Paul Unongo: APC is Treating Herdsmen Crisis Like PDP Handled Boko Haram Insurgency

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• APC Government Should Admit Its Mistake and Rethink Security Architecture of Nigeria

• Federal Government Seems Overwhelmed by Killings

The former Convener of the Nothern Elders Forum, Paul Unongo, is mad about the killings going on in Nigeria. He wants the All Progressives Congress-led federal government to treat the security issue in the country like malignant cancer and get rid of the killers – whether they are herdsmen or militants. In this Interview with Bayo Akinloye, Unongo also warns the government of President Muhammadu Buhari against allowing the current violent conflicts to degenerate into a religious war

Are you worried about the spate of killings going on in states like Benue, Taraba, and Nasarawa?

I must be mad if I am not worried. I don’t even know the word to describe the wanton killings going on in some states across the country.

But some people are claiming that the killings are not as widespread and wanton as being portrayed.
The killings are not limited to the Middle Belt. We know what’s happening in states that border northern Chad. There have been several killings in Zamfara State. Then, the killings spread to Adamawa State; the killings spread to Kaduna, Kogi and spread further in Benue, Nasarawa, Taraba, and Plateau states. Killings have been going on in these places. The north-eastern states have witnessed similar killings. Therefore, the killings appear to be everywhere. What, perhaps, interests people is the expansion of the killings that are taking on religious connotation. The killers have started going into churches –where people are holding religious services. They even killed priests, reverend fathers of the Roman Catholic Church, including the parishioners. Also, I learnt the killers went to another church where they killed more people. So, this is what seems to be the fate of Nigeria now.

Do you think the state and federal governments are doing enough to stop the killings and bring perpetrators to book?

I don’t believe that the state government has anything to do with security – the constitution is very clear (on that). The maintenance of law and order is the responsibility of the government. But in terms of enforcement of law and order, the application of arms (to resolve violent conflicts) is exclusive to and is the responsibility of the federal government. So, the federal government appears overwhelmed by what is happening. I don’t believe it is the responsibility or the duty of the state government –like in our Middle Belt states it is so terrible that even Dane guns, arrows, bows, knives, and machetes were considered dangerous weapons and seized from the locals who could have defended themselves against the attackers who have AK-47s. After confiscating them, these people (the attackers) unleashed mayhem on our people. Therefore, the responsibility (to stop and arrest the attackers) rests squarely on the federal authorities that have been saddled with the duty of guaranteeing the safety of life and property.

You asked whether, in my judgment, the federal government has done enough. I think they were slow in believing that this is a serious problem. I think they acted as if they felt the killings were not going to be as serious as they have become. I pray that this country will never fall into this situation again. During the (President Goodluck) Jonathan era, we made almost the same sort of mistake when the spate of killings started in Borno State and Yobe – people thought it was something that would (soon) go away. But it metamorphosed into something that is large-scale called Boko Haram –abducting our girls in school, committing all manner of atrocities. So, I think it is proper if people criticise (the current administration) like we did during Jonathan’s administration for not reacting enough to be effective in dealing with the very serious security situation that evolved in the North-East. I think we can accuse the APC (All Progressives Congress) government also for thinking that we have lived with the Fulani herdsmen for hundreds of years and they had never been what we are seeing now. So, they thought that this was a passing phenomenon. And, when it started becoming something where 20 people, 30 people ended up like the drama in Benue where 75 people were killed. I think at such a time the government should have reacted much quicker to contain the violence and then have a proactive approach to the issue of security.

