By DANIEL IDONOR, Assistant News Editor
Aside from his other many postings and appointments, Air Vice Marshal Lucky Ochuko Ararile (rtd) was,until his recent retirement from the Nigerian Air Force, the coordinator of the Amnesty Programme for ex-militants in the Niger-Delta.
In this interview, AVM Ararile bares his mind on several national issues including the amnesty, development of the Niger-Delta, Boko Haram and the general insecurity in Nigeria. Excerpts:
As the Coordinator of the Federal Government Amnesty Programme, what is the entire programme all about?
The programme was designed to bring peace to the Niger Delta. It involved disarming the militants, reintegrating them into society and, more importantly, addressing the key issues that led to the agitations in the first place. Proposals for the amnesty were made by various individuals. But the report by the technical committee on the Niger Delta headed by Mr Ledun Mitee was the most detailed. But I think the then Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Paul Dike, was the person who finally got the President then to accept the proposal. The President thereafter set up a planning committee and subsequently an implementation committee. It was at this stage that I came in. I was not in the planning committee per say.
It was after the planning that I was called in to be the coordinator. The coordinator was in charge of the inter-agency centre which involved the military, that is, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. It also involved the SSS and the Nigeria Police. So all these agencies as well as some civil organizations I coordinated to execute the disarmament programme.
Many Nigerians were indeed worried that during the Operation Restore Hope it took more than necessary time before the military could curtail the militants. What would you say was responsible for this?
The nature of the prevailing situation, the rules of engagement and logistics define the effectiveness of any force. First, historically speaking, all these agitations started with Adaka Boro, and subsequently Ken Saro_Wiwa, and later to Asari Dokunbo, localised in the River State area, and this was quickly followed by MEND.
This is the historical context in which the agitation developed. Now, there were a lot of occurrences that gave impetus to the struggle. You will recall that in 1998, I think, they had the Kiama Declaration, an intellectual impetus which defined the scope of the struggle, if you wish, of the agitation.
During that time it was not an armed struggle per say. The whole of the Niger Delta at that time was enwrapped in many forms of illegalities that are not related to the struggle, but principally criminal activities such as oil bunkering, kidnappings, and bank robberies. So, these were the issues.
If you recall, during the Buhari/Idiagbon era, there was a decree that prescribed death penalty for illegal oil bunkering. In fact, most of the illegal oil bunkerers ran abroad. After the Buhari/Idiagbon era most of the bunkerers returned and illegal bunkering took another dimension entirely. We had that aspect before the Istekiri/Ijaw problem which equally exacerbated the problem in the Niger-Delta, as it brought in more weapons to the region.
First and foremost, the police stations in the area were the initial source of the weapons they used. But subsequently, they began to generate funds from various sources, and they were able to make contacts for various supplies of weapons. So initially, the JTF was concerned with bringing the carnage in Warri to an end.
After the JTF intervened and stablised Delta State, most of the militants at that time – in fact, they were not militants per say, they were fighters during the Istekiri/Ijaw war -of Ijaw extraction migrated to Bayelsa State and some elements ended up in Port Harcourt.
And at that time, too, the JTF advised that the operation be extended to the whole Niger Delta but unfortunately funding was not immediately available so our operations were mainly in the Delta State area. And before we knew it, the problem had taken another dimension in Bayelsa State. Although, the nature of the problem in Rivers State was totally different, it was mainly political and cult related activities at that time.
Yes! They tried to legitimise their activities or gained some legitimacy by claiming that they were militants fighting as part of the struggle. They were basically cultists and political thugs in River State. By way of historical background, this was what took us to the point where the late President had to intervene.
Let me quickly mention here that the activities of MEND subsequently, Operation Papa Alfa, that reduced Nigeria’s oil production from 2.6 million to 800, 000 barrel per day, gave the government the push to do something, as it were, to stabilise that area because the only source of revenue to the country was being cut off.
Can you honestly say that as the amnesty programme continues to gain momentum, the possibility of future insurgency is not real, especially as there are fears that light ammunitions are still out there?
I cannot be categorical about that. What I can say is that a substantial quantity of arms was collected during that exercise. I will say that quite some quantity of arms was collected. But beyond that it was my belief, and I recommended this in my report, that in order to reduce the level of insecurity in the country there must be a programme to reduce the small arms and light weapons that are in circulation, not just in the Niger Delta, Jos or in the North_East but the whole country. There are a lot of illegal weapons in private possession. There has to be a strategy where a programme has to be put in place with some incentives, whether cash_for_arms or whatever policy, to retrieve arms from individuals. But subsequently penalties can be imposed on those who fail to turn_in their weapons at the expiration of the stipulated date. So, the arms in circulation, yes in the Niger_Delta, we made some progress but there are too many arms in circulation especially with the politicians.
