Looters blackmailing Buhari on Benue killings, others – Shehu, presidential spokesperson

Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu

The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, in this interview with OLALEKAN ADETAYO, talks about the recent killings in Benue and Taraba states, among others

The governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, said he alerted President Muhammadu Buhari to the imminent attack in Benue State before it later happened on January 1. Can you confirm the receipt of that intelligence?

This is not true. In any case, the Office of the Vice-President has already shown that there is no truth to the claims made by the governor.

This notwithstanding, it is noteworthy that the police had before now put Benue State on red alert. The Army had mobilised to Benue and for some time, a lot of attacks had been averted. When this attack you mentioned happened, there was a prompt response from the security services and arrests were made. The promptness of the response has been acknowledged by the Tor Tiv, Prof. James Ayatse, and the state governor did not dispute what the Tor Tiv said when the President met with Benue leaders on Monday.

Before now, the President had issued prompt directives to security agencies on the security situation in the country.  He made this clear in his August 21, 2017 broadcast to the nation. In that broadcast, the President asked security agencies not to let the successes achieved in the last months be a reason for them to relax. He said terrorists and criminals must be fought and destroyed relentlessly so that the majority of Nigerians could live in peace and safety. He went further to say that apart from the fight against Boko Haram, this administration will tackle kidnappings, farmers versus herdsmen clashes, in addition to ethnic violence fuelled by political mischief makers. So the President’s stand on the matter is clear.

Gov Ortom specifically said he wrote to inform the then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo that he had information that some herdsmen were planning to attack Benue and that he also told President Buhari after his return from his medical vacation in the United Kingdom, but nothing was done. Why did the President Buhari-led government ignore the warnings?

I have just told you that the Office of the Vice-President issued a statement debunking this claim. You may which to refer to that press release on the issue.

The governor also said he informed the National Security Adviser and the Department of State Services about the imminent attack but that there was no response. How do you relate that with President Buhari’s claims that he is committed to protecting all Nigerians?

We cannot speak for the NSA or the DSS.  Nonetheless, President Buhari’s avowed commitment to protecting Nigerians remains unshaken and is not in doubt.

Some Nigerians are wondering why the President has not visited Benue and Taraba states since the killings. Does he think it is not important?

No. The most important thing is to act and not play politics with the unfortunate and despicable incidents. If he wanted to play politics, the President would have caught a plane and gone there. We are dealing with security issues that require tact, strategy and decisiveness.  That is how to deal with them and that is what the President is doing. The problems cannot be solved with newspaper headlines and Facebook posts.

Many people are also of the view that deploying the Inspector-General of Police in Benue State may not be all that is needed because the attack has spread to other states like Taraba. What happened to intelligence gathering and being proactive in this country?

The escalation of the herdsmen and farmers’ clashes can be traced back to the last decade. The conflict has been there since the existence of the country. The difference here is that this is the first time someone has openly put coffins on display in articulated vehicles, accompanied by weeping women and children and conducted the funeral at the IBB Square, Makurdi.  The President is opposed to the drama around the loss of precious human lives.

Why was it easy for the government to have Operation Python Dance in the South-East but failed to have a major exercise like that in the Middle Belt to fish out killer herdsmen?

The python dance was a military training exercise. It was not to suppress the Indigenous People of Biafra. The operation was one of six military exercises – one for each of the geo-political zones budgeted for by the military and appropriated by the National Assembly for the fiscal year. It was a mere coincidence that there was an escalation of IPOB activities about the same time.

Some Nigerians have described the recent attacks as a conspiracy by the Fulani to take over the country and have their way. How would you react to Nigerians who say the attitude of this government to killer-herdsmen confirms such a conspiracy?

It is a mistaken belief. We issued a statement on January 9 to address this. In that press release, we mentioned that while there are many Nigerians who see the conflict between the nomadic herdsmen and peasant farmers as an ethnic problem, others point to religious differences and agenda.  We then made it clear that the President does not subscribe to such simplistic reductionism. We said that President Buhari holds the view, as do many experts, that these conflicts are more often than not, as a result of major demographic changes in Nigeria.  We cited an example that when Nigeria attained independence, the population of the country was estimated at about 63,000,000.  Today, the population is estimated at close to 200,000,000; while the land size has not changed and will not change.  Urban sprawl and development have simply reduced land area, both for peasant farming and cattle grazing.

We then said it was both unfair and unkind, for anyone to keep insinuating that the President was condoning the spate of killings in Benue and other neighbouring states. We stand by that our statement.

If you say there is no conspiracy, how then do you explain that the heads of the Army, Police, DSS, Immigration, Customs, NIA, the National Security Adviser, Minister of Defence, Minister of Interior, head of prisons, Air Force chief are all northerners?

Every northerner is not Fulani, herdsman, Muslim or Christian. Don’t mix apples with oranges. The appointment of Service Chiefs is like something revolving, swinging in favour of one region and another. In all situations, the most important consideration is the ability to retain the confidence of the Commander-in-Chief and carry out missions assigned successfully.

Now that the government is proposing cattle colonies, what would happen in states like Benue and Ekiti where the governors have kicked against the move?

The policy is still a proposal. Nothing is settled. The President’s avowed position is that Nigerians should be accommodating of one another. He will not permit ethnic cleansing. Nobody will be expelled from Nigeria on the basis of ethnicity, religion or region. Nigeria has always had crop and animal agriculture and it will continue to do so. The President is determined to find a permanent solution to the problem.

