By Kingsley Omonobi, Abuja,
Air Vice Marshal Lucky Ochuko Ararile (retd) is the Ovie of Umiagwha Abraka Kingdom, Delta State. Before he retired from the military, he commanded many formations including the Operation Restore Hope for the Niger Delta. He was later appointed the Coordinator of the Amnesty Committee that midwifed the Amnesty Programme for ex-militants by former President Umar Yar’Adua. In this interview, the retired air force officer bares his mind on the $2.1bn arms deal involving a former National Security Adviser (NSA), Colonel Sambo Dasuki (retd), and some top military officers, among other national issues.
When the former administration left and the new administration came in, nobody thought that, by now, we would still be fighting Boko Haram. What do you think is responsible?
Let me say that the present administration has done very well on the war against Boko Haram. Boko Haram is not one war. If you look at how it started, it started with terrorism; the terrorists were bombing churches, mosques, killing people. Initially they were capturing the Igbo in the North-East, they were killing them and I said, at that time, that when they were done with the Igbo and the Igbo run back to their states, they (BHT) were going to face northerners and, of course, the most popular person they killed was Major General Shua, one of the most prominent persons we had in the military who performed heroically in the civil war. Now when they became bold enough, they went to the next level which is insurgency. Insurgency is attempt at regime change. You want to impose your culture on a certain territory.
But the sad thing with us at that period is that with all the resources we had committed to defence all these years, it was disheartening that a group of insurgents could actually capture one inch of the Nigerian territory. And for those people at the helm of affairs at that time, from the President down, they committed treasonable felony, treason, to allow it happen. For Nigeria’s territory to be so whimsically lost to a group of insurgents, a population of more than 170million people with one of the best militaries in the world, is regrettable.
I participated in the ECOMONG campaign, I was involved for more than ten years, we didn’t have incidence of Nigeria soldiers chickening out of battle. But in the North-East, it got to a point that they (our soldiers) had to run to other countries. It is unimaginable; it is so painful. And for people (officers) to be identified to have diverted the money provided for them to supply arms is treasonable.
People are talking about bail for former NSA Sambo Dasuki. All these things are contrived. As far as Dasuki is concerned, the main issue is that it is treason. If he is tried for treason, we won’t be talking about bail. These people are still subject to military law, so, after they finish with the EFCC, they should be handed over to the military so that we will sort it out the military way. We cannot be given that kind of responsibility and fail the country to the extent that two million Nigerians are internally displaced; to the extent that pilots flew planes that were unserviceable; to the extent that Nigerian troops were running to Cameroon, Chad. They have brought the country to serious ignominy.
What is your take on the issue of lack of transparency in the Civil Service?
It is not only peculiar to the armed forces. What is happening now in the $2.1 billion arms deal is just by accident. I don’t think the President actually thought that he will start the anti-corruption war from the NSA’s office; it just happened; otherwise, what we are talking about now is just the beginning. We have not started with the Ministry of Defence; we have not started with NIMASA; we have not started with the NNPC, we have not started with the NPA, we have not started with the Civil Service; so this is just like what you call, in table tennis, toss for game. So whether people are transparent or not, it is across the board. So, let us wait and see.
Like you said just now, the image of the military has been dragged down. How do you think the military can get back the trust of the people?
The truth is that the average Nigerian knows the Army. They know our capabilities; so getting our image back is not the problem because we already know the problem. Why we got to this sorry pass is because the monies that were voted for defence were not used for the purpose and it is not necessarily only defence, it is across the board. That is why I said that when the anti-corruption war continues, we will see how Nigeria has been run. So, once this processes, arms purchases, payment of allowances, etc; when everything is cleared up, and I am happy that this is happening because, at the end of the day, we will have a better military.
Coming to the Amnesty Programme which you midwifed, are you satisfied with the way things are going on there?
Unfortunately, not many Nigerians remember that I headed the Amnesty Programme, they have forgotten. The scheme, from conception, was supposed to last for not more than ‘five years’ and it was supposed to be winding down gradually by the fifth year. It is only those who are at the university that will still be attended to.
By this time, those who have acquired some skills would have gone out of the programme. So if you went to a skill acquisition centre, for instance, to learn to become a welder, that programme is supposed to be for nine months or one year maximum; so, at the end of that period, you would have been out of the programme. But what we have today is that almost everybody that was captured in the programme, from the beginning, is still there, because they were talking about different groups and I said, at that time, that there was a window through which all ex-militants should surrender. Those who chose not to surrender at that period were supposed to be on their own but, later on, being a Nigeria matter, they started talking of Batch 2, Batch 3.
