The death verdict for mutineers – Thisday

The violent behaviour of the soldiers is shameful, but the state should avoid the desire for revenge

The verdict of the military tribunal which tried 18 soldiers for mutiny stands as a challenge to impunity and indeed a reproach to all who rebel against constituted authority. The military court-martial, presided over by Brigadier-General Chukwuemeka Okonkwo, last Tuesday sentenced 12 of the soldiers found guilty to death by firing squad. One soldier was also sentenced to a one-month imprisonment while the rest five were discharged and acquitted.

For the embattled leadership of our armed forces, it is one quick judgment that will act as a bulwark against unruly behaviour, indiscipline and a revolt against established order. The action of the affected soldiers was more of a replay of some of the most shameful pages in our history. And it is not something that can be condoned or treated lightly, especially at a period the nation is at war.

Curiously, the same military that initially denied media reports that there was a mutiny has now handed out death sentences to some soldiers. Besides, it would seem as if the authorities are not facing up to the question of what led to the alleged mutiny in the first place. The point here is that if the issues of welfare and trust in military leadership are not addressed, we cannot win this war. Killing rebellious soldiers may serve as deterrent, but it won’t motivate soldiers to put their lives on the line for the rest of us.

The story began on May 14 this year when the soldiers reportedly conspired in their Maimalari Cantoment, Maiduguri, Borno State, the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency, and fired shots at their commander, Major General Ahmed Mohammed, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 7th division of the Nigeria Army, specially created to put down the insurgency. The soldiers were reportedly incensed by the killing of some of their colleagues in an ambush, which happened perhaps against a better judgment.

However, in the subsequent trial, majority of the soldiers were found guilty of criminal conspiracy, mutiny, deliberate attempt to commit murder, “insubordination to a particular order, and false accusation.” The tribunal handed down the weightiest punishment prescribed by military law. But not a few Nigerians feel the punishment might be too harsh. The sentiments of those opposed to the ruling are perhaps better expressed by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) whose president, Bobboi Kaigama, said: “Our position is that the federal government and the military leadership should look into the grievances of soldiers, especially now. We say no to death sentence because we cannot afford to lose more soldiers.” Human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, disagrees with the section of the law under which the soldiers were tried.

For sure, the battle to contain the Boko Haram insurgency has been difficult. Until lately, the insurgents were carrying out their grisly atrocities particularly in the Northeast, at will. And the feeling out there was that if the insurgents were causing such murderous havoc, then it stands to reason that our armed forces were not doing well enough. This was further accentuated by reports of shortage of vital supplies in the frontlines – from ammunition to food, complaints that can do a lot of damage to anyone’s morale. But there are procedures for dealing with those challenges.

What the soldiers did should never be justified under any circumstances. But the fact that the military has compulsorily retired the GOC is an indication that the soldiers who mutinied against him might have some justifications for their action. Therefore, while the tribunal might have handed down the death verdict to avoid a systemic collapse of rules and discipline within our armed forces, it is imperative that the soldiers be availed all the opportunities for a proper appeal. Whatever the final verdict, we do not believe that killing them would serve any useful purpose.

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