A General Military Court Martial set up by the authorities of the Nigerian Army have arraigned 59 soldiers on a two-count of criminal conspiracy to commit mutiny and murder in Abuja on Wednesday.
The accused soldiers comprise two corporals, nine lance corporals and 48 private soldiers belonging to the 111 Special Forces Battalion, Maiduguri, Borno State.
A charge sheet signed by the Commander of the Army Headquarters Garrison, Brig. Gen. B.T. Ndiomu, the convening authority for the court, stated that the offences of mutiny and the conspiracy to commit mutiny were punishable under Section 52(1)(a) of the Armed Forces Act Cap A 20 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
The offence of mutiny carries the death penalty.
The Lead Counsel for the accused soldiers, Mr. Femi Falana, said that the arraignment of the 59 soldiers was the largest number of soldiers ever arraigned for mutiny in the history of the Nigerian Army.
All the 59 soldiers, who were arraigned, pleaded not guilty to the charges when they were read to them by the Judge Advocate of the Court, Lt. Col. Ukpe Ukpe.
The 59 soldiers are being accused of refusing to join the 111 Special Forces Battalion troops at Mulai Primary School, Maiduguri, for an advance operation to recapture Delwa, and to prepare the ground for further operations to recapture Bulabulin and Damboa from Boko Haram insurgents on August 4, 2014.
Although, it was the initial plan of the Army authorities to put 60 soldiers on trial for mutiny, the lead prosecutor, Capt. Joseph Nwosu, told the court that one of the accused, Cpl. Anthony Nwosu, was too sick to play the requisite role of a defendant in court.
He said that the charges against Nwosu, who was the 11 accused person on the earlier list of 60 accused person, were dropped for now. The motion was allowed after an initial resistance by a defence lawyer, Maj. Oluwafemi Oyebanji, (retd.), who led the defence team, before the arrival of Falana.
On the first day of the trial, the prosecution called its first witness, Lt. Col. Timothy Opurum, the Commanding Officer of the 111 Special Forces Battalion, to testify before the court. He was subjected to a fierce grilling for over an hour by Falana and Oyebanji.
The Commanding Officer told the court that he was given an order by the Army authorities to lead his men to capture Delwa, to prepare passage for 251 Battalion and 254 Battalion to advance to Bulabulin and Damboa, but only 34 soldiers and four officers responded to the order out of the 98 soldiers and four officers found fit for the operation.
He said that he had to lead the 34 soldiers and four officers as against 98 soldiers and four officers for the Delwa battle as the Acting GOC Brig. Gen. M.Y Ibrahim and Maj. Gen. Ali from Army Headquarters were already calling for the mission to commence.
Opurum said that he led his men to Delwa and carried out the task without any casualty.
However, Opurum said in his testimony which he reaffirmed under cross-examination by Falana, that eight of the men of the Battalion deserted while 47 of the soldiers being tried returned voluntarily to defend the unit when it came under an ambush from the insurgents and 13 others arrested on the orders of the GOC.
The commander during the cross-examination said that the soldiers did not commit any further offence after they joined the unit in the fight to reclaim its position in Delwa.
The Commanding Officer admitted that the boys were parts of the Special Forces who had fought in several part of the North and had done so well.
He said during the intense cross-examination that the boys had earlier deserted when the unit came under an ambush in which three soldiers were killed, and two officers and 33 soldiers were injured.
When he was asked to tell the court what he did when he realised that it was the presumed opinion of the Army authorities in Maiduguri, that the boys had issues with mind pollution as stated in his written statement, he said he spoke to them like a father and a brother and brought many of them back to the battlefront.
“They are Special Forces who have fought in all parts of the North-East, they have done so much, they initially deserted but I brought them back, spoke to them like a father and a brother…,” he said.
Falana whose cross-examination of Opurum focussed on a written statement admitted in evidence sought to know if the situation of the accused soldiers was the same in other theatre of operations within and outside the country in the area of operations.
Falana, who emphasised that 47 of the soldiers turned out voluntarily to fight with the unit when it came under attack, while 13 were arrested on the orders of the GOC, also pointed out that the soldiers requested for arms which were not supplied.
The Defence counsel then filed an application to have a record of the arms and ammunition that was supplied to and taken back from the soldiers for the record purposes, which the President of the Court, Brig. Gen. Musa Yusuf, said had been noted.
When asked whether the boys asked for weapons to prosecute the battle, the commander said, “all units in the North-East ask for equipment but we had enough to carry out the task.”
The Nigerian Army had inaugurated the General Court Martial to try 97 officers and men of service for alleged offences in connection with counter-terrorism operation in the North-East on October 2, 2014.
Fifteen of the accused Army personnel are officers, while 72 belong to the rank and file.
It was gathered that the Army authorities would put the rest 37 on trial after concluding the mutiny cases.