Gov. Tanko Al makura
On May 7, 2013, the nation was greeted with the tragic news of the gruesome killing of 56 security operatives by a relatively known group called Ombatse. The slain security operatives, made up of 46 policemen and 10 officers of the State Security Service (SSS), were part of a team sent on a mission to arrest the leader of the cult in Alakyo community of Nasarawa State. In this interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, Onyebuchi Ezeigbo, Julius Atoi and Adebiyi Adedapo, Nasarawa State Governor Tanko Al makura, gives insights into what his government knows about this cult, its past activities, and efforts to tame it, before it suddenly made headlines with the brutal killings of scores of law enforcement agents during a fierce battle in Alakyo village
How did the Ombatse group grow so powerful and why was it allowed to fester underground for so long that the first time we are hearing about them was when they killed a large number of security agents?
The group Ombatse came to the knowledge of the public, particularly the state government and my humble self, only about six months ago. That was November last year. I have never known anything from Adam about Ombatse and I will like to believe that the general public in Nassarwa State also have never come across any group that professed its name as Ombatse and what they were doing until November last year. Ombatse came to public domain in November and the circumstance that brought about their being known to the public was an altercation between them and the security operatives, particularly the SSS and the Army. One day, towards the end of November, they were congregating in an alarming numbers at the vicinity of Nassarawa-Eggon Local Government Area, in a village called Allogana, the congregation was so large that it attracted security attention. The SSS with the support of the Army, went there because there had been these skirmishes between Fulani and farmers in the area. So, any congregation was so sensitive to the security. So, they went to find out what was happening, and they discovered more than 2,000 people participating in certain rites. So, the SSS and the Army went to find out who was their Public Relations Officer or the Chairman.
But no sooner had they asked about the leaders of the group than some of the boys, in a mob action, went and pounced on these security operatives. It took the expertise and professional instinct of those security people to quietly and tactfully withdraw but that was not without missing two of their vehicles that were vandalised and destroyed. Some of their equipments and gadgets were retrieved and they had to come back. They were doing their routine security responsibility. That was on a Saturday. Even with the assault on the security, the following day, the same group, on a Sunday, while some people were in service, they started congregating and blocking the highway at Nassarwa-Eggon and their reason was that they were protesting the audacity of the security agents in questioning why they should be congregating the previous day. It took many hours to get them out of the highway. They caused so much gridlock, in the centre of Nassarawa-Eggon and commuters from Benue, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Calabar were put on hold. So also were those coming from Maidiguri, Kano that wanted to go to the South, for more than five hours. There was no any plea that was not made for them to allow people to pass but they refused to listen to pleas. They were insisting that they wanted to see me before they would leave the highway. They insisted they had to see the governor to protest what the security did to them; why the security should question them when they were doing their rites.
I did not want to go, but after so many pleadings by people and because of the sympathy I had for commuters, people who were not even from the state who had nothing to do with the state and they were being kept in the scorching sun for more than five hours, so I said I just have go and meet this people. I went to see the leaders of the group. We didn’t even know their name.
They came and complained about what happened the previous day and they said they were not going to leave the road until I assure them that they were protected to do their rites. And I said to them, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and indeed my government which is a subject of that constitution allows for fundamental human rights and democratic rights of individuals so long as that right does not interfere with another person’s freedom and rights. So, everyone could do whatever they want to do, but if whatever you are going to do will disturb another person’s right, then it is not proper. So,
I said there is nobody that would not stop anybody from doing whatever, so long as they are doing that is normal and is in consonance with the rules and regulations of the country and the constitution and also the norms of good neighbourliness. So, after so much pleadings and talks for about two hours on top of a Hilux, the road was opened. This has been their stock in trade. At any slightest thing, even if a woman in the village is crossing the road and a vehicle knocks her off, if she is from that tribe, they will just block the road and stop people from passing. This has become a recurrent decimal in the past six months. In fact, at certain times I had turned myself into a traffic warden, just to make sure that there is traffic movement across the state. So, that was the day I asked them, “what is the name of this your organisation that you are complaining?”
