By Chioma Gabriel, Editor Special Features
National President of the Middle-Belt Forum, Dr Pogu Bitrus, in this encounter answers questions on why Middle-Belt is opting out of the Monolithic North arrangement and working with the south. He said the core north, since the British arrangement, has been using the Middle Belt to make up the number so as to continue dominating leadership, adding that his people have had enough of that. He also warned southerners to beware of RUGA, Cattle-Colony as Fulanisation agenda is real, saying Fulani from the whole West Africa could come and settle in Nigeria under the guise of RUGA. He also spoke on other pressing issues. Excerpts:
Nigerians in South Africa were sent packing recently. Many years ago, Nigeria sent Ghanaians back to Ghana. Would you say what South Africa did to Nigeria was nemesis?
It’s nothing like nemesis really. We sent Ghanaians away because our economy was buoyant and Ghanaian economy was down and we felt, they were taking opportunities that belonged to Nigerians because they were occupying all the handiwork: masonry, carpentry and other crafts and we felt they were taking our jobs. Now, South Africans are seeing us the way we saw Ghanaians and naturally, they responded in the like manner. In Nigeria today, our economy has gone down since 2015 due to recession. Jobs are not there and so, what happened when we sent Ghanaians away is what is happening now in South Africa and South Africans are feeling short-changed, thinking Nigerians are living luxurious lives while they are suffering. So, this animosity just developed. It’s unfortunate but nobody thinks about history. They forgot Nigeria assisted them a lot during the apartheid regime. But it’s a lesson as we have to now sit-up and build our economy so that our people will no longer go to South Africa in search of greener pasture.
With the current state of our economy, what hope is there for these Nigerians returning home?
Yes, our economy is not doing well and unfortunately, many of those coming back don’t have standard businesses. My fear is that some of those returning home are involved in drug-trafficking but not all, because, some of the professors in universities in South Africa are Nigerians and that category of Nigerians I believe is not affected by this repatriation. If somebody hasn’t saved enough money to start a business at home, there will be a problem but those who have saved money can easily fit in. Those who are entrepreneurial in nature can fit in if the money is there. Unfortunately, if the money is not there, there is no job for people around. The country has no jobs.
Many Nigerians are against the proposed increase in VAT from 5% — 7.5%. What’s your take on this?
In an economy that is not yet buoyant, increasing VAT adds hardship to the people because it is the ordinary man that is at the receiving end. You increase VAT and producers will increase the prices of goods and services and then, the consumer bears the brunt because he is at the receiving end. So, it is not good for the ordinary man. But the government has been pretending. They told us they have introduced this single treasury account, TSA, and said they have mopped up millions, yet, they are borrowing money. So, the economic indices are not what we are being told. The truth is that the money is not there. So, government needs money and in that respect, yes. But is it VAT that will give government the required money? They cannot increase fuel again after taking it from N87.00 to N145. They can’t get more money from fuel and so, they think VAT is the way out but let them tell us what they are doing with all these monies they have been borrowing because, we have borrowed so much and when you look back to where Obasanjo re-negotiated our debt and got Nigeria out of foreign debts and now, we are so indebted again, it is not good for us. This government has been borrowing money and is still borrowing money. So, what have they been doing with this money because we have not seen anything on ground?
And what about the stolen money recovered by the EFCC? They are not telling us everything.
Buhari’s second term in office is now over 100 days. Do you see any difference in his way of doing things?
I cannot say anything because I have not seen anything. He only appointed his ministers earlier than the first term but the accusations which we made in the past have not changed. There is nothing significant he is doing. We were accusing him of nepotism and that has not changed.
We accused him of being one-sided over religion and that has not changed. So, Nigerians have come to accept that this is the man and the man has not changed.
