We don’t want special status like Lagos, but special consideration
Mohammed Sani Idris, Niger State Commissioner for Information, in this interview with LEO SOBECHI and AHMED IDRIS, narrates the security challenges confronting the state.
Niger State has become a haven for insurgents. Do you think the Federal Government is doing enough?
In Niger State, we are facing competing challenges in the midst of meagre resources. The first major challenge is the issue of security, but a lot of things gave rise to the challenge of security.
First, our land mass is turning almost into a curse, because it is supposed to be a blessing to the state. We have over 76,000 square kilometres of land making up the landmass of about five, six or even seven states. As a result of this huge landmass, we have a large expanse of forests and bushes, which provide a hideout for the bandits to perform their nefarious activities.
Aside from the issue of banditry, some time ago we were faced with the issue of bad roads that we are still contending with. People from outside the state may not really understand what is happening in Niger State. If you leave the Abuja axis and say you want to travel to an area like “Ongu” that means you are embarking on a journey farther than Abuja to Kano in distance, while in some states, when the state governor constructs about 100 or 200km of road, you will see them as an achievement.
For instance, the boundary we share with Kebbi and Zamfara States is a large expanse of bushes that begins from inside Niger and reaches the border. This makes it easy for bandits to perform their nefarious activities in Niger State and when you pursue them, they escape into another state. We have cried out several times and our governor has visited the Presidency on several occasions to weep.
We are not saying that the FG or the security outfits are not doing enough, but we expect that because of our peculiar situation in Niger State, they should do much more than they are doing in other states. Going by the fact that Niger State has made lots of sacrifices for this nation; for instance, about 70 to 80 percent of the FCT was obtained from Niger State. The name Abuja was donated to the Federal Capital from a place in Suleja Local Government headquarters in Niger State.
Our state has done so much, but we have got so little from the Federal Government because we are being seen as any other state without due consideration to the immense contributions of our state to the wellbeing and unity of Nigeria as a nation. You will realise that even in the deployment of security personnel to states, the number of security personnel we have in Niger State today is nothing to write home about.
This is why the government under the leadership of the governor, His Excellency, Sanni Bello, has decided to be proactive. Not that we are not relying on the central security outfit we have in the nation, but we decided to come up with a strategy by ensuring that we recruit our vigilantes, provide logistics for them and continuously empower them. This is to complement the police and the army in the fight against bandits. But, as we know, putting an end to this menace may not come at once as people expect, but gradually. We know we are succeeding, though every now and then, we hear about attacks here and there.
Many people, especially from the Southern part wonder how with such big names as Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Abdusalami Abubakar and other former top military leaders, Niger State is hit by insecurity. Why?
We know that even the military is sometimes incapacitated, but they are still doing their best to assist us. That I can categorically tell, because I know we are able to succeed because of the deployment of heavy military presence in some areas towards the Kotangora axis and to some parts of Mariga. \There are areas where we have been able to push the bandits out of the forests. Definitely, the military is doing its best, but because of the situation we are in, the best is actually not good enough. We have also deployed some other strategies. Just as you have mentioned, when you have a large expanse of land that is virgin and not used for anything agricultural or so, you provide a haven for terrorists to start some things that may also reduce this virgin land. For instance, we have a large expanse of land, we have the Igbobi grazing reserve, today it is being occupied by multinational companies like WAMCO.
Our government is trying to ensure it invests heavily in livestock. We are currently pursuing six grazing reserves that are about to be carved out. By so doing you will have lots of activities in those bushes and there are loads of activities going on to reduce these areas, where bandits use as their fortress. In the long run, it will complement what the security is doing in fighting these bandits and by the time we have a combination of the two then we think we will see the end of the menace.
During the kidnap of the students at Kagara, there were issues about Gumi’s negotiation and controversy over whether money was given to the kidnappers…?
Let me not interrupt you, but let me categorically say that our governor came out to state that we are completely averse to the payment of ransom to kidnappers or bandits, because by paying the ransom, you are strengthening them. So, as a government, we are averse to the payment of ransom. But, where there was confusion was that we are not averse to discussing if we look at them and realise they are genuine, but to pay the ransom, our state government is completely averse to paying the ransom.
A lot of people intervened in talking to those people. You will fuel vehicles, but not taking money to pay the ransom before those captives were released. Aside from the security personnel that are working, we are also thinking. For instance, there is the claim that a large number of the bandits are herders and that is why in Niger State we have developed a plan to engage herders in the Anchor Borrower’s scheme.
We are not saying that anybody has the right to take up arms against fellow Nigerians, but there is a fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that you have policies right from the central government that take care of the farmers and hardly any policy that caters for others because if you do this, we know that we can now put them in a place and make them feel that we are also thinking about their welfare.
Unlike in the Northeast, IDP camps here in Niger State are not provided for. How do you go beyond keeping them in camps to fending for them?
The government is trying. A lot of resources is being sunk in there. Of recent, we have decided to come up with a strategy to assist the government. It started with us in the Commissioners’ Forum. We came together and said, let us start something that will draw the attention of others in assisting the government because we were facing an additional challenge with the IDPs.
When schools are in session, you will find women with kids that will be lingering around. So, we came up with the idea of having transit camps for the IDP. Each of us made a contribution as commissioners and agreed, for instance, to contribute individually by erecting one structure that can conveniently provide shelter for a family of four.
We started with that and got people that have now shown interest in coming to assist. We are spreading our tentacles to ensure that we reach out to multinationals, aside from what the government is doing, because it is trying to create independent camps. We are pushing that vigorously.
Talking about infrastructure, the failure rate of roads here is high and when students in Kagara were abducted Nigerians saw the nature of the school. Why are roads so bad here?
It is unfortunate that the incident happened in Kagara before our programme reached that school, but I want to tell you that we are doing things systematically.
Let me start from the area of education, over time, you have successive governments come in and intervene in schools, but in parts, may be renovating a structure or construct the additional structure, but we realised that such things do not last. So, when this government came on board, we came in with the whole school development approach, where everything about the school, from the road network within schools to the fencing, to physical structures like classrooms, offices, laboratories and what have you.
It includes furniture and even facilities required to make learning conducive like provision of water and for those in the urban centres, electricity. Our idea is that governance is a continuous process. By the time we face a school squarely, we are able to rebuild the entire school, because the government’s coming may take a very long time without any intervention in that school. As a result, attention might be diverted to other critical issues. We have selected three big schools in each of the zones and these nine schools have been completely transformed.
We are doing this systematically and in doing so, we also take care of other competing demands, such as roads. Sometimes people just look at the urban settings, we have gone beyond that, but what we are doing is to open up areas in the hinterland so that people can feel that there is government. So, we are deploying lots of resources into such areas and we are doing well in such areas.