Chief Paul Unongo, the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), is from Benue State, where herdsmen have killed dozens in the last few months. In this interview with KUNLE ODEREMI, the 82-year old Second Republic Minister of Steel Development, speaks on the sustained reign of terror and carnage, the attitude of government and its implications, among other issues. Excerpts:
WHAT do you think should be the way out of these occasional conflicts against the resurgence of violent attacks and killings across the country?
I think the way forward for these occasional conflicts, as I have always insisted, is that Nigerians should allow their systems, including the constitution and all that aid that institution to take root. You cannot live in a civilised state without a system of codified enactment that would determine the correct ways of your doing things: your rights; your obligations; the limitations and rights of other people. I have always insisted on that. So, in the New Year, it is important for me to repeat that. Second, I have always said those who are privileged to be in the position of authority, they should not arrogate to themselves total knowledge, total capacity and total ability to do whatever they want. Nigeria is a complex country. Like I told Mr. President, you cannot micro-manage Nigeria; you must have advisers, and advisers ought to be advisers. They shouldn’t be only people who will come and praise you. Whatever you do, whatever you say, they will tell you this is the best thing you have done. Those ones are not advisers; they are people who want to kill you in history because people don’t know that when you are in a position of authority, 200 years afterwards, students of history, educated people will still be quoting you and talking about what you did. That is why we still talk about people like the late President Abraham Lincoln of the United States. So, I think leaders of Nigeria should listen to advice.
I think what happened in Benue is an abomination; it is reprehensible; it is extremely irresponsible for government to fold their arms and allow anybody or any group of people in an organised society, living under the rule of law, to arrogate to themselves, the authority to walk into a place and just take the laws into own hands and say, ‘I don’t like this particular act passed by this parliament, so I’m going to kill the citizens who live in this place so as to cause chaos and confusion so that the government can be afraid to alter the law. That is completely unacceptable in a system such as ours, in a federation. Some of us went to jail under the British; went to jail under the military to consolidate in that consolidation, you don’t do that.
But, some are saying the herdsmen are belligerently aggressive because they believe their kinsman is under power….
I don’t care what people are saying. I did not vote for Mr President because he is a Fulani man; I voted for President Muhammadu Buhari because I trust him, because I saw in him capabilities when he was young, of honesty, integrity, somebody who will lead the people on principle and faith, exactly what he is. If somebody is wrong, Buhari is capable of saying you are wrong and if somebody is right, he is capable of saying you are right; and most times, he said that. He and (Major-General Tunde) Idiagbon, they complemented each other. So, I think we must condemn, in the strongest term, the barbaric murder of the people of Benue State and if it happened anywhere, we should condemn it. When you have a government at the federal level, at the state level, people should seek redress in an organised society through due process.
There was due process in this case: legislation was properly proposed; the parliament elected by the people to rule them passed the legislation. The chief executive of the state, who is supposed to give assent to the legal document before it becomes law, gave that assent and I can confirm that they gave enough time for everybody who wanted to make an input into this law to make comments on it, to make inputs. And after they proposed and passed, again they waited six for months to give everybody a chance to say their views. Like in an organised society, whether a law is bad or good under a democratic setting, once a law is assented to by the authority that is empowered to authorise the law, that law becomes the rule of the nation-state. And Nigeria has so many tribes; Nigeria has so many religions; Nigeria has so many areas that could bring friction, and conflicts. Nigeria needs unity and peace. When you do a dastard thing like this, you brutalise the people, because when you see pictures of slaughtered children, when you see the pictures of ladies, when they begin to bring the news that this is a kid that went and served the country, just coming from youth corps or has just finished from a military academy and is just slaughtered on the basis of a stupid arrangement that some funny people feel that the government has no right to make a legislation, or the legislation made, they don’t like it, so they kill the people, that is totally unacceptable. They should adopt global standard practices in an organised society to convey their position. They should vote against the government; they should write proposals that are better. But they shouldn’t go to the land space occupied by human beings who are under the guidance and rulership of peace-loving and law-abiding citizens and kill them. What is the sense? The sense is that you are provoking a bigger conflict. You are just saying that there is no law and order; that what you want is: you believe you are stronger and you are going to suppress the constituted authority that is charged with the responsibility of making laws for lawful administration of a territory under their control. When you do that and you brutalise, you hurt and you make the citizenry angry, you are looking for a wider conflict in Nigeria.
What do you mean by provoking a wider conflict?
