The Matter of 38 Senior Army Officers -By Emmanuel Onwubiko

Filed under: National Issues |

Emmanuel Onwubiko

I’m compelled for the second time in less than two years to write on this vexed issue of the alleged wrongful dismissal of 38 senior military officers of the Nigeria Army because of newly emerged information which goes to show that many of them were indeed not afforded the right to fair hearing.

Over a year and half ago when the Army through its public relations department published a release indicating the retirement of these soldiers, we were regaled with a cacophony of sensational allegations that the dismissed officers were caught committing a range of offences during the 2015 elections and for playing one role or the other in the monumental heist that allegedly occured in the office of the then National Security Adviser Colonel Sambo Dasuki. Dasuki is facing a barrage of court cases accusing him of diverting over $2 billion of money meant for the purchase of weapons that should have been deployed in combating the armed Boko Haram terrorists.

At that time, when the retirements were anmounced, many public affairs analysts made allegations that the purge mainly affected senior officers of South-East of Nigeria origin and some others from the South-South region, with only a few of them from some states in the North-West or North-East region. The chief of Army Staff is a Kanuri from North-East Nigeria, whilst the minister of Defence is from Zamfara in the North-West. There were, therefore, allegations that the decision to retire those senior officers was a deliberate purge of mainly Igbo officers.

The Public Relations Department of the Army was predisposed to supplying on demand the official reasons for the action. At that time, there wasn’t any other narrative available to writers, so the official angle that trended necessitated the earlier media intervention I did, which some media houses published, although I never sent the piece to Daily Sun newspapers.

The immediate reason for this second article is to clear the cobweb of doubts which my first piece raised over a year and half ago, particularly because due to certain inexplicable reasons, Daily Sun published my first article only in September this year, even when I wrote the article nearly a year and half ago and never sent it to the editorial desk of the media house.

So how did an article done last year get published after a year-and-a-half, and it never emanated from me the writer?

The publication of the first copy I did on this matter was against the backdrop of then emerging facts, which have gained legally sustainable grounds to ask the president of Nigeria to take a good look at the allegations of wrongful dismissal raised by these 38 Army officers, most of who were never invited to appear before the internal panels that probed the allegations of alleged misconduct of the military officers during elections in 2015 or the panel that investigated the alleged Arms budget diversion. Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) had decided to add our moral voice to demand justice, because if the allegations of wrongful dismissal weren’t investigated and quality redress provided, it would be a total institutionalisation of injustice. Augustine of Hippo had argued that any government that is averse to honesty and justice is at best constituted by a bunch of criminals.

When I wrote the first material on the gale of military retrenchments, I didn’t have the privilege of getting the other side of the information, since only the official channels of the military were available and those affected military officers weren’t accessible or willing to speak to independent media or civil rights activists like us. The first article basically quoted official accounts copiously, since I couldn’t get the other side of the story.

From available materials and findings made available by the affected Army officers, they described their circumstances for exiting the military as due to wrongful dismissal and accused the minister of Defence, Brig-General Mansur Dan Ali (rtd.); the chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Olonisakin; and the chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Yusuf Buratai of the victimisation of innocent senior officers.

Through their lawyers, these military officers successfully fought their alleged illegal dismissal through the legal platform of the National Industrial Court. The officers have also approached the president, urging him to review the circumstances surrounding their unjust removal from the only professional career that they have known virtually all their entire adult life.

The retired officers alleged that Ali, Olonisakin and Buratai abused their offices with impunity by maliciously punishing them as innocent officers. They indeed cited facts and figures, which sound very convincing and merit a review. This is the reason I’m disturbed that someone can bring up an old piece I had written when there was only one source of information. What does the person circulating my stale article aim to achieve? The truth should indeed prevail and this is the reason why I and my group are demanding that President Muhammadu Buhari takes a second look at this case to douse the tensions generated by the skewed retirement process that adversely affected the Igbo speaking nationality.

Even Rivers State had seven top officers wiped off the records of the Army, despite their claims to innocence.

In a petition dated August 22, 2017 and addressed to President Buhari by the law firm of Abdul Muhammed LP, which I have, the officers recalled that at the beginning of this administration, two panels were instituted to inquire into allegations of electoral malpractices by Nigerian Army personnel and allegations of corruption associated with arms procurement under the office of the national security adviser (NSA).

