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Nigerian Military: Between Mutiny and Murder

By Ibrahim Usman

Twelve Nigerian soldiers, all in their 20s and ranged in rank from private to corporal, drafted to fight the so-called Boko Haram insurgents in Maiduguri were on September 8, 2014 sentenced to death by firing squad for alleged mutiny and attempted murder of their commanding officer. There were series of revolts from the Nigerian soldiers during the period.

Journalists were barred from attending the trial, but were only invited to hear the reading of the verdict issued by the nine-member court martial panel headed by Brigadier General Chukwuemeka Okonkwo.


The said offence of the military officers is well known to all. A troop of handicapped soldiers was ordered to drive at night on a road frequently attacked by the so called Boko Haram insurgents. The soldiers initially refused, on the firm belief it was a suicide mission. But they eventually followed orders and were ambushed on May 13 by the insurgents on the road from the northeast town of Chibok, town where more than 270 schoolgirls were kidnapped a month earlier. Many of the soldiers were killed by the insurgents as a result.


When the bodies of the ambushed soldiers were brought to the barrack in Maiduguri on May 14, the soldiers revolted, throwing stones at their commanding officer, Major General A. Mohammed firing into the air and then shooting at him. Several bullets hit the armor-plated vehicle in which he sought refuge. He was unharmed.


The demoralized soldiers have told The Associated Press and BBC that they were outgunned by the insurgents, frequently not paid in full, abandoned on the battlefield and left without enough ammunition or food. They decried the endemic corruption in the Nigerian Military, where millions of dollars budgeted for the fight against the so called insurgents went into pockets of their superiors.


Evidently, the military had no option but to pass this judgment to cover up the widespread allegation of corruption, where security vote is being siphoned by the high ranking officers while placing lives of the junior officers in great danger.


A simple definition of mutiny by Merriam Webster dictionary describes it as “a situation in which a group of people (such as sailors or soldiers) refuse to obey orders and try to TAKE CONTROL (emphasis mine) away from the person commanding them”. An in depth definition of the word is hereby presented in the book, Military Law and Precedents (Vol. 2) thus: “Unlawful opposition or resistance to, or defiance of superior military authority, with a deliberate purpose to USURP, SUBVERT, or OVERRIDE the same, or EJECT with authority from office”.


From the above definitions we can deduce that intent that should be the focus, and not the act itself. The intent distinguishes the act of mutiny from other offences in the armed forces. A further reading from the same book says any act “not characterized by a deliberate intent to overthrow superior authority, do not constitute in general the legal offence of mutiny, but are commonly to be treated as ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’”.


By these definitions and the prevailing situation of events on ground that were well known to the public at that time, the soldiers are covered and have a case, for they acted on self defence. They were protesting a situation in which they were deliberately rendered ill-equipped in the midst of well-equipped enemy. This is what one of protesting soldiers, under anonymity, told Daily Trust newspaper reporter: “Whenever we voice our grievances within the precinct of the barracks, our superiors accuse us of disobedience…Sometimes they even say we would face mutiny charges and that is why we forced our drivers to stop at Bulabulin”. Similar statement was also made by another soldier, “We were only given guns and some ammunitions, even the armoured tank that we are supposed to go with was withdrawn, and that is why we said we would not move an inch”.


Master Sun, author of the book, The Art of War: Complete Texts and Commentaries, graphically illustrated the consequences of a weak army in a battle: “So an army perishes if it has no equipment, it perishes if it has no food, and it perishes if it has no money”. Further elaboration on this by Mei Yaochen concludes: “These three things are necessary- you cannot fight to win with an unequipped army”. 


By implication, the commanding officer who gave the order to an unequipped army to fight well equipped insurgents, knowing fully the uneven degree of strength of both parties, should be tried for being an accomplice to cold blood murder. Similarly, he should be tried for subverting the country’s effort to win a war, for obviously by design the ill-equipped Nigerian soldiers were meant to be defeated. By implication they were led to the slaughter slab with their hands tied, while their superiors moved about in armor-plated vehicles.


The fact that the Senate Committee on Defence has endorsed the judgment did not make it hold water. The same Senate, for the third time, unnecessarily approved extension of period of the emergency rule in the northeast when nothing was achieved but more deaths and arson. The same Senate also approved the funds for military that is being siphoned, against the public outcry. Let these young officers be set free, instead their superiors be apprehended and tried for subverting the nation’s effort at combating terrorism.


Where was the Senate when soldiers, on broad daylight opened fire on innocent people in Zaria on July 25, 2014? On that fateful day, some soldiers on obvious special mission, combat-ready and armed to teeth, killed 34 people and injured over 120 during peaceful protest on the International Quds Day that had been conducted peacefully in Zaria for the past 32 years. More worrisome was the fact that, three out of the dead were biological sons of Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky, Leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. They were tortured and maimed before they were killed by Colonel S.O Oku of the Basawa Barrack, Zaria.


The silence of the National Assembly and the Federal Government was a mockery of democracy. The so-called “elected legislators” and “representatives” watched as government security operatives, paid by the people’s tax, kill the citizens they were elected to protect. The fact that Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Goodluck Jonathan had called Sheikh Zakzaky 24 days after the incident to say “Sorry” was an obvious admission that a crime was actually committed. For a head of a government to say “Sorry” as a final word in the face of extrajudicial killings, was also a mockery of the judicial system and its instituted apparatus.


With or without an appeal, the junior officer soldiers have been convicted and proclaimed dead for no, or minor offence, while a commanding officer in Basawa Barrack, Zaria walks tall and free with innocence blood in his hands. Until Colonel S. O. Oku and his killer unit are also court martialed for extrajudicial killings, the world would forever view the recent ruling as selective judgment and the Nigerian military as either murderous or condoning murder and massacre. As stated by Sheikh Zakzaky, we are not accusing the whole Nigerian military of murder and its entire officers as murderous, but that within the military there exist killers squads, doing the dirty job for their masked masters. Allowing a murderer in the military to go scot-free is setting a bad precedence; an offence on the military is an offence, while similar or even worst offence on civilians is no offence.


Yes, it was the same situation we recall with sadness and anguish when in the early hours of January 15, 1966 the first gunshot was fired in the name of a coup by the Nigerian military. Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu led handful of officers and executed prominent Northern leaders, including Sir Ahmadu Bello (Sardauna of Sokoto), premier of the then Northern Region. It was the beginning of military intrusion into Nigerian politics.


January 15 of every year should have been set aside as a day of mourning for the heroes lost, but the military took over the stage to remember its “fallen heroes” instead. In Nigeria, Armed Forces Day, also known as Remembrance Day, was formerly celebrated on 11 November of every year to coincide with the Remembrance Day (Poppy Day) for the World War II veterans in the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was later changed to 15th January, they say, to commemorate the surrender of Biafran troops to the Federal troops on 15 January 1970, thus concluding the Nigerian Civil War.


The Nzeogwu coup which led to the massacre of Nigerian top luminaries, the effect of which Nigerian still suffers and led to the civil war, is more worthy to commemorate and mourn than, than the civil war patriots. It is a deliberate attempt to cover the sin and shame of the military in Nigerian politics, thereby making a mockery of January 15. It is clear that the military honours the lives of its personnel more than that of the civilians they are established to protect.


The world awaits the trial of Colonel S. O. Oku and his killer squad, we cannot take or accept “Sorry” as a final word. Keep it, we want justice.