In this interview with Ben Agande, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, speaks on why the Federal Government will not swap Boko Haram detainees with the Chibok schoolgirls abducted on April 14, some 50 days ago.
He, however, says government is ready to integrate Boko Haram members who lay down their arms and renounce terrorism back to the Nigerian family. Excerpts:
The President has met with several world leaders since the abduction of the Chibok girls. What have these meetings produced?
The reach out to the international community and the acceptance of offers of support and expression of solidarity by various countries and multilateral institutions has been very productive and fruitful.
The President welcomes any offer of assistance and help. What has been achieved with all these efforts: the Paris meeting, the meeting with the President of the Republic of Congo and the meeting in South Africa on the sidelines of the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma is that the President of Nigeria has been able to mobilise international cooperation.
He has been able to draw attention to how Boko Haram, supported by Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organisations, have tried to invade Nigeria and have tried to overwhelm the Nigerian state.
In particular, the point has been well made that terrorism is a global issue and it requires concerted global efforts to deal with the challenge. As a result of the efforts by President Jonathan, the United Nations has officially designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation and has imposed sanctions on Boko Haram and its elements and sponsors, wherever they may be identified or found.
Another dimension to it is the renewed cooperation and partnership between Nigeria and the neighbouring countries. At the Paris meeting, hosted by President Francois Hollande, the five neighbouring countries: Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of Benin, arrived at far reaching decisions, which, as we have seen, have further enriched the existing cooperation and partnership amongst the countries.
The key areas of cooperation include working together to share intelligence, working together to patrol their borders, contributing troops to patrol the border and making it impossible for the terrorists to spread their network further within the region. The meeting in Paris recognised that there is a serious cross border threat.
What has been done is to ensure that there is no hiding place for any terrorist anywhere and the meeting in South Africa even recognised the need to extend this vigilance, this cooperation beyond the West African region.
You must have noticed that in the last one week, some of countries have already raised a battalion of the army that was agreed on in France, the existing cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing is becoming stronger, various countries of the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France, Canada and Israel have mobilised support for this operation and I think the message has been sent very clearly to Boko Haram and their Al Qaeda collaborators that the world has taken on this challenge as an assault against our common humanity, as affront against human civilisation and as a threat to the entire world.
Talking about cooperation with other countries, an official of the United States government was quoted as saying that there is unwillingness on the part of the Nigerian security services to confront the Boko Haram fighters. Has this concern been raised with the Nigerian government?
The point to be made clearly is that we have a very strong, committed, patriotic Nigerian Army and other security services. Before the abduction of the girls, the same security forces were able to restrict the Boko Haram to only one part of Borno State. These are terrorists who had almost taken over large portions of three different states of the federation and were going to impose their own authorities in the three states.
They had their own flags, they were well armed and were carving out their own enclave inside Nigeria. What we are talking about today is how they have been restricted to a forest. It is the same Nigerian Army that did that.
Today they are in Sambisa forest and we have no doubt whatsoever that with the support being received, with the attention being focused on this last stronghold of these terrorists, Nigerian security forces will succeed in winning the war. Talking about the criticism of their not being willing to engage, the evidence that I have given you does not prove that they are not willing to engage.
You will note that other foreign commentators on the present task of rescuing the girls that have been abducted have also made it clear that many of the countries offering assistance are not committing in troops. They are sending in security experts who will assist with logistics, surveillance and satellite imageries.
If they provide such support, the people that will go on ground to do the job if it comes to that will still be Nigerian soldiers. I have always stated that commentators and the media should desist from demoralising the Nigerians security forces. They have shown great resolve in taking on this assignment.
It is an unusual kind of war. It is unconventional and asymmetrical. You are fighting a battle where the enemy is faceless and is willing to commit suicide. It is an unconventional kind of warfare. What they have done so far is to be encouraged and not demoralised.
In such circumstance where the enemy is not very defined, is government’s offer of dialogue still open?
The Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Conflict in the North-east is a standing one. There is also a Presidential Fact-Finding Committee both of which have been engaging stakeholders and have been offering advice.
The position of government has been that the military option is there to deal specifically with impunity because no responsible government will fold its arms and allow any group supported by Al Qaeda to over run the country or threaten to divide the country.
The Nigerian government has made that very clear and President Jonathan has always said that he will not allow anybody to disintegrate Nigeria under his watch. At the same time, government has a soft approach under which it offers those who are willing to renounce terrorism to lay down their arms and return to the fold as citizens. The door is open to them for dialogue.
The door is open to them for repentance and rehabilitation. They are like the lost sheep and the President is saying even these lost sheep we are willing to bring them back to the fold. The door of the Nigerian state is open to anyone who has gone astray, who has been misled to think that violence is a solution to whatever problem he or she may have, to rejoin the Nigerian family and conduct themselves as true citizens.
The government also has short, medium and long term plans in terms of focusing on dealing with the problem, preventing its reoccurrence and helping the victims to be rehabilitated, supported and given an opportunity to live again. As part of that package, we also have a safe school initiative which is being done in collaboration with the UN Envoy and former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
Government is also working with the states to ensure an economic recovery programme under the auspices of Presidential Initiative in the North -east (PINE). But for you to have an economic recovery programme that would provide the kind of result you need, there must be peace first.
It means you have to put an end to the threat of terrorism and provide an enabling environment for development to take place because these terrorists have been targeting all the projects of the Federal Government in the North-east. These are anarchists. They attack institutions, they attack villages, and they rape women and turn them into slaves. This cannot be allowed to go on.
These are some of the measures being adopted by government but the immediate challenge is to ensure that these abducted girls are rescued because it is something that strikes at the heart of humanity. To think that young innocent girls who went to school can be abducted by anybody is unthinkable.
All of us are anxious because any day that these girls spend with the terrorists reminds us of how the forces of evil threaten the bond that tie all of us together as human beings.
In view of the precarious nature of the extant case of the abducted girls, is the option of swap of prisoners and option?
The position that government has adopted is that government will explore all possible options to see how the girls can be rescued but, as I stated before, this does not include government engaging in trade by barter. In a trade by barter, you exchange two things of equal value.
Those who are talking about prisoner swap, are you saying that the value of the life of an innocent child against whom a crime has been committed, who has been denied the right to education, the right to human freedom, is that child of equal value as a criminal who has taken lives and raised arms against the state?
What ever the government does, at the end of the day, I do not see the Nigerian government engaging in anything that will look like a dehumanisation of the abducted girls. I don’t see the government doing anything that will amount to supporting crime against humanity. But government recognises that it has a responsibility to rescue the girls and brought them back safely home.
What does the renewal of the state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa means to the fight against terrorism?
I think that is quite obvious. If government needed to declare a state of emergency in the three states of the North-east 18 months ago, there is even a greater need for it now. What we have seen is that after the flushing out of the terrorists, they seem to have returned with greater ferocity which is a clear indication that we are dealing with a long drawn battle.
The decision to extend the state of emergency is a well advised decision, well considered and what it means in simple terms is that it gives the security forces the authorisation to adopt every means under the law to ensure that they confront these terrorists, these evil forces and ensure the security of lives and property and the integrity of Nigeria.
The President is committed to protecting the integrity of Nigeria. One thing that must be noted is that the renewal of the state of emergency received the support of the National Assembly which means that the political leadership, irrespective of party affiliation, is committed to ensuring that the integrity of Nigeria is protected.
As the President has always said, we don’t have any other country. This is the only country that we have and all of us have a responsibility to ensure that evil forces do not overrun our country.