Senator Ali Ndume is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Army. In this interview monitored on Channels Television, he speaks on the aftermath of the #EndSARS protests, the role of the Army in civil affairs and the defence budget in the 2021 Appropriation bill. WALE ELEGBEDE reports
As the chairman of Senate Committee on Army, what is your reaction to the role of the army in the October 20, incident at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos?
As at now, there is nothing before the committee in relation to the unfortunate incident that took place in Lekki after the protest. Immediately that happened, the Senate suspended the plenary. Maybe it will come up in the next sitting.
But, as I said, should such a thing come up and especially now that there are arguments here and there, there is a need for an investigation to get to the root of the matter. There is now an argument between the army and Lagos State government coupled with the fact that we don’t have specific figures as to the number of lives lost.
So, we wait until we get the report (of the judicial inquiry) but we as a committee intend to ask the military to give us the account of what actually happened. And then, if there is any other opinion different from that, we will get to the root of the matter. That is all I can say for now until the matter comes before the committee or the Senate.
You have spoken about the engagement of the army severally in internal security and the Lekki incident is a civil issue. Do you want to weigh in on that?
Honestly, I don’t think that the army should be involved in internal security, but you know the security challenges we are facing in the country today that left to the drafting of the military out of their barracks to take care of security in about 33 states. And that is because the police are overstretched. They don’t have the number, they don’t have the equipment; intelligence is not there. Otherwise all these things would have been avoided.
I have said it several times that the army or the armed forces, security agencies in general, the number isn’t enough, they are not well equipped, they are not well trained and the population is growing and most of the population is youth.
We have 70 to 80 per cent of the population as youths, most of them are unemployed, so they get frustrated. Therefore, if there is no intelligence, a marshal plan to control the situation, things can get out of hand.
As you can see, #End- SARS protests spread like wildfire. So, it should be a lesson to us for the leaders in this country to do something. I have said it several times that in a country like ours, if we cannot make it peaceful for everyone to live comfortably, then we the leaders will not be comfortable.
But as I said, we have the majority of youths that come from a very poor background and so find it difficult to make a living. If the son of a nobody can’t become somebody, then I doubt so much if there will be peace in the country.
It is very important to take care of this and you can only do that when there is security. There will be no law and order if the country isn’t secure. And how do you secure the country? You have to get the number of security agents that is needed; you have to get them the equipment, the tools and training. But in this country, you will agree with me that we are lagging behind in that.
In fact, if you look at it compared to other countries around us that aren’t as big or as strong as powerful as we are, there is law and order. In every country, security and welfare should be a priority. In fact, it is the main purpose of government; it is there in our Constitution.
A lot of your colleagues have expressed fear over the attacks on politicians in the aftermath of the #EndSARS protest. From your standpoint, is there any lesson for Nigerian politicians in the aftermath of the protests?
We are representatives of the people. Instead of securing ourselves from them, I think we should be much closer to the electorate or the people who elected us. We should realize that when the #EndSARS protests started, we were the first target; that is because these people think we have not done enough to protect their interests, and therefore, they went after us.
I think it is very important for politicians to be closer to the people they represent, so that, at least, their grievances can be heard and whatever you can do, you try to do it. There is a big lesson to learn from what happened. It is frustration that has built up over years.
Since the democratic government took over in 1999, so many graduates have been turned out without employment or even opportunities. And worse still, when they struggle, they meet a barricade of frustration, especially, over this idea that is going round now that if you want to become somebody or if you want to get a job, you have to know somebody.
Often times, youths from my constituency or from across the country come to me to say they have applied for job in a particular organization, but they can’t get the job because they need to get a senator or a House member to put in a word for them and that is not how it should be.
There is supposed to be a clear procedure that would allow anyone that has the prerequisites or qualifications to get a job. You don’t have to know anyone; you don’t have to be the son of somebody before you get employment.
These are some of the things happening out there that are frustrating the youth and you have heard some of them, they say they don’t have any life to live, they have graduated four, five years ago but they can’t get a job. If they want to do business, they get frustrated by insecurity and all that. So, there is the need to do more to handle this situation that can be very explosive.
Your party, the All Progressives Congress (APC0 promised change, but after five years at the helms of affairs, are you happy with the situation of things?
I can’t say I am happy. We have done our best but that is not enough. The most frustrating aspect of it is that there are some gaps. We have a President that we had fought three times to get elected and we didn’t succeed. We tried the fourth time and we succeeded.
