LAGOS, Nigeria — As the Nigerian military battled Boko Haram over the past year, scores of soldiers made a decision that would put their lives in grave danger — they refused to fight.
It wasn’t for lack of bravery, they said. It was for lack of weapons.
At least 66 of the soldiers have been found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to death by firing squad. Dozens more remain in detention, awaiting trial. The Nigerian government describes them as cowards. Their supporters say they are scapegoats.
“They joined the army to fight, not to commit suicide,” said Femi Falana, an attorney for 59 of the soldiers.
The cases have opened a rare window into the Nigerian military, once one of the strongest in Africa but now struggling to combat an Islamist insurgency of several thousand fighters. Rebuilding the army is a major challenge for Muhammadu Buhari, who assumes the presidency of Africa’s most populous nation this month.
Nigeria’s defense budget is more than $6 billion — among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa — but experts say much of that is lost to corruption. Many low-level soldiers complain about not having received their $100-per-month salary for weeks. The troops’ legal cases feature numerous allegations of insufficient weaponry. The military also has been accused of grave human rights abuses.
The army doesn’t have a history of desertions. But as the military has escalated its fight against Boko Haram, reported cases of mutiny have appeared to surge.
In the most prominent case, 54 soldiers from the 111th Special Forces Battalion were sentenced to death for mutiny after they refused to join an operation against the insurgents in August. A month earlier, the same unit had been ambushed, leaving 26 troops dead and 83 others injured. The soldiers then demanded better munitions to fight the rebels, who were armed with antiaircraft guns and armored personnel carriers, said a court filing from Falana. Ironically, most of the rebels’ weapons appeared to have come from Nigerian military bases they had overrun, according to the surviving troops.
The special forces unit had only 174 fighters in August, its commander said in court, rather than the approximately 750 soldiers that battalions are expected to have.
The commander didn’t say why there were so few soldiers. But many Nigerian units have fewer troops than commanders indicate on their payrolls, analysts say, allowing senior officers to take so-called “ghost” salaries. That is one of several ways in which corruption has weakened the army.
“All this money the military has to purchase weapons is going to [Nigerian officials’] pockets,” said a military officer who is the brother of one of the soldiers who was convicted of mutiny. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his own career.
Nigerian military officials deny that soldiers are inadequately armed. In the case of the 111th Special Forces Battalion, military officials called the soldiers’ justification for not fighting a hollow excuse.
“The Nigerian army is not an organization with a trade union,” whose members can stop working “to protest poor wages or poor working conditions,” Capt. J.E. Nwosu, the military prosecutor, said in his closing remarks.
In the 1990s, the Nigerian military was hailed for its role in peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But after military rule in this country ended in 1999, experts say, the armed forces were kept weak to prevent them from attempting coups. The army currently has about 60,000 soldiers.
“Under-resourcing has gone on for years, and a decline in competence has come with it,” said James Hall, a former British military attache to Nigeria. “The government has been unable to recognize that the military has gone from something competent to something deeply incompetent.”
The quality of the Nigerians’ tactical training has declined, experts say. Human rights abuses appear to have increased in recent years, too. This month, residents of central Plateau state alleged that Nigerian soldiers had killed dozens of civilians in retaliation for the slaying of six soldiers by local youths, according to the Associated Press. The military denied the allegation, the news service said.
Even Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has poked fun at the Nigerian military.
“You send 7,000 troops?” Shekau said in one video recording posted online this year. “This is small. Only 7,000? By Allah, it is small. We can seize them one by one.”
Troops from Nigeria, Chad and Niger have recently pushed the Boko Haram fighters out of a fiefdom in northern Nigeria that had grown to the size of Maryland. But experts say the rebels have gathered in a vast, remote forest and still pose a significant threat.
Some of the mutiny trials have revealed startling glimpses of soldiers’ anger at their superiors. In one high-profile case, 12 soldiers allegedly shot at their commanding officer after he ordered them to conduct a mission that they asserted was tantamount to suicide. The officer somehow was not injured, and the soldiers say they intended to express their anger, not to commit murder. They, too, were sentenced to death.
“These are issues of indiscipline,” said Gen. Chris Olukolade, the military’s spokesman, “and they undermine the morale of the others.”
The army chief of staff must confirm all of the mutiny sentences before formal appeals can be filed.
It’s unclear what Buhari’s policy will be toward the soldiers in detention or those already sentenced. But one of his campaign managers, Chibuike Amaechi, appeared to take the soldiers’ side when the issue emerged before the March presidential election.
“The soldiers have the right to protest for the federal government’s failure to fully equip them,” Amaechi said at a news conference in December.
Buhari, a former military dictator, has vowed to defeat Boko Haram. But analysts say it may not be easy to rebuild the institution he once led.
“Buhari’s supporters have to realize that the army that Buhari left is not the army of today, which is broken, ill-motivated and under-equipped,” said Moses E. Ochonu, an associate professor of African history at Vanderbilt University.
Some top military officers said that the announcement that prosecutors are seeking capital punishment for the mutineers has put an end to the practice of deserting.
“It spread like a virus until we enforced the law,” said one senior military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the cases. “They were thinking they could get away with it.”
Nigerian officials say one of their greatest deficiencies in equipment is a product of a failed deal with the United States.
Last year, the Nigerian government tried to equip its military with Cobra attack helicopters, but the deal was halted by the United States. The Nigerian ambassador to Washington said in November after the sale was stopped that the equipment “would have brought down the terrorists within a short time.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the sale was canceled “due to concerns about Nigeria’s ability to use and maintain this type of helicopter . . . and ongoing concerns about the Nigerian military’s protection of civilians when conducting military operations.”
The U.S. government has also declined to share some intelligence with Nigerian security officials because of concerns about Boko Haram infiltration.
Those disagreements appear to have led the Nigerian government to cancel a U.S. mission to train one of its special forces battalions last year.
At least one of the soldiers sentenced to death for mutiny was trained in Pakistan. He told the court that the program involved weapons that the Nigerian soldiers wanted but never received, such as German submachine guns. It’s another example, according to the soldiers, of the army’s dysfunction.
“They have a crisis in the military,” said Falana, the attorney. “And they’re trying to use these boys to make a point.”