14 August 2011

Nigeria: Shere Hills - Preparing Soldiers, Civilians for Battle


In a mountain school, deep in the heart of Shere hills, Jos, Plateau State, a unique bond of friendship and camaraderie has been forged over the years between two unlikely allies, the military and civilian.

As the scores of military personnel, fully garbed in green camoflague, with guns hoisted across their shoulders trudged through the marshy and rugged terrain of the Lamingo area of Jos, Pateau State, a visitor to the vicinity would expectedly be filled with trepidation and in some instances, outright terror.

The fact that these 'mean looking' men, combat ready, so to speak, did not appear to notice at observers along the long stretch of road did litttle to assuage the fear in the minds of those around. Jos, a while ago, was known to be one of the veritable flashpoints of violence and conflict in the country and the toga is yet to be shed even with the strains of normalcy many of its environs now boast of.

A sight like this, no doubt, has the potentials of breeding uncertainty and fear for those who have experienced the bloody years of violence on the Plateau. For a resident of Lamingo however, there is no cause for alarm as the seemingly battle prepared soldiers are friends rather than foes.

They are the new set of trainees at the hitherto little known mountain school in the heart of Shere hills, a massive sequence of rocky outgrowths and forest enclaves.

On this chilly evening, they are going back to their camping grounds within the hills after a hectic day of Plateau scheme, one of the rigorous exercises they must go through before they are certified fit to be accorded the prestige of being graduands of this government owned training outfit. This particular exercise is meant to sharpen their abilities 'to move from a known point to an unknown destination through the use of their intellect and compass and with the active support of their team members.' It is meant to foster team spirit, the use of initiative and personal strength to acheive one's goal of navigating a wilderness terrain in order to get to safety with as little casualty as possible.

Bassey Ekong, a commercial motorcycle operator who plies the rugged British American-Lamingo route, speeds through the military 'convoy' with sheer abandon. He says he is used to their presence and expresses, no fears as he navigates through the men, some of whom have started to slow down as a result of the fatigue of trekking a long distance. Other motorcycles speed past also. No attempt is made to stop any by the tired soldiers. These soldiers have been trekking since morning-6.30am and still have about 5 kilometers more before they get to their base. Anyone of them who attempts to get on a vehicle in order to cut short the journey faces dire consequences from superiors on one side and camp officials on the other side. "Even if you stop for them, they are not allowed to get on the bike. It is part of their training. We see these sights on a weekly basis. The school is one of the notable places in this area. If not for the presence of the school, no one would even know or want to visit Lamingo. In its own little way, it has brought a bit of limelight to us. Sometimes, it is not the soldiers we see but policemen and Road Safety officials who also come for training there. What never particularly ceases to amaze me is the attitude of the soldiers especially. They simply pass through the villages without causing any trouble. We used to be scared initially when they started coming but over time when we saw that they were harmless, we got used to them,' Ekong says spiritedly as he avoids colliding with a young freckled soldier who has suddenly stopped to flag him down. No doubt the strain of trudging is finally getting to the young army cadet. But immediately he sees that the bike is occupied by the reporter, he shrugs resignedly and renews his strides. Another soldier behind him hits him lightly with the butt of his rifle, chiding him heatedly. A few of his fellow companions guffaw tiredly even as the strains are visibly etched on their young faces.

The plateau scheme is just a rung in the series of tests these young cadets have to pass through in the week- long training at the mountain school. Other rigorous trainings such as scavenger hunt, initiative test, obstacle crossing, assault course, rafting, mapping and compass location are part of the bouquet of tests they must pass through in order to develop their social, mental and physical capabilities. Ironically, the group of instructors who have to take these cadets through the rigors of the training are civilians.

A mountain school within the undulating hills

With a largely nondescript board welcoming you to the premises of this school, it is a huge surprise to know that this mountain school which has remained outside the media radar most of the time, has played host to hundreds of military and paramilitary officers over the years. It has equally offered back breaking but noble training to these officers over the years which has stood them in good stead, both professionally and most importantly, in military-civil relationship.

Formerly known as MAN O' WAR' Bay Training Centre, it later became the Citizenship and Leadership Training Centre. The school is a product of 'Outward Bound type of education developed by late Dr. Kurt Hahn, a German, who later naturalised as a Briton.'

Records reveal that the Briton founded the first Outward Bound School in Aberdovey, Wales, in 1941. Ten years after, late Dr Alec Dickson, a Briton, whose special interest was community development, founded the 'Man O' War Bay Training Centre in 1951 in Victoria, Southern Cameroon. It was given a legal status by an Ordinance published in the extra-ordinary Gazette, No. 45 of 10th August, 1960 and modified by Decree No. 38 of December, 1989. The Citizenship and Leadership Training Centre, an affiliate member of the Outward Bound Organization Worldwide, which exist in over fifty countries of the world, is the first in Africa and second outside Europe.

