By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—Erstwhile Commander of the Multi-National Joint Task Force, Enitan Ransome-Kuti, who was demoted from the rank of Brigadier-General to Colonel, was among soldiers that, yesterday, that demanded justice from the presidential probe panel sitting in Abuja.
The Federal Government constituted the seven-man judicial panel of inquiry to investigate alleged human rights violations by the Nigerian Army.
At the resumed sitting of the panel headed by Justice Biobele Georgewill, some military officers convicted and sentenced to various categories of punishment by various courts martial, applied to be pardoned by government.
Among the embattled soldiers that approached the panel included Lt.-Col. A. O. Ojo, who was dismissed by the Nigerian Army for alleged negligence of military duties, as well as 54 soldiers who claimed to have been illegally tried and convicted by the court martial for demanding weapons for counter-insurgency operations in the North-East region.
Others were Lance Corporals Bankole Taiwo, Ayodele Olawale, Isiah Olofu and Private Adebayo Gbenga.
They prayed the panel to review their conviction.
Meanwhile, the panel adjourned till today to decide whether or not it has the jurisdiction to entertain complaints by the soldiers since they were not only convicted by a military tribunal, but also on the fact that the Court of Appeal is already seized of the matter.
However, counsel to the affected soldiers, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, maintained that the panel had the requisite jurisdiction to address issues that were raised by his clients.
Though Falana admitted that his clients lodged appeals before the Court of Appeal to challenge their conviction by the court martial, he however argued that the appeal did not rob the panel of the jurisdiction to recommend to President Muhammadu Buhari to grant them pardon.
He argued that section 198 of the Armed Forces as well as section 175 of the Constitution empowered the President to grant pardon to any convicted person in Nigeria without condition and regardless of whether or not the convict had pending appeals.
Falana equally contended that nothing in the panel’s terms of reference precluded it from hearing issues relating to a matter pending in court.
He maintained that his clients’ request for pardon was not related to the matter before the Court of Appeal but was based on facts that came up after they had been tried and convicted.
According to Falana, the soldiers’ request for clemancy followed the emergence of facts about how funds earmarked for purchase of arms to prosecute the counter-insurgency war in the North East were diverted.
He insisted that his clients’ complaints bordered on violation of their rights by the Nigerian military.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Army, through its lawyer, Mr. Biola Oyebanji, who appeared alongside Brig.-General D.O Idada-Ikponmwen (retd), urged the panel to decline jurisdiction to hear complaints by the soldiers’.
Oyebanji insisted that the panel had limited scope, saying its terms of reference did not give room for the type of petitions the soldiers brought before it.
He described application by the soldiers for presidential pardon as an afterthought, adding that the panel lacked the powers to entertain a matter that is pending before the Court of Appeal.
“We therefore, urge this panel to decline to entertain these complaints. This honourable panel is limited to its terms of reference and cannot go outside it as proposed by the conveners.
“The prayer in the memoranda does not have anything on pardon. To draw in pardon by inference is a belated attempt by the petitioner. It is an afterthought. They do not need the setting up of this panel to exercise their right.
“Having been conceded that they have exploited other means to entertain their case, it has become duplicitous to burden this panel with the same application. We urge this body not to expand its jurisdiction to do things outside it has been confined to do”, the Army lawyer added.
However, when he as confronted with a prayer in one of the petitions requesting the panel to recommend to the President for the complainants’ pardon, Oyebanji withdrew his earlier position that the request was am afterthought.
Meanwhile, with consent of all parties, the panel said it would hear other petitions by Falana, including one alleging gross violation of human rights by the military justice system, in Maiduguri, Borno State, where the panel’s North-East sitting is billed to take place.
The panel said it would equally hear another petition Falana filed over the mistaken bombing of a camp in Rann, Borno State where thousands of families displaced during by Boko Haram militants were sheltered.
So many internally displaced persons were killed with dozens injured in the bomb mishap that occurred on January 17, 2017, after a Nigerian Air Force jet mistook the camp for Boko Haram hideout.