Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, a prominent Islamic cleric, who is known for his contact with bandits and herdsmen terrorizing the North-West and North-Central parts of Nigeria, in this interview with Vanguard’s columnist, Donu Kogbara, and a British journalist, Patrick, speak on the complexity of the problem, the actors and what he thinks is the way out.
You were instrumental in the release of some kidnapped Abuja-bound train travellers. How did you make it happen?
Yes, as you’ve seen in the news, yes it’s there. We tried to intercede and see if they could release the victims. But you know we are dealing with outlaws, people who feel that society has made them aggrieved. I think the way to come about it is to engage them and make some sense. They’re not educated. They are young men. Some of them are educated but they are not civilized.
I was given the impression that some of these boys are graduates who couldn’t find jobs…
They’re not graduates, maybe they have an elementary education, or went to secondary school, but these are not the normal herdsmen we know. They are an offshoot of these terrorists.
Which organization specifically?
Yes, we have a sense that they are the Ansaru faction.
Is it the Ansaru faction of Boko Haram?
Meaning they are more civilised than Boko Haram.
Are they linked to Daesh, the Islamic State in West Africa Province as well?
I don’t think so. It’s not an offshoot of ISWAP. They call it ISWAP here. It’s an extent of West Africa. I don’t think it is ISWAP or Boko Haram. It is Ansaru. The Ansaru are a little bit different.
They had to carve out a small area where they could live their lives. And I think they were disbanded, and some of their children were arrested, so they dispersed and got arms to fight back. If you want to demarcate Boko Haram and the ISWAP, they are originally one group. Boko Haram was killing and massacring civilians.
When the Daesh came, they said “okay let’s follow Daesh and become a subsidiary of Daesh”. They are not Boko Haram. To them, Boko is not a problem. Their problem is that they want to seclude themselves in the forest so that they live their pristine life the way they envisaged it but because of the fear of Boko Haram. The authorities disbanded them.
When their camp was disbanded, they became armed. They’re not challenging the state. They were challenging wrongdoing by the state. That was why when they took the victims; they wanted their prisoners to be released. You’ve seen the difference now.
People say that Boko Haram would never have taken up arms if it hadn’t been for the killing of their leader Mohammed Yusuf, right?
Yes, yes, absolutely.
It’s a similar pattern you think where the state overreacts?
Yes, it’s a similar pattern. Unfortunately or fortunately, Ansaru people do not deny English, they don’t deny civilisation.
I mean, there’s a huge controversy about dealing with these groups. I’m sure you are aware of the BBC’s documentary when it went out and interviewed some of the young men involved in these groups and the government said it was wrong. What’s your view on giving them publicity?
Yes, they need publicity in the sense that it will diffuse the tension. One of the leaders of these bandits, because he was given publicity, he publicly came out to say he was agreeing to peace.
And it was the same thing we did with Niger Delta militants. They had all this exposure. The more we hide and demonize people, the more difficult it is to solve this problem. Because it goes beyond saying this is a criminal. The question is, this criminal is affected too. He has his grievances and he’s armed like you are armed.
And he can inflict a lot of damage. It is better you sit down and iron out your differences with him. I don’t think government should feel so big-headed when in the first place they cannot prevent such kidnaps.
You were in the army, what do you think is the problem?
Actually, the problem is the structure of the security system itself. Just recently, two soldiers gunned down an Islamic scholar in Borno State, and it was not because of any religious group. It’s criminality.
In the ranks of the army and police, we have criminals. How do they get into the army? It is because now you cannot get into the security agencies unless you have money. We have criminals in the armed forces.
These bandits, who is supplying them weapons? There are bad elements in security (services). Even if you are the Commander-in-Chief, if you don’t look at the security system and overhaul it completely, this problem will continue.
When you said restructure it, do you mean making it bigger, smaller or…?
Make it more effective. Make it modern. Make sure you flush out irresponsible people in it. There should be a check and balance system. Let it work, let the security system work. If it’s working, I don’t think we will have any problem in the country.
A lot of people accuse the President of being complicit. They say he is sectional and doesn’t want to do anything that will harm noble Muslims, especially Fulani. Do you believe that?
Oh, it’s the opposite. It is just a wrong perception. If there is any President that has actually killed innocent herdsmen in the forest, it is Buhari. In all these bombardments, innocent people, women and children all die.
It started during Jonathan (administration). I’m telling you most of the herdsmen are reacting to the overuse of armed forces. Their children were scattered and displaced. This is what happened and what is happening. They are just fighting back. And what I was able to do is to sit down with them and hear their grievances.
But when we came out, we didn’t have anything — nobody was trying to listen. Even the press is not receptive.
The press was very hostile. Like what you said when the BBC had its interview, the government was hostile. When we went in, we were accused of trying to give publicity to these people. Just imagine the Ansaru people behind the train attack, we later learnt that eight of their children were incarcerated.
So no matter how criminally-minded you are, what has that to do with your children? So we’re pushing them into criminal activities.
Are you saying that anyone who takes up arms against the Federal Government, the best way to deal with the person is to establish channels of communication and negotiate?
Yes, because they have grievances. They have something they are complaining about. So, sit down and see how to solve their problem.
· In part 2 of interview next Sunday, Gumi says only Christians are afraid of Musim-Muslim presidential ticket, calls IPoB members destroyers and speaks on how he established ties with bandits.