The officers also noted that sometime in June 2016, the Nigeria Army under the leadership of the troika of Ali, Olonisakin and Buratai presided over an abrupt sitting of the Army Council that saw to the punishment by compulsory retirement of the 38 of them.

The petitioners also told President Buhari that after their unjust retirement, some of the officers wrote letters of redress for the president’s consideration of their individual cases, through the chief of Defence Staff, as provided by the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service (Officers) 2012, but the military authorities deliberately refused to show proof of transmitting the said letters to the president as required by regulations.

The petitioners argued that even though it was claimed that these officers were “retired”, they were actually dismissed, in going by the proper construction of their circumstances.

I must point out that the very public nature of the declaration of compulsory retirement of the 38 officers has undermined the individual reputations of these senior army officers and frustrated their respective efforts as securing a livelihood for their families,” said Abdul Muhammed, who signed the petition.

The petitioners told President Buhari that 18 of the senior army officers who were dismissed did not at any time appear before any one of the two panels that were set up or any other inquiry or investigation for that matter.

According to the petition, “the 18 officers were never investigated for any infraction, they were never indicted, they were never tried and they were never convicted of any disciplinary or criminal breaches whatsoever.

Additionally, many of these officers have no relationship whatsoever with election duties or procurement office as falsely alleged by army leadership. Most importantly, Your Excellency, none of the 38 senior officers that were compulsorily retired was at any time ever charged or tried by a court martial or found guilty of any offence in line with due process of the armed forces extant rules and regulations, before they respectively heard of their retirement in the media. Interestingly, none of these officers has been informed of the particulars of any alleged offence till date,” the petitioners explained.

The affected officers also recalled that some of them had written to the army authority to furnish them with facts that constitute any alleged offence, but the army failed to respond to this simple request one year after.

After the very public dismissal of the 38 senior army officers, the minister of Defence and the chief of Army Staff went to the media with the narrative that the 38 army officers were professionally corrupt and that these officers were punished after due process.

These are untrue statements because the dismissed officers were never indicted or found culpable at all, as there was a complete failure to follow the due processes laid down by the Nigeria army with respect to these wrongful and illegal dismissals.

They told President Muhammadu Buhari thus: “Your Excellency, in fact records of the Army will confirm that at the relevant periods some of these 38 retired officers were actually in the frontline of North Eastern operations waging war against terror which earned them official commendations and accolades for their exploits, as against the narrative of participating in election duties.”

“Several others in the list of petitioners were on Army posting outside the shores of Nigeria or civil studies during the period of the General elections and during the entire periods that the relevant panels were sitting in Kaduna and at Abuja,” the petitioners explained.

They accused Ali, Olonisakin and Buratai of a gross act of abuse of office without any due process by punishing innocent officers and deliberately misleading the president.

The petitioners appealed to President Buhari to order an urgent investigation and reinstate the innocent officers, alleging that the names of innocent officers were substituted in place of the guilty ones in a case of gross corruption and abuse of office.

The petitioners also disclosed that after one-year of persistent abuse and denial of justice to the 38 retired officers, one of them, Lt. Col Baba-Ochankpa died of a heart attack, while the military leadership deliberately refused to forward his appeal and that of others to the president for his consideration as stipulated by the Harmonised Terms and Condition of Service (Officers) 2012 which was the quoted basis for their retirement.

“Your Excellency, the 38 Senior Army Officers are crying for justice as promised to Nigerians by your administration. The widow of Lt. Col Baba-Ochankpa (Mrs. Ruth Baba-Ochanpka) deserves justice. The children of the late Lt Col Baba- Ochanpka, Master Joshua Baba – Ochankpa, Miss Esther Baba-Ochankpa and Miss Abigail Baba-Ochankpa deserve our justice. These beautiful children deserve to have removed the stain that the present Army leadership has put on the memory of their father the late Lt Col Baba-Ochanpka,” the petitioners added.

In the light of these serious allegations against key military and Defence officials, it is only just, fair and good in morality and the law that President Muhammadu Buhari considers their plea for thorough investigation so as not to damage the professionalism of the Nigeria Army. Besides, Section 15(5) of the Constitution of Nigeria stated in black and white that the Nigerian State should eradicate all corrupt practices and abuse of office. The Nigerian president as the father of the nation for now must provide remedial redress to these 38 Army officers.

Emmanuel Onwubiko is head of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) and writes from Abuja. He [email protected], [email protected]