They said their thing was Ombatse. I don’t know what Ombatse is, I am not from that tribe. They said that was their grandfathers thing. It was just as if it was an ordinary thing until a week after and when there was a disagreement between three armed robbers, one of which comes from that ethnic group, with two from other ethnic groups. They had an altercation in the distribution of the booty, and in the process, the two injured one of them and the chap had the gut to go and tell his people. He is a member of that cult, so when he told them, the same day, they went and descended on the village and killed more than 25 people, destroyed the chief’s palace and burnt so many houses. The following day, we discovered that it was the Ombatse group, and instantly, my administration, in that same November, proscribed the group and made it an outlaw. And ever since then, my administration has not recognised the Ombatse and any other thing they do in the form of that name or under the umbrella of that name is illegal. On further investigation, we discovered that the name Ombatse means “our time has come” or “this is our time”. I do not understand what they mean by this is our time. Our time to do what? So, that is a bit I can say about how I came to know about the name, Ombatse and, indeed, the general public in Nassarawa State.
There are speculations in the media that the group, Ombatse, though may be a religious sect, it also has a political undertone, and that its activities may be more about the politics of 2015. How would you react to that, especially looking at the fact that the interpretation of the name means time has come?
That is the meaning everybody is giving to it because if you say you are professing a certain spiritual or traditional rights, what has that right got to do with carrying of weapons? What has that right got to do with leaving your place and attacking another person? If you think it is a traditional right, why do you want to coerce people, particularly people from their own tribe? They insist that they must be initiated into that cult. So, with that name and their activities, it is easy to understand that it has more than traditional and spiritual intention, and I will like to agree with you that it must have a political connotation. The membership of the group is exclusive only to somebody who is Eggon by blood. It is restricted, they do not initiate any other person into that group except you are from Eggon, and nobody is even interested in being a member of such a group anyway. But they do so many occultic activities that are at variance with modern ways of things.
Has the government taken any step to find-out what their aims and objectives are?
Government has even gone beyond that, because the activities of Ombatse, from that November up till this point in time, has become a serious source of worry, not only to the government but to the entire people of Nassarawa State. They have put people in a situation of trepidation because, between that time and now, they have attacked seven towns and in five out of those seven towns, they killed, maimed, and destroyed houses, particularly palaces in five of these places.
They have had altercations with different tribes in the cause of this insurgency. There is the Assakio town, which is a development area headquarters, they destroyed the place and killed so many people. There is Ajeregu, it is Development Area headquarters, they killed, maimed and destroyed so many houses. Kwandere, they destroyed, burnt, destroyed the palace and killed about five people. Bassa and Yelwa, they did the same thing. In Burumburum, they even killed a traditional ruler of that place and these incursions and skirmishes were perpetrated against different tribes. In Assakio, the Alaggos have their own bitter story to tell. In Ajeregu, the Melgili’s and Koros have their own story to tell. In Kwandere, the Gwandara have their own stories to tell. In Bassa and Yelwa, which is inhabited by the Hausa/Fulani, they have their own story to tell, and not only that, for more than two months, they have been having serious clashes with the Fulanis, even when we had resolutions and negotiation and dialogue, some of these Ombatse boys go to the bush and started killing the cows of the Fulanis. They took more than three months, at a stretch, fighting with the Fulanis. So, now with this kind of thing, everybody is put in a situation of fear, and as a responsible government, we cannot sit and fold our arms and see these things happening at the expense of the peace and stability of the government, the people and the constituencies. So, first of all, we banned that group, and from the day I banned the group, they became illegal, any activity of theirs is subject to security intervention or containment. We have setup a commission of enquiry on the activities and a whitepaper has been released, where punishments commensurate with the offences people have committed were being dispensed. So, the government has been up and doing with regard to that. But the last stroke that broke the camel’s back was when this thing has even gone beyond even attacking villages and even individuals but gradually seeping in to the domain of religious faiths. We have about four instances where two people who are Muslims, Imams in their various villages were forced to take that initiation, simply because they come from the tribe of this Ombatse, and these people told them that they were Muslims and that they do not believe in such occultic things, that they were anti-Islam and that they would not want to do it because it was blasphemy. But they forcefully carry these people. Two weeks ago, they went when a church was in session, and they broke into the serenity of that religious outfit and they removed a deputy pastor who is from that tribe to administer that oath on him. Now, Jamatul Nasri Islam and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) have written and complained to me about the way and manner this Ombatse people were terrorising them. A number of times, when they get arrested, some of their leaders come and ask for their bail, and the recent happening was when all these things was associated with their cult leader, because he is the one empowering them and giving them all the false feelings of safety and strength metaphysically. So, the police tried to invite him, he refused to come. We even resorted to talking to the traditional rulers, even the the Chief of Eggon invited him last Tuesday, but he told the cultural leader of the Eggons that he was not going to come until after one week, I was told. When the Emir of Lafia sent for him, he had the guts to tell the Emir of Lafia that if he wanted to see him, he should seek the permission of his ethnic paramount leader. So, he has been evading arrest, to the extent that we became so flabbergasted by that. So, we said as a government, we have to take a decision, because we can’t leave it to go on like that. I know the police, SSS and other security are doing their best, in handling the activities of the members. So, we said at a meeting that we had to take the bull by the horn. This is what is happening, it has happened to about five towns, it has happened to about five different ethnic groups, it is now happening to these two religions, and this group had been proscribed. So, at the security council, we felt since this man had refused arrest and invitation, he cannot be above the law, so a decision was taken that he must be invited to come and answer why his adherents were terrorising the state. So, that was the effort government has made up till this point in time with regard to containing the activities of this sect.