So, whether it is 100 days or one year does not make any difference. What we want to see is a significant departure from how government is run. When you look at security, our soldiers are being run down by Boko Haram more than ever before. Many soldiers are being killed. Key areas are being taken over. So, things are worsening at the security front. In that case, what can we say he has achieved in 100 days? Some people have said he has signed the West Africa Free Trade agreement but anybody can sign anything. You cannot say anybody has achieved anything by being advised to sign anything. It’s the same old game but Nigerians want true change in behaviour, in the way of governance, in the way insecurity is being addressed, so that we can have a secured Nigeria. We don’t want a Nigeria where governors will come and negotiate with bandits. That’s my point. The 100 days does not say anything. For me, it’s the same old game.
Many think that banditry, killings and general insecurity are the off-shoot of unemployment which has affected the youths more than ever.
Unemployment has been on the increase. This is not rocket science. The condition is deplorable. Some government agencies are advertising here and there but there are few opportunities. The economy should be buoyant for the private sector to provide employment so that if industries come up and try, things will be okay. It’s not really for government to provide employment but employment should be facilitated by government. So, the system has to provide an enabling environment that would be good for entrepreneurial employment of our youths. The education system should also be more tailored towards private employment. Individuals should be trained in such a way that when people leave school, they will not go looking for jobs but would generate jobs for themselves and for others.
Concerning insecurity, do we need to change the security chiefs to achieve the security we need as some are clamouring?
Service chiefs have overstayed their usefulness. Apart from the deplorable condition of security apparatus, there is this issue of people who ought to have retired still being kept on the job and it is not helping issues. For example, the Chief of Army Staff ought to have retired. But he is still there. If they were performing and things are going well, you’d say, keep them. But they are not performing. Everyday, our military is being run down by insurgents, everyday, we hear stories of places being recaptured by the insurgents, everyday military equipment bought with tax payers money are being carted away. In fact, the main supplier of arms and ammunition to the bandits is the military because they over-run the military and take away the arms. We don’t need such people.
In more developed countries, they would have resigned on their own. I’m surprised the commander-in-chief has done nothing when this kind of monumental failure is being witnessed frequently. So, the better thing to do is to remove these people and get people who are better qualified and who will approach insurgency and banditry in a better way to do the job. That way, we can address our insecurity problems in this country. We don’t have to continue the way we are and think we have a country because going by security indices; we can say Nigeria is a failed state. It’s so unfortunate when governors will negotiate with bandits and the bandits will even come to the negotiating table with arms in their hands. It is a disaster. It is shameful for insurgents to stop a security vehicle carrying arms and ammunition and money meant for the military and cart away everything.
The operational headquarters of Boko Haram is not far from Buratai’s village. It is in Sambisa Forest but the part is in Danboa. Villages in that area have been evacuated, like Sabon Gari and the rest. And then they are telling us they are carrying money and escorted by less than a platoon through the road. Who knows if they didn’t make arrangement to take the money? It’s all deceit. You see in this country, things have to change. If such a thing happens, the commanding officer has to be queried to explain why they should carry that kind of money on a road that is close to Boko Haram operational headquarters. They are deceiving Nigerians. They have to stop. The truth has to be told. We cannot continue to accept this kind of nonsense in this country and then, we just wave it off as if nothing has happened. Serious questions have to be asked and we need answers. Don’t we have helicopters? Didn’t they know where they were going and what they were carrying and that the road was not safe? They just pretended they didn’t know and are telling us stories afterwards.
Many Nigerians believe that with restructuring and state police, things will be well again.
We believe things will improve and not that every problem will be solved. I’m about 65 years and I grew up knowing two types of police: the local police and the Nigerian Police. The Nigerian Police force was only operating in urban areas but the other was operating in the grass roots. They were the police who identified with the people and they knew the people. They knew the villages and the bad people. All we are saying is, let the state have their police, let the local government have their police since we are copying the American system where it operates. Your native police will not see where your people are being killed by bandits and keep quiet and not defend them. And let’s see if the government is an accomplice in this criminality. Why should we be keeping a system that is not working? These bandits may even be operating two or three kilometres to a police or military check-point and when you tell them, they will say they have not been given instruction to go to the scene or to get involved and now, when the people organise to fight back, the police or the military will come in to stop them. That means there is collusion.
