In this interview, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Christopher Musa, speaks on the rising spate of insecurity in Nigeria and efforts to contain it. He also speaks on the welfare of soldiers and other important issues.
I know your hands must be full with all the internal security challenges in Nigeria, the latest being the on-and-off issue of Plateau State. Around Christmas there was one in Bokus, now we are contending with another eruption in Mangu. Why is it that the army is being accused by both sides of being one sided in the conflict?
Well, if both sides are accusing the army, it means they have been neutral. It would have been worse if one side was saying the army was on its side.
The armed forces are trained to be impartial; and that's what we do wherever we operate. That's why it is important for people to understand that we are duty-bound to ensure that there is peace wherever we are.
When the incident started, the military got in, and we are trying to make sure that both sides are kept apart. But you know, because of the vast nature of the area, as you are holding this area, some people will sneak in through the other part and try to attack. This is what is actually causing the problem.
And you know the Jos issue has been there for a very long while - more than two decades. I can tell you that the decision is political, not military.
Why do you say so?
What are the agitations? Farmers-herders clash, the issue of indigene-ship. These are critical areas that it's not the military that will find a solution to.
All we can do is to stop the killings, but until the people also accept to stop, it will continue because we cannot be everywhere. That's why it is important for people to understand that we all need peace, and if we need peace, we all have to contribute towards ensuring that there's peace.
Have you been communicating to the political leaders on the need for them to fix the problem since you said it's a political problem?
Yes. And the political solution has to come from the federal, state and the local governments - all levels. That's why it is important; and it is dialogue. We must sit down and talk to ourselves truthfully. What are the challenges? Why have we not been addressing it? If you have an injury and you have been taking a particular drug and it is not healing, you know that you are not treating it well. So you should look for what is really causing this injury and treat it so it can stop.
But the peace talk you are talking about has been on for many years. You have peace committees in some states, you even have a whole government parastatal and agency that is to deal with that. Yet every short while there are these eruptions, why is it so?
Maybe it shows that probably we are not addressing the main issues. We must sit down and say what is causing this problem and how to solve it?
The farmers-headers clash for example, is a simple thing. I am a farmer and my animals are caged; I have them in a ranch. I have a grassland, where I feed them. We have to build ranches.
I was the first executive director of the Nigerian Army Farms and Ranches. Our animals are in ranches. We built pastures for them and they eat. In fact, it is when you even keep them within pastures that you make more money.
But you are talking of an institution like the military, which has deep pockets. What about the ordinary herder who has maybe less than a dozen cattle, they do not even own an inch of land? How do you make that transition?
That is why I have told you that it is a political solution. If the government wants to sort this issue, we will sort it out. Why am I saying that? We can build ranches for them.
Remember that in the 1960s, we used to pay taxes on animals. We don't do that anymore. The government can raise funds and build farm ranches for them, water bodies, dams, grassland and they will feed.
I remember that the previous administration toyed with that idea but not much was achieved. Lots of billions were voted for it but there was a lot of pushback from a number of states that did not want it on their land, what went wrong?
I think it was the approach. Frankly speaking, whatever challenge we are having is something we can easily sort if we are really ready. It is a very simple issue.
The North is blessed with a large landmass. And we have a number of dams. Let's get to those areas. The government can procure those areas and use them.
If you go to somebody's community and want to use his land and he says no, leave him and go to another place; he will come and beg you because he will need your meat; we will have to eat.
We have to look at these things decisively and be able to be dispassionate about it. If we do that, I can bet you that this farmers- herders clash will stop immediately.
So you feel very strongly that we are getting it wrong to think that it is an issue of the military coming down hard on the people?
No. The military can only stop anybody carrying arms. And you need to understand that crisis is a normal human activity.
Okay, look at what happened in Plateau. It was an issue that somebody's bike hit some animals that were grazing. Should that result to killings?
And because solutions have not been brought, impunity has set in. That is the danger.
So there is a limit to what the military can do"
We will do the best we can. But again, why should we even have these clashes?
That is why I told you that it is important to stop the animals and the farms apart.
But with population explosion and limited land, that is not possible; don't you think so?
No. I told you that at Vom, we have ranches; the animals are there. If you go there you would see one cow that looks like an elephant because it is eating well.
If you take animals and transverse with them over kilometers, they won't be healthy. What quantity of meat are you going to get from them?
