By Anote Ajeluorou
A formerly a military administrator, Gen. Paul Ufuoma Omu (rtd) is the current chairman of National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Jos. Unlike his peers, he did not respond to the lure of partisan politics. Describing himself as a peace-loving and community man, Omu has, since retirement, turned his attention to the age-old fish-farming renowned in his Igbide, Isoko, Delta State, community, with his Akia Agro Alied Products Ltd. He, nevertheless, had a fair share of woes many suffered in last year’s floods that ravaged parts of Delta State, that swept away his 40 ponds and from which he is gradually recovering. In this vintage chat, Omu takes on the daunting challenge insecurity poses to the country and how government can make appropriate responses
What would you say is the genesis of the security challenges the country is facing and what appropriate responses would you recommend?
It’s very difficult to trace the genesis or the cause of all these security challenges facing the country. When I was in service, we had what we called internal security operations and the way we were taught by the British was that any act of terrorism or militancy develops from stage to stage – at a stage, it is peaceful demonstration before it goes to outright violence and militancy and terrorism. Then we had what we called ‘disperse or we fire’, which was the sole responsibility of the police designed for internal security. The military was for external and territorial integrity of the country. When the police are unable to cope with security, then they call for military assistance.
And the populace knows that the army does not shoot to maim or throw teargas. We were trained those days to use the megaphone to announce to the rioters, ‘In the name of the Queen, I order you to disperse’. You announce it three times. If they don’t disperse, you aim at the leader of the gang or demonstrators. And you don’t fire to maim him; you fire him done. But what is happening now is evolution of dissent; it isn’t the way we were taught. In other words, it doesn’t start from peaceful demonstration and progresses to violent demonstrations. Now you just find that there is a riot and immediately people are dead! There’s a riot today and before you know it so many police men are dead, so many civilians are dead and soldiers are called in and people are dead. So the pattern is completely different.
Now look at the evolution of Boko Haram; it’s not an agitation against unemployment or poverty per se. If what they are doing in the north is really anti-social dissident group. You can’t be talking of burning schools; in fact, they have destroyed many primary and secondary schools. How do you classify that? They attack police stations, custom stations and recreation centres and outright bombing of worship places in session. Now it’s difficult to place. They say Islamic religion is a non-violent one, but you can place your fingers anywhere in the world and see Islamic fundamentalists. Why must they go by that name? So, Boko Haram has some religious connotations whether they like it or not. Whether they deny it or not, it has some religious connotations because the Christian doctrine is non-violence and that is why Christians have not retaliated, and yet they keep bombing churches.
So, it beats my imagination and that is why I bring it down to evolution and nobody knows why it’s growing like that. You know of the Maitasini uprising in Kano in the 1980s. Luckily, I was abroad and when I came back I took over the command of 3 Brigade in Kano. The Maitasini had really been routed. Now, a year after, it reared its ugly head again in Maidugri and they were wiped out; the leader then was said to be Cameroonian. Maitasini was also anti-social; they didn’t want any anything modern that is Western oriented.
Ironically, they use Western tools to facilitate their nefarious activities. Why so when they condemn Western lifestyle so much?
Unfortunately, they use Western-made bombs, guns and instruments like internet and all that to carry out their attacks even as they reject Western ways of life! Their leaders drive Jeeps. They use the Internet. That is why I say it beats my imagination. They are destroying MTN and Airtel communications facilities because they now know that they are using the systems to track their telephone conversations and sometimes pinpointing their hideouts. Now they are blowing up communication masts and schools whereas Islam itself lays so much emphasis on education and learning, on the acquisition of knowledge.
So, I’m yet to understand what this sect is really out to achieve. I can’t say how government can negotiate with them. Should government close down schools to soothe? What are they out to achieve? If it’s political, it’s being hidden. What are the issues to negotiate? Now the militancy in the south, although they got too violent at a stage, but their violence was restricted to the oil producing companies because the companies had defaulted in so many ways. I mean, take this is Igbide community for instance; there is nothing to write home about. I mean, if a foreigner comes here and you tell him it has been producing oil for 45 years here, he will say, ‘how?’ And the same goes for all the other communities in Isoko and Urhobo in Delta State and the entire Niger Delta. Absolutely nothing to show for the huge oil resources that has been exploited in these areas! So, militancy here was a sort of bottled up anger; people were fed up with what the companies were doing. And so, we the leaders in these communities, the educated elite including myself, had lost all credibility among the young ones that had grown up in the space of time oil was being siphoned from these communities with nothing to show for it.
So, they began to ask questions, ‘what did you do when so much was being taken from our land and nothing being given back – no roads, no water, no jobs for the youths, no amenities of any sort?’ But you have to blame the government also because the oil companies will tell you ‘we are operating according to the laws of the land, with government that says it owns the land. Federal Government says it owns the oil, so it dictates. Government has the largest equity shares, 51 per cent of the oil being produced. So Shell will say, ‘look, we’re partners with the government; to execute any programme we have to take permission from the majority shareholder’. So, to a great extent, the oil companies were manipulating under the cover of weak government regulations.
