By JOHNBOSCO AGBAKWURU
Senator Ahmad Zannah Khalifa represents Borno Central Senatorial District in the Senate. In this interview, he tells the story of Boko Haram from his own perspective, saying over 100, 000 people have died as a result of the insurgency in his state and accuses government of complicity on the killings. Excerpts:
There have been sustained attacks by Boko Haram in Borno State. Does it mean security agencies cannot curtail the situation?
It is very pathetic and disturbing that a nation like Nigeria is not able to contain a small insurgency by Boko Haram, and my people are very disappointed. I don’t know the reason behind the lacklustre attitude of the military.
Can we know the level of casualty in the state as a result of the insurgency?
The dead are over a thousand within the last one month because deaths in Bama alone is about a hundred, Kauri is about 200, there is also Gulumba area which has never been reported in the media because that place has not been accessed. Boko Haram attacked and burnt up to 20 villages in that area because of lack of security coverage, nobody has been able to go there to see what happened but survivors who escaped to Bama and Maiduguri reported to us that at least 300 people had been killed and almost 20 villages razed.
What do you think are responsible for these attacks?
Since the imposition of state of emergency, the people of Borno, particularly the youth, have volunteered themselves and sent the Boko Haram insurgents into the bush and, while they are in the bush, that is the place where the military is supposed to go in and wipe them out but there has never been a time when the military went after them.
So, the insurgents had ample time to regroup and, at the same time, recruit from surrounding villages, take people by force, train them and, after some time, these recruits become part of the insurgency. They give each recruit between N50, 000 and N100, 000 which he may never get all his life. For this reason, the number of Boko Haram insurgents in Borno has multiplied to a level one cannot understand; sometimes they may attack a village with about 400, 500 insurgents; they may attack two different locations at the same time which means their number has really swollen to a level that has overwhelmed the army.
With is the level of your confidence in the armed forces and why has this taken so long for northern elders to speak to the insurgents to sheathe their sword? It is only now the governors from the North are begging them that enough is enough.
We have been talking to the boys, but, unfortunately, government has been playing a double standard. They will say they want to go into negotiation (with Boko Haram), at the same time, they will be attacking the boys, if there is negotiation taking place, there is bound to a cease fire but it has never been so. They are talking about negotiation just for the sake of it; they don’t have the intention and this has infuriated the boys in such a way that they don’t have confidence that the government will negotiate with them and give them amnesty.
So it is better for them to die fighting. I think this is the notion they have and eventually they found out that the military is incapable or unwilling to eliminate them; that unwillingness emboldened them to come and attack even where there is a military barrack. You can take the example of the Maiduguri airport, the Bama barrack and the Mongono barrack attacks; all these things emboldened them and we are saying our security agencies are not properly armed like the Bo
ko Haram. We want the world to know that government has not equipped the military as being claimed.
Are you in essence saying that the committee set up to negotiate with Boko Haram did not achieve anything?
It failed woefully, it achieved nothing and it was not intended to achieve anything, it was just to satisfy a certain section of the country while my own people were being killed. Before the dialogue committee went to Maiduguri, all the detainees in detention of government were killed and that was immediately after the state of emergency was imposed.
While state of emergency was being imposed, they said about 20 local governments were in the hands of Boko Haram, today up to that 20 are still in the hands of Boko Haram although they have not hoisted their flags. At least in the local governments, there is still no school, no judiciary, no local government administration, no market.
The claim of lacklustre attitude by the military, can it be traced to the condemnation the military received when they attacked Boko Haram in Baga?
Before the Baga Incident, the military were having a free day killing innocent people in the cities. My fellow senator told me he counted 228 fresh graves at that time, people were being killed by the military not just insurgents. It was alleged that it was as a result of fighting between the insurgents and the military. Some insurgents were said to have come in and killed one army officer who was allegedly selling alcohol in a beer parlour abandoned by a fleeing resident. The insurgents from another village killed the army, burnt the house and went away. That happened around 7:30pm, around 10:30pm the military descended on the people. All the killings that have taken place, we have lost almost 100, 000 people. Official killings seem to be more than the number slain during Boko Haram attacks
When you hear comments like security agents are the ones carrying out attacks to ensure that the North East is not safe so that elections would not be held in those areas in 2015, does it mean anything to you?
