Toby Okechukwu: Amnesty for Bandits? Don’t Play with Fire

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The Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Toby Okechukwu during a recent appearance on Arise TV’s Thisdaylive Sunday show with Rueben Abati, spoke on a variety of issues including why amnesty shouldn’t be granted to bandits and how the report of 2014 National Conference can be used to address challenges faced in the country. Udora Orizu presents excerpts from the session

With the recent trend of kidnapping of school pupils, the President has gone ahead to say, school owners, state governments should take extra effort to secure their schools and provide security in the environment and that will be in line with the administration safe school initiative. Is it really something that the schools have to do on their own? And what are your thoughts with this special focus on schools by bandits?
We thank God that some of the students have been released and we commiserate with people who have lost lives along the line. As a matter of fact, it is the responsibility of government to provide security for its citizens. The primary purpose of government is security and welfare for its citizens. It is there in Section 14 (2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution.

So, it might be good on the side of Mr President to say that people or states should ensure the security for schools. By the provisions of our constitution, the government is the only organ that is equipped with the power of coercion and to enforce security. But if the states are to provide security, are they equipped to do so? That brings us to the question: we might have the right thoughts, but are we working the thoughts? It is one thing to ask the states to provide security, but yet another to create an enabling environment for states to provide security for people in their respective jurisdictions. We have in the past few years, debated state police. I think the President’s message goes to that effect. The next step is to make it operational. They will surely want to secure their domains and people, but they don’t have the capacity and there is no statutory flavour to that effect. So, I do not think they are equipped. It is the right call, but it is not backed by capacity.

But I think right now the states should fight for state police. Governor Nasir El-Rufai has moved for it. States in the South West have done so. The same with states in the South East. So, I do not think there is anything that is against state police anymore because it has become so evident that what we have is not serving us. What is lacking is the political will.

As someone in the leadership of the National Assembly, what role do you think that the National Assembly should play at this point, as its own contribution to help address the security challenges in the country?
First and foremost is the issue of amending the constitution and to create an enabling legislative framework for suitable security architecture for a federal state like Nigeria. I believe we need to amend the constitution to allow the states to have state police. As a matter of fact, if you look at the various vigilantes, you will find out that each of the states are already operating little security outfits, but the issue is that in reality they are not very functional. What we can do is to get focused. The 2014 National Conference recommends that, and the APC report regarding true federalism supports that. So, what we need to reflect the views of our people in the constitution amendment that’s coming up.

On security, there have been talks in some quarters about payment of ransom blanket amnesty for bandits. Do you think that’s a good idea? And also negotiations and ransoms for persons who have been kidnapped?
What such things do, whether it is payment of ransom or granting amnesty or dialogue with criminals, is to put a question mark on the integrity and capacity of the state to be the only organ that’s legitimately authorised to exercise legitimate violence if need be in terms of carrying weapon of coercion. It means that the state is operating from a compromised state. It is not expected within the context of a country or a nation state to begin to operate that way. But, by the way, if you want to negotiate, whom do you want to negotiate with? Is there a central command with regard to bandits or criminals? It will be an invitation to various groups to spring up and begin to undertake such criminal enterprises. Yes, it’s an organised criminal network, but they are also operating in pockets and cells. So there’s a lot of question mark, in regards to such approach. They have tried it in Zamfara. The question then is, who now kidnapped the about 300 Jangebe students? What is important is that the state should improve its standing and capacity to enforce laws.

There are views by certain people that bandits are not criminals, rather they are aggrieved members of the society. As a lawyer and lawmaker, is it true that it’s possible for us to say that bandits are not criminals?
The definition of who is a criminal or not is not a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of law. The Criminal Code and Penal Code clearly define what a crime is and who a criminal is. You are a crook, a criminal if you do things that offend the state. If banditry is not crime, then I don’t know what is. There isn’t any way you can give it a baptismal name; banditry is a crime – in capital letters.

