In what is one of Nigeria’s worst cases of arbitrariness, disregard for the court and shabby treatment of her heroes since Muhammadu Buhari, a former major-general, became president, senior army officers illegally dismissed five years ago are still hoping the authorities will comply with the law and ensure justice in their case. PREMIUM TIMES’ Taiwo Adebayo, who has reported on the matter for five years, takes a look at the matter again.

From Zaria in the north to Lekki and Oyigbo in the south, the Nigerian Army under Tukur Buratai, the army chief between 2015 and 2021, left communities bloodied and traumatised after war-grade shootings targeting unarmed, defenceless, and innocent civilians. The massive extra-judicial killings were widely reported, have elicited condemnations and formed dark patches of blood, blotting the image of the army.

But apart from the extra-judicial killings, which remain unpunished, Mr Buratai also shares with the immediate past Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin, a record of arbitrariness and disregard for the law and court orders.

On June 9, 2016, the Nigerian Army under Mr Buratai forced 38 senior officers out of service by compulsorily retiring them. Most of the affected officers were illegally punished. Among the officers were some of the country’s best in the war against terrorism.

Tukur Buratai [PHOTO: Arise News]One of them was Mohammed Suleiman, then a colonel, who was among the 2012 national honorees. He had earlier that year 2012 helped foil a Boko Haram terrorist attack on Aso Rock Villa in what is now home to President Muhammadu Buhari, having “discovered and penetrated” the cell tasked to carry out what would have been a major blow to Nigeria.

The key planner of that foiled act of terrorism was a police sergeant, identified as Babagana, according to army records seen by PREMIUM TIMES.

Mr Suleiman was so key to Nigeria’s counter-terrorism efforts that his deployments for services abroad, for instance in Darfur and Washington, were repeatedly cancelled and, in another case, he was recalled from Command and Staff College, Jaji, as directing staff, to help track a globally wanted terrorist, Adam Kambar.

He initiated the creation of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) and coordinated their activities in Borno State, before collaborating with 3rd Division of the Army to have Civilian JTF in Adamawa State. He was key to the “arrest of and appropriate provision of information on the first successfully prosecuted Boko Haram pioneer spokesman, Umar Sanda Kodunga.”

Even before Boko Haram gained notoriety and when they were covertly building a base in Bauchi, he was responsible for “discovering, penetrating and profiling” the group. In 2009, he led the joint army/police team that cleared and arrested “377 terrorists with scores killed with no casualty to own troops.”

All these about Mr Suleiman were documented in his official service records with the Nigerian Army. However, for five years now, he has been in a legal battle with the military after he and 37 other senior officers were illegally removed from service shortly after Mr Buhari assumed office.

President Muhammadu Buhari

In separate judgements, Mr Suleiman and five of the affected officers have won the cases they initiated to challenge their forced retirement by the military. In ordering their reinstatement, the National Industrial Court has six times held that the military acted unlawfully. PREMIUM TIMES has repeatedly called the attention of the Buhari government to this matter. But authorities have continued to ignore the court and its decisions.

This matter is one of Nigeria’s worst cases of arbitrariness, disregard for the court and shabby treatment of her heroes since Mr Buhari, a former brigadier general, became president.

One of the officers, Ojebo Ochankpa, died in 2017 while awaiting justice. Their statutory appeal for redress to President Buhari within 30 days of their sack, and other letters subsequently, have neither been acknowledged nor replied to.

The Illegal Compulsory Retirement

On June 9, 2016, each of the 38 officers woke up to sudden letters of retirement in their emails. They had been compulsorily retired from service.

“It was absolutely unexpected as I had not gone through any disciplinary process,” said Abdulfatai Mohammed, then a Lt. Colonel, and one of the 38 affected officers. “I was never queried, nor was there any indictment.”

In the letters, seen by PREMIUM TIMES, to the affected officers, their compulsory retirement was hinged on “provisions of Paragraph 09.02c (4) of the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers 2012 (Revised)”.

The referenced section – 09.02c (4) – of the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers 2012 (Revised), shows the officers were laid off “on disciplinary grounds i.e. serious offence(s).”

