Nigeria News

Labaran Maku: We Have Cornered Insurgents in Borno, Yobe States

It’s now four months that Information Minister Labaran Maku has been given the concurrent responsibility of overseeing the Ministry of Defence at a time insurgency is raging in the North-east. The minister says when he was asked to supervise the ministry, pending the reorganisation of the Federal Executive Council, he took up the challenge with the seriousness it deserved. In an interview with select editors including Tunde Rahman, Maku appraises the state of insurgency in the North-east and talks about how the government and armed forces have been tackling the menace. He also explains the position of the government on the status of Boko Haram Leader Shekau and attempts at giving President Jonathan’s scorecard in three years Let’s start with this question, when you were made the Supervising Minister of Defence, did it come with any new challenge? If that was the case, how have you been able to tackle those challenges? Taking responsibility for Defence at this time is a major challenge for anyone because of the lingering problem of insecurity in our country, particularly in the last two to three years. So when I was asked to supervise Defence, pending the reorganisation of the Federal Executive Council by the President, I took up the challenge with all the seriousness it deserves, knowing full well the times we are in, and so far, I must tell you I have been able to settle down in both places (Information and Defence Ministries) to do all the things that I need to do to keep the two ministries running. When you know that information is also defence, you will eventually see that they are related in a sense. One is about defending with knowledge, enlightening citizens and getting them to know what is happening around them. That is about giving them knowledge that will equip them to participate in governance, and to participate in the daily activities of society, and also to contribute their own quota to national security. In all of these, you need to have a lot to do with information. Defence is a different kettle of fish altogether because there, you are dealing with matters of physical enforcement of security across the country, and managing the security architecture, as well as the problems that have occurred in our society recently. So since I have been there, we have done a great deal of work in the last four months to deal with the insurgency, manage and fight it, while preparing and equipping the armed forces for better successes in the months, hopefully, to come. So far, we have been able to contain this insurgency to about two states, generally speaking. You would recollect that at about two years ago, the insurgency was almost spreading across the North-west as well as the North-east of Nigeria. We had strikes occurring all the way in Abuja here, where the police headquarters, the United Nations building, and the THISDAY corporate head office here in Abuja were hit. In Kaduna, there were fairly regular explosions; we had incidents in Zaria, Sokoto, Kebbi, and in Kano, it was almost a running battle a year and half ago with insurgents striking in different places. Today, with consistent law enforcement as well as intelligence gathering, we have been able to largely contain the insurgency to Borno and Yobe states. People may not really see the significance of this. If you take a look at a country like Pakistan, that has been under this kind of environment for almost eight years. You take a look at Iraq and even Afghanistan that have been under this kind of situation, even to a certain extent, we can look at Russia, which even though more highly sophisticated than we are in terms of capacity, you will find that they are still having lingering problems. Only last week, there was a strike in Russia. But in the case of Nigeria, our armed forces have risen very rapidly to the occasion. We have increased intelligence capacity as well as the deployment of forces across the North, and today, I can confidently say that by the help of God, the cooperation of citizens and the hardwork of our security agencies, this insurgency today has been confined largely to Borno and Yobe states. Before the state of emergency, there were some regular strikes in Adamawa, particularly in Mubi, which is at the boundary between Adamawa and Borno. We have continued to deploy resources to contain the insurgents. So for me, what the security agencies have done is highly significant. Yes, an insurgency is not a regular war; it is not a conventional war. In a conventional war, you know your enemy because he is standing on one side of the battlefield and you are standing on the other. The insurgency we have faced is an urban-rural guerilla warfare. The enemy lives among the people or he lives in the bushes, and he doesn’t have a defined battlefield. He hits you and runs, and he uses subterfuge to hit at you and then disappear. In the specific case of the insurgency we are facing, unfortunately, we also have elements crossing international boundaries into Nigeria, particularly from Cameroun, Chad and Niger Republic. We also believe that some of those elements may be coming from some of those far-flung territories beyond these nations. So because of the transnational nature of the insurgency, it makes things a bit more difficult in the sense that you could deal with a group, which is then replaced rapidly by another that would filter through the boundaries. So far, I must say that we are proud of what our armed forces have done, and would continue to work with them to give them leadership, direction and support to fight this insurgency. Like I said, if we look at what we have achieved in Nigeria in these two years, in my opinion, it is far better than what many countries have done facing this kind of situation. There was a lot of delay in deployment because of politics because people said