Talking about MEND, many people especially the ex_militants would want Nigerians to believe that there is no MEND anywhere anymore; as one of those who was fully engaged in both the forces against the militants and the disarmament, what is your take on this claim?
Well you will know that even when MEND was operational nobody knew its identity; at a point they set up a team which gave them a human face, which they called the Aaron Team, but I don’t think the government is talking to them now. So, who are those called MEND? I would not really know. Some of them are in government custody, like their leader Henry Orkah. But by the occasional press releases by Gbomo Jomo, I will suppose that some elements of MEND are still active. What their capacity is, I don’t know.
Talking about reducing small arms and light weapons, how would you react to calls in certain quarters that the Federal Government should grant amnesty to members of the Boko Haram, like their militant brothers from the Niger_Delta?
You cannot talk to somebody who is invisible. Boko Haram is not organised the way Niger_Delta militants were organised. Although the generality of Nigerians didn’t know who the militant commanders were but the security forces knew the location of their camps, their leaders, and to some extent, the number of people and arms in the camps.
So they had the data. So there was a strategy to deal with the situation. But when you deal with an amorphous or invincible group, it is difficult if not impossible. For you to disarm them and grant them amnesty there has to be negotiation. Why this is not possible in the case of Boko Haram is one, they are not organized in camps, two, their demands cannot be met, principally because they are requesting for implementation of Sharia laws, which is already in the 12 states.
So the question now is, is the existing Sharia not sharia? Or do they want to bring another type of Sharia that is peculiar to their own sect, and impose it on the rest of the country? So, some of their demands are not just negotiable. Some of them have already been met, if it is Sharia they are looking for. If you want to implement your brand of Sharia, I don’t think even other Muslims would accept it. For them to be given amnesty, they have to come out of their anonymity and moderate their views.
While Operation Restore Hope lasted, there were reports that the Nigerian Military could not penetrate the creeks hence it took the army longer than necessary to dislodge the militants. How true is this claim?
That is not true, that is not true, at all. You have to look at the circumstances where we were before operation restore hope came into existence. Now, part of the reasons why operation restore hope didn’t effectively counter the militancy was because of the restrictive rules of engagement which we were given by then. For example, we knew where the camps were but we could not attack them because we were told not to attack them unless they attacked us. So we were reactive in nature, we were not proactive. We knew where the camps were. In fact, in the presence of the JTF, because of the rules of engagement camps were springing up and we could not do anything about it. We couldn’t attack them. So that was how they proliferated all over the Niger Delta.
In fact, there was a case during the disarmament when a commander was asked why he set up camp, he said: ah, Oga, man must shop na, when I hear say commander come town and governor settle am with something. So, me too I go start my own camp. I started with three riffles and 10 boys. But now I get more than 20 raffles with 30 boys, and every day have something because dem dey give me N2 million per month, so wen I settle my boys I still have something left for me. So there were some constraints on what the JTF could do.
And the reasons for this constrain of course were that government became sensitive to human right campaigners during the post Odi and Zaki Biam era, when they wanted to take the government to the International Court of Justice, at the Hague. The then government of President Obasanjo had to restrict the activities of the JTF. So subsequently, the militants knowing our limitations and the restrictions had a field day.
This, they continued until they killed those soldiers and the rules of engagement changed. Local commanders could then react to tactical situations as they arose rather than revert to higher authority for directives.
Was there any point in time that an aircraft belonging to the Nigeria Air Force was brought down by the militants, as was rumoured during face_off with the armed youths?
There was never a time like that. The only thing close to it was when one helicopter took a hit from a high_caliber gun. We don’t know if it was an anti_aircraft weapon. It was at this time of the escalation of violence that the rules of engagement changed.
How would you react to views by many Nigerians that the political elites and traditional rulers in the Niger_Delta, to a large extent, should be blamed for the underdevelopment of the region?
The problem of the Niger_Delta is the problem of injustice on the people of the region. Late President Yar’Adua in coming up with the amnesty recognized that, and in fact, he was passionate on the need to make amends and bring succor to the people of the Niger-Delta. And as a result, he came up a very comprehensive program to address the injustices.
The petroleum Industry Bill was supposed to assuage some of the concerns of the communities and give some of the proceeds back to the immediate communities where the oil is being exploited. There is equally the provision for environmental remediation, for infrastructures; rail lines, east_west road etc. All these were captured in the amnesty program. You cannot be carrying away somebody’s resources and the person is living in penury and you expect that you can do that in perpetuity. It is not just possible. And so it got to the point where people had to react, the way they did, until it culminated into what we had. To answer your question directly, it is the insensitivity of government particularly at the centre that resulted in the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta.
