On Monday 21st August 2011, the trial of Brig-Gen. Muraina Raji, former commandant of the 33 Artillery Brigade, Bauchi, opened before a special military court at the headquarters of the 3rd Armoured Division in Jos, Plateau State.
Raji was said to have been indicted by a military panel that investigated the escape of two Boko Haram suspects from a detention facility at the brigade headquarters on February 18, 2011.
Inaugurating the six-member panel last week, General Officer Commanding the 3rd Armoured Division (GOC), Major General Sunday Idoko, said: "It is the duty of superiors to observe, correct and instantly deal with negligence or any misconduct on the part of subordinates. When there is any breach, it is expected that appropriate disciplinary actions are taken by commanders to forestall future occurrence."
The two escapees, Nasiru Bello and Inuwa Bello, were arrested at two different occasions in Bauchi and Gombe respectively and brought to the detention facility of the military. With the combined effort of soldiers from the 33 Artillery Brigade, then under the command of Gen. Raji, men of the SSS and the police, the former was arrested in connection to the kidnap of the daughter of a highly placed government official in Bauchi State while Inuwa Bello was arrested in Gombe in the course of investigation into the killing of three soldiers in Biu, Borno State in January this year.
In the course of further investigation of the accused persons, fire arms were said to have been discovered at the dwelling of the two men and several evidences that linked them to the Boko Haram sect. Further evidences collected from the suspects were said to have suggested that members were re-grouping in cells around Bauchi, Gombe and environs after the major military offensive against their headquarters in Maiduguri which killed the major leaders and sort of disorganised the group. Daily Trust learnt from security sources in Bauchi that because the two suspects were "co-operating and providing useful information" about the group's activities, it was decided that they be held in special custody using the barrack facility."
But they were let off the hook on February 18 in circumstances the military is making frantic effort to unravel now. The garrison commander who is responsible for deploying soldiers to duty posts within the barrack as well as the soldier who was directly watching over the detention facility have also been investigated and are being court marshalled.
According to reports, the guard on duty has not denied that he opened the cell to give one of the two suspects water when he complained of thirst. He was said to have claimed that he was knocked down by the suspect in the process. But the question is: did the suspect who knocked him down also unlocked the other detainee? Another poser is whether ideally there should be only one guard at the facility and if so, whose direct responsible is it to ensure sufficient manpower at the detention centre. These and many questions will be determined by the court.
For the former commandant, one important question that will be determined by the military court is his culpability or otherwise in the escape saga. Another question that is on the lips of many analysts is whether General Raji is complicit in the escape of the two suspects, now at large; whether they were beneficiaries of the sympathy of General Raji who, like them, is a Muslim. Perhaps, put succinctly, was he complicit in their escape?
But this position has since been warded off by some analysts because in July 2009, soldiers under his command mercilessly killed 42 Boko Haram suspects in Bauchi and captured 173, an operation which substantially whittled down the strength of the group in that state. In December of the same year, soldiers from the same brigade also stormed the cell of the Kala Kato group, another Islamic sect that was establishing a base in the state and killed 12 of them. Similarly, it was soldiers under his command, with the help of other security agencies that launched a manhunt of the suspected armed robbers that struck a bank in Darazo. The operation killed six of them and arrested six others who in the course of investigation confessed to being members of Boko Haram.
A source at the barracks in Bauchi told Daily Trust that Raji was actually on a visit to Darazo shortly after the incident to meet with senior stakeholders in continuation of efforts to stem the spread of the fundamentalist groups that he received a text message from a subordinate telling him that the two suspects in detention had escaped.
"He returned to Bauchi immediately and after making inquiries as to what happened, reported to the GOC," the source said. When asked whether Gen. Raji had set up any investigation into the matter, he said: "As the commandant, he was supposed to investigate and forward the outcome to the GOC, if he is not satisfied, he will then order another investigation. But I doubt if he had time to do that because I am aware that the GOC told him almost immediately that a team of investigators would be arriving and they came to Bauchi with military dispatch."
After the investigation which took place in February, summon order was said to have been served on the former commander on August 1, 2011. Our correspondent learnt that when contacted with the investigation report, the legal department of the military may have advised that there would be no grounds to try the former commandant.
But a source at the military headquarters said: "Since he was brigade commander, he is expected to have knowledge of what is going on in the barracks, so he has to answer questions regarding anything that happened there." But the source in Bauchi earlier said though there are general responsibilities, there are also specific responsibilities, which could be pinned down to specific officers.
In any case, Daily Trust learnt that a fresh charge has been added to the Brig-General. He is alleged to have converted the sum of N387,000 meant for feeding soldiers to personal use. Daily Trust source said though he could not vouch for the officer one hundred per cent, he was aware that Gen. Raji was prudent to a level that he left behind about N2.8 million in the treasury when he was leaving the command.
Outside the central issue, our reporter learnt that not many soldiers are happy with the media hype given to the matter. First, they feel that the publicity given to the case and the way the officer's photograph was displayed on the pages of newspapers, had jeopardised his personal security. It would be recalled that the last time the policemen accused of extra-judicial killing of several leaders and members of the Boko Haram in 2009 were arraigned in Abuja, they shielded their faces throughout the proceedings. This may not be unconnected to fears of being attacked by members of the group now or any time in future.
When he was first arraigned, Raji had objected to the membership of the "Waiting Member", Brig.-Gen Agbo Robinson, who took over from him as the Commandant of the Brigade.
"He took over the Brigade after me and in the circumstances of the case, it will be prejudicial for him to be on the panel," he said. "Besides, all those appointed to testify against me are from his Command."
He also objected to the membership of the Judge Advocate, Lt. Col Bernard Okorie, whom he said participated in filing the case against him. "His position will make it difficult for him to do his job as freely as he should," he said. For now, the Waiting Member had since been stepped down. The question is whether it was an oversight in the first place. Whatever it was, many eyes are fixed on the military court to see how it unravels the matter.