Aminu Isa Kontagora is a retired Colonel of the Nigerian Army and served as military administrator in Kano and Benue States during the administrations of the late General Sani Abacha and General AbdulSalam Abubakar. In this interview, he advised Nigeria and other governments in West African sub-region to tackle issues of poverty and unemployment facing their respective countries or be prepared to confront more insurgency. He spoke also on security issues such as Amnesty International report on the Joint Task Force (JTF's) brutality; the ceasefire offer by Boko Haram; mystery killing of Gen. Muhammadu Shuwa and how to tackle the insecurity in the country, among other issues. Excerpts...
What is your take on the killing of Gen. Shuwa?
Major General Muhammadu Shuwa was a civil war hero and that is to say he had sacrificed his life for the peace of this great country. For him to die the way he died was very unfortunate. I sympathized with his family and the people of Borno State.
What sort of personality was the General when he was in the Army?
I can only rely on what I read about him on his conduct as a General Commanding One Division. Because he was a very senior general, I never worked with him directly. By the time I came to the service he was gone. I can only say he was a calm General who took pains to check the details and always made sure his troops were well prepared before he launched them into an operation. To such a General, you should attribute some degree of calmness, in-depth study and understanding of operational orders and instructions before they were released to subordinates.
Boko Haram claimed it did not kill Shuwa, what road will you say was not taken in dealing with the sect?
I think it's not about what was not taken, let me use the statement that was credited to them as the yard-stick. They said they regretted his death, they described him as a good man, and they also described his death as unfortunate. If one should take them by their words that they were not responsible for his death, it brings a new topic to the conflict in the North-East. It shows that either some criminal elements have begun to perpetrate havoc in the name of Boko Haram, which is unfortunate, or there are other groups emerging within the sect hierarchy, which again is unfortunate and will only compound the problem. In all, the killing of General Shuwa was really unfortunate.
If you meet the National Security Adviser, what would you tell him as the way out of the crisis?
The National Security Adviser is well-informed. He has many sources of information and he is surrounded by very competent Service Chiefs, very competent Inspector General of Police and other security services. My own contribution would be that the carrot should be dangled more while they are using the stick. Maybe this will cool down the temperature and open room for meaningful dialogue. We will remain in this situation now that there are suspicions of other elements benefitting from the crisis. Tougher measures, far reaching decisions, open and transparent approach should be taken to end the crisis.
You were a former Military Administrator in Kano State, did you at that time see this form of extremism coming?
If you check, as far back as 1978, the Defence Review of Nigeria by the Nigerian Armed Forces was that our population would be on the rise, the job market would be shrinking even though at that time it was growing but they projected that at certain time the labour market would be shrinking with time and the population would keep rising so there was the need to take some measures and those measures were taken by various governments, like provision of Free Primary Education, the provision of the National Directorate of Employment, The Youth to Farm Programme. Many of these programmes had been operated by successive governments to deal with this issue. In the case of Kano, definitely, if you go round the city you will see the massive population and you will see numbers of youths hustling to have daily meals.
You keep wondering if anything goes wrong in this city what will happen. It's the concern of every governor in Kano. We tried our best to see to how we could integrate some of the youths into gainful employment. I'm happy that the current administration in the state is looking in that direction too and the former administration under Malam Shekarau also tried to ensure some of them are engaged. They say an idle mind is the devil's workshop, so there is really the need to look into the huge unemployment in Nigeria not only in Kano alone so that we can as quickly as possible bring out some welfare packages that may not necessarily eliminate poverty but alleviate poverty among the youths even among some elders whose pension can no longer carry them and are finding it difficult to feed. This is a big challenge to Nigeria not to Kano alone. We have to look into the massive youths unemployment if we don't want another insurgent groups to emerge after we have successfully dialogued with the existing one.
How has politics worsened this crisis?
You need people to play politics, if reaching out to people who will support you is what remains for you to do, you shall do it. If you remember the sect even had a member in the former administration in Borno. A commissioner in previous administration in the state was a member of the sect. Maybe then the administration felt the need to bring them closer for the development of the state but where things went wrong is what I cannot say. But I think it showed the government's determination to go along with everybody.
