Nigeria: Justice As Recipe for Rebuilding the Army

9 June 2021

Today marks exactly five years since the former Chief of Army Staff, Lt-General Tukur Baratai, compulsorily retired 38 senior officers without trial for any wrongdoing. Since then, nothing has been done to look into the case despite court judgments ordering the reinstatement of some of the officers. With a new Chief of Army Staff on the saddle, they are looking forward to seeing him revisit the matter, Chiemelie Ezeobi writes

In line with his commitment to sustain the legacy of his immediate predecessor, the late Lt-General Ibrahim Attahiru, the new Chief of Army Staff, Major General Farouk Yahaya, has promised to run the army with fairness to ensure that soldiers discharge their responsibilities with professionalism.

Yahaya spoke at a meeting with Principal Staff Officers (PSOs), Corps Commanders and General Officers Commanding (GOCs), during which he also unveiled his four-point agenda to reinvigorate the army, pledged to provide exemplary leadership and thoroughly follow the existing operating procedures by ensuring that the army "becomes a formidable force for national defence and security".

"As your chief of army staff, I hereby restate my commitment to lead you with sincerity, with transparency and accountability at all times. I want to assure you all that I will run the army fairly and justly, giving equal opportunity to all based on individual competencies and character," Yahaya said.

But stakeholders in the security sector who have been following and listening to the comments of the new Army chief since he assumed office, want him to give priority attention to the fairness, justice and equity which he has promised to run the force.

The stakeholders who spoke to THISDAY on account of anonymity, said one way Yahaya can fulfill his promise of fairness, justice and equity during his time in office, is to carefully look into the cases of the 38 senior officers who were compulsorily retired on June 9, 2016 under the leadership of Lt-General Tukur Buratai (rtd) without justification.

They posited that a review of the retirement of the officers in the interest of justice could be one of the good ways to start his rebuilding plan, adding that when the officers and soldiers know that they won't be unnecessarily and unjustifiably marked for premature retirement or victimisation, it would boost their morale and confidence and motivate them to put in their very best to defend their fatherland.

Nigerians woke up on June 9, 2016 to the shocking news of the compulsorily retired 38 senior officers from the army without justification. At the time the action was taken, they were informed by the then army spokesman, Brig. Gen S.K. Usman, that the officers were compulsorily retired on "disciplinary grounds, serious offences".

Even the then Minister of Defence, Brig. Gen Mansur Dan-Alli (rtd) and Buratai himself, corroborated Usman's statement, alleging further that due process and fair hearing were granted to all the 38 officers, implying that they were found guilty by a competent legal procedure.

Specifically, Buratai the then COAS said: "It took us painstaking procedure to ensure we did not pick innocent ones. We started with one inquiry from One Division GOC to the other. After that, we subjected it to legal review. After the legal review, we forwarded our recommendations to higher authorities for consideration. So, it took us time; we have our own process also; our administrative process dovetailing into legal review and so on."

However, it did not take long for Nigerians to know that none of the 38 officers was found guilty of any offence, and were never charged, tried or found guilty, let alone even appear before any court martial.

Several of the officers who felt the Army breached its extant rules and regulations in carrying out the retirements took their grievances to courts to clear their names. This was after they had appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari for his intervention and reinstatement, but no response from the presidency or the army.

Six of the officers have since won their cases in courts which ordered their reinstatements into the Force. The officers who got judgments against the Army are: Maj Gen Ijioma, Cols Hassan and Suleiman as well as Lt Cols Arigbe, Dazang and Mohammed. In the first half of last year alone, the army lost four of these cases. Added to these six, are another two officers who obtained National Assembly resolutions ordering their reinstatements representing some 20 per cent of the 38 officers.

Some of the officers, who are still in their 40s, are hoping that the army authorities would carefully examine their case in the interest of justice because they still have a lot to offer the country in military service.

Curiously, Buratai refused to comply with both the court judgments and the resolutions. This has led to serious questions about the Army's desire to adhere to the rule of law and provide justice for these officers.

For instance, in delivering his judgment on February 5, 2020 in Col M. A. Sulaiman v Nigerian Army and others, Justice Sanusi Kado corroborated the officers' arguments by stating that: "The compulsory retirement of the claimant (Col MA Sulaiman), is hereby declared null and void and of no effect whatsoever, as it was not done in line with the extant rules and regulations." This has been the pattern in the cases that have been concluded.

