By Eric Elezuo
Lt. Col. Ojebo Baba-Ochankpa had gone to bed that fateful night in January 2017 physically okay but psychologically full of worries. His heavy heart took the best of him as he slept, and on he slept even as the day dawned and activities ladened in loud noises surrounded his environment. He continued to sleep, and never woke. He had died in his sleep. The worries of injustice and hopelessness of the future forcefully placed on his military shoulders claimed his young life, leaving behind a young wife, Ruth Baba-Ochanpka, and three children; Joshua, Esther and Abigail. Ochankpa was one of the 38 senior army officers who were arbitrarily booted out of service by retirement by Gen. Buratai under the false narrative of partisanship in the 2015 General Elections and the Defence Contracts scam.
For the 38 senior army officers unceremoniously dismissed on June 10, 2016 for reasons bordering on ‘partisanship, indiscipline and corruption’, according to the Army, what transpired was just bare-faced injustice. The victims are not the only ones who believe that injustice took a greater part of the decision, but also a greater section of the public, who have gone through the nuances of the so-called dismissal.
The following is the statistics of the officers retired compulsorily; 9 Major Generals, 10 Brigadier Generals, 7 Colonels, 11 Lieutenant Colonels and a Major.
The 38 officers, who many described as the country’s brightest in internal and external security operations, were believed to have been forced out of service without recourse to the rules of disengagement in the Nigerian military, and even as legal battles have gone on in the last three years, the Army, under General Tukur Buratai, has remained adamant in considering a reinstatement, raising questions from many quarters as what could be the real reasons behind the disengagement.
Accusing fingers has however, been pointed at the Buhari administration for deliberately orchestrating an ethnic cleansing and lurching out a vendetta attack against the South notably the South East and South South regions. This is considering that seven officers out of the lot are from one state – Rivers, and none of them, not a single one of them was found guilty of an offence. Therein lies the crux of the matter, none of the Army 38 was found guilty of an offence. That is quite interesting. One question therefore, that needs answer is can Buratai dismiss seven officers from Katsina or Kano or any other states of the North in one fell swoop like he did to Rivers State? With none of them being charged, tried or found guilty of an offence.
Many have argued that the army clearly and blatantly refused to follow its own precedence as was observed in the case of the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 7 Division in 2014, Major General Ahmadu Mohammed from Kano State, whose troops mutinied against and even fired at his vehicle. Mohammed was accused by the troops of dereliction of duty and sending them to the battlefield with minimal logistic supports thereby leading to many deaths. Those were grave offences that led to his retirement in January 2015. However, he was retired without fair hearing or due process. Similarly, he failed to appealed against his retirement within the stipulated 30 days by law, but waited a whole nine months after before appealing. His appeal was pampered, fast tracked and given smooth attention leading to his reinstatement in January 2016 and backed dated in such a way that he was never retired.
In defence, Buratai’s Army argued thus: “Although, it is not an aberration for the international human rights body to raise such an observation, however, it did not take into cognisance the circumstances leading to his illegal retirement and the legal procedure that was followed in his reinstatement. The compulsory and premature retirement of Major General Mohammed did not follow due process and was rather arbitrary.
“The senior officer was never charged, tried, let alone found guilty of any offence that justified his premature retirement. The action was therefore a clear violation of extant rules, regulations, as well as terms and conditions of service of the armed forces of Nigeria. This obvious violation prompted the senior officer to seek redress using the appropriate legal means.
“Consequently, the realisation of these omissions called for a review of the case by the Army Council and his subsequent reinstatement into the service.” This was a logical and reasonable explanation for the reinstatement.
Alas, but it is still the same army under Buratai, that proceeded to retiring 38 budding and intelligent officers without trying them nor following laid down military procedures. Why will he, Tukur Yusuf Buratai, falsely accuse and then illegally and wrongly retire young officers without finding anyone of them guilty of an offence in a competent court? This has given the impetus to many to believe that there are sacred cows in the army and there are sacrificial lambs.
More worrisome is that 18 of the senior army officers that were dismissed did not at any time appear before any one of the two panels that were set up to investigate the 2015 General Elections and the Defence Contracts scam or any other inquiry or investigation for that matter.
According to a petition made to the President by the aggrieved officers, “the 18 officers were never investigated for any infraction, they were never indicted, they were never tried and they were never convicted of any disciplinary or criminal breaches whatsoever.
“Additionally, many of these officers have no relationship whatsoever with election duties or procurement office as falsely alleged by army leadership. Most importantly, Your Excellency, none of the 38 senior officers that were compulsorily retired was at any time ever charged or tried by a court martial or found guilty of any offence in line with due process of the armed forces extant rules and regulations, before they respectively heard of their retirement in the media. Interestingly, none of these officers has been informed of the particulars of any alleged offence till date,” the petitioners explained.
In response however, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Army Staff went to the media with the narrative that the 38 army officers were professionally corrupt and that these officers were punished after due process. This is however, totally false and untrue, according to evidence on ground.
Separately and collectively; at different times and different settings, the affected officers had taken their cases to various authorities seeking fair hearing and consequent reinstatement. Most of them have also described the reasons given for their compulsory retirement as untenable because the action clearly contravened the Armed Forces Act (AFA), CAP A20 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, which states that “all military officers are entitled to appear before a Court Martial to ascertain their guilt or otherwise when accused or alleged to have committed an offence”.
It is assumed that in taking such hasty decision which affected mostly officers of a particular region, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Buratai, actually had a hidden agenda that tends toward ethnic cleansing. It is even funny that some of them were out of the country at the time some of the infringements were allegedly committed, while others had neither been queried nor ever received any summons before a civil or military tribunal or inquiry.
Specifically, four of the officers: Brig. Gen. Aghachi, Brig. Gen. I.M Lawson, Col. M.A Suleiman and Lt. Col T.E Arigbe, were actually on assignment out of the country, but were also retired without fair hearing.
In all of the cases, Buratai and the Army Council, with impunity, ran foul of the Nigerian Constitution, which under Section 36 (2) (a): “Provides for an opportunity for the persons whose rights and obligations may be affected to make representations to the administering authority before that authority makes the decision affecting that person.”
It was alleged that the officers supposedly refused to cooperate with the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) strongholds. Consequently, they lost the states and tend to take their pound of flesh, having won at the centre. It was also alleged that a prominent minister from the South South, who is also close to the government of Buhari, highly instigated the dismissals.
Nigerians want to know the following: 1. Why the Buratai-led army will lie against the officers just to dismiss them; 2. Why were the officers not granted fair hearing and why was due process not followed? 3. Why has it been difficult for the army to reinstate Colonels Chidi Ukoha, Danladi Hassan and Osita Nwankwo, who were exonerated by the National Assembly and Industrial courts till date like they quickly reinstated Gen. Ahmadu Mohammed. 4. Could it be that Buratai/Army actually has some skeletons in its cupboard?
It is quite saddening and disheartening to note injustice has been meted out to these fine officers by the army leadership with flagrant disregard for the laws and Constitution of the land, military justice in addition to plain honesty and integrity. The burning question therefore, is for how long will we remain unjust as a nation?
In a budding democracy like ours, upholding truth, justice and the constitution are crucial for the growth of the nation. Simply put, why have the officers been denied the cardinal tenets of justice, fair hearing and due process as enshrined in the constitution. Anyone who has denied them these things must be reminded that he has breached our laws. Such a brazen act of injustice and illegality should not be allowed to stand as none of the Army 38 was charged, tried or found guilty of an offence.
It is imperative that the June 10 decision be reviewed in the interest of justice and fairness and let the young officers in their prime of nation building return to their chosen career.