setting up caliphates, they are not conventional state builders. They have no plans of building underground railways.

But perhaps even more concerning are the soldiers in countries like Mali and Nigeria who are paid to fight for the taxpayers. They are running away from barefooted rebels not because they are cowards, but because their relationship with the state is changing.

In Nigeria, when military wives protested, demanding that the government supply their husbands with good weapons to fight Boko Haram, one could sense that the militants had the advantage. Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria can’t kit out its army well enough to fight the militants.

Nigeria is not unique. Military camps — and police barracks — in many parts of Africa are in a terrible state. The money to build decent housing for police and troops is allocated in national budgets every year, but is stolen by the big men.

There have been reports of soldiers in some African countries buying their own uniforms from the second-hand clothes market!

In Iraq, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, presided over a very corrupt regime, and had dismantled the professional army leadership, stuffing it with his cronies and loyalists. The rest of the soldiers weren’t willing to die for them.

So we are seeing a double crisis — of thieving sectarian regimes that patriots aren’t willing to defend, and rebels and militants who are killing off patriots without a plan for building for tomorrow.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa ( Twitter:@cobbo3