While the nature of the security challenges being faced by the nation is fast changing, Minister of Defence, Dr Bello Haliru Mohammed in this interview with Musa Ahmad Tijjani and Shuaib Shuaib says the security services have overcome the initial shock from the first suicide bombing and are quickly adapting. He also says that democracy must first return to Mali before any military intervention can be made by ECOWAS to contain rebels in the country.
As minister of defence, how would you assess Nigeria’s peace missions in foreign lands so far?
Well, I think the Nigerian military has performed creditably well in foreign peace keeping operations. We have a long history of performance in peace keeping and so far, the Nigerian contingents at the various arenas of peace keeping have been commended greatly and their performance has been lauded by the various bodies involved, whether it is ECOWAS, African Union or the United Nations.
We have always come out with flying colours. Right now, we have the largest contingent of soldiers in Darfur under the hybrid mission of United Nations and African Union. You must be aware that we did well to maintain democracy, peace and stability in Sierra Leone. We did the same earlier in Liberia and played, a significant role in bringing peace and stability to Cote D’Ivoire.
There are also past operations where we were part of in Congo, Yugoslavia and various other arenas in peace keeping operations world wide. I believe that our soldiers have done Nigeria proud by their participation in peace keeping operations.
What has been your major challenge since you became defence minister?
That would be the internal security situation in the country which we are working very hard, day and night, to bring under control. The level of success is due to the patriotism and dedication of members of our armed forces and other security agencies.
The fact that we have been able to contain the violence that has been rearing its head, to a few local governments within the country, in other security agencies, in its self, is evidence of success of our armed forces and from the way the various elements operate, it is obvious their intention is to make the whole country their theatre of operation.
But the security agencies have managed to lock them in small areas. I would say, of all the talk of insecurity and violence, it is happening only in about 20 of the 774 local governments in the country. So, I would say that the armed forces have acquitted themselves in that area.
You say only 20 of 774 local governments are affected, is this based on intelligence report and then the defence establishment, would you say its intelligence unit is functioning and can meet up with the security challenges in today’s, world?
Of course. In the Nigerian armed forces, the level of training and operation are as good as any in the world. Our security agencies, not only the military intelligence, even civilian intelligence like the SSS, NIA and police intelligence have been doing tremendous work in infiltrating the various violent organisations.
That is ranging from the Niger Delta up to the current Boko Haram that is rearing itself in the north. And they have managed to adapt very quickly to the developing situation because you know the acts of terrorism are not things we are used to fight such threats to peace? to in Nigeria.
It is a new phenomenon that has reared its head. But our security agencies, in particular, the intelligence services have been able to adapt very quickly and we are now able to get more and better intelligence to guide our armed forces.
Do you have modern equipment to fight such threats to peace?
We are acquiring modern equipment very quickly. The various agencies are scrambling to acquire modern equipment and make better use of equipment that already exist in their arsenals. Their response to the challenge has to be gradual because when this thing started happening, we could not believe it.
Everybody felt, this could not be happening in Nigeria. In fact, when the suicide bombing started, everybody said it could not happen in Nigeria because Nigerians do not want to die. But as things developed, certain things started to happen. But our security agencies have to adapt and come with new strategies and tactics. These are working and we are developing gradually. But the new equipment have already been deployed for various operations.
We do not talk about our techniques and our equipment. That is why security is security. We already have new equipment. We have already developed new processes of dealing with intelligence and we are developing better synergy between the intelligence services for the sharing of intelligence, analysis of intelligence.
All these things are taking place, they are working and the results are what are helping our security services to contain the situation and not allow it to expand beyond where it is now. You can see, over the couple of years that we have been facing the situation, if the security services had not been able to contain the situation, the whole of this country would have been on fire.
Where do you think the problem originated?
Well, the problem of terrorism is multi-dimensional. It is an international issue. It is not limited to Nigeria. Terrorism has been reported all over the world, in many countries but it has become more prominent and more of an internationally recognized phenomenon from the September 11 bombing of the twin towers in the Unites States. Since then, we have seen terrorism reported in various countries, in all the continents of this world.
So, that it has come to Nigeria is not a surprise. It took us unawares because we thought it would never happen in Nigeria. But now that it is happening, we are adapting and we are acquiring equipment, we are acquiring training, sharpening strategies and developing new tactics to approach the situation.
We are cooperating, working together with friendly countries internationally. This has brought a lot of good results in helping us to identify and deal with areas of problem within our own country.
