For quite a while since he wisely recoiled to his cocoon after his prolonged trial for allegedly sponsoring Boko Haram insurgency, Senator Ali Ndume has been out of the news camera lens, presumably to avoid undue controversy. When the Chairman, Senate Committee on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), however, eventually decided to bow to the pressure from our correspondent, ADETUTU FOLASADE-KOYI, for this no-holds-barred interview, he spares no words on excessive powers of the governors. He raises the alarm that they are already arming militia groups for 2015 election. Excerpts:
How is Borno State now after the declaration of the state of emergency?
Well, it’s improving. Yes, the state of emergency is actually working because we know where we are heading to now. In those days, it was really chaotic; we didn’t know what was going on. But now, Maiduguri, for example, is safe and some local governments have been recaptured. Life is gradually coming back to normal, although we have some challenges in some local governments like in my local government.
What are those challenges?
The major challenge was that first, when Boko Haram was pursued in Sambisa which is contiguous to my local government, they invaded my local government, killed and maimed many people. As a result, people started running away, especially the Christians. Again, when the military moved in and there were allegations of extra-judicial killing as well as the issue of military over-stretching its boundaries, people became scared and moved massively to Cameroon from the eastern part of my local government particularly Gwoza East. They simply moved to Cameroun.
Are they back?
The last I heard is that the Deputy Governor of the state went to plead with them to come back. Some are already coming back home. My Emir personally sent a delegation to beg them to come back home. But because of the fear of extra-judicial killing, many of them are still reluctant to come back. The greatest challenge we have now is that as the rainy season approaches, people are scared of going to their farms. Besides farming activities, the general economic activities are disrupted; telephone facilities are disrupted, even commercial activities have been disrupted. But then, there is no price for peace. It’s only when there is peace that you can talk of something else. I want to say here that the state of emergency is working. But the government needs to put in more effort in terms of security and welfare because section 14 (2) (b) of the constitution ties the purpose of governance to welfare and security of the citizens. It’s the main purpose of government. So, as they are taking care of the security issue, the government should also concentrate on the welfare of citizens. I am glad to note, however, that after our plea that emergency relief materials should be sent, the Federal Government has responded. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is there fully on ground and I heard yesterday that government had approved the release of 300 trucks of grains. That is a very commendable effort. It’s now left to our people to make sure that the grains are well used.
Is the Federal Government adhering to National Assembly resolution not to touch funds of states under emergency rule?
I don’t think government has touched the money because if they had, we would have heard the outcry from the affected states by now.
Borno State Government claims to spend N300 million per month on JTF. How true is that?
Yes, it’s true.
Is your state that buoyant?
No, we are not! Nothing is moving right now. Security is the first thing. I don’t want to say that a governor is lying but it is true that the state government spends at least N200 million to N300 million monthly to fund the JTF.
But the same JTF is accused of extra-judicial killings.
Yes, they are. There are cases of extra-judicial killings that have been reported. But I think with the new set of special force that was deployed, they are better than the original JTF. You should know that there are two operational things involved. There’s a Special Force that was deployed in the state of emergency and there’s the JTF that’s been on the ground for two years which has not been able to solve the problem. It’s the intervention of the Special Force that now arrested the situation and sent away the insurgents from their strongholds. They are now back to the cities, complementing the efforts of the Special Task Force. Again, there is a recent development of what is called the Civilian JTF. Maiduguri is relatively peaceful now, except that people are still scared. But normalcy is gradually returning. I think the few remaining black spots in Borno State are actually Gwoza, Bama and Dambuwa; just three Local Government Areas. These are the black spot areas for now.
You were accused of being a sponsor of Boko Haram. Has the Presidential Amnesty Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North which has been going round approached you?
Well, Adetutu, you were the first person I spoke with on this issue of Boko Haram. I try to avoid speaking on issues that border on security, especially the Boko Haram that is so serious.
I asked you because a member of this Seventh Senate is a part of that committee. So, what’s happening?
