Gen. Jeremiah Timbut Useni (rtd) is a former Minister of Transport and the FCT, one time Senator, and former Military Administrator of old Bendel State. He was also the Quarter-Master General of the Nigeria Army and the Chairman of the newly formed North Central Peoples Forum (NCPF). In this interview with PHILIP NYAM, he speaks on the insecurity in the country, reasons for the formation of NCPF, 2023 presidency and other residual national issues
The insecurity in the country is increasing by the day with Boko Haram, bandits, killer herdsmen, killing, maiming and kidnapping almost everywhere. As someone who has seen it all, how did we get to this level and how do we go out of it?
The insecurity surrounding us is worrisome. Everybody seems to be doing what he or she likes. Apart from the killings, there is kidnapping and rape all over the place.
And I think the punishment for these crimes is not harsh enough, because people kill and go scot-free. Unfortunately, some people go and sit down to negotiate with bandits and give them money thinking that it will bring about peace. But the bandits never cease to perpetrate evil in our communities. Once they finish spending the money given to them, they come back. I don’t think we should be doing that.
What we should do is to find out where they are and go all out for them. We should not wait until they hit us, then we chase them and they run away and regroup and after a few days come back. When we fought the Nigerian Civil War, we never retreated when we captured a place. But what is happening now is that when we hit the bandits or Boko Haram and kill about 10 or 20, we retreat and they will go back and reinforces and come back.
And when they are coming back, they don’t inform anyonethey come unannounced and strike. It is because of this that people are saying our troops are not doing enough. But the Nigerian troops are working; it is just because of the way they are operating. Their tactics are giving the bandits and terrorists room to operate. The criminal elements know that if they face the military, they will be eliminated, so they hit and run away. So, I believe probably, we have to change our tactics.
Some of the places that are very hot, we need to station troops there permanently and whenever we clear a place, we should put the police there. Just imagine a state like Katsina-the President’s state and such a thing is happening there. It is very embarrassing.
Look at Sambisa Forest-by now that place should have been rounded up and taken over by the troops, even if it means maintaining troops there for as long as this thing lasts. The Air Force has been going and bombing them when they have information, but when they come back, these elements return to attack communities. So, it is like a ding-dong. I think there is need for us to change our tactics and procure sophisticated weapons.
We also have to look at our people; how are they cooperating and how much information are they providing? The citizens have a role to play in given the military and security agencies information. Otherwise, this insecurity will continue. And I think we are not using the police enough. I know that the President is trying his best; he wants this insecurity to end as soon as possible and he believes the troops are doing well but they have to do more.
And the troops can also make good use of the hunters because some of these hunters are very good.
Both chambers of the National Assembly and many highly placed Nigerians have at different times called for the sack of the Service Chiefs. The argument is that they have overstayed and apparently run out of ideas. What’s your take on this?
Some of us have a problem with the word ‘sack’. When you say sack, it means, they have committed an offence. But of course, the Service Chiefs have a specific period of service within which they serve and are changed. However, the Commander- in-Chief has the right to elongate their stay.
Definitely, nobody stays in a position like that for too long without change.
So, what we should clamour for is change of the Service Chiefs and not sack. Even in peace times, there are periods when commanders in the military are changed- how much more in a war time. So, people should be asking for change because no matter how good you are, when you stay in a particular place for too long, you will need new ideas.
You are the chairman of the newly formed North Central Peoples Forum (NCPF). What informed the formation of this body and does it mean you are no longer part of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF)?
I am a member of the ACF. I was the Deputy Chairman of the NEC of ACF under Late Chief Sunday Awoniyi. I was deputy chairman of the BOT and I became the Chairman of BOT five years ago and we did quite a lot.
But we must know that the division of Nigeria into geopolitical zones was for developmental purposes. We used to have four regions- it was three and Mid-West was added later to become four. After the first coup, 12 states were created. General Murtala Mohammed came and created seven; General Ibrahim Babangida came and created more; General Sani Abacha came and created nine. Why were they doing so? Because people were complaining that they needed more states so that development will come close to them. Nigeria is very diverse.
Even now with the 36 states and the FCT, people are demanding for more states. Now, we have six geopolitical zones-three in the north and three in the south and even appointments are made based on this arrangement. In the north, the main body is ACF, although there are others such as Arewa Elders Forum. And when Boko Haram started, the north east was worst hit and the people decided to form the North East Elders Forum, from where they got North East Development Commission.
Today, the people of North-West, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina etc are facing serious insecurity too and they have formed the North -West Elders Forum or so and I believe they are also looking towards a commission.
So, you need to have such a forum before you attract attention from the Federal Government. The people of Niger Delta have their own group; the people of South-West have Afenifere. We in the North Central are also faced with serious insecurity and problem of under development that is why we decided to form our own NCPF. So, I don’t know why people look at our own as different.
ACF is for the 19 northern states, but NCPF is for the six states in the North Central. Look at how backward the North Central is today. Look at the Baro Port, nothing has happened to it and so many other abandoned projects. So, we need to put our heads together and develop our area. We hope that with the NCPF, we should be able to attract development to our communities but we are not breaking away from the ACF or Nigeria.
