In the first part of the interview published yesterday, Secretary to the Delta State Government, Mr. Chiedu Ebie, fielded questions on the prevailing security challenges in the state, especially rampant attacks and kidnappings by criminal herdsmen. He explained that the state government has risen to the occasion by setting up a joint security task force, code-named ‘Operation Delta Hawk’, to confront the problem, with the cooperation of security agencies and community vigilantes. In this concluding part of the interview, he responds to specific questions on the booming business of kidnapping in the state, alleged sale of land by local chiefs to herdsmen and the planned setting up of a security outfit by South-South states.
By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South, Festus Ahon & Paul Olayemi
Is government aware that kidnapping has become a booming business in the state? How do you feel in government when you hear that kidnappers come to people’s houses, have all the time to ask the owners of the house to cook for them, wait for the food to be ready, and still kidnap the person. Is it not ridiculous?
It is ridiculous, it is sad and it is worrisome. But as you know, crime is part and parcel of the society and man. No matter what you have, even in advanced societies, they still experience high level of crime. It is your ability to deal with it that matters; you cannot eliminate crime because in every society you have crime, but how do you deal with them, that is what we are trying to solve and we have waited so long for solution and the solutions are not forthcoming where they ought to come. What we need is a more headed-confrontation; so we have gone from a situation where armed robbery is the order of the day to kidnapping, because kidnapping is more lucrative.
So, it is becoming an all-comers’ affairs: rogue Fulani herdsmen, people from even our communities; yes, it troubles us, it troubles us to the extent that we spent a lot of time digging out a solution and that has also given rise to this all-purpose security outfit as well.
Recently the State Police Commissioner in an interview with us made a statement that some traditional rulers in the state collect money from these herdsmen and give them sanctuaries to build camps and that is part of what is causing crisis in the state.
We are very much aware of it and it is commonplace and the thing also is: have Fulanis and the non-indigenes been with us from time immemorial? The answer is yes. Even when you see some of the Northerners, they trace their lineage to decades because they have been here: 30, 40 years. Traditionally, when people come in, it is the responsibility of the traditional rulers; you go there, you announce your arrival and they meet with them, then they give you land or whatever and it depends on whatever you want, then you are integrated into the community.
What happened was that this is specific to Okpanam; you have people who have relocated and they have been given land, but the numbers have grown, and when the numbers grow, you can be rest assured you will have criminals among them. That is probably what has happened and one of the people there, and they said it yesterday, either the head of the Fulani there actually owned up that one of his sons has become wayward, uncontrollable. He suspects the son to be involved in criminal activities, because he does not even live with them any longer, is probably somewhere in the bush and is even trying to harm them. He said if they find him, they should please arrest him and make sure the weight of the law comes upon him.
Yes, we are aware of this and continue to caution the traditional rulers that please before you give anybody land or before you allow people come in, please you must do your check to ascertain the personality and everything about the person so that you are sure you are not harbouring a criminal. Apart from the traditional rulers, some of us in the community also give them access into the community; we support them one way or the other; but there are also criminally-minded people and criminal elements in the community.
For some time now, the governor’s position on security has been that it is a federal matter. But from what is happening now, it seems like we are seeing a policy shift from the Delta government on security?
Desperate times requires desperate measures and necessity is the mother of invention. You can say we are taking destiny into our hands, we are the ones that are feeling the heat, the ones here and the ones suffering it. If we continue to say we will not take any action, we are criticised for it. So, now we are going to take action, because it’s almost getting out of hand. The stories are coming daily and so we can’t sit back when we see these things happening.
We are just trying to rework the security architecture and it is in collaboration with the security agencies and we want to probably reposition our vigilante. Let me quickly explain something on the vigilante: you know the way the vigilante operates; they are not under one umbrella, so they sort of operate in splinter groups, because they are from different communities, not even at the local government level. In a local government you find out that vigilante exists independent of each other in the different communities.
Talking of vigilante groups, we spoke to the chair of the state vigilante recently and he said your government has done practically nothing, not even the monthly stipends the governor promised to be paying them?
Let us agree that we have not done much, but we want to do something now, that is the whole idea. But one of the things we started doing some months ago, towards the end of last year, the governor said we need to know how many vigilante groups we have and what structure and format they operate in.
We have told all council chairmen to provide the list of all active vigilante within their local government areas in conjunction with the police because to an extent, the Divisional Police Officers at the Divisional Police level work in conjunction with the vigilante.
Few days ago, the state government raised alarm about Almajirai and other youth infiltration from the North. It should not end in raising alarm, in the event of a coordinated attack on its communities, what is plan to defend Deltans?
