The National Industrial Court has ordered the Nigerian Army to reinstate another senior officer, Thomas Arigbe, after three such judgements since the military authorities illegally dismissed several officers in 2016.
The judge, Paul Bassi of the Lagos division of the industrial court, handed the judgement on Thursday.
Mr Bassi held that the compulsory retirement of Mr Arigbe, a Lieutenant Colonel, was “wrongful, unconstitutional, null and void for breach of fair hearing.”
Mr. Arigbe, like several others, was never queried nor indicted by the army before he was arbitrarily forced out of service.
The judge ordered the army to reinstate the officer and pay him all his entitlements up to the date of reinstatement. He also awarded a N300 thousand cost against the army.
Before Thursday’s judgement in Mr Arigbe’s case, the industrial court had previously asked the army to reinstate three other affected officers.
Last year, Nwokoro Ijeoma, a Major General, and Danladi Hassan, a Colonel, separately won their cases against the army. On Tuesday, the court also ordered the army to reinstate a third officer, Abdulfatai Mohammed, a Lieutenant Colonel.
The army is yet to comply with any of the previous judgements.
Mr Arigbe 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, 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 laws by dismissing 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 Arigbe 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.
Appeals to the commander-in-chief
The judgement on Tuesday capped off nearly four years of efforts by Mr Arigbe and other illegally sacked officers 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, one of them, Mr Mohammed, who won his case on Tuesday, had 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 Muhammed. “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 illegally dismissed officers’ petitions to him.
One of the affected officers, Ojebo Baba-Ochankpa, died while waiting for justice in January 2017.
Mr Arigbe told PREMIUM TIMES by phone on Thursday that he expected te army council to “act with due process and comply with the judgement of the court.”
The army has not respected the previous judgements.