The National Industrial Court, on Tuesday, 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 compulsory retirement of the claimant is wrongful, unconstitutional, null and void,” the judge, Rakiya Haastrup, said on Tuesday at the headquarters of the industrial court in Abuja, adding: “the defendants failed to act with respect to the law.”
The judge ruled that Mr Mohammed, who was arbitrarily punished while holding the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel, be “reinstated back to the to the army with his benefits and privileges restored.”
The judgement capped off nearly four years of efforts to get justice, including repeated appeals to President Muhammadu Buhari for redress.
Last year, the court ordered the army to reinstate two officers, also illegally punished – but no compliance yet.
Mr Mohammed was one of the 38 officers dismissed by the army in June 2016. The mass sack affected nine major generals, 11 brigadier generals, seven colonels and 11 lieutenant colonels.
In the June 9, 2016, 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”, Sani Usman, spokesperson for the army then, had released a statement, disclosing what could have constituted the “serious offences” which warranted the dismissal of the 38 officers.
“It should be recalled that not too long ago some officers were investigated for being partisan during the 2015 general elections,” Mr Usman said. “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, investigations by PREMIUM TIMES, involving review of service rules and interviews with officials with direct knowledge of the matter, showed the army violated own law s by dismissing the majority of the officers.
Contrary to the claim by the army, our investigations showed that only a few of the affected officers were queried, tried and indicted.
Others had their careers abruptly cut short for reasons that smacked of high-level arbitrariness, pettiness, witch-hunting and partisanship by authorities of the army.
While officers cleared by either arms procurement panel or election panel were retired, others who were not questioned at all were also sent away.
Mr Mohammed was one such officers neither queried nor indicted for any offence before being forced out of service.
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.
The judge, Ms Haastrup, affirmed this in her judgement.
“There was no fair trial before he was punished. Nothing presented by the defendants showed due process was followed,” she said.
Mr Mohammed was never involved in any election matter, neither did he ever hold any role in the army’s procurement process. He was in fact in the northeast, involved in the long-running war against Boko Haram, during the election.
“His compulsory retirement was a gross violation by the army council,” Ms Haastrup held.
Appeals to the commander-in-chief
The judgement on Tuesday capped off nearly four years of efforts by Mr Mohammed to get justice, including repeated appeals for redress to Mr Buhari as the law provides.
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 revealed that 22 of the affected officers exploited this window, and had their petitions conveyed to the president by the Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin, via a July 2016 letter referenced CDS/6/1/A.
After that joint appeal, Mr Mohammed has four times written the presidency seeking justice and once in September 2018 challenged Mr Buhari to prove his integrity.
“Mr President, you have put out a reputation of being a man of justice, dignity and integrity but you are yet to prove it to all Nigerians in the case of these 38 innocent Army officers,” wrote Mr Mohammed through his lawyer Abdul Mohammed. “In the past two years, grave injustice has been meted to (them), and in spite of repeated passionate letter(s) of redress to you as their Commander-in-Chief, you have been curiously silent.”
Mr Buhari has never responded, nor acknowledged any of the petitions to him.
One of the affected officers, Ojebo Baba-Ochankpa, died while waiting for justice in January 2017.
Two Earlier Judgements Against The Army
Mr Mohammed’s victory at the court today is the third of such development since the arbitrarily dismissed officers commenced efforts to get justice.
Last year, Nwokoro Ijioma, Major General, and Danladi Hassan, Colonel and PhD holder, separately won their cases against the army. The industrial court ordered the army to reinstate them.
However, about one year since the two verdicts, the army has not complied. It is not clear if the authorities have appealed the judgements.
The spokesperson for the army, Sagir Musa, declined to comment when contacted on Tuesday.
“It is a legal matter,” he said.
Speaking after the judgement at the industrial court, Mr Mohammed said his main worry is how military chiefs violated the country’s rules and truncated “peoples’ careers with impunity.”