I believe President Muhammadu Buhari is a genuine person, who has the interest of the common man at heart. He has the integrity and the competence, but unfortunately; I have said it several times and some people in government came out to insult me; the truth is that the kleptocrats in government form the majority, and therefore, are betraying the policies that the President wants to implement.
I can tell you that from the beginning, we came in with three main agenda – to secure the country, fight corruption, provide infrastructure. You cannot say the President has not performed in these three areas. But the impact and implementation is the problem. Under normal circumstances, you don’t expect the President to carry out the implementation of policies himself. He is supposed to get able hands. That is where the problem starts.
I will give you an example. In the case of youths, when we were campaigning, we saw this massive number of youths and the President would always ask, what are we going to do with them? That was when the idea of NPower came on board. And from the first year in office, he approved N500 billion and the money was released for graduates to be employed, especially, in teaching and other areas. But if you hear the number and the impact, it doesn’t add up. You hardly see anything on the ground. And that is where the problem is.
Then the President came up with TraderMoni, Anchor Borrowers programme, Youth Investment programme worth N75 billion and additional N25 billion to pay attention to youths’ requirements that will enable them to take off.
But those that are charged with the responsibility of implementing these laudable projects approved by the President are not doing their job. And you could even see what happened during Covid-19 pandemic, when there was lockdown. The President and the business community and non-governmental agencies came in and gave support but what happened? They locked the palliatives up in warehouses and the people went to ransack the places. All these things could have been avoided.
It does look like it’s a language of failure you are painting of the government?
No, it can’t be a language of failure. This government is sincere, it is up and doing and those areas we promised to change, we are on ground. It is just that we don’t have the percentage we targeted.
For instance, you cannot say the security situation in the country, especially in the North- East in 2015 where over 22 local governments were taken over by insurgents have not improved because as it is now, you can’t say there is a particular local government that is under the control of insurgents.
But we wanted to get the locals back to their local governments and that is a challenge because most of the locals’ properties have been destroyed. About $9.2 billion destruction has been inflicted on Borno State alone. So, getting the people back on their feet is what the government is doing.
What is your take on the N121 billion allocation to defence in the 2021 budget, considering the state of insecurity in the country?
We are at war in this country in the North-East and we are at war with criminals and bandits in the North-West, we are also at war with herdsmen, who are attacking and we have security challenges in the North-Central as a result of tribal and religious conflicts that have overwhelmed the police and soldiers need to be drafted. We don’t even have the number and if you don’t have the number and you don’t have the equipment and arms to carry out these responsibilities, then you are as good as have nothing.
In a country of over 200 million people with a budget of N13 trillion, you are budgeting a paltry N27 billion for the army in a period of war, that does not show seriousness. This N27 billion I am talking about is supposed to be the money they will use to buy ammunition, buy trucks, kit personnel and do everything that is capital related. When you look at the figures, the army proposed for N567billion for personnel/operations but in the appropriation before the National Assembly now, they proposed N461billion.
That means there is a shortfall of N106 billion. Remember that these are personnel costs. When you send people out to 33 states, you have to pay their allowances, you have to feed them; you have to buy fuel and all that. Those are operational costs. And their overhead is N21 billion while N20 billion is approved. Now, let me take you to what happened in 2020. The capital budget allocated to the army was N34 billion but only half of that was released.
Even their personnel cost that is N20 billion, only N11 billion was released to them. The personnel/ operations cost last year was N408 billion but only N300 billion was released. If you send someone out there to fight a war and you don’t pay him his dues, you can understand the frustration; that is why so many things, unfortunately, happen; very embarrassing things. But then the main problem is that the army doesn’t complain, they can’t complain, they are not politicians and that is where we come in.
I go to see what they are doing with my committee members and then speak out because security is number one. A budget of N13 trillion in a period of war with archaic equipment and ammunition, and you are budgeting N27 billion, that is not it. Yes, the President normally provides N100 billion for Operation Lafiya Dole, that amount is in the budget but they don’t release it regularly. Like I told you, if you do common arithmetic, whereby you have over 30,000 troops in the theatre and each soldier is entitled to a daily allowance of N2,000; multiply N2,000 by 30,000, what you get is about N70 million and you calculate that per week you know what that means before you now take it to a year.
That tells you N100 billion isn’t a big thing. Let me say it again, the total budget of the Nigerian armed forces, if you convert it into dollars, is about $1.3 billion. The number is another thing. We have about 150,000 soldiers; they are not up to 200,000. So, if we want to end this war quickly, we must equip the army, we must equip the air force, we must equip the navy.