Emphasizing “service exigencies” and that the “military must remain apolitical and professional at all times,” the then army spokesperson, Sani Usman, now a retired brigadier-general, on June 10, 2016, released a statement, disclosing what could have constituted the “serious offences” that warranted the compulsory retirement of the 38 officers.

Former Army Spokesperson, Brigadier-General Sani Usman.

“It should be recalled that not too long ago some officers were investigated for being partisan during the 2015 general elections,” the statement read. “Similarly, the investigation by the Presidential Committee investigating Defence Contracts revealed a lot. Some officers have already been arraigned in court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).”

However, contrary to the claim by the army, our investigations showed that only a few of the affected officers were queried, tried and indicted.

Others, like Mr Suleiman and Mr Mohammed, had their careers abruptly cut short for reasons that smacked of arbitrariness and witch-hunting by the army authorities.

While some officers cleared by either arms procurement panel or election panel were retired, others who were not questioned at all were also sent away.

Highly placed sources in the army told PREMIUM TIMES that of the major generals affected, only one – E.D. Atewe (N/7674) – faced a panel and was indicted. Mr Atewe was indicted by the presidential arms probe panel, and he is currently being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

Although S.D. Aliyu (N/7711); M.Y. Aliyu (N/8114), the then GOC 7 Division, and Fatai Alli (N/7914), a former director of operations in the army, also faced the presidential arms panel, they were cleared. Yet they were laid off for “serious offence,” by the army.

Five other Major Generals – L. Wiwa (N/7665), who is the late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s brother; Nwokoro Ijeoma (N/8304) whose reinstatement was ordered by the industrial court last year; T.C Ude (N/7866); L.C. Ilo (N/8320), and O. Ejemau (N/8340) – were neither queried nor indicted by any panel before they were retired.

Brigadier Generals sacked because of suspected loyalties

The cases of the affected brigadier generals were not different. The 11 of them were retired allegedly because they were suspected to have failed to help the Buhari regime to power in 2015.

For instance, two officers were laid off because of their alleged ties to the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, our sources said.

The two officers – A.S.H. Sa’ad (N/8392), who was at the Directorate of Military Intelligence, and Mormoni Bashir (N/8396), former principal staff officer to Mr Dasuki, were retired without indictment. Although Mr Sa’ad faced a panel, he was not found to have engaged in any wrongdoing.

For his alleged close ties to a former army chief, Kenneth Minimah, D. Abdulsalam (N/9169) was sent away. Anthony Onibasa was pursuing a doctorate at the University of Calabar when he was notified of his sudden retirement. He was neither queried nor indicted.

Koko Essien (N/8794), a former Brigade Commander, 2 Brigade, Port Harcourt, faced the election panel but was cleared. Mr Essien was laid off nonetheless. Just like Bright Fibioinumana (N/8399); L.N. Bello (N/8799), former brigade commander, 34 Brigade Owerri, and M.G. Alli Moundhey, former director of campaign planning in the army’s North-east operations, who were not queried not to talk of being indicted.

Although the Nigerian Army said the affected officers were retired for either involvement in the 2015 general elections or arms procurement fraud, our investigations showed that some officers who were not in Nigeria at the time of the elections were also sacked.

That was the case of I.B. Lawson (N/8812) and G.O. Agachi (N/9363) who were defence attaches at Nigeria’s missions in China and Benin Republic respectively.

“They aided PDP to get votes”

Many Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels who were laid off were merely suspected of failing to cooperate with the All Progressives Congress to garner votes for candidate Buhari in the 2015 elections, sources told PREMIUM TIMES.

In one instance, T.A Williams (N/11469) a major; and Abdulfatai Mohammed (N/10659), a lieutenant colonel, both attached to the 195 Battalion, Agenebode, Edo State, with the latter as commanding officer, were said to have been flushed out because of the complaint of not cooperating with Mr Buhari’s APC, brought against them.

But according to documents seen by this newspaper, Mr Mohammed was away in the North-east at the time, fighting Boko Haram, not at Agenebode. But somehow, his name was among those listed for alleged partisanship.