it is not a place the army should go. You would remember how difficult it was. Even when we made the initial effort, it was like we should withdraw the armed forces. But today, everyone has come to accept that this insurgency is a real threat to the security of life and property of Nigerians, and also, a threat to the nation’s stability and we needed to confront it with high capacity, which we are deploying. In the long run, you will see that the North-east of Nigeria is more than several countries in West Africa put together in terms of geographical size and population. For a very long time, when the nation was at peace, security was only provided for that zone from Jos, which is the third division of the Nigerian army. That was the headquarters that was looking after both the North-central and the North-east. Today, with these challenges, we felt a need to establish a new division of the Nigerian Army in the North-east of Nigeria, which is the seventh division that has now been established. It is now unfolding its network across the states of the North-east; the idea is to ensure that we create the security infrastructure and architecture around the entire North-east region, to be able to put in place a permanent security structure that would be able to deal with any situation that would occur there, even beyond the present emergency. So that will make it easier for logistics to be moved; it would make it easier for command and deployment, rather than treating things from Jos, which is really very far in terms of distance to the North-east. So this is an additional measure that the Federal Government has taken with Defence headquarters, to really work on a permanent structure that would deal with security problems in the North-east beyond this period of emergency, and also secure our boundaries with both Cameroun, Chad and Niger Republic. We never had a threat from our neighbours in a long while. We still don’t have a threat from them. As you know, terrorism is an international network of criminals that work across boundaries, and you use every territory that they can penetrate to strike at innocent people. So we are doing everything possible to contain this emergency. Is it over? No, in every guerilla warfare, you would have surprises, where you may think it is over, and then an element hides somewhere and strikes at you. So we are not underrating the danger posed, or the capacity of the insurgency because this insurgency is well supplied with sophisticated weapons, and also with what I consider to be fairly well-trained fighters, who we believe don’t necessarily come from within the Nigerian territory alone. There are elements that are Nigerians, there are those who we believe are foreign. And so given the sophistication in terms of their supplies, it is clear that they have an international network, so we are not taking it lightly and we are increasing our capacity. We have done a lot of work, arresting them, busting their networks and camps; a lot has been done, but the threat is still there. It is not over, so we are developing, both the immediate mid-term and long-term strategies to contain the threats. So we will still be having surprises here and there for sometime because, when you are striking them in one place, one or two elements could stay out to a particular location in the country and you have a surprise attack. Most of the time, it is also a psychological thing, wherein the insurgents try to say: “we are still here, we are not gone.” What has happened in recent times as you would notice is that elements that are fleeing from the North-east, we also watch them. A number of them have been arrested in places as far away as Ogun State, others in Sokoto, Kaduna, Kogi. So we keep picking them up because of increased security surveillance, and that is to make sure we do our best to make sure that they do not settle down in any place that would constitute a threat outside where we have already contained them. We will be doing so, until we gradually push them, and eliminate the threat. In the meantime, we are seeking greater cooperation from Cameroun because you would notice that in recent times, the border with Cameroun has been the major problem. The insurgents tend to run deep into Cameroun when being chased, and then they come from there, strike and disappear again. Even the kidnapping of the French national across the Cameroun border shows that it has been a major area of threat in recent times. We are working hard to ensure that we secure greater cooperation from our neigbours to ensure that we face and deal with this insurgency. It is a threat to every state, not just Nigeria. And if you look at the totality of the pressure we face, you will notice that for almost 25 to 30 years, the Lake Chad Basin has been a hotbed of crisis. If you look at the long civil war in Chad, the crisis in South Sudan, and the instability in Mali, and the instability in the politics of Niger Republic, you will find that for a long time, that zone has been a vortex of crisis with free flow of all sorts of weapons and criminals. Fighters that have been displaced in different places come in there, and even the crisis in Libya has its own impact in terms of inflow of weapons. There is also the issue of weak states in those regions, which do not really have the capacity to provide a buffer, so Nigeria is the real buffer, the place where there is a strong state, and the capacity to confront these forces. We have an international force made up of Niger, Chad and Cameroun, which is stationed along the border, and it is been working with Nigeria to contain the insurgency. We need to increase the tempo of the activities of those forces as well as our own internal security measures to deal with the insurgency, and so far, it has been a real huge success for our armed forces. The problem we have is that people do not fully understand the nature of the