Unjust dismissal: Nigerian Army boycotts court.

More than three months after a top Army officer – who was dismissed from service without query or indictment – filed suit for redress at the National Industrial Court, Nigerian military has refused to enter appearance to defend its action.

This has opened the Army to accusations of deliberately shunning the court and frustrating the applicant’s push for justice, court documents reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES showed.

Under the procedures and rules of Nigeria’s industrial court, respondents are obligated to file defence within 14 days of receiving originating processes; and in this particular case, court records revealed military authorities, including the Defence Minister, Chief of Army Staff and the Chief of Defence Staff, were served on August 15, 2016, over three months ago.

Abdulfatai Mohammed, a retired lieutenant colonel, was one of the 38 senior officers compulsorily retired by the Nigerian Army on June 9, 2016, citing professional misconduct during the 2015 general elections and involvement in the arms procurement fraud.

But PREMIUM TIMES’ extensive investigations of the controversial exercise – prompted by “service exigencies” according to Army spokesperson, Sani Usman, a colonel – showed the Nigerian Army abruptly ended the careers of some of the officers, including Mr. Mohammed’s, without query, indictment by any panel or even informing them of what their offences were, thereby raising question of arbitrariness.

So, while a few were queried, asked to face panel and indicted, others had their careers abruptly cut short for reasons that smack of high-level arbitrariness, pettiness, witch-hunting and partisanship by authorities of the Army.

Apart from relying on Paragraph 09.02(e) of the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers to petition President Muhammadu Buhari, Mr. Mohammed like other affected officers, who feel arbitrarily forced out of service, also approached, on August 12, the National Industrial Court to seek reinstatement.

He asked the court to declare that his compulsory retirement “constituted an unfair dismissal and punishment without factual basis at all and is as a result of wrongful, unconstitutional, illegal and invalid.”

In the June 9 letters – seen by PREMIUM TIMES – to the affected officers, including Mr. Mohammed, their compulsory retirement was hinged on “provisions of Paragraph 09.02c (4) of the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service for Officers (HTACOS) 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)” but the actual “serious offence” was not stated.

However, in a July letter conveying the appeals of 22 of the affected officers to President Buhari in line with military rules, the Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin, a General, gave formal reason why the Army terminated Mr. Mohammed’s career prematurely as “involvement in election matters”.

Yet, the military authorities have not been in court to defend their action and the reason the officer was sent out of service.

On September 7,  Ibrahim Etsu, counsel to the Army Council, Armed Forces Council, Chief of Defence Staff and the Defence Minister, approached the court, acknowledging the military did fail to enter appearance within the stipulated time, citing administrative bureaucracy; and asking to file memorandum appearance out of time.

Even so, court records revealed, as at Monday, October 21, Mr. Etsu, a staff in the legal department of the Ministry of Defence, has not returned to the court for the military’s statement of defence.

Consequently, Mr. Mohammed, on October 18, filed a fresh motion before the industrial court, seeking accelerated hearing and that judgement be given, relying on Order 8 rule 5(1) of the National Industrial Court, because “clearly the intention of the defendants is to delay the hearing of this case by dilatory tactics.”

“Where a defendant or respondent fails to file a Memorandum of Appearance within the stipulated time, or fails to file appropriate processes in defence of the action within the prescribed time, and fails to file a declaration of intention not to defend an action, the court may proceed and hear the matter and give judgement,” the referenced court rule states

Narrating his ordeal, Mr. Mohammed told PREMIUM TIMES that even after his application for accelerated hearing – over a month now, the case had not been assigned to any judge.

“They (military authorities) have used their offices and they have exploited my vulnerability and acted to dress me in the dirty garb of a criminal … I have been greatly traumatized by the news of my compulsory retirement based on the allegations of non-existent serious offences I never knew about or took part in.”

His lawyer, Abdul Muhammed, disclosed to this newspaper he would meet with the President of the NIC later this week to ask that the case be assigned.

Mr. Etsu, the defence counsel, told PREMIUM TIMES he was not going to comment on this report, citing “no authority to do so”.

Also the Minister of Defence, through his spokesperson, Tukur Gusau, a colonel, claimed ignorance of the court process or that the Minister had been served. But PREMIUM TIMES obtained court document filed by Mr. Etsu, stating the Minister and others had been served.

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