The Chairman, Senate Committee on Army, Senator Ali Ndume, in this interview with SUNDAY ABORISADE, explains why the war against insurgency still lingers in the North-East geopolitical zone and efforts being made to address it, among other issues
There are claims that the renewed insurgency started because of the withdrawal of Chadian troops following the alleged refusal of the retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari regime to renew the agreement reached with the neighbouring country by the Goodluck Jonathan-led government. Do you also think so?
Strategies in government are not something that we should be discussing on the pages of newspapers. Even the Nigerian Army cannot disclose such sensitive issues to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Army. It is a security matter. However, when we expressed concerns about the withdrawal of the Chadian troops from the operation, the Nigerian Army explained that the military Joint Task Force had not been dismantled but that there was a shift in position. The troops are in four countries. The military authorities said when there is a shift in their operations, it does not mean they have withdrawn from a particular country.
They said the troops, after completing a particular assignment, would move to another place. The Joint Task Force, with its headquarters in N’Djamena (capital of Chad) is still there, operating. They also said that the Nigerian contingent deployed in the operation is still there too. It is only that some soldiers who are part of the joint task team, placed in the Nigerian territory, have shifted, which is a normal military exercise. The joint military operation in the Lake Chad is still ongoing. A Nigerian military general is even coordinating it now, from what we were told. Our initial thought was that the joint military task force consisting soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, had been dismantled but that is not the case.
What is the update on the situation at the three local government areas still being administered by the military authorities since the civilian administrators disappeared following frequent Boko Haram invasions?
The situation is still the same in the affected three local government areas which are in the Borno North Senatorial District. The governor recently visited the areas to see how infrastructural amenities could be provided there because we cannot ask the people to return without putting necessary infrastructure in place. For instance, there must be access to water, good roads, accommodation, schools, and health care facilities. The entire place has been destroyed. So, it is not as if the place is under the control of Boko Haram.
The military institution is there but the civilians have fled to Monguno (a local government area in Borno). They are eager to return to their ancestral homes. The governor had visited those taking refuge in Monguno to supervise the distribution of relief materials and other assistance to the internally displaced persons there. As for my local government areas, Damboa and Gwoza, which are seriously affected, people are now returning to Gwoza, especially the council headquarters. The place is filled up because people are returning there daily. The displaced persons are tired; they really want to return home because there is no place like home. The intensified war by the military against the insurgents following a public outcry, especially the National Assembly, is giving hope and confidence to the people to return to their deserted homes. The soldiers are not only repelling the insurgents but chasing them to their hideouts.
The people of your geopolitical zone are complaining that the North East Development Commission has done nothing in the area despite the N36bn so far approved for their activities. Are you not worried by this allegation?
Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari approved the release of N10bn for the take-off of the North East Development Commission and also approved an additional N26bn out of their annual N46bn budgetary allocation for last year. The funds were released between November and December last year. We have told the new management of the agency to make sure they utilise the funds to address some critical and immediate humanitarian needs of the people. These include provision of food because they no longer have access to their farms. They also need clothes, basic medication and support to rebuild their homes already destroyed by the insurgents.
But officials of the North East Development Association told journalists in Abuja recently that the management of the NEDC was not doing anything of such for the people in the area….
The National Assembly has been on break but now that we have resumed, we will investigate all claims and allegations concerning the agency. The Senate Special Duties Committee, of which I’m a member, has written to the NEDC to make available to us, details of their budgetary allocations for the last quarter of 2019 and what they have done with the funds allocated to them so far. It is when the information that we requested are provided that I will be able to authoritatively speak on the allegations against the management of the NEDC. It is only then that I would be able to determine whether they have performed well or not. Since the agency is still new, it may be facing some challenges. The management may have to settle down first.
Also, due to renewed insurgency in the area, they may have difficulty in accessing some areas with a view to responding to the humanitarian crisis there. I’m aware that they are working jointly with the state government as regards addressing humanitarian needs. In December 2019, we supervised the distribution of 15, 000 bags of various types of food items to the people there and I know that the NEDC contributed part of the items. For now, there is a synergy between the NEDC, NEMA and the state government. I don’t know the level of NEDC’s commitment until we sit down with its management to analyse their response to the letter we wrote to them.
