Sofiyat: Raising the bar of military traditions



…Female officer violated extant military laws – Army

… Laws discriminatory – Women group

…Military should’ve promoted the love story – Omokri

‘…Nigeria not under military dictatorship’

Although Private Hannah Sofiyat Akinlabi, the female soldier who was detained for accepting a marriage proposal from a male member of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Kwara state simply identified as Remi, has been released, the dust generated by her detention is yet to settle. BENJAMIN SAMSON in this report examines some of the challenges faced by women in uniforms.

Her release

A source in the army had disclosed that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt.-Gen. Faruk Yahaya, pleaded with the military authorities to pardon her in the spirit of the Christmas season.

He said Gen. Yahaya made overtures to the leadership of the armed forces, requesting that the soldier be pardoned. But despite the intervention, the COAS maintained that the erring soldier should be strongly reprimanded against engaging in any kind of act that contravenes the military code of conduct for its officers and men.

“Lt.-Gen. Yahaya’s ‘appeal for mercy’ for the female soldier may not be unconnected with the fact that the Christmas season presents an opportunity for persons who erred to be given clemency.

“The Military authorities have considered the appeal of the Army Chief and ordered the release of the soldier to enjoy Christmas with family and friends,” the source said.

 Immigration officers too

Similarly, three female officers of the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) were in 2020 queried for partaking in Bopdaddychallenge (a trending dance competition on social media).

According to the query letter shared by OluwaseunOwosobi, the founder of Stand to End Rape Initiative, the female officers were accused of indecent flaunting of their bodies and desecration of the NIS uniform in the video.

The letter stated that their action was serious misconduct liable to dismissal from service. The erring officers were asked to give reasons a disciplinary action shouldn’t be taken against them.

They had shot a 57-second video to participate in a social media trend. Three of the officers were identified as Priscilla Irabor, Catherine Bakura and Blessing Udida.

In the video, the officers wore their uniforms, switching to mufti at every 12 to 15 seconds interval while dancing to ‘Bop Daddy,’ a recent song by Nigerian rapper Falz.

A similar video uploaded on YouTube showed American service members changing their outfits while a soundtrack ‘Don’t Rush’ played in the background. The officers did not face any disciplinary action by the authorities.

 But the NIS in a query letter said the video “has caused a lot of embarrassment to the NIS and in line with our standard as a paramilitary organisation is considered scandalous and an act unbecoming of an Officer and therefore a violation of Public Service Rule (PSR) 030401 and 030402.”

“This is a serious misconduct liable to dismissal from Service.”

The officers were asked to present themselves to the authorities “within 72 hours on receipt of the letter, why disciplinary action should not be taken against you for violation of the following: Immoral Behaviour, Sabotage and any other act unbecoming of a public officer.”

Army lists offence

Explaining why it arrested and detained Sofiyat, Army spokesman Brig.-Gen. OnyemaNwachukwu said the female officer violated extant military laws by getting involved in a public display of relationship with a paramilitary trainee, a corps member.

He added that the female officer violated the Nigerian Army’s rules and regulations guiding the codes of conduct of military personnel when deployed for duty.

According to him, Sofiyat violated some rules of the Nigerian Army, including indulging in an amorous relationship with a trainee; indulging in romance while in uniform; disobeying the Armed Forces standing guidelines and directives for the use of social media, among others.

 Defence

However, a member of Sofiyat family who spoke to a national daily said she was shocked and joyful when she got the proposal for marriage and that was why she reacted the way she did.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the matter, the close family member said Sofiyat and Remi had lost each other’s contacts, but were surprisingly brought together by fate at the NYSC camp late November.

He said, “They have known each other before they got to camp. They met in Abeokuta over three years ago before she joined the Army, but lost contact sometime ago. So, their meeting at the NYSC camp was like a re-union.

“They have been friends all along and Remi thought it wise to seize the opportunity of their meeting again to propose to her. He had to walk up to her as a man and not worry about her new status as a soldier because she would eventually get married. He got the courage and proposed to her with a ring which she accepted. The whole thing was totally a surprise to her.

“It happened after the passing out parade on December 14, 2021. She was at the Mammy Market pressing her phone, she was just on her own and she never knew something of such would happen.

 “When he walked up to her, she was over joyous and dumbfounded at the same time. She is a lady and her reactions were triggered by emotions. Like men, women are still emotional beings no matter who they are.

“Remi was not holding any phone and did not record the moment. He didn’t post anything on social media and she didn’t also post it on social media. It was the fellow corps members that did the posting on social media.”

Lawyers’ take

In a chat with this reporter, a former chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Barrister Chibuzor Felix, faulted the military authorities for the treatment meted out to Sofiyat.

He stated that it was imperative to remind leaders of these institutions that Nigeria was not under any military dictatorship, but under civilian democracy.

He also condemned the operations of the military in recent times, particularly with the way it illegally detained citizens for an indiscriminate number of days with scant or no regard to the provisions of the Constitution.

He stated that it was imperative to remind leaders of these institutions that Nigeria was not under any military dictatorship but under civilian democracy since 1999; that the provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended, particularly Chapter 4, guarantee the right to personal liberty, right to a fair hearing, right to dignity, right to movement among others.

He said, “When one thought that we have seen the worst concerning Cute Abiola’s case, yet another wild ‘drama’ in terms of brazen violation of a right of a citizen happened to one Private Hannah Sofiyat who accepted a marriage proposal from a male corps member.

