The National President of Middle Belt Forum, Dr. Pogu Bitrus, has said that Nigeria will be a united country if power rotates to the Southeast in 2023. Speaking with VINCENT KALU in an interview, Dr. Bitrus poignantly analyzed the insecurity situation in the country and warned that it would consume everybody if not tackled immediately.
Nigeria is being stretched to a breaking point, what is the reason for it?
It is insecurity, there is nothing special; particular people find it convenient to be kidnapping, attacking and all that. There is Boko Haram, which is being managed in the Northeast, and then the herdsmen in the Middle Belt, particularly Benue, Taraba, Southern Kaduna and all over the place. These things continue to escalate instead of de-escalating. Nigerians are getting fed up because it is happening everyday and they have reached maybe the elastic limit of tolerance. In elementary physics, reformation takes place when something reaches its elastic limit and it appears that we have reached that elastic limit. The situation is getting worse by the day in spite of calls and statements to government, people don’t seem to be satisfied and they feel there is no sincerity on the part of government, yet the situation is deteriorating by the day. In spite of all the promises rather than de-escalating, kidnapping is increasing. That is why the country is at the verge of only God knows what will happen.
How can we overcome this?
It is political will. When it comes to the herdsmen thing, those of us from the Middle Belt feel that there is an agenda. The local Fulani have coexisted with us all these years; we never had problems with them. Little skirmishes over grazing of cattle on people’s farms were resolved not even at a higher level, but at ward level, where the ward chief would come around and resolve the matter. It was like that. But this new thing is totally different, people who don’t have cattle move around and attack people, and Miyetti Allah would come and say their cattle had been rustled. There was never a time it was reported that somebody’s cow was rustled to buttress their point and even if their cattle had been rustled or taken by force by anybody, we knew before how such things were resolved, but now the situation is different.
Those of us in the Middle Belt saw it as a different agenda and later, former President Olusegun Obasanjo made a strong statement that there was an agenda to Fulanise and Islamise Nigeria. We thought that this will stop, but it didn’t as it has reached the Southwest, which is a monolithic group, and they don’t want to tolerate such thing in their zone and of course, they responded in a way that has heightened the whole thing and creating greater tension. This is where we are and we believe that if government has the will to resolve these issues, it can and go on with ranching, which we have talked about, now that the governors have also agreed. Some of us are not against assisting any farmer with some incentives because animal husbandry is going to benefit the nation, but it has to be done in an amicable way, not taking people’s land by force and giving it to Fulani.
If government presents a policy where land can be acquired whichever way and some infrastructure created not through whatever they call it, Colony or whatever; where these people can be integrated into communities, then the primary problem could be resolved.
However, if it has another agenda all together, then all we are proffering will be a cosmetic thing. Let the primary thing, which people are talking about be resolved, and if it didn’t stop then we know it is something different.
As Sheikh Gumi said he has been touring forests in the Northwest pleading with bandits to stop what they are doing, these bandits on Tuesday night invaded a school in Niger State and abducted about 27 students and 12 families. Gumi is asking for amnesty for them, but Governor El-Rufai thinks otherwise, what is your position?
Amnesty comes with a caveat. We don’t reward criminality by giving amnesty because we want peace; it means the country has failed. If these people are really genuinely going to put down their arms, then we can think of ways of accommodating them, which doesn’t mean amnesty as such. There are two or more categories of such people; there are those who are Nigerians and who have been part of this banditry and there are those who are not Nigerians, and I cannot say Nigeria should grant amnesty to somebody who is not a Nigerian and has come to terrorise Nigerians in their country. That is unacceptable. However those who are Nigerians and have been misled, we can still give some consideration, maybe out of ignorance they have been led into banditry.
The whole thing is the failure of our security system. If our security system was up and doing, we wouldn’t have degenerated to this position. It depends on who is in consideration – are they Nigerians, they can be treated as Nigerians, but I cannot think of any amnesty for foreigner who leaves his country and comes to Nigeria to kill Nigerians.
Many people wonder why the government is yet to declare these bandits and herdsmen terrorist groups, why?
