Mr Mike Omeri is the Coordinator of the National Information Centre, Abuja, a centre which has been briefing Nigerians and the international community on the ongoing campaign against insurgency. The Director General of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), in this interview, speaks on the campaign, the effort to rescue the abducted Chibok girls, and the politics of insurgency among others. Excerpts:
Let’s start from current issues. Three Isreali teenagers were abducted and found dead. The Israelies went on the offensive in order to trace the three teenagers. In our own country, 219 girls have been missing for 90 days. Is it that we don’t value our citizens the way Isrealies value their own citizens?
Unfortunately, the Isrealis went in search of three citizens and killed one Palestinian child. Today, the world is against them. The sympathy they had always has gone with this because they killed a child. It’s the same way Nigerians feel that scores of children or students were killed and young girls kidnapped in school. So, the same anger, frustration, and feeling of solidarity and support being exhibited when one teenager is lost or killed are what we have now.
In the search for these girls and the attempt to stop this senseless killings of citizens, particularly women and children, the government and the citizens of Nigeria are deploying their capacity by campaigning that the crimes should stop. So, the government of Nigeria feels for its citizens. If we say government, there is no line between us and them. We are all government. We are all citizens. Some people just have authority over others because they are brought there to act on their behalf.
What are the things that government has done so far?
Government has consistently remained within the realm of this campaign against insurgency, particularly in the search for these girls. A lot of people are out there combing everywhere and doing things that have led to a number of arrests. This has provided useful information to security personnel to trail aiders and abetters of this heinous crime. So, that is the reason why the security forces were able to arrest the head of the intelligence unit of the insurgents. They have also busted several rings associated with them. If government were doing nothing, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.
If government were doing nothing, the entire country would have been ‘bokoharammed’. Nobody would have remained in the North-East. You remember that there was a time when people couldn’t go to Borno State capital. Today, the entire North East has become a safer haven. Few areas in Yobe and Adamawa States are still harbouring hardline and diehard members of this sect that is wreaking havoc. The troops are facing them.
The signal from government is that these girls will soon be rescued. How are they going to be rescued and how soon?
No. You cannot say that. Let me give you one or two examples. When the Americans wanted to get Osama bin Laden, did anybody know that they were going to do that? For 10 years, they were plotting how to go. I’m not saying that we are going to use 10 years. But nobody knew their plan until after the operation.
Barrack Obama went to Iraq recently. Nobody knew until he was leaving. We just saw the picture on TV. Why should our own be different in view of the all known conventional methods and strategies in relation to operations of this nature? Why should Nigeria be different? Why do they want to endanger our country and the plight of our men and women, even the Boko Haram?
Don’t you think that if they know the hope of the parents of these children would be raised?
Did the media report every issue concerning the three Isreali teenagers that you mentioned? It was not reported. We only heard when it happened.
But how are you helping the parents of these girls?
There are various agencies that are supposed to be working and collaborating in this regard. Don’t forget that when this thing started, the President dispatched high-powered team to the area. In addition to that, a number of efforts were made to reach the community. Some initiatives targeted at addressing their plight are introduced.
These include Safer Schools, Victims Support Funds, and Counselling Centres. So, there are integrated approaches to bring succours. But the greatest succour is when the girls are back. That is what everybody is concerned with right now.
We read that the sect is asking for swapping of prisoners. What is the attitude of government to this condition?
The government has already spoken about this, that we are not willing to exchange criminality for innocence. But what is clear about what the government is willing to do is to deploy all options that are possible and available to it to secure the release of these girls. It will be treated in line with the best practices internationally applied in situation like that.
But the Americans do swapping of prisoners with their citizens?
Even if they do that, do they tell you when they do it? Is it not after the whole process that they tell you that they swapped their citizens by showing the pictures of when the swap takes place? People don’t know. I’m not saying that Nigeria is negotiating behind the scene.
I say Nigeria is ready to dialogue. So, if there may be offer, we cannot take media offer. A structure was established. We have a Minister. We have identified the person who government wants people to relate with. So, let them identify somebody they want to dialogue with.
What have we achieved since the intervention of the Americans, the British, the Isrealis, the French and the ECOWAS among others?
It has been helpful. But you can see that before their coming, the Nigerian armed forces were not doing badly. But this is not meant to say that they have not been helpful or their advice has not assisted the process.
In what areas are they helping?
They have said that they will come with surveillance and advice. And that is what they have deployed.
What did you expect them to do apart from this?
It is not as if the Nigerian armed forces have no capacity. We have people in the Nigerian armed forces who are professionals. They are well trained. They can do the task. They also have the number.
But we keep hearing that they are not equipped?
That is what you say. Even if they are not equipped, the government of Nigeria has said that they are rebuilding and equipping the military for this purpose and for sustenance of stability in general.
But this thing is taking four years, since 2009?
But the kidnap of these girls is not up to two years.
We are talking about equipping the army?
The President made the comments on the plan to equip the armed forces about three weeks ago. You see there is always a misconception. If you hear that N1.5 trillion is budgeted for defence, people think that it’s just for the purchase of guns, bullets and so forth. It is their budget for everything, including salary, welfare, building of barracks and maintenance of equipment and so on and so forth.
But the people are asking this question because comparatively the budget wasn’t so much previously?
