FIFTY-FOUR Nigerian soldiers are facing the death penalty for refusing to fight Boko Haram militants amid signs that the military is struggling to cope with the threat posed by the Islamist group.
The soldiers, from a special forces unit stationed in northeast Nigeria, refused an order to retake three towns seized by Boko Haram fighters because they lacked sufficient weapons.
“This genocidal verdict is a disgrace,” said Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer who represented them in court. “These men should be hailed as heroes, not sentenced to die. Their only crime was to ask for weapons to fight.”
The men, aged 21-25, had been promised more weapons after fighters from the group ambushed their unit in an earlier attack in which 26 commandos were killed and 82 wounded.
More than a month later, the weapons had still not arrived, prompting the soldiers to warn their superiors that an attack on Boko Haram would be suicide.
Nigerian soldiers regularly complain that they lack arms and ammunition to enter towns controlled by Boko Haram, whose fighters have tanks, armoured personnel carriers, rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weaponry.
Locals say military units rarely venture out of their barracks, leaving groups of armed vigilantes and hunters — some riding into battle on bicycles — to bear the brunt of the fighting.
Other units have refused to deploy altogether. Army wives have barricaded bases to prevent their husbands from being sent on “death missions” against the Islamist insurgents.
“In the last four years billions of pounds have been given to the defence ministry but there’s nothing to show for it,” said Falana.
“Soldiers are not paid their salaries, those who die are buried in shallow graves, their bodies are not returned to their families, they’re not even given proper training. It is shocking.”
The army is undermined by corruption. Senior army commanders inflate the number of soldiers on their payroll, allowing them to pocket the salaries of a legion of ghost soldiers.
“The commanders see it [the fight against Boko Haram] as a personal money-making venture rather than taking care of men and equipment,” wrote one lieutenant-colonel to the Nigerian president in a letter leaked online last week.
In the letter, the colonel, who commands a battalion fighting against Boko Haram, said morale was so low that his soldiers wore civilian clothes beneath their combat fatigues so that they could flee when the militants attacked.
“When a unit is attacked and overrun by Boko Haram [it is] not because the soldiers are unable to fight, but [because of a] lack of weapons, ammunition and communication equipment,” wrote the colonel, who believes that the Nigerian army could push Boko Haram out of its strongholds if it were properly equipped.
Mutiny has become such a problem that 70% of commanders in the northeast now face court martial, he wrote. Since one unit tried to kill a major general, some senior officers were so afraid of their own men they locked themselves in their offices.
The army’s incompetence was underlined last week when reports of a mass kidnapping by Boko Haram gunmen began to filter out from a remote village near the town of Damboa.
Witnesses and local officials said gunmen seized 185 people from the village — most of them women and children — before bundling them into the back of open-top trucks and driving them into a nearby forest last Sunday.
The kidnapping echoes the mass abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in the nearby town of Chibok in April and is likely to fuel further resentment of the government’s inability to stem the insurgency. More than 2,000 people have died this year as the Islamists attempt to carve out a caliphate in the northeast.
“The president asked for $1bn for the army to fight Boko Haram. But where has this money gone?” asked Falana. “Instead of buying weapons the military sentences its own soldiers to death for asking for weapons to fight Boko Haram. What kind of army is this?”