The special court martial recently instituted by the Nigerian military to try two Major-generals brings back memories of the several prosecutions that happened in the previous administration. Senator Iroegbu writes
The Nigerian military authorities last week inaugurated a Special Court Martial sitting at the Army Headquarters, Garrison, Abuja, to adjudicate on a case between the Nigerian Army and two accused senior officers, Major-general Ibrahim Sani and Major-general Patrick Falola.
The trial of Sani, who is a former commander, Army Transformation and Innovation Centre, and Falola, the former commander, 68 Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, came as a shock to many because it was a marked departure from the posture of the current administration.
It is on record that the current Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, has since assumption of office embarked on the reversal of the sentences handed down on several officers and soldiers during the tenure of his predecessor, Lt-Gen. Kenneth Minimah.
The only court martial that has sat under Buratai is the one that tried Brig-Gen. Enitan Ransom-Kuti, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment and dismissal from service. But unlike the on-going trial of the two Major-generals, whose offence are yet to be ascertained, Ransom-Kuti’s trial started before the Buratai era.
Gale of Courts Martial
Minimah, in response to the escalation of Boko Haram terrorism in parts of the North-east, established several General Courts Martial that tried and convicted over 5, 000 officers and soldiers. The former COAS had in the wake of several reversals and loss of territories promised to set up more GCM to try erring soldiers and check indiscipline among troops engaged in the counter-terrorism operations against the Boko Haram terrorists.
Minimah was quoted as saying, “The Army is taking all proactive measures to restore sanity and battle confidence to troops,” adding that soldiers and officers who run away during the operations will be court-martialled. He frowned on acts of sabotage and cowardice among troops. The former COAS lamented that some soldiers had joined the Army to own property, while others joined for employment.
He said, “I must set up court martial and if you are in my place and you did nothing you are not worth being a Chief of Army Staff. I did that I have no regret.
“I am setting up more courts martial to try people who ran, showed cowardice, abandoned troops and equipment and ran away. Why are you in the Army? Is that Army? That is not the Army.”
He said any solider who could not fight for his country should not exist, adding that the oath of allegiance of the military demands that a soldier should fight.
Over 5,000 personnel of the Nigerian Army were either imprisoned, retired or dismissed as a measure to restore order and discipline needed to rout the marauding terrorists.
But barely one month after taking over from Minimah, Buratai directed a review of some of the disciplinary and court-martial cases, especially those handled under his immediate predecessor. Speaking on the issue, Director of Army Public Relations, Col. Sani Usman, noted that the Nigerian Army was “reviewing all recent disciplinary cases due to the wave of litigations and petitions by some aggrieved personnel.”
Minimah had made discipline through the courts martial one of the cardinal strategies to restore confidence and professionalism in the Army, a strategy his successor had initially vowed to sustain.
The former COAS had during his formal handover to Buratai attributed his achievements to collective effort and discipline instituted within the rank and file of the Nigerian Army through the court martial processes across the country.
He said: “The success did not come cheap. It came with the sweat and blood of all of us. In the face of unusual events we had to take unusual actions. Some may adjudge us as being too strict, especially in dealing with cases of cowardice and indiscipline in the field. But we had to do what we must to arrest the drift towards chaos that the Army was heading. I am happy that the result in the field today justifies our actions. Today, I am leaving behind an Army that can hold its own against any adversary without batting an eyelid. An Army that has vowed ‘Never Again’ to concede any inch of Nigeria to terrorists. It is the legacy I am leaving behind and I implore you to sustain it.
“You would recall that at the time of my appointment, our Army and indeed the nation was going through one of the worst crises in our history. The level of violence and insecurity unleashed on our fellow citizens by Boko Haram terrorists had reached unprecedented heights. The Boko Haram terrorists had nearly brought the Nigerian Army and the Armed Forces to their knees. Barracks were sacked at random, weapons and ammunition carted away and vulnerable civilians wantonly killed by terrorists. The morale of our troops was at its lowest ebb. Soldiers regularly fled the battlefield on the slightest indication of an approaching adversary.”
However, with the latest policy direction, Buratai seems to have modified his vow to sustain and maintain a high level of discipline in the Nigerian Army, which was championed by his predecessors in the on-going fight against Boko Haram.
Responding during the handover ceremony, Buratai had stated, “I must commend you (Minimah) for the sense of discipline and professionalism you have introduced to the Nigerian Army through various courts martial. We will make sure that we do not relent on discipline and that the highest form of discipline is maintained in the Army. I want also to ensure that our armed forces and soldiers remain loyal to the constituted authorities.”
Investigation revealed that President Muhammadu Buhari authorised the recall of the officers and soldiers who were believed to be “unjustly disciplined and dismissed through various courts martial set up by the immediate past Army chief.
Military sources told THISDAY that Buhari had after reviewing most of the cases and the circumstances under which the affected personnel were sanctioned called for a review of the trial to determine if there were cases of injustice. According to one the senior officer, the case was brought to the attention of Buratai who had a change of mind on his earlier stand when the whole picture of the circumstances under which the affected officers and soldiers were court-martialled were brought to his notice.
One of the affected commanders was the immediate senior to the new Army chief, and he was said to have narrated the plight of the servicemen “who were almost forced to fight without a weapon”.