Officials of the school say that the centre has trained more than seven million Nigerians from all walks of life since its inception fifty-six years ago. 'The Centre is an informal education institution. It uses the challenges found in the environment to confront participants for the purpose of developing the core values of courage, trust, integrity, and compassion for others,' says Dr Waheed Ademola Adedeji, coordinator of the school.

The Centre, according to him, incorporates character development, adventure, challenge, compassion, service, social and environmental responsibility as its core academic schedule. 'The centre's courses help participants to discover and develop their innate potentials and also fashion out ways to care for themselves, others and the community around them through challenging experience in unfamiliar settings. When they leave, they become better persons and for the military and paramilitary students, they relate better with the society.' Presently, the centre now has six training units located in each of the six-geopolitical zones in Nigeria including a women and mobile unit in Delta state.

On the rugged training landscape, he enthuses: 'the unit provides a lowland and mountain terrain atmosphere for physical challenges and is endowed with a wonderful nature for tourists.'

A day out with army cadets

In Shere hills, military personnel gladly and with inexplicable joy, subsume their will and desires to civilian authority. It sometimes humorously reignites memories of national youth service years ago when the reverse was the case. Then, it was an accepted norm for young fresh graduates to squirm before they obey the dictates of military and paramilitary personnel. But in Shere mountain school, soldiers are at the beck and call of their civilian instructors who dish out a multiple of directives and instructions that must be obeyed with rapidity and precision. No murmuring is allowed. Even the presence of some senior military personnel meant to control the robust energy of these young cadets does not in any way, interfere with the authority of the civilians 'bosses.' At this particular joint, civilian and military training, cadets of the Nigeria Defence Academy, (NDA), Kaduna ( 56th and 61st Regular Course) broken into 2nd and 5th timers,' groups have to undergo a stressful one week training that would enhance their potentials as young officers.

A burly young cadet who apparently misinterprets my presence at the training ground which is swarming with over 240 military trainees, walks agitatedly to me requesting permission to attend to the call of nature. Initially alarmed at the request, I quickly recover my wits and with an indifferent glance and rigid mean, I calmly direct him to a camp instructor. When another walks up to me with the same plea, I temporarily assume the post of a camp instructor and point to the direction of the convenience. The young soldier is effusive in his thanks as he rushes to ease himself. With this incident, I suddenly discover that in Shere hills, military personnel whole heartedly deploy their obedience temporarily at least for the period of the training to the service of their civilian instructors.

On this particular day which marks the end of a week of intensive training in and around the mountain eruptions and which has tasked the patience and endurance of the trainees, they have a final test: initiative test. Here, the trainers require the cadets to use their intellect on a team basis to solve about 10 tests scattered around the camp. They are to choose a leader for the various teams (Wilkinson, Elegbe, Jang, Goodluck, Fawole, Adedeji, Onwuamaegbu, Balewa, Dickson and Adamu) who would read instructions at the various test sites to the other team members. With joint initiative, they are expected to solve the problems mostly physical in nature but innately intellectual within 15 minutes before moving to the next problem spot. The tests which encapsulates strenuous challenges such as blindfolding while fetching water, first aid, 'crossing the river,' constructing a triangle while blindfolded, javelin throwing and rope obstacles are meant to test their abilities to combine intellect to solve complex situational problems with the ultimate aim of ensuring that every member survives the ordeals. At the end, the teams that have the highest numbers of survivors breast the tape.

In an exercise that spanned several hours, the cadets were allowed to undertake the rigorous tests. With their civilian instructors lurking in the shadows, it was comical seeing many of the teams expressing dismay at many of the problem sites. It was also gratifying seeing a few teams exhibit a high level of intellectualism and brilliance at some of the sites and endeavouring that no member 'died' at these spots. Most touching however was the fact that the military officers accept harsh reprimands and in some cases, punitive actions from their civilian instructors without a whimper or complaint whenever they exhibit laxity at the challenge spots.

Endem Babu, a cadet officer who undertook the training, says that the training they have been given over the last couple of days has made them flexible in terms of civilian military relationship and has ultimately made them much better individuals. 'We learnt principally how to relate with members of the public and how to serve the community better. We also learnt how to develop ourselves totally so that we can fit into the society despite our position as soldiers. We are now able to balance these two properly with less friction. But most importantly, we are now better informed and have become better members of the society.'