So, as far as we are concerned, one of the ways to tackle these issues is to have a police that operates in the grass roots who can identify the people and check crime. These police will interact with traditional rulers at local government and ward levels and will find the forests where the bandits are hiding. Everybody in the area would have known that yes, in this forest we have these people and they are of this nature. Local police will be able to handle that.
When you look at the security situation, you would see that many of the things which the police are supposed to be doing are being done by the military. Many of these things, like internal security, is supposed to be done by the police. The military is supposed to concern itself with the territorial integrity of this country. We have involved the military in policing jobs and everything has become a mess. Some of us have looked at ways of addressing these issues by creating more states. We are not saying that all states have to be equal. Even in US, which system we are copying, all states are not equal. California is richer than so many countries in this world as a state and yet, there are poor states in the United States being supported by federal might. If we want true federalism, such things must operate. But let us not keep pretending. Unless these changes come, Nigeria will continue to face problems and we will not make progress.
For sometime, there is this kind of cooperation between the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria and many northerners think the south is trying to break what used to be known as the monolithic north. Is it true?
I disagree totally. For one, before independence, there was the Williams Commission that was created by the colonial masters to look at the problem of the nationalities in the north other than the big Hausa/Fulani group who they saw with an organised system when they came in. The Williams Commission went round and interviewed locals from different parts in Yola and current day Taraba, Jalingo, etc. They interviewed locals from the minority areas and they prepared a report and because the core north then who were partnering with the British realised that if the Middle Belt was carved out from the north, they would be insignificant in terms of population. So, they resisted and ensured that never happened.
However, in the South, Mid-West was carved out for the nationalities in the South but in the north, the Middle Belt was never carved out. This relationship has continued and the core north has continued to use Middle Beltans to lord it over Nigeria, boosting their population.
After all, after the military created states, they still continued to ensure that the north remains as north so that they could lord it over others. But what is happening in the Middle Belt today? They are manipulating the Middle-Belt, using religion and other factors so that this relationship will continue but we are saying no. We want progress, we want to move forward and will partner with people who want Nigeria to progress; people who want every Nigerian to be able to aspire to be whatever he wants to be; not through a gang-up of 19 northern states and then, you gang up because of colonial arrangement which the British left with us. We are saying no. We have seen that what the south is crying about what will bring progress to Nigeria, not what monolithic north will bring and we see that Nigeria has to move forward and we are for development, not for retrogression. We are not for stagnation and for that reason, we opted this time to work together with brothers from the south so that Nigeria can move forward, not what we are maintaining and retaining, which is taking Nigeria backwards, instead of moving us forward.
Does that mean you support the agitation for regionalism as being agitated for by some people?
We are talking about restructuring now and people have different approaches to it. The South West thinks the way forward is regionalism, some think its parliamentary system of government. Some think, we should operate with the six geo-political zones which is not a constitutional arrangement but a political arrangement. But we can sit down and talk about these structures. We already have states and to jettison these states for regions might be a problem. We can restructure the geo-political zones to serve some of these agitations but we need to sit down and discuss it. And that is why we are saying, why don’t we revisit the 2014 conference report because in that report, many of these issues have been addressed and if we can be able to implement it, Nigeria will be better for it and we can move forward. That report tried to accommodate many of these things. The nationalities in the north can be factored in two additional geo-political zones. That will allow for some equity and allow people to have some sense or feeling of belonging. We can debate this and come to some agreement and not to say yes, it must be this way as if we are in military regime. No, that we don’t agree. We have to be talking, we have to be engaging each other so that Nigeria can have a system that is workable for Nigerians because we don’t just go and take somebody’s model and say it will work for Nigeria. No. It does not work like that. We have to come to terms with a Nigerian specific solution to Nigeria’s problems. So, this is what I’m saying.