Piqued by the revelations, Buratai was said to have assessed the situation and subsequently presented it to Buhari who wasted no time in approving the review of the cases through a panel of enquiry.
The source said, “The commandant who was also affected was not happy about the things that happened with those boys being dismissed. So when the new man (Buratai) came, having been next to him in hierarchy, he approached him with the situation of those boys. He noted the fact that the former army leadership were the ones who did not provide the needed weapons to those boys. So how can they come up to claim that the boys were running from Boko Haram?
“Consequently, the new man took the case to the president who also felt sad about it and directed that the cases be reviewed so that they can be recalled back.”
The Nigerian Army in line with the review and directive by Buratai officially confirmed the reinstatement of 3,032 soldiers who were convicted of various disciplinary offences through series of courts martial instituted by Minimah.
The Army spokesman, while disclosing the decision during a press conference last year, said recalled that the Nigerian Army had instituted a committee to review the disciplinary cases in the service, especially, of those soldiers in the defunct Operation Zaman Lafiya in the North-east, with a view to ensuring discipline, regimentation and justice in the system.
Usman said: “The committee has concluded its sitting last week and has made certain recommendations that led to the reinstatement of 3,032 soldiers into the Nigerian Army out of 5,000 cases that were reviewed. The reinstated soldiers have shown their total readiness to be re-launched into theatre to combat insurgency and have now commenced a retraining exercise at the Nigerian Army Training Centre, Kontagora, Niger State. This training is to reorient the affected soldiers and prepare them for this closing stage of the operational aspect of the counter insurgency operations with more weapons and new leadership.”
Usman, however, clarified “that not all the dismissed soldiers were granted pardon and recalled”, adding, “those with criminal cases, for instance, have their sentences upheld.”
The first major disciplinary decision undertaken by the Nigerian Army under Buratai was the court martial of Ransome-Kuti. The Nigerian Army had in October last year dismissed Ransom-Kuti and sentenced him to six months imprisonment due to offences allegedly committed during his command of military operations in Baga early this year.
Usman explained that the sentence was not due to acts of cowardice, which was struck out, but hinged on other offences bordering on unprofessional conduct. He said: “I wish to confirm that one of the accused persons, Brigadier General EA Ransome-Kuti, was awarded the following punishments on the various count charges against him as follows;
“The first count charge, which was cowardly behaviour, was struck out but he was found guilty on count charge number two, which was failure to perform military duties and was dismissed from the Nigerian Army.” He stated that Ransom-Kuti “was equally found guilty on count charge number three, which was miscellaneous offences relating to service property and was awarded six months imprisonment.”
However, the Army Council in February this year commuted the dismissal of Ransome-Kuti to demotion from Brigadier General to Colonel with four years seniority with immediate effect from October 15, 2015.
The Deputy Director of Public Relations (DDAPR), AHQ Garrison, Col. Aliyu Yusuf, in response to THISDAY enquiries then, confirmed the decision of the Army dated March 1, 2016 and signed by Col. ON Taiwo on behalf of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) referencing a circular titled: Army Council Decision for Implementation: Brig-Gen. EA Ransome-Kuti (N/8301), with references: A. AHQ GAR/G1/300/47 dated 26 June 15; and B. HQ DLS/A/G1/300/54 dated 26 Feb 16
According the circular, the council took the decision in its last meeting on February 22 after reviewing the judgement of the SCM that tried Ransome-Kuti on a three-count charge of for failure to perform military duties and miscellaneous offences relating to service property.
The circular read in part, “A Special Court Martial (SCM) was convened vide reference A to try the above named senior officer. He was arraigned on a three-count charge for Failure to Perform Military Duties and Miscellaneous Offences Relating to Service Property. He was tried but was discharged and acquitted on Count 1. He was however found guilty on Count 2 and 3 by the SCM that tried him. He was thus awarded dismissal from the NA on Count 2 and six months imprisonment on Count 3.
“Consequently, I am directed to inform you that reference B has conveyed to this Headquarters that the Army Council in its last meeting on February 22, 2016, confirmed the conviction of the accused senior officer on Count 2 but commuted the sentence of dismissal to reduction in rank from Brigadier-General to Colonel with four years seniority WEF October 15, 2015. The Council also quashed the finding of guilt and the award of six months imprisonment awarded by the SCM on Count 3 and replaced same with a finding of ‘not guilty’. The senior officer was thus discharged and acquitted on Count 3 WEF October 15, 2015.
“Accordingly, I am directed to request AHQ GAR to release the senior officer from close custody. I am also to request AHQ MS to post him out of jurisdiction.”
Ransome-Kuti was accused of dereliction of duties, which allegedly led to the capture of Baga and newly acquired weaponry by the Boko Haram terrorists. The officer, who represented by Lagos-based lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), was also alleged to have failed to account for the arms and ammunitions under his supervision.
The New Court Martial
The latest trial of the two senior officers has raised fears that the military might be returning to the era of courts martial to return some officers and soldiers to discipline.
While the on-going Air Vice Marsha James Gbum-led special court martial is yet to establish the offence for which Falola and Sani are being tried, it has, however, been revealed that the trial is not connected to the military operations in the North-east.
It seems that unlike the previous cases, which were mainly related to events in the battlefields of the North-east, the current trials may be dominated by misconducts bordering on corruption, dereliction of duty, civil cases, and electoral matters.