The Publisher of Desert Herald and communication consultant to Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, Mallam Tukur Mamu, has been involved in the negotiation with terrorists, who, on March 28, 2022, attacked the Abuja-Kaduna train and abducted many passengers. In this interview with GODWIN ISENYO, Mamu speaks about the efforts to rescue the victims
Three months after, the abducted passengers of the Abuja-Kaduna AK9 train are still in captivity. You’ve been involved in the negotiation for their release, how will you describe the efforts so far?
Honestly, it’s a painful and frustrating process that requires a lot of patience; that requires even strategy and understanding of the difficult situation because if we don’t take many factors into consideration, this kind of mission has a high tendency to fail and result in casualties on the part of those kidnapped.
As you rightly noted, it’s almost three months now and even before my engagement, there had been efforts by the federal authorities but the talks were stalemated due to a number of factors, according to the abductors. There was no trust between them and those that started the talks. So, it was during that process that my name came up and they suggested that I should be part of those that will undertake the engagement and on the advice of my principal, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, I started and we have done so many things behind the scene within the period and by the grace of God, we have recorded some success.
But you know, I told them quite frankly that in a situation like this, where, for example, we are at the receiving end, (we really don’t have many options) because they have innocent Nigerians with them and these are people with misguided religious beliefs; they don’t care to die. The security agents saw them when we went to the forest for the release of the 11 victims. These are people going about with explosives strapped to their body; they are ready to detonate the explosives whenever there’s an emergency. So, they don’t care about even their own lives. So, this is something that has no military solution because if you insist on the military option, there will inevitably be collateral damage and that is what the nation cannot afford, especially at this time. The captives are promising Nigerians. Among them, we have people who have contributed in no small measure to national development; so many important people. So, I think the government should understand the delicate situation. I still insist that the government must be ready to take very painful decisions since we still have majority of the victims with the abductors. Some of the painful decisions may go against the policy direction of the government, but I think it’s worth it. This is the kind of measure taken worldwide whenever there are issues of national interest or national security. I think you have to do as much as you can even if it means sacrificing your principle because the most important thing is to secure the lives of these citizens at whatever cost.
Who are these attackers? Some call them bandits; others say they are terrorists or ISWAP.
They have nothing to do with bandits. They are a Boko Haram affiliate but with a different religious ideology because in the case of Boko Haram, the target are people who believe in Western education, irrespective of whether they are Muslims or Christians. Boko Haram believes it is justifiable to kill anyone who believes in Western education. But these other people, from our communication with them, say they are on a mission to spread their own belief and ideology but they do not force their belief and ideology on anyone. They said the reason they struck was because the government attacked them first and killed several of their comrades while some of them were taken into custody, including their teenage children. They said they decided to go violent because of the pain, to revenge what the government had done to them. They insisted that prior to this development, they had never carried out any attack except to spread their ideology. So, that’s why we believe there is a need for government to understand the genesis of this issue and see if there is a justified reason to address some of the legitimate grievances and give peace a chance in the country in order to ensure security for the whole country, especially on the Abuja-Kaduna road.
The road to Abuja is almost unmotorable, which makes travellers vulnerable to daily attacks. Now, government has invested so much in railway but uncertainty has forced them to stop operating it. So, even if we succeeded in rescuing these people, government still has a lot to do to ensure that all issues that need to be addressed are addressed, so that the train service will resume and the threat to security will be contained. Until there is a dialogue to that effect, it will be difficult to achieve peace.
How have you been able to persuade the abductors to release some of the abductees so far?
In principles of negotiation, you know, you have to be neutral first because it is not a matter of justifying whether what you get is right or wrong. So, you need to build confidence because you are at their mercy. You are the one seeking a favour from them. So, I think the issue of diplomacy in dealing, especially, with ignorant people with misguided beliefs is very important. We have adopted that and it works. Where we need to beg them or tell them the message of God regarding the sanctity of human lives, we have done. And I can say without mincing words that the Sheikh (Gumi) has done quite a lot behind the scene and they have a lot of respect for him. However, what we have realised, even with the security agencies during the exchange, is that so many issues need to be addressed first.
What are some of these issues?
They told us they listen to news on radio and hear about people stealing public funds without consequences. They said they heard that someone stole N80bn. They said people steal billions while they have been neglected with their children, who do not go to school. I think government must address the issue of out-of-school children; it’s alarming because most of these out-of-school children are vulnerable to being recruited by terrorists. I can assure you that a lot of recruitment is going on in the North and this is a potential time bomb.
But apart from addressing insecurity or trying to suppress terrorists or bandits, I think it is important to equally tackle the issue of corruption so that national resources will spread evenly. As long as poverty remains endemic and unprecedented, I can assure you that we have not seen the worst in terms of insecurity.