With banditry and insurgency in the north, it seems northern minorities are feeling it more than the other northerners. Is that what informed your agitations for more geo-political zones in the north?
It is a contributory factor but not the sole reason. You see, when people want development, they consider so many things. Insurgency contributed because we’ve had attacks where these people come from unknown locations and attack and kill people. After attacking and killing people, some group will come out and say, we are responsible and nobody will be arrested even when they claim responsibility for the killings. That is a contributor. If such a thing is happening, why shouldn’t we look for a solution? And we had a situation where electoral bill was sent to the president and he refused to sign. Today, we have a problem of whether there was INEC server or not. Such problems would have been addressed if he had signed the electoral bill but maybe he deliberately refused to sign so they could favour them.
So, if we want development, we can’t continue doing the same thing if it didn’t work and we are having problems. Why can’t we do something that will work or try something else? So, what we are saying is yes, banditry, terrorism contributed to the agitation. However, we have also looked at other issues that we need to have in place so this country can develop better and that resulted in us saying, let’s partner with people who want development, who want a departure from the current situation we are in. So, that is our take.
Do you think the alleged Islamisation and Fulanisation are true?
With regards to religion, that’s a different thing. Fulanisation came from the fact that the land which are being taken is given to the Fulani. They came with Cattle Colony, it didn’t work; they came with RUGA and now, National Livestock Transformation Plan. It’s all the same thing. It’s all about Fulani and they are generally nomads and it’s them that brought the Jihad to Nigeria. Naturally, the people will not embrace what comes from them. This allegation first came from former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Somebody of his stature and his standing cannot just come out and say something from the blues without some evidence. He will not make a sectional statement like someone who represents the interest of a people.
Somebody like Obasanjo has gone beyond that life and for him to say such, he must have some evidence. But Fulanisation, I agree with him 100 per cent because we have nomads in Borno, we have the Shua Arabs and herdsmen who have settled in towns. They rear their cattle, they grow crops; they save grass for their cattle in dry season. We have the Kanuri cattle rearers who also farm and provide for their animals. They are in Borno; some of them are found in Yobe but they don’t leave those places. Are they saying Sokoto is drier than Borno and Zamfara is drier than Borno, Katsina is drier than Borno; Kano and Jigawa are drier than Borno?
So, it is something else. They want to take lands which belong to communities and give to Fulani and then all the Fulani around West Africa will just come in and occupy our land and settle in Nigeria. You can see what happened last week; the umbrella body of Fulani said they are the largest ethnic group in Nigeria. That is even confirming this issue. There is a sinister motive behind RUGA and cattle-colony. The constitution does not allow anybody to take land belonging to a community and give it to another person. You are taking the land from another community and giving it to another community which is the Fulani. They should stay where they are and let the government have a policy that will accommodate Fulani in their own place. The non-Nigerian Fulani should be made to go back to their country and let their countries provide for them the way the Nigerian government is providing for the local Fulani, not to bring in all Fulani in West Africa and accommodate them in our land. That is not acceptable. So, whether it is cattle-colony which we refused, RUGA which we refused and National Livestock Transformation Plan to favour the Fulani, not considering people who have been displaced by the same Fulani, we do not want. The people whose lands were taken and given to Fulani, nobody cares about them or resettling them. We don’t accept that one.
So, how do we rebuild Nigeria?
For now, we should go and dust the 2014 national conference report which addressed issues of diverse importance, including economy in the way and manner that will move Nigeria forward. When that is implemented and we see that we are still far from getting there, then, we can sit down and discuss the way forward, not these draconian military kind of thing as if saying yes, we don’t want it because it was done during Jonathan’s regime. What is good is good. I was praising the current Borno governor. What he did within 100 days in office surpassed what his predecessors did. What is good is good. If Buhari does something good, I will shout it at the roof tops. The current Borno governor has started on a good footing. He doesn’t care about PDP or APC. Buhari should do same and pick the 2014 confab report and use it to move Nigeria forward.