By OBINNA EZUGWU
Confusion and palpable anger have continued to trail the alleged execution of six soldiers of Igbo extraction by the Nigerian Army under suspicious circumstances, with Igbo leaders and other stakeholders seeking explanations.
Recall that a coalition of rights activists and intellectuals under the umbrella of Eastern Nigerias Rights & Intelligentsia Coalition, had last week, alleged that six Nigerian soldiers of Igbo origin were secretly executed in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, after a hasty secret trial at which they were denied legal representation of their choice.
The coalition had in a statement signed by Emeka Umeagbalasi, Board Chair, Intl Society for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law; Prof Anthony Ejiofor – Chairman, World Igbo Congress (USA); Prof Uzodimma Nwala – President, Ala-Igbo Development Foundation (ADF), among others, said it was informed of the shocking development by Barr. E.R. Okoroafor, an international human rights lawyer, who was allegedly denied the right to defend his client at the secret trial.
We have received with rude shock and deepest dismay the Monday, 25th January 2021 secret execution of six Igbo Christian soldiers, attached to the Armory Department of the Nigerian Army, Abacha Barracks in Abuja.
“The slain Igbo Christian soldiers namely: Prince Ukwuoma, son of a traditional ruler; Ebube Isaiah, Amos Azubuike, Ekene Ebere, Moses Anyim and Godwin Uchendu were secretly executed under the instruction of now retired Lt. Gen Tukur Yusuf Buratai, a day before he left office on Tuesday, 26th January 2021.
“This shocking news was disclosed to us by Barr. E.R. Okoroafor, an internationall human rights lawyer, who is very conversant with the matter and was also contacted by one of the slain soldiers through his family to defend them in the trumped up charges, executed using hazy and clandestine Military Court Martial,” the coalition alleged.
Sometime in September 2020, an allegation of missing weapons was made at Abacha Barracks and it was immediately traced to a senior Colonel of Fulani-Hausa Muslim origin and instead of the COAS to issue query and sanction the Colonel, he exonerated him on the grounds of his tribe and religion. The COAS turned around and ordered for the arrest of 12 soldiers guarding the armory, comprising six Igbo soldiers, three Yoruba soldiers and three Fulani-Hausa Muslim soldiers.
“In the end, the latter soldiers were shielded and exonerated under questionable circumstances and the six Igbo soldiers made to face secret court martial during which they were blocked and prevented from having access to their families and defense lawyers of their choice.
“Barr E.R. Okoroafor also told the Coalition that his attempts to stand in for the Igbo soldiers were stiffly opposed and he was flimsily told by the Armys Legal Department that civilian lawyers are not allowed to defend the accused soldiers except military lawyers.
“Their trial was totally shrouded in secrecy and never disclosed to the public through Army statements till date; likewise their constitutional right of appeal to Court of Appeal and Supreme Court was also totally denied. The persecuted and executed soldiers protested their innocence to the point of tendering their resignation in protest; all to no avail.
“Apart from their secret execution being totally despicable and condemnable and a clear case of ethnic cleansing, the Coalition also strongly suspects that the six Igbo soldiers were framed or singled out for persecution on the grounds of their ethnicity and religion.
“It is also doubtful whether the offense of missing weapons in peace time is commensurable with death sentence in the Nigerian Military laws, all subject to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
“Another shocking part was where the immediate past Army Chief derived his power to order for secret execution of justly and unjustly convicted soldiers. This is more so when there is a national moratorium on death penalty in Nigeria. The Coalition, therefore notes further that dozens, if not hundreds of Igbo soldiers have in recent times particularly since 2017/8 died under similar circumstances both in battle fronts and peace time.
“Additionally, there have been several reported and unreported cases of dismissals, resignations and desertions involving soldiers and officers of old Eastern Nigeria extraction on account of the ethnic cleansing under Buratai as Nigerian Army Chief.”
However, the military flagged the allegation as Fake News, noting that nothing of such happened. The army which reacted to the report via its twitter handle @HQNigerianArmy flagged it as untrue report. It did not, however, provide further details.
Following the Army denial, however, the Coalition insisted that the six soldiers were executed, arguing that Army’s anonymous denial is purposive admission of complicity and total failure in providing answers to 13 key questions.