In fact, we should do a proper analysis and have a proper understanding of what is ailing us. There is no point wishing it away because there isn’t any means you can take away criminality from the savagery as have been witnessed by our people, from Kagara to Jangebe to Katsina, to Ondo State, to the South East and all over country.
I also understand that there are crimes that happen because the state has not provided sufficiently for the people or enabled them to be economically engaged. Those are issues to be addressed by he government. But to say that a crime is not a crime, then you’re playing with fire.

There are persons, who in the last two weeks have agitated that when there is a security challenge in the southern part of the country, there is an attempt to deploy military might as we saw recently in Orlu, Imo State or to demonise persons in the South, who agitate. But when it comes to the North, there is an attempt to defend even bandits and apply a policy of appeasement. Do you share the same views?
I don’t have to share the views. But you see, public analysis presupposes that people deal with what they see. If for any reason it is perceived by Nigerians that the government or its organs are being nepotic, it doesn’t help anybody. The level of force that was applied in Orlu was very evident. Then you begin to wonder what happens when there is this perpetual and serial killing and abduction of citizens in the North. I don’t see how it is possible that bandits will kidnap about 300 girls and there is no single arrest. And some people will even be claiming that it is God’s will. Come on. Anybody perpetrating all these is offending God and our constitution and must be dealt with as prescribed as the laws of the land.

Unfortunately, it is the body language of the government that creates that impression you talked about and every step must be taken to make sure it is corrected. I don’t see how we can be appeasing people, who are killing our citizens. Niger state has become a theatre. Zamfara is the same; Katsina and Kaduna, the same. We should take the same elements, the same force we apply for people who are perceived criminals elsewhere to meet the people in these states. But from what we are seeing, it will appear that there is a carrot and stick approach that is applied in different jurisdictions. For the state to recapture its capacity, for the state to be seen to be even with its citizens, the government, has to be very equal in dishing out measures.

On Igbo Presidency 2023, there are persons who say that their fear is that stakeholders in Igbo land may not be united enough to be able to present an acceptable candidate or achieve that objective. Then the issue of IPOB
I think what we need is a person from the South East who’s going to be Nigeria’s President. The Igbo are not going to pick a President for Nigeria. When they need an Ohanaeze President, Igbo will come together and elect one. But whenever Nigerians need a President, they have always come together to undertake that. Look at the elections over the years: Chief Olu Falae and Obsanjo, Yar’Adua and President Buhari, and even Atiku and Buhari in the 2019 general elections. Also look at the presidential primaries. So, Nigerians did it with the South West and Obasanjo. The Yoruba didn’t come together to nominate him. They did it with Shehu Shagari. They also got together and elected Buhari. The same should happen for the people of the South East. So, nobody should expect the Igbo to get together first.

Also, in the North East where insurgents are carving out territories and waging war against Nigerian state or other places where bandits are running riot, it did not prevent people from those parts of the country from aspiring for the presidency of Nigeria. The existence of OPC didn’t prevent Obasanjo from emerging President. In any case, all these are things we have to fix as a country, not to change the standard and convention when it comes to the South East.

Recently, you presented a motion requesting the House of Representatives to ask the presidency to officially forward the reports of 2014 National Conference and the Nasir El-Rufai committee on true federalism to the parliament. What informed your motion and why was it shot down summarily?
I do not think it was shot down. I completed my motion. I moved it. And the reason for the motion was that by Sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution, the National Assembly could procure evidence or material that it requires for its work. The motion was moved in line with that because we needed to make the 2014 confab report an document official of the parliament so that the content could officially be discussed. I don’t think it’s useful, having invested resources in such a conference and they don’t deal with it legislatively to address issues like security, devolution of powers, security, finances, fiscal federalism, and the rest of them bedevilling the country. And that was why we said let us have it as we are on the verge of amending the constitution. It will enrich our debate.

It was stepped down, not because there was no merit in the motion, but because the Chairman of the Constitution Review Committee, the Deputy Speaker, said the document could be obtained by operation of the secretariat of the Committee, which means memoranda will be sent to various organs of government and to individuals to bring whatever they have. Since the Chairman of the Committee volunteered on that, the motion was no longer necessary to be voted upon. It is now up to him to ensure that the documents are made available to the parliament.