•Says interest groups taking sides

By Ibrahim Hassan & Juliet Umeh

Controversial Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, has been under attack by critics concerning his position on banditry in the country.

He is seen by many as giving voice to bandits terrorizing northern Nigeria and leaving in their trail blood, tears and sorrow.  But Gumi, in this interview, says he’s misunderstood by many, contending that what he was after in interfacing with bandits was the peace of the nation.  Excerpts:

Let me start by asking you about the Islamic perspective on killing and kidnapping?

In Islam, it is forbidden for somebody to be killed not by the court of law.  Extrajudicial killings are forbidden in Islam, so is kidnapping too. It is thriving mischief on earth and, in Islam, there’s a choice with kidnappers. You kill them, crucify them or cut their hands if they are caught.

By the authorities?

Yes, and, according to the Qur’an, it is just the beginning of their punishment and, in the hereafter, they have a big chastisement. That is the Islamic standard rule on kidnapping and killing innocent people.

But why does it seem as though you are speaking in support of bandits?

I am not supporting them. I am only trying to find a way out of the quagmire I saw. You see, my training as a medical doctor entails that I diagnose something before I recommend treatment. I am a person who likes to see firsthand, just like you came all the way to interview me. I want to see firsthand the situation that led people to do what they do. We know they were timid, shy but have turned into big criminals. So I ventured, I tried to see how I could get through to them, sit down with them and speak with them. This is exactly what I did. On getting there I got a lot of information which entails that if we want a permanent solution to this problem, we have to do what I have been advocating.

Have you interfaced with the government on the issue of banditry in Nigeria?

Yes. Governments are in different stages, you’ve the Presidency and state government, and you have various security outfits. What I do usually is I try to coordinate with them but, you see, I don’t have access to the Presidency, not a single channel. I understand that it is that way because they may not find me friendly…so I don’t feel offended that they don’t show me that friendliness.  But I deal with state governments; I deal with the security agencies, especially the police and the DSS.

But if truly the Federal Government wants to uproot insecurity in Nigeria, especially the issue of banditry and from the seeming relationship that you’ve with some of the bandits’ leaders, don’t you think there is a mistake on the part of the President not meeting you in person, or people like the National Security Adviser?

The National Security Adviser met with me. I spoke with him; in fact, I told him my view about the issue. So, he is in the picture. The top military commanders too, we had a meeting with them and they know, the governors, they know my stand. Although they may have a different view about the issue, they all know my stand and I am doing it for national interest. I am looking for a lasting solution that will seal the problem, not giving Panadol to somebody suffering from malaria.

You know Panadol will suppress the fever but it will not kill the parasites. So, we want a real cure to the problem. That is why I think that what I’ve been advocating is relevant to some extent but there are some changes. You know conflicts are dynamic, they can start with a word but by the time they end, they have completely taken a new dimension because there are interest groups, so many interest groups in Nigeria. So, they are taking sides. So, it’s going to be a big conflict if the interests are sustained more than what we have now.

This is an opportunity for Nigerians to know more about these bandits? Where are they coming from? Some people say they are not even Nigerians…

No, they are Nigerians, they are 100% Nigerians but if you have some foreign elements in them, I don’t doubt that.

There could be influx…

Oh yes. In fact, this influx, they do it in what is called “raba goro” (sharing kolanut ). They distribute kolanut.

What does that mean?

It means if there is trouble and they want to reinforce their power to, usually reprisal, let’s be fair to the Fulani, the herdsmen, let’s be fair to them…

If I get you right, if a Fulani bandit gang is attacked, there is the tendency of it inviting their kith and kin…

Yes, if the force is too big for them, they would now invite others

From within or outside?

You see, they don’t recognize boundaries.

A Fulani man has no boundary?

Not a Fulani man, a Fulani herdsman because they can have relatives across, from Senegal to Kenya.

Are you Fulani?

I am Fulani, a Nigerian Fulani.

Why do you think the Federal Government is finding it difficult to declare bandits terrorists?

No, you see, I wouldn’t like them to do that. I wouldn’t like them to declare them terrorists because it will take a completely different dimension. What we are saying is that these people are hearing whatever we are saying in the bush.

You mean they have radio, internet etc and have educated people among them?

They have everything, they listen.  Usually, whatever we say in the papers. is translated. We have this Muryar Arewa (Hausa newspaper), they listen to the Hausa radio because they understand Hausa; most of them understand Hausa. They listen to what is said by government and this is one of the reasons I think we had problems in negotiating with them.

