The case of Private Sofiat Akinlabi

IT is rather ironic that at a time when Private Sofiat Akinlabi was supposed to be basking in the euphoria of love, she was actually cooling her heels in a detention facility of the Nigerian Army. Private Akinlabi had accepted a marriage proposal from a male corps member at the Yikpata orientation camp of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Kwara State. The open display of affection between the corps member and the soldier occurred at the Passing Out Parade of Batch B, Stream 2 of the 2021 NYSC programme. But that was the end of the celebration of love, at least for now,  as she was arrested and detained by her employer, the Nigerian Army,  on the ground that her conduct was against good order and military discipline. In essence, Private Akinlabi was being punished for accepting a marriage proposal from a youth corps member.

Yes, there are rules of engagement and she was said to have violated such rules. To be sure, we are not against the application of rules,  but we want the rules to be applied evenly and devoid of discrimination based on gender or any other form of subjective considerations. As the internet would show clearly, many male soldiers have apparently  committed the same offence without being punished. That casts the Nigerian Army in the mould of an organisation that is discriminatory and promotes misogynism, both of which are a breach of the supreme law of the land.  The Army  went further to justify the penalty meted out to the female soldier on the ground that she is not due for marriage, but a proposal is not equivalent to marriage. The reality is that after the acceptance of the proposal, she still remains single: it may not even lead to marriage. Again, the Army spokesman, Major-General Clement Nwachukwu, reportedly told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that the soldier had flouted the military’s code of conduct, to wit; 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.

While there is very little that could be done in respect of the offences being ascribed to Private Akinlabi as a result of  the Army’s seemingly obnoxious and discriminatory rules, the one bordering on the use of social media could be interrogated. In respect of breaching the extant rules on social media use, has it been established that Akinlabi was involved in the production and/ broadcast of the viral video or that she authorised it? It would not be her fault if the internet went abuzz with the video without her express permission and she should not be held liable for breaking the Army’s social media policy just because she appeared in the video. She might not even  have been aware that she was being filmed during the surprise marriage proposal, let alone causing the video to be released on the internet.

Rules are good and it is helpful to live within them, especially because they guide individual and organisational behaviour, but rules and even laws that are devoid of a human face should be reviewed. We recall the hoopla generated by the case of Corporal Olajide Omolola, the policewoman serving in Ekiti State who was, in January this year, sacked for getting pregnant while unmarried. As many pointed out, the section of the Police Act cited by the authorities discriminates against policewomen, as it does not apply to policemen. The military  needs to subject  its  rules to review to ensure that they do not run counter to the rights of its personnel as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and also to ensure that those rules have a human face and approximate reality as much as possible. In particular, colonial era rules and rules that promote discrimination should be reviewed.

The military is a highly regimented institution with limited exposure and interaction between its personnel and the civilian population, amongst other restrictions. For this reason, and in addition to the commonly held view in this clime that the profession is the exclusive preserve of males, female soldiers are hardly the best of candidates on the minds of suitors. Against the backdrop of soldiers’ near isolation, it is ordinarily expected that their leadership will encourage rather than punish any female soldier that finds love. It will be to the glory of the military as an  institution to have a crop of dedicated and loyal female soldiers who are happily married and leading their normal lives within the ambit of a more liberal set of  institutional rules. Happily, the Nigerian Army has tempered justice with mercy and released Private Akinlabi from detention. We hope that she will be allowed to resume her official duties without further let or hindrance.

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