BY CHARLES KUMOLU
IF Oliver Okwara had joined the Nigerian Army now, many would have attributed it to the biting unemployment in the country.
But his decision to join the military in 1989-a period when securing employment was not as difficult as it is now, met with stiff resistance from his family.
Whatever informed their fears about Okwara’s voyage in the military was best known to them, but conventional wisdom suggests that the hazards associated with the institution might have prompted their objections.
Against the wishes of his people, Okwara ran away to Zaria for selection. It was on that note that his military career started in the medical corps. Rising to the rank of Sergeant for a non- commissioned officer, was no doubt a milestone.
After serving for 20 years in what could be described as a meritorious career, Okwara was drafted to be part of the United Nations,UN, peacekeeping in Liberia in 2007. That was two years after his elevation to the rank of a Sergeant.
For both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, being selected for a peacekeeping job, is usually fascinating, in view of the financial reward that comes with it. So, Okwara was upbeat about being part of the troops.
While in Liberia, Okwara and others had hoped to use their entitlements to better their lives. Unfortunately, their expectations of better life upon their return, were dashed when the Military High Command failed to pay their entitlements. That marked the beginning of what could rank as the greatest challenge in his life.
$1,228 a month for each soldier
The UN had reportedly earmarked $1,228 a month for each soldier. The army allegedly claimed to be saving the allowances for Okwara and his colleagues. But that was not to be as they were not paid upon their return.
They were told to come to Akure in June to collect the money but when they went, they did not get the money. In September, they were again asked to come back. That was the third time they were being invited to Akure for money which the UN had allegedly paid for their services.
After spending about two weeks without results, the soldiers protested and were arrested for mutiny.
Four officers, Col. A. Awotoye (Commanding Officer of 72 Army Battalion, Makurdi), Lt. Col. Paul Baba (Director of Army Finance), Major Abubakar Shonva (Deputy Director of Army Finance) and Major C. Njoku, were identified as the ring leaders in the alleged fraud. Col. Awotoye was said to have collected the money despite the fact that soldiers from his Command had earlier ended their tour of duty and collected their allowances.
The military tribunal found Awotoye and the three others guilty, while Okwara and others court-martialled were found guilty and jailed for life.
Though reprieve finally came the way of Okwara and 26 othersattached to the 323 Artillery Regiment, Owena Barracks, Akure, Ondo, as their prison sentences were commuted to discharge from the military service, there was nothing to show for the two decades he spent in the army.
Four years after, Nigeria is faced with a near similar issue, this time it was the sentencing of 12 soldiers to death for mutiny.
The soldiers were charged with a six-count of criminal conspiracy to commit mutiny, disobeying lawful orders and various acts said to be inimical to the military service.
The nine-member all military Court Martial, also found the soldiers guilty of insubordinate behaviour, use of abusive language, levelling false accusation against their superior officers, among others. They were similarly found guilty of attempting to kill their erstwhile General Officer Commanding 7 Division, Major General Ahmed Mohammed by shooting at his official car, between May 13 and 14, 2014. The car was bullet proof.
The incident took place at the Maimalari Barracks, Maiduguri in the course of the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign. The court also found them guilty of preventing the movement of some of their injured colleagues to hospital and obstructing evacuation of their dead ones who were killed in ambush on their way from an operation in Chibok, Borno State. Those to die are Cpl. Jasper Braidolor, David Musa, Friday Onu, Yusuf Shuaibu, Emmanuel Igomu, Andrew Ngbede, Nurudeen Ahmed, Ifeanyi Alukhagbe, Alao Samuel, Amadi Chukwudi, Alan Linus and Stephen Clement. Jeremiah Ichocho, who was found guilty of Absence Without Official Leave, AWOL, was sentenced to two years without labour.
Armed Forces Act Cap A20 Laws
The soldiers were tried under section 52(1) of the Armed Forces Act Cap A20 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
The judgment, according to Vanguard Features VF checks, has been generating mixed reactions across sections of the country.
Though the offence for which the soldiers were convicted cannot be condoned by the armed forces because it strikes at the foundation of discipline in the military, there are questions as to whether the soldiers actually deserved the judgements.
