Udora Orizu holds a conversation with the member representing Ikorodu Federal Constituency and the Chairman, House Committee on Defence, Hon. Babajimi Benson who explains why defence should be top priority to the government
The defence budget has taken the lion share of Nigeria’s national budget over the years with very little to show for it, should the country continue to devote more resources to defence?
The constitution says that the protection and the welfare and security of lives and property are the hallmark of government so no amount is too much to spend on security because if you have security you may likely have prosperity. The basic thing private investors are looking at is if you have security as a country. We have a lot of challenges, as we speak. The budget they are even talking about is still not enough to satisfy our defense needs. It is not enough to adequately secure us. If you compare our budget to other emerging economies, you will find out that our defense spending is still not enough. Besides a lot of people look at the budget and think every amount on that budget goes to buying weapons. No, about 70 or 80 percent of it is on paying personnel and stuff like that, only a small fraction goes into purchase of equipment. And if you know government doesn’t release 100 percent of monies budgeted for. Last year, only 40 percent was released and if you release 40 percent, you don’t release it at a go. It is released when other allocations are made. Although there are other interventions that come the way of the military, but I believe it’s still not enough. We need to spend to make our country safe.
Several lawmakers that expressed their support for the special funds for Armed Forces bill that you recently presented to the House, however, queried how the previous security funds were spent. Were the funds well spent?
The money, to the best of my knowledge have been spent. But we are carrying out our oversight functions as well to see where there are inefficiency or loopholes, for instance we looked at USD1 billion intervention that was done a while back. We saw that about USD500 million of it was transferred upfront to America for the purchase of the Tokano jets which we believe will be arriving next year. Our investigation are still on going to look at where and how the remaining of those funds were spent. The remaining half has been transferred to various manufacturers as well. You don’t buy military hardware as if you’re buying stuff from the supermarket, it takes time to manufacture, so we are told a lot of them are still under manufacture and some are already being shipped so we are also about going to oversight these things. In the fullness of time, our proper report will show if the money was well spent or not.
Again, other lawmakers wonder why the Armed Forces would need more funds after claiming to have decimated Boko Haram. What do you have to say about this?
Yes, it was claimed that Boko Haram was decimated but you and I know that Boko Haram has not been decimated, I see a resurgence in their activities. I see the crisis in Libya has further emboldened them, I see that the Libya, Chad, Mali, Nigel routes where insurgents or ISWAP can easily come into Nigeria we need to constantly upscale our inventory because as the saying goes, “show me a strong armed forces, I will see their inventory.” We need to constantly buy arms ammunitions, technology, retrain our armed forces so that they are bold and strong, that fear factor for the enemy still comes in, if you see a soldier, if you see how kitted he is, it will make the enemy a bit frightful, if you don’t do that they see them as boys scouts and they can role over them easily.
Your Nigerian Armed Forces Support Fund Bill just passed second reading, what happens if it’s not assented to by Mr President?
I feel that insecurity is taking a toll on Nigeria and I believe that anybody that has the interest of Nigeria at heart will look at those bills positively, as bills that will add value to security architecture of Nigeria. I really don’t envisage a situation where Mr President won’t sign it. It’s a bill that will enhance the capacity of the armed forces and make Nigeria safe.
Since much of what goes on in defence and security are restricted and top secret, how should critical information that the public needs to know be managed in order to give the public a sense of what is going on?
In Nigeria, we have not been very mindful of what you call strategic communication. Everyday we scream Boko Haram have done this and that, I believe we are further emboldening them, because their sponsors wherever they are will be happy, saying their money was well spent. It will be a catalyst for them to pump in more money to these insurgents to be able to cause damage. In other countries activities of insurgents are grossly under reported, so that they do not get that the balls to do more and their financiers will see that their money is not well spent so they will think of channeling it elsewhere. So I think the National Orientation Agency should also live up to expectation, should also dominate and promote the good deeds that our armed forces are doing. We always don’t have empathy on our armed forces because a lot of them are the ones on the frontline and they are like our family. Because if the Nigerians are detached they feel that it is the armed forces that is at the brink of war or at war with insurgents. They forget that armed forces belong to us. They are paid by tax payers. They have family members like us. I think communication should be in a way that will embolden our armed forces that will not undermine them. There has to be a critical forum where how to effectively communicate should be agreed upon.
Why has Nigeria not signed the control of small arms and light weapons treaty?
I think there’s a seminar going on which is spearheaded by the Vice President, they are looking at the issue very critically and I’m sure in the fullness of time a decision will be taken that will be to the benefit of Nigeria.
On the call for resignation of Service Chiefs, it’s beginning to look like mere talk, nothing has been done about it yet. Does it mean that they don’t have any regard for the parliament?
I will say that the bulk of appointing and firing service chiefs lies on the desk of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Mr President. Don’t forget that President Buhari is a General who has fought many battles and understands military strategies. If we as parliamentarians see that the security situation is spiraling, our job is to scream out on behalf of our constituents who come and meet us. Our members have been doing that, particularly members from Borno, Kaduna, Adamawa, Yobe, Zamfara states, the affected areas, they have been bringing these issues to the front burner. They have been screaming from the rooftop. Mr. President has heard clearly that Nigeria is not as safe and secure as they have presented to him. I’m sure as a general has listened to our cries, he has a big decision to take and so in the fullness of time I’m sure he will do what’s right, I’m sure he’s using them now for some strategic reasons that we don’t know. Also I will always say that the height of insecurity in the country it’s due to institutional failures, Nigeria is greatly under policed, more recruitment and inventory are needed as soon as possible. The population of Nigeria is approximately 200 million and we cannot boast of 400,000 policemen. We need to ramp up on our recruitment, we need to ramp up on inventory like guns, ammunitions and we need it as soon as possible so that we can end this war in the shortest possible time, it’s embarrassing it has lasted for over ten years. All hands need to be on deck so that we can wipe out this insurgency.
What’s your view on the bill to sponsor repentant Boko Haram members to receive foreign education?
I don’t agree with it, I believe that rather the victims of such actions and attacks of Boko Haram should be looked at critically, rehabilitated, resettled, be given proper education so that the Nigeria state doesn’t fail them. Boko Haram people should be treated as terrorists because lives have been lost, investments have been lost, I think it should be the other way round.
Everyday we scream Boko Haram has done this and that, I believe we are further emboldening them, because their sponsors wherever they are will be happy, saying their money was well spent. It will be a catalyst for them to pump in more money to these insurgents to be able to cause damage. In other countries activities of insurgents are grossly under reported, so that they do not get that the balls to do more and their financiers will see that their money is not well spent so they will think of channeling it elsewhere. So I think the National Orientation Agency should also live up to expectation, should also dominate and promote the good deeds that our armed forces are doing. We always don’t have empathy on our armed forces because a lot of them are the ones on the frontline and they are like our family. Because if the Nigerians are detached they feel that it is the armed forces that is at the brink of war or at war with insurgents