You said there was no proper negotiation between the militants and the Federal Government before the grant of amnesty to the militants. Does this mean that someday in the future militancy could resurface?
I wouldn’t know. It depends on how the post amnesty program ends. For me, my worries are that the way the implementation program is being run, the government of Nigeria is now funding the ex_militants; they are now paying stipends to the militants, without any plans to break their command and control structure.
They have not actually demobilized them. Their command and control structures are still intact. When they went to the camps, all of them from Delta State went together; all of them from Bayelsa State went together.
That was not the original plan. The original plan was to one, break the groups into various segments to break the command and control chain, two, send them in batches to different camps. Take some people from all the states and integrate them and then take another set from across the states to a separate reintegration centre. What we have now are essentially private militias being paid by the state. That should raise some concerns. Right now, we have to look at that particular aspect.
President Goodluck Jonathan has between now and 2015 to stay in office, do you see these four years as being enough to right all the wrongs perpetrated in the Niger Delta?
Certainly it cannot be enough. Four years is certainly not enough to right the wrongs of more than 40 years. And the challenges the President faces are enormous. And he has a lacuna for the fact that he is from the Niger_Delta. Just recently the House of Representative passed a resolution to investigate why a large chunk of the capital projects were allocated to the region. This is insensitive. These are the types of challenges he will face because he is from the Niger Delta. It would have been easier relatively speaking for late President Yar’Adua to implement and execute these projects, without anybody complaining than it would be for President Jonathan. That said, the national assembly must demonstrate sensitivity to the aspirations of Niger Deltans. Any recourse to old attitudes would be catastrophic for the nation.
What is your take on security generally in Nigeria, as a retired military officer?
Well, the insecurity in the country is a serious issue. If you talk about the priority areas of the government, the first thing they talk about is power then security, because power has its place in development. But if you ask me I will say security should be the top priority of the government. And in order to improve on the security across the country, we have to go back to the basics.
The problem we have presently is that everybody is a security expert. We have specialist roles as far as security is concerned. The police, by their mandate, are responsible for the maintenance of law and order; they are the lead agency for this function. The armed forces are mainly externally oriented. They have the internal responsibility of restoring law and order.
That is when the security situation gets out of hand and becomes what the police can not handle; then you invite the military to come in to restore law and order. But what we have today, we do not have the separation of responsibilities; everybody is doing the work of the Police, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. You can paint a picture of the confusion, when you see a patrol vehicle.
In a patrol vehicle, you have the police, the army, air force and the navy. Sometimes, you will have the civil defence, boy’s scouts, vigilantes and others in one patrol vehicle. That is not the way it ought to be. Basically, the first level is the police, by their own organisation, when things are getting too tough for the civil police, the mobile police, formerly known as the riot police, come in.
When the situation deteriorates further, the military is called in with or without the authorisation of the national assembly. Now, when the military goes in there, they are there for a specific period, there is a defined period, not in perpetuity and as soon as law and order is restored, the Army hands over to the police and goes back to the barracks. The presence of all sorts of uniformed personnel on the streets all over the federation even worsens the security situation.
My advice is that over a period of time both the police and the army should be systematically withdrawn to their respective barracks. And this indiscriminate mounting of roadblocks is counterproductive. Recently we saw the deteriorating security situation in the UK when the entire streets were brought to a stand_still. Yet, only the metropolitan police handled the situation.
That’s how it should be. So, we must enforce doctrinal orthodoxy in the services. There are jobs for people who are trained to do a job; those people should be allowed to do it. When it is beyond their level, the next people trained for the next level should be allowed to go in. So the Police, Mobile Police, the services should go back to their traditional roles. They could have an embedded special forces within them that can intervene in specific emergencies. An example is the famous US Navy SEALs that went to kill Osama Bin Laden.
It must be mentioned that the Directorate of State Security Service is doing an excellent job. The problem we have with intelligence is not the collection or its analysis but the decision that the political leaders take on the information that is given to them that is the cause of the problem.
Finally, in retirement, what have you been up to?
Well while in service these past 36 years I have been going on leave occasionally but a few years before I retired, especially during the amnesty program I didn’t have the time to go on leave, sometimes it was even difficult for me to go to sleep. So after retirement, I gave myself accumulated leave of one year and that is completed now. Although I am not a politician, I have a constituency, so whatever I will do in retirement will involve my community, the good people of Abraka in Delta State.