war. As such, citizens always have this tendency to ask- “when will it end or why is not ending? Why is the insurgency continuing; government has failed, etc.” Part of it is ignorance; part of it is politics. People want to use it to measure the success of government or its competence or its capacity. The reality of every insurgency of this nature is that it is a protracted struggle; it is not something you give a date to. If it was a conventional war, and the insurgents stand on one side and our army on the other, I can tell you that our armed forces will finish them in 30 minutes. But it is not a conventional war, so the enemy is hidden. So it is a lot of strenuous work of intelligence gathering, and sorting the enemy out in densely populated areas, and ensuring that when you strike, innocent people are not killed. So these are the complications and that is why you find that up till today, the Americans are still pinned down in Afghanistan. It is because of the nature of the war, not because America does not have the capacity to bomb and clear the whole place. If you do that, you are going to kill a lot of innocent people, and that is why you see the protraction in Afghanistan, where you see some elements still striking. Same in Iraq; and even in Russia, where the Chechnya thing has not fully disappeared. It is the nature of the war that is making it protracted, not lack of capacity, and this has been demonstrated, not only in the case of the Nigerian Armed Forces, even with forces that are from super power countries. In our own case, I believe our armed forces have done a great job in dealing with this insurgency. It is a continuing battle, and I assure you that we will not rest, until this nation scores a decisive victory over these criminals tormenting the life of the nation and innocent citizens. Again the issue of the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau would have to come up here. Do you now have concrete information on whether Shekau is dead or alive? I ask because it is said that if you want to kill a snake, you must go for the head. How much does the government now know about the Boko Haram leadership? The media still needs to do with some education on the nature of this struggle because a lot of times, when I see some newspaper headlines, it gives me the impression that they think that the insurgency should have been over. The mere fact that we have been able to clear much of Maiduguri does not mean that you cannot have a surprise attack because it takes just one person tying a bomb to his chest, and coming to the street to explode it. You will find cases of suicide bombing in this insurgency, although it has largely been curtailed, you cannot rule out any surprise in a terror network of this nature. So it is not correct for the media to think that when we are making successes and progress, and something then happens, you now say “ah, maybe government or the armed forces is not doing enough.” That is not the issue; compare what we are doing about the insurgency with what every other country with similar situation are doing. It is not an exclusively Nigerian development. It is a global phenomenon and I am saying that the armed forces of Nigeria have done much more better than those of other countries in dealing with this insurgency, in terms of how we have been able to largely contain the situation. This is tremendous work, but the way we report these things discourages the armed forces at times. You would have to look at it from a position of understanding the nature of the war, the great successes and the challenges. Then, the citizens will understand, but when you keep reporting in ways that suggest that no progress has been made, it is what the terrorist wants you to do. They want to sow panic and create confusion. And that is why I have kept on talking for a long time that the way we have been reporting the insurgency, it is as if it is a football match between terrorists and the Federal Republic of Nigeria. We do as if “oh, they have scored a goal, and we should clap for them and give them the front page.” No, that is not what it is, and I honestly think that our attitude must change. All over the world, when you have this kind of situation, the media must align with the armed forces. I know that negative news is a good story any day for any media around the world, and that was how Osama bin Laden was advertised to us, and he became a role model for criminals around the world. And that is my position that liberal democracy is yet to know the nature of terrorism and how to handle it. With this kind of reporting, terrorists are now using the media to sell their ideology to innocent people. It is because of the free publicity that we give them. I think we should report them from the point of view of arousing national consciousness to confront them, not to make them look like some iconoclasts or great role models or fighters or impossible people that others need to look at with awe. These are criminals in networks that are determined to kill and maim. If you see some the videos we have had of these people killing and sucking the blood of people, you will know that we are dealing with serious monsters. They are not the kind of people that the media will want to treat lightly. They are highly demonic, and we need to know that this is a real threat that is international, which unfortunately has penetrated Nigeria, unfortunately with the collaboration of some of our citizens, but largely, it is an international network. Do we have challenges, yes we do. The recent strikes at the air force base in Maiduguri and Bama remind you of the kind of surprises that could occur in war of this nature, so we need to be permanently alert, and not take anything for granted, even when we are succeeding. They nearly came back again to strike in another base around Maiduguri, and this time, they received a bloody nose. The people