38 ‘unjustly’ dismissed Army officers drag Nigerian govt to ECOWAS court

ECOWAS-Court
ECOWAS-Court. [Photo credit: THISDAYLIVE]

One and half years after they were dismissed under controversial circumstances, 38 top officers of the Nigerian Army have headed to the community court of justice of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.

The officers accused the federal government of violating their fundamental rights to fair hearing.

The officers, in the suit, said their dismissal was perpetrated by the Minster of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali; Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin; and the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai acting as agents of the federal government.

The Nigerian Army had in June 2016 abruptly ended the careers of 38 officers by compulsory retirement over allegations of professional misconduct during the 2015 general election and involvement in arms procurement fraud.

However, PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation revealed some of the officers were forced out of service without recourse to the armed forces rules of disengagement.

Most of the affected officers were neither queried nor indicted by any panel, but were dismissed for reasons that smacked of high-level arbitrariness by the Army authorities.

The officers had petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, but nothing was done one and half years after their summary dismissals.

One of the affected officers, Ojebo Baba-Ochankpa, died while waiting for justice, in January 2017.

Mr. Olonisakin had in July defied a ruling of the Industrial Court, which asked him to show evidence of transmitting the officers’ petitions to the president, who was then receiving treatment in London for an undisclosed ailment.

In the fresh suit filed at the ECOWAS court, the aggrieved soldiers said the federal government acting through the top defence officers violated their human rights.

“When the Army council purported to approve the punishment meted out against the Army 38, the Army council had no factual legal or constitutional basis to act as a panel of inquiry, court martial and confirming authority all rolled into one,” the suit reads.

“The power of the Army Council with regard to discipline of Army officers per law, the constitution and the statutes is limited to the powers to confirm and/or affirm and/or review a disciplinary measure made by a competent judicial panel in this case a competent court martial.

“Federal Republic of Nigeria acting by and through the Minister for Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff, the Chief of Army Staff and the Nigerian Army violated the plaintiffs’ right to be heard before a panel of inquiry previously cited, before a court martial and deny the right to review of their cases in accordance with defendant’s own regulation as provided in paragraph 09.02 (e) of the Harmonised terms and conditions of service for officers, 2012.

“Specifically, the within named agents of defendant inserted themselves into the review process and ensured that the plaintiffs’ right to redress was completely stultified by refusing to pass the application for review to the President and Commander-in-Chief.”

The retired officers sought, among other reliefs, that the court declares the punishment meted out to them illegal, violation of their human rights and a failure of due process.

They also asked the court to award compensatory damages of N10 billion to each of them.

NIGERIAN ARMY YET TO OBEY SENATE RESOLUTION

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Army is yet to obey a resolution passed by the Nigerian Senate to reinstate one of the officers.

Not satisfied with his dismissal, Chidi Ukoha, a colonel, had petitioned the Nigerian Senate on the grounds the he wasn’t given a fair hearing before his dismissal.

The Senate on Thursday November 23, urged the Nigerian Army to reinstate Mr. Ukoha for wrong dismissal.

Presenting the report, chairman of the Senate committee, Sam Anyanwu, noted that the officer was wrongfully dismissed despite having up to 12 more years to serve in the Army.

“That the statement by the Nigerian Army that the officer as retired on disciplinary ground and given fair hearing before the retirement could not be substantiated by the Army, as the officer was never warned, queried or made to appear before any disciplinary committee/court martial.

“That the Nigerian Army could not also prove that the petitioner was in anyway involved in arms procurement or in political election corruption,” the report stated.

The Senate thereafter adopted recommendations of the committee. It urged the Army authorities to reinstate Mr. Ukoha and pay all his entitlements.

The National Assembly same day wrote the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Boss Mustapha, conveying the resolution of the Senate.

However, over one month after this resolution was passed, Mr. Ukoha has not been called to service by the Nigerian Army.

Army spokesperson, Sani Usman, a brigadier general, is yet to respond to PREMIUM TIMES enquiry on the Senate resolution.

ARMY LOSES IN COURT TOO

At the National Industrial Court, another of the dismissed officers, Abdulfatai Mohammed, secured an interim victory over the army.

Mr. Mohammed, a lieutenant colonel, had approached the court to challenge his dismissal.

He was among those never queried nor invited before any panel before they were controversially dismissed.

At the Industrial Court, the Nigerian Army said Mr. Mohammed’s suit should not be allowed to continue. The army raised preliminary objections that Mr. Mohammed did not exhaust internal mechanism set up by the Army and that an appeal was still before the President to the subject matter.

Justice Haastrup of the Industrial Court on November 13, 2017, dismissed the army’s objection and ruled that the case would proceed.

“From the foregoing, I find no merit in the preliminary objections of the defendants in this case, and I see same as merely attempt by the defendants to waste the precious time of this court and delay the hearing of this matter.

“Consequently, all the issues are resolved in favour of the claimant and against the defendants, and the preliminary objections are hereby dismissed. The order of this court is that the matter shall proceed to trial and all pleadings shall be filed and exchanged by parties before the next date of hearing,” the court ruled.

The suit will continue in March on a date yet to be fixed by the army.


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