Well, maybe they know that I am not a sponsor or member of Boko Haram because the question that is begging for answer is this: before you engage in dialogue, are you not supposed to talk to the sponsor? Nobody, I repeat, nobody, except you now, has ever approached me to say, ‘look, we are giving you people amnesty, talk to your boys.’ Nobody has done that. The last time we spoke, I told you I was in court and this matter is subjudice. I don’t want to talk much about it, but let me state clearly that they know I’m not a sponsor of Boko Haram. If I am a sponsor, it would not have been like this. The problem would not have gotten to this level because the government would have known who to talk to directly. At one time, government was confused; they said Boko Haram didn’t have a face. But as I sit across this desk before you, I have a face. You can see me. Can’t you? On one hand, people are saying they can’t see Boko Haram, they don’t know their members. On the other hand, they are saying a Senator is their sponsor. Now, government has set up a committee to engage in dialogue with the group. Yet, nobody, I repeat, nobody has invited me to get my input as to how this problem would be solved. But I am glad that the committee has dusted our report, the initial Presidential Committee set up to talk to Boko Haram. If they had implemented the report as early as possible, maybe the situation wouldn’t have gotten to this level. Even the person that they said I communicated with; let me make this very clear, the first time I saw him in my life was at the SSS headquarters when I was arrested. Can you conspire with somebody you’ve never seen in life?
The report is that you were in constant communication with the convicted Boko Haram member-Umar Sanda Konduga.
I am a Senator, representing Borno South senatorial district. In Borno South Senatorial District, there are Boko Haram members, there are non-Boko Haram members; there are criminals and there are innocent people. Anybody can call me. The truth about it is that the first communication I had with Umar Sanda Konduga was actually a threat as a result of my assignment. He threatened me and that was the first contact and it’s on record. I had no communication with him. My first contact with him was a threat he sent to me that he was going to deal with me because we conspired to write a report that was favourable to government. That was the beginning. But as I said, I will not want to go too deep. Let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about the MDGs.
Do you support state governments arming militias? This is against the backdrop of the allegation that you are also a sponsor of ECOMOG in your state. In fact, you and your former state governor, Senator Ai Modu Sheriff, are said to be sponsors of ECOMOG.
(Cuts in). Are you actually talking about me? I don’t even know whether to sue you for this allegation because you are making a statement that is not true. You’d better mention the person who actually sponsored ECOMOG because I was not in a position to sponsor ECOMOG. I and my former governor never got along right from the outset. I have never supported the ECOMOG people. I didn’t even support the formation of the ECOMOG group. Initially, they were not called ECOMOG; they were called Super Youths or something like that. I insisted that the group should be disbanded and certain work given to them to keep them busy in future and not to be used as a political tool. I have never associated myself with political thugs. Never! I have youths who support me even in Abuja here. I have more than 3,000 of them from my village here in Abuja looking for a means of livelihood. I have never been a part of what Ali Sheriff does. You are the first person accusing me of that.
That’s the story out there.
Oh, because you fear Ali Sheriff, that’s why you were initially reluctant to mention his name? But because Ndume is the short wall that you think you can jump over, that’s why it’s so easy for you to associate me with ECOMOG? Nobody has ever associated me with ECOMOG.
Do you then support state governments arming militias?
I don’t support that. We are always deviating from the truth in this country; we are always deviating from the original matter. There’s insecurity in this country. Why is it that there’s insecurity in the country? It’s because some people are carrying guns and intimidating others. Isn’t it? All these Boko Haram we are talking about, if they don’t carry guns, you, Adetutu, as a woman, you can face them and disarm them because they are tiny young boys who are not even well-fed. They scare you because they carry guns. This is where my point of argument starts and I want you to get it clearly. Harmless people are being intimidated because we have constraints from the Police and other security agencies. But if somebody knows that you have a gun in your house and he comes with a gun, will he enter your house? Of course, the answer is no! That is what I’m saying that guns shouldn’t get into the wrong hands. Government should concentrate on making sure that guns do not get into the wrong hands. Again, there’s the clamour for a state police and some people are supporting it. Don’t you think the governor would have much influence over them than the Federal Government? By supporting a state police, you are also supporting the arming of local militias.
Is that your interpretation?
Yes! The militias are vigilantes; even the police recognize them and give them support. But what I’m saying is that the Federal Government must have a way of policing these militias created by state governments so that they won’t be abused. That’s my own position. The Federal Government should concentrate on arms control. Now, the spin is that governors are arming militias for the 2015 elections.
