The wisdom of Learning from past mistakes


#BlogFest #50DaysCountDownTo2015 – DAY 18. Written by @aushamaki, he blogs at

When I was five or six years old, I almost burnt down my father’s room. Hey! Don’t judge me! Everyone has at one time or the other gotten up to some mischief as a kid. At the time I wasn’t allowed to go into the room unsupervised due to my predilection for wanting to try on his army uniform as well as rummage through the wardrobe to play with some of his medical tools.

On that fateful day, I was napping in my mother’s room and when I awoke I noticed the door of his room was left ajar. Peeking in and seeing no one, I walked in and set to work exploring the various items placed on the dressing table, marveling at the collection of shiny shoes all arranged impeccably along the wall. Of all the things I was busy exploring, a silver lighter on the dressing table caught and held my attention the most. I picked it up, flipped open the cover and lit it as I had seen him do while lighting his cigarettes.

As I stood there beaming with pride for having finally achieved what I then regarded as the astounding feat of igniting a cigarette lighter, I was roused back to reality when it began to get too hot for me to hold. A logical thinking kid in my shoes would have flipped the cover close or blown out the fire. Not me, I dropped it onto a pile of clothes bound for the laundry and stood waiting for the fire to extinguish itself. Let me not bore you with the lengthy details, but due to some rather stupid actions and omissions on my part, the fire flared up into a massive conflagration that consumed a part of the ceiling as well as a large section of the wardrobe. I learnt three lessons that day:

  1. Blowing at a fire that is almost at knee’s length will not extinguish it;
  2. Notwithstanding their liquid appearance/nature, air fresheners in aerosol cans do not extinguish fires, they exacerbate them;
  3. Aside from the stern looks of disapproval, (I can’t recall whether or not I was spanked) the images and heat of the flames licking up at my hands have induced a slight pyro-phobia which still haunts me to this day.

Despite the carnage I caused, some good seems to have come out of it in the sense that the sequences of events have sharpened my ability to detect potential fire and other hazards around my home and to take proactive steps to forestall an incident. So, my past experience has shaped my perspective causing me to learn from that terrible experience and has thus conditioned my mind to avoid certain risky behaviors.

When we embark on any endeavor and we succeed, we automatically take note of and store all the methods and steps we took to achieve same with the aim of repeating the same steps in the future. In the event things go awry, we also take note of the missteps we took and the points at which we went wrong with the aim of preventing same from occurring in the future. As humans, this is how we learn and this is how our experiences in life shape our actions and thinking. Thus, we have the innate ability to learn from both our successes and mistakes.

This is why I firmly agree with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as far as repeatedly taking the wrong steps and doing something wrong is concerned: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

It is in light of the above that I find it utterly bewildering that the Nigerian Army keeps making the same mistake with recurring frequency and yet does not learn from the consequences. On Friday, September 20th 2013 security forces acting on “credible intelligence” that a partially complete building in the Apo District of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja was being used as a hideout for Boko Haram insurgents, stormed the building with guns blazing. Seven squatters were killed in the process, while others sustained varying degrees of gunshot wounds. No verifiable evidence of the existence of weapons were discovered after the raid prompting the speculation that the intelligence used as justification for the attack was inaccurate or trumped up. Despite hues and cries from various human rights bodies and organizations, no one was ever charged with a crime. In fact, this incident has totally receded into the dark storage area that is the repository of human rights abuses by the Nigerian Army.

Fast forward to barely a year later and the same incident has once again occurred. Sometime on or about Saturday, 12th October 2014, a large number of soldiers at about 1 am stormed Church Village, a settlement in Durumi, Abuja, that is home to mostly low income earners, itinerant workers and of recent Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who had escaped the crisis in Borno State. According to eyewitness and news reports, three refugees from Gwoza in the troubled Borno State were shot dead in the raid while an unspecified number of others were injured. Just as with the September, 2013 incident where a flimsy intelligence report was used as justification for the raid, the same has been used in this case with the army still relying on an unverifiable intelligence report of terrorists having relocated to Church Village from Gwoza in Borno State. Hundreds of individuals were arrested and taken to the barracks for interrogation, while as is usual in such cases those killed during the raid will most likely receive no justice.

