ByÂ Kingsley Omonobi
Abuja – For the 28 Nigerian Army soldiers who served in the 15th battalion in the United Nationsâ€™ Mission in Liberia, but who engaged themselves in a violent demonstration on the streets of Akure, the Ondo State capital, between the 4th and 5th of July, 2009, over allowances, some reprieve came their way at the weekend when the Army headquarters authorities in Abuja commuted the sentence of life imprisonment passed on them by the General Court Martial, to seven (7) years imprisonment.
Announcing the decision of the Army authorities today, Director of Amy Public relations, Brig-General Chris Olukolade in company of Director of Legal Services, Army headquarters, Brig-General Abdukadir Abubakar, explained that â€œin arriving at the decision, the army authorities did not only consider the plea of mitigation by the counsel to the soldiers, in which they pleaded for mercy as part of their responsibilities to their clients, but also the armyâ€™s attempt to achieve justice and equity in the delivery of justiceâ€.
Emphasizing the magnitude of the offence committed by the soldiers which is mutiny, Olukolade said, â€œThe offence of mutiny is a very serious one in the military. The leadership of the Nigerian Army cannot fold its arms and allow any trait of it to be exhibited in our system. Indeed, soldiers cannot exercise the same rights or approach to protests like civilians. Those who argue to promote a situation where soldiers can go on strike like their civilian counterparts should consider the result which such acts of indiscipline have brought on security, orderliness and survival of other countriesâ€.
â€œThe Nigerian state and indeed other nation-states for that matter are conscious of the possible implications of such development and have therefore established clear and mutually safe procedures for soldiers to seek redress in the event of perceived ill-treatment.
It is therefore misleading and tantamount to a misrepresentation of the spirit of the nationâ€™s constitution to argue that soldiers, who also enjoy the monopoly of all kinds of weapons provided by the state, should enjoy the same rights to go on strike as would their civilian counterparts. Indeed, the right to complain must not be confused with the right to go on strikeâ€, he said.
Continuing Gen. Olukolade said, â€œThe soldiers in question had every opportunity to exploit due process of law available to them to seek redress for any perceived grievances if they were still not contented with the explanations which were given them by their Commanding Officer. They had no excuse whatsoever to throw stones at their Commanding officer, and set bonfires on the streets of Akure and even went ahead to cause a disturbance of the peaceâ€.
Expatiating further, he said, â€œIt is most important to note that we in the military must remain disciplined, steadfast and respect the rules and regulations governing our conduct. We must not take the laws into our hands. We must ensure that the rule of law is maintained, particularly in a democratic environmentâ€.
â€œIt would be most unfortunate if such issues bordering on military discipline are politicized and sensationalized. This would not be in the best interest of the Nigerian state. We therefore implore the media not to be used by persons with interests other than theirs to endanger national security. It is the same commitment to national security and security of the citizens; following the laws of the land that guided the armyâ€™s action throughout the entire exerciseâ€, he said.
Recalling the events that resulted in the Brig-General Ishaya Bauka led Court Martial, Olukolade said, â€œWhat actually happened was that a team was dispatched to pay two groups of soldiers that returned from the mission area; one in Makurdi and the other in Akure.
The soldiers in Makurdi had collected their savings while in the mission area but those of Akure were to receive their own on arrival back home. The team which started with the unit in Makurdi, mistook them for the unit that was yet to collect their savings and therefore paid them what should have been paid to the unit in Akureâ€.
â€œOn arrival in Akure, the team realized the error and was making necessary arrangements to correct the situation when some of the soldiers in Akure, resorted to rioting. The rampage in this case was clearly of impatience by a few individuals who, knowing the implications of their actions, went ahead to perpetrate itâ€.
â€œIt is noteworthy that in a battalion of over eight hundred personnel with similar experiences, only the convicted soldiers decided to disregard the principles of military discipline and take to the streets to disrupt public peace in the city of Akure. There is no doubt that if these soldiers had exercised a little patience and allowed the finance team to concentrate on their work, the error would have been rectified in no timeâ€.
Gen. Olukolade added that all the affected soldiers including those convicted, have been paid their allowances noting that the finance officers involved have been tried and would be punished for negligence while the 27 soldiers whose life sentence was commuted, are free to appeal the judgment if they are not satisfied with the decision of Army headquarters.