What’s your take on this fresh constitution amendment?
I have canvassed mid-term elections on the floor of the Senate. Let us conduct mid-term elections so that when your people no longer want you, you can leave with dignity rather than wait for them to throw stones at you or fight you. If after two years, I go back to my people and they start grumbling or I see that my acceptance rate has gone down, then, I should be ready to pack up and go.
What about the single tenure and immunity clause?
This single tenure issue comes because instead of giving more power to the people, you are trying to use democracy to take away power from them. When I heard the proposal, I asked: where did these people get this from? I learnt it was not on the table for discussion. And that’s why you saw that it didn’t fly because it wasn’t on the table for discussion. I even heard that it wasn’t as if all members voted 100 percent for the proposal. I’m an advocate of democracy and the most important ingredient of democracy is election. If you can do it even on a monthly basis, that would be better. After one month, if a Senator is not performing well, you can get rid of him. But the cost of election is so high and we’ve not gotten it right yet. If you have an election process that is right, I support we have mid-term election so that the period would be used to pass a vote of confidence on an elected representative or office holder. But when you say single tenure of six years, it means that he would be busy mopping up whatever he can mop up in six years because that is his one and final chance. I support two terms of four years. We are copying the American system of democracy but why do we take the head and leave the leg. It is working in America; it should work in Nigeria too. In America, there’s mid-term election. There should be mid-term election in Nigeria. People should be given the opportunity to throw a leader that is not performing out. Democracy is all about power to the people. And what is that power? It is their votes. Four years is even too long. I’m against six-year single tenure. I don’t know why people like democracy but fear elections. Consensus by some parties is most undemocratic.
Is this constitution amendment not too frequent?
There’s nothing wrong with amending the Constitution as many times as possible. The Constitution is just like your composition. If you look in the mirror and you’re not comfortable with the hairstyle, you change it. Anywhere we feel it’s not working for us, we change it. There’s nothing wrong with that, though I won’t support the high frequency. But this criminal aspect of the immunity clause should be removed because it has been abused.
How do you mean?
The executive office holders can be immune from civil cases but not a criminal offence. And come to think of it, why wait for someone to leave office before you go after him? I don’t support that and I don’t support having civil immunity removed. Another clause we really need to expunge is the joint states and local governments account because we are operating as if we don’t have local governments now. It’s either we have true local councils that would carry development to the grassroots and you give them their money or we eliminate the local governments. But I have a fear the governor may use their excess power to kill this proposal at the state by arm-twisting the state assemblies. The last time we gave them financial autonomy, which we believed was good for democracy, the state governments thought that it would be taking away power from them; so, they frustrated it. I think there’s excessive power in the executive that needs to be checked because people tend to abuse those powers. That’s why you see in Nigeria, governors privatise and personalise government. That is why you see a situation where if the president is not around, nothing moves. Likewise, if the governor is not in the state, the state closes. The same thing happens at the local government level with respect to the chairmen. Government has been built around the wrong people. We need strong institutions. Governments should be like a train, not a car. As at now, our government is not even like a car, it’s like a bicycle. If government is like a train, you can’t derail it. So, we should concentrate on building strong institutions.
What exactly are the MDGs?
They are eight goals signed into by 189 countries in 2000. The first goal is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. The second goal is to achieve Universal Basic Education. Third is to promote gender equality and to empower women. The fourth goal is to reduce infant mortality and improve maternal health. Others include: combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, environmental sustainability as well as global partnership for development.
What is the deadline for achieving these goals?
It’s 2015 and we are moving nearer that in some areas. We cannot talk of all the MDG goals interdependently. We have to talk about them independently. If you are looking at all the wit goals at the same time, then, you cannot do an assessment of how far we have gone and how much we have achieved. But if you take them individually, you may be able to say we have done this, or we are lagging behind.
Are Nigerians gaining from the MDGs?
Yes! We are. We have gone on oversight and we have seen the tremendous impact. There is MDGs presence in each of the 774 local governments in the country. In fact, members of the National Assembly have their constituency projects incorporated in the MDGs. In 2012, MDGs Special Project passed the senate budget scrutiny with about 80 percent implementation. The impact is very visible.