Maybe, people high in government are complicit in this thing. If somebody is complicit in a particular crime that person will certainly not condemn the crime for whatever reason. So, I think the government is exposing itself by refusing to call them by the name they are supposed to be called. However, the truth remains that the international community has rated the Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria as the fourth most violent terrorist group in the world. If international community based on the data they have would rate these people in that category then it is unfortunate for our government not do to do the right thing, unless this issue of nepotism which is being reported is true that the government is favouring them because people in the office are their people and it will come down to reasoning that maybe these years the whole thing is a game being played by the same people who would not want to solve the problem; if there is the government hands in the whole thing then it is unfortunate, government cannot condemn itself. We are in a complex situation and the earlier the government comes out clean in this matter the better, because it is just delaying the evil day as the situation is deteriorating by the day. Unfortunately, if we are not careful we may come and find ourselves at each other’s sword. Only time will tell, but God forbid we should deteriorate to that level.
Bauchi governor, Bala Mohammed, recently justified reasons herdsmen carry arms, and at the same time, Benue governor, Samuel Ortom and his Taraba counterpart, Darius Ishaku proposed for citizens to bear arms. How do you reconcile these two positions and where it will lead us?
You have to place each one in perspective. The Bauchi governor said that the Fulani herdsmen carry guns to defend themselves from rustlers whether or not that is true is a question for another debate. The governor of Taraba said, yes, having seen so many atrocities; he lost chairman of local government, he lost member of the House of Assembly, and he lost one of his aides and so many others. He said, since the security men cannot defend us, we should have arms to defend ourselves. There are two different things, the so called argument by Bala Mohammed that Fulani bear arms for self defence against rustlers is neither here nor there. That means he is justifying criminality because they use it also to kidnap people, use it and rob and to seek for ransom. So, it is different ball game, while the Taraba governor is saying let’s defend ourselves, not let’s go and rustle and kidnap and rob whatever. There are two different things. There are some few arms, which are allowed by government, which people can acquire and use at home for security or whatever, though they usually register it as hunting guns. Bala’s position is different from that of Taraba governor because that of the latter is in defence from people who are killing and kidnapping, who are Fulani herdsmen; some of them don’t have cattle. Bala is talking in favour of the Fulani. So there are two different things.
We are in a democracy; we are a federation, and we copied our federalism from America, where people are allowed to carry guns for self defence, but we have not reached that age. However, as a federation, as a democracy, we should consider self defence in absence of protection by the security operatives that we have. Secondly, the governor of Taraba also said that we should practice true federalism which we copied from America, which has state police, county police etc. According to him, if we have police closer to the people, they will be able to defend us. He gave an option by saying let’s have state police, local police. As the federal police are not doing its job, then it means we have to own gun to defend ourselves. However since they cannot defend us let the government legislate so that we can own guns and defend ourselves. So, I don’t agree with Bala, and I just pray that the Fulani, especially Miyetti Allah changes their way of doing things. When they were killing people in the Middle Belt, they used frivolous excuses that their cattle have been rustled. But no cattle have been found rustled by anybody. Their agenda is different; it is the acquisition of land. Any time people are displayed from their ancestral land, nobody finds ways of bringing them back and they are left in IDP camp. Who are those in their farms, it is Fulani rearing their cattle on the farms. The next thing you would hear is that government is allocating that place for one purpose or another either RUGA or whatever. It is all this conspiracy, may God help us.
As the insecurity in the country continued, the Senate last week warned of Nigeria being thrown into ethnic and religious war, do you agree with them on this scary statement?
What they said is correct. As we are talking there are cleavages here and there indicating there is polarization on religious and ethnic basis. The Southwest said we have had enough of this nonsense, we have to defend ourselves, and then, Amotekun was created. Then this man from Southeast, said no, our people have to be defended and started the Southeast security network, and then everybody started doing his own. In the North, we have vigilantes and the Sharia police. We have all sorts of things all over the place; it is call for anarchy, failure of government, and we are leading to a failed state. Though in some climes they already say, we are a failed state. Unfortunately it took a very long time and so much crying out before Mr. President heeded to change the service chiefs. Here we are at this point in time there is so much uncertainty in the land.
What the Senate said is quite in place; In fact they were being so mature in their analysis and assessment. The reality out there is even more alarming than what they have said. Even when we are saying this, bandits would come and abduct students in Niger State and get away with it and all government can do is to say , ‘the security should mobilise to bring them back.’ It means law and order has generated to a level that governance has lost meaning. It is really scarier and we just pray that as the National Assembly, especially the Senate has made this observation, we should be more careful and pray more carefully so that we don’t get to the level where what they have said will be more like a prophecy that is about to happen.