Recently, the NSA said the sect has link with other terrorist organizations. How do you think this link can be broken?
I think for long as a country, we tried to live the Ostrich way. We tried to hide our head and think the whole body was covered. We did not take events happening in our neighbouring countries very seriously, we kept thinking it was their problem not until our recent crisis we knew that our neighbours problems could equally be our own problem. For long, there were crisis all around us. In Chad, Sudan, Central African Republic, some parts of Niger, Mali, Algeria.
For so many years these crises have been going on even in Somalia and if you look at it carefully they are people that are inter-linked, shared the same language with our borders, they also inter-married and some have relations from the other sides. The problem in Nigeria is not unconnected with the larger crises in the sub-region. To get a solution, it's not only Nigeria now that will dialogue with its own insurgents but even our neighbours must make efforts to bring peace within their own boundaries. This will help to sever the link with any extremist groups outside our borders. Now our fear about Mali is that it should not turn to another training ground as Afghanistan did in the past and what Somalia is now.
There is the need for ECOWAS or the AU in particular to harness its resources to handle the issue of insurgency and the world must equally participate effectively because in modern times the land boundaries are very artificial, anything can travel across borders, across shores so the European Union, United States and United Nations should help the African course to have a peaceful environment for the growth and development of African continent.
What will you say made Mali a fertile ground for insurgence training?
Once you don't have a centralized control or administration this is bound to happen. In the case of Mali, you are bound to have crisis. The emergence of the self proclaimed government in northern part of Mali is what is sending shivers not only to the sub-continent of West Africa but also to the world because we have witnessed the Algerian crisis for too long and you know Mali shared a very long land border with Algeria and Libya.
Libya is yet to be settled; the government there is yet to have definite and firm control on the country so if you allow that loose method of administration and unstable way of life you tend to breed forces that may be inimical to progress and good living of the people of the continent. That is the fear and why people are referring to Mali as the breeding ground.
Can you recall the extremism in this part of Africa?
Yes, for long we have been hearing of the Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, we know of the Algerian crisis after the Islamic Party election victory was annulled, we know that the crisis in Saharawi Republic in Western Sahara is yet to be resolved between Morocco and Western Sahara, we know aspirations of the Tuaregs in the region to form their own Republic, we know the Darfur crisis. All these have remained unresolved, we are aware of the counter accusations between Chad and Sudan over who is sponsoring elements of these insurgencies across each other's borders. We have all these existing crises that needed to be addressed.
Whether you call it extremism, moderate or liberal there are crises on the ground and mostly it's about opposing views. That was why some scholars called them opposing cultures. Some with the culture of peace, some with the culture of violence, some say it's culture of the West versus the Middle East and North Africa but I see it's more of the issue of poverty and dwindling resources.
The issue of pastoralists and the farmers over the dwindling space for the pastoralists to breed their cattle. That has resulted into a sort of tension in many countries including Nigeria. There is also dwindling water resources, the Lake Chad is shrinking in size and in water volume and these are sources of livelihood for millions of people in this part of the world so should anything happen in this area there is bound to be tension.
You can expect cattle rearer or camel rearer with about 300 of them not having access to water or grazing reserves. Also, there is this assumption that this people move along with a lot of wealth from the sales of their cattle so, if people touch their animals there will be tension. There is unusual high-handedness on offences committed by either the cattle rearers against the farmers and the farmers against the cattle rearers, so these are some of the issues on the micro level that are breeding new tensions and insurgencies.
More so, there is serious recession on the economy of the world not only in Nigeria, the west coast or North Africa. It was recorded that the North Africa has the largest number of youths unemployment in Africa. This is a very serious issue. Extremism will spread here as a result of joblessness, nothing to earn, nothing to eat, no support. I think government should introduce packages to address this or else, extremism will flourish. We must for now think of something in form of social welfare packages; we must key into the restructuring of our economy and put a stop to wanton stealing and destruction of public treasury for the benefit of everybody.
Members of the JTF have come under fire over brutality of innocent people in Maiduguri, Yobe and other places. Do you think they are frustrated?