And I said the batches will not end and it is compounded with the fact that the whole programme has been bastardized. The Amnesty Programme is not about the people that were disarmed only. It comprises of the whole Niger-Delta and Niger-Delta by definition includes nine states. Now, when you start a programme, even the main people themselves were carried along. During the initial interface, Henry Okah came, at a point, to say, as far as MEND was concerned, they didn’t have more than 5,000 militants. Later on, politics came into it and they now made it 10,000. From 10,000, it went to 15,000, 20,000 and finally 30,000. And even after 30,000, we still have some people saying they have not been captured.
So if we have such a flexible definition of who are militants and the time frame, then even Boko Haram will join and say after ‘I am a Niger-Deltan’. So, a line has to be drawn, a decision has to be taken because what we are talking about now is that, at the last count, we have 30,000 people in the programme, but that is not the number of youths that are unemployed in the Niger-Delta. We have millions of them. And the original programme had them in view, people who do not carry arms. Yar’Adua was very passionate about that, that we could not be addressing only those people that carried arms; let us equally address those who did not carry arms. So that they won’t think that the government only reacts when you resort to violence, which was the strategy, but that other aspect was not addressed when we left.
If the original programme was followed where you terminate your own training, you won’t be talking of paying stipends to 30,000 people today. Probably at best, we won’t have more than 500 and I challenge anybody to bring the data. We don’t have up to 200 people in the whole of that list that have the prerequisites to go to a university. So people going to flying training, unless it was done in the concept of addressing the whole Niger Delta issue, militancy or no militancy. But what I am hearing is that those people who went to South Africa to learn to fly, who went to Sri-Lanka to learn to do whatever were militants, no. We didn’t have up to 200 people who had five credits to qualify to do such types of learning at the time I left.
Is that then justifiable reason for the present administration to contemplate scrapping the programme?
Well, I don’t know whether that is the plan of the present administration. But the fact is that, as I have alluded earlier, this programme was designed for five years. And, indeed, if we continue the way we are going, we will encourage those who are not militants to go into militancy and Yar’Adua’s fears will be validated that the government attends only to those who are militants, those who carry arms. But that programme cannot run in perpetuity.
What is the way forward?
Well, we have a new government; the President must have his own plans and programmes. His own attitude to the Amnesty Programme, I cannot suggest now. I have been out of the Amnesty Programme since 2010. So, if the government plans a review and needs my input and suggestions, I an available.
This brings us to the issue of attacks on pipelines. What do you attribute to this because this was why the Amnesty Programme was introduced?
Like I said, the programme was all-encompassing, to address the issues of the Niger-Delta and what were the issues? One, militancy, restiveness not necessarily associated with militancy. Those were people carrying guns, unemployment, environmental degradation. That is why I look at what is going on today and I just keep to myself and the media has not helped matters because you know people who drove the programme and were aware of the structures of the programme. I read in the papers, Kingsley Kuku was called the Presidential Adviser on Niger Delta, Chairman of Amnesty Committee. Who are the members of the committee? When we were running that programme, we had a committee. The man at the helm of affairs of the programme is a sole administrator right from the time Timi Alaibe took over, to the time of Kingsley Kuku.
How do you reconcile the Niger-Delta amnesty and the call for amnesty for Boko Haram terrorists in the North-East?
I don’t think the President has said anything about amnesty for the North-East. What I have heard from the media is that the North-East is going to be developed and people are going to be resettled. I don’t think the President is going the way of the approach of Yar’Adua.
Talking about economic challenge, it seems that the government devotes more time to fighting corruption than other issues facing the country, especially the economy. What do you have to say on this?
From my financial background, let me say this: I think it was one American Senator (McCain) that said that he knows how to fight war, knows how to politic but knows nothing about economy. I will suggest that attitude to Mr. President that he should play to his strength namely, the competent ability to fight the war against insurgency. He has the passion to fight the anti-corruption battle and, in any case, even if he has the ability, he cannot fight so many battles at a time. I think it is time for him to set up an economic team to help us. We are in a very downturn state; policies are not being articulated. So, I will beg him to set up an economic team and leave the economists to tackle this issue.
Immediately he said he will not devalue, I knew we would have problems. Godwin Emefiele, the CBN Governor, has been very creative because even the delay in appointing the Finance Minister was problematic for the economy. If not that he was creative enough to bring out 42 items not valid for foreign exchange, the value of the Naira would have been worse than what it is today. Also, removing the Directorate of Budget to National Planning, to me, is uncalled for. What will the Finance Minister be doing? She will just be signing cheques because there is nothing to do. So, my take on that is that we need an economic team.