The Coalition said, “The Nigerian Army’s anonymous denial of its involvement with its immediate past Chief of Staff (COAS), retired Lt. Gen Tukur Yusuf Buratai in the secret and most horrendous execution of six Igbo Christian soldiers inside the Abacha Barracks in Abuja on Monday, 25th January 2021is a clear case of purposive admission of criminal responsibility.
“If it is in criminal court trial, it becomes mens rea proven. We are boldly glad and happy that Barr E.R. Okoroafor, a member of the Coalition and originator of the information had in his phone interview with the Abuja Correspondent of the International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) yesterdays evening (2th Feb 2021) insisted that the six Igbo Christian soldiers were secretly tried and executed and challenged the Army to not only produce them alive, hale and hearty, but also tell Nigerians and the world what actually happened including where the Army kept them and why they were kept as well as whether they were tried in secret and condemned for secret execution.
“The Coalition makes bold to say that uploading montage pictures of the slain soldiers with Fake News written over same or hiring a consultancy firm to write a statement signed by an anonymous senior Army officer is in no way a credible and concrete reply and ordinarily should not be taken serious; but owing to psychological terrorization and chronic censorship which media practitioners in the country have undergone and are still undergoing, any crap from the Army or Government is now capable of making big headlines.
“That is to say that the Nigerian Army has not issued any concrete and provable denial statement as far as the Coalition is concerned. As a matter of fact, the Nigerian Army has ended up indirectly admitting criminal responsibility in the matter. The Coalition also did not issue that aspect of the statement for Nigerian Army to accept or deny because falsehood, lying, cover-ups and evidence destruction have been its routine and modus since 2015.
“Even after massacring hundreds of defenseless Easterners in 2015 and 2016, the same Nigerian Army set up a kangaroo panel in 2017 and in the end claimed that no single citizen was killed in the East. Same Nigerian Army has kept mute over its abduction of over 400 Obigbo residents in Rivers State.
“This is despite concretely evidential court processes and decisions including the release of 145 of the abductees, secretly and inhumanly thrown into solitary captivity for more than three months or since 21st Oct and early Nov 2020. Till today, the Nigerian Army has refused to speak or release the remaining abductees unconditionally or remorsefully apologize to the victims and Nigerians and hold the perpetrators tightly accountable.
“On the other hand, the Army is hereby mockingly commended for not declaring the names of the slain soldiers as fake names, not belonging to Nigerian Army; or declaring their pictures as having originated from Congo DRC or Central African Republic or Burundi.
“Contrary to Nigerian Armys gross ignorant with regard to secret trial or court martial, this is when like in military setting, service personnel are accused with malicious or premeditated and hateful intents and arraigned in a trial with a predetermined outcome, during which all ingredients of fair hearing and trial are set aside or stifled.
“Such infringement on their rights include: denying the accused access to defense lawyers of their choice, denying them access to their family members and physicians, conducting their trials outside official publicity and public knowledge, blocking or denying them right of appeal to Civil Courts (Court of Appeal and Supreme Court) and carrying out secret execution of the court-martial convicts outside the law without recourse to Nigerias existing National Moratorium on Death Penalty.”
The Coalition raised 13 Key Questions, which according to it, the Army failed to answer. It said, “The Nigerian Army has not provided concrete answers to the following: (1) whether the six slain Igbo Christian soldiers and their names, religion and ethnicity exist in the Army or on its records; (2) whether the four pictures as produced belong to the ascribed serving personnel of the Nigerian Army; (3) whether they were made to undergo any form of trial within the Army, (4) whether they were tried in any manner with the stated allegations.
“Also (5) whether their trial, if true, was conducted in the presence of their family, legal and medical representatives including allowing them access to lawyers of their choice; (6) whether the six Igbo soldiers were defended by lawyers of their choice; (7) whether they were allowed to exercise their right of appeal to Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, and (8) whether the Nigerian Army issued any public statement concerning their trial or notified their beloved ones and the public.
“Others are: (9) if they were executed, whether it was done secretly or in the open and if in the open, whether their lawyers, physicians, faith priests and family members were present; (10) where the Nigerian Army and its immediate past COAS, retired Lt Gen Tukur Buratai derived powers to order the execution, whether in secret or in the open, of soldiers including the six slain Igbo Christian soldiers (unjustly and wickedly convicted), convicted by Army Court Martial.
