In an internal memo, the Nigerian Army has suspended approvals for voluntary retirement requests from soldiers, saying the rate at which applications to quit service was flooding its headquarters lately was "disheartening".
The directive, which military sources told PREMIUM TIMES went out late March, said all forms 9B (military retirement application document) have been suspended and would no longer be made available to soldiers willing to voluntarily discharge from service.
The order did not provide figures that show a spike in recent retirement requests compared with previous times, but it counselled broadly against frivolous voluntary retirement applications that were being allowed to advance through the chain of command when they should have been rejected at the early stages.
A spokesperson for the Nigerian Army, Sagir Musa, did not confirm or deny the memo went reached for comments by PREMIUM TIMES.
Military sources saw the move as a coercive measure by the Nigerian Army to pull the breaks on droves of personnel exit in recent months.
"Our men are giving up on the war for many reasons that are not limited to poor equipment supplies and the lack of empathy they keep seeing from their top commanders," a military source who had seen the memo told PREMIUM TIMES on Sunday. "The soldiers have been asked over and again to remain in service for the defence of their fatherland, but their hope has been waning."
Although military sources said the memo did not officially cite predominant grounds for voluntary retirement applications, those who have left service or have filed requests to leave had served multiple tours in the northeast as part of the Boko Haram war.
"Many of them have been trapped in the northeast for years and they just want to return to their families and look for another career path away from the military," the officers said under strict anonymity to avoid being sanctioned for speaking to reporters about internal military decisions.
Already, the implementation of the new directive has commenced across divisions, brigades, battalions, and special operation units of the Nigerian Army, military sources said. The 29 Battalion is amongst the units that have implemented the directive, military sources said.
The Port Harcourt-based unit has dozens of troops deployed across multiple sectors of the counter-insurgency operations. The unit is part of the Army 6 Division that has suffered some of the biggest personnel losses since the war began nearly 11 years ago.
It was unclear how many officers and men have sought voluntary retirement under the division amidst Boko Haram offensive because the Nigerian Army does not publish the data and has ignored requests from the media and non-profits to do so.
Already, some troops have protested the decision to block them from seeking voluntary retirement and petitioned the Army Headquarters.
"A soldier who voluntarily joined the service without any duress is now being compelled to remain in the service even against his wish," according to an open letter to Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai that has been circulating on WhatsApp groups of military personnel. "With all due respect sir, this is unacceptable."
The April 4 petition was signed by a lance corporal, who argued that the military can only invite a soldier filing for retirement "for interview, guidance and counselling or career review," but cannot block it "if the soldier insisted" on proceeding with the retirement "application."
It was not immediately learnt whether or not Mr Buratai has received the petition and ordered action on it. But the army chief has previously lambasted troops as cowards on allegations that they were fleeing from insurgents. He later walked back his comments following public criticism.
'Moral, legal standpoints'
Almost no sooner had the campaign begun after the Boko Haram sect declared war on the Nigerian state in July 2009 than the military became dogged by allegations of unbridled corruption which had seen its top brass feed fat on the security budget.
Anti-corruption activists blamed corruption amongst military chiefs for the poor living condition of soldiers and inadequate supply of modern warfare equipment.
Last week, the army commander leading the counter-insurgency was replaced after a video showing him expressing his frustration with the headquarters made social media rounds.
But military chiefs themselves have in turn blamed insufficient budgetary allocations for their inability to finish the war after several failed deadlines.
Abdul Mahmud, a public-interest legal practitioner, said both the military establishment and the rank-and-file have legal and moral positions to take, respectively.
"At the moral standpoint, soldiers have a right to turn in their retirement because of extant operational conditions that are unbearable," Mr Mahmud said on Sunday. "This is even as we know that senior generals are feeding fat on the war budget."
"Our brave men and women joined the military to defend their fatherland no matter what, but that does not mean they should be sent to senseless death," he said. "Their decision to leave cannot be faulted when they keep coming under a more sophisticated firepower from what was supposed to be a ragtag group."
Yet, the Armed Forces Act allowed military chiefs to exercise discretion on request for voluntary retirement.
"Section 25 of the Armed Forces Act talks about permitted resignation, which means the army or the navy board or air force council has the power to permit or disallow voluntary retirement," Mr Mahmud said.
Yet, Mr Mahmud said even though the Nigerian Army might not have acted illegally in preventing soldiers from proceeding on retirement, the order could prove ultimately counter-productive.
"You cannot force a horse to the river to drink water," Mr Mahmud said. "They are better off allowing those who want to go to go while embarking on a fresh recruitment drive and training for new intakes."
Mr Mahmud said President Muhammadu Buhari, as the commander-in-chief, should crack down on corrupt senior officers and roll back the trend of massive personnel exit from the military.
"The president should step in now and punish the crooks who are stealing the military blind and making service difficult for soldiers on the frontlines," Mr Mahmed said. "Those who feed from the war economy in the northeast are not superior to the Nigerian state, they should be called to order."