that came were virtually destroyed. It is a battle that the media needs to understand. Now on Shekau, we have always said it. Is Shekau dead? We believe so, but it’s not confirmed. Until we see the grave of Shekau, and verify that here lies the remains of Shekau, we cannot make a declaration that he is dead. We have quite a great deal of information to the effect that he may have died. But at the same time because the armed forces, the defense headquarters has not been able to confirm, and confirmation in this case must be definite. When Osama bin Ladin was killed, the Americans were in a position to confirm it. So long that we don’t have that confirmation, we will work with the theory that he may have been killed. However, the issue is not about Shekau; Osama is dead, but the Al-Qaeda is not dead. So the mere fact that Shekau is alive or not is not the issue. Well, maybe if you kill the leader of a criminal gang, you will have a psychological victory to the effect that somebody has been taken away. The issue, however, is that you are dealing with a network, not an individual because the organisation can also produce a next set of leaders to replace Shekau. So I am not looking at the death of Shekau as the death of Boko Haram. Shekau could die, and Boko Haram would not necessarily die because it must have a network of leaders that can replace him. So we are dealing with it as a network, and as a group, not just the leadership. We are studying the network, how it operates, and how do we then eliminate it. By the time we take this larger war in that direction, we will be able to focus our strategy to deal with it as a network of members and leaders. If we go on thinking of removing the leadership alone, then we will have something like what the Americans have done by using drones to remove a lot of leaders of terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it has not necessarily eliminated the threat. So, we are going beyond that. At any rate, our objective is not to kill people; our objective is to stop the insurgency. Our major objective is not that we want to kill the members and their leaders. We are fighting them because they are killing and threatening the lives of other people. They have taken up arms against the nation, and we have to defend the country and its innocent citizens. And that is why we have proclaimed the amnesty offer for those who want to lay down their arms, and be rehabilitated. We will be ready to take them out of the bushes and rehabilitate them. We will not kill anyone who is not killing Nigerian citizens; we are compelled to act against them because they are physically involved in the elimination of citizens, and taking up arms against the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and its people. If today, the insurgents lay down their arms, and take up the amnesty offer of the government, we will not go about killing them. We may try those who have committed heinous crimes, and the law will take its course, but the objective is not about killing Shekau or anybody, it is about ending the insurgency, and that is our focus. Before the attack on the air force base and in Bama, we heard that there were intelligence reports that they would happen, but not much was done to thwart it. So I don’t know how the intelligence works to the point that you hear that things are going to happen and nothing is done? Also, why is it that Cameroun cannot help because we keep hearing that Shekau was there receiving treatment and that the insurgents also come in from Cameroun, and we are supposed to have a pact with that country? The other side is the morale of the soldiers; there are several complaints by the soldiers that in spite of what they are facing, nothing is been done for them, some talk of being given N1000 per day, and that if the state governors were not helping, they won’t be able to survive. The governors of the states are also saying they carry the burden of the fight more than the Federal Government. First of all, there are so many rumours going round; there will be lots of rumours in any venture of this nature. People will tell you stories, and say this and that is what they have heard. They will even make telephone calls to people. If you are in your newsroom, and somebody calls to say he is SSS, fine. The point I am making is that intelligence is the core of every fight against terror. If you don’t get your intelligence right, it will be very difficult to deal with the situation, since you are not fighting a standing army. It is a game of hide and seek that goes on out there. If you look at the number of arrests, and the planned attacks that have been foiled in the last two years, even in the last one year, you will not but appreciate the high level performance of our intelligence. I am just telling you this, not because I am in government or in the Ministry of Defence. I think that frankly speaking, our intelligence has been very successful. That is why when they came to Apo, here, some elements were arrested. And this is the problem, there is too much politics coming into this because your last question is about the politics now, whether it is the state or federal government that is funding the effort. That politics, we must keep out because if we don’t keep it out, it will haunt all of us. It is not about political parties and all of that. If you notice, in this insurgency, we have decided and ensured that it is the (Defence) headquarters talking about it, so that we take politics out of it. In the area of intelligence gathering, I believe that we have done a great job; I don’t know what your source or sources have. But I want you to be careful with some of the information you have; I can tell you that there were some theories that Americans had intelligence before September 11. Have you read those theories? They are theories that Americans had intelligence before 911 and that it could have