They attacked Abuja-Kaduna rail line. Why are they attacking rail lines?

Okay, we are not sure if they are the ones attacking rail lines. It can be a development which we were afraid of before now. But whatever it is, now if you put them under pressure, they have seen your rail lines are liable to be sabotaged like Boko Haram is now sabotaging power lines in Maiduguri.  Since January, there has been no power in that city. They can learn from that. They can make life intolerable, especially in northern states. They can do it because they are learning. Why I said we should not declare them terrorists yet, honestly speaking, they are not terrorists as such. They could be criminals or the better way to put it is that they have adopted criminal ways to fight a war they feel they are justified to fight.

But in declaring them terrorists, the defense minister said they were following some procedures. What is your take on this?

The procedures may have k-leg. Why?  Because the Fulani there fighting are not trying to convert me to what they are like Boko Haram wants to kill me because I believe Boko (modern education) is not Haram (forbidden). IPOB wants to kill an Igbo man that doesn’t believe in IPOB or Biafra. If Igboho’s case will continue, any Yoruba that is opposed to Yoruba nation would have to give way. But the Fulani are not all fighting for anything to change me; what they are saying, is, “Address my grievances”. Let me give you an example. #EndSARS was a reaction to police brutality against innocent Nigerians. But do you know that this same secret brutality had been going on for decades among herdsmen? Now, they realized these people are doing what they are doing to us because they have gun.

But instead of you coming out to demonstrate, it has translated into insurgency but with ethnic coloration. So, it’s a reaction just like #EndSARS, due to many years of impunity against herdsmen. This is well documented. Because they are not literate, people assume they don’t know their rights, which they don’t even know. But now they’ve found power to assert themselves, to revenge if they are killed to be recognized.

You have often asked the Federal Government to negotiate with bandits and probably grant then amnesty. Why?

This is not just criminality, but criminality is a means of sustaining their war, they have grievances. We went to convince them to put down their arms; that ‘government is ready to listen to you’. So, when I ventured into the bush, they believed, yes, I could convince government. But they told me exactly, “We don’t trust government, we don’t trust politicians; we don’t trust security men. We just came and gathered ourselves because we trust you, an Islamic scholar, you will not deceive us. That is why we came”. They were looking for a partner for real peace to drop their weapons.

But this model failed in Zamfara…

No, it didn’t fail in Zamfara. In fact, it worked very well in Zamfara because, when I went there, especially this Turji, one of the kingpins they are talking about, told us in front of the sole administrator of Shinkafi that, “You (sole administrator) promised us 10 things, you’ve not done them, except one.” What is that one thing?  He said, “They built us a borehole; on our own part, for seven months, have you ever heard of kidnapping?” In fact, Gusau to Shinkafi was a no-go area.

So, it’s a reaction against government’s failure to provide them basic infrastructure?

Yes, it’s a reaction

But they are Muslims and the religion enjoins them to be patient…

This is another issue, you and I can be patient but somebody who is not lettered, he doesn’t even know the Qur’an, he just loves it but he doesn’t know it and nobody is teaching him, how do you want him to be patient? He only knows tit-for-tat.

This is by instinct and this is how he protects himself and his herd, tit-for-tat and this is the only language he understands. So, until you and I go in there, civilize them, educate them, tame them, entice them, dislodge them gradually, the problem will persist.  Therefore, it’s government’s failure.  Let me tell you, because they see us as religious leaders, they came out. They said we were not going to deceive them, they listened.

The first thing, we gave them microphone and they vomited all they wanted. Honestly speaking,  as I’m sitting down with you here, I came out trying to get those of us, the civilized, the educated, the powerful, the rich, to understand their plight. They are so naive, all they want is justice. You will see that they will put down their weapons when they get justice.

And as we are struggling for their souls, don’t forget there are evil forces struggling for their souls too. So it’s a war of interest. Some are politicians; like in Zamfara, some politicians don’t want the present government to succeed, so they use the bandits to destabilize the state, this is one of the factors. Some politicians grabbed their land, pushed them by the side. There is politics going on for economic reasons. There is confirmation of helicopters dropping weapons, so there is foreign interest.

Did these issues come to the fore in your discussions with them?