So, the militancy in the Niger Delta was completely different from what is happening in the north. You could pinpoint the root causes – people were not empowered to do anything. But when the militants were agitating, they were not burning down police stations or churches or mosques or schools because they knew they needed the schools.
Has government acted correctly, satisfactorily on the Boko Haram issue even as the bombing continues?
You know this is purely national security matter. You and I are lay persons as far as the nitty-gritty of what national security is all about. What I’m trying to say is that there are so many things that are still top secret which we don’t know. I think the government has done so well. On the issues of negotiations, what are the points to negotiate upon? The points are not clarified. In the case of the Niger Delta, the issues were known. People were bold enough to say, ‘ok, Wole Soyinka, negotiate with government’; they named people to represent them. But in the case of Boko Haram, they name people and the people will dodge. I think the people are ashamed to be associated with the organisation or the way they are operating. For government, I think I support the way it is handling it. You can’t negotiate with a man carrying a gun; they have to put down the gun because they not a government.
In international warfare, there is a ceasefire before peace talks are held. In other words, stop firing, put down the guns and let’s talk because you cannot be talking to a man who is firing at you. So government is doing its best; there certainly has to be a change of mind on the part of the leader of Boko Haram otherwise, it will be difficult to deal with them. Now, health workers are being killed. Why?
Why is it taking so long to nip them in the bud? The Maitasini didn’t take this long, did it?
Well, it’s taking this long because of the support they are getting, which we don’t know. The Maitasini thing was in Kano; the government was against it and the people were against it. They knew their locations and they flushed them out. But this Boko Haram are sort of spread out. I don’t know how to put it, but the government can’t just say ‘wipe them out’; government has to identify the cells and eliminate the cells until they now realise the game is over. And I think government is doing its best by identifying their leaders and arresting them, locating their hideouts, their factories where they make these crude bombs. As long they know they are being discovered like that they will fizzle out.
Wouldn’t you say there was intelligence failure on the part of security operatives that led to the ascendancy of this sect to have gone on with such impunity?
All over the world, there is usually intelligence gap or intelligence failure, not that it’s failure. But we are human beings. Look at the Irish Republican Army in the U.K.; they infiltrated London. With the security sophistication of the U.S., Osama Bin Laden was able to surprise the U.S. In fact, what they did to the U.S. was a big disgrace to their security; it was a big disgrace. The World Trade Centre was the heart of the capitalist system, and they hit it. And they also hit the Pentagon, which is the power of the U.S. military and they almost hit the White House. So you can never tell. You see, security is there but you can never tell with human beings. As I’m talking to you now you don’t know what is on my mind whether I mean what I’m talking to you now or not, you don’t know. Whether I’m even a Boko Haram man they plant in Igbide here to carry out attacks in another 10 years, you wouldn’t know. That is the problem with dealing with human beings. So there are lapses, but it’s not a failure in intelligence. It happens everywhere.
Apart from Boko Haram security challenge, there is kidnapping, job security and armed robbery challenges facing the country. What are the possible ways forward for the country from these threats?
The oil companies cannot provide jobs for everybody. The government cannot provide jobs for everybody. So, it’s the oil companies, the government and the private sector that provide jobs for the generality of employable people. Now, the attitude of a majority of the youth is not encouraging as most of them do not want to work. I think the fault of government is that private sector investment has not been addressed like the indigenous occupation of the local people. Like the Chinese say, ‘start with what you already know’. You cannot just bring a glass factory from somewhere and plant it in the Niger Delta; that is not going to work and it didn’t; it won’t employ many people. Rather, it’s the traditional industries that should be encouraged first.
Now in these parts, we’re fish farmers, palm oil collectors, cassava and yam farmers. Take myself for instance; I’ve tried in the past 20 years after service to tell the people, ‘let’s practice what we know best’. Now, in this Igbide community, we have over 80 fish farmers that have grown over time. My farm, Akia Agro Allied Products Ltd, is a sort of nucleus for this. But they are not making much progress because they are not getting any input from government. What I mean by input from government is what government can provide to enable them practice modern fish farming. We require electricity – you have to circulate water, you have to bring in fresh water. You must have special nets, chemicals, access to good roads. In commercial farming, you have to have modern tools that are not indigenous to the people. If you don’t have these, no matter how grandiose your plans are, the feasibility cannot work, which will be written on the assumption that electricity works, water is available.
The problem now is that the private sector that would have taken a lot of these youth off the job market is not being supported by government. The youth are there waiting for government employment or work in oil companies. Government or oil jobs are highly technical in nature and cannot absorb everybody. So, the oil companies cannot employ these youth the way we expect. The only people employed by the oil company in Igbide oil flow station are just about four or five persons as security personnel and metre readers for over forty years. When you talk about jobs for the masses, the oil companies may not be where to look at.