been stopped. So intelligence follows different channels. First you have a source, you get the information, and then you distill it. There is also intelligence with which someone wants you to go in one direction so that he can strike in another. All these things happen, so I think we should limit ourselves to the area of expertise that we have. And I want to assure you that there is no way the army would have intelligence that there is going to be an attack, and they will just sit there, and are attacked and killed. Does that make any sense to you? It doesn’t make any sense to me that I am told I am going to be killed, and I then sit down in the place and wait to be killed? No, I don’t think so, I doubt this source very seriously, and also, I am hoping that we become careful with every little information we get. There are people in various levels of the intelligence circuit; some of them may not have all the information available. So doubt this source that you have, and I am telling you very clearly that there is no way the armed forces will get intelligence that an attack is imminent, and they will sit in the place and allow people to come and attack them. It is not so, I reject this story completely, given my own knowledge of the high commitment we have in the system, which has been very successful to a large extent in dealing with this problem. The other thing is about Cameroun; we have a cordial relationship with Cameroun. This insurgency is a threat both to Cameroun and Nigeria, and we have different capacities of handling it. I have a feeling that the insurgents tend to have more space across the Cameroun border. We don’t have the same capacities, so we are working together with Cameroun to ensure that we are able to push from both ends, and eliminate the threats across the border. Cameroun is not immune; the mere fact that you have criminals in your territory is a great threat. We are working to ensure that we have increased cooperation to deal with the insurgency, across the Cameroun border, across Chad and Niger. It is not just Cameroun; it is all over. We can do more, which is what we are focused on now. On the cost of the insurgency, my brother, no state government can bear it. No state government can bear the cost of one-month insurgency on its own territory. It is not about allowance; that is virtually next to nothing compared to the cost. The cost is about weapon systems, deployment, security infrastructure, and operations. So when you say that some state governments are saying they are the ones funding the cost of tackling the insurgency, anybody who understands the nature of this war, and what it costs would laugh. I am saying it clearly that there is no way anybody will come and tell you that it is the state governments that are spending more money on taming the insurgency, unless it is somebody that is completely ignorant of what it takes. If not, he will not say that. Most of the states, what is their financial base? In terms of giving some welfare to the soldiers operating in their territories, yes definitely, I believe they are doing so. They are doing so because in the first instance, this whole operation is to keep their own communities free of threats because life in those areas has become so terrible that no state government would not want to make a contribution, sometimes, giving extra allowances to the troops, but I wouldn’t know what exactly it translates to because I am not in a position to know. The reality is that the burden of this insurgency rests on the Federal Government, which is what we are doing on a daily basis. The cost of one huge operation, whether it is an air strike or a ground operation, is huge. For every system you deploy, it costs a lot of money. Let’s not go into it at all; states are contributing, but don’t think maybe because they are contributing, they are the ones bearing the cost. It is not so; we are having a lot of good cooperation from the states because as you know, a lot of these things were local problems, not problems generated by the Federal Government. It was these local community and political problems that provided the environment for the fire to go up in those states. And what the Federal Government has done has been to deploy the resources of Nigeria to help those states, when the matter, which was a local matter, went beyond their own control. In none of this insurgency was it a federal problem. So the Federal Government today has to spend huge resources on things that could have been resolved at that level, if there was higher capacity or the right values at the right time to deal with those problems. Today it is Federal Government problem and people even use it to question the credibility of the Federal Government that has deployed its own resources to help resolve a local problem. Yes, it is on the territory of Nigeria, and the Federal Government has the responsibility to secure the territory on the boundaries of this country, but we must know that these were local problems. It alerts us to the fact that we must be very sensitive to local situations. And at any rate, securing this nation is not the responsibility of the President alone. It is the responsibility of every village; security of your community is first and foremost your own responsibility. It is the responsibility of districts, town unions, local governments, states, and the Federal Government. In most countries, the Federal Government comes in when a problem has gone beyond the proportion of the local authorities, which is what we have done in this instance. We are spending so much on it, and we don’t want any politics at all. The whole of the nation today is spending a lot of this money, and we are losing our children there. Every part of this nation is losing its children because of this operation, where there are casualties. I think that if there is anything, there must be greater appreciation of the