The federal government was recently quoted as saying it will not withdraw soldiers from some of these crises areas despite reported excesses from members of the JTF there. Why was this decision taken?
No responsible government will withdraw security cover from its population at a time when there are challenges as there are in some part of this country. What is happening in Maiduguri, Borno State for example, what is happening in Kano, Kaduna; no responsible government will step down security cover the law-abiding population.
Even though there will be discomfort, whenever you have an area of either terrorism or war or any emergency, definitely the population will suffer some level of discomfort. But the discomfort measured against the devastation of crime and violence is fairly tolerable. We hope it will be for a short period but just because there is report of excesses, most of which we investigate and most of which we find to be in the course of normal duties, some people feel aggrieved.
But where there are criminal excesses or disregard for rule of law or disregard for the operational orders, the officers or men of the armed forces involved are duly penalized. Discipline is imposed immediately. The military, you know have their own system of discipline and this is being applied on a daily basis.
But it is not something that you will report to the media that so many soldiers have been disciplined for so so reason. But whenever we receive such complaints, swift actions is taken to discipline soldiers that are involved. But we are certainly not going to withdraw either the police or military cover from any area threatened by violent elements.
On the issue of Mali, recently the military junta that overthrew the elected government asked for international help to contain an advancing rebel from the north of the country. Is ECOWAS and Nigeria in particular likely to support a military intervention aimed at dislodging these rebels?
What is before Nigeria and ECOWAS now is to ensure that democracy is restored in Mali. The military junta in Mali has been told in no uncertain terms that they must restore Malian democracy. They must allow elected authority to come and handle whatever situation there is.
It is not likely that ECOWAS or Nigeria in particular will give any measure of cooperation to the Malian government as long as it is under military rule. But as a member of ECOWAS, whenever help is required to maintain peace and order, Nigeria will be quite willing to participate with other West African countries or other African countries like we have participated in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire or Darfur in Sudan.
Nigeria is always willing to be our brothers keeper but ECOWAS has made it clear that coup and unconstitutional government are no longer acceptable in our zone.
Now whether democracy is restoreds to Mali or not, the activities of the rebels threaten the entire West African region and because of Boko Haram and the crisis in the Niger Delta, our military forces have been overstretched. Do you think Nigeria has the military personnel to deploy for an intervention if the need arises?
Nigerian military is not over- stretched. The Nigerian military is in readiness to respond to any command given by the Commander-in-Chief. This government has made a point of duty to ensure that both in terms of training and equipping, the Nigerian military is well provided for.
That is why we are in a position to offer assistance to so many countries in areas of peace keeping. The civil operations that are happening in Nigeria, they are working in support of the police force and as you know, it is the policy of this government to reform the police force so that the police will gradually take over from the military in areas where police duties are required. It is not the intention of government to perpetually continue to deploy the military in civil security operations.
So, our military has got plans and strategies not only for helping in internal security situations but for protecting the territorial integrity of our country as well as helping our neighbours to maintain peace and order in their territories. So I can tell that the Nigerian military is in full readiness for orders from our Commander–in-Chief.
You mentioned peace keeping operations in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Darfur. Now they have all been at great cost to the country. If Nigeria will have to go to another country again, it will be very expensive. Now, how do you justify this to the Nigerian people considering that the government is saying that it cannot even afford things like fuel subsidy?
We do not just go and intervene in other countries blindly. Whatever we do is in the interest of our primary role of protecting the territorial integrity of Nigeria and maintaining peace and stability in our country. Nigeria cannot live in peace if there is crisis in our immediate neighbourhood or even in our wider context of Africa. Every country, especially members of the United Nations have got a stake in world peace because without world peace, you cannot live in peace.
But if you do not intervene early enough to restore peace and stability in West Africa and there is crisis for example, the situation in Liberia; you know the number of refugees that came from Liberia directly to Nigeria. The same thing happened in Nîger. Any crisis in Niger, whether environmental or otherwise, you find that their port of call is Nigeria. Security does not mean just security of body and limbs.
It also involves security to live in peace and confidence that you are safe. Security also means food security. If we have the whole of West Africa in turmoil and they all come into Nigeria, even the problem of feeding them and feeding Nigerians; 150 million people will overwhelm government.