It appears the authorities have not been communicating. Is there enough communication with herders' communities because this is something they inherited?
As I told you, discussions have been made, solutions have proffered, committees have been set, everything has been discussed, it is the ability to implement them that is lacking.
Is that conversation still holding at the high level where you sit with political leaders?
Yes. We can only suggest; we cannot enforce. So, we only suggest that for this to happen, we need political solution; and it is something we can do.
I can tell you that if we sit down sincerely and discuss these things, we will come to a solution, at least for the farmers and herders clash, to ensure that they don't meet.
Why is it that the military is unable to dominate the whole environment simultaneously - operate in Katsina, Zamfara, Nasarawa, Niger, and now, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), at the same time so as to deal with these bandits who have carved areas for themselves, and get rid of them once and for all?
You need to consider the landmass we are dealing with. The North is more than the size of some countries. So how many men do you think can cover it? We can't be a boot that will cover everywhere. It's not possible.
So you don't have the numbers?
Of course we don't have the numbers. But we now have to leverage on technology, which we don't produce. We have to buy, and the country is also going through financial challenges. The military is not the only people that need money. So we have to manage what we have.
Many people are saying that if we fix insecurity, other things can be solved. If you don't fix insecurity you can't fix the economy as farmers cannot go to their farms, do you agree?
I agree with you. But that's what we are doing. We produce crude oil in the South South but production has really gone very low; and because we are not producing enough, we don't have more money. And it is affecting the currency. But we are making efforts to increase production. Unfortunately, we are in all the six regions, which is not supposed to be.
It has been said that you are deployed in the 36 states, including the FCT, which is becoming a hot area in the last few weeks. You must be spread very thinly. How do you manage that kind of deployment?
What we try to do is work jointly to address these issues. We have the Army, Navy, Air Force and other security agencies. The police have more in number and are more widespread. We also work with Civil Defence to add up the numbers to make sure that we are able to address these issues.
But the truth is that prevention is better than cure. We must look for ways of stopping this thing from even happening.
Instead of getting troops to go and stop something, why not prevent it from happening?
Bandits are daring the country and poking their fingers into our eyes. Is there no concerted plan by the defence establishment to deal with it once and for all? Can't there be a timeline that we could put this behind us, even if it involves re-employing the recently demobilised servicemen?
We are recruiting new hands. A lot of retired people are very tired, so we don't want them to come and get themselves involved in this. They have rendered their services, let them have their rest.
The truth about the whole thing is the issue of good governance, equity, fairness, justice in everything we do. If we put these things in place, I can bet you that Nigeria will be better.
Now, you are telling somebody to be peaceful but he is hungry; and a hungry man is an angry man - no school, no education, no roads. This was how this thing started.
We should have stopped most of these things right from the beginning, but we still have the opportunity.
The armed forces are doing a lot. In fact, it is not every arrest or everything we do that comes to the news. But I can tell you that we are much with the little we have. All the security agencies are sleepless.
A lot of Nigerians are also sleepless, and they believe that the situation is getting worse. Look at what is happening in the FCT, for example. What is the way out?
Normally, it starts like criminality, gets to banditry and kidnapping, then terrorism and insurgency. That's the trend.
And it is always so when there is so much unemployment. We heard of somebody who even kidnapped himself. The society has its own issues.
So the society is too rotten for you to fix?
These are things that were alien to us. Unfortunately, we are losing family values. You would find out that even within a family, a brother will kidnap his younger or sister and tell their parents to pay. It is that bad because the society has been monetised. Everybody thinks that when he gets money his issues are solved. Those are the things we need to address.
Family values have gone down; that's why I appeal to religious leaders and traditional rulers to revisit our value system. We must put emphasis on bringing God, faith and sincerity in our lives. Somebody mentioned that Nigerians are religious but not godly.
That's a good point, but many people would say that we have gotten to that point when the military would reassure Nigerians of adequate protection from bandits. Can you do that?
We are dealing with an unconventional warfare, which has to do with ideology. And you cannot look at somebody's face and know what ideology is in his mind.
But banditry is pure criminality, which is different from Boko Haram.
Criminals work together, so good people must equally join hands to fight evil. The mistake we make is thinking that only the military should do it. No.