fact that Nigeria is standing by those states, and is spending both human and material resources in securing the territories of those states. And we will continue to do so, which is why we have the federal might to be used when things go beyond control. But when those things go beyond control, local authorities should also contribute to it because we are all making these sacrifices to keep the community free from the threats that have grown from within it. A section of Nigerians finds it difficult to understand the image management challenge of the President and his government, why it is the way it is. As Information Minister, managing the image of the government falls under your purview. What is the cause and what would you be willing to admit as failings on the part of government? Thank you for that question. I cannot say that any government or leader is perfect; we are all human beings with our foibles and our weaknesses. But you would want to assess a government based on what it has done, and the environment in which it is doing it. Sometimes, we have a good government that is doing a good and great job in a very bad environment, and that environment continues to impact negatively on the leadership, which is exactly what has happened in the case of the President. I continue to tell people, not because I am in the government, I am also a journalist in this government. If I take a look at what the President has done so far, in terms of his mission and his development programme, and the actual deployment of policies, I can just say look at the indices internationally. When he came to power, it was in controversial circumstances because of the long drawn ill health of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. He also came to power in a period of a polarised polity over the issue. The moment he came in and settled down, he unfolded a transformation programme. I have continued to say it that I am ready to debate with anybody. Within the last three years, if you look at what the President has done with the Economic Management Team, the Transformation Agenda and his policies, you will find that in terms of the macro-economic management of the Nigerian economy, we have never had it better than what we are having now in the last 20 years. And we are seeing the results coming; the deep reforms that he has unfolded, which are about converting deficits into opportunities for investments through creative policies that would attract investment to generate more goods and services in those areas. Consistently for the last six to seven years, the economy has grown consistently between six and seven per cent. That is GDP growth, which is higher than South Africa, Egypt that are not suffering the insurgency you are having in parts of the country. And this is in spite of the violence that greeted the elections, and the continuous explosion of bombs that give us negative attention around the world. Despite all these, the President has continued to achieve that high level of economic growth of about 7 per cent in Nigeria. Again, if you look at the stability of exchange rate, it has been the same, stable most of these three years. If you look at foreign reserves, it was about $33 billion when Yar’Adua/Jonathan Presidency came to office in 2007. Today, we are between $45 and $48 billion. But that went down recently. The truth is that foreign exchange is not constant; when you place orders for services such as construction and deployment, of course, it will come down, but somehow even if it goes up and down, we have moved from $33billion to between $45 and $48 billion. It is not that it must remain a constant; no country’s foreign reserve is constant. What I am saying is that we have grown it, in spite of all of the activities in the economy; we have grown the foreign reserve of this nation. That is a landmark; then when you look at the capital market, those of us who are buying shares, we all know that about 2008, it was a complete crash, a total crash. Nigerians should ask themselves what has happened in the last two years that the stock market, which was so down has today, grown by more than 80 percent between 2012 and now. Today, the capital market has recovered and capitalization has come to over N13 trillion from about N8 trillion in 2010 to 2012. That growth is significant; the same thing with the money market. Also, you have since that in this period, the highest influx of Foreign Direct Investment has come to Nigeria, rather than countries that don’t have insurgencies or the other problems we are having… It is because the economic policies of the President has attracted those investments and made people develop confidence in the economy because they look at the ratings from Standard and Poor’s. The rating agencies consistently found that the macroeconomic management of the Nigerian economy under the President has been such that it gives the global players and the international community the confidence to invest. So we have been receiving the highest Foreign Direct Investment in spite of Boko Haram. People keep saying what is GDP growth, if there is still poverty that is politics that people talk about. I remember that during the last Ministerial platform, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, had to come and demonstrate with a cake. If you ask that what the big deal about GDP growth is, it will be about how to deal with your problem which would be easier with a bigger size of your cake. For the first time, we are seeing that the Nigerian economy is growing faster than the population growth. Over time, the resources available for us to solve some of the problems in the country would increase. Look at cement production, we are producing 28 million tons now, and we need only 20 million metric tons, so the rest is exported. We are now exporting cement for the first time.

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