No matter how expensive it is, it is better for us to spend very little to make sure those people in our immediate environment live in peace and are able to maintain themselves and feed themselves so that they can leave us in peace to cater for Nigerians. If we allow turmoil... right now everybody is on alert because of the turmoil in Libya. You see how far away Libya is from Nigeria. But the whole of West Africa is on alert because we believe displaced people will be moving.
They will be coming with arms, they will create instability. You can see the amount of money we spend if you are talking of money, to contain it within Nigeria. The amount of damage it will do to our infrastructure and the amount of damage it will do to our economy, slowing down our growth would be much more tremendous than whatever money we are spending to try to contain it before it reaches our borders.
So, there is a lot of sense in the Nigerian government and sub-regional groups like ECOWAS being pro-active in trying to stop any instability before it becomes so widespread that all countries are affected.
Still on the question of security, the Boko Haram you just mentioned is a real threat. The presidency was recently quoted as saying that the Boko Haram menace would come to an end by June this year. How feasible is this?
I do not think you can give a dead-line to end any insurgency or even crime. Boko Haram or no Boko Haram, there will be crime in Nigeria. What we are saying is that we will contain the situation so that the average Nigerian will feel safe and confident to go about his normal business.
But to say that we are putting a date to stopping a particular insurgency or stopping all crimes in the country is not possible and it is not feasible. But you know, your colleagues in the press will quote and talk about whatever they want.
The important thing is that we are keeping people safe. You are able to come from your office to my office confident that nobody is going to stop you. That is the duty of government, in maintaining peace and security.
And also mounting roadblocks?
Well, the roadblocks as I explained to you are for the purpose of intercepting the bad elements because without those rodblocks, there will be free movements of criminals and terrorists. If that happens, you will not feel happy enough to come from your office to my office. If you have any doubt that somebody is going to stop and harm you, you will not venture out of your house not to talk of going to your office or coming to mine.
So, roadblocks are necessary irritants. It is just like, you cannot drive faster than the regulation allows. You may want to drive fast but the regulation has to protect other drivers too and other road users. It is the same thing with security. Once there is a threat, there are certain measures that have to be put in place to protect everybody and everybody has to suffer the inconvenience.
We just learnt that the Board of Trustees chairman of the PDP, Chief OlusegunObasanjo has just resigned his post, leaving the position open to all members as stipulated by the new constitution of the party. Do you intend to relinquish this position and go for the board chairmanship?
Well, the Board of Trustees is for elders of the party and the founding fathers who are the conscience of the party. I do not think I qualify in that group. Besides, the job I am doing now, I am focused on helping the president to deliver on his promises.
I went round with the president as acting chairman of the party and we promised people to deliver on certain dividends of democracy and we are now focused on developing policies that will ensure that at the end of these first four years, we would have completely delivered on our promises.
So this is
he wrong time for me to abandon ship and start looking for other glories. Let me focus on what we are doing now and make sure that we make success of it.
In your entire public service career spanning over three decades, what do you consider as your most defining moments and are there any regrets?
No, I have no regrets in my trajectory in public service. I think the most defining moment for me was when I decided to leave my professional line and join politics. And I did that under tremendous pressure from my people during the second republic.
You know, after a long period of military rule, communities were looking for credible leadership to ensure that in the new political structure, they had people they could trust to emerge as their leaders. At that time, I was a commissioner under my state government with the full intention of going back to my teaching job in ABU or taking up a teaching job in the University of Sokoto which was then a new university with a new veterinary faculty.
But my people came with a challenge that politics was coming and it had been a long time since we had politicians. The Sardanas and the Makaman Bidas and Inuwa Wadas are either old or dead. They were looking for people who would take over the mantle of leadership. Given that challenge from my community, I had no option but to reluctantly leave my profession of veterinary medicine and join politics.
I think whatever came about came out of that decision. If I had remained in my profession, maybe, I would have been a professor somewhere in the university.
But that single decision to respond to the call of my community has been my defining moment. But since then, I have had a number of significant happenings in my life or significant opportunities for me to intervene in the national life.
So what is your future plan after having amassed so much experience?
I think I have paid my dues. I have served this nation, I believe credibly, with honour and at my age, any time I leave this job I am doing now, I feel I have paid my dues. I deserve my rest. I will leave the rest to the younger ones.
Will you retire to the farm?
I will retire to my community. I am not a farmer. You know I am from a traditional family. I am not a businessman. That is why up till m=now, I do not have a business and I am not a farmer. I don’t pretend that I am going back to the farm. I will go back and maybe my family will find something for me to do.