For the second time in three months another set of 54 soldiers has been sentenced to die for mutiny because the soldiers refused to fight Boko Haram insurgents six months ago, in violation of military law, but their lawyer is threatening to appeal
| By Olu Ojewale | Dec. 29, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT |
For the second time in the year, another set of Nigerian soldiers have been sentenced to die by firing squad. After three months of trial, the General Court Marshal, GMC, of the Nigerian Army on Wednesday, December 17, sentenced 54 soldiers to death by firing squad for the offences of mutiny and conspiracy to commit mutiny. On Tuesday, September 16, a similar death sentence was handed to 12 out the 18 soldiers standing trial for attempted murder and mutiny in Mailari cantonment, Maidudguri, Borno State. This time, 54 out of the 59 soldiers on trial were convicted by the military court marshal headed by Musa Yusuf, a brigadier-general. The convicts are to face firing squad. The remaining five were discharged and acquitted.
The soldiers, attached to the Seven Division, Nigerian Army in Maiduguri included two corporals, nine lance corporals, and 49 private soldiers. The charge against them claimed that they conspired to commit mutiny against the authorities of the Seven Division on August 4, at the Mulai Primary School camp, opposite AIT Maiduguri, Borno State. Eleven of the accused soldiers denied the charges levelled against them.
J. E. Nwosu, a captain and prosecutor, who called three witnesses, told the military court that the accused soldiers had on August 4, in Maiduguri, refused to join the 111 Special Forces Battalion troops, commanded by Timothy Opurum, a lieutenant-colonel, for an operation. Nwosu said the operation was meant to recapture Delwa, Bulabulin and Damboa in Borno State from the Boko Haram terrorists.
According to Nwosu, the offence is punishable under Section 52(1) (a) of the Armed Forces Act Cap A20 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004. Opurum, commander of the 111 Special Forces, one of the witnesses gave evidence in the matter. In his testimony in October, Opurum said the Special Forces were tasked with advancing to recapture Delwa to clear the way for other battalions to pass through to recapture Babulin and Damboa from the insurgents. He said he took off for the operation with only four officers and 29 soldiers as “tasked” after majority of the 174 soldiers in the unit refused to join the operation.
The commander said after he took charge of the Special Forces, he addressed and assured them that they could achieve the task given to them. But he said the soldiers were “hesitant to partake in the operation” in spite of the assurances.
Under cross examination by Femi Falana, SAN, counsel to the accused soldiers, Opurum said 47 of the soldiers who initially refused, later re-joined the forces for another operation.
Opurum said the 47 soldiers joined, after he called for reinforcement, as they came under attack from terrorists, who out-numbered them and had superior weapons.
In any case, Falana asked the GCM to discharge and acquit the accused persons on the grounds of “yawning gap” in the evidence of the prosecution.
Irked by the verdict, Falana on Thursday, December 18, called on the federal government to stop the killing of 54 soldiers sentenced to death on Wednesday for mutiny by the general court martial sitting in Abuja. The human rights lawyer, however, promised to appeal against the decision of the court-martial, which convicted the soldiers. “We shall take all necessary legal measures to prevent the army authorities from giving effect to the genocidal verdict of the court-martial,” he stated in a statement issued in Lagos. Falana claimed that the five that were discharged and acquitted was meant to give the false impression that the verdict was fair and just. He said he was convinced that “soldiers who made a legitimate demand for equipment to fight the insurgents cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be properly convicted for mutiny.”
According to the lawyer, the soldiers were right to ask for weapons to carry out the task of defending the territorial integrity of the country. “Since the soldiers were justified in refusing to commit suicide, the verdict which is characterised by gross miscarriage of justice, will not stand. Apart from the fact that the Prosecution did not lend any scintilla of evidence to prove the two-count charge of conspiracy and mutiny against any of the convicts, the Court-martial did not consider the defence of the soldiers in any material particular,” Falana said.
The human rights lawyer argued further that the oath of allegiance taken by the accused soldiers was not a licence to commit suicide but “a solemn undertaking to defend the nation based on the expectation that the federal government would have complied with Section 217 of the Constitution on the mandatory requirement to equip the Armed Forces adequately.”
Falana lamented that the soldiers in the SF 111 Battalion, which has 174 instead of 750 soldiers, were neither equipped nor motivated and had little or no training before being sent to the warfront. “The funds allocated for payment of the salaries and allowances of the soldiers and for purchase of arms and ammunition are usually diverted and cornered by corrupt military officers. Instead of bringing such unpatriotic officers to book the military authorities have engaged in the diversionary tactics of wasting the lives of innocent soldiers by sentencing them to death without any legal justification,” he said.
Like Falana, many Nigerians blamed the situation that led to the soldiers disobeying their commander to lack of discipline and corruption. Niyi Osundare, a professor of English, said it was very sad that the Nigerian military could not be insulated from corruption. “Morality flows from the top either in the military or civilian. If there is weakness up there, it flows down,” he said. Osundare also noted that Nigeria military, which used to be the epitome of patriotism and discipline, could not said to be so anymore because corruption had crept into the system. “Our military is no more efficient at all,” he said.
That notwithstanding, Ebongabasi Ekpe-Juda, a security expert, said the soldiers were trained to obey their commanders and that they knew the repercussion of disobedience. He said: “When you sign for the military, you have given your life to that country. That is why they can send you to anywhere they like… Those soldiers signed that they were going to defend this country. At the time they were called to defend the country, they reneged; that is a criminal offence in the military. And unfortunate for them, death sentence is still in the status book and we cannot say it should not be applied. It is unfortunate that lives are going to be lost, but that is what the law says.” Ekpe-Juda said the development would not discourage anyone from getting into the military. He said Nigerians should fight for the removal of death sentence from the status book to avoid such occurrence in future.