Abdul-Azeez Suleiman in an interview with GODWIN ISENYO
The security situation in the northwestern part of the country and indeed the entire North is increasingly becoming worrisome. What are your thoughts about this?
The dimension is not new. This is the way it has been all along. The only difference is that whereas people and communities get attacked almost on a daily basis, the world gets to know about the attacks or abductions only when they involve high-profile personalities or when they involve mass abductions at the same place and perhaps same hour, such as attacks on schools. The regularity of the attacks, the audacity with which they are carried out and the casualty and fatality rates vary from one state to another. For instance, in Kaduna State, it’s almost a daily occurrence around Zaria, Giwa, Igabi, Birnin Gwari and most parts of Southern Kaduna to the point that it’s now the norm for the state Internal Security Commissioner to just announce attacks here and abductions there. I think the current frenzy is because the attacks now target top government officials and politicians in places like Zamfara and Katsina. In spite of it all, the fact that some states in the North have changed tactics and adopted some new measures, we have started seeing some improvements coupled with the renewed commitment of our troops on the frontline.
Even these initial successes have unfortunately turned out short-lived as the criminals appear to have also changed tactics, which could be blamed partly on the early celebrations of victory by zealous troops without first achieving total disarmament, disengagement, demobilisation and of course final reconciliation, reconstruction and resettlement. We are however hopeful that the situation would ease if more concerted efforts would be made and you can see that most states are already heeding our call for prayer for divine intervention conducted for instance, in Kano, Katsina and heading for Zamfara.
We also believe it would be helpful in speeding up the restoration of public safety if the Federal Government should consider calls for imposing states of emergency in the most endangered states like Kaduna, Katsina, Zamfara and Niger.
But only recently, Nigeria’s foremost military training institution, the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna was attacked by bandits, killings two of its officers while one was abducted. What’s your reaction to this?
Our reaction to the invasion of the NDA, like most well-meaning Nigerians, was one of fear that our national political structure has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly. The ease with which the NDA operations were carried out certainly signifies a dangerous loss of control of the nation’s territory by government or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.
The effect of this apparent erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions on such serious matters as national security despite the more than N5trn said to have been invested and another $1bn spent on the purchase of firearms, has invariably raised serious questions of credibility and probity against the administration. This has also given rise to widespread corruption allegations, escalating criminality, rampant intervention of non-state actors with attendant sharp economic decline, proliferation of refugee settlements and involuntary movement of populations which are key indicators of state failure.
Some Nigerians believe there is more to the attack on the NDA than meet the eyes. What do you think?
We really don’t see the possibility of a fifth columnist in the NDA incident. To insinuate such would even amount to providing unnecessary excuses for the administration’s failure in the vital area of providing security for lives and property of citizens which it swore to do protect. Daily occurrences aside the NDA incident have shown clearly that the federal and state governments are unable to perform the two fundamental functions of projecting authority over territory particularly in the North, as well as unable to fulfill the tasks required to control people and resources and can therefore provide only minimal public services with feeble and flawed institutions.
This laxity also rubs on the legislature and judiciary that appear to have lost their capacity and professional independence which has created the huge vacuum in the political will and capacity of government that armed criminals, bandits, kidnappers and assortments of violent non-state actors exploit with ease. Without the need to shift it on fifth columnists, the compromise of such important national security architecture as the NDA is only an addition to other serious causes for concern in an already agitated nation suffering from crumbling security, faltering utility supplies and educational and health facilities, and deteriorating basic human development indicators, compounded mounting poverty and in some cases, illiteracy.
The function of effective governments everywhere is to provide core guarantees to citizens in the three interrelated realms of security, economy, and politics, but here, the legislature in particular, appears failing to formulate or oversee the implementation of credible public policies to effectively deal with national security issues, build infrastructure and deliver services or effective and equitable economic policies.
Your group applauded the ongoing military onslaught on bandits across the North-West but an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, kicked against it. Do you agree with him?
The CNG is, at this point, not in a position to either agree or disagree with what Sheikh Gumi is reported to have said without obtaining clarification on what he actually said and what he really meant by them. We plan to send a delegation to him to get a clearer picture which would hopefully not be what people are thinking. We would however certainly not back him or anyone else that thinks and remains convinced that the present measures taken by government are wrong. We, however, believe that there is room for genuine suggestions for improvement.
Meanwhile, we remain optimistic about the new measures taken by the federal and some northern state governments and the renewed fighting spirit by the federal troops and improved cooperation from other security services; this is a good development for northern communities. We particularly note that the combined effects of the initiatives for the blockade of Internet access, closure of weekly community markets, ban on movement of cattle and restriction of access to fuel in some frontline states are yielding results. These measures expectedly come with a cost which we believe the affected communities would bear with patience and fortitude hoping they will be temporary hardships necessary for the final restoration of security, and return of peace and enduring public safety. On their part, the state governments involved should design emergency measures for easing the pains that would naturally result from the new security steps on communities.
Gumi also advocated for amnesty for repentant bandits as done to the Niger Delta militants during the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration. Would your group subscribe to granting amnesty to bandits instead of having them sent to eternity?