Has anybody been arrested and prosecuted for all the lawlessness?
We are in a democratic setting and everything you do must conform with the tenets of democracy. That is why it has taken so much time, because we want to exhaust every bit of responsible approach into this matter, so that somebody will not come one day and say we are behaving like we are in the military regime. All the due process were done. Let me give you one case, somebody was caught with AK-47 in one of the operations they have done in destroying some of the villages, and I can remember vividly that I gave the order that anybody caught with gun, his case should even be transferred to higher authorities so that he can be properly interrogated. This man was arrested and detained, can you believe that that person entered an exparte motion through certain lawyers and the court released him. The irony of it was that he was released, and in less than five days, he went and participated in another incursion in Bassa, five days after his release, and we got to know he was killed in action.
Looking at this challenge at hand, would you agree that state police would have been able to deal with the security challenge and manage this situation better, given its peculiarities?
No. I don’t subscribe to that. Ab initio, I have been against state police, for so any reasons. One, in an ideal democracy, I don’t think a state police is necessary for the fact that persons in charge of state could use the police as they wish and that will negate the principle of democracy. For you to give people the opportunity to do everything within the ambit of the law, you need to have a more sophisticated, a more nationally disposed outfit that would have best standard practices in the dispensation of their responsibility. Secondly, look at the states and the resources at their disposal, if police at the federal level will have insufficiency of equipment or sophistication or training or emoluments, how would you imagine what would have happened if states have such police, especially like my state when substantial amount of the money that we receive as allocation goes to emoluments and payments of salaries? Only about five per cent or less than that goes for capital projects. So, to bring in the idea of state police would further exert negatively on the resources of the state, and we may not have the ability or capability to give the best training, to give them the sophisticated equipment they are supposed to handle. So, I think the issue of state police is not the best. I will rather wish that the present Nigeria Police are better equipped, better remunerated and better trained in a way that they could handle versatile cases.
But the clamour for state police is because of issues like what happened in your state recently, the Police went into a community and they were cheaply murdered, if they were more familiar with the terrain and the culture of the people, perhaps, the operation would have been better handled?
You have a very valid point, and I cannot agree with you more. But you see, for your hypothesis to have efficacy, we are not supposed to have a state police, we should have local government police, because when you say a state police, all the tribes within the sect will be enlisted in the police. A situation like that of Ombatse which is very peculiar and only known to a particular group and a situation where the people are indoctrinated and hypnotized and are in some kind of hallucination, what training are you going to give the police who are not from that tribe to be able to handle or curtail that? So, if you are talking about having a state police because they are conversant with the terrain, with the culture and idiosyncrasy of the society, then it should be a local government police or district police, so that the police in a particular area will be from that area only, and that will negate global best practice in crime and intelligence management. And another thing, I don’t want to go too much into that. In fact, one of the reasons that actually brought about the lack of success of the operation was the issue of betrayal and sabotage, because some of the police that went with these people came from the same ethnic group with the people that were supposed to be arrested, and some of the information, tactics and plans were divulged, hours before the exercise commenced. That is to further show you the danger of state police. You can see, he is a citizen in the state, but his allegiance is more to the cult than to the service. A Yoruba man from Ekiti will not do this, because he has nothing to gain, a Babu from Biu will not do this, Fulani from Adamawa will not do it because he has nothing at stake. You can see the futility of that initiative.
Does your government have issues with this tribe? What could have elicited this kind of violent reaction?