We just pray that there is no coordinated attack; that is what I can say because, maybe in the last couple of days and maybe because of COVID-19, a lot of things have become more manifest. Why do I say this? One of the measures taken by the state government before the interstate travel ban was put in place by Mr President, I think we were probably one of the first three states that realised and said to ourselves we need to restrict people into our states.
One of the containment measures was, please do not just stay at home, please do not travel. And to be precise, on March 29, which was a Sunday, we imposed a travel ban into the state and we shut our boundaries. So, between then and now, how have we fared? In the process we started seeing a lot of things and we keep making improvement upon improvement. Now we have task-force teams headed by political appointees and then populated with community youth.
They have a stake, it is their responsibility, it is not only government responsibility to keep people safe. Everyone has a stake and everybody will play their role. Although we said come and join hands in doing this, coincidentally, I have also been supervising that, so I go around a lot. So, from having nine legitimate boundary points, we have 13 now because there are illegal roads that have been discovered and being made into passage points.
What you find is that for almost every truck or trailer bringing in foodstuff into the state and a lot of them come in from the North; on average we have about 10 or 15 persons in a truck. So, one of the things we did and one of the things we said in our operational guide for the task force team was that any truck, trailer coming in with essential services should have a maximum of four persons.
Now, why am I going through this long sermon? Obviously this is what has been happening since immemorial and that is why you now have a large concentration of Northern youths here. I will even call them Almajirai, because Almajirai are supposed to be people of certain age, who go out to beg, but these are able-bodied men coming in in these trucks and obviously it is been like that for a while. And now you see that the population as people of Northern extraction though you do not even know if they are all Nigerians or they are non-Nigerians, or they are just Fulani or Shuwa Arabs. The numbers have grown so much not just in Delta but in Lagos too.
Sometime in February or thereabout, South-South governors met with the intention of setting up security outfit for the region, not much has been said about it. Is it that it has been overtaken in view of the COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 relegated everything to the background. It took everybody by surprise; we shifted all our attention from our normal day-to-day governance issues to just COVID-19; even now every illness has been relegated to the background. This time, last year, everyone was talking about the rising cases of cancer, now nobody is talking about cancer again; nobody is talking about governance, it is just COVID-19.
But, yes a meeting took place after our governor was announced as Chairman of the South-South Governors Forum and one of the things that was decided was to revive the BRACED Commission.
The coordinator of the BRACED commission, Ambassador Joe Keshi, was in attendance at the meeting and he is still coordinating things. I think now that some form of normalcy is returning and businesses are returning to life, I know that he is continuing along the line. The governor is trying to convene a meeting and specifically on security matters. He is looking at convening a meeting again, very soon. Yes we suffered some delay, but I can assure you it has not been abandoned. In short we will hear from them very soon.
Many Deltans are not happy with the way government is handling the issue of herdsmen in the state. What would you say is government’s challenge on the issue of tackling the assault of herders on citizens?
We have structures in place and it is part of our governance structure and we have appointed persons who, most of the time, mediate and interact with the legitimate and legal herdsmen and the community. In addition to that, we also have at the local government level, committees that have been activated and deactivated to ensure that these issues are tackled.
On one hand we have this at the local government committees where they address this issue and we also have government appointees at the state level. A lot of time, we do this in collaboration with the Arewa community and we also have political appointees who are non-indigenes whose day-to-day duty is to go out there and respond to complaints and we have two non-indigenes as Special Assistants, SAs, to the Governor who are part of the team and always on a daily basis they are on the road.
Few days ago at Ibusa community, herdsmen chased fermers out of their farms. The last time it happened in Abraka area, the governor said security agents would escort farmers to farm. Please what is going to happen this time around?
I do not think what you just said is feasible because the farmers are scattered around the state. One of the strategies which we have adopted before, which we will adopt, is that we will convene a meeting with the Miyetti Allah, and the Arewa people as well so that they can go out there and make it clear to them that this has always been our position.
You cannot continue to harass the people; that also goes for the illegitimate and legal herdsmen as well so that we can try and get them to know that at least some of these things are not right.
But we have to meet with them again. We have to know the bandits and the criminals and these are the ones we hope to get at with Operation Delta Hawk; but to the legitimate and legal ones we have a role to talk to the Miyetti Allah and the Arewa group to take the message to the farm so that our people can go to the farms.
In the last few weeks, Vanguard has taken the lead in identifying the secret camps where herdsmen whisk and detain people they kidnap in Delta and ask for ransom. We followed up on the new tactics that criminally-minded herdsmen have adopted in the state and we are coming up with more. Is the state government following the series and have they been useful?
Information is the greatest weapon on earth. So, most definitely, yes. Every bit of information is critical and every bit of information is key and every bit of information is most welcome in assisting us to deal with the security challenges and we thank you very much for that and keep doing what you are doing.