A military court-martial for the troubled Nigerian Army major-general, Hakeem Otiki, opened on a very personal note in Abuja on Tuesday, with the defence team labouring to cast the case as springing from a protracted resentment rather than merely another manifestation of endemic corruption in the military.
The defence argued that a bitter rivalry was at the root of the scandal and the man appointed to lead the court-martial, Lamidi Adeosun, a lieutenant-general, was not suited for purpose because of a conflict of interest.
Although the defence did not elaborate on the cause of the rivalry, a senior army officer close to the two officers involved said it was over who would take over from the current Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, a lieutenant-general.
Mr Otiki is the army chief at the heart of the large cash heist executed by Nigerian soldiers in July. He was the general officer commanding of the Nigerian Army 8 Division in Sokoto when he sent five soldiers in his detail to haul some cash from Sokoto to Abuja via Kaduna.
PREMIUM TIMES broke the story of the embarrassing development mid-July. Military sources said at the time that the money was in billions. Although the Nigerian Army has not publicly commented on the theft or disclosed the amount involved, some news reports have put it at N800 million, while some went with N600 million and others cited N400 million.
The soldiers were asked to convey the mysterious cash by road from Sokoto to Kaduna, where a military jet had been prepared to transfer the cash to Abuja from an airfield.
It was during the stop in Kaduna for the transfer that the five soldiers accompanying the money, whose source remained unknown, plotted to steal it and desert military service instead. The soldiers had remained at large, and it was unclear whether or not any of them had been taken into custody.
Embattled Nigerian Army major general, Hakeem Otiki at the Nigerian Army court martial (Photo Credit: Signature TV)
Mr Otiki was summarily arrested after the theft and kept in a house arrest, where he was interrogated by the military. A court-martial to try him over the scandal opened at the Nigerian Army Officers' Mess in Asokoro, Abuja, on Tuesday afternoon.
He appeared on Tuesday before the tribunal, on a wheelchair, with his lawyer claiming his client had fallen ill.
The Tribunal Sitting
Mr Adeosun was appointed to preside over the general court-martial. Other members include A. Tarfa, major-general; F.O Agbugor, major-general; F.A. Nadu, major-general; N. Mohammed, major-general; C.T. Olukotu, major-general and C.C. Okonkwo, major-general.
But as Mr Adeosun gave his opening remarks and asked whether all parties were comfortable about the constitution of the panel, a dramatic objection broke from the defence team of Mr Otiki.
Femi Oyebanjo, a retired major and one of Mr Otiki's counsels, said the major-general was in trouble because of a bitter rivalry between both parties.
He warned that Mr Otiki may not get a fair hearing due to the brewing rivalry, according to Daily Trust which monitored the trial with other media houses before journalists were later sent out as the exchanges became heated.
"We have it on good authority that you bear grudge against our client," Daily Trust cited Mr Oyebanjo as saying to Mr Adeosun, who heads the Nigerian Army policy and plans department. "We have this deep feeling that he may not get a fair trial under your leadership."
"The reasons are as follows: it is a known fact that General Otiki got into Nigerian Defence Academy on 10th January 1983 while you got in on 4th July 1983. He got in there before you. It is a fact that General Otiki actually pitied you, established and trained you", he said.
"We have this feeling that that grudge is still there. More so that General Otiki took over from you as the Corp Commander, Infantry," the lawyer said. "We still believe that because this grudge has been there since then and because of this grudge, when you were promoted, Lt General, he sent you a text message to congratulate you but you did not respond."
"In addition to that sir, it is a fact that by the time we go into this trial proper, certain issues will certainly come up and these are issues that affect your office as Chief of Operations, Nigerian Army which you left before you got to where you are presently. "What am I staying sir, it is a fact, sir, that General Otiki as the GOC commanding 8 Division of the Nigerian Army conducted Operation Sharan Daji. He also conducted Operation Harbin Kunama III."
Mr Oyebanjo further stated that "these were offices directly under your command as chief of operation. And these are operations that are going to come up in the course of this trial. So, sir, you are actually an interested party."
Mr Oyebanjo also suggested that the soldiers that stole did the money did so with the support or encouragement of Mr Adeosun.
"Finally sir, it is also a known fact, that as at the time General Otiki took over from you as the Corp Commander Infantry Brigade, he inherited your security personnel, your soldiers that formed the inner security of General Otiki," the counsel said.
"These are the same personnel that formed the reasons why we are here. They are actually your soldiers, your personal aides; the soldiers he took over from you, these soldiers are the basis why we are here today.
"My Lord, we say on the basis of all these, you are going to be part and parcel of this trial, we are going to to be talking and referring to you. "If you are going to do this job, there is no way you are not going to feature prominently.
"There is no way we will not talk about those soldiers, they were your aides, there is no way we will not talk about operations. "Sir, on that ground, for the sake of Justice, we are saying that you should excuse yourself from this trial," Mr Oyebanjo said.
Daily Trust did not report whether Mr Adeosun responded to the charges, or how he did so. A spokesperson for the Nigerian Army did not return requests for comments about what transpired at the trial after reporters were sent out.
It was unclear when the trial would continue, reporters were not immediately told the next adjournment date.