In fact, in a society where the rule of law is supreme and strictly adhered to, the plethora of losses the Nigerian Army has suffered would have caused a judicial review of the retirements. But this has not been the case as sources close to army authorities revealed that the former COAS and the others may have bluntly sworn "with their last blood" never to revisit the retirements while they remained at the helm of affairs of the Army as that would be an admission that they lied against the 38 officers.

Many observers have since questioned Buratai for his action. Firstly, what manner of due process was followed by the supposedly highly professional Nigerian Army that made the 38 senior officers to be retired without being found guilty of an offence? When and where were all the officers charged, tried, and found guilty? Is there any evidence of the dates and times the Court Martials sat? Were the officers granted fair hearing? What were the status of the appeals of the officers to Mr. President? When will the Nigerian Army comply with the rule of law and obey the court orders and judgments?

The above questions are significant because in January 2016 the army leadership under then COAS Buratai, reinstated Maj-Gen Ahmadu Mohammed after his appeal was reviewed by Mr. President.

Mohammed, it would be recalled was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 7 Division in 2014 when his troops mutinied and fired at his vehicle. The soldiers accused him of dereliction of duty and sending them to the battlefield with minimal logistic supports thereby leading to many deaths.

The former GOC who is from Kano State, did not appeal his retirement within 30 days as stipulated by the conditions of service but in September 2015 after nine months, which according to Defence sources, was already a breach of the appeal process, but this was ignored because the army headed by Buratai had an interest to ensure fairness and justice was served.

Mohmmmed instead, waited for the outcome of the 2015 general election as well as the removal of the previous service chiefs. As soon as President Buhari and Buratai came onboard, he was pronto, reinstated.

In Wing Commander Mshelia v. NAF & ANOR (2014) the Court of Appeal held: "The Armed Forces as a body, is supposed to be exemplary, in discipline, the world over. To violate the law and retire a member of that body in consequence is not an exhibition of discipline or exemplary conduct. To refuse to act in accordance with Section 178 of the Armed Forces Act 2004, and to continue to keep the appellant in suspense, is an abuse of office, calculated at denying the appellant the right to seek redress in a court of law, and that is why the Public Officers Protection was invoked. The law does not give reprieve in such a situation. No one will be allowed on the one hand, to act in breach of the law in a high-handed manner, and on the other hand, seek the protection of the law. The courts will not open their doors to such unlawful acts and dereliction of duty, a duty imposed by law... As earlier opined, the Public Officers Protection Act is meant to shield public officers and bodies, lawfully and conscientiously carrying out their duties, within the scope of their authority, from attack. It is not meant to be used as a sword by public officers acting without good faith and in flagrant disobedience of the law, to attack and maim others, more so when those others, are members of the same family, engaged in the service and defence of our country."

Despite this "locus classicus" judgment of the Court of Appeal, and the series of legal losses sustained by the army, the illegal and unjust retirements of the 38 senior military officers was not reviewed under the Buratai-led army. This is why the stakeholders are urging both the Chief of Defence Staff, General LEO Irabor and the new COAS, General Yahaya to ensure that justice is served on the retired officers. They appealed to them not emulate the former service chiefs, in order for them to make a difference in their time and comply with the court judgments in the interest of fairness, justice and equity.

"Some of these officers are still in the their 40s and still have a lot to offer this country. These are men who were forced out of military service in their prime. They are finding it difficult to cope with premature retirement because they were not prepared to retire at the time they did. Generals Irabor and Yahaya have to do something to save their careers.

"The first step to rebuilding the Army under General Yahaya is to ensure that it is not an Army of anything goes. He has to undo many things. He has to correct so many injustices".

"Don't forget that in 1993, the outgoing Chief of Army Staff, General Salihu Ibrahim, after reviewing the injustices in army during his time, said it was an 'Army of anything goes.' That was the Army Buratai bequeathed. That is what we want General Yahaya to correct."

"Injustice is injustice, if the officers were not granted fair hearing and found guilty by a competent military court as they are legally entitled as Nigerian Army officers. And these same retired officers took the pains to prove their innocence after spending several years in the lengthy judicial process to obtain valid court judgments, ordering their reinstatements. Then what is preventing the army from obeying the courts and the law," asked a former military lawyer who wished to remain anonymous. "It all reeks of Injustice," he further added.

Analysts believe that for a long time to come, the unjust compulsory retirements of the 38 officers in the army will remain one of the several unresolved issues on his table requiring his urgent intervention in the interest of fairness, justice and equity, for the army to move forward.

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