Professor Usman Yusuf is a former executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) and secretary of the Chief of Defence Staff Action Committee (CDSAC) that negotiated the release of the remaining 23 abductees of the ill-fated Abuja-Kaduna train passengers who were released on October 5. In this interview, the professor of Haematology-oncology and bone marrow transplantation spoke on how they achieved the feat, saying not a kobo was paid to bring the abductees back home. Known as one of the fierce critics of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, Yusuf justified why he agreed to work with other like-minds towards bringing an end the intractable security challenges bedevilling Nigeria.
Until after the release of the remaining 23 Kaduna-Abuja train abductees, not much was heard about this Chief of Defence Staff Committee. What was happening?
That is how it should be. With all the noise on the background, we were doing our work. This terrible attack happened on March 28 this year, and on March 29, Chief of Defence Staff General Lucky Irabor assembled us to see how we could help with the non-kinetic arm.
- Ghana deports 16 Nigerians for engaging in cyber crimes
- National Security Council orders reopening of Dangote cement factory
You mean just a day after the incident?
Absolutely. And since then, we have been away from our families for six months. It is always better to be quiet while the noise continues if you are doing something like this. Once in a while you would see me breaking my cover and talk, but not about it (the Kaduna train abduction). That is how it is supposed to be. The result achieved is what we hoped for and what we got.
I have been involved for six months. A day after it happened, we were empanelled and have been working, meeting family members, going into the forest, then interlocutors, and meeting everybody. What happened on October 5 was not a singular effort of one person or group, everybody came in.
Who are the other members of this group?
They are honourable gentlemen that have served this country in various capacities. They offered their services as volunteers to see what they could do. Among the group, there are three retired Generals that have served to the highest level of the military. The three of them have cumulatively given 100 years of service to this country; not only in Nigeria but abroad, in conflict zones. They tried to see how they could be a bridge between the kinetic and non-kinetic component. We also have academics and diplomats that have intelligence, as well as Fulani elders. We assembled for a very good reason. Everybody was brought to enrich the group from their experiences and this is the result we got.
How were you convinced that there were good intentions?
From the Chief of Defence Staff.
We never doubted his intentions. He was an honourable man. He embraced us from day one and escalated the idea to the president, who gave his support and approval to go ahead. And that did not in any way stop the military from continuing their kinetic component. This is the non-kinetic part of the war.
Was it wholly a military operation?
It is a military operation because there was no way we civilians there could have done we did without them. There was no way any civilian could walk up to the president and say he would do this.
There are allegations that a lot of money exchanged hands. Would you clear the air?
Maybe they do not know me. I left an agency, the National Health Insurance, and money has never been my motivation, just like any of the six other honourable men in this committee. And let me say that there’s no amount of money anybody could pay anyone of us to do what we did. We did it for our country. Nobody paid us to do it.
What was the motivation?
The motivation is Nigeria, then our people. You need nothing more. This country has given all of us a lot more than we are giving back. So, you want us to sit down, watch and lament like everybody else is doing?
Was the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) involved in this?
I do not know. What I know is that our channel was through the Defence Headquarters. The head of the military, the Chief of Defence Staff, was our principal and he escalated that to the president. So would not be privy to any other thing up there.
How did you start the process?
Remember that we have had a history. We and Sheikh (Ahmad) Gumi’s group had a history over the last two years, going into the forests in eight northern states: five in the North West, three in the North Central and meeting with bandits. Many members of this group were part of those that played a role in rescuing the students of the Federal College of Mechanisation, Afaka. So, we were not rookies just jumping into the place. We realised that we needed to be able to do more than just sitting down and watching. We could do something and that’s why we offered our services.
Was Sheikh Gumi part of this?
No, he was not part of this.
Why was he not part of this since he has been working very closely with you and everyone that knows you knows him?
No, this is different. It is not part of Sheikh Gumi’s initiative.
Did he say he was not interested?
No. He was not even consulted.
Who are these abductors? Nigerians want to know because when the abduction was carried out, some called them bandits, some ISWAP, some Boko Haram and some, Ansaru.
