Over 100 Nigerian soldiers, who served as part of the country's contingent to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), might be forced to do the over 2000-kilometre trip back home in army trucks as military authorities secretly conclude plans to transport them by road.
Reliable defence sources, who asked not to be named, told PREMIUM TIMES that 10 officers and 99 soldiers remained stranded in Bamako, the Malian capital, after a Nigerian Airforce aircraft that airlifted 704 members of the contingent back home failed to return.
Our sources said authorities now claim the aircraft, which made its last trip to Bamako on August 10, had been flown out for maintenance and would not be available to move the remaining officers and men back home.
Rather than make arrangement for alternative aircraft, the authorities are now working to move the soldiers back by road, with many of the soldiers apprehensive that they might come under attack during the trip as many of the border towns in Mali are still under the control of insurgents.
In January, Boko Haram insurgents in Kogi state killed two members of the contingent as they travelled by road from Ibadan to Abuja.
Many of the AFISMA troop members, who are now camped in a squalid camp in Bamako, fear that their superiors may have misappropriated the money provided for their airlift, our sources said.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the contingent's Commanding Officer, Colonel T. E. Gagariga, who is presently in Mali and would not be doing the road trip with the soldiers, has not spoken to the soldiers in the last five days for fear of a possible showdown.
No explanation has been given to the soldiers for the change in travel plans, our sources said.
"It's against military practice," said one of our sources. "The army has ordered that troop members be airlifted but compliance here is borne out of personal gains. It is part of the plot to cheat and risk troops lives."
PREMIUM TIMES also learnt that troops are camped in squalor in Bamako without basic amenities.
According to one source, the troops survive on poor nutrition as food and other supplies are now in short supply.
Director of Defence Information, Chris Olukolade, declines to comment without giving this reporter the chance of asking any question, saying he does not know him.
"You don't expect me to talk to any man on the street," he said and hung up.
Mr. Olukolade, an army general, had scolded this reporter a few months ago for doing a series of stories about the horrible condition of the troops in Mali.
He accused the reporter of presenting the army in bad light, but has now curiously became reluctant to provide the army's side of this story.
However, Mr. Olukolade later told this paper's defence correspondent, "About this issue, the fact is that I have not got this information you are giving me now but I know that proper arrangement is being made to bring people/ everyone back home properly and safely."
He promised to let PREMIUM TIMES know of any change in transport arrangements should there be any for any reason at all.
This paper had in a series of articles reported how troops were poorly fed, and owed allowances. In one particularly embarrassing case, we reported how the situation of the troops got so dire that they resorted to soliciting food from their host community.
Last February, the Prefect of Tuban in the Banamga region of Mali gave them 50 bags of rice and a cow. The army said it did not solicit the food item. It claimed it was merely a gift from an appreciative host.
In June, we reported that the troops were owed up to three months unpaid allowances. Immediately after our report, the defence headquarters summoned the the contingent's financial officer, Captain R.M. Okenwa to Abuja.
He returned to Bamako on June 3o with two-month allowances for the soldiers as well as several bags of rice and garri.
In one instance, the military resorted to threat to quieten our reportage of the troops' austere situation. A certain Major General Ugor called this reporter and threatened to arrest him if he refused to disclose his sources.
The Federal Government had this month withdrawn Nigerian troop from Mali as the situation in the West African country stabilizes.
Some of the returning soldiers are being redeployed to the North-East geo-political zone to join their colleagues in the ongoing fierce military offensive against the extremist Boko Haram sect.
Nigeria and other African countries had sent troops to Mali earlier in the year to join French forces in chasing out Islamists who had taken over several parts of the country.