‘I can’t sit down, fold my arms and watch Nigerians being kidnapped’
Prominent northern Islamic cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abubakar Gumi, who spoke to The Guardian on his efforts to broker peace with armed bandits in their territories, related his experiences and came to a conclusion that they are not criminals, but Nigerians who are agitating, like militants, for their rights. He insisted that government is not doing enough to ensure an end to the prevailing insecurity challenges in the country.
What really informed your decision to mediate between government and armed bandits in recent times?
Actually, to be precise, it is a go-between bandits and Nigerians, not government per say. I am concerned that Nigerians are bearing the brunt of this insecurity. Ordinary people are now the victims of this situation we are in, and it is becoming unbearable, worsening the already bad economic situation. People that are poor would be kidnapped, they would require amount they have never had, talk less of seen, to free themselves. With such situation, we thought of what we can do to contribute, no matter how small, so that intervention can come from the Supreme.
How did you come about the idea, what led to it?
What really brought about the idea was as a result of the issues of culprits paraded by the Police. Usually, they know nothing; they were herdsmen who grew up without schooling and could neither recite common prayers. It means they don’t pray or know anything about modern knowledge. They are human beings that grow up with animals; they don’t know logic and the consequences of what they are doing. How can we leave them like that and then expect them to behave in a civilised way?
This is what pushed me to say, ‘let’s take our mission in teaching them first, show them respect and bring them close; don’t show them that they are criminals. When they feel dignified, then you would see magic instantly, and you would see repentance and remorse.
Do you really feel safe with the armed bandits on your mission, especially being in their midst in the bush?
Well, there is usually some apprehension when you are approaching them. But what we are mostly afraid of is having an encounter with some of them on drugs, not their general disposition. This is because some of them can be drug addicts and encountering drug addicts; you don’t know how sometimes they would react. This is the only apprehension we have. Otherwise, if they give you their words, they will not disappoint you.
Has your life been endangered by this singular act of negotiating with the bandits?
No, no! I have never had any life threatening experience. If there were anything, we would have perceived it. There was a time we were in one of their hideouts in Zamfara State, near Shinkafi and we saw some helicopters; we perceived it was dangerous and it can bomb us. Since the time, if we were going there, we tried to contact the military.
Actually, we were with the policemen, but getting the military attention was difficult. So, now if you have a very serious issue to discuss, you cannot get them, I mean the military. At least, if we want to go to an area, we ought to tell them so that they don’t drop bombs on us. Now, I think they are more careful.
What about the bandits? Are they not suspicious of you?
No! Once they give you their words, you are safe. Let me tell you one thing. There are criminals in every society; criminality has no respect for race, tribe and in fact, it has no respect for social status. One can be millionaire and yet try to steal another person’s millions. Stealing is stealing and it is in every society.
Criminals usually operate in groups, individuals or in gangs. But when you have a whole people armed, this is not criminality; they are rather agitating. When the whole people are fighting, they are militants and they are agitating. Yet, among them, there would be criminals and the bad eggs. But if the people carry arms, then you ask them why.
When we go, you see elders among them, very reasonable people, discussing issues. When you are with them in discussion, you can gauge their level of education, their objectives and what they are fighting for. And honestly speaking, when I go there, I become very happy, because I am not dealing with ideologues, but with peasants and with minimal requirements. Not even with government and all these rich men, because they would just stop it.
So, I feel happy that it is a manageable problem and not a malignant cancer. The case can be cured even in one month; you would just hear that the barrel is silent if the government is ready.
Again, why did bandits trust you to deal with this situation?
Don’t call them bandits in front of me; call them militants, because it is not a group of men stealing. They are people fighting, because they control their areas. Both the good and the bad, they all control their areas with their children; they are not bandits.
For instance, if you go to the town in Kaduna, you can see people fighting, but theirs is not like that; it is an agitation. So, we have to listen to them to ask and know why they are agitating.