Eggons are very wonderful people. We have come a long way in the state. It is one family. Eggons, like the Alagos, like the Gwandaras, like the Hausas, like Fulanis like the Tivs and all the tribes that make up Nasarawa State, we have been living together as one united family. Everybody has its own culture, values and ideologies, so to say. And since I came, I have given everybody the opportunity to excel. In fact, the yardstick for participation is excellence, not minding from where you come. Incidentally, you will be shocked to know that I do not have any axe to grind with the Eggons, just like I do not have axe to grind with any other tribe. In fact, within my cabinet of about 17 commissioners, the Eggons are having about three. The Head of Service is Eggon, my security adviser is Eggon, three out of 17 is 1/6 and the population of Eggon is not 1/6 of the state. They do not constitute up to 20 per cent of the population of the state. But because of my disposition to give whoever deserves anything by either excellence or whatever, irrespective of where you come from, I decided to give about three to them. It is just like my cabinet, out of the 17 commissioners, 10 are Christians, this is to show you how open and how tolerant and passionate we are about being a family. So, I do not have any axe to grind with the Eggons, just like I don’t have any axe to grind with any other tribe. Every citizen of Nasarawa, whatever you profess, whether you belong to another party, as a citizen, I am duty bound to protect you, but what I am totally against is criminality and I will not tolerate criminality, whether it comes from my local government or from my tribe, or my religion, or even from my house. If any person exhibits any trait of criminality, he will be an enemy of the state, because I am here as a governor to protect the interest of everybody, to protect the lives and property of everybody and if we leave criminality to grow horns, we are endangering the people, and I have a responsibility to stand against that.
What is the level of implementation of the government white paper on Assakio crisis?
The implementation is ongoing. In fact, the implementation is almost 90 per cent executed, some are undergoing litigation and you know that litigation in the country takes time.
What is your view on the state of emergency declared in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe by President Goodluck Jonathan and how did Nasarawa state escape being included in the declaration?
God is in control and whatever you do, the fear of God should be one’s preoccupation. And if you do that, leave everything to God. All these issues of stigma, aspersions, cooking stories and adulterating facts don’t bother me. The issue of whether my state is included in the state of emergency or not is not a matter for me to say, it is a matter that is left to God, and it is a matter of national security. What are the criteria or yardsticks? I am not the right person to answer that.
Election is just about two years away and we have so much crises, communal violence and militia groups, are you worried about what will happen in 2015?
I am really worried, and every patriotic citizen of this country should be worried, because if you look, Nigeria has come a long way. The country was amalgamated between the North and South about 100 years ago. We are supposed to add value at this time to that consummation, we are supposed to now sit, relax and benefit from that association, because the teething period had already passed. When we were North as different from South, when we never knew our cultures, our religions, our attitudes and idiosyncrasies, now 100 years, that we have all come together, that we have mingled together, we have worked in every part of the country, I think we should consolidate on those gains and I think every true Nigerian must be concerned about the security situation. The only thing that I will admonish is for every patriotic citizen to be selfless, to go back to the basics, where values and order, discipline, should be allowed to take the better part of us. I am sure that if we respect these values, we will be able to stem this descent into chaos.
What are the chances of your new party, the APC, and is it true that you signed a pact with the Eggons that 2015 will be their turn?
What I am facing squarely now is security, peace, and protection of lives and property, and I am doing that without prejudice to any tribe, and I will not want to express any view that has to do with politics, because security if far above politics. It will surprise you that during the last convention of my party, I am the only CPC governor, and I was supposed to be at the forefront of that convention, but ironically, this problem was raging at that particular time, and I felt that in honour of the people that died, in honour of the sensibility of the people of this country and in honour of good governance, I felt I should not go, and I didn’t go. I sent my apologies which was accepted and appreciated even by General Buhari himself. In fact, a day after the convention, he called me and sympathised with me and also appreciated me for not attending that meeting, because I have taken the security problem in the state more than any party matter. But in the process of justifying their activities or make-up for what they have done, these militias have resulted to stigmatising, casting aspersions and creating fictitious stories in the process of trying to defend their actions. They have said that I entered into certain agreements with whoever it is, or that I have an understanding with Ombatse. The irony is that Ombatse came only when I was one year, four months in office. I could not have an arrangement or discussion with something that was not in existence. Ombatse came to public domain only in November last year. So, it is a very unkind and unfair aspersions to put accross. But God Almighty, who sees and hears and knows everything will take control. I believe in God, I don’t believe in any cult, any sect, any voodoo, I profess Islam, and I have absolute submission to the will of Allah. What becomes of me and how I go about things is the will of God and so it will be.