(Alleged Nigerian Military Torture Camp. Photo Credit:

One thing that strikes me about this particular raid for which the army is yet to offer any explanation for is the fact that the army has placed reliance on intelligence reports that insurgents may have infiltrated Church Village, yet it has acted with impunity and total disregard for human rights and professionalism. There are reports by those arrested that they were subjected to torture and inhuman treatment while in detention. The reports are gruesome to even begin to imagine, with witnesses alleging they were made to lie facing the sun for hours, being denied food or water, while others were literally ordered to defecate in their clothing when they requested to use the bathroom.

Aside from such raids and extrajudicial killings, members of the armed forces have engaged in unruly behavior over the course of the year. Sometime in July this year, soldiers in Lagos went on a rampage burning and smashing the windows of buses belonging to the Lagos State Government. Their reason: one of the buses knocked down a colleague of theirs. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just apprehend the driver of the particular bus in question? I have never understood or approved of punishing a large group of individuals for the offence of one or a few. Even back in military school I found this mode of punishment very barbaric and oppressive. In this particular case the army claimed that street thugs, known commonly in Lagos as ‘Area Boys’ were the ones responsible for the rampage. Interesting! I never knew area boys in Lagos had uniforms, army camouflage uniforms for that matter.

(Lagos State BRT Buses destroyed by rampaging soldiers in July, 2012. Photo Credits:

Every time such rights abuses are made public it knocks the army’s reputation down a few notches yet it doesn’t seem to learn from the mistake of not taking a decisive step towards addressing such issues.

Shocking as it is, the incidents mentioned above are just a few of the ones that manage to make the headlines. In towns and villages across Nigeria there are incidents of soldiers engaging in acts of human rights abuses against civilians, yet these acts go un-investigated and no redress or respite is offered to the victims of these acts. In cases of extrajudicial killings, scandalous or disgraceful behavior by members of the armed forces, the explanation that in most cases comes from the Defence Headquarters is that “the army is unaware of such acts taking place but an investigation will be conducted.” Usually, the matter ends here with nothing more.

(Excerpts from video released by Amnesty International claiming Nigerian soldiers are involved in War Crimes. Photo Credit: Amnesty International Youtube Channel)

The word “unaware” though innocuous and in most cases serving as a means for erring soldiers to escape culpability for acts of malfeasance portends certain dangers for the government, the agencies in question and the general public. It’s not difficult to see how this can occur. It is akin to the case of an unruly kid. The more you provide excuses for the kid whenever he gets up to no good and you never let him take responsibility for his errors, the more you embolden him.

If the army keeps making excuses which enables erring soldiers escape culpability for offences it could lead to break down of discipline within the ranks. Aside from the fact that a terrible precedence has been set by the refusal of the army high command to investigate and punish cases of malfeasance by soldiers, a violation of the Armed Forces Act is being committed. As far as the assault of unarmed civilians is concerned, the provisions of Section 104 of the Armed Forces Act are being violated. In the case of extrajudicial killings, the provisions of Section 106 of the Armed Forces Act are violated.

One major factor that has been responsible for the survival of the human race is our innate ability and wisdom to learn from our mistakes. The same can be said for organizations that intend to stand the test of time. I have a lot of respect for the Nigerian Army. I myself was an army child, having been born and raised in barracks. The fact is the army must stop the culture of waving away crimes and wrongdoing by its soldiers without an investigation.

When you are engaged in a war such as the one being waged against Boko Haram, you need the support of your citizens to raise your morale. However, when you assault and mistreat the individuals you are sworn to protect, you can have enemies on various fronts.

Wearing the Nigerian Army uniform is not a right to do as you please or to act with impunity. It is a privilege, a call to serve your country. Please do that with the level of discipline that is expected of a soldier in the Nigerian Army and learn from the mistakes of the past.

Usman shamaki , Twitter – @aushamaki

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