The best way would be to modernise the production of cassava, yam and fish farming, harvesting of palm fruits and processing them in commercial quantity for markets outside the area. Government also cannot employ more than one per cent; already government is over-bloated with unnecessary hands. That is why nothing is moving.
So perhaps the best way is to devolve powers from the federal government to the states for fiscal federalism to operate. What would you say about ongoing constitutional efforts to address some of these issues?
If you ask me, I’d say there is nothing wrong with the federal system of government. A federal system of government is ideal for a plural country like we have. But we are not even running a federal system today in Nigeria. What we are running is a sort of centrist government system. Only a few control everything and the others run to them cap in hand to collect tokens. There’s no fiscal federalism. In a federal system, you should control what you have, what you produce. Where you generate funds or natural resources, you pay tax to the centre. Look at the argument that anything below the surface of the soil belongs to the federal government; that is absurd! If you interpret it correctly, even the gravel or sand in the ground belongs to government. If you bury your mother or father too deep, it belongs to the federal government. People are saying it’s the fault of the militarisation of governance by the military; to some extent, I agree. The idea of running a central government by the military is what has bastardised the system of government.
But as the constitution amendment and debates are going on, I think we have to rethink them. Take the local government, for instance; how can federal government be distributing money to local governments? It’s the responsibility of states governments. The constitution is very vague, very contradictory on things like this. Lagos State Government tried to do something about it during the time of Ahmed Tinubu. But the Federal Government tried to use all its federal might to descend on them, but they resisted. In other words, what the state did was right. In other words, create these local governments as you can afford in order to get government closer to the people and to make administration of the state easy. Federal Government can’t divide 44 local government councils for Kano and 25 for Lagos; that is absurd. So, these things have to be corrected. If you remove that element of the money they collect from the federal government, ask them to go and run their local government on your own, you will find that all these agitations will cease.
How can the constitutional amendment rescue Nigeria from the ‘failed state’ tag dodging its heels?
Nigeria is really not a failed state. When you talk of failed state is where everything has collapsed and there is no recognised government. We still have recognised tiers of government functioning as at now. In my opinion, what is crucial that will make nonsense of the proposed amendment is vested interest; the legislators have vested interests. Look at the local government creation, for instance; the man representing Kano on the National Assembly will not vote for devolution of power straight to the states to administer because they cannot. They simply cannot sustain the 44 local governments in that state on their own without funding from the federal government; they cannot.
The man from Lagos will vote for it because that is what suits them. I think other states that are a little viable will vote for it, but most of the states are no viable. So, they will cling onto centralising power, centralising control of resources oat the federal government. So, these vested interests will make the amendment difficult to pass through. It was the military during the civil war that made the central government popular: ‘we’re fighting a war; let’s put all the resources in one purse to prosecute it’. And the war finished and we failed to return the fiscal structure to what it was. It suits some people; it doesn’t suit others. And if the people it suits are in the majority, this is a democracy; the majority may have it. But we will see how it goes.
Even the derivation formula is being threatened. The law says not less than 13 per cent; actually, it should be more than that. To get it up more than that to 14 elicits a lot of hue and cry. Even now some states are saying the 13 per cent is too much. Then some are saying, ‘what do you contribute to that fund you’re arguing against?’ Federal Account is monies collectable from productive states; what does your state contribute to this distributable pool? Absolutely nothing! Or for instance, in a recent argument, monies charged on tobacco or alcohol as excise duty is put in the distributable pool and you’re sharing it; states that say such money is corrupt or bad money are also share from it; sharia state like Zamfara take the alcohol money as share from the federal allocation!
So, the argument was, let only states that drink beer share money from the beer pool and states that ban beer not share from it. But those who don’t drink beer still want to share from it; so, this is the irony of the whole thing. But the debate goes on; one day, we will get there and get things right. I’m an optimist, and we need optimism to forge ahead.
Well sir, a lot of your colleagues who retired from the army at your level are in politics. Why did stay out?
Let me say, it’s my nature. By nature I love peace and people challenge that, ‘why then did you join the army?’ But I tell them, the army is for peace; it fights to create peace. You do not join the army to create trouble; you do to quell trouble and keep the country at peace. So by nature, I do not like to be part of things that would create unnecessary wahala for myself. I love peace. I’m a community man by nature. The first property I developed was not in Lagos, not in Abuja but here at home in Igbide. So, I come home regularly even when I was governor. Going into elective office would be creating trouble for myself. I just don’t want. My wife is a politician. If you ask her, she will tell you my husband is not a politician. I love my peace. That’s why I’m available for most community services and gatherings.
So, I love my peace, and that’s why I’m practicing the age-old occupation my parents taught me - fish farming. I’m encouraging others to go into fish farming as well. Unfortunately, the high floods of last year that wreaked havoc across the country wiped out all we had; everything. So, we’re starting all over again.