The Nigerian Armed Forces were never frustrated by any operation or role given them by Nigerian government. I think we should appreciate the way they have handled the situation. Our misfortune as a nation over our own insurgency is that our insurgents are living with the people. It's not like in Somalia where you can identify an area where the insurgents are or where they administer or operate from. Unfortunately it's not like that in Nigeria.
If you go to Colombia the insurgents occupied a region there, the same with northern Philippines. You know where their boundaries are and where they operate from so when you are fighting them there is a clear demarcation. In our own case the insurgents are our neighbours. It's just that we may not identify them because they will not come and say they are insurgents and that is why the methods adopted in attending to the crisis by JTF may not be palatable to everybody.
You should also understand that the soldiers were trained in the spirit of camaraderie, you cannot kill their colleagues and expect them to come and clap for you or pat you on the back; it's not possible. First and foremost, they are there to protect the people why should people not help them to protect them.
Most of them are not from Borno but they were drafted there to make life easy for everybody, to let people move freely, do their businesses and do their living legitimately but if a group says no definitely, they are bringing suffering to the larger society. It takes hours now to travel across some parts of Nigeria, you keep complaining but it's not the armed forces that should be blamed they are only trying to solve the problem and that is why the cooperation of every Nigerian is required in resolving the crisis. There must be crime, they have been on the field for long so definitely when it's getting to a year or more there is bound to be frustration on the part of the public. I think some of the issues need to be reinvestigated before going to the press.
Are you saying these are why the people are not cooperating with them?
I don't believe they are not cooperating with the Nigerian Armed Forces in solving the issue. As we have discussed earlier over the killing of General Shuwa, the people they thought killed him have come out to say we did not kill him. Definitely, there are other interests groups taking advantage of the crisis in Borno and of course it's a crisis so anybody can talk but to solely dump the problem on JTF, I don't think it's fair.
They were trained, with capacity as the Nigeria Armed Forces, they are well organized with structures and I believe their commanders are working daily to make the operation people friendly. I have been to Maiduguri only once since the crisis started and once issues are based on allegations I don't believe commentary should be run on them. I believe there's the need for cooperation of the people of Borno and by extension their environs. I believe there are so many groups, so many associations working tirelessly to restore normalcy in that region, I know there were mistakes. In fighting a war there must be collateral damages, you cannot rule it out.
You cannot determine the final destination of the bullet that left the barrel of your gun so why not stop the cause of the bullet leaving the barrel? When we resort to dialogue with everyone involved, I think there will be peace and we can stop this unnecessary waste of lives and properties. The Nigerian constitution allows every Nigerian to practice any religion he so wishes to practice in a manner that it does not breach peace of the community. The Boko Haram has the right to preach and worship as Nigerians but the preaching and worship must not breach the right of other people. Your freedom stops where mine starts and mine stops where yours starts that means in anything we are doing there should be moderation for the general wellbeing of the community.
What is the way out of this, do we need more security gadgets, deployment of more troops to affected areas or support from foreign countries?
As I mentioned earlier, the insurgency crisis goes beyond our national boundaries, this means there is the need for cooperation from everybody that is peace loving in the world. We should be ready to accept support from any group that can bring peace and stability to the country so that our economy can flourish and the nation can progress. I don't think we need to deploy more troops there, instead I think we should deploy more mediators in the field. Also, more information should be made available to Nigerians.
If you read some of the Nigerian newspapers some people don't even know what is going on because somebody will just wake up one morning and blame what is happening on someone. Even the knowledge of the crisis is lacking among Nigerians and not until we are aware of what is going on I don't think we will get to the root of the issue. Boko Haram has been mentioning its own grievances let them also hear Nigeria's grievances and that will be the basis for a good dialogue.
They have been in existence for a long time not just now that open confrontation started, they have been around doing their normal preaching, converting people to their faith and belief. Don't forget there is a Catholic faith in southern part of Mexico, they pulled out of the main Catholicism and I saw them in one of the TV channels destroying schools because they considered it as devilish. That is their own understanding but what amazed me was that they held on to that belief yet they go about their businesses and normal lives with the rest of the people without recourse to shooting or killing.