Who are the people funding those guys? People are trading with them. There are informants - those who call to tell them the movement of troops.
That's their business and they make good money.
Many people want to cooperate but they are afraid of the unknown; how would you encourage them?
In fairness, people are really reaching out to us. And it has helped us a lot. But we still have some people trading with them. We have doctors who go to the bush to treat them. In the North, we have women who carry their fellow women to go and give them at night to get money. It is that bad.
I have seen video clips of some of the bandits with musicians going to the bush and all of that, which suggests that there's another society there; why do you think the situation degenerated to this point?
It is true. And this is because maybe if the man goes to sing somewhere they might give him N5,000 and he could sing for those guys and they could give him N100,000 or N200,000, he forgets that it is blood money.
You are not communicating enough; not just the military but the authorities. What is your communication strategy?
We have discussed this. This strategic communication is very important. I think the minister of information, through the National Orientation Agency, is putting steps on ground to address it.
It is difficult for us to do the fighting and come out again doing the talking. And people tend not to believe what we are saying.
But the good thing is that I am sure Nigerians have now seen that they have armed forces that are sincere. We are sincere in all we do. When we make mistakes, we own up; we are human beings.
Yes, as you have done in the Tundun Biri incident. You promised to do an investigation but it has gone quiet; where exactly are we on that?
The investigation is going on. We don't want to rush them so that they don't oversee anything.
Is there a timeline?
In a week or two?
I can assure you that once it is ready the details will be announced. It will be published; there is nothing to hide.
People are concerned because when it happened in Nasarawa with slightly less number of casualties, there didn't seem to be an investigation, or at least the public wasn't told the outcome. Are you saying that this will be different?
I think that one way or another, information was passed. Again, sometimes we are not the ones who relay the information. When we get information we pass it through the channel and the announcement will be made.
But let me tell you the truth. When I was a theater commander in the North East - Harden-Kai - for 19 months - sometimes terrorists would come to an area with weapons to launch an attack and we would kill them, but before you would get there, all the weapons would have been hidden and they would tell you that they were civilians. In such cases, how do you tell the story?
We have had situations where we cleared a village, not knowing that they had hidden weapons behind. And they would dig them out and attack you from the rear.
So it is quite complicated?
It is very complicated.
There is also the accusation that some military personnel have been drawn into the war economy because they say that some of the dried fish we see from that area is controlled by them. Who are there?
Well, I don't know who is saying that because there's nobody on the high sea packing fish.
I am talking about the North East, especially the Baga area, which is famous for fish business.
What they do is to dry the fish and take it through Niger Republic; they don't come through Nigeria. And before you know it, they are taking it straight to Kano or some other places where they have markets.
So in your stint there you were never aware that soldiers were in the fish business?
No. We had reports of that, but I can bet you that we have standing court-martials for anybody caught. I have lists of people, officers and soldiers we jailed because of one misdemeanor or another. We don't hide anybody.
Have you improved in your recruitment system - do you engage in better background checks?
Yes. We don't do rush recruitment.
But sometimes you find that there are criminals in some security services; how do you intend to stop that?
As I told you, nobody can read the mind of a person. I can meet somebody and he gives you all the impression that he is a good person and you would believe, then suddenly, he turns to something else.
Who would have thought that Shekau would do what he was doing? When he started he was a petty trader, but he turned to a monster. That's why it is important for communities to always be vigilant. When you see somebody showing those kinds of character, don't keep quiet.
You hinted about oil theft because it is a big issue. Nigeria is in a big foreign exchange squeeze. Our budget cannot add up and all of that, and the only salvation could be higher crude production and sales, but for the last decade or so, the situation just seems to be getting worse. In fact, now you have a private contractor being asked to supervise some of the oil installations. Is that an admission that the military and the defence forces cannot guarantee this?
We cannot be everywhere. Maybe it is important for you guys one day to take a ride into the high sea. You will see the vastness of that area. It is massive. Nobody can say he is going to have total control of that area. So we rely on locals as we did in the North East - we worked with the Civilian Joint Task Force. We worked with hunters and vigilantes.
Wherever we are we employ the locals within the area because there are areas we don't know but they know. There are areas their boats can get to because they are smaller. And most of them know these people.
What new are you doing to limit or eliminate this crude oil theft?
