General Paul Alaowei Toun (rtd) is the treasurer of the Ijaw Elders Forum. In this interview, he spoke on the security challenges confronting the country, the fragile peace in the Niger Delta region and the need for President Muhammadu Buhari to seek foreign intervention to arrest the rising trend of arm banditry, among other issues.
The Niger Delta region has been relatively peaceful. What has sustained the peace in the region?
I suppose the previous government put some structures in place to address the issue of Niger Delta which is partly being addressed by the office of the amnesty programme. That to a large extent brought some relative stability in the region because a lot of restive youths are being trained and being supported by the best way the government could. But when you look at the major aspect of that initiative, real development has not taken place. That is why we are beginning to see some semblance of cult violence like we saw during the last elections when a whole community was sacked due to violence. We don’t want that to occur again and that is why we are speaking into their ears to avoid violence. This is the only state we have.
As one speaker observed in the workshop held in Yenagoa on Wednesday, May 22, to preach peace to the state actors ahead of the November 22, the political class which was your primary target was not adequately represented. To what extent do you think the workshop will impact on the overall conduct of the governorship aspirants in the election?
This is a process that just started. We are hoping that the message and the jingle will continue. This is to open the ears of those who care to listen because we knew that those who are vying for offices are not likely to come for the programme. But having people like former President Goodluck Jonathan and the governor being part of this initiative, I think we have succeeded in achieving something that will help the state.
How would you say the Niger Delta region has fared under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari in the last four years?
So far, in the last four years, I will say they’ve simply just maintained what has been started. They haven’t taken any fresh initiative that will help to maintain the atmosphere of peace in the region. And that is why we are beginning to see some groups who are coming up to declare that they would declare Niger Delta Republic on June 1. We don’t know how serious they are. But that is already a sign that something needs to be done. The amnesty programme is not enough to sustain peace in the region. There has to be developmental structures that would affect the lives of the people. That has not been done. Even the East-West road is already giving way. So, we have a lot of problems. But to be sincere, to develop this state is in our hands. The Federal Government will not do much for us. Whatever little income we have, we should use it to develop the state by ourselves.
President Muhammadu Buhari recently gave an expression of support for true federalism. Looking at his past body language, do you think the president is sincere with this change of mind?
We can only hope so. We know that a political statement is different from a statement that is meant to be implemented. There are political statements that are meant to just put the minds of the people at peace and change the nature of the conversation. But the real intention may not be what they are saying. If what he said is what he intends to do, then there is hope.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan spoke about the need for a reform of local government administration at your workshop. Do you also support the idea of power devolution to the local councils?
I think laws are being passed by the National Assembly so that funding can go directly to the local governments. If that can be done, it will go a long way to help the local government to develop. It will also mean you can hold local government chairmen properly responsible for the funds that are coming directly to them. At present, you don’t know what goes to the local governments. But with power devolution, everybody will know what goes to the local governments. You can hold the leadership of local government responsible.
But issues have also been raised about the quality of managers at local government level.
Capacity development is also the problem of the states. The state is supposed to initiate proper training on good governance at all levels. We need to build the capacity of leadership. If we do that, some will gain and some will learn. Bible says my people perish for lack of knowledge. It is not a onetime thing; it is a process.
Do you also think restructuring can lay to rest the ghost of separatist agitations that have been holding down the country?
Oh yes. If we allow regions to control their resources and pay some forms of tax to the Federal Government, that will go a long way because it will mean every region can look inward. Right now, they are not. Everybody is waiting for oil. There is a lot of wealth in the North; there is a lot in every region to develop without waiting for money from Abuja. There are some countries which don’t have oil, but they are forced to look inward to develop and they are breaking through. Some of them are the biggest economies in the world. How did they do it? If they can do it, we can also do it. It is just a matter of creating the right environment. Why shouldn’t we have enough supply of electricity? It is not impossible. It is very doable. We must look at the basic infrastructure needed for development to take place. We need constant light, we need capacity building. We have to invest in the people because it is the people who will use their brain to create wealth. God has already ordered us as human beings to go and govern the earth. To govern the earth, you have to create wealth. God has already given it to us. We have it in us. Man can turn his environment to little heaven. It is just for us to do the right thing.
You are a security expert. It appears the government is losing the battle against insecurity and banditry. What do you think the government is not doing right?
The government is in self-denial. A government that is not in self denial will know that the security apparatus has broken down and will do something drastic to arrest it. If it is beyond you, seek for help. There are countries which are ready to help you. If your security apparatus is not working, seek for help. There are countries that will help you to achieve what you want to achieve.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Muhammed, recently alleged that some people are fueling the crisis. How would you react to that?
That has always been the story. Who are the people? They are not telling us anything new. They should fish out the people who are responsible. Why are they telling us story? Why are they in government? We are not interested in your stories. Arrest the situation and fish out the people.
What is your expectation of the next level of the Buhari administration?
My expectation is for the people to prepare for a harder situation. If businesses are not moving, then we should prepare for a harder time in the next four years except through prayer and God’s mercy.
Will the citizens not be more restive facing tougher economic situation in another four years?
Maybe for the better! Why should we have the citizenry who cannot stand up for their rights? Maybe when there is hunger strike, people will stand up for their rights.