Recently, former President Olusegun Obasanjo declared that Nigeria was fast becoming a failed state and that the country was more divided than ever before. The Presidency has instead replied and tagged him “Divider-in-Chief”. What do you make of this?
The only thing I will say is that people have right to express their views and whether these views are accepted by the people is a different matter. He has spoken his mind and the Presidency has also replied that it is not so. I won’t say anything more than that.
There have been agitations for restructuring in the country- some say we should revert to the old regions. There is also a clamour for the sovereign state of Biafra by IPOB. What do you think is good for Nigeria at this time?
What is good for Nigeria is what the majority of Nigerians want. We had a National Conference in 2014 under President Goodluck Jonathan, which I was also part of and we made far-reaching recommendations. Unfortunately, not much of these recommendations have been implemented. But again, it depends on the situation on ground, the feelings of the people and the government in place.
What I think should happen is for the National Assembly to take a critical look at the recommendations of the 2014 confab and accept what is acceptable because even at that time, we never denied the fact that the National Assembly would have to debate our recommendations.
The 2023 fever is already rife in the air despite the fact that we are just in 2020. There are some who are for power shift, while others are saying the north should still retain the presidency. Recently, President Buhari’s relation, Alhaji Mamman Daura said there is no need for zoning but it should be based on competency. Do you believe in zoning; and which part of the country should take the presidency in 2023?
In a democracy, people are free to say what they want to say provided it does not infringe on the rights of another person. So, I don’t know why people are losing sleep or arguing over what Mamman Daura said. This is democracy and it is left for the people to accept what he said or discard it. We should not abuse ourselves when people express their feelings. I take it that he was saying what is in his mind and it is all part of democracy.
Personally, I think the parties should look at the issue of zoning themselves and decide what they feel is good for the people and the nation. The parties can do the sharing based on the realities on ground and decide on which geopolitical zone to produce the next president.
You have been around for a long time and have achieved a lot in different areas- military administrator, minister, senator and elder statesman. As administrator in the old Bendel State, the people were very happy with your achievements. What were your most difficult times as governor?
There were many things. I remember that there was a time the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) came to me and said they had 2,000 unqualified teachers and they want the government to employ qualified new teachers. I asked the Head of Service and he confirmed it. So, I sacked the 2,000 unqualified teachers and employed qualified ones.
But the following day, the NUT Chairman mobilised his people and came with placards to protest that I was sacking teachers. I said but this is what you want. I asked my staff to get me a placard and I went to the gate and joined them to protest that I was also a worker. I brought out the paper earlier written by the NUT complaining about unqualified teachers and they started walking away one by one.
Again, in 1984, there was problem of unpaid salaries. I tried my best but I noticed that after payment of salaries, only civil servants will be paid and the teachers will not get payment. So, after two months, I called the Head of Service and asked him what was going on and he said they never had enough money to go round. I kept quiet.
The following month, when they came to me to approve money for civil servants, I asked them to go and pay teachers first before other civil servants. Surprisingly, everybody was paid. It became clear that civil servants were diverting the money meant for teachers.
You are a hockey enthusiast, do you still play hockey?
No, I don’t play again but that’s my game. I took over as captain of the Army hockey team from Col. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. I broke my leg in football at the Military School in Zaria (then Boys School), when I was still very small at about 14 years. I went to India and by the time I was 20, I was already an officer. I broke my leg again when I was on attachment with Para Brigade, so I decided to leave football and concentrate on hockey.
What was your enlistment number in the Army?
My service number was 485.
You worked as military administrator under General Buhari while he was Head of State. Both of you are now politicians…
I always tell people not to look down on the military. Historically, there were no politicians. The military was fighting and governing before politics came in. That is why when I was in the Senate; I told my colleagues that I preferred being addressed as General. But they said this is civilian democracy. I told them it took me years to become a general but in politics, I only won elections, which I contested to become a senator, so call me Senator- General otherwise I will not answer. Ask my colleagues in the 8th Assembly and they will tell you. General Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during the World War II and after the war became the 34th president of the US, The other general from the UK, became the Chief of Defence (Supreme Commander) with direct access to the Queen. But we don’t read history here. Yes, military men don’t play active politics but they are.
How would you compare Muhammadu Buhari as military Head of State and as civilian President?
These are different scenarios. The environment and atmosphere is different. As military head of state, you have enormous powers with a lot of support. You remember that time in 1984 that the Buhari administration suspended the then Ooni of Ife,
Late Oba Okunade Sijuade and the then Emir of Kano, Late Ado Bayero who went to Israel and people complained that Nigeria had severed her diplomatic ties with Israel, why should the traditional rulers go there? Buhari as Head of State suspended them for six months. But you cannot do that in a civilian regime. It is easier to get things done under a military regime. For example, no civilian administration has created a state or local government. Is it the military that stopped them?
No, it is the system. When Late General Abacha was Head of State and they were lots of requests for new local governments, we set up a committee and when the report came, some states that had seven local governments, the committee recommended 27 new ones, while some states that had 20, it recommended 18.
But what we did was to allocate one-third- if you had 15, we gave you one third of that; and if you had 20, we gave you one-third and that solved the problem. But in a civilian administration, it is not as easy as that. That is what we did in Bayelsa State – it had four local governments before and we created two more. FCT had four and we created two more area councils.