Senator Basheer Garba Mohammed, Federal Commissioner, National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI), says he is committed to improving the lot of refugees, migrants and IDPs in Nigeria. He spoke to THISDAY on Sunday. Excerpts:
What’s your driving force since assuming office?
I was the vice chairman, Contact and Mobilisation, North, for the APC 2019 Presidential Campaign Council. Our campaign slogan was ‘Next Level’. Therefore, in my opinion, President Muhammadu Buhari has done his part by moving the nation forward from 2015 and Nigerians have confidence in him. They love and trust him. That’s why they gave him a second term. It is now the responsibility of us in the government to move our offices to the next level based on our campaign slogan.
Upon my assumption of office, I took a critical look at the mandates of the commission, the vital one states that, apart from providing care to displaced persons, namely the hundreds of thousands of our refugees in neighbouring countries like Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic, migrants, over 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers and more than 400,000 returnee migrants, the commission is saddled with the responsibility of ‘Resettling, Reintegrating and Rehabilitating’ these groups of vulnerable Nigerians. With that in mind, I decided to channel my thoughts and plans to three key areas of achieving this mandate.
Can you shed more light on that?
In a not-too-distant past, the figures of our displaced persons were in thousands due to the Boko Haram insurgency that rocked the nation more than 10 years ago. But, today, we have over 2.5 million displaced persons in the country in over 290 official camps.
Because of the growing demand for accommodation and the recurring nature of displacement, there are also over 700 unofficial camps across the country and that figure excludes the hundreds of thousands of IDPs living in host communities. With this alarming situation, saying resettlement is the way forward is an understatement: it is the only way to restore the lives of the people.
From the establishment of the commission to date, the government has spent billions of naira feeding the displaced persons. It is not sustainable for the government to continue to spend this much on these people without an exit strategy, more so now that resources are dwindling by the day.
When the camps were established at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, more than a decade ago, the camps were intended to be temporary. Ten years later, the displaced have travelled across the border to seek refuge in other countries, and those left within the country are living in tightly packed camps while some have overstayed their welcome in the host communities they found themselves.
What are you doing about that?
I decided to take the bull by the horns and embark on the project of resettling the millions of internally displaced persons through the NCFRMI Resettlement City Reintegration and Rehabilitation Programme. It is my belief that these people need to be taken back to their states of origin as soon as possible, at least, those states where normalcy has been restored. This is the will of the people. This is what they want.
On one of my visits to an IDP camp in Madagali, Adamawa State, I visited an IDP in his tent. There he lived with his wife and their five children in a 10-feet square box tent. I was shaken and surprised at their living conditions. As I remained in shock, the man began to cry and pleaded with me to take him back to his home in neighbouring Borno State.
As I listened to him, he lamented that he was once a fish merchant in Baga LGA of the state and he owned two cars and a big house of his own but that, at the moment, fate had him there waiting for food and water from the government. Never did he imagine that the insurgents, who robbed and burned down his home, would leave him to a life of begging for food and water in an IDP camp.
In October 2019, I also paid a visit to Jere LGA in Borno State, where I met an elderly Kanuri man, who rejected the food items donated by the commission despite his apparent hunger, but being a typical, proud Kanuri man.
He told me in his native dialect that food was not what he wanted then. He clearly stated that he didn’t want to be here; he wanted to go back home and take care of himself. It was clear from the sadness on his face that he was not happy and he would give anything to have his life back.
These two stories strengthen my resolve to pursue this mandate of resettlement and reintegration as a strong priority toward the ultimate restoration of dignity to the millions of displaced persons whose lives have changed due to circumstances beyond their control.
Our IDPs are frustrated especially, the hundreds of thousands of wealthy men and women among them, who have lost everything faster than the blink of an eye.
What concrete steps are you taking to resolve the situation?
Given this phenomenon, my management team and I met with several experts and drew up a plan to develop a rehabilitation and reintegration project towards the empowerment of all displaced persons. Thereafter, I approached several governors with the largest concentration of IDPs in their states, like Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Zamfara, Katsina, Edo, and Cross Rivers states, for the allocation of 50 hectres of land in secure locations.
Today, I am happy to say, we have received land from Yobe, Zamfara, Katsina and Borno States and these governors responded almost immediately. And we are also awaiting a response from Edo and Cross Rivers States. Even without readily available funds, we started the design of these resettlement cities with the help of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing, where we intend to have 600 housing units of two-bedrooms in each city, primary health care and education centres, security outposts, worship houses, skill acquisition centres, markets and adjoining farmlands for use by indigenes.
All of this would not be possible without the intervention of President Muhammadu Buhari, whose commitment to ending the suffering of these vulnerable Nigerians is unyielding and has made everything possible to ensure that their welfare is treated as a priority.
How is the commission helping the displaced persons to cope?
