Fred Itua, Abuja
Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume represents Borno South Senatorial District in the upper legislative chamber of the National Assembly. He heads the Senate Committee on Army. He is a former Leader of the Senate and a top contender for the position of the President of the Senate in 2019. He is also the brain behind the Northeast Development Commission.
In this exclusive interview with Sunday Sun, the lawmaker spoke on the 2023 presidential elections, war on terror, the Senate, humanitarian crisis in the Northeast, among other issues. Excerpts:
The 9th Senate is often described as an appendage of the Executive and also a rubber stamp. How true are these claims?
It worries me because that’s not totally true. APC has the majority in the Senate and in the National Assembly. Naturally, we are supposed to support and cooperate with the government and the party. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the National Assembly is a rubber stamp. Nigerians are worried because they’re not used to this very mutual cooperation. It’s normal for them to express some reservations. But when it comes to issues, it’s a natural thing that the National Assembly must stand with the people. You could see that recently when the issue of insecurity heightened. The National Assembly stood up to the occasion and took far-reaching decisions. The decisions we took were not necessarily what the Executive wanted. So, I don’t think that claim, that we are a rubber stamp is true. I have not seen any claim to support that.
If the Senate is expected to stand on the side on the people, why is it still going ahead with the Hate Speech and Anti-Social Media Bills, despite the public rejection?
I don’t think so. The bills are still a work in progress. I don’t think those bills were sponsored by the Executive. If they were Executive bills, the procedure would have been different. The bills would have come from them directly. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari is straight forward. The government doesn’t go behind the scene to do things. It comes out straight. The government has come up with some decisions Nigerians were not comfortable with and they reversed them. We are fortunate as a country. President Buhari that I know is a man of integrity. For him, Nigeria and Nigerians come first. I don’t think the president takes any decision based on religion, ethnicity or tribe. He so much believes in Nigeria and that’s my personal impression. That’s why whenever there’s anything that doesn’t favour Nigerians, he reverses them. Nigerians should be optimistic and not pessimistic.
Your bill is currently before the Senate on Communication Service Tax, do you still intend to pursue it with the signing it into law of Finance Bill?
I am watching. I am still of the opinion that the increase in VAT at this time is not in the interest of the majority of Nigerians. You can see the outcry of the negative impacts of the increment. So, I’m watching. This is a sensitive government. Once they discover that there is hardship as a result of the increment, there will be a need to review. That may call for finding alternatives and I still stand by my position, that the Communication Service Tax is still better than the blanket VAT increment. So, I will not rush and withdraw the bill. I will watch and wait.
Beside the Northeast where you’re from and the Southeast, every other geopolitical zone in Nigeria has produced a President. In 2023, some people are calling for power shift to the Southeast, while a few others are drumming up support for Northeast. Where do you stand?
As a person, I don’t support zoning of presidency. It brings ethnicity, tribalism and religion in our polity and this is not good for us. However, the damage has been done. Beside, the geopolitical zones are not constitutional. The fact that you get a president from a particular zone doesn’t mean that all the powers in the next four years will reside in that geopolitical zone. I’m of the view that Nigerians should be allowed to pick a leader that they want regardless of where the person comes from. It is also important to make every region in the country have a sense of belonging. That means, they should be given a chance to produce a president too. It brings to another point. It shows that some of these individuals aren’t popular. They just want to hide under the regional politics to become something. If you’re very popular, you can pick any political party and advertise yourself. During the 2019 presidential elections, we had almost 70 candidates. Almost every state had up to two presidential candidates. Nigerians elected Buhari notwithstanding. This issue of regional or tribal politics is not helping us and will not bring out the results we desire. I am particular about carrying every part of Nigeria along so we will have a sense of belonging.
There are several claims regarding the war on insurgency in the Northeast. As a Senator from Borno and chairman of the Senate Committee on Army, what is really happening?
The insurgency is a war that is not conventional. All over the world, any war that is centred around religion doesn’t end overnight. It’s going to continue. We have people with crazy beliefs and wreaking havocs, even in America. Once you have these elements in the society, it is not easy to eliminate them. Boko Haram has mixed up with criminality, unemployment and indoctrination. It is not going to be a war that will end within a specified period. Boko Haram will be difficult to be completely eliminated. It will take time. Some elements will always be there. You hear of the same thing in Somali, Malaysia and in other countries. We have the Taliban and others. When you think you have eliminated them, they’ll regroup and launch again. On the average, the Armed Forces are doing their best.