Talking about the abducted train passengers; there are still like 50 of them in captivity. What will it take to make the abductors release these people?
You know this is a security issue and we cannot really be elaborate. The major concern now is that we must be sensitive in whatever we say because of the lives that are still in the bush. I think that’s very fundamental and important. But in a nutshell, what they said after the release (of 11 abductees) was that they would get back to us in due course to communicate what they want the government to do in order for them to release the remaining victims. And that is why I said earlier in this interview that government must be ready to take painful decisions, even if they are against the policy direction of the government because this is a difficult situation.
Do you have access to the abductees? How are they faring?
I am telling you, it will take only God’s grace or will for anyone to survive the kind of condition in which they are being kept. Most of us could not hold back tears when they brought out the 11 victims that they released to us. They brought them on motorcycles. Everybody cried when we saw their condition. There is no amount of description that will capture the agony, the pain. That’s why I said rescuing the remaining ones should be treated as an emergency national issue. It should be at whatever cost. When the government is done and they release the rest, I believe you guys (journalists) will have access to them and ask them about the kind of condition they were subjected to. It’s really inhuman, dehumanising and anything can happen to anybody in that kind of environment. This is rainy season; their clothes will get wet, dry up and get wet again. There is no proper medication, food.
Is payment of ransom totally ruled out?
What I can confirm for now is that no issue of money is involved. No money exchanged hands for the ones that were released. We didn’t give them a single Kobo. But one cannot predict the next one since we are expecting that this will be the final one. But for now, no issue of money is involved and that’s what makes it interesting.
The families of the abductees have expressed dissatisfaction with the slow pace at which the government is handling this case and they are saying they wish they can negotiate directly with abductors. Is there a possibility of that?
The decision to negotiate directly with them or not, is not even within the power of the government. It is the abductors that dictate the mode of negotiation and they have decided they will only deal with government, and not individuals or families. And they also said it’s not money that they want. They said they want to discuss directly with government because government knows their problems and the reason they carried out the attack. So, that’s why I said the success of the rescue efforts depends on what the government does and that is why I keep insisting that government needs to act with urgency because these people are not predictable.
Do you foresee a complete end to this kind of kidnapping and hostage-taking which has been ongoing for years?
Honestly, with the kind of system that we have and from experience, I can tell you that government needs to do a lot before we can see an end to this. It’s not a one-sided issue because even on the side of the security agencies, for example, there is so much corruption in military spending; lack of accountability. We must accept the painful fact that some unpatriotic elements are benefiting from this insecurity issue. So, naturally many will not want it to stop. We must also accept the fact that there are issues of ignorance and poverty that must be addressed. There is also the issue of injustice. On this banditry issue, we have done so much analysis. We have been to many forests. There’s a genesis to it. It started with cattle rustling that had been exploited by the highest level of security agencies. A situation where a law-abiding Fulani with over 1,000 cows that he had reared for so many years would just be taken overnight. If you dispossess someone like that and he got an offer to be recruited into something that can fetch him millions of naira, coupled with his ignorance, what do you expect?
Even the cows being recovered are being extorted by security agencies. We have documented evidence on that. As long as all this official injustice and official extortion are not addressed, honestly, if you have ignorant people, they can easily take the laws into their own hands and unfortunately, the victims will be innocent people in society because if they don’t have the means of attacking the security agencies, they will vent their anger on innocent people, and that’s what they have been doing, especially in the North.
Have you been able to communicate the demands of these people to the Federal Government?
Certainly. I can give instances especially the time we started going into forest to seek mediation and dialogue with the bandits. If I tell some stories, you will lament and you will pity this country. The people we are expecting to give us support officially end up frustrating us because we have explored what the government cannot; we have achieved what the government cannot. These people have respect for Sheikh Gumi; it is left for the government to show goodwill by meeting some of the legitimate demands of these people. We have consistently informed government about the grievances of these people whenever we meet with them in the forests. For example, they said since the country got independence, they haven’t had access to even pipe-borne water or even schools for their children. And this is the reality, if you go to some of the places. If you start providing these social amenities, I can tell you it will go a long way. But the reality is that even the security agencies are frustrating us. To even see the President after making frantic efforts is a problem. In a serious democracy, people that sacrifice their lives the way we do, should be entitled to national honour and given due recognition. And the only interest we have is not for us. Sheikh Gumi is not looking for money or name. He has passed that stage. What is he looking for? Just the peace of the country and nothing else. And most of us who engage in these efforts have our legitimate businesses. We don’t need anything from anybody.