Another cadet, Moferanmi Sebiotimo, says he will forever remain grateful for the opportunity to train in Shere hills. He says that apart from the massive dosage of life changing lessons given by the instructors, he has learnt the ideals of civilian-military relationship. He adds also: 'although we were not fully prepared this time around, we adapted. Usually, the training goes for three days but this time around, we had to train for one week. It was stressful but the results far outweigh the challenges we faced. Given another opportunity, I will come back here again.'

Assistant unit coordinator, Abdulmumuni Mamaiko, says the training at the centre is one of the best in the world and one that every military personnel and paramilitary including civilians ought to take part in on a regular basis. Concerning the last batch of military trainees, he enthuses: 'these are the people who will help Nigeria attain Vision 2020. In terms of physical, social and mental assessment, this group excelled wonderfully. And their set is unique since it is the first time we will be issuing certificates to our trainees.' He adds that only one trainee failed to pass the rigid training.

Representative of the NDA, Lieutenant Col. Fawole, on his part, congratulated the cadets for successfully passing through the training, stating that it was a veritable step in their career advancement. He also thanked the centre for hosting cadets year in year out. 'The event of this moment is a synergy of efforts between the NDA and the centre. It is certainly not a one man show,' adding that, 'there is no shortcut to success when it comes to physical training. It all comes down to personal efforts. And this is typified in the symbiotic relationship between the army and the centre.'

An ignored government establishment?

A senior instructor at the institute, Alex Ogunnusi, explains that the centre trains not only military personnel but also paramilitary ones such as the Customs, Immigration, Police, Civil Defence, FRSC, ICPC, EFCC, VIO and others including civilians who express interest. He adds that the course schedule is structured in such a way to improve the mental, social and physical capabilities of students. 'Before you put on your first pip as a security officer be it police, army or as a matter of fact a security operative, it is expected that you must have passed through this centre.'

He says that the centre has been able, over the years to meet with its huge expectations by churning out hundreds of trainees who are doing well in their various endeavours. This, he attributes to the proactive leadership at the centre which has weathered the storms that beset most government outfits. 'The challenges of infrastructure, finance, staff, welfare and adequate publicity of strides made that face most government establishments are not strange to us but we have been able to perform excellently well despite all these and we are moving on from strength to strength. When we finally overcome these challenges which we hear are very dear to the current minister in charge of the ministry of youth development which is our parent ministry, then many people will begin to see the huge potentials that lie in such an establishment as CLTC.'

Shere's other natural potentials

Perhaps, Ogunnusi's expectations may not be totally misplaced. Apart from the mountain school, the undulating hills which accommodates it is equally an untapped mine that any inspired government may want to look into. Online records describe the Shere Hills as 'a range of undulating hills and rock formations on the Plateau, situated about 10 kilometres to the east of Jos metropolis, the capital of Plateau State in the middle belt region of Nigeria. The Shere Hills have numerous high peaks, with the highest peak reaching a height of about 1,829 metres / 6,001 feet above sea level, the Shere Hills are the highest point of the Jos Plateau and they form the third highest point in Nigeria after Chappal Waddi on the Mambilla Plateau averaging about 2,419 metres / 7,936 feet above sea level and Mount Dimlang (Vogel peak) on the Shebshi Mountains reaching a height of about 2,042 metres / 6,699 feet above sea level.' It also adds: 'this is one of Plateau's highest peaks and most rugged, and offers unrivalled opportunities to the mountain climbers and lovers of adventure. It is about 10 kilometres to the East of Jos. The Hills serve as a camping spot to the Citizenship and Leadership Training centre.'

A tourist, Daniel Ojadua in his blog, perhaps best captures the glittering splendour these hills possess and which has tourist potentials. 'The contrast is vast from the several rolling hills, rock formations, to dozens of mountains and all the reserves in between. Each trail has its own wonderful wildlife, bird life and heritage, plant life as well as fascinating geographical contrasts. There is no better way to experience wild and interesting places than to put your boots on and your feet on the ground with specially trained guide,' he enthuses.

Another unnamed blogger soliloquises: "One cannot but get amazed at the scenic heap of massive boulders climbing up to a height of about 1,829 meters above sea level- Gog and Maggog, the highest point on Shere Hills. These highest points have constituted great challenges to visitors who have flair for rock climbing. The hills hosted the First All African Scouts Jamboree in 1976. These and many more are the great sights locked away in the (former) war-torn land of Jos. We believe and know that someday soon, the Plateau shall regain her lost dignity and glory in the tourism sector of our beloved country. With only three hours drive from Abuja, 1 hour flight from Lagos, you will change your perspective. Altitude, cool weather, beautiful landscape, nice people...

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