Buhari may review Nigerian death-row troops

Hundreds of troops face court martial for charges including mutiny

Nigeria's incoming president Muhammadu Buhari may commute the death sentences of 66 soldiers convicted for refusing to fight Boko Haram extremists, a lawyer told the BBC. The soldiers were sentenced to death by firing squad last year over alleged cowardice, mutiny, aiding the enemy and other charges related to combatting Boko Haram militants in north-east Nigeria. Some of the condemned troops claim that they fled the well-armed insurgents due to lack of ammunition.

Nigeria's army council has yet to convene to either confirm or reverse the death sentences, making it difficult for the defendants to appeal the verdict.

The fate of the soldiers on trial could now be influenced by Nigeria's new administration of former military head of state Buhari who takes office on 29 May, succeeding the country's outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan. Known as a no-nonsense disciplinarian, Buhari made defeating the militants a central plank of his recent election campaign.

Another 579 Nigerian officers and soldiers are currently facing courts-martial in the capital Abuja, according to the country's army. The move is interpreted as a “purge” by the Nigerian army as part of its efforts to deal with alleged Boko Haram sympathisers within its ranks.

The army says the courts-martial are to ensure a "quick dispensation of justice, discipline and professionalism", however human rights lawyers have condemned the “unconstitutional” trials over their secret nature and lack of transparent evidence against the troops.

In addition, some 200 soldiers were dismissed in January this year for allegedly disobeying direct orders from their commanding officer to confront Boko Haram rebels. Assisted by military help from neighbouring countries, the Nigerian army has recently made strides in regaining territory previously controlled by the insurgents in the north of the country.