On the trend of kidnapping, especially of traditional leader, what are traditional leaders in Niger Delta doing about this?
We (traditional rulers) are meeting, we have not come out with a strategy, but let me correct the view that traditional leaders are being targeted. It is just a coincidence that two of them were involved in a matter of two weeks and, if you look back on kidnapping, you will see that not many of them are actually traditional rulers. So, it is not as if it is a plan that kidnappers just sit down and say, ‘okay, let us kidnap traditional rulers’, no. Most of the kidnapping are actually opportunistic.
Having said that, whether it is a traditional ruler or a school child, it is worrisome for us in the Niger-Delta. It started as part of militancy in ‘quote’, but I knew even at that time, when I was Commander of the Airforce in Benin and I was involved in Operation Restore Hope, that one day it will get to this. I was advising the militants at that time, I said, ‘Look, when you keep kidnapping all these white people, when they run away, you will start kidnapping your fathers and your mothers’.
And that is exactly what is happening and Nigeria is an environment of copycats; so a lot of people see that in the Niger-Delta they are kidnapping and getting money, the youths elsewhere will copy. Whether it’s in Lagos or Nasarawa, they will copy. So, that is the stage that we are in. But the most worrisome thing is that of the Fulani herdsmen. I think in all the anti-social activities that are happening in the Niger-Delta, the Fulani herdsmen top the league. Whether in terms of rape, murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, destruction of people’s farms, name it.
I think regarding this phenomenon, we have not done our analysis very well. I am of the strong view that this Fulani menace is linked to Boko Haram. I will give you a simple explanation. For instance, there is this phenomenon we refer to as climate change. Before, in the North, our fears, as Nigerians, as far as the environment was concerned, were desertification. With climate change, we are now having flood in Sokoto, Maiduguri. The whole of the North is now having rain more than before. The phenomenon, when I was growing up, is that just, by December, you have these Fulani cattle rearers. In fact what told us that they were coming was the presence of cattle eaglets.
Once you see cattle eaglets, you knew that Fulani people were coming. Now, there is rain even in December in the North, so there is grass there. So, why are they trekking thousands of kilometres to the South to look for grass? In our analysis, we must think outside the box and think deeply. It is not the traditional Fulani herdsmen that we are seeing. In fact, most of them are not Nigerians. The average Fulani herdsmen are not violent. I have been seeing them since I was growing up, they were not killing people, they were not carrying AK 47, they were not raping, so, why all of a sudden, 2012 to 2015, that the Fulanis have just metamorphosed into a very violent group?
What is the way forward?
The way forward is what I cannot articulate here. I will articulate it at the appropriate forum, but to give you an idea, I think those that are not Nigerians should be sent back to their countries. They have abused and misused the goodwill and the open handedness of Nigerians. People will hide under the ECOWAS protocol. ECOWAS protocol allows the free movement of people across borders. They didn’t say you should come and start trespassing and damaging properties or killing because you have the right to move from point A to B.
What is your advice to government on moving Nigeria forward?
I think I have always agreed with the President on most of what he does and what he says; you know if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us. That is why I am advising that he should leave the economy for a group of economists and he should face this anti-corruption war he is pursuing. I am 100 percent in support of him. Currently, I am not unemployed but I am ready to do anything as far as anti-corruption is concerned. So I think if we can fight corruption to a standstill, we will be great again. I remember when I was joining the Airforce, I didn’t know anybody. I just saw the advert and applied, did the interview and was taken.
When I was to go to England to learn how to fly, I went to the Nigerian Airforce Headquarters and the corporals then will call me; at that time, I wasn’t even an officer yet but they knew I would become an officer: ‘Sir, have you gotten your warm clothing allowance?’ If I said no, they will say, `Okay, go to that room and fill the form’, and they would give me my allowance. 36 years later, when I retired, as a two-star general, an Air Vice Marshal, up till today, I don’t even know what my entitlements are, nobody is telling me.
And you are not asking questions?
There is no place to find out, even with my knowledge of finance. I read the Pensions Reform Act and my calculations of what I am entitled to, but when, eventually, I got what I was given as gratuity, I almost had heart attack. As an Air Vice Marshal, I am not going to hide it, my gratuity was N5.33 million. N5.33million after 36 years? There is a cousin of mine that worked with Shell as auxiliary police, he worked for only five years; when he decided to leave on his own, he was paid more than five million. I am telling you that when I got that money, I almost died, I couldn’t believe it. Meanwhile, my friend retired from the NNPC at that time and collected hundreds of millions.