By Chukwudi Nweje

Professor Chidi Odinkalu, Senior Team Manager for the Africa Program of Open Society Justice Initiative was former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. In this interview, he discusses insecurity, the poor response from the government and other national issues.

What is your take on the about 5,850 terrorists who the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) said surrendered to the military in a space of three weeks; does this suggest that there is progress in the war against terror?

We have had a lot of false dawns in this issue of insecurity we found ourselves in and a lot of claims that turned out to be the work of unimaginative fiction. If you recall, Abubakar Shekau had been killed multiple times before he eventually met what appeared to be his end, not at the hands of Nigerian security agencies, but at the hands of what appeared to be his own people. So, I’m inclined to take these claims with a pinch of salt; in fact, they should come with tremendous worry. They also came in the week our security forces appeared to have been overrun, at least temporarily. Five thousand people under any guise is a lot of people and just taking custody of these people, counting them, documenting them and profiling them is a massive operation. Moreover, under normal circumstances, this claim should be subject to independent verification, because we can’t verify it independently and because it is difficult to take the word of the DHQ or the intelligence agencies on it, I will say the claim is weak on its credibility. The claim is something the administration is using to buy itself some oxygen, but obviously such is also very controversial that people are asking why this is only being applied to one part of the country. We have an administration that was able to abduct Nnamdi Kanu from Nairobi, Kenya and traced Sunday Igboho to the Benin Republic on one hand and the other hand they are celebrating so-called repentant terrorists in the other part of the country. There is no policy coherence and there is arguably a discriminatory application of this policy.

How do you react to the attack on the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna?       

First, we have to understand that the attack was not the first, neither is it the second on the NDA in the last two years. It was also not the first on a defence installation in Kaduna. Last year, a senior Naval officer at the Command and Staff College in Jaji was killed in her apartment in the college in Jaji and nothing came of it. The NDA to the best of my knowledge has been attacked at least two times in the past two years, including an incident where over 100 cattle were rustled; don’t ask me how the NDA fell victim to cattle rustling. If we are in a situation where the elite military training academy of the country is overrun by terrorists, we would expect that some heads will roll and an inquiry conducted on how it happened and a report submitted, none of these is in the offing. If we had any military institution in the category of the NDA in the South East or any part of the South and it was attacked in the manner in which the NDA in Kaduna was attacked, that entire region would have been overrun by soldiers and they would be given open-ended rules of engagement – kill, maim and destroy-, none of that is happening now and none of it will happen. The NDA is in the Afaka in Kaduna, and students of a secondary school in the same Afaka were kidnapped earlier in the year and I wondered how such a thing will happen in the middle of a military garrison. It was evident to me then as it is now that if anyone could attack the school where it is located and kidnap 29 students, then there was no way the NDA, the Command and Staff College, 1st Division Headquarters of the army will be safe, that is what is happening now and we have to ask ourselves where is the government?

The bandits as the Federal Government call them have shot down a Nigerian Air Force jet; they attacked the NDA yet they are not classified as terrorists as IPOB has been labelled, why is that? 

The Federal Government is explaining what they are doing and flaunting their spokesman, Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, so what else can I say?

Many of the repentant terrorists are reportedly being absorbed into the military, do you share the concerns that Nigeria may be heading the way of Afghanistan with this kind of development?

We do not have to look at what happened in Afghanistan to understand the situation starring us in the face. Alhaji Isa Pantami, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy is an admitted terrorist. From his fatwa on Mr Achi, the leader of the ECWA students in Abubakar Tafawa Belewa University (ATBU) in 2004 which led to the killing of the student to his teachings in mosques all over endorsing the Taliban and al-Qaeda, he has never hidden his admiration for terrorism and in Nigeria, he is responsible for telecommunications infrastructure and databasing all Nigerians who have access to telephones. Do you know what that means? We don’t need to go to Afghanistan to know that we have a regime that is actively supporting terrorism in Nigeria, it is self-evident. Any government that is serious about fighting terrorism would not have any compulsion to proscribe these so-called bandits and killer herdsmen and declaring them terrorists.

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What role has Nigeria’s ethnic and religious diversity played in the insecurity situation and the country is not the only religious and ethnically diverse country, why is our own a problem?   

President Muhammadu Buhari has destroyed the ethnic and religious diversity of the country by portraying himself as an extremist Northern Muslim rather than doing what is required to assure every Nigerian that he has a safe and secure place in the country. Buhari sees himself not as a Nigerian beholding to everyone in the country but as a Northern Muslim who is only beholding to Muslims in the North East and North West. It is also clear that he has more allegiance to Niger Republic than he has to Nigeria.

Can this ethic and religious tension ever be solved?     

It is very clear to me that the problem cannot be solved as long as Buhari is in power; Buhari is the symbol of all extremist tendencies in Nigeria and the problem will remain as long as he is in power. Buhari does not have the capacity to change, he doesn’t understand what it means to be different from the narrow, hateful bigot that he is.

The Federal Government through the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission recently directed media organisations to stop reporting details of insecurity, what is your take on that?      

If the government spends a fraction of what it does on going after perceived enemies on fighting insecurity, we wouldn’t be where we are. Now the Federal Government has ordered all the telecommunications operators to deactivate their masts across Zamfara State. People have been arrested and detained in Nigeria for being critical of the government; people have lost their jobs for speaking against state governors, people have been driven into exile by factual based journalism. Recently, a bunch of travellers were bombed by the Air Force off the coast of Bayelsa State. We have an Air Force that has never actually provided any support for the fight against terrorism. How do we explain that people are kidnapped and taken over kilometres and the Air Force did not spot them and you tell me that the government is not involved in this? I don’t believe it.

   There are concerns that the insecurity in the country may truncate the 2023 general elections, do you share in the concern?

What I find amazing is that the ruling party is carrying on as if everything is okay. Kaduna State just conducted local government elections and it couldn’t conduct elections in parts of Kaduna metropolis despite all the security apparatus domiciled in the state because of insecurity; that should tell them there is a problem. Somebody like Ken Nnamani, the former Senate president has been going about saying that the APC will capture all the five South-East states by 2023. He has not said anything on the insecurity in the South-East but he is gloating that the APC will capture all the five South-East states in an election that he is not sure will take place.  In 2006, Ken Nnamani as Senate president frustrated Obasanjo’s third term agenda and that third term agenda was started by a cabal. Today Ken Nnamani is the leader of the APC in the South East and Andy Uba is a governorship candidate in Anambra State, is he saying that he does not know the antecedents of Andy Uba? These people do not stand for anything good for Nigeria.   

What is your assessment of the Buhari-led administration?

The week after Buhari’s son wedded, bandits attacked the NDA; what has he said about that attack on NDA? Nothing.  That week, while they were busy partying between Abuja and Sokoto, Nigerians were being killed. In that axis of Katsina State, I know 15 people were killed and Buhari said absolutely nothing because he was busy partying and having fun.