We think the security architecture of Nigeria –we should know now that Nigeria has been selected by terrorists –like what happens elsewhere in advanced countries, the Middle East, and Arab countries. We should now settle down (and realise) that what we are dealing with is a terrorist phenomenon and we should not be sentimental at all. We should think proactively and have a very careful strategy of containment while resolutely pursuing and rid our country of this bad cancer. Malignant cancer requires a surgical operation. Such surgical operations are required in some states of Nigeria to get rid of cancer of massive killing –it’s just too much. There have been too many killings. Any forms of killings stifle economic growth; they bring about misunderstanding among the various multiethnic groups in Nigeria. In a country like Nigeria, you cannot allow some people to kill selectively on the basis of tribe or religion. It would appear as if somebody is goading Nigeria into a religious war and the government ought to know –the APC government should know –that this is the type of war that nobody should pray for. This kind of war will spell doom for Nigeria. I say, yes, they’re doing something about it now. But I think they took too long (to respond adequately). They took the security situation as something that was going to go away (on its own). We lost some opportunities to contain it. But I think the government should intervene frontally; we should be proactive and we should fish out all the attackers and those aiding the herdsmen. When you have a (malignant) cancer you have to excise it. You will be in trouble –it will spread – (if you fail to do that). This is what is happening in Nigeria.

Prominent Nigerians like Gen. TY Danjuma and religious organisations like the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria have suggested the need for self-defence, accusing the security agencies of being complicit in the killings by herdsmen. What is your view on that?
I think the government would be mad if they were supporting the killings. I don’t think any proper government will knowingly support any terrorist organisations whether it is peopled by your tribesmen. Nobody, no organisation, no group of human beings and no country can develop amidst the massive killings going on in Nigeria. I don’t know if indeed I have seen members of the government saying something like the perpetrators are from their tribe, so I would support them. I think they must be told very quickly that it cannot be that way. I don’t think any government will have that as a policy. I don’t think that the government of (President Muhammadu) Buhari will consciously promote the kind of killings we are witnessing in the country. This is a man as a military dictator quelled the phenomenon that invaded Kano called Maitatsine –it was an extremist Islamic group. People were criticising Jonathan that he did not go far enough to contain Boko Haram, thinking it was a joke, that the sect had members in his cabinet. If he knew that why did he not deal with them? When Buhari assumed power he degraded the terrorist group. He chased Boko Haram insurgents out of the Nigerian territories they once occupied. Is it reasonable to conclude that the same person who is fighting the insurgents is responsible for the killings we are experiencing? I don’t believe so.

I think there may be some sympathisers (of the killer herdsmen) within his government that they don’t read the phenomenon correctly. I have already said at Makurdi and a lot of people were angry with me that if the federal government would not defend us, we should organise and defend ourselves –it’s a human thing. It’s something recognised by the United Nations’ charter. A human being has to react automatically to protect himself, his wife, family, and his property. What is going on in Nigeria is a tragedy. I think we should not politicise the situation. We’ve made mistakes, let’s correct the mistakes. Let’s get rid of this phenomenon. Those who feel this phenomenon is a joke should come and ask me and let me tell them the tragedy in Benue. What we are experiencing are coordinated mass killings and if the government is not looking at the issue that way I will say we’re in trouble. We should react effectively with military power. We should react with propaganda. We should react with educating of our people. We should allow the citizens to also help the government to find intelligence. We should also arm citizens to protect themselves (against attackers). If the government is projected as being associated with the killers it will be most unfortunate. It is not in the bad behaviour of the present head of government –he has not done that before; I am not saying he cannot do it.

APC meant well; it is a mistake and they should rethink the security architecture of Nigeria. They should admit they made a mistake and plan a more serious approach to tackle the herdsmen (-farmers) conflict that is going on in the country otherwise they will be shocked to discover that they have another security challenge like Boko Haram on their hands. Nigerians’ minds have become so blunted that when we hear one or two people have been killed, that is not news to us. Nigeria has become so deep in blood that when you hear that 30 or 100 people have been killed, then it is news.

It will appear that you’re not satisfied with the way the federal government is handling the current security situation in the country… (cuts in.)
It is not me. I am too old and too mature; I know there’s a government in the seat. There is a government of Nigeria –that government has handled this type of situation before. What they are doing now – they’re not handling the security situation at the level that Nigerians want. An election is coming next year, they should quickly rethink the security architecture otherwise Nigerians will have to vote this government out. Nigerians cannot tolerate this kind of killings. It is a huge crisis the government has on its hands. The killings are not about two communities involved in a clash. The killings are not just about Fulani cattle herdsmen –we shouldn’t think this issue will go away. It has not gone away. Believe me, it is only the federal government under Gen. Buhari that has authority to do something. Therefore, all ideas should be directed to him. He had dealt with a situation like this before. He told us he would degrade Boko Haram and he did it. He stopped the Maitatsine in Kano. The herdsmen crisis is getting out of control let him react appropriately since he’s the only one given constitutional power to apply force in the country legally. Let him rethink and let him ask people –people like myself we know something about intelligence, security and there are many Nigerians who are asking him to rethink and accept what they thought was a joke, a simple thing has gone beyond what’s looked upon as a simple thing.