No, we didn’t want to appear as inquisitive, trying to interrogate them, trying to extract security: “we are just here as Nigerians and you are doing something which is wrong and your grievances we agree, but this is not the way to go about it.” And we promised them we would take their case to Nigerians to listen.

Do you really think the military has the capacity to deal with insurgency, banditry and kidnapping in the country?

The military, it’s not their job. The military is there to fight militarily. If Chad wants to fight us, then we fight them with our military.

Whose job is it?

This job is an internal security job because it needs a lot of intelligence. And you see, they are Nigerians too, you can recruit a lot of them to do the job. Look at ISIS, how they quickly killed Shekau. Our military could not do that for ten years. It is not that they are not powerful, no; military is powerful but somebody needs to go to an operation room and see the different scalpels, big, small and tiny, this one needs a tiny scalpel, not the big one. The military is the big one, so when you apply the big one where the small, delicate one is needed, instead of curing the patient, you kill the patient, you make the matters worse.

Twelve years on, why has government not been able to wipe out terrorism in the country and what do you think can be done to achieve this?

Yes, government cannot wipe it out militarily. I’m very happy Lt.Gen Buratai, recently in Adamawa, said whoever is waiting for the military to quell insurgency would’ve a lot of thinking to do. I am very happy about that. He was just telling the truth. This is not a military job.

So what can be done?

You have to look at socio-economic factors, negotiations, engagement. Government has to be serious to engage. They did that with the Niger Delta militants; government engaged them and there was relative peace. So why can’t we engage?

Are you comparing them with the Niger Delta militants?

I am comparing them, they have grievances.

But when you compare the harm inflicted by bandits, terrorists, would you still make this comparison?

There, they bunkered oil. In fact, they were buying warship at a point, they could break pipes, sell oil. But here, the herdsman, what has he got to finance his war? He only has to kidnap people and extort people. There, they had the creek which is a difficult terrain and here they have the forest as a fortress. So, the two should be treated same; there should be serious engagement.

2023 general elections are around the corner and there is this clamour for power to return to the South. What’s your take on this?

My take is that Nigeria should be ripe enough to just leave the smartest to get it, honestly speaking. If not, we will continue in this cycle of mediocrity, tribalism and regionalism. Look, MKO Abiola was in Kano in 1993 and he was convincing us; Abiola was in our own house; he convinced us that he was the man and we believed him, and he was from the South. It should be for the best Nigerian. Let me tell Nigerians, anyone who has that opportunity, it depends on what he has to present.

The minorities in Nigeria are the majority; no tribe is a majority in Nigeria because when the other tribes combine together, the majority becomes a minority. Even in the South-East, when other tribes combine together against Igbo, Igbo becomes minority. It is like that everywhere, so there is no absolute majority.

Here in Nigeria, we are all minorities; and it depends on the political combination that will produce a winning team. This is what Nigeria should be doing. Leave behind the Buhari, Jonathan era, bring a new level playing field for politics, it didn’t happen since 2015, and now, we’ve suffered, we’ve seen. I think 2023 would be the chance Nigerians need to unite and see how the political parties that are viable would answer their aspirations, unite the nation.

How do you rate Buhari’s government?

Buhari’s government, I think, is maintaining the status quo

Can you explain?

Well, he inherited insurmountable problems. That’s why I said right from the beginning that Buhari, from his experience in 1984, will only compound the problem. This is not what Nigerians need; Nigerians need somebody different completely to navigate the murky waters of politics. The whole world is interested in Nigeria. So, we should not produce leaders that will become pawns to other interests, we need leaders that can unite us, unite me and you and everybody.

That leader is what Nigeria needs. I remember when Jonathan was President, President Olusegun wrote “an Ijaw President” ,he wrote it, he was inclined to his people. Now, people are saying President Buhari is a Fulani President. What has he done to the Fulani? In the whole Aso Rock, there is no Fulani man and in the bush, they said “we never suffered like this”. Please we should be truthful in what we say, they have never suffered like they do now. He (Buhari) said shoot at sight, extra judicial killing, this is what they (bandits) had and this is what is making them wild.

They are wilder than before. The President should negotiate with bandits, not shoot them. Catch the criminal, put him to justice system and let him be condemned by the court of law. What brought Boko Haram? Extrajudicial killing of their leader. So, when they say “the language they understand”, it is government that is using violence as a language and that’s why people who react to government, the first thing they do is, “Let’s get weapons and fight back”. But we can circumvent all these things and bring back sanity in this nation.

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