- For criminalizing legitimate complaints of officers
By Ohia Israel
The wind of court-martial for months now has been sweeping through the Nigerian army in a manner many Nigerians have condemned. As it is, the Nigerian Army has dismissed 203 soldiers after a secret court martial held in the dead of the night, for allegedly disobeying a direct order from their commanding officer.
According to an online journal, Premium Times, one of the sacked soldiers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the soldiers were dismissed for asking for support equipment, following the army’s plan to convey them in a tipper for an operation in Bama and Gwoza, two strongholds of Boko Haram insurgents.
The soldier, who is originally of the 19th Battalion in Okitipupa in Ondo State, but attached to the 7th division in Maiduguri, said the army detained them for over 90 days before dismissing them after a mid-night trial. He said they are owed up to five months unpaid salaries.
Narrating the event that led to their dismissal, the soldier said his unit reconvened in Maiduguri last August, after they were dislodged by the insurgents in Damboa in an operation where their commanding officer and several other soldiers were killed.
He said they were given two weeks pass and that at the expiration of their pass, they were issued new uniforms, boots and 30 rounds of bullets each as opposed to the statutory 60 rounds. And were going to be conveyed in a tipper lorry to Gwoza and Bama for an operation.
He said having engaged the insurgents in several past battles, majority of the soldiers argued that the operation would be fierce, and therefore, requested support equipment.
“So we asked for support weapons. No support weapon was provided. Our Commanding Officer, CO, said he would discuss with the General Officer Commanding, GOC, of the 7 Division at the headquarters. When he came back, he said we should stand down. We thought all was well,” our source said.
But the request made by the soldiers fetched them more than they bargained for.
The next day their new CO, Mohammed A, a lieutenant colonel from 195 battalion, Agenebode, ordered them to submit their weapons and uniforms or be charged with mutiny.
“On the morning of 16 of August, after the GOC briefing, our commander started calling our names and he said anyone whose name is called should submit his uniform and weapon. He added that anyone who failed to do that would be charged for mutiny. We were surprised at what was happening.
“He started from the most senior soldier among us, a warrant officer who had served for almost 30 years. They asked us to go back to the barrack. It is a war zone and our weapons had been taken from us. Staying around was of no use, so we left Maiduguri and went back home.”
Meanwhile, recently a retired army general, Ishola Williams, condemned the Nigerian Army for imposing the death sentence on 54 soldiers accused of mutiny, saying the soldiers were justified in refusing to join operations without being properly equipped.
Mr. Williams said the soldiers were right in disobeying orders that would lead to certain death as a result of the failure of their commanding officers to provide them the necessary equipment.
Meanwhile, Military sources and the lawyer representing the soldiers, Femi Falana, told an online news journal last week that the troops were held under deplorable conditions, and were denied food and care.
Contributing to a debate on an online group, AfricanWorldForum, about a statement by Governor Rotimi Ameachi of Rivers State, that the condemned soldiers had the right to protest the government’s failure to equip them, Mr. Williams, who resigned from the army as a major general, said the military hierarchy is prosecuting the soldiers to cover its failure.
“Those playing politics with the lives of these soldiers who were being sent to commit suicide in the name of fatherland and they refused, have to be ashamed,” he said. “The army’s top hierarchy is covering up its weaknesses by court-martialling these soldiers. The staff from the HQ (defence headquarters) and the generals are to blame. Period.”
Mr. Williams was the Chief of Defence Operations, Planning and Training, at the Defence Headquarters before resigning in 1993.
“Anywhere in the world a soldier/soldiers is /are allowed to disobey orders which will lead to certain death because of poor officership and inadequate logistics,” he said.
According to him, in the military, “there are no bad soldiers but bad officers.”
Mr. Williams, a former honorary Secretary General of Transparency In Nigeria (TIN) and currently the executive secretary of a security research organisation, Pan African Strategic and Policy Research Group (PANAFSTRAG), said while he was in the military the soldiers he knew were not mutinous and a good court would dismiss the death sentence.
“The South African constitution allows soldiers to protest. The Nigerian soldiers that I know and commanded during my career are not mutinous and will not be mutinous.
“You may wish to speak to CJTF(Commander of the JTF) in Maiduguri to be able to indict these soldiers. In a good court of law the death sentence will not be upheld,” he said. “Stop playing Politricks and Polifun with the lives of young men who were put in harm’s way without the method and tools in an environment in which demons are going crazy.
“It is sad and wicked to be unfair to them. Why were the Court-Martial (CM) held in secret? Even the presidency has not made any statement on this issue because it knows the circumstances in which these soldiers were operating. In other climes, before the CM, the Concerned Service Chief and Commanders would have resigned their commissions.”