You can see that there was understanding and that is what is required in Nigeria. We had Maitatsine in the 80's, later we had the Bulukutu crisis all centred around religious beliefs. We only need to sit down and resolve our problems and move ahead as a people why should anybody be in hiding, it's a free Nigeria. If I have to sell a book to you I have to convince you to buy and if I don't buy it, it does not mean I don't like your face and it does not mean you don't like my face either.
What do you think has made the crisis complex and appears there is no end to it?
Not that it's endless or complex, all non-regular organizations actions and inactions are complex in nature. Today, if Boko-Haram should announce that they are taking bombs to a particular place in Maiduguri everybody will be prepared. I know of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), whenever they were to strike they would not tell people they are going to plant a bomb but when they plant a bomb they would put sign to warn people they had planted a bomb.
You can see an insurgency with some human face, innocent people were alerted. Where insurgents' operation becomes complex military operation becomes complex too; intelligence and others also become complex but all these are sapping our energy. Before the crisis, the United Nations reported that the North-East region in Nigeria was the poorest. Most people in that region are considered poor.
Why should they continue the suffering. We can sit and discuss the issue and find lasting solution to it, why should we keep our people perpetually poor? The people of this region are very cultural people, they are so much bounded, they loved themselves so much so at times I kept wondering why they loved themselves to be in this mess for so long. They were always happy people. Maiduguri is one of the cities you would love to visit in the past. In the North in general, you wanted to be in Kaduna, Jos and Maiduguri because they were wonderful people but all of a sudden everything changed but I believe hope is not lost to restore it to them normal positions.
How do you see the sect's demand for General Muhammadu Buhari as one of the mediators?
One thing you cannot take away from General Buhari is the popular belief that he is a fair and just person. If the sect wants him in the mediators group I think it's based on that believe that with him they may arrive at a fair deal. But I won't advise him to take it because already there were people from the society accusing him of having link with the sect. I think that has automatically disqualified him.
What will you say are the security implications of all these on Nigeria?
There are so many things in Nigeria that require our attention not only on the crisis affected areas. I mentioned unemployment, the dwindling of the economy. If nothing is done we are heading for more crises. There is no house you go to now that there are no graduates sitting down waiting for a job or getting frustrated by looking for jobs. So the issue of the economy must be addressed.
We must know we have only one Nigeria to call our own; those in authority of affairs in government or private organizations must know that the country belongs to all of us and should stop stealing from our pockets. We must create an environment that is conducive for everyone including those yet unborn because poverty is everywhere, money is not circulating.
Will you blame this on failing of the system?
Which system? Agreed the system has its own weakness, but who is the system? It's me and you. If we as followers we don't follow diligently how can a leadership work diligently? Upon all these, we need a robust economy. I remember when General Babangida brought the idea of one woman four children there was nothing Nigerians did not say but unconsciously now, when you go round men are not even willing to marry these days talk less of even producing children. We should think and fashion out a system where everybody will be happy.
You cannot eliminate poverty; nowhere in the world where it has been eliminated, even in the advanced world poverty persists. In America, the poverty level has risen to 35 million. The danger is you could use anybody who is hungry to perpetrate any evil or killings because when they are hungry they are just hungry nothing more, and it has no other name. That is why we must try to reduce the number of people living in poverty. If we can reduce our poverty level to about 40 percent of our population all these crises will reduce.
Nigerian Army was described as unfit for frontline action in Mali by some Westers governments. What is your view?
What do they mean by unfit. We are in Darfur, in Sierra Leone, we were in Liberia what makes us unfit. If they were attributing our wide commitments in the internal security operations and our peace keeping operations that will not make us have enough troops to send to Mali but using the word unfit, I disagree.
Our troops are well trained, they can fight in any battle but if you say their commitment to internal operation and peace keeping operations will not give them room to send adequate troops because when they go to Mali they are going to face some forces and I know no Nigerian commander will want his efforts in curtailing a situation be in jeopardy. So we are very fit for any operation. Our commitment at home may not gives the room to redeploy the required number of troops there but they are ever ready and fit for any situation.