By Job Osazuwa
He is happy and sad at the same time.
Mr Taiwo Bankole is grateful to God that he has regained his freedom after six years of a convoluted legal journey and has reunited with his family members and friends.
But he is not pleased with the fact he is now living from hand to mouth, after serving the Nigerian Army for 18 years.
When he was enlisted into the Army in February 2002, his joy knew no bounds. According to the lance corporal, it was a dream fulfilled. Despite all that he said he had gone through in his years of trial and incarceration, he said his passion for the job remains strong.
If he could forget other events that unfolded while he remained in an underground prison and later in Kirikiri Maximum Prison, Bankole said he couldn’t forget December 24, 2014. It was a day to Christmas and usually a joyful one. But that was the day the soldier was sentenced to death by firing squad following his court martial. His offence was mutiny – he and three others were accused of revolting against the military high command.
In a sober mood, he vividly recalled how fear of death gripped him on that fateful day.
“I thought all was over for me. I could not think of what to do exactly. I also realised that I was not in any position to do anything on my own that could set me free. I must confess that those turbulent times drew me closer to God. I just noticed that I began to appreciate God the more. Up till today, I keep worshiping my creator for the miraculous work,” he said.
He recalled that popular, Femi Falana, who represented him and his co-convicts free of charge, got their conviction reversed at the appeal court. They were subsequently acquitted.
Having been set free by the court on May 14, 2019, Bankole said he, alongside his four colleagues, was baffled that the authorities have refused to pay their accumulated benefits as ordered by the court.
Said he: “I served at 9 Brigade Garrison, Lagos. Before then, I had served at 103 Battalion, Enugu. All through those years, I gave everything in me to the Army. I could not have done otherwise because I love the job with all my heart. But it all ended in disaster and pain.”
On how his travails started, he narrated that he was about to be sent to Mali for a peace-keeping mission, but was suddenly diverted to confront Boko Haram insurgents in Maiduguri, Borno State. He said that the officers, including himself, were briefed that the insurgents were about to seize a particular town in the state.
“Getting to Kafia Forest in September 2013, we soon discovered that the war was a tough and dynamic one. There were many things that we couldn’t understand up till date.
“For instance, many of our colleagues, including one officer that we all looked up to, were killed on the very first day of the attack. I believe that the attack was not well planned. The incident, which happened on September 12, 2013, touched many of the soldiers that were on the operation.
“Before we left our Gubio Base camp on that fateful day, an Alfa jet was brought in and the Army assured us that the jet would go ahead to do the bombardment while we the foot soldiers would simply do a mop-up operation when we got there. The jet was displayed and that boosted our morale. We all left the camp for the forest highly motivated.
“But all of a sudden, the jet was nowhere to be found in the air. We asked many questions but nobody was giving us the desired answer. We have to obey the last order and we advanced. Before we knew what was happening, we began to hear gunshots from the enemies. With our experience, the insurgents were using sophisticated weapons. Before our very eyes, our colleagues were falling. I can’t remember how the rest of us escaped being killed.
“With already dampened spirit, our superiors assembled us the following day to address us. In the process, some of our colleagues demanded what happened to the airstrike jet and the pay loader that were supposed to have gone ahead of us. Not satisfied with the answers given, some officers fired gunshots into the air to express their grievances. Our superiors were also angry that the recovered bodies of our colleagues were brought to the camp instead of taking them to the hospital.
“Days later, they started arresting us with the Military Police, saying we were the ones that caused the violence in the camp the sporadic shooting into the air. I was arrested on October 16, 2013. Many of us were arrested but along the line, many of them were released after series of investigations and necessary punishment. But I and a few others were unlucky,” he said.
Bankole told Daily Sun that when he was first given 54 days imprisonment with hard labour in Maimalari Barracks in Maiduguri, he thought his ordeal would end after that. It was unknown to him that it was the genesis of many more troubles to come his way.
His words: “In tears, I served the 54-day punishment. But after that, they still subjected me to court martial. We were going for the trials hoping that luck would smile on us.
“But in 2014, the four of us were sentenced to death by firing squad. We were moved to an underground cell at the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Apapa, Lagos. The experience there is something I don’t always like to remember because it further traumatises me.
“I was there for 22 months without seeing the sun. While I was there, I fell sick many times. My skin colour was changing like that of a chameleon. I really feared that my end had come.
“Not too long, we heard that our case was being reviewed. And the news came in that our death sentence was converted to ten years imprisonment. That was better news for us; moreover we were no longer going to die by firing squad. So we began the countdown.”
He said it was during the countdown that Falana came from the blues and told them that he was interested in their case. He said the lawyer pursued the case vigorously and gave them victory.
On October 14, 2019, a reminder letter was written to the Chief of Army Staff, signed by Samuel Ogala of Falana and Falana Chambers. The letter reiterated that the embattled soldiers, Bankole, Ayodele Olawale, Isaiah Olofu and Adebayo Gbenga had successfully prosecuted the appeal against their sentencing and confirmation by the Nigerian Army in Appeal No CA/A/10C/2017.
The letter read in part: “Our clients were discharged by the Court of Appeal, Abuja Judicial Division on the two-count charge of mutiny and conspiracy to commit mutiny brought against them by the general court martial in 2014.
“Our clients have since been released from prison custody and are willing to return to duty in the Army. Our clients are also entitled to be restored their rights and privileges as soldiers of the Nigerian Army.
“It is on this ground that we demand that they be recalled back into the Army and all outstanding salaries, allowances, promotions, rank and privileges due to them should be restored to them.”
Bankole, who is a father of four added: “I left Kirikiri Prison on May 30, 2019. The Army has stopped paying me salary since September 2016, leaving me and my family members to struggle before we can eat. It is my wife who has been sustaining us with the proceeds from her hairdressing salon.
“The Army should consider me because of my children. They are all still young. If I cannot be reinstated, the Army should pay me all my retirement benefits so that I can start something tangible with it. I served the Army with zeal and I should not be treated this way.”
Speaking with the reporter on the telephone, one of the soldiers who was also acquitted from the jail term charge, Mr Oyodele Olawale, said that he had nothing against the military for all that he went through.
The man, who said he was enlisted into the Nigerian Army on January 27, 2003, informed the reporter: “Our Brigade and Battalion commanders acknowledged that we couldn’t go into the enemies’ camp without an airstrike that will soften the ground. But everything turned out sour. It was God that saved my life from the theatre ground on that September 12, 2013.
“Some days later, the Military Police invited me to write a statement on what transpired at our base camp on September 13, 2013. I was among the persons who sought an explanation of what happened to the Alfa jet and other sophisticated weapons that ought to have gone ahead of us. They were offended and I was taken to a detention facility.
“From there, it was one detention, trial to another. I have been detained in Borno, Abuja, Kaduna and Lagos.
“To God be the Glory, our case was taken to the Appeal Court where the death sentence and ten years imprisonment were quashed.
“I am pleading with the Army to pay me all my benefits, having served my country for 17 years.”