Mr. Falana in an oral application asked the court for the record of weapons recovered from the 47 soldiers, when they initially refused to join the operations.
Also, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Sebastine Hon, has faulted the ruling of the military tribunal that sentenced 54 soldiers to death on November 22.
Mr. Hon described the secret trial and eventual conviction of the soldiers by the military tribunal as unconstitutional, null and void.
“The trial and conviction of the 54 soldiers should be assumed not to have taken place,” Mr. Hon said.
He drew attention to Section 36(3) of the 1999 Constitution which provides that all criminal trials be conducted in public, noting that the secret trial of the suspects amounted to gross violation of the law.
“Let it be sounded out in crystal clear terms that Section 36(3) of the 1999 Constitution has guaranteed certain inalienable rights termed fundamental rights.
“Superior courts of records in Nigeria, including the Supreme Court, have held that these rights are above the ordinary laws of the land, in this case, including military laws and rules,” Mr. Hon said.
He cited the cases of Randome-Kuti vs. Attorney-General of the Federation (1985) 2 NWLR (Pt. 6) 211 SC; WAEC vs. Adeyanju (2008) 9 NWLR (Pt. 1092) 270 at 304 SC; and Essien vs. Inyang (2012) All FWLR (Pt. 628) 951 at 967 CA, etc, to buttress his argument.
Mr. Hon said the Supreme Court in a recent ruling in a case of the Nigerian Army vs. Aminu-Kano (2010) All FWLR (Pt. 528) 1805 at 1832 SC, had held that the fundamental rights provisions of the Constitution apply to all Nigerians, including members of the Armed Forces.
He said, “It is in the light of the above that I submit on most firm grounds that the secret trial and conviction of 54 soldiers by a military tribunal is null and void on the ground that it infringes on Section 36(3) of the Constitution.
“Be it noted that this Subsection has specifically outlawed secret criminal trials by a “court or tribunal.” A military tribunal, without any iota of doubt, is covered by these provisions.”
Mr. Hon, however, argued that the failure of the defence counsel, Femi Falana, to raise an objection against the secret trial by the military tribunal has robbed him of the opportunity to do so at the appellate court.
He expressed optimism that the trial, conviction and sentence of the 54 soldiers will be voided at the Court of Appeal.
According to a Military analyst “mutiny is not the caricature the Nigerian Army is passing it off to be. Mutiny is not hesitating to charge into battle empty handed. Mutiny is not bringing your superiors into cognizance that you need proper weapons to have a fair chance of putting the enemy to rout. Mutiny is not pleading to be equipped before being deployed to the front line.”
The analyst in a write-up said that the Nigerian Army has bastardized the spirit of the word. And the new definition is made to serve our unique malady. Mutiny is now the manifestation of reluctance to dash off in the right direction, like some suicidal robot, when you are gifted an opportunity to self-destruct. Last week the Nigerian court martial found a new batch of soldiers guilty of mutiny. The Nigerian Army had to find them guilty of mutiny. The court martial set out to discover mutiny and they wound up landing a treasure trove. They found 54 cases. Their find confirms the validity of the scriptural guarantee: Seek, and you shall find.
According to him the Facebook posts of one of the supposed mutineers have now gone public. It is a trenchant diary of disillusion. The youthful soldier, Fahat Fahat, didn’t have the wide repertoire of a well read person. But he shared that he and his colleagues were made fall guys. He wrote that they were branded mutineers because they were loath to offer up themselves for plain slaughter. They were branded mutineers because they dared to make for better arms.
Writing further he said; “Soldiering boils down to weaponry and bravery and patriotism. Fahat and others needed arms to be of any use in the field – just as the farmer needs a hoe to make ridges. The soldiers couldn’t have hurried to face the enemy with courage alone. Without weapons, they would have presented themselves to Boko Haram for butchery. The mutiny sentence represents an abuse of the power of life and death. This is the revenge of Army chiefs for the embarrassment of being asked to produce what they didn’t have. I learnt on a couple of Christmas shopping that asking anyone for a thing he cannot provide had consequences. The child in me wanted to rid the whole market of all colorful items I liked and pointed at. Needless to say, such requests fluster the nicest parents and can force a feeling of inadequacy.
“But the soldiers did not make a frivolous demand. They didn’t ask for toys or cigarettes. They asked for working tools. They asked for instruments that they could not function without. And that’s not indiscipline. Isaac asked Abraham, his father, midway into their mountain climb, where the lamb they were going to use for sacrifice was. The lamb was what would give meaning to their exertions. Abraham didn’t produce any sensible answer. Instead, he tried to make a sacrificial lamb out of the boy. Today, the Nigerian Army is playing Abraham on 54 Isaacs.