“Then finally (11) if they are still alive and detained as death row inmates, where they are being held, condition of their health and circumstances leading to their present fate; (12) why the Nigerian Army failed to produce them publicly, if they are still alive, hale and hearty, and (13) why Nigerian Army, in furtherance of the above, did not update Nigerians as per whether it has also secretly executed or still keeping alive another Igbo soldier convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad in Maiduguri, Borno State in January 2021, by name: Trooper Azunna Mmadubuchi.”
Igbo leaders react
Amid the ongoing controversy, some notable figures in the Southeast, have asked that a thorough investigation be conducted to ascertain what really transpired.
Speaking to BusinessHallmark, Senate Minority leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, said himself and his colleagues would ask for explanation from the military authority, because according to him, no Nigerian should be killed unlawfully, if the story is true.
“We would surely ask for an explanation from the military authorities,” Abaribe said. “Not because they are alleged to be from the southeast but that no Nigerian should be deprived of life unlawfully if the story is true.”
Similarly, Lagos based constitutional lawyer, Bob Okey Okoroji, said the allegation should not be swept under the carpet, but should be appropriately investigated. According to Okoroji, “I ask that a thorough investigation be carried out to ascertain what actually happened.
“You know, for every smoke there must be fire somewhere. What the Nigerian Army has not done is to account for those soldiers. If they said that they have not executed them, they should tell us where they are. It should be known; it should not be a secret. We are not in a war situation, so there can’t be any such thing as war secret.”
“If those soldiers were said to have committed any offence under the military law, they should tell the world what those offences are, which tribunal tried them; is trying them or is going to try them. The names of the soldiers are known. Their origins are known. Their religious inclinations are known. Their ethnic groups are known; all of which may suggest some conspiracy, some targeting of some sort, of these soldiers.
Okoroji encouraged the press to conduct investigation into the matter, noting that he may consider instituting court action to compel the military authority to come out with the truth.
“It is important that the Nigerian press puts pressure on the military to make this important disclosure, otherwise who knows what is next,” he said.
“What is happening in Nigeria under President Buhari is not very different from what happened in Uganda under Idi Amin; where people and soldiers of a particular ethnic group were targeted. I am not oblivious of the fact that there are a lot of discriminations in the Nigerian army.
“What is important is that the story is not treated as a mere rumour. It must be taken very seriously, and in fact, we can approach the Federal High Court to seek an order of court to compel the Nigerian military to disclose the whereabouts of those soldiers.”
Also speaking to BusinessHallmark, former Managing Director of defunct ACB International Bank, Chief Emma Nwosu, noted that the allegation has to be investigated, but expressed doubts over the possibility of same being true.
According to him, it would be unthinkable for the Army to separate and execute Igbo soldiers only, for an alleged offence committed by soldiers of different ethnic groups.
“The allegation has to be investigated because if it is true, it is a breach of the fundamental human rights of the soldiers, particularly the right to fair hearing,” Nwosu said. “If they committed any crime, they should not be executed without being given the chance to defend themselves. But it’s hard to believe that such a thing can happen.
“In fact, it will be difficult for me to believe that it happened. No matter how brutish the country has become, I don’t believe that Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba officers guarding the armory can commit a crime – that is assuming they committed a crime – and they I’ll just pull out the six Igbo boys and kill them, then leave the Yoruba and the Hausa. I don’t think that is possible.”
When our correspondent contacted Prof. Nwala, one of the signatories to the statement, he said some people have been asked to conduct thorough investigation.
Some of our fellows are following it up. There are people who we have asked to follow it up systematically, to bring out all the facts.
Meanwhile, the families of six soldiers, have reportedly dragged the Nigerian Army and the immediate past Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Tukur Buratai (retd.) to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A report on Friday by SaharaReporters quoted their lawyer, Barrister Okoroafor, as disclosing that the army authorities and Buratai would be served the court papers in the coming week.
Okoroafor, according to the medium, stated that he was at the ICC in the Hague, the Netherlands, where he personally made the application, adding that he did not expect the army to own up to the incident.
Okoroafor was quoted as saying: “I do not expect them to own up. As a matter of fact, when they denied the Obigbo massacre but between then and now, we have been able to bring out 100 victims.
“As I speak now, I am at the Hague at the ICC and we are filing a case against them. They should come and tell us at the ICC. We have evidence already against them. They are known for denials.
“I am in contact with the family members. I was actually contacted by one of the brothers of the slain soldiers. But because of the porousness of the country, we don’t want to expose them to unnecessary harm.
“When we get to ICC, we are going to present their family members. We filed the case on Thursday. Before next week, they will be properly served.”