The concern of this piece is to look at the justification for condemning the soldiers to death by firing squad. There are two batches of soldiers involved here and they faced trial at different times and in different batches. The first batch consists of 12 soldiers while the last consists of 54 soldiers. The 12 soldiers earlier sentenced to death had been given an order to drive at night on a road frequently attacked by Boko Haram extremists. The soldiers initially refused, saying it was a suicide mission. But they eventually followed orders and in the process were ambushed by the insurgents, quite a number of them were killed.
The following day, the bodies of the dead soldiers were taken to the barracks. On sighting the fate that befell their comrades-in-arm, the soldiers were angry. They started throwing stones at the commanding officer, Maj. Gen A. Mohammed, firing into the air and shooting at him. Several bullets reportedly hit the body of his armour-plated vehicle. He was not injured as he quickly sought refuge in his vehicle.
A nine-man panel was set up headed by Brig Gen Chukwuemeka Okonkwo. The tribunal found 12 of the soldiers guilty and cleared five others. One was sentenced to 28 days in jail with hard labour. The story of the other batch is not so different. They had been given an order by their commanding officer, Lt. Col Timothy Opurum to take part in an operation to recapture some towns from the terrorists on August 4, 2014. The soldiers said they refused to take part in the operation due to failure of the army to provide them with the necessary support equipment. In addition, the soldiers said due to lack of proper equipment, they had lost three officers, 23 of their colleagues while over 80 others had sustained injuries having been ambushed months earlier by insurgents. The army prosecutor accused them of mutiny having refused to take a direct order adding that being part of the Nigerian Army is voluntary and they should have found a way out of the army if they had been displeased with the situation they found themselves.
“My Lords, as very senior officers, you are aware that the (Nigerian Army) is not a conscript army. Joining the NA [Nigerian Army] is a voluntary act and if a service personnel feels he cannot cope, there is a procedure for discharge which these soldiers are familiar with. The NA is not an organization with a trade union where members down tools to protest poor wages or poor working conditions”,the prosecutor argued.
The Defence counsel was led by human rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, SAN who did his best to save the young men whose age ranges between 21-25 years, most of who joined the army in 2012. Parts of his argument were that the order was tantamount to telling the soldiers to commit suicide as the government or the army authority failed to fulfill its obligation as contained in Section 217 of the Constitution on the mandatory requirement to equip the armed forces adequately. Not only that, they were poorly trained. All the above did not stop the tribunal from convicting the soldiers and sentencing them to death.
I have gone to this length to give a background to the entire exercise. From the above and the information that later came to the public domain, it would be difficult to fault the young men. Though, they are in an organisation that has the mantra of, ‘obey the last order’. But must you obey a command that you know would ultimately lead to your death? The soldiers could not have been accused of cowardice as they had earlier taken part in combats that had rescued some of their colleagues who had been pinned down in the course of battle with the insurgent. It was also argued by the defence that the armed force is a voluntary organisation and the soldiers should have explored the option of demobilization if they were not satisfied with the condition of service. They were therefore guilty. But one can conversely argue that the army did not also fulfill its own part of the agreement as contained in Section 217. They did not provide the soldiers with the necessary tools to work with.
I am sure that if at the point of entry, the boys who joined the army and shown willingness to die for their fatherland had been told that they would not be adequately equipped to perform their duties, most of them would have had a rethink and probably go into other professions. A major consideration in taking a second look at this matter and grant a reprieve is the statement of the former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Retired Air Chief Marshall Alex Subundu Badeh at his pull out from service last month. He acknowledged that he had presided over a military, that was ill equipped and its troops poorly motivated.
The CDS statement says it all and exonerates the soldiers from blame- we have or had an army that is/was ill-equipped and poorly motivated. Would we then waste the lives of these young boys for disobeying an order that would have led to their death. That would be very unfair. An abnormal situation had been created, which is the inability to equip our soldiers to perform their duty, this has also given birth to an abnormality in the military- the disobedience of a ‘lawful order’. Should the soldiers now be killed for a situation they did not create? What about those who primarily caused the problem? Shouldn’t some of them stand trial too and be made to face the firing squad? A lawmaker representing Ukwa East/ West in the House of Representatives, Hon Uzoma Nkem-Abonta captures it well when he said, “in war situation, the chances of survival for a soldier is 50-50. But the soldier must be equipped and put in a position that would make him do his best and come back alive. But where the soldiers sense betrayal on the part of the leadership, are they supposed to die quietly and without talking”?
There is a betrayal of trust here and it would be unfair for the soldiers to die for the sin primarily committed by their leaders. President Mohammadu Buhari, a soldier himself has acknowledged that a lot had gone wrong in the army and if that is the case, the young soldiers alleged mutiny is a case in point. He should therefore see the situation in the larger picture. The young soldiers are thus victims of the rotten system. Their lives should therefore not be wasted for a crime that has its foundation in problems created by others. The president should look at this and grant a reprieve. Lastly, before some people start to argue that a bad precedent would be set if a reprieve was granted, I want to point out that this this wouldn’t be the first time such reprieves are granted in the history of the Nigerian army.