It has almost become a recurring decimal in our national history. Every now and then, there are upheavals in our security agencies, particularly the military and to a large extent, the army. During the military era, from 1966-1999, except for the brief interlude between 1979 and 1983, military uprisings in the form of coup d’etats, were regular features of our political life in Nigeria as one group of military adventurers upstaged another in a rat race to control the levers of political power. In the political chess game, much blood was spilled.
After the military handed over to a democratically elected civilian government in 1999, the spectre of coups seems to have receded. However, what we are now contending with are some forms of insurrection now and again. In 2009, the nation had to grapple with the revolt by returning soldiers from Liberia, who took to the streets in Akure, the capital of Ondo State, southwest Nigeria, accusing some of their commanders of shortchanging them. During the subsequent trial, the soldiers alleged that many of them were arrested but some of them were let off the hook after paying $150 ‘ransom’ to a particular officer. They said the officer freed those who paid the bribe and refused to let go those of them who refused to cooperate. Besides, while the soldiers who protested injustice were jailed for life, the officers got away with light punishment, mostly demotion.
Now, almost the same scenario is playing out once again exactly five years after. In the current one, 12 soldiers have been sentenced to death by firing squad by a military tribunal. Their sentence was the climax of a military court martial involving the arraignment of 18 soldiers on a six-count charge for their involvement in a mutiny on May 14, 2014. That day, some aggrieved troops opened fire at a car carrying Major-General Ahmadu Mohammed, the General Officer Commanding, GOC, 7 Division of the Army, based in Maiduguri, Borno State. The General Court Martial ended its sitting at the Mogadishu Barracks in Abuja last Monday. It sentenced 12 of the 18 soldiers to death by firing squad; one was sentenced to 28 days imprisonment with hard labour, while five others were set free.
The soldiers had claimed that they were ambushed while on a special operation in Kalabalge Local Government Area near Chibok in Borno State, where over 200 girls were abducted from the Government Secondary School, a month earlier. They alleged that, after the operation, the soldiers, who arrived the location at night, were asked to return to Maiduguri by their Commanding Officer despite their plea to be allowed to return the next morning, as the night trip was considered too risky. Unfortunately, halfway through their journey, they ran into a Boko Haram ambush, resulting in the death of more than 10 of them while others suffered various degrees of injuries.
This incident angered the soldiers, prompting them to rebel against their superiors while the GOC was shot at. The incident compelled the Nigerian Army to replace the GOC at the time. Alarmed by the development, the military authorities arrested the soldiers and instituted a military board of inquiry into the circumstances surrounding their conduct. The soldiers were slammed with six counts, including insubordinate behaviour, false accusation, mutiny, absence without leave (AWOL) and conduct prejudice to service discipline. The punishments for the offences under the Armed Forces Act (AFA) include death, imprisonment and dismissal with ignominy from the armed forces, among others.
Since last week when the death sentence was passed, the fate of the 12 soldiers has become a source of worry to so many Nigerians. Many have viewed the sentence as capable of impacting negatively on the ongoing campaign against the Boko Haram terrorists as well as demoralise the rank and file of the military. They urged the military to put its house in order and fish out “all the Boko Haram apologists within its ranks and check the excesses of some security operatives who betray their oath of allegiance to the country through sabotage”, the type that led the soldiers’ revolt against their superiors. But some retired military officers have also insisted that the soldiers deserve to die in keeping with military discipline.
Well, it is good for the military to retain its long tradition of discipline. Any right-thinking person will also not hesitate to condemn the high temperament exhibited by the soldiers in response to the avoidable calamity which befell their colleagues due to needless “orders from above”. It is a pity that some of those now talking about discipline at all cost have also infringed on the law at one time or another and were spared the bullets. However, the lesson from this episode is that the military should put its house in order so as to prevent this ugly thing from repeating itself. The issue of insider sabotage has become too pronounced in the military in recent times. The other day, some senior officers were court-marshaled for selling weapons to the terrorists. This is a sad development for a military that wants people to take it seriously.
What this implies is the fact that there are Boko Haram members in the security forces, particularly the military, which is why it has been pretty difficult to neutralise the terrorists all this while. In most cases, the terrorists appear to be ahead of the military in terms of weaponry and intelligence gathering. This is probably why the soldiers have often taken to their heels when confronted by the terrorists.
There are rumours that some senior military officers who, before the Boko Haram crisis, were not that buoyant have now suddenly become rich overnight, with fat bank accounts, while the terrorists are daily making mincemeat of the innocent rank and file due to lack of adequate, up-to-date weapons. Few weeks back, a contingent of about 480 Nigerian soldiers had to run into neighbouring Cameroun for sanctuary when they were almost routed by the ragtag Boko Haram terrorists. The Defence Headquarters had to downplay this shameful conduct by describing it as a “tactical manoeuvre”. Tell me, which tactical manoeuvre will make a large contingent of a country’s army to stray into another country, with most of them looking half-naked, dirty and weary?
In any case, this death sentence is like handing over a special commemorative trophy to the Boko Haram terrorists for a job well done in depleting the ranks of the country’s army as well as demystifying them through all forms of humiliation on the battlefield. Many a time, Nigerian troops complain about lack of adequate kits and equipment as well as inappropriate welfare to prosecute the campaign against Boko Haram. Spilling the blood of these soldiers will only be the surest way to completely demoralise the rank and file of the Nigerian soldiers, who, as it is, are the ones bearing the brunt of this war. This is why they may be aggrieved and ready to explode at the slightest prompting.
This is the time for the federal government and the military leadership to look into the grievances of soldiers rather than dragging any of them to the stakes for execution. Prior to the incident which has now put the lives of at least 12 soldiers on the line, the soldiers at the Maimalari Cantonment had ceaselessly complained about insufficient ammunition, food and allowances. We cannot continue to lose our soldiers to official indiscretion, high-handedness and maltreatment by higher officers.
It is clear that if the GOC had exercised his discretion properly, the ambush that led to the death of some soldiers that night would have been avoided. In that case, the soldiers would not have had any cause to confront him, not to talk of firing at him or his car. There is no doubt that mutiny in the military is a grievous offence which should not be encouraged because of the security implication, but we have shed too much blood in this country unnecessarily, than to continue to railroad our young ones to their untimely graves. This is why the circumstance and facts of the mutiny should be taken into consideration.