The Nigerian Army on Sunday denied a PREMIUM TIMES story about a policy suspending the rights of soldiers and officers to retire voluntarily from service.
But an internal army circular obtained from senior military sources corroborated our story and punctured attempts by army spokespersons to mislead Nigerians about the controversial policy.
In a Twitter post that appeared at 11:58 p.m., the Nigerian Army handle displayed a defaced screengrab of our story in composite with another unrelated article published by a separate news website and screamed: “Be Aware!!!”
Be Aware!!! pic.twitter.com/QCwLxmqKNA
— Nigerian Army (@HQNigerianArmy) April 5, 2020
But the army failed to tender any evidence to buttress its claim. The tweet also did not disclose that the army failed to respond to multiple requests by PREMIUM TIMES to comment for the story before publication.
“Perhaps the army’s motive was not to genuinely contradict your story — which would have been difficult against available evidence — but to muddy the waters and dilute public’s understanding of the controversial directive,” a serving top military officer, who asked not to be named, said.
Other senior military sources who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES between Saturday and Monday evening said the decision to deny officers and men retirement rights was taken by the top brass.
Also, PREMIUM TIMES obtained a copy of an internal memo of the Nigerian Army 29 Battalion which conveyed the directive to all companies under the unit. The March 30 memo was drafted by Korie Kelechukwu, a sergeant, and approved for distribution by A.C. Ugwu, a major.
The memo described as “disheartening” the rate at which personnel were turning in retirement applications.
“Consequently, submission of NA (Nigerian Army) Form 9B for voluntary discharge soldiers is hereby suspended forthwith,” the signal said.
Our initial story mentioned 29 Battalion as one of the formations that had started implementing the directive.
Appropriate Superior Authority
Sagir Musa, the spokesperson for the army, did not answer or return telephone calls seeking his comments for our earlier report as well as for this follow-up article. He also did not respond to text messages seeking his comments about the memo in our possession.
It was not the first time the army would deny a factual story published by PREMIUM TIMES.
In early 2017, the army attacked PREMIUM TIMES after the medium published a story about its decision to intervene and remove Yahya Jammeh from office.
Mr Jammeh had led the Gambia since 1994, but he was plotting to perpetuate himself in power despite losing a presidential election in 2016. His action irritated the ECOWAS region, prompting Nigeria to raise troops to militarily remove him and install his elected opponent in office.
PREMIUM TIMES published documents relating to the planned operation after the army’s denials. Years later, the army is yet to admit any wrongdoing in its handling of the report.
Several serving and retired military officers, as well as active military consultants, told PREMIUM TIMES the latest directive issued to service members at the 29 Battalion must have emanated from superior authorities.
“Unless the commanding officer of a battalion is drunk or ready to leave the army unceremoniously, no one at that level could have taken a decision of that magnitude,” an army colonel told PREMIUM TIMES. “The order came from appropriate superior authority, which translates to the chief of army staff’s office or someone he so designated.”
A retired brigadier general and two military consultants told PREMIUM TIMES in separate interviews that the directive could not have originated from a major.
“It is okay if they want to reverse the directive because of the controversy it is now generating in the public domain, but I can guarantee you it was not taken by a major, that would be a ridiculous thing to say or assume,” the retired brigadier-general said. “But if they insist they did not know about it and the major acted without superior directive, then let us see what disciplinary action would be taken against him.”
Several members of the army rank-and-file who reached out to PREMIUM TIMES after the story was published said voluntary retirements and desertions have become regular in several army formations.
All the officers blamed endemic corruption and poor handling of the Boko Haram war amongst their top commanders for the worsening trend.
“Because of the deep-rooted corruption, a systemic one that is very dangerous to talk about, many soldiers are leaving the military in high numbers now,” a non-commissioned officer told PREMIUM TIMES under anonymity to avoid being punished for speaking to the press. “Many soldiers have deserted even when their application for retirement has not been approved after many months or years.”
In 2017, Transparency International found that a large chunk of the military budget was disappearing into the pockets of corrupt military chiefs and politicians, thereby worsening the counter-insurgency efforts.
Although most of the troops, who are eager to drop out of service, were said to have served one or two tours on the frontlines, rear soldiers have received ominous reports about their colleagues in the Boko Haram war and have taken the decision not to suffer a similar fate.
“I have a colleague who ran away in November and another one who has been considering leaving on his own because his application for retirement has not been treated since 2018,” another soldier said. “They all said they were leaving because of the corruption and the poor treatment of soldiers fighting Boko Haram in Maiduguri.”
On Sunday, a public-interest lawyer, Abdul Mahmud, told PREMIUM TIMES the army has powers to suspend voluntary retirement to forestall a rapid depletion in personnel capacity.
He cited Section 25 of the Armed Forces Act as a strong basis for military leadership to exercise discretion of requests for voluntary retirement.
But the soldiers insisted the country’s military leadership should address their complaints rather than blocking them from exercising their rights to voluntarily discharge from service.
“They cannot be treating soldiers facing enemy fire every day so badly and expect them not to exercise their rights to voluntarily discharge,” a soldier said. “They should not force more officers to drop arms and uniforms and walk away to be with their loved ones where they can be sure that even if they can barely sustain their family, they would not die in vain.”