Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume is the Senator representing Borno South senatorial district who is also the leader of the Nigerian senate. In this interview with MUAZU ELAZEH and TORDUE SALEM, he warned that the nation could be sitting on a time bomb if concerted efforts are not made to address the humanitarian crisis rocking the North-east region.
Areas ravaged by boko haram war are currently embroiled in what experts described as humanitarian crisis of an alarming proportion. As a nation, how can we get out of the crisis?
Well, part of the solution is when you have a problem that is beyond your control then you should reach out to anybody who can help in any way no matter how small. I believe this is what we as a people of Borno, who are mostly affected by the problem, are doing. We are crying out, we are looking for help and we are telling people the real situation we have found ourselves. I have said severally that we have won the first phase of the war, and that is the war against the insurgents but we are now entering the second phase of the war which is invisible, more deadly and more dangerous. And that is the war against hunger, poverty and malnutrition. As I speak to you, people are dying in Borno state because of hunger, poverty and malnutrition. We are calling on people to come in and help. This is beyond government. The international bodies that saw a small window of the disaster have been crying out that this is a humongous humanitarian disaster. We must fight this war rightly and at the right time too, failing which the consequences will continue to linger and God forbid, we could just be sitting on a time bomb.
How best can the nation fight it rightly like you just suggested?
What we are saying is first of all, we have to appreciate the enormity of the challenge before us and we are calling on individuals to assist. Let me use the Dangote example. As a philanthropist, he has shown concern and has visited Maiduguri more than three times and has even taken one of the world philanthropists, Bono, to Maiduguri. He has contributed to the north east, to the tune of over N4 billion so far. If everybody is doing like that and the government too, should be doing more, then we can be able to address the challenge and forge a new life for the people directly affected by this disaster. NEMA has been taking up the challenges but it is beyond what the Agency alone can handle. Other local organisations should also be on ground because what we have right now is the international organisations. The government should hurry up and set up an institution that can coordinate this. The Presidential Initiative for the North-East (PINE) alone cannot handle this. That is why we are pushing for the establishment of the North East Development Commission. Government should be very serious about taking up the second war. It has virtually won the first war as it has degraded and almost eliminated the boko haram. But the war against poverty, hunger and malnutrition is more dangerous. The human catastrophe in Borno particularly, is beyond any body’s imagination. What the world is talking about now is what they have seen in Bama alone. Out of the 22 local government of Borno state, Bama is the one that they have seen and Dikwa to some extent. You don’t know what is happening in Baga, Kalabalge, Gwoza and other local governments, the human disaster that is going on there especially with children and the aged is not something words can easily describe.
But in spite of all you have said, there is this concern over diversion of even the little assistance that is given to the IDPs…
That’s the worsening situation. There is this allegation of diversion which we are pursuing. When I met the President in June this year, and afterwards raised the motion on the floor of the senate one the need to provide more assistance to the IDPs, the presidency responded promptly by ordering ministry of agriculture to release all the grains they have in the strategic reserves, totalling about 313 trucks or there about. The President accordingly ordered the minister to release those grains to the affected states and it was shared accordingly based on the level of the needs. Borno state was allocated 113 trailers of grains and it was contracted out. Unfortunately, the contractor diverted 31 trucks. So far, Borno state has received 53 trucks and the contractor is transporting 29 trucks from the Minna grain reserves to Maiduguri. As at yesterday (Thursday), I spoke with him and he is on it. But it is confirmed that 31 trucks have been diverted. Good enough, the EFCC is on track and has since arrested the transporter, traced and arrest those who bought the stolen grains. With the EFCC now investigating the diversion, I am optimistic that what was diverted will be recovered.
Do you subscribe to the view that the second phase of the war is too enormous for the country to fight alone?
Yes it is too enormous especially now that we find ourselves in a very challenging situation. As you are aware, the country is in recession. This problem is beyond the Nigerian government. This is a humanitarian crisis and once there is a humanitarian crisis like this, it is not a war that is normally fought by only the country that is affected. It is known that anytime we have humanitarian crisis like we are currently having, the whole world rally round to come to the aid of the particular country. We had such situation in Somalia, Southern Sudan, Afghanistan, Irag and so many other countries, and the whole world stood up to the occasion. The problem we have in our own case is that people are yet to appreciate the magnitude of the problem and people are yet to access the area of the problem because of fear due to the gruesomeness of the insurgents. Fear has been instilled on the people and so reaching out to such areas has been a major problem. You need to go and see the situation in Bama. It is very pathetic.
There are views that once the North East Development Commission is constituted, it will address some of these challenges you are lamenting about. What is delaying the coming on board of the Commission?
You know, law making is a process and sometimes it can be tedious and takes time. But so far the House of Reps is done with it. In the senate, we are putting some last finishing touching to it and am sure by the time we resume towards the end of this month, we should be able to complete that and we are hopeful that immediately we are done with, Mr president will assent to it. But then, honestly there is every need to have an institutional framework that will be accountable and responsible and coordinate with the international community on handling the challenges. What we have at the moment is an adhoc structure. This problem is more than getting an adhoc structure in the presidency or whatever. This problem requires for a more serious and strong institutional frameworks like the North East Development Commission. I have said repeatedly that we are facing serious humanitarian crisis and if something is not quickly done, deliberately, concerted and with all level of seriousness too, the embarrassment will be more than anyone could imagined.
I recalled that at the peak of the debate on the bill for the North East Development Commission, there is disagreement as to where the headquarters will be sited…
Well that has been resolved. Honestly, that was also issue of politics and it is not the real problem. It’s just like when one wants to site a hospital. Do you site it where there are patients or where the doctor is? Our colleagues were just trying to play politics but that has been resolved.
How much do you think is needed to address the humanitarian crisis in the North east?
Remember the north east is one place that has been built over years and then the boko haram came and destroyed everything. If you go to Bama for instance, there is no house standing. The whole of the town, with about a hundred or two hundred years history, has been destroyed in less than a year. Rebuilding it is beyond government. Government can only do what it can with the aid of the international community and resilience of the people. It is not something that one can attach figure, to easily. In fact, the damage done to our economy and the psychic of our people is immeasurable.
From your assessment, how many years do you think it will take to rebuild North East?
What we need is to give our people a little push to start their lives all over again. But you cannot put a time line on when the north east will be rebuild. For instance, Borno will never be the same again. It will a long time. If you know Borno, what it used to be before and you go now, honestly you will cry. One cannot just sit down and give a time frame. But I am sure our people are resilient, they want to build their lives back and with little push, they will do that. I went to Gwoza the other time and the community, which has been liberated for a long time, since the coming on board of this government, it was recaptured from the Boko haram but the area is still not accessible in the sense that one cannot just freely go in and come out without escort from the military. But if you go in, you will find people that are resilient, that are looking forward to picking up their lives and are managing with the little they have. Some of them are still living in their houses with blown off roof, some living in houses that have been burnt. They are picking their lives and trying to start all over again. We believe that Gwoza was not built over night and even though it’s destroyed overnight, will get back to better than we were before.