In the thick of the war against the dreaded Islamist fundamentalist sect, Boko Haram, in the regime of former President Goodluck Jonathan, 66 soldiers were arraigned in a military court and condemned to death for insubordination and desertion, while others got other sentences.
Their ordeal followed an attempted assassination of their commander following a massacre of some soldiers in a Boko Haram ambush. The soldiers who were distraught over the deaths of their colleagues, believed there was no conscious effort to protect them; even suspected sabotage. But the Army would have none of that and promptly arrested them for court martial.
The development drew sundry reactions from Nigerians who mostly pleaded for leniency for the soldiers. However, that did not stop 66 of them from being condemned to death.
Granted that what followed was to be expected in the military tradition, many felt that the soldiers must have snapped under the overwhelming odds stacked against them. It was indeed common knowledge that the enemy was more armed than the Nigerian soldiers, while stories of sabotage by Boko Haram infiltrators were all over the place.
Indeed, even the former president once conceded that some people in his government were working for Boko Haram and passing information to them. That was damning.
Thus the soldiers whose lives were being risked daily, also got jittery and felt they could no longer trust some of their officers. This doubt was strengthened by an incident narrated by a Christian soldier.
According to the soldier, a driver, a Muslim officer, had once directed them on the route to take in a planned attack. But on second thoughts, especially given growing suspicions of the genuineness of the instruction, this driver decided to take another route and this proved to be the his saving grace and that of the soldiers in his vehicle.
It happened that the Boko Haram members were waiting in an ambush on the very route they were directed to take and those who obeyed the instruction were mown down.
It was an aggregation of all such experiences that came to weigh heavily on the soldiers and got to a boiling point the day their colleagues were massacred, prompting them to fire warning shots while being addressed by their commander. They were thus arrested, charged and convicted.
But on Friday, December 18, the federal government of Muhammadu Buhari commuted the death sentences of the 66 soldiers to 10 years, in an apparent attempt to placate Nigerians.
While we commend the federal government on its decision, we feel however that the ten years is still too much punishment. Given the heroic sacrifices of these soldiers in very tough and trying circumstances, including known acts of sabotage and betrayal against them, we feel the federal government should just grant them total pardon.
Such a pardon will boost the morale of their colleagues still engaged in the bloody war and make them feel loved. They will feel also that their sacrifices are appreciated.
While it is true that indiscipline is not toyed with in the military, the situation is not ordinary. Rather than carry out punitive measures against the soldiers, the federal government should identify the problems of its Army like inadequate fire power and address them.
A situation where the rebels are better equipped than the soldiers is unacceptable and a serious indictment on the country's military. The loopholes must be plugged first before scape goats are hunted.
Therefore, the federal government should go a step further and grant total pardon to the 66 soldiers and others serving various jail terms.
It is the right thing to do.