Is their best good enough?
It is not. The problem is still reoccurring. But compared to what we had in Borno in 2015, I think things are better. Even in Abuja, no one was safe. So, we can’t just say that the Armed Forces have not tried. But we want total peace. The peace isn’t there. You still have to go some places with escorts. We still have attacks in some places. We want total peace and we want to move around freely. That’s why we keep crying out so they can do more and bring this issue to its barest minimum. In those days, Boko Haram guys were chasing our soldiers and they were running away and abandoning their equipment. Today, the reverse is the case. Today, people are standing up to them. Our youths support hunters and work with the Armed Forces. There is an improvement, but we can do more. We want the government to start addressing the humanitarian crises.
Some people have been advocating that we get military mercenaries to assist soldiers in bringing this war to an end. So you support that?
I have been arguing that if we need additional hands to bring this insurgency to an end, we should get them. The Army will argue that it is not what you do overnight. They’ll tell you there is no need to hire mercenaries. Recently, troops from Chad were withdrawn. We cried out and our Army said before they came, they were doing the job. While we view the issue from the civilian angle, the Military is looking at it from the technical perspective. That’s why when we cry that the Service Chiefs are not doing enough, the president who happened to be a soldier will see it differently. I always argue with the Chief of Army Staff on the issue of number of soldiers and equipment and he has a different perspective. He has his point and I still stand by my point too. I still feel that the number of solders is not enough. I still feel that they’re not well equipped. But the Army Chief will talk more about training of soldiers.
While waiting to have the training, equipment and more soldiers, will military mercenaries bridge the gap?
That’s my argument too. I have told them to bring in mercenaries. But they’ll say if you bring in the mercenaries, they don’t know our terrain and can’t operate efficiently.
There are soldiers not from the Northeast, but fighting there, how are they operating?
Those soldiers are Nigerians. That’s their argument anyway. They’re right in their thinking and I am right too. I will continue to argue. Bring in the mercenaries. As powerful as the United States of America, they should use military contractors. My understanding is that, their mind isn’t close in these options. The president is open. If you have any argument, they’ll look at it. For us, all we need is peace in our region. We want peace and development. Whatever the government is willing to do to ensure we have peace, I will support it. As a representative of Southern Borno and Borno in general, which is the epicentre of Boko Haram activities, we want peace. Our children can’t go to school anymore. Schools have been destroyed and the rebuilding process is difficult. It is not easy to rebuild without peace. You can build where a place is peaceful. That’s why we are going to keep crying out until our problem is solved.
The Chibok girls were kidnapped almost six years ago. Is there any hope that they will return someday?
There is no headway with that. Nobody can come out and tell you anything categorically. The government availed itself to all opportunities that led to the release of those first set. There were criticisms as to the payment of ransom. Those that were released, they kept their Christian faith. For the other girls yet to be released, some are saying that they have been converted to Islam and married out. We have heard different stories, but there’s nothing categorical. As long as there’s no true information about them, the government should keep its doors open to see how we can get the girls back. Nobody can tell you where they’re. Even the Leah can’t be traced to anywhere. What I can say is that, government should make more efforts to get the girls back.
Is payment of ransom fueling activities of Boko Haram?
Well, it’s neither here nor there. Once someone is captured and held, the same Nigerians will tell you to do everything. Everything means payment of ransom. Ransom is paid sometimes. Even developed countries do it too. Our case is different because the media isn’t helping matters. Journalists aren’t patriotic. We have this problem of patriotism. We don’t have the media in the Northeast. The media report this war as if it is between Borno people and Boko Haram. We are all Nigerians. I feel pained by the attitude of the media. The war is between Nigeria and Boko Haram. The media should see it that way. We are only unfortunate to have come from there. It could have been you or anyone else.
Despite the huge donations coming in, we still have the problem of central coordination. How do we resolve that?
The situation has not changed at all. It is still the same thing. Humanitarian funds brought in are handled by UNCHA, a UN agency. There is supposed to be a synergy between the UN, international NGO and the government. That’s why we have had this inefficiency.
What’s the figure of those displaced in the Northeast?
It’s about 1.7 million people that have been displaced. The value of the damage is about $9.6 billion in Borno alone. About 60,000 children are orphaned. Only God knows how many children are out of school, have no access to water, food and means of livelihood. The humanitarian crisis that is coming after the war maybe more dangerous than the war itself. The insurgency is going into its 10th year. Some children haven’t been in school in the last 10 years and we know what that means.