That is what I am saying that we are investigating, we are not sure of that. At the right time we will be able to expose them if there is any complicity.
There is also the claim that your life is under threat. What kind of threat are you facing?
My house was raided over one year ago; they said I was sheltering a Boko Haram commander. The man was not found in my house but in somebody else residence. In spite of that, the military came out to say the man was found in my house. There are other instances. I was warned by one top security personnel that I was under watch.
Have you reported your case to the president?
How do I have access to Mr. President? As a sitting senator from an area in national crisis, he is the one who is supposed to look for me; all the attempts I made were not successful and he didn’t look for me.
Is that why you have been absent from your constituency for some time?
My life was under threat, so I stayed away until now that the things are getting out of hand, I had to go to the authorities to give me security coverage so that I will go and come back safely.
How do your constituents cope with your absence?
My constituents understand what I am going through and I stood by them all these while. I told them it was not necessary I should be there and that I am taking all the necessary steps in order to protect them; my physical presence is not all that important.
How do you substantiate the alleged involvement of former GovernorAli Modi Sheriff in the Boko Haram stuff?
I really don’t know anything but the first allegation was that when he was vying for governor in 2003, he went into alliance with some people who supported him and he promised he was going to implement Sharia and when he could not implement Sharia, they fell apart. In 2005 or 2006, he was said to have claimed they were a threat to his administration or whatever, so he formed a security body called Operation Flush. That is said to be the genesis of the whole misunderstanding and insecurity in the state. And when the state of emergency was imposed and the vigilante or what you can call the Civilian JTF were able to fish out Boko Haram elements within them and sent them into the bush, those they caught were handed them over to security agencies. When the security situation had calmed, Sheriff wanted to go to Maiduguri in order to start his campaign but the Civilian JTF now said ‘no, you have created insecurity in the state, we don’t want you to be in Maiduguri’.
We have been told Boko Haram has external connections, that some of the group’s leaders are based in Cameroon and are Cameroonians. Are you looking at the possibility government should seek extradition of the suspects?
They are not Cameroonians; there are very few Cameroonians in Boko Haram if there is any. Most of them are Nigerians; they went into Cameroon and they were given free access as a result of an agreement between Nigeria, the Cameroonian government, the Chadian government, the Nigerien government and the French government when five French people were kidnapped to aid their release. So the insurgents can go into Cameroon, come to Nigeria and attack and go back to Cameroon after the attack. But of recent, Cameroon has sent them away. Even recently, one of my in-laws was staying in Cameroon and a Boko Haram leader came and said ‘since you are learned in Islam, come and teach in our camp’. He refused consequent upon which the Boko Hara people arrested him and took him into Nigeria. Two days after, they arrested two of his boys, and later picked his wife and one of her sisters. So my in-law tricked them into releasing him and those arrested with him by
telling them he needed to collect money from those owing him and that he would return to them. This is the level of involvement of Cameroon.
What is your formula for resolving this insurgency in the North East? The Northern Elders Group led by Professor Ango Abdullahi has called for the prosecution of the former army chief at the Hague and are you in PDP or the APC?
I am a PDP senator and I am still in PDP, I haven’t defected. The threat that Gen. Ihejirika will be taken to the Hague, we are still gathering our evidence. At the appropriate time, you will know and the way out of the problem of Boko Haram, but I want government to be serious. If the President is being misled by certain people, now let him wake up, let him be serious on the matter because this involves human life, you cannot play politics with human life. He became President without drawing a single drop of blood. This is playing with God’s favour and God will not favour that. And number two, if the army is demoralized, afraid of Boko Haram, I want them to engage our young men who are willing to die in order to save their people. Even now they follow the military into the bush sometimes wearing bathroom slippers, and without any protective wear. If you give them 30 days training, just 1,000 of them, let them go with the military, they will wipe out Boko Haram within a month. I have confidence in my constituency, let government give us the benefit of doubt; this is what happened in Sierra Leone. You know Sierra Leonean rebels were cutting the arms of our soldiers, killing them when we went to restore peace in that country. But by involving the locals, giving them arms and training them, they were able to defeat the terrorists.