NIGERIA: They Soldier On In Troubled Times

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Shola Oyeyipo calls on the authorities of the Nigerian Army to deliver justice in the case of the 38 sacked senior army officers

ABUJA (THIS DAY NEWSPAPERS)--The Nigeria Army is widely regarded as a highly professional and disciplined national security organisation, so when any issue tarnishes its image, it calls for concern.

However, despite the fact that men of the Nigerian Armed Forces have performed well locally and internationally, its treatment of issues relating to the arbitrary and illegal expulsion of 38 officers of the Army has opened a huge debate that has thrown up many questions begging for answers.

While some of the affected officers are unaware and unable to explain why they were compulsorily retired in 2016 when officers, including generals, were summarily dismissed via a letter on June 9 that year, it is becoming obvious that it would require more than the inconclusive and illogical explanation that the officers were sacked by the Army Council for alleged electoral and defence contract-related fraud.

The development sparked widespread condemnation. Most of the officers were agitated because they felt they were innocent and they were never accused of any infraction nor were they queried for any alleged offence. Also they did not face any panel or court martial as is the established military protocol before they were illegally retired in contravention of the Armed Forces Act and Section 36 of the Nigerian constitution, which guarantees every Nigerian the right to fair hearing.

Confident that they could seek redress within the dictates of the constitution, several of the affected military officers, particularly those convinced of their innocence and the grave injustice done to them, filed a number of suits at the National Industrial Court, Abuja and the intrigues that have characterised the legal battle have left followers of the issue more worried.

First, it is important to underscore the swelling sentiment that the sack was targeted at officers from the southern part of the country as 10 of the 38 are of Igbo origin, 14 from South-south, with seven coming from Rivers State alone, the state of former Chief of Army Staff, General Kenneth Minimah, and it included his younger brother. In all, 29 were either southerners or Christians. In fact four of the officers were not in the country when the sack occurred.

None of the officers faced a court marshal and found guilty – no allegation was brought against them or proven against them and yet they were laid off.

As their quests for justice subsist, their cases have been progressing in the courts, albeit very slowly such that the perpetrators of the injustice believe they can get away with dispensing illegality to their colleagues in a democratic dispensation. But it is interesting to note that in most of the cases, preliminary objections, particularly those bothering on lack of jurisdiction and failure to wait for the outcome of administrative redress of the appeals, have been consistently dismissed by the industrial court.

Interestingly, the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai has not shown that it has any defence for the arbitrary dismissal of the affected officers. The Nigerian Army has not able to provide any evidence to justify the sack or to show that they complied with established military disciplinary procedures, which Buratai gleefully claimed in June 2016, before sacking the officers.

In fact, in the case of Major General Ijioma Nwokoro Ijioma, the Army adopted the evidence provided by the General. To the shock and chagrin of all present, the Army counsel could not provide any shred of evidence that the General was found guilty of an offence in any competent military court. As the prosecution did not provide any explanation for the sack, rather, it adopted the evidence provided by the claimant.

Could this be how things are done in a modern Army? This is an example of clear brazen display of power which has characterised the tenure of Buratai as Army Chief.

It is disturbing to note that after two years, the Nigerian Army cannot provide evidence of when the affected officers were court marshaled in line with standard military practice or what alleged offences they committed.

The suspicion among the sacked officers was further aroused when Major General Ahmadu Muhammed, who was initially retired by former Army Chief, General Minimah during former President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure in January 2015, without facing a court marshal or fair hearing, was reinstated in 2016 with speedy dispatch.

Muhammed, who faced allegations of incompetence and dereliction of duty by mutinous soldiers who shot at him, was sacked in 2015 and was reinstated in January 2016 after he applied to be reinstated in September 2015.

Interestingly, his application for reinstatement in September 2015 was nine months after he was illegally retired, which is in violation of the military rules, which says you can only apply for reinstatement within 30 Days after your compulsory retirement. It was attended to speedily and within three months, by January 2016, he was reinstated.

The Nigerian Army said after his belated application for reinstatement that it was considered based on the grounds that it (his retirement) was an arbitrary and illegal act which contravened the rules. As such, because of these infractions, he could seek justice at any point.

So, for anyone close to the affected Army officers, the question agitating their minds is: if the military authority was sure that the officers were guilty and that the Army followed due process as enshrined in the constitution, why haven’t their appeals been forwarded to Mr. President for a dispassionate review? After two years, why are their appeals not treated with the same speed Muhammad’s appeal was granted? Why are they being treated differently and unjustly?

If it is said that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, why then is this unjustified injustice being allowed for so long? Why is this matter being ignored and not reviewed at the right time?