Today marked four years since a group of 38 Nigerian Army Officers popularly known as Army 38 were compulsorily retired in a very controversial circumstance. Some of the affected officers played prominent roles in the arrest of top commanders of Boko Haram and recovery of dozens of towns from terrorists between October 2014 to May 2015
PRNigeria investigations revealed that the concerned officers who have since then secured six court victories feel betrayed by the system as apart from the unjustifiable termination of their career, their families have been traumatised by the experience. Regrettably, one of the Army 38, Lt Colonel Baba – Ochankpa passed on in January 2017.
“Since June 9, 2016, when the Army 38 were illegally granted compulsory retirement on wild allegations, they have successfully proved their innocence before the courts and the National Assembly. They have clearly shown that the punishment meted out to them were arbitrary and without any factual basis. Yet the Army leadership still refuses to review its controversial decision, despite various decisions of courts of competent jurisdiction, a decision of the Nigerian Senate and the motion by the House of Representatives, all requesting the Nigerian Army to reverse its unlawful, unfair and ill-advised actions,” one of the sources said.
Recalled that the then Director of Army Public Relations (DAPR), Sani Usman, in a statement announced the compulsory retirement of 38 officers on the grounds that they were involved professional misconduct during the 2015 general elections, as well as involvement in the $2.1 billion arms procurement scandal. Usman went on to list the names of the affected officers to include: nine Major General, 10 brigadiers, seven Colonels, 11 Lieutenant Colonels and one major.
The retirement generated controversies because about 80 percent of those whose careers were cut short were mostly Southerners with 10 Generals/Senior Officers from Rivers State alone. They include Major-Generals: F. O. Alli, E.J. Atewe, I. N. Ijoma, L. C. Ilo, TC Ude, L. Wiwa, SD Aliyu, M.Y Ibrahim, and O. Ejemai; and Brigadier-Generals: D. M. Onoyeiveta, A. S. O. Mormoni-Bashir, A.S.H Sa’ad, A. I. Onibasa, D. Abdusalam, L.M. Bello, KA Essien, B. A. Fiboinumama, I. M. Lawson and G.O. Agachi. The affected Colonels were: M.A. Suleiman, P. E. Ekpenyong, T. T. Minimah, O. U. Nwankwo, F. D. Kayode, CK Ukoha and DR Hassan; while the affected Lieutenant Colonels included C. O. Amadi, K. O. Adimoha, T. E. Arigbe, O. A. Baba- Ochankpa, D. B. Dazang, O. C. Egemole, C. Enemchukwu, A. Mohammed, A. S. Mohammed, G. C. Nyekwu, T. O. Oladuntoye. The only officer in the rank of Major among the 38 was T. A. Williams.
Illegality of the action
Some retired and serving officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity stressed that “the Army Council acted outside its powers by retiring the officers as the Council’s power in relation to discipline is limited to only confirming (or otherwise), the judgements awarded by a Court Martial and not empowered to dispense judgement”.
The officers also questioned the validity of the June 9, 2016 letters, written to the affected officers, which hinged their compulsory retirement on “provisions of Paragraph 09.02c (4) of the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers 2012 (Revised)”, asserting that the Army 38 committed “serious offences” warranting the punishment. They noted that time has shown that the 2016 statements by the Army Leadership were very far from the truth and misleading.
Also, investigations and findings from the various court rulings revealed that the Army breached its own rules without a finding of guilt by a competent court or panel, as it has been unable to produce any record from its own archives of any query or indictment by any panel of any of the Army 38, thereby raising the question of victimization and arbitrariness.
“These fine officers had their careers abruptly cut short for reasons that smack of high-level arbitrariness, pettiness, witch-hunting and partisanship by authorities of the Army. Essentially, the Army authorities simply played to the gallery,” a senior officer said, adding that “Paragraph 09.02(e) of the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers, 2012 (revised) – provides that any officer compulsorily retired or dismissed can appeal to the president through the Chief of Defence Staff within 30 days.”
Our investigation also revealed that 22 of the affected officers wrote to their Commander-in-Chief who is President Muhammadu Buhari, to complain about the injustices meted out to them by the Army leadership but no formal responses from him was received on any of the administrative appeals of these gentlemen. These administrative appeals were required to be written to the President through the Chief of Defence Staff and it is unclear whether the letters got to the President for his consideration.
Victories at the Court, NASS
On Thursday, 14 May 2020, the National Industrial Court issued an order permitting one of the Army 38, Abdulfatai Mohammed, to initiate committal proceedings against the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen. Gabriel Olonisakin, following his refusal to show evidence that he transmitted the affected officers’ appeals to Buhari. The CDS it was later revealed failed to comply prompting the Court to threaten him with jail over contempt of the order.
It is not yet clear if he has complied but PRNigeria also gathered that the Army 38 through their group counsel wrote four times to the presidency seeking justice and once in September 2018 challenged President Buhari in an open letter to prove his integrity by ensuring that justice is done to the Army 38 yet no response till date.
In the same vein, Colonel Ukoha petitioned the Nigerian Senate on the grounds that he wasn’t given a fair hearing before his retirement and On 22 November 2017, the Senate urged the Nigerian Army to reinstate him, while cautioning the authorities against arbitrary disengagement of officers. The National Assembly subsequently wrote to the SGF to implement its Resolution, but despite acknowledgement of the letter on 27 November 2017, and again, no action was taken.
Similarly, the National Industrial Court, on Tuesday, 14 January 2020 ordered the Nigerian Army to reinstate a senior officer, Abdulfatai Mohammed, having established that the military authorities broke the law in dismissing the officer in 2016. The judge ruled that Mr Mohammed, who was arbitrarily punished while holding the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel, be “reinstated back to the army with his benefits and privileges restored.” Another 5 of the affected officers – Maj Gen Ijioma, Col DR Hassan, Col MA Suleiman, Lt Col DB Dazang and Lt Col T Arigbe, also got similar judgements at the National Industrial Court nullifying their retirement and ordering their immediate reinstatement. The Army has not complied with any one of the decisions of the courts.
Speaking on the knack to flout court orders, a concerned security expert, Labaran Saleh who has been following the case, warned that “the stories of the Army 38 remain a cautionary tale for the country.
“Records have shown that none of the Army 38 faced any formal charge issued to them nor did they face a court-martial panel before June 9, 2016. The Armed Forces Act prescribes steps to be taken in punishing offences, and a review shows no section empowers the Army Council to arbitrarily punish or compulsorily retire officers for any offence.
“While it has been clear that the trio of Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin, Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Tukuru Buratai and erstwhile Minister of Defence Dan Alli, have not taken concrete steps to address the plight and the unlawful punishments against the innocent, there must be justice from the Commander-in-Chief. If the Army 38 do not receive justice and fairness, the direct and proximate result is the destruction of the morale of those still in service, with the resulting impact on efficiency and commitment. The long-term impact on the effectiveness, cohesion and dedication of the Army is best imagined.”