This sentiment was prompted by the reasons given by the soldiers for their action. Consider this: It only took a media chat for President Goodluck Jonathan to reveal that part of the reasons why the war against Boko Haram was not being won, was because the army had been unequipped in the past 20 years.
It was under this condition that the convicted soldiers fought insurgency in Borno State as members of the Joint Task Force,JTF, with the insurgents having the upper hand most times.
Reportedly unhappy about their conditions, which particularly bordered on welfare and absence of sophisticated weapons, they opened fire on their commander, Major General Ahmadu Mohammed, in May.
That incident however established that the morale within the soldiers at that time, was at an all-time low.
A Professor of Sociology in one of the leading private universities in Nigeria, Prof Marthins Tabansi, believes the military authorities should be held responsible for such acts by the non-commissioned soldiers.
He told VF that the issues of welfare and professionalism in the army had been treated as non-issues by successive administrations, leading to the revolt by the rank and file.
‘’We expected that the retirement of soldiers who held political positions during the military era, would usher in professionalism and much investment in the army. Sadly we have not seen that. Those saddled with the mandate to do that either misappropriate funds or are left with no funds to prosecute their statutorily responsibility,’’ he noted.
‘’With latest equipment to prosecute the war and better motivation, I doubt if any soldier will turn against his own commander,’’ he submitted.
Asked if his argument meant a justification for what the soldiers did, Tabansi said: ‘’Absolutely No!”
Temper justice with mercy: Consequently, he explained thus: ‘’There is no institution that tolerates indiscipline. The manner the young men channelled their grievances is condemnable. That is why the grounds upon which they were convicted cannot be said to be out of context. We are talking about military law, which is independent given the peculiarity of the army as an institution. Having said that, it is my hope that the authorities temper justice with mercy.’’
Spokesperson for Northern Delegates Forum at the just concluded National Conference, Mr. Anthony Sani, also frowned at engaging in mutiny by soldiers, but is particularly concerned about the conditions that provoked the action.
‘’While it is true and correct that soldiers should not engage in mutiny for obvious reasons,it is equally true that the government itself had gone public with the reasons for its request to take $1b loan for the purpose of improving the quality of training and equipping the military so they can confront the insurgency effectively,’’ he submitted.
‘’That means the soldiers have known that they are not trained and equipped for the tasks assigned to them. Where that is the case,the military and the government should temper justice with mercy by committing the hard conviction to a lesser one,” he said.
National Convener of Democratic Rights and Accountability, Comrade Yemie Kufeji frowned at what he described as the indifferent attitude of the Senate on the issue. ‘’It makes no meaning that these young men should die for demanding for their rights. Yes, we are not in support of mutiny but do they truly deserve to die considering the circumstances that made them prey in the hands of Boko Haram insurgents?” he asked.
For him: ’’The support of the Senate, shows that our lawmakers are not in touch with global trends on death penalty. A country that flaunts democratic credentials even though such credentials are questionable, should not think about executing the soldiers.’’
Though the country had not engaged in capital punishment since the military era, findings showed that death penalty is still in the statute books of Nigeria.
The pleas for mercy notwithstanding, the support for the verdict by the Senate, came as a surprise to many in an era when there is a global outcry against capital punishment.
The Senate reportedly said it would not plead with the Army to spare the lives of 12 soldiers recently sentenced to death for mutiny.
Moratorium on executions: The Chairman, Senate Committee on Defence, George Sekibo, said this in Abuja after a closed-door meeting with the nation’s service chiefs.
The service chiefs were led to the high-profile meeting, which lasted over three hours, by the Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh.
Sekibo said the Senate was not under pressure to intervene to save the lives of the soldiers because the judgement convicting them was in the best interest of the Nigerian military.
Though the country has not engaged in capital punishment since the military era, findings showed that death penalty is still in the statute books of Nigeria.
However, there are calls by groups like the Amnesty International on the Nigerian government to abolish death penalty, immediately impose a moratorium on executions and commute all death sentences under Nigerian criminal law and Sharia penal laws.
It also wants the country to ratify international human rights instruments, including the two Optional Protocols to the ICCPR, and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and promote international standards of fair trial and due process.