“The soldiers are no cowards like the accusers say. They didn’t shrink from the call of duty. They had signed up to defend their fatherland voluntarily. And they knew before time that they would be required to plunge into life-costing scenarios. But they did not sign up for martyrdom. They didn’t pledge to submit themselves to be killed for their belief in the territorial integrity of Nigeria.
“This mutiny bazaar is a shame. It reflects the slump from the sublime to the ridiculous of an army that used to be the toast of the peacekeeping world. In those days, our troops acquitted themselves creditably in trouble spots of the West African sub-region and beyond. Our soldiers did no mutiny. The ECOWAS and UN missions tended them. Now they are learning mutiny on home soil. The other day in Maiduguri barracks, wives of soldiers formed themselves into a roadblock. They stopped trucks that were packed full of troops from reporting to the war scene. Their husbands had not been furnished with deployment materials. They had nothing to fight with. The soldiers were being shipped off to ‘’go and die’’.
Furthermore in his write-up he said; “Which respectable army decimates its soldiers on purpose? The Nigerian Army tries to. And when the soldiers refuse to fall in, it arranges one hoax of a trial to achieve its desired endgame. The terrorists are clearing out as many humans as they can from the face of the earth. They kill for the heck of it. The Nigerian Army would slaughter a large drove of our sons and brothers for some petty excuse.
“In September, the Army sentenced a dozen soldiers to death on the same trumped up charge of mutiny. The newsbreak generated outrage. The Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, was flabbergasted. Nigerians did not give him compliments. These civilians are not grateful for the extraordinary favor of being informed about the sentencing. Why are they raising hell and making noise about the military trivializing human lives? Did we want him to regret not using the other option? Did we know he could have had those soldiers tried and dispatched in the evil forest and we would have been blissfully unaware?
The Nigerian Army has made an exhibition of the sentencing. This is to pass the message that some truths consume the men who tell them. This is to warn those waiting for deployment that the ‘’weapons of our warfare are not carnal’’. Weapon or no weapon, you must run towards the adversary, like a Usain Bolt eager to breast the tape. Our arms deficiency is proverbial. Everybody knows we are trying to snatch victory from the jaws of a near empty armoury. The damage we manage to inflict on the Boko Haram camp once or twice a week often results from very desperate situations. Our deprived soldiers produce those flashes of brilliance when they are cornered and have no choice other than to fight for self-preservation. The US no longer sells us arms. And we can’t fetch arms from South Africa without making ourselves the butt of a joke. But our soldiers cannot complain.”
More so he said; “The fact that Nigeria is missing arms in this war is accentuated by the rising profile of poisoned arrows and cutlasses in dispatches from the combat zone. The locals are throwing their crude weapons in the fray because the dearth of arms on the Nigerian side leaves their villages vulnerable to attack. They are defending their own homesteads. Governor Kahim Shettima of Borno State once called for the boosting of our military capabilities. He said that he had observed that Boko Haram insurgents were gaining momentum because they were more motivated and better armed than our troops. The Federal Government dismissed his concerns. He was of the opposition. He did not contribute any beneficial insight. He was just slandering the Presidency.
“President Goodluck Jonathan tried to make Shettima apologize. Jonathan threatened to prove that the Governor was wrong by ordering the withdrawal of the soldiers that guard Borno Government House. The Governor would know that the Nigerian Army was still of use if he found himself stripped of all protection. The President made his point. There is an inviolable ban on expression of certain kinds of opinion. Don’t say the troops are in need of anything. Don’t say it even if it is obvious.
“Interestingly, only small soldiers stand trial for mutiny. Only little men deserve to die. The big chiefs who squirrel monies away from Nigeria’s multi-billion naira defence budget deserve to live forever. It would be too awkward to knock them off their pedestal and try them for sabotage. Everywhere the mode of defence spending is a delicate matter. It is a top state secret. The problem is that secrecy is more likely to breed criminality. And our experience is that security vote and other defence related allocations are stolen and spent like pocket money. It’s the money our defence chiefs and politicians binge on.
“The Nigerian Army can find among its top brass a dozen Judas Iscariots who kiss well in the public and steal from the purse in secret. They can make mutineers out of those who have been minting money out of the blood of our soldiers. They can make mutineers out of the generals whose greed perpetuates the conditions that make the eagerness to deploy tantamount to suicide attempt. The healing of the bitter waters must start at the spring. The Nigerian Army cannot shy away from addressing the fundamental issues of lack of battle equipment and appalling troop welfare. These issues will not vanish into the thin air. And the Nigerian Army cannot solve them by criminalizing legitimate complaints and creating a batch of scapegoats every three months. If it persists in ‘’sharing’’ mutiny to just about anybody, we will arrive at a point when youths be unwilling to enlist in the Nigerian Army,” he concludes.