Why do they trust you to undertake this exercise?
They trust me because I am a clergyman; they don’t expect me, as a religious man, to be bias and deceive them. I know that if it were the government, they will not come, because they were deceived several times in the past. The government had been in contact with them since, but they (government) reneged on their promises.
What do you stand to gain playing this role and what is your aim negotiating with them?
Oh, I have all to lose if I don’t go. I cannot sit down, fold my alms and watch people being kidnapped daily. And the most affected people are the poor. You know that the big men have policemen protecting them. Again, this problem is crippling the already bad economy of the country and the situation is becoming worse every day. The ordinary person is becoming a criminal now because of economic needs. I have no option but to do what I am doing, since I saw their ignorance.
Let me tell you now, when I go to them, I say, ‘come close, bring your chairs close, you are not a criminal to me; you are my sons, come.’ Then they would continue to speak until when they stops. I would advise and admonish them. When we get to them, usually they would hold their guns firmly in their hands, because they are suspicious. But by the time we finish talking, we would be shaking hands and smiling and they would escort us to their borders.
Some people are saying that you may be one of those sympathetic to the bandits because of your closeness to them?
I am not sympathetic to bandits, but I am sympathetic to the militants. If it is bandits, I won’t be sympathetic. I will never be sympathetic to criminals or armed robbers. But they are militants and I am sympathetic to the militants.
This is a tribe fighting, so I have to look into their agitations. When the Niger Delta militants’ amnesty came, I was in Saudi Arabia. During the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration, I hailed Yar’Adua for his decision. I supported it, no matter what it costs.
When you see people fighting, I talked to them. See, the Boko Haram is different. Boko Haram should not be seen as people fighting; Borno people are not Boko Haram, but their children are been used. Yet, I don’t lose hope, we can get Borno elders, and I will say, ‘my children, come, why are you fighting? We can do it for you. You don’t want English? We erase English in two local councils and you write in Arabic. If you think English is Haram, don’t worry; we would take care of it. You want Chinese language? We would handle it. You understand?’ So, this kind of agitation is not only the gun that is the solution.
Your equation of those you met with Niger Delta militants or ex-militants has been strongly criticised. What is your reaction?
Yes, they criticised it; I don’t mind criticism. The insight I have, they don’t have them. They just see criminals and government sees criminals, but I see people pushed into criminality. There is a difference. It is not possible for a child to have repentance when you call them thieves. Look, they are agitating, and they said, ‘yes, this is the reason.’ We asked, ‘are you ready to drop weapons when we satisfy your conditions?’ They said, ‘yes.’
So, you called them bandits? What is the difference between the struggle of the Niger Delta militants and these people? They have semblance. You can see what is happening today in the country. The situation is having excruciating effect on the economy. People can no longer farm and their cattle are rustled; everything is stagnant.
If you gave amnesty to the Niger Delta, you also eased their choking up of the economy. The nerve centre of the country’s economy is agriculture, and these people have disrupted it.
The Niger Delta militants threw bombs at the Eagles Square in Abuja on October 1, 2010, but these people have not reached that stage, and we should not allow it. But if we don’t address their issues, it would reach that stage of throwing bombs. What they are doing now is catching people just to raise money to buy guns, anti-aircraft guns and so on. We should not allow the situation to degenerate.
Some people have also condemned your call for amnesty for bandits?
Yes, I expected people to condemn it, because they don’t know what is happening. Let me ask you, if amnesty would do the magic, what is the quarrel? This government spent over $1billion on security. If $100million can solve the problem, why spend such huge amount on security? Amnesty comes with a package. The victims can be compensated, and they (militants) have victims on their sides. I am sorry to say this; there was genocide on their sides. That genocide is what is making them to take up arms. Our military, when they go, they kill innocent people, including children.
But I can say now that the military has retracted and it is this retraction that people are now complaining about. They know that when they were throwing bombs in the past, they were killing civilians. So, they have to be careful. I appreciate the step now, but give us the chance, let’s go in and pacify the situation.