Why is the agency still in Abuja? Why has it not moved to Maiduguri where it should be attending to the needs of the people it was created to assist?
I understand that they are still working on their permanent head office. The Abuja office is just an annex. They actually stay more in Maiduguri now. I know that they are trying to put their Maiduguri office in place but I don’t know how far they have gone about it.
Nigerians and even the House of Representatives have called for the sacking of the service chiefs because people feel they are tired and have run out of ideas. What is your opinion on this?
We have a President who is a retired general. He knows how to fight wars because he was trained to do so. He appointed those service chiefs. They are accountable to him. So, the President is in a better position to know whether they are overdue or not and whether there is a need to bring in new service chiefs.
But do you think they should stay or be sacked?
Honestly, my own take on it is that the President knows better. Assuming that people are saying that a set of army personnel that have been fighting insurgency in the North-East should be changed so that new tactics could be experimented, it would have been a different thing but when they are saying that the heads of the military arms should be removed, it will still be the same hierarchy because those who would replace them are still within the system, and not from outside. The President, who appointed the current service chiefs, knows why he is still keeping them. He actually knows better.
There is problem of coordination of funds and materials meant to tackle humanitarian crisis in the North-East, why is this so?
There is deficiency in the law and procedure guiding the activities of donor agencies. The humanitarian agencies are operating under the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. They have a process of disbursing funds and relief items through the National Humanitarian Response System. So, it is not entirely under the control of the Nigerian Government. But there should be synergy between the humanitarian actors, that is, UNOCHA, international non-governmental organisations, Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, state governments involved and even the local government councils. However, such synergy is either not effective or nonexistent. That is what causes the lack of efficiency, hence the recent accusations and counter-accusations about funds and materials’ disbursement.
What is the casualty figure since insurgency started in the North-East, over 10 years ago?
It is on record that 1.7 million people have been displaced. Also, over $9.2bn worth of damage has been inflicted on Borno State alone. About 60, 000 children have been orphaned. Only God knows the number of children that are out of school or facing the challenges of malnutrition. Only God knows the number of people that do not have access to water, health care facilities and even security, which is the most serious one. Millions of people no longer have access to their means of livelihood, which is basically subsistence farming. So, the humanitarian crisis arising from insurgency may even be more serious or dangerous than the war itself because in the last 10 years, many children have been out of school.
What is your reaction to alleged cases of human rights abuses by the military and others saddled with the responsibility of providing welfare for the victims of insurgency?
The allegations against the military may not be entirely correct because the military is a very serious and disciplined institution. The military personnel only provide perimeter security for towns, villages and camps in the area. They don’t have direct access to the people. Those that deal directly with the people are volunteers like personnel of the National Emergency Management Authority and the leadership of the camps. There may be isolated cases but it is not common, if it exists at all.
Is it true that there are no civilian administrations in areas mostly affected by the insurgency?
What I discovered now is that the victims prefer military authorities to handle disbursement of relief materials and money because they trust the soldiers that they would do justice to the donations. In my local government area, military officers go out of their way, outside their duties, to gather children, teach them, and provide free writing materials and books for them. In fact, soldiers have now taken up the responsibilities of magistrates because couples now take issues bordering on their domestic affairs to soldiers for peacemaking.
Wives usually report their husbands to the soldiers so as to help them settle their private affairs. This is because in my area, for instance, we no longer have judges, teachers, health workers and even the local government administrators because they are no longer there. It is the soldiers that have now taken up the responsibilities along with the non-governmental organisations. There was a day I visited Pulka and met a popular woman in the office of the commanding officer. When I asked the CO about the woman’s mission to the place, the CO said she was there to report her husband over a quarrel. According to the CO, the woman said she could no longer live with her husband. So, it was while the CO was expecting the woman’s husband so that he could settle the matter for them that I met her there. There is a particular soldier that my people always call when they are being attacked by snakes.