A year and a half after the alleged wrongful dismissal of 38 army officers for sundry offences, the cry for justice has never been this loud. Olawale Olaleye writes

The case involving the 38 army officers, who were alleged to have been wrongfully dismissed from service last year, came to an interesting stop in the week that just ended. Major Daniel Ehicheoya, a representative of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Yusuf Tukur Buratai, was walked out by the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions, when he appeared at its hearing last Wednesday, following a petition by Lt. Col. Abdulfatai Mohammed on his malicious compulsory retirement.

Mohammed’s case is part of a petition involving 21 other officers: two Major Generals, five Brigadier Generals, eight Colonels and seven Lieutenant Colonels, who were all compulsorily retired in June 2016, allegedly for no justifiable reasons.

The committee members had expressed displeasure that Buratai, despite his insistence that the letter inviting him to testify before them must be signed by the Chairman of the Committee, instead of the Clerk as is the normal practice still chose to send a Major to the hearing. It was against this backdrop that the committee members refused to take submissions from Ehicheoya of the Nigerian Army Directorate of Legal Services.

The committee chair, Senator Samuel Anyanwu, considered Buratai’s decision to shun the committee an insult. “I was called two weeks ago that the Chief of Army Staff said I must sign the letter to him personally. So, how come he is not here? It is an insult to us. When invitation letters are signed, it is by the Clerk, but he insisted I sign his. We have invited the Air Force Chief, and he came here,” said Anyanwu as committee members took turns to address the petitions against the Nigerian army, dwelling on the alleged injustice that is now popular with the dismissal of the officers.

The Army had through its public relations department, published a release, which mentioned the retirement of the 38 officers over a year ago. Although not specific, the story was a mumbled allegation that the dismissed officers were caught committing a range of offences during the 2015 elections.

This, according to the army, included the fact that they played one role or the other in the corruption said to have taken place in the office of former National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki, accused of diverting over $2 billion of the money meant for the purchase of weapons that would have been deployed in combat against the Boko Haram sect.

At that time the retirements were announced, there were fears that the purge might have affected mainly senior officers from the South as 29 of the 38 officers were said to have come from the southern part of the country. Whilst the media department of the Army said it was inclined to supplying further information on the development, albeit on demand, there really wasn’t any specific reason for their dismissal (adorned in the garb of retirement) except for a blanket excuse of sundry offences.

But they were indeed not afforded the right to fair hearing as most of them were never invited to appear before the internal panels (being the standard procedure of the army) that probed the allegations of alleged misconducts of the military officers during the elections of 2015 or the panel that investigated the alleged Arms’ budget diversion.
There might have been some elements of truth about certain officers’ involvement in the alleged arms deal given the complexity of the assignment, the fact that many other officers were merely included in the list of those to be dismissed, and tried without fair hearing raises genuine suspicion and concern.

And for almost two years since this happened, the officers involved, a majority of them with promising career in the service to fatherland, had done everything within their powers, contact and network to seek justice and have it (justice) delivered without let or hindrance.
Thus, from the petitions to President Muhammadu Buhari to those already in the National Assembly and a frantic attempt at meeting with the Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki, whom some of the officers have described as the only accessible politician with a voice that bears significant weight, the Army can of course not run away from doing justice to the matter. In fact, it is not expected to just do justice but seen as having done so.

Suffice it to mention that Saraki is said to have agreed in principle to meet with the officers, who had reached out to him through alternative means, his leadership of the Senate through the Ethics Committee has further shown to be sensitive and alive to its responsibility by already treating the matter at the committee level. The handling of the hearing on the matter in which Buratai failed to appear is a commendable step by the Senate leadership that would help situate the rule of law in context and ensure that justice is adduced its place in the polity.

However, in their petition to the president, the 38 senior army officers, who described their dismissal from the Nigerian Army as wrongful, accused the Minister of Defence, Brig-General Mansur Dan Ali (rtd), Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Olonisakin, and Buratai of victimizing innocent senior officers. They specifically alleged that Ali, Olonisakin and Bruatai abused their offices with impunity by maliciously punishing innocent officers.
In the petition dated August 22, 2017 and addressed to President Buhari by the law firm of Abdul Muhammed LP, the officers recalled that at the beginning of the Buhari 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 former 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 compulsorily retiring the 38 of them.
They 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.
According to them, although it was claimed by the military that they were “retired”, they were indeed dismissed 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, adding that 18 of the senior army officers that 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.

“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 petition explained.

On the whole, the fact that the president is a retired officer of the Nigerian army is a consolation of sort. It is expected that he would have a better understanding of the plight of these officers and probably, a clue of their alleged victimisaton. Of course, decent societies the world over are guided by the idea of ‘reward and sanction’ in their various social interactions. But neither of both is expected to be delivered in vacuum.

This is why the dismissal of these army officers must be given a deserving attention and addressed appropriately. The culture of impunity or the tendency of it is very likely in human gatherings, regardless of who is involved. Therefore, allegations cannot just be made from the blues and without thorough verification, and yet sacrificing the future of 38 people over nothing. This is a challenge for the president and how he rises up to it will further locate and situate the fast vanishing goodwill of his government.