“The institution implicated here is the Nigerian military authority. Again, this young female officer is said to have violated military rules and regulations. She was detained after video clips of her being proposed to by a male corps member at the National Youth Service Corps orientation camp in Yikpata, Kwara state, went viral on social media. One Captain M.M. Abdullahi, Kwara state NYSC Camp Commandant was alleged to have ordered her detention in the detention facility in Ilorin pending further investigations.

“Part of the offence she is allegedly guilty of includes but not limited to an amorous relationship with a trainee, not yet eligible for marriage as she was expected to have served for three years before she can qualify for marriage and romancing while in army uniform plus other sundry offences.

“Whilst one cannot interrogate the rights of these agencies to maintain discipline in their organisations, one is astonished at the alacrity with which these citizens are thrown into illegal detention for an indiscriminate number of days with scant or no regard to the provisions of the constitution that guarantees several basic rights to the citizens including those who serve these security institutions.”

Continuing, he said, “In case those who are in the leadership of these institutions have forgotten or are not in the know, may we remind them that we are not under any military dictatorship but under civilian democracy since 1999. The provisions of the 1999 constitution as amended, particularly Chapter 4, guarantees right to personal liberty, right to fair hearing, right to dignity, right to movement etc. These rights are in existence and have not been abrogated.

“No one today can be punished for any crime in Nigeria that is not properly defined by our Criminal or Penal Code. If these citizens who are employees of these institutions have committed any crime or breached any of their administrative rules or regulations, we demand fair, transparent and open trial process in accordance with the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is the ground norm of our jurisprudence. Anything short of that is unacceptable, illegal, and remains questionable.”

Similarly, in a chat with Blueprint Weekend, a lawyer Kabiru Sanni, criticised the military for detaining a personnel just for accepting a marriage proposal. 

 “The human rights community finds it difficult to accept the fact that a citizen can be taken hostage in an opaque manner and it has to take some days before the authorities could confirm that they are the one holding the citizen hostage in their facility.

“So also is the idea of throwing a young military officer into detention simply because she accepted a marriage proposal which is approved by God and laws of the land.

“Assuming but not conceding that she breached any of their regulations, can she not be punished without throwing her into detention for an indefinite period? “What makes her marriage acceptance too offensive that warrants these draconian measures meted out to her? Can’t our leaders and institutions sometimes play the role of ‘God’ just as we see in other countries in forgiving people when their error is not too grave to affect national interest? Has the country descended into fascism and dictatorship where leaders are banishing joy, happiness and smiles as if we are in North Korea? Is Nigeria now the Banana Republic?”

Omokri’s take

Likewise, a Nigerian socio-political activist, Reno Omokri, lambasted the Nigerian Army for poor handling of the Sofiyat case.

In a post on his verified Facebook page on Tuesday, Reno said the Nigerian Army “should have promoted the love story as a recruitment tool” to build more morale.

He said, “The Nigerian Army, which is currently rehabilitating Boko Haram, is penalising Private Hannah Sofiyat for accepting a proposal from a corps member; is that not madness?

“The Nigerian Army should have promoted the love story as a recruitment tool. They should have brought in the cameras and celebrated the couple. It would have built morale. But instead, they chose to punish love!”

Discrimination

Meanwhile, a group, Women Empowerment and Legal Aid (WELA), in a petition, noted that Sofyiyat has not contravened the regulation on the restriction of marriage for three years.

In the petition signed by FunmiFalana to the Chief of Army Staff, Farouk Yahaya, WELA stated that the restriction of female military personnel from contracting any marriage for three years upon enlistment, which is not applicable to male military personnel, is illegal and unconstitutional. 

It stated: “ In the case of Women Empowerment and Legal aid v. Attorney-General of the Federation (2015), the High Court held inter alia; “in the instant case, the discrimination is not as to the fact that women were not recruited into the police force, but that they were recruited and subjected to some restrictions and disabilities as regulation 124 is the requirement that a woman police officer cannot marry, until a written application is made to the Commission of Police, and the Commissioner not only approves request to marry but must approve the choice of the man to be married. This with all respect is bizarre.

“Any Law or Regulation that makes or attempts to make the Commissioner for Police a plenary Guardian or a Guardian Angel to make or approve suitors for female police officers is not only unlawful, but it is also repulsive to the right of the woman police officer as a human being to make her own self-choice of suitors without the intervention of the state machineries.

“The most fundamental issue is if this is the policy laid down for the police, does it apply to the menfolk. It is not. So, it is only issued to women police officers because of their gender as women and it is very much unconstitutional.”

Nigerians divided

Meanwhile, the development stimulated controversies across the country as some Nigerians argued that the army had violated the fundamental human rights of the female soldier while others blamed Sofiyat for not respecting the uniform she was wearing.

BumiBalogun said, “I think the lady (soldier) has the right to accept the proposal but shouldn’t be in public with an Army uniform or not outside with a camera. The Army is an organszation with unique rules and regulations with culture. I think that’s gross misconduct in the military.”

Also, Cecelia Phillip said, “I think that is out of order, it tells a lot that while on duty she was having an affair with a Corp member. And in reality that behaviour does not reflect a positive attitude toward the military rules of engagement. She needs to face discipline in accordance with the army rules.

“I think why she was detained was because of the manner at which she displayed her happiness. Military personnel are not allowed to demonstrate excessive joy or happiness in a dictatorship government like that in Asia and Africa.”

 However, Ishaku Dantani said, “Seriously, she is above 18 and has the right to accept or reject love proposals, either public or private. The only thing that I can fault is using an army uniform but detaining her is the height of it. We need to wake up from the oppressive mentality in Nigeria.”

Also, Monday Ejale said, “The army is a discipline setting. She has a right to accept even a toddler for marriage, but hey, not with army uniform and in public? No. That is gross indiscipline.”