We are emphasizing on the issue of widespread cover in the approaches. We are identifying the areas to cover so that even when you steal, you don't have where to dispense it.
Last two weeks, I had to fly to Escravos because of an arrest of a ship. We are doing that intensively.
Crude oil theft has been happening for so long, and some people feel it is their birthright.
And there are vested interests and powerful people involved?
So many; we have made several arrests but you still see the same ship coming back. But I am happy that measures have been taken. That's why you see that we had to go through the crude way - we arrest a ship and blast it. Unfortunately, it is a bad thing because of pollution and all that.
But we have found out that that's the only way. And since we started, people stopped leasing their vessels to be used for stealing because they know that they won't get it back.
But there have been accusations that soldiers, whether of the Navy or Army, are involved in escorting some of the thieves of crude oil; what's your take on this allegation?
Well, I cannot tell you 100 per cent that it is not true. We are human beings. No individual or institution is 100 clean, but I have told you that anyone we catch won't go free.
We have also encouraged other security agencies. The State Security Service (SSS) is doing a wonderful job, as well as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Once they get those things and give us, we pick them up quickly.
Do you have a means of keeping an eye on your men, especially those posted to this kind of sensitive areas where they suddenly become rich?
Yes; we have maps. We take advantage of our satellites. We have long- range cameras that can see from very far. We have drones we use now. We have so many things we have employed to get those things out. We are also searching inward. If we find anybody living above his means he would have to explain how he got his money.
What happened to the investigation before you became Chief of Defence Staff? I am talking about that General from Sokoto, the one that was found to have lots of money that some junior colleagues were transporting and they were trying to make away with it. It was reported in the media.
That was a long time ago.
But we never heard what happened.
He was court-marshaled and dismissed and the money was recovered. It was done.
And he was let free. He didn't serve any term or anything?
Well, it is the legal system. They have their way of doing it. I know he went through court but lost.
What about the general welfare, especially of foot soldiers. We no longer see those videos or audios of complaints from soldiers who said their allowances were not paid. Is there any conscious effort towards the welfare of the people who are putting their lives on the line for all of us?
When we started some years back, our ration cash allowance, what we call RCA, was just N200. It was raised to N500. Now it is up to N1,200. And I am sure you know what it means to feed yourself with N1,200 for a day.
I know the country is going through much but I think the troops deserve more. They stand 24 hours to make sure that other people can sleep. I know there are challenges and the economy is not too well, but I think we can do well. My private soldier collects less than N50,000 a month.
So the big amounts are only for Generals?
It is not any big amount. Everybody is going through the same stress. I have told you that they feed me on N1,200 a day.
That is if you are in operation?
So there's no distinction between a soldier and a general?
It is the same ration; we eat from the same pot.
Are you engaging with the legislature since they do the approvals? Do you think they need to understand the gravity of the situation?
Very well. Senator Ndume and many other senators and House of Reps members have been speaking on the need to look at the welfare of military personnel
What about the actual numbers? Since you are spread too thin, is there a plan to recruit more soldiers, especially since you have shown some aversion to remobilising the demobilised ones?
We do recruitment. I know that in the Army, every year we recruit nothing less than 12,000.
Is that enough?
It is not enough but efforts are being made to increase the number. The Police, Air Force and Navy are also recruiting. So it is not one-sided.
And I can tell you that what it takes to feed this number and sustain them is huge.
But we don't want to rush training because for us, a half-trained soldier is the most dangerous element. We want to make sure that once you do your first six months you would come out and we will give you another three months so that we are sure that when you go out you don't just go and start killing civilians.
I wanted to also tell you that sometimes this operation seems to be long because it is not like the conventional type.
Are you not using more technology and intelligence so that you can pinpoint where the bandits are and take them out?
We have been taking down most of their commanders. It is just a matter of time. I guarantee you that we will get them.
But they too are smart. They don't move as openly as every other person. We are following them and getting them.
If pushed to give a time limit, when do you think that, all things being equal, we could put this behind us?
For me as a commander, we could have finished it yesterday if we had all we required. My dream is that this year, we should significantly be able to make sure that there is peace in the country as much as possible.
We needed some weapons/equipment. The president has approved some funds. Once we are able to get them we will deploy. We have extended our operations.
Our appeal to Nigerians is that they don't demoralise our troops. I wish we could take them around to see what the troops are going through.