Don’t forget that the armed forces have been involved in a number of campaigns across Africa, even in Nigeria in the past before the insurgency. The military hardware is not displayed on the shelves. You have to order for it and it is prepared for you to take. So, you must go through this process.
In addition to that, we are open. This is the reason why the international partners have come. We are looking forward to, not only when the equipment will arrive, but also the support based on international military cooperation we have signed with countries to assist the government.
It seems the presidential report on Chibok Girls is being kept secret. Why? Is there any secret agenda?
The President received the report and made a comment of what he would do. So, why will he make it secret? What is the agenda? There is no secret agenda. The only agenda that is secret and open is the rescue of the Chibok girls. Unless they are rescued, then we have not done anything at all. So, there is no hidden agenda.
The impression we had is that the government rejected the report because the content did not favour them?
Since the abduction of the Chibok girls, there has been global and national campaign of #BringBackOurGirls. It seems the government is against the protesters. Why?
No. Government supports campaigns to bring back our girls. But government does not support people who are fighting citizens and creating unnecessary tension by diverting attention. Government appreciates the role of international campaigners such as Malala Yousafzai, Michel Obama, Gordon Brown, Grand Alliance Against Terrorism and such other local organizations that are working to support government and to rally citizens behind the fight.
But if the fight is targeted at destroying the government and diverting the attention of government, then that is something else. What matters to government is to secure the release of the girls. Some are saying be prepared to leave Aso Rock. Sometimes, they talk about accountability and other issues that are not connected with the issue of the girls or the insecurity in the land. This is what we are talking about.
Some of these international campaigners and some local campaigners are not talking like that. So, anybody in the campaign to bring back our girls who is rallying the citizens to support the effort and helping the parents and individuals in trauma is encouraged to do that.
This question is necessary because #ReleaseOurGirls campaigners recently took over the venue being used by #BringBackOurGirls campaigners. There is insinuation that government may be behind the situation because it feels threatened. Is it true?
Is it Joe Odumakin’s group? I don’t think Joe can be bought by anybody. I even saw her picture in one of the papers. She cannot be bought by anybody. Also, the Grand Alliance Against Terrorism and Coalition Against Terrorism cannot be bought by anybody.
Who can buy these individuals running the groups? May be I will use this platform to answer this question since you have brought the issue of #BringBackOurGirls. I have been hesitant to comment on it. I don’t want to join issues with them because I respect some of the individuals in the group. Few days ago, some people came here and said they were Concerned Citizens. They wanted to attend our press conference.
I told my people to tell them that the press conference was for journalists. We were not doing any conference for Concerned Citizens. We promised to call them whenever we had plan to do that. One person among the group wrote his name and signed his address with BringBackOurGirls hashtag. The next thing I saw in the paper was that #BringBackOurGirls barred from entering Information Centre. I have checked across the world. I have not seen anywhere where media briefing is open to concerned citizens. It is never done. I stand to be challenged and corrected.
Last Wednesday, there was a Press Conference where you mentioned that the I.D cards of politicians were found in one forest. What category of politicians are you talking about?
Our centre will only say what is factual and true. We say what we have seen and confirmed from sources. These things were found in a forest inhabited by the insurgents. These include party registration cards and membership cards and so on. As a result of this, some people whose contacts were found were traced.
They are found alive. They admitted. Now, they are helping the police and security services. But I won’t give the names until they finish the investigation. You can give the names and other people who are involved will just take off. The story will be killed. An attempt may even be made to destroy the evidence.
We heard that the girls will soon be released. If government knows the whereabouts of the girls, in what state of health are they?
You will see them when they are released. But what I know is that and from the information available to us, no harm has befallen them. Don’t forget that even those who are keeping the girls profess the religion that they practise – that they will not harm women and children in captivity.
You may be privy to some of the information with regard to terms of agreement while negotiating with the insurgents. Can you give us a tip of information about the rescue efforts?
No negotiation is going on. So, there won’t be any terms of agreement. We have also read in the papers and heard that Boko Haram is offering to swap the girls for some of their commanders. We have a committee. The Turaki Committee is still there. So, government has already established a platform for dialogue. Anybody who has an issue should go to them. Government will not negotiate with itself.
We pray for safe return of the girls. What reform programmes have the government packaged for them when they return?
The Safe School Initiative is a whole package to ensure the schools are reconstructed and redesigned. We don’t want to turn them to prisons. But we want to make them conducive to learning and security of people who are within the confines of the environment.
It comes with a number of other initiatives. That is one. There is also Victims Support Funds which the government has introduced to assist victims through rehabilitation programme and empowerment scheme so that they can acquire skills. This is to let them have strong spirit, put the past behind them and move forward to pursue their dreams.
Do you think the insurgency will end before the 2015 general elections?
We believe so. With the current effort and the support of Nigerians and the media in particular, we will end it.
Monday, July 14 is your birthday. How do you plan to mark it?
Well, it’s going to be low-keyed. I can’t celebrate when over 200 Chibok schoolgirls are still in captivity. I can’t celebrate when Nigerian soldiers are on the frontline, putting their lives down in order to secure this country. Nigerian troops are making huge sacrifices in tackling the insurgency. I can’t celebrate a birthday in that atmosphere. It will be insensitive. Again, this is the Holy month of Ramadan. Our Muslim brothers are fasting and praying for the country. I can’t celebrate my birthday at such a period. I’m also praying for peace in our country.