Following the senate position, former Military Head of State, Abdulsalam Abubakar also warned on Tuesday of Nigeria’s imminent breakup. How can this be averted?
If this government decides to be proactive, because there are signs of these things before they happen. In the Northeast, when Boko Haram was coming to attack a place, most of the times they announced it; they tell you they were coming. The security will know they were coming, but nothing would be done, they would come and commit their atrocities and go. It has been like that; people have lost hope. Even the military, it appears they are being betrayed by either saboteurs within them, and they would be sent on a mission and would be ambushed. This thing has happened on and on and we have lost so many soldiers to the extent that many soldiers have decided during the tenure of the last chief of army staff to voluntarily leave the military giving excuses that they have lost morale and whatever. It is now up to government to take this thing seriously and say, ‘look Nigeria cannot breakup the way it is and Nigeria shouldn’t go this direction’. Then they come out and address this security situation, move into the forests, whether it is a Fulani man, Hausa man or my tribe’s man and deal with whosoever is there ruthlessly; bomb the hell out of them, they will run and those who are not Nigerians will leave the country. Nigerians will now have confidence in government that the government is sincere in providing security and welfare for them so that people who have gone out of this country into IDP camps will confidently return to Nigeria and call Nigeria again their home, that can avert the situation.
Do you see 2023 election as the reason for the crises?
I wouldn’t want to talk about 2023 as a factor because these things have been there since 2015 or even before then. However, it is deteriorating by the day. Yes, there some people who want to control power perpetually, but the thing is beyond that because we have never had this kind of people from other countries into Nigeria, many of them do not own even one head of cattle and they claim to be Fulani or people see them as Fulani because they speak the Fulfude language. The issue is why doesn’t our security network, who know much more than we think they know advice Mr President on what is happening. Remember one American General, who is the head of AFRICOM, gave a warning that the ISIS and other terrorist groups have decided to come and make Nigeria an Islamic country. True or false, we can say, yes, it is true because of the way things are going in spite of the efforts; they suggest there is a lot of international influence. It is up to our government to look at it critically and do something about it; otherwise, we would all be victims. Anybody who thinks that he is safe is only fooling himself because when it gets to another level, it will touch everybody, including those who are pretending to be safe now.
Why I asked if 2023 was the issue is because of heated arguments over where political power berths in 2023. Some maintain that power remains in the North and cannot move, others argue that it must rotate to South or never, while others say, it has to rotate to South and Southeast should have it
The issue is that these things have been there even before the issue of 2019 and now we are talking of 2023. It is true that some people want to remain in power perpetually for reasons best known to them. We also know that some people have made allegations in the past like the former head of state that there is Fulanisation and Islamisation agenda, whichever one may be the reason, we don’t know. What we are saying is that we have security agencies out there and they have a lot of information on the people who have infiltrated the country and are operating in the bushes and forests. That information rather than speculation about 2023 to me is more viable consideration. They were there before 2015, and increasing their activities now we are getting towards 2023. They were there before 2019. Yes, people are going to do something for power, but I think this thing is beyond the power game. It is about people who the government has left unchecked who have developed the audacity to do whatever they feel like because they see a system that is porous and can be manipulated; a system that they can operate from without being checked and so the thing continues. It is the failure of government in the whole exercise.
On whose side do you stand; do you follow those who say power must remain in the North or are you for rotation?
I still believe strongly in rotation of power. I was a member of PDP when the party started, and we decided at that time there will be rotation of power between the North and the South. That has been followed and I believe there is a gentleman consideration in the APC that there will be power rotating between the North and the South.
A Northerner by 2023 would have been there for eight years. It should go to the South. We have not got to the level where we trust each other fully; let us allow things to move within the confines of our limited trust. The time will come when all of us will say, we are one people, and it doesn’t matter where power is. There is no group in this country, even a small village that doesn’t have competent people who can govern Nigeria.
So, let it rotate; let it go down South and let’s see how a Southerner will perform, will he be able to resolve our problem? Nigerians love this country, if the president comes in irrespective of where he comes from people will give him the support. Nigerians rallied full support when Buhari came in 2015, fortunately, this is where we are now. Power should rotate to the South. It is up to the political party given the scenario in their party to decide whether it should go to the Southeast, Southwest, South-South. I know the Southeast is clamouring for power, since they have not had it, so they deserve it. If it goes to that place, I will say, ‘thank God, Nigeria has come to be a united country.’