The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria suggested to President Muhammadu Buhari to resign in view of his seeming inability to stop the ongoing killings… (cuts in.)
No. No. I am not interested in that. I am not interested in asking anybody to resign. So, if he resigns whom do you think that will get us out of the mess? Is it Jonathan that will come and do better than him? Why didn’t he do it (when he had the opportunity)? This kind of question should not be addressed to me. People are being killed every day in the church. People should analyse carefully that the intention of the perpetrators is to provoke a religious war which will do nobody any good. A government that will allow for the break of a religious war in Nigeria, surely there must be something wrong with it. So, they should be proactive, firm and stop the killings. I am not here to gain any political points by saying ‘Obasanjo is going to do it better’ or ‘Jonathan is going to do it better’; or the ‘Third Force is going to do it better’; those are jokes. Let the government take advice from us and act accordingly. We can point out where they can improve and get rid of the criminals. After we have finished dealing with killing spree perpetrated by the criminals then we can come back and talk politics.

You’re a prominent member of the Northern Elders Forum. Lately, there has not been a statement by the group condemning the latest killings in Benue State… (cuts in).
You’re behind schedule; I have resigned from the leadership of the Northern Elders Forum. Anywhere I go, whatever group I belong to, when I find that I cannot support any aspect that I contact critical aspect of my organisation, I give up the leadership. And, if it continues that way I give up the total membership of the organisation. I was serious when I was the leader of the Northern Elders Forum. I thought I would use myself and use the necessity for the bloc –known as North – to stabilise Nigeria and make it a great country. But I am not going to be somebody that will say, ‘OK, we’re northerners and because we’re northerners we will support people to kill because they are herdsmen –or they’re militia defending herdsmen.’ I cannot support that. So, I am not a spokesperson for the Northern Elders Forum anymore. I intended to remain with them –the leadership has a different approach. I heard that even the leader now –I think Prof. Ango Abdullahi – was alleged to have said some time ago that they should kill people and if the country wants to break up it should break up.

I do not support statements like that. I don’t know the thinking of Northern Elders Forum. When I was part of the leadership, we agreed that the unity of Nigeria should not be negotiated in terms of a breakup. I don’t know if that still stands among the current leaders of the forum. When I was part of the leadership, our loyalty was to Nigeria and then, the indivisibility of the Nigerian nation-state. Our duty was to make Nigeria more democratic and we love the people of Nigeria. We love the Yoruba; we love the Igbo; we love the Hausa; we love the Tiv. We love all the people of Nigeria. We believe that each one of them could a lot into this wonderful country known as Nigeria. We couldn’t have supported the current killings as an organisation by the cattle herdsmen. When I was part of the leadership we issued a statement condemning the killings. I believe that was the position of the northern people. I am not interested in crisis for crisis’s sake. The country is facing a dire situation at the moment. There is a phenomenon of mindless killings –mind-boggling killings –of people of this country by a militia group that claims to be loyal to cattle herdsmen. I want the government of Nigeria to face them and get rid of them and allow displaced people to return to their homes and resume the enjoyment of what is conferred on them by Nigerian citizenship. A lot of people have been displaced, that is my concern right now.

Some prominent Nigerians feel that without renegotiating the unity of the country things will continue to go bad. Do you think it is necessary at this point to consider the call for renegotiation?

I don’t like people who just talk –let them write what they want us to renegotiate. Let them write down what they want to be renegotiated and let them show us the modality. Anything that can be done to make Nigeria great I am all for it.