In this Interview with CHUKWU DAVID, the Chairman, Senate Committee on the Nigerian Army, Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume, speaks on Nigeria Peace Corps Bill, role of the Corps and 2020 budget for the Army, among others

You have reintroduced the Nigeria Peace Corps Bill which was passed in the last Assembly but was not assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari. What is your interest in the bill?

Yes, I sponsored the bill in the Eight Senate. In fact, when I was in the House of Representatives, I supported enactment of the Peace Corps Bill. You will agree with me, as it is the opinion of most Nigerians, that we have serious challenges in the security sector, and there is the need to have an institution that will play a role in terms of adding value to the security of the country.

I strongly believe that that is the purpose for which the Peace Corps was formed, and it is not a new thing because we have Peace Corps in so many countries recognised by the United Nations. Last time we passed it in the Eight Senate, the President declined assent to it, and the reasons given by Mr. President were germane. He said that there was paucity of fund, which all of us agree with. Secondly, he said that there was a kind of duplication in the role they are supposed to play and that of the security outfits that are already in existence. Those were the two points, not that the President said that the idea of having a peace corps is not good. That is why I saw that it is important to look at the two issues raised by Mr. President by looking at the bill again, so that we can harmonise their responsibility with that of other security agencies.

For example, you have police in the National Assembly now that can take care of the security of a state or some local governments, deployed to VIPs or what they call the politically exposed persons. You can conveniently attach Peace Corps members to provide basic security that we need, so that you don’t have to have a senator walking around with somebody with a gun because this is somebody the people voted for. You can deploy Peace Corps to some areas to maintain peace.

For example, instead of deploying police to monitor peaceful demonstrators or peaceful protesters, you can now assign that responsibility to the Peace Corps, and then they go there to maintain the peace that is required. Even in the areas where you have heavy traffic you don’t need to deploy a police officer with a gun. You can deploy a Peace Corps member to take care of that. These are some of the things the Peace Corps can do so that they can relieve the police and the army that we are lacking in terms of number. And because the Peace Corps members will receive basic security training, if the need arises, you can easily convert them to Nigeria Police, Nigerian Army or other security agencies. The only thing that will be lacking in terms of their training is the use of arms.

You said that Peace Corps is recognised in other countries including the United States of America. But in America it is not being funded with public fund but by non-governmental bodies. What’s your take on this?

You see, we are trying to do two things in one. One is to see how it can be funded; two is to make sure that it is recognised by law. For now, it is not recognised by law. On the issue of funding, during the public hearing, that one will be debated and then we will advise them appropriately. Meanwhile, they already existing without funding from the government but there is no law backing them.

You just said that one of the reasons the Peace Corps Bill was not signed into law by President Buhari was paucity of fund. If passed by this Ninth Assembly and assented to by the President, how will the issue of fund be addressed?

Yes, it is not only about funding the security agencies but even funding the country’s budget is a challenge because as you can see, the 2020 budget that was signed recently is to be funded by internal and external borrowing. But security is very important, and we know that we are deficient in that sector. The main purpose of government is security and welfare of the citizens, and I think the Peace Corps can play a significant role in that. And that is why I went for this bill again.

Talking about the 2020 budget, what is your appraisal of the various components of the proposals and projections?

First and foremost, I want to commend Mr. President for presenting the budget to the National Assembly on time. Secondly, although it is not good to blow your trumpet, but I will say that this Ninth Senate cooperated fully and passed the budget in good time. And you can see that the budget was signed coincidently by Mr. President on his birthday and it becomes a birthday present to Nigerians, when our President turned 77. So, we can say that the Presidency prepared the budget; we in the National Assembly baked it and the President handed it over to Nigerians.

I also want to stress that no budget is perfect. So, there are deficiencies here and there, and that is why the Nigerian Constitution took care of that. If there are omissions or certain figures you think are contentious, as the President said, it will be studied carefully but not hindering the implementation. And if any of such things are identified, it can be corrected by way of amendment or by way of virement. If certain things are missing in the budget, it can also be corrected by the way of supplementary budget. So, that takes care of anything you want to observe from negative perspective.

You are the Chairman, Senate Committee on Army, how would you describe the budget for the Army in the 2020 budget, considering the enormous security challenges the military has to contend with?

Well, the committee and indeed Nigerians have seen the need top up the capital budget of the Nigerian Army, and that was done during the consideration of sectoral budgets by the National Assembly. Even at that, that is not enough but as they say, half a loaf is better than none. So, am hoping that that will boost the morale of the Nigerian Army and also provide them with the necessary tools that they need in order to win this very important war, and bring the issue of insurgency and other security challenges in the country to an end.   

Nobody has heard anything about padding of the budget this time around. What actually happened in spite of the fact that the National Assembly increased the initial proposal by N264 billion?

I think I was the Leader of the Senate when the word padding came up, and I said that it was a strange word, and because it is strange, that is why it has been abandoned. Some of you prefer to use the word padding when an increase is made on a budget. But when you discovered that the word padding is not appropriate, you decided to drop it. In fact the word padding did not come from us; I believe it came from you people in the media and you have amended it to another word.

There was a newspaper report recently that about three local government areas in Borno are under the firm grip of the Boko Haram. Would you confirm this?

I remember the report you are talking about. The governor did not say that three local government areas are under the control of Boko Haram but there are two local governments which right now, have no civilian residents, but it’s the Nigerian Armed Forces that are in there. That is because they ran away for fear of what happened to them. So, the governor is appealing that they should come back now.

The Army is saying, not now, that it is not yet safe to bring in civilians, and until we deal with the threat that is coming from the fringes of Chad, it’s not safe for civilians to return and occupy those areas. In fact, in Gwoza, there are six wards occupied by the Nigerian Army who cleared those areas of Boko Haram and preparations are on to return the civilians.

The major opposition to Peace Corps Bill ab initio is the Nigeria Police, and any time a bill is sent to Mr. President for assent, he seeks expert opinion. Will the National Assembly this time, convince the Police and harmonise areas of conflict so that it will be signed into law?

The decision of Mr. President not to assent to the bill was not singularly guided by the input of the Police. The Commander-in-Chief gathers various opinions and I said, he advanced two reasons, and those did not include advice or opposition from the Police not to assent to it. And that is why I reintroduced the bill. This is not new; it is allowed constitutionally.

Right now before us is a request by Mr. President that we requested before in the Eight Senate. The President reintroduced it, and it is being considered now based on its merit. Also, I am not guaranteeing that after the process, Mr. President will assent to it. But we will make sure that the observation he made that made him not to sign it into law during the last Assembly are taken care of.

Having a Peace Corps to take care of certain important security issues that will enhance peace in the country is very essential. As I said earlier, the number of police that is deployed to personnel in this country is big enough to take care of a state. So, why don’t you deploy them to where they are needed armed, and then deploy people that will hold tear gas and batten to control the crowed.

Huge budgets have always been given to the Army in order to effectively tackle the security challenges in the country but the problem is that the funds were usually embezzled. What will your Committee do to stop this?

Yes, we caught one who stole and he is going through court-marshal. You can see that the Committee recognised this loophole, and we are doing everything to block that loophole. I can assure you that this Committee will work jointly with the Army. Even the leadership of the Army is concerned about the mismanagement of fund.

I am glad that the one that was caught is going through court-marshal and the process is going on. And I am sure that the Army law will be fully enforced on the persons involved. Severally, the military authorities take necessary actions but not always publicized, but they take action on this kind of thing. Also, you the journalists and other Nigerians have a responsibility to make sure that you have your ears and your eyes to the ground in order to help government tackle this kind of problem.