By our understanding, amnesty can occur in a number of ways according to the circumstances of individual cases. For instance, people can be granted amnesty at government’s discretion after they’ve been convicted and sentenced to various degrees of punishment and having shown satisfactory proof of good behaviour. If this is what the Sheikh means, we don’t see much wrong in it. But if by amnesty he means a situation where they would not be fought, killed where necessary, arrested where possible, tried and eventually convicted and sentenced if found guilty, then we’re certainly not with him. Any people that take up arms against fellow citizens and were defeated in battle do not deserve unconditional pardon or amnesty or whatever respite. We believe that to attempt to pardon them and resettle them the way some people are thinking, would only be a recipe for greater conflicts because as things stand, just like the so-called repentant Boko Haram, it would be quite difficult to expect the communities that suffered their atrocities to simply accept to live with them. What we suggest, contrary to this type of controversial blanket amnesty, are a set of far-reaching measures that can finally bring the lingering pastoralists conflicts to a conclusive ending. These measures include the immediate identification by the federal and state governments of suitable lands across the country and creating grazing reserves and cattle routes through resort to extant provisions of the Land Use Act and other related laws. We all can see the giant and silent strides being made by the Cross River State Government of Professor Ben Ayade which speaks volumes of statesmanship. We believe if all states would dispassionately adopt the Ayade approach, this conflict would be brought to an end sooner than expected. We believe that if the Ayade magic grass approach is adopted by particularly southern states, and even up North, the Fulani and his livestock asset would be protected while making sufficient allowance for farmers at the same time.
We also suggest the proclamation of a National Policy on Grazing and Livestock Development to cater for the needs of all the pastoral communities everywhere in the country. We also call for the proclamation of a Special Intervention Initiative through the Central Bank of Nigeria, the ministries of Finance, National Planning, Agriculture and Water Resources, for supporting special livestock development policies and the establishment of special funds to support pastoral communities along the lines of the Anchor Borrowers Programme and other types of Federal Government’s interventions. And in place of the amnesty advocated in some quarters, we suggest the setting up of a National Pastoralist Commission to act on all matters affecting the well-being and interests of all citizens whose livelihoods depend on livestock rearing.
We are aware that successive governments have found it expedient to establish structures like OMPADEC, NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta, the Amnesty Programme, etc aimed at resolving a specific set of challenges affecting specific communities in the South. There is therefore no justification whatsoever to resist or even question the creation of special initiatives to address the needs of herdsmen if these will lead to lasting peace and stability.
But some states in the South have passed the anti-open graving laws to check Fulani herdsmen whom many alleged were behind banditry and kidnapping. How do you reconcile these?
Our problem with those states that have passed the anti-open grazing laws is their expressed motive, which tilts more towards singling out the entire Fulani for irreverent treatment as the obvious targets of persecution irrespective of whether they are part of a crime committed or not. We are worried that these discriminatory laws do not attempt to draw distinctions between the Fulani as a race, or cattle herding as an occupation, from criminality. To the makers of these laws and to their formal and informal enforcers, it would not matter that most Fulani are not cattle herders or that although most cattle herders in Nigeria are Fulani, there are others that are not; or that just because some herdsmen commit crimes does not make all cattle herders criminals. In fact, they enact the laws without taking into consideration that the vast majority of the Fulani, including those who are cattle herders, are peaceful, everyday people with the same needs, anxieties and hopes as the rest of Nigerians.
In some northern states, especially Kaduna, Kebbi, students are being held by bandits several days after being abducted. Is the CNG not concerned by the continued closure of schools and kidnapping in the North, considering the region’s backwardness in education?
The CNG is very much worried with the way the security situation in the North is impacting negatively on the economic and educational viability of the region. At the moment, hundreds of schoolchildren are still in captivity in dense forests across many states of the North while those who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring secure learning environments could only resort to shutting down the schools and disrupting the region’s academic calendar. The indiscriminate disruptions to the continuation of learning in the North are certainly a major setback that would have multiplier effect on the future viability of the entire region. Our advice has, all along, been that governments must take immediate steps to secure the region’s learning environments to ensure that children of the poor get access to education. But the unfortunate reality is that people we elected have proved they cannot or will not do enough to change the situation. We have people who are ill-prepared or ill-equipped to lead but for their quest for personal political ascendancy and acquisition of fantastic wealth, who would rather have us divided, fighting each other.
Recently, a Federal High Court in Rivers ruled in favour of states to collect Value Added Tax in their domain. Analysts believe that the ruling was targeted at the North. What’s your take on this?
It is too early in the day to expect a reaction from us on that as it will amount to prejudice for us to speak on a matter that is before the court. We are watching the development. Be that as it may, the move has further exposed the bankruptcy of a vast majority of those who pose as northern leaders. They have failed to move the region onto paths of development, they have even failed to get together, think together the way their southern counterparts do. We can’t keep challenging initiatives by the southern leaders for the development of their people without initiating alternatives for our region.
Six years gone, how would you rate the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari?
During the first few years of his presidency, we were worried that President Muhammadu Buhari was being assessed against an unfair standard of judgment, being perhaps too early. But six years after the election in which a vast majority of Nigerians, desperate for credible and accountable leadership, trusted Buhari to lead a nation that is critically endangered by leaders who failed to lead with justice and sensitivity to its plural nature and the limitations of our political process, we are now aware that the interests of the North, the unity and security of Nigeria, and the welfare of all citizens are jeopardised. Six years after opting to elect what we hoped would translate to change, Nigerians wake up daily to the reality that hunger is stalking millions of homes, inflation making life difficult by the day, people are losing jobs, businesses are closing down, infrastructure is decaying, young Nigerians are losing hope of being employed, hospitals are full of people who suffer various degrees of illnesses, and they cannot afford the fees. The nation is not wrong therefore when it insists that six years afterwards, their hopes for electing Buhari are not being served by the quality and competence of many of the people the President has assembled to work with him and see the nation through its most difficult period.