Is there a way the Federal Government would pacify such states or would it push the National Assembly to tinker with the Land Use Act that vests the ownership of all lands in the state?

The Federal Ministry of Agriculture has promised that it will table before the Federal Executive Council a new policy on agriculture and Agric-infrastructure. Let us wait for it.

The argument of some people who have opposed the creation of cattle colonies is that herdsmen are businessmen and so they should sort themselves out the way other business persons do. Is the government giving concession to herdsmen because the President is their leader?

Change will come. How soon or quickly can we bring these changes without disrupting peace in the country?  As a long-term goal, cattle ranches are the ideal and more profitable. But we need a roadmap that does not alienate (anyone) but carries everyone along.

Some notable Nigerians have said that the happenings in the country, especially the wanton killings by herdsmen, could lead to another civil war if not handled properly. Do you honestly think the President has handled the matter in a way that is satisfactory to the victims and the states affected by the attacks?

The President has handled security issues in the country as best as anyone can handle them. He is being blackmailed on security issues by the beneficiaries of a rotten old order, who are the real losers in an environment in which corruption, impunity and theft are being fought. Those who stole N2tn from oil subsidies every year; those who stole crude oil, sold it abroad and pocketed the proceedings, powerful men and women who stole N200bn from the federal pensions and salaries; these are the enemies of the people. They are just blackmailing the President. Their pain is that they have been deprived of what they are used to. The message they are sending is ‘we are already starving, how can we survive four more years of Buhari’s government?’ Nigeria is not in danger of a civil war. It is in the throes of the larceny and the insatiable greed of political elite that has fed on a previous economy that rewarded laziness and theft.

Seven governors met with the President behind closed doors last Friday and after the meeting, the governors were talking about supporting Buhari for 2019. Some Nigerians saw that as highly insensitive at a time when the country was mourning. How would you react to that?

Nobody is happy that we lost lives and the President is still in grief. But when you put this question to those who are arguing to replace him, what do they say to you? Is anyone thinking of banning the freedom of expression? Not this government.

Despite his age and alleged ineptitude, is it fair for people to ask him to recontest?

The President is back and in good health. He is fit and strong enough to continue his good work as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The President cannot be adjudged to be incompetent by any measure. This government has recovered billions of naira and millions of US dollars in the fight against corruption. The assets recovery at home and abroad is unprecedented. This government has stopped Boko Haram from bombing major cities and expelled them from the so-called Islamic caliphate. (There is) the diversification of the economy from its over-reliance on oil to other sources of revenue leading to food security in just two years. President Buhari’s vision has unleashed infrastructure revolution aimed at redressing cumulative years of neglect. The President is very competent.

There was a newspaper report that showed when the President said he only needed one term. Did the President ever say that?

Not to my knowledge. The Constitution of the country, which allows two terms for an elected President, rises above any such permutations or concessions, even if anyone made them. In any case, we heard from the All Progressives Congress in Kano and the South-East and some state chapters will go to the extent of suing the President, should he decline to take a second-term ticket.

Now that the SIndependent National Electoral Commission has released the guidelines for next year’s election, when will the President make known his decision whether to contest or not?

Whatever will come will be in accordance with INEC timetable.

This government recently appointed some dead persons into boards of some agencies, whose fault was it?

We had a problem, we are solving it. A few days from now, ministers will start inaugurating the new boards.

The Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria, Osita Okechukwu, said the President would carry out restructuring in his second term. Is that the plan?

The APC manifesto makes it clear that the government in power will undertake devolution of power. If that is what restructuring means, the President will abide by it.

A northerner in the person of Mr. Boss Mustapha was appointed to replace the sacked SGF, Babachir Lawal, who is also a northerner. Nigerians felt it was okay. But many people are unhappy that a northerner, Ahmed Abubakar, was appointed to replace the sacked National Intelligence Agency Director-General, Ayo Oke, who is from the South-West. They say the President makes it so obvious that he is a sectional leader. How would you respond to that?

The NIA Director-General is not a ‘political position’ per se. It is a highly professional and technical office. The day this country starts appointing heads of security agencies on the basis of ethnicity, religion or region, will be the end of those organisations. NIA is not a tribal organisation. It is an intelligence agency. Only those who are prepared for the job are appointed. Ahmed Rufai Abubakar is a perfect fit, who is most qualified for the job. He has occupied various top public offices in the agency in the course of which he received several awards. He left voluntarily to go to the United Nations as a Director. When he retired, he was appointed as a senior adviser in the Multinational Joint Task Force regional coalition of countries for the fight against Boko Haram and other trans-border security threats in the region. There is no doubt at all as to Mr. Abubakar’s qualifications for the job and that is what is most important. Until Mr. Abubakar’s appointment at the NIA, he worked directly with President Buhari as a Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs/International Relations. He travelled with the President and sat at his meetings with foreign leaders for more than two years. In my layman’s view, advising the President on the important subject of international relations is a far more challenging responsibility than being a DG. But I believe that the President, having worked closely with him, may have used his own assessment of the officer’s competence and personal integrity to choose him above several others to go and undertake this new assignment. Allegations of his dual nationality are false and malicious. It is not true that he is married to a foreigner. His wife is a Nigerian, and this can be verified by simply going to his house. Considering the sensitive nature of the NIA DG’s appointment, President Buhari could not but appoint someone with whom he felt comfortable. Every President should be comfortable with his security chiefs. I think that Nigerians should not read any untoward meaning into President Buhari’s appointment of Mr. Abubakar and disregard the agitations in the media emanating from sources with ulterior motives and vested interests.   Punch

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