The majority in this part of the country are Christians and the majority of the people that came and slaughter the people, they just call them Fulani and they assume they are all Moslems. So, they bring religious connotation to it and then, you give people like me, who are trying to reconcile the people and engender unity unnecessary job to placate people and tell them that not every Fulani man is a Moslem who is a fanatic. That Buhari is a Muslim and that Buhari is a Fulani man doesn’t mean he agrees with this people. I think it is not fair, more especially when government does nothing, when over and over again, good-intentioned people advised government at the level of the minister-in-charge of the responsibility of keeping peace, law and order and advised at the level of the Executive President and the thing continues, then it doesn’t ’make sense. And you know the youth, when university students’ start getting into the streets, the police must maintain law and order. And suppose emotions are raised, the police would use tear gas to disperse them or use bullets, the whole situation would become chaotic. So, this is a very unfortunate development and I do not support it and will never support it. I have advised at the highest level and I am advising again that the security of Nigeria is bigger than anyone in this country and the unity of Nigeria should not be compromised. So, this kind of thing should not be allowed to happen.
My position is that whenever something like this happens, government should apprehend the culprits. Murder has been committed; they should apprehend them. Whether the people are ‘cattle-rearers or human rearers’ whether they are farmers, when you kill people, Nigeria has laws that people who kill be taken before the court. If it finds them guilty that they have killed, they should be punished according to the law. Nigeria must begin to implement the laws faithfully right now. It was the first day in January, the day (the latest attack first occurred). You cannot begin a year by going to a place and killing people of one tribe in a tribal society such as Nigeria. And what were the people doing? They were just celebrating that God was kind to allow them to enter the New Year, and you went and gunned down children, killed women and slaughtered them like chicken up to 30.
These people are not cowards. They ran away because they didn’t have guns. If the government does not take action, the government would be inviting the states to organise, which is allowed by God; it is allowed every single civilised order should they organise to give themselves protection and in defence of their children, wives, properties, which is the responsibility of government. Why should these people beg government to put a stop to the dastardly act? Nobody should blame the government of Benue State; it has done nothing. It cannot be in an ordinary society, no matter how powerful you are for you to say the elected representatives of the people should not enact a law. A law they feel is the only way they can stop this type of killings. Then, you come and say ‘if you organise this thing, we will kill you more!’ And nothing happened to those that issued the threat. So, government must act now. As an elder statesman, and as a leader of the North, I feel very sad. The Federal Government must react; the Federal Government must arrest the people behind the carnage. The Federal Government must act by dispatching, as a matter of urgency, sufficient security agencies of the Federal Government of Nigeria to protect the citizens of Benue State against those behind the killings, because this thing is pregnant with a big blowup. I know the Tiv people; I am a Tiv man myself. We have never run away from a battle. This thing happened far too much in 2017 and to begin the year like this, it is a bad omen for Nigeria.
There are calls that the Fulani herdsmen should be declared a terrorist group, given their mode of operation and ceaseless acts of terrorism?
I didn’t say so; you heard me clearly. I didn’t say they should declare anybody a terrorist group. How did they get to Nigeria if they are not from Nigeria? You mean Nigeria is not a nation-state anymore? Do I have to beg other citizens of Nigeria for me to receive protection from Nigeria? No, I don’t care who declares them terrorists. Nigeria doesn’t have security forces anymore? I don’t want them to be declared terrorists. We have been watching this thing for too long. How can you expect a person like me; I came for holiday in Makurdi, I saw the dead bodies on Wednesday; I saw children crying; I saw people weeping. People were so angry; they were throwing stones at the innocent governor of the state. This is not right. I had advised the Federal Government. I had advised the president that this thing is pregnant; there is a lot of danger. We are a very strategic corporate part of Nigeria. We made a disproportionate contribution to the maintenance of the unity of Nigeria at war. We made a sacrifice of over half a million men to keep Nigeria one; we cannot be made to look like cowards. We cannot be made to look like women, who will watch their children being killed, and a government that is supposed to protect them that we helped to put in power do nothing. If that is the case, should we organise ourselves and confront these people before government would come so that we can slaughter and slaughter thousands and thousands of people? That’s what I’m afraid of. I am angry and I love Nigeria. I love my country. Government must rise to its own obligation and responsibility. You shouldn’t give every member of the society the wrong notion that some people are more equal than others, which others can commit crime and get away with it and those others can commit crime and be ordered to account for their crime. Murder has been perpetrated; it should be accounted for. These people should be arrested. They should be charged to properly constituted courts of competent jurisdiction. They should be tried under the laws of Nigeria; they should be punished by the provisions of the law. If that is not the case, then the constitution of Nigeria allows the Tiv people to organise themselves so that they can give protection to themselves, their properties, their children, wives and their land. That is allowed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and it is allowed by the United Nations’ Charter. Don’t we have a government? I believe we do. Don’t we support the government? I suppose we do. Government must rise to its obligations; otherwise we would organise to protect ourselves.
Advocates of restructuring of the country are saying such carnage that has been consistently witnessed in Benue, coupled with other defects in the existing federal entity portend grave danger to the corporate existence of Nigeria because of the delay on the need to restructure?
