Brig. Gen. Idada Ikponmwen (retd) is a former Provost Marshal of the Nigerian Army and a leader of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF). In this interview, Ikponmwen says former President Olusegun Obasanjo and erstwhile military President Ibrahim Babangida have no right to judge President Muhammadu Buhari ahead of the 2019 presidential election.
By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin City
This seems to be the era of letters from retired military generals to President Buhari. What do you think?
Whereas there were some obvious truth in what Obasanjo and Babangida have said, they don´t have the moral justification to issue those statements. No moral justification because these two people had the opportunity to make this country better but failed to do so. Besides, this is democracy, everybody has the right to vote and be voted for. The ultimate decision on whether to seek re-election or not lies with President Buhari. Second, is his party ready to field him so that Nigerians will make the final decision? I think it is premature for anybody to rule out Buhari for the 2019 contest now. And who knows, there might be a swing of opinion in favour of the President in next few months as a result of better performance. For anybody to say this man should not contest, categorically and convincingly, we should check the moral basis of the speakers and also examine if they were ill motivated. I am especially suspicious of the motive behind the Obasanjo letter. He has always dictated to us who is ‘Nigeria’s messiah’ and who is not. Why must it be the same people deciding the fate of this country every time? As long as we allow this to continue, Nigeria will not move forward because these people have nothing more to offer. The situation is worrisome.
As a security expert, what is your take on the killings by suspected Fulani herdsmen, particularly as we saw in Benue recently?
The issue of the attacks by herdsmen in Nigeria for some time now is definitely one of the very worrisome points on national security in Nigeria. It is not only herdsmen that kill as farmers have also been reported to embark on reprisal attacks. No less worrisome is the problem of the Niger Delta militants, especially the Avengers, who have told the world that they were going to resume the bombing of oil facilities. Mention must also be made of the IPOB issue. All these put together paint a very gloomy picture. I am not sure the security environment of this country has ever been this bad given the response of security watchers and commentators across the globe. Without a doubt, the President has continued to assure that government is in control and taking measures to ensure that security is not undermined. It is sad though that not many Nigerians think that actions have not matched the assurances from government. This is particularly so because one of the major reasons Nigerians voted for President Buhari is their conviction that, as a retired military officer who had contributed greatly to the sustenance of this nation, as a man who was known to be incorruptible and a no-nonsense person, he had the capacity to put things right .
Still on the issue of herdsmen and the measures of government to address the problem, government has mooted the idea of creating cattle colonies across the nation, but there are divergent views. But while it is true that a country of our aspiration is where every Nigerian can feel comfortable to live in any part of the country, there is no running away from the fact that power over land in this country is principally in the hands of state governments. Now, most state governors are saying no to cattle colonies. This is something government must seriously, honestly and carefully approach. This is more so against the background that the idea of Islamization is gaining attention and many Nigerians think the issue of herdsmen may pave the way for the actualization of Islamization. I cannot say whether this is true or not but I can say that with the knowledge I have of the President, he is a man who cares about the unity of this country. So I will be reluctant to accept that he will be part of any hidden agenda to Islamize a country that is principally a secular state. The issue of secularism and the sustenance of it have always surfaced in any discussion on this country. It surfaced in Vision 2020, it surfaced in Confab 2014 and it has continued to surface. I believe that the best measure to sustain this very highly valued presidential system that we have is for everything to be done to make sure that religion remains an individual affair and not to be politicized. Nigeria needs to be sustained as the founding fathers intended it to be: A federal system of government where every component part will retain its uniqueness and peculiarities and at the same time work towards ensuring a central system that will be good for all.
But people are worried that despite the killings, the Federal Government is yet to label the suspected killer herdsmen as terrorists unlike they did in the case of IPOB when they hurriedly labelled the pro-Biafra group as a terrorist group. People are reading bias into the herdsmen issue especially since the President himself is a herdsman?
Let us talk about the issue of declaring Fulani herdsmen believed to be carrying out the attacks as terrorists. Anybody who is committing acts of terror is a terrorist. Anybody who resorts to kill without a just cause is a terrorist and it is not the Fulani herdsmen alone, it is alleged that other groups have also been killing like Boko Haram. But declaring Boko Haram a terrorist group has not stopped its terrorist activities. So stopping terrorist activities of any group is not only by mere declaration that it is a terrorist group. I think it is important that fundamental issues are addressed. Declaring any group a terrorist group is not the solution to terrorism. It may be one of the measures but the real measure is to ensure we address the cause of the crisis and find lasting solution to it. And for all the groups that are from time to time resorting to terror, for me, there is the principal need to identify the cause of their grievance. It is when you identify the cause of their grievance and you address it that you are on your way to solving that problem. For example, government must know, and I think they do, that the problem between farmers and herdsmen cannot be removed unless there is solution to how to manage land to the satisfaction of everybody and in line with common sense and good reason based, of course, on the nature of the society. Clash must happen when farmers find that their land and crops are being destroyed and ordinarily they are bound to react. Herdsmen are angry that they are being denied free movement on the land. This is a complex situation; government must decide the right measures to adopt to remove this conflict and the cause of clash.
Why governors are afraid of cattle colonies
Talking specifically about colonies, we have already mentioned the system of government we are running. Against this background and considering the fact that farmers must farm and herdsmen must rear their cattle, government must recognize that both the farmers and herdsmen are in business. What then is required is that government must take a decision to moderate the use of the land. Talking specifically about colonies, creating colonies run contrary to the concept of a federalist state. And if that is the situation, it means that there must be a solution that will not contradict the federalist ideas of states and guarantee the ability of everybody to do his business in an acceptable atmosphere. Let me not beat about the bush. I think there is merit in recognizing that times are changing and the practice of yesteryears may have become obsolete. What is now more realistic is for farmers to be given the right to acquire land for farming within the ambit of the law and for herdsmen to secure land to carry out their businesses. And there are two approaches to this: open grazing or ranches. And I think they are many reasons ranches should be encouraged than open grazing. Even, herdsmen are overburdened moving from location A to location B. So if you keep your cows in ranches, the environment is more conducive to the growth of the cows and milk, And I think it is becoming quite unpleasant to be carrying cattle all over the place, defecating all over, destroying crops and even causing accidents on the roads. So I personally will advise government to move towards the idea of cattle ranches being maintained by those in the business of cattle rearing.
The Federal Government is saying most of these killer herdsmen are not Nigerians
Some government officials have told us that these herdsmen attacking our people are not Nigerians; this again is something that is hardly tenable because such declaration is an open admittance that our borders are porous and fluid. I hate to have a government that will say there is no solution to border problem in this country.
The issue of Nigerians running abroad even at great risk, the issue of trafficking human beings, the issue of unacceptable level of crime, are all traceable to one thing: The country has not been made to work the way it should. Many Nigerians, especially the youths, don’t have confidence that they can sustain their lives in the country. It is sad that quite a number of the people being repatriated come from Edo but the question is, what is making them to move? What are the job opportunities here? If there are none, they will seek a living somewhere else. I think that one of the major things the state and Federal Governments should do, and the Federal Government must pay particular attention to population increase. We cannot have this type of growth and expect that any government will be able to provide employment, adequate land for people to do business. Population control is one area that I think Nigerian government has failed woefully and until we start addressing it seriously, the picture ahead is bound to remain gloomy.