How do you think the actions and aims of the bandits are similar to those of Niger Delta militants?
They are all looking and seeking for rights, which they think are basic. When they say give us our rights, they are caught and lynched. If you go to their towns now, they would lynch the person and say he is a Fulani man, a kidnapper. Who likes that?
Secondly, if they hold weapons to protect themselves and they are not given amnesty, the security would come and arrest their leaders. They complained that in the past, their leaders were arrested and killed. They don’t have mouth to speak. There is also one thing they called vigilante group, the Hausa call it sai kai, who are their worst enemies and have been used to bring in the military.
When you began this mission of meeting the bandits, Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State came out to criticise you, saying they don’t need to be pampered?
Yes, I agree with him that if they are bandits, they should be wiped out. But I know that they are not bandits; they are militants. So, it is just to convince him that they are not bandits, but militants.
Even northern governors have disagreed on how best to handle this security situation?
But now, we are getting consensus among them. Let us use the carrot approach. Even among the high- ranking security personnel, they are saying that the carrot approach is needed.
I was chanced to meet with them and I said, ‘look, you people, especially the Army, are fighting this war, if any of you know the chess game, you would be conscious.’
Why can’t the military deal with the bandits and end the crisis summarily?
No, in the past, they have been hard on the people and it led to genocide on the side of the Fulani, and there are evidences. Even the last time we went, we saw where properties were destroyed and people were killed. They filled the wells with dead bodies, but that is another topic for another day.
Look, you don’t apply military on your own people. Look at the Americans, when they entered the Capitol at the peak of democracy, they did not bring in the military to spray the people with bullets. The military is not meant for citizens; it is meant for external aggressors.
We should always deploy the Police or mobile Police on the people and not the military. As a President, you are supposed to protect everybody, even the little children; not throw bombs on them.
What are the grudges of the Fulani herdsmen?
Don’t kill us and don’t profile us. Sometime, when they buy machines (motorcycle), the Police would arrest them and say, ‘where did you get a machine? You must be a kidnapper.’ That is profiling. They are the first victims of cattle rustling.
Would payment of ransom to the bandits not encourage or embolden them further?
No, you don’t pay them ransom; you give them amnesty; build schools for them, give them boreholes and hospitals. They are not like Boko Haram that wants to build an imaginary caliphate, but they need amnesty. From there, they would drop their weapons and would not pursue anyone anymore. When they get the amnesty, you start building roads and other infrastructures for them.
There is deforestation around there now, so give them work to do; let them start planting trees around and so on. Turn them into civil defence.
Again, why do they target schools and students of recent?
They see them as soft targets. They are looking for soft targets that would bring money.
When are the Kagara students likely going to be released?
We just had a video today (Wednesday) of the abductors and the school children asking for money. They say bring money, that they would not stop until vigilantes are abolished. They are also saying that if vigilante were not abolished, they would not stop it. If government were not ready for peace, they would not succumb; these are their demands.
On the issue of ransom, because there is no peace, we talked with the leaders, who said that it was other groups that captured the school children. But they said they would talk with them and get back to us. The other group, I think, is asking for money.
I don’t know, but I think they say they should pay N100, 000 for each child. I think N5million or N6million for the whole of them.
When are they likely going to be released?
You see, we don’t know the other group; we would have gone to meet them. Nobody knows them, but it would be over soon. Our only fear is that the students are hungry and the people are saying that they don’t have food to be feeding them. So, they are saying bring money quickly, so that they would release them.
When would this banditry end?
You see, it is not banditry; it is militancy. We are trying to stop it, and it would be stopped. The amnesty should come with a package and it would be over.
But have you given feedback to the Federal Government?
There are governments that work with the speed of light and there are others that work at the speed of snail. Our government is like snail, and that is what is killing us. The response is not an issue of being positive or negative; it should be fast.