I am not an illiterate; I have been in this country for more than 80 years. What do you mean by restructuring? That is not the issue.Somebody is killing another person. We are not joking and I don’t like to be joined in this joke of restructuring. We have been restructuring Nigeria. We northerners are the radicals of Nigeria. It is the only place people can come and kill up to a 100 from the same people and we don’t start a big fight that would break up the country. It is because we believe in Nigeria. What has restructuring got to do with this? Is it because we opposed restructuring that some mad people are coming to kill people? What is restructuring? We started as three regions under Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. Northern Region led Nigeria to restructure the country from three regions to four. They created the Mid-West region. That was restructuring. Then General Yakubu Gowon restructured Nigeria to a 12-state structure. Did it solve all the problems of Nigeria? No! We fought a war and killed three million men. Then other subsequent Northern heads of government up to Murtala Muhammed created the 29-state structure and the late General Sani Abacha came and restructured Nigeria to a 36-state structure. So, people are just making noise. It is people who are competing for power, useless people in this country that don’t look at things in the context of what they are giving to the ordinary citizens out of the resources we have. We have been ruling ourselves since 1960, where has Nigeria gone? People are committing crime and you don’t punish them because they come from your tribe. Other countries that we were better than have surpassed us. We are sitting down here looking at Fulani people killing Tiv people. How many restructuring do you want? We have written so many constitutions. The British have an unwritten Constitution, yet they have developed. We run away from our problems. The problem is that whether they are Fulani people, they came with their cows and they killed people because they do not have grasses in their place. They used to come before and co-habited with us; they inter-married; they produced people like me through intermarriage. Why is it now necessary for them to kill? As intelligent people, we should know that it is pressure because of population explosion, because of many other economic factors, so we must find a way of solving the problem. And people of Benue through their representatives said ‘let’s separate the people.’ For now, call them combatants; it is when the farmers make their farms, and the Fulani people come looking for grass and when they enter those farms, their cows eat both the crops and the grass. Then fight breaks out. Is it that they love their cows more than human being? They killed the people; these people don’t have AK rifles, but if they organise, they would get their own AK-rifles. But we don’t want to destroy Nigeria. So, Nigerians are always running away from the problem, and the problem is that people are being killed; the problem is not restructuring.
The debate for restructuring is principally being organised by the Igbos because they feel that they have been kept out of the leadership of the country; the political arrangement in Nigeria. The question is, do you want democracy? If you want democracy, go and vote; go and convince people to vote for you. Yoruba people, did you restructure before Olusegun Obasanjo became president of the country? I told the Igbos when they called me to come and deliver a lecture on Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe that ‘Look, the problem is that you want an Igbo man to be president. That when my tribesman is there, he helps me.’ Who is helping me now as a northerner? We don’t have justice in Nigeria. We don’t have committed people in Nigeria anymore. We don’t have people who know how much we elders suffered to put this country together. I went to prison 34 times; so, I believe in Nigeria. I am talking about the killing of 60 innocent people who didn’t fight anybody, who are having a party and enjoying that God brought them into the New Year. Are they goats? You don’t just wake in the morning and say you don’t like this law and you start cutting people’s throats. How can you do that in a civilised society? My people are more than 10 to 15 million and we are represented in this government at the executive level? The answer is no. Did we kill anybody? We didn’t kill anybody. The Igbos is there and is making noise; that they have been marginalised. Is it my people or them? There are more than five or six full ministers from Igbo land; we don’t have one. We are the largest minority group in the Nigerian federation. Why should my people be slaughtered again? Is it because they don’t complain; is it because they don’t create troubles? When you want to fight your wars, where do they get soldiers? They come here (Benue). We contributed more than one million men to fight the Nigerian Civil War. We had three quarters of the casualties. What has Nigeria rewarded my people with? People think this (latest carnage) is a joke; it is not. The culprits should be tried according to the law; I didn’t say they should be lynched; they should be arrested and tried and be punished based on the provisions of the law. If we do that three times, all this nonsense will stop and if we don’t, one day, this country will go up in flame. It will not be the fault of we the elders; it will the fault of you, the younger persons who are benefitting and you call it ‘chopping country.’ All you talk about is how you share the cake. What about baking it? We baked the cake for you; we fought the British, we created the institutions and I have attended all the constitutional conferences and why I should I am happy when you are messing up this country? Why do you want to be governor if you are not going to protect the citizens of Nigeria because some idiots are your tribesmen?
What do you think the whole scenario portends for the country?
It portends that Nigerians are not law-abiding, especially those Nigerians that have access to power. A criminal commits a murder whether in Rivers, Kaduna, Plateau, Zamfara or Sokoto states- that criminal that took life Nigeria knows there are laws that say if you take life. You should be arrested; you should be prosecuted and if found guilty, you should be dealt with according to the law. If you are not capable to apply the Nigerian law, don’t seek for power.