After years of trauma and the psychological adjustments that come with living trapped and closed off from the real world, all displaced persons, refugees, stateless persons, migrants and returnees will need to be evaluated and given rehabilitation and reintegration support. The commission takes this phase as a very important step in their recovery.
On a recent trip to Niger Republic with the Governor of Borno State, Professor Babagana Umaru Zulum, to assess the readiness of our refugees with a view of repatriating them back home, I interacted with a refugee, who was once a big rice farmer, he used to have an output of over 600 bags of rice every season but there he was in Niger Republic a refugee with no home and no farm land. The worst part was that his wife and two children were kidnapped at the time and his home, including his business savings hidden in the house, were all burnt down.
This is the situation with most of the refugees we met there, formerly people of financial independence, but are now refugees without the means to rebuild their lives. In thinking out of the box, the Commission came up with an idea that is more viable and dignifying in the long run.
As the saying goes, give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime. Therefore, I decided to approach the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), knowing its active involvement in numerous empowerment programmes, which have changed the lives of millions of Nigerians.
How have you been engaging the CBN governor in all this?
I secured an appointment with the CBN governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, and during that meeting I explained the dire state of our IDPs and refugees to him, which breeds lots of unspeakable vices in the camps. I briefed him on my plan to rehabilitate and reintegrate the almost three million displaced persons through an empowerment programme tailored to their vulnerabilities.
Given the governor’s personal commitment and passion for uplifting the vulnerable citizens in Nigeria, he instantly agreed to the plans and asked that we develop a strategy for engagement. After returning to office with my management team, who were equally as excited as I was, it was immediately unanimously agreed that this could be a big intervention and the most reliable avenue to make our vulnerable brothers and sisters self-reliant.
After weeks of deliberations, we came up with a name and a scheme that will adequately highlight the aim of the project and the Commission’s objective of making this project, a sustainable legacy for many years to come.
Walk us through your ‘Project Reliance’.
On Monday, October 12, we launched the programme in the presence of the Borno State governor, the Shehu of Borno and the CBN governor’s representative, where 350,000 IDPs will benefit in Borno State alone. This programme was designed to empower them by way of giving them startup capital and empowerment tools in more than 50 different vocations and businesses of their choice.
As we speak today, the process has gone far and we hope to continue in other states, where we have already received hundreds of thousands of verified IDPs’ lists from their state governors. This programme is to be replicated in other states with high number of IDPs.
What about the informal transitional learning centres?
This project was conceived as a result of my numerous visits to the IDP camps across the country. At every camp I visited over the last 12 months, I saw school-age children in hundreds of thousands playing, with no idea of what they want or who they want to be. I would sit to talk to some of them and, sometimes, play with the toddlers, and it’s truly sad to hear these children tell you how much they want to go to school.
It is truly heartbreaking. If we don’t address this educational menace, we have a ticking time bomb on our hands. In no time, these untaught children as they lack any form of western or religious education will grow up angry with themselves, their communities and the government and could end up posing other security challenges.
It is even scarier to think that a five-year-old, who was brought into IDP camp at the beginning of these crises, has now spent over a decade with no western or religious education. And a newborn delivered at the beginning of the crises is now a teenager with no formal or informal education whatsoever. This alone should be a source of concern to everyone, especially government at all levels.
And to address this serious issue, we developed the Informal Transitional Learning Centres Project, which will entail the construction of temporary cabins as classrooms, with morning and evening class shifts to accommodate the large number of students in the camps, and provision of learning and teaching materials for the children and the teachers. This project has also gone far and we have engaged lots of NGOs and the NYSC to provide volunteer corps members as teachers.
Ensuring a successful execution of these projects requires a huge amount of funds. How do you intend to get that?
Again, on behalf of myself, the commission and the millions of displaced persons out there, we wish to thank President Muhammadu Buhari for his continuous support in this regard, and we wish to appreciate his fatherly care as well as his concern for the welfare of these vulnerable Nigerians. Another testimony of his protection and care was during the first Covid-19 presidential broadcast in May. The IDPs were the only group of Nigerians mentioned by the president in that broadcast. No words can adequately quantify how grateful we are to the president.
I also wish to thank the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq, for her passion and unrelenting commitment and support to the commission. With her counsel and guidance, we have gained some traction in our set plans and objectives over the last 12 months.
I want to also thank our development partners especially, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which have been of tremendous assistance and support through collaborations and sponsorship of the Commission’s projects.
The leadership and members of the National Assembly have also shown concern and keen interest in the plight of the IDPs and they have supported our projects in every way they can. We thank them for their continuous support.
I want to further state that I will continue to engage non-governmental bodies and individuals, both international and domestic, in our quest to bring succour to the displaced persons. On this note, I wish to acknowledge the support of His Excellency, the Qatari Ambassador, who has made some pledges through the Qatar Charity.
Having said that, funding has been a major issue for us and, as we all know, government’s resources are shrinking by the day. So, the government can’t do this alone. But I will continue to make a case for more funding from the government on behalf of these vulnerable Nigerians.