Similarly, in Rivers State, army insiders said, APC officials accused four officers attached to the 332 Air Defence Regiment (Ojebo Ochanpa – N/10417 who died while awaiting justice in 2017); 5 Battalion, Elele (A.S. Mohammed -N10662); 2 Brigade Garrison, Port Harcourt (A.Adimoha – N/10421), and 29 Battalion Port Harcourt (T.O. Oladuntoye (N/10338) of aiding the PDP in the state.

Our findings revealed that these officers, accused of partisanship, were not queried or investigated before they were forced out of the army. The former Commanding Officer, 93 Battalion, Takum, O.C. Egemole (N/10423), who was also compulsorily retired, was also allegedly accused of “not doing enough” to avert APC loss in Taraba State. He was also neither queried nor investigated.

Seven colonels, including Mr Suleiman (who had helped foil the Boko Haram attack on the Presidential Villa), who were compulsorily retired, had no query issued to them nor were they made to face any panel before they were fired.

For instance O.U. Nwankwo (N/9678) was studying at the University of Ibadan at the time of his ouster.

Also, without probe or indictment for any offence, T. Minimah (N/10185), brother to former army chief, Kenneth Minimah, was also removed from his post in Benin and retired.

Lawless army

PREMIUM TIMES checks indicate the army violated its own rules in the ways the officers were disengaged.

The Harmonized Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers whose paragraph 09.02c (4) was relied upon to remove the officers, originates from the Armed Forces Act. The section cited by the army provides that an officer may be compulsorily retired “on disciplinary grounds i.e. serious offence(s)” without defining what constitutes “serious offences”.

But the principal law – the Armed Forces Act – establishes all actions that constitute offences in the Military. The 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. In fact, the Army Council, in Section 11(a-f) of the Act, has no power to retire any officer on disciplinary ground without compliance with the steps prescribed by law.

Petitions to President Buhari

In line with Paragraph 09.02(e) of the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers, many of the affected officers, including Mr Mohammed and Mr Suleiman, petitioned Mr Buhari within 30 days of their sack for administrative review.

“I want to respectfully state that I was not in any way involved in any of the two issues stated as reasons for compulsory retirement of 38 officers of which I was among,” Mr Mohammed wrote in his appeal. “I was never investigated at any time and have not committed any serious offence.” This was also the ground of appeal of his colleagues, who also petitioned Mr Buhari.

Some of the affected officials also subsequently, separately, wrote to the president and once asked him to prove his integrity. None of the letters was acknowledged or replied to by President Buhari or his appointees. But it is alleged that the then Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin, who had the lawful responsibility to transmit the officers’ petitions to the president, was blocking the appeals. He also refused to show evidence of transmitting the petitions to the industrial court and now risks a jail term for that.

Military continues to lose in court; Buhari won’t act

Apart from petitioning Mr Buhari as required by law, many of the officers also approached the industrial court for justice. Six of them have now gotten favourable judgements with judges faulting the military.

“The compulsory retirement of the claimant is wrongful, unconstitutional, null and void,” Justice Rakiya Haastrup of the industrial court said in her January 14 judgement in the case initiated by Mr Mohammed at the headquarters of the industrial court in Abuja, adding: “the defendants failed to act with respect to the law.”

Apart from Mr Mohammed and Mr Suleiman, four others, namely Mr Ijeoma, a major general; Danladi Hassan, a colonel; Thomas Arigbe, a colonel; and DB Danzang have also got judgements ordering the army to reinstate them. There has been no compliance, nor have the authorities appealed yet.

The army and the defence headquarters have continuously refused to comment on the matter.

But in the wake of the defeat the army suffered in the case of Mr Mohammed in January 2020, a former army spokesperson, Sagir Musa, had said, “It is a legal matter,” and declined further comment when contacted by PREMIUM TIMES.

Farouk Yahaya [Photo Credit: BBC]With a new Chief of Army Staff, Farouk Yahaya, some of the affected officers have expressed hope they can now have justice.

“We are still hopeful of justice,” said Mr Mohammed.

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