In this exclusive interview with BODE GBADEBO, popular Islamic cleric, Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Abubakar Gumi, speaks on his rumoured romance with armed bandits in the North West, his peace advocacy, abduction of Kagara schoolboys, among other topical issues.
What is your take on the spate of insecurity in Nigeria?
Insecurity in Nigeria is now a pandemic. It is just like COVID-19 that is all over the place now. We have natural or the casual criminality, which is there – armed robbery, kidnapping. We have corruption in government, we have ethnic conflict, we have herders/farmers conflict and we have terrorism in the North-East. But whatever we have is now accentuated and there is so much disparity in how people react to these criminalities in Nigeria. If you look at the whole picture, one would say that things are really getting worse. Nigeria is becoming
How did we get here?
We got to this point because of many things. We have what I mentioned earlier as underlying criminality, which has been in Nigeria for a long time. These are corruption in governance, tribalism, ethnocentrism, regionalism and all these things. But now they are so much pronounced and this is what is making Nigeria ungovernable. So, intentions are not enough and efforts also are not enough. There has to be a consensus and unity by Nigerians, I mean the good ones, to come together and move this nation forward. My stance before now was to be an armchair critic and I see that it doesn’t change anything. In fact, let me even tell you, now you cannot stain anyone by exposing that he or she is corrupt. It doesn’t matter anymore to Nigerians. We have seen examples, just because somebody is corrupt and you go ahead to publish it, it doesn’t change anything. What will change things is for me and you to come out into the field and do something that will positively change the situation. Everyone has to come out of his cocoon and do something. Not just to criticise, criticism doesn’t change anything. In fact, scandals come and go and nothing will happen because people will just forget it or give it political or religious colouration. If a Muslim will steal and he is exposed, Muslims will say ‘no, no, it’s not stealing’. If a Christian will steal and he is exposed, Christians will say ‘no, no, it’s not stealing’. This is what we are having in the society today. So, what we need to do is to come out and unite in solidarity and see how we can all cooperate to do what is useful for us, all of us.
You have been contacting the bandits in the forests and visiting them in recent days. Why did you decide to embark on this peace advocacy?
Because I’m tired of criticising. I want to act. I don’t just want to stay at home and wait for you (the press) to come and ask me ‘what is your view?’ I am bored and tired of saying my views. What I want to do is to give my own little quota and see that I can solve some of these insecurity problems because underneath the problem of insecurity are a lot of things like economic stagnation and many other social vices that can spread in a society. So, I can identify the hottest and the most critical issue as the herdsmen criminality. After diagnosing and
understanding the root causes of this, we can say okay let’s go ahead and confront the issue, so that we can contribute our own quota to solve the problem.
Another puzzle is how come you know the bandits’ locations as a private individual while the government which has all the resources, intelligence and security personnel is unaware of these hideouts?
I am not an individual, I am an institution because once you bring yourself out to teach people, all manner of people come to you. When you see a clergy in his church or scholar in his mosque, he is not an individual. So many people come to him. So, with the contact we have with the people, it’s easy for us to meet someone who knows them (bandits) and can get to them. It’s very easy. For example, a repentant armed robber can come to a pastor and the clergy will advise him spiritually on how to live a new life. So, what is surprising about an Islamic scholar who knows beyond what the government knows? That is number one. Secondly, the government knows where they (bandits) are. The government probably has the same contact with them but the problem is that the bandits don’t trust the government for a peace talk or even politicians or the military because they know they are going to
deceive them. They want them to lay their arms and then arrest them. But as a scholar, they don’t fear that deception from me because I am preaching the word of God and God doesn’t deceive or tell lies. When I requested to meet with them and listen to them, they really wanted someone to listen them with an ear of understanding and appreciation,
and somebody who is not coming to deceive them or to give out their secrets. So, that’s why it was very easy for us to sit down with them but they are hiding from the government for fear of betrayal. So, I don’t see anything surprising about that.
So, what is the place of the government in all these?
The place of the government is the same with the place of the bandits. We are trying to draw their (bandits) attention to what is right and at the same time draw the attention of the government to doing what is right.
So, you are in the middle of both parties?
Yes, I am in the middle trying to see how to achieve peace. All we want is to put an end to criminality and the rule of law should be entrenched.
What did you see and hear in the bandits’ camps and how would the nation benefit from your peace advocacy?
What I saw is that they are ready (for peace). Just to know that the person you have dreaded so much is ready to put down his arms and release his captives, that shows there is hope if the right steps are taken. Things will come back to normal and in a very short time. So, we need the cooperation of the government, the cooperation of the people and the press too because they (bandits) listen to radio.
Especially politicians should be careful about what they say, the clergies should be careful about what they say in the church and other areas when they are calling them bandits but they think they are freedom fighters. When you call for their heads, that gives them the impetus to kidnap people. They say ‘okay you are killing our own people too when you send soldiers into the bush, they kill our women’.
So, they feel justified and say ‘we will come and kill your women too’. These are Nigerians, these are people, we are all from the same place and we will forever live in the same place because I don’t see one side driving away another side. If you say they should all be killed, I’m telling you they will kill more from our side. If there are 100 bandits and you want to kill them all, they will kill up to a thousand. So, what do we gain? So, we should be careful about what we wish for others, our language should be peace, our language should be
reconciliation, our language should be ‘what can we do for you?’ and it goes a long way in easing the tension.
There are insinuations that you are directly or indirectly supporting the bandits and negotiating with them?
That is a misconception. That is why we record all that transpire between us and them whenever we visit them. One can hear that we do admonish them religiously that kidnapping is forbidden, rape is forbidden and stealing people’s money is forbidden and we recite the Qur’an for them and whoever that listen to our sermon to them will know that we are discouraging them from their bad ways. We are not threatening them, we are not saying they are thieves or what they are doing is bad and we can see the response from them that they are accepting it, so there is no way anybody can link us to what they are doing when we are admonishing them that they should not do that.
You said the bandits have their own grievances too and that you reportedly said that they learnt kidnapping from the Niger Delta agitators. How true are your assertions?
Yes, Niger Delta militants were destroying the pipelines, thinking that by doing that, they are strangulating the economy, which they believe is a direct attack on the government. When you attack the economy, the common man on the street is affected because Nigerian economy relies on oil exportation but those people (bandits) don’t have a pipeline to destroy. The only thing they can do is to attack people the government is supposed to protect. They kidnap them for money thereby tarnishing the image of the government by portraying it as incapable of providing security. Also, getting their supply of weapons and other things from what people pay as ransom. And they
don’t kill people for killing sake, they kill as a reprisal attack. This is what you see in villages they attack.
You were reported to have met the abductors of the Kagara schoolboys and that you have negotiated their release. How soon can we expect their return?
Your question and the events that happened during my visit to Dutsen Magaji forest in Niger State are completely opposite of what happened. Our contact with the militants in that area, we have done that before in Zamfara State. We have another warlord in Niger State, who is notorious. So, we started for a long time ago, almost a week or two, trying to get contact with him and admonish him and talk peace to him.
Before the Kagara abduction?
Yes, before the Kagara abduction, like more than a week earlier. There were negotiations going on and we came to a date which was on Thursday (last week). So, now there are two postulations. We have a Fulani warlord who contacted us and told us that in Niger State, there are factions who are rebelling against this chief warlord and they don’t want the peace negotiation. Some factions, I heard, were against the peace negotiation.
They wanted to destroy the peace meeting by attacking the state transport service bus and the Kagara school. So, when we met the chief warlord, he said he knows those who attacked the bus but as for the school children he was not sure who did it because it happened a day before we met but he was going to investigate since he knows all the bandits there and will definitely get an answer but since they don’t communicate by telephone, he will send emissaries into the areas, first, to know who did the kidnapping and secondly to seek for their release because there is a peace process going on now. Some other captives too will be released alongside the students because one of the bandits stood up and said they have more than a thousand captives. So, it’s a big long negotiation which at the end we hope that not only the kidnapped travellers will be released but even those others captured will all be released and there is going to be peace. This is the peace Nigerians should be looking at, they should forget about Gumi, they should forget about government, they should forget about bandits. We want to bring peace and we are in the process
of doing it, which gun cannot do, force will not do it, intimidation will not do it, and bad words coming out from politicians, the press or individuals can disrupt the process. As we were sitting down there (bandits’ camp), I was shocked when the leader, the warlord was telling me that they heard that one politician said ‘he is not here for peace’.
In view of the current situation and your engagement with the bandits, what advice do you have for the political leadership and security agencies?
My advice is that the security agencies should embrace the option of peace. Let’s try peace, let them stop all the hostilities. I want the gunmen to come in and be given a blanket amnesty to those who are willing to drop their arms and thereafter rehabilitate them and give them vocational skills. This is not something new in Nigeria, the government has done it before when they declared amnesty for the Niger Delta militants and rehabilitate them. Those warlords are now ‘big men’ in Nigeria today and this is what we want for the Fulani bandits too.
But already there is an agency called the National Commission for Nomadic Education?
Yes, I have gone there, I have talked to the executive secretary. I was there to see what they have. Their main complaint is that there is no budgetary provision for them to employ teachers that they can send. This is the time for the government to be more proactive and posses the will to do the right thing.
Would you continue with this peace advocacy to the bandits in other areas?
Oh yes! Because there are many groups and we will meet with as many as possible so long they will listen to us.
Do you plan to approach the Governors Forum or President Muhammadu Buhari with other first-hand information at your disposal that can help to solve the problem of insecurity?
Right from the beginning I had plan to meet with Mr. President over this issue and we have made contacts to see the president and also I was able to see the NSA and the service chiefs during a recent town-hall meeting in Kaduna State where I got the opportunity to address all of them. And what I showed them is that they need the carrot option. Let’s see if they (bandits) have listening ears and if they are willing to drop their arms. So, why rushing to kill because if you kill them they will kill too?
Why do you waste energy? Instead of dropping bomb, why not drop school for them? So, I have addressed them all, what is left for me now is to see Mr. President and talk to him directly and honestly and leave decision for the government. So, we will continue to admonish them (bandits), give them direction and also give them a voice. Let me give you an example, everyone knows that the Niger Delta militants are fighting the government, so it’s an insurgency. Everyone knows that they employ terrorist methods like the October 1 bombing in Abuja. Kidnapping is a terrorist methodology.
So, in short, Niger Delta militants are terrorists because they terrorise. IPOB also do the same thing.
They are terrorist organisations but yet, you will see the Niger Delta elders supporting them that they have a genuine cause. You will see some Igbo elders supporting the IPOB but for me I am not supporting the bandits or killer herders, I am only admonishing them to stop. That’s the difference.