When you have a situation like this, the first thing you do as a group is what we did. We met on many occasions, meeting family members, talking to them and consoling them and giving them hope, even when there was none. Nobody knew who was in charge, so we needed to establish contact and who these bad guys were and their group. Are they the regular bandits we were visiting in forests? We needed to find out where they were located and who they listened to, as well as their grievances? Once we established contact, we deployed into the field and kept working. But they said in public, and those who were released, that they were members of Boko Haram and not the regular bandits we have been visiting in the forests.
What was their motivation behind the attack on that train?
Every criminal has his grievance, which he thinks is legitimate. There is nowhere, no script or culture that would legitimise what they are doing. Eight people were killed in cold blood that fateful day and 63 were abducted, including a two-year- old child and an 85-year-old grandmother. They were just coming from a medical check. There was also a pregnant woman and many others. Which religion or culture will justify this?
Let the military do what they are trying to do.
How did you approach them? Did you meet them one-on-one and discussed? What did they tell you and what did you tell them?
There are a lot of things. Remember that we had been working for six months and I am just talking now. I am really talking to explain to our country and the world what is being done and what is going to be done.
But how did you convince them to release these 23?
To be honest, it has not been easy. There is no human being in this world, no matter how bad he or she is, even if he just dropped from the sky, that would not have somebody he would listen to. So we had to find who they listen to and their leadership and where they were, what can be done and what can never be entertained.
You met with them several times; Nigerians would want to know how you people summoned the courage to move into the forest to approach these people?
Nigerians need to be assured that I am one of the greatest critics of this government, the military and insecurity, but my working with the military over the last six months has honestly given me an open window and a lot of respect over the challenges they are going through.
There’s no way we could go close to the forest without the military. When we went into the field, this committee was essentially covered by the military. From the Chief of Defence Staff, Chief of Army Staff, the GOC in Kaduna, they gave us all the support. There was a colonel embedded in the committee from day one to the very end.
But if the military could give you the cover and support to go and meet these people, it means they know where they are, so why can’t they confront them?
If your relative was one of those in captivity, would you have wanted the military to go and bomb them?
But the Kaduna State governor said there must be collateral damage if this battle would be won, don’t you agree with him?
Let’s not talk about the Kaduna governor. Don’t irritate me some more. He mentioned collateral damage because none of his relatives was there. When you have a situation like this, you have options to take. One is sending the military to do rescue operation, knowing very well that there is going to be collateral damage, which would involve human lives. From the outset, the president and the Chief of Defence Staff said that was not an option.
Many families of the abductees released before the last 23 confessed that they paid money to the terrorists through Tukur Mamu. And someone close to one of the remaining 23 alleged that $200, 000 was also paid. How true is that?
Paid to whom?
To the bandits.
Who did it? This is because we in the committee were in the forest for three days before we got these people out. People can say whatever they want at the comfort of their rooms.
While you were trying to negotiate the release of all of them, were you not aware that money exchanged hands?
Between who and who?
Tukur Mamu and the terrorists.
When there was money involved, the committee stepped back because we were not going to get involved in that. If the choice of the families was to go through any pact/path with money, that was their choice, we could not stop them. We were in Kaduna all the time. We would meet family members when no government agency was meeting them, assemble them and assure that everything was going to be okay. We kept reassuring them, but they kept complaining and making insinuations. We bore their anger.
You are one of the famous critics of the President Buhari administration, at what point did you agree to work for the government?
I am not working for the government; you need to get it right. I am working for the people and the country, simple. I would be the first to tell you that President Buhari was instrumental when there is success. Without his approval and support, there is no way General Lucky Irabo could have done this.
You showered some encomiums on the president, was it this last interaction you had that gave you a different perspective about him? This is because the allegation out there is that he is not even aware of happenings in Nigeria?
No, it is not true. There is no way we could have done this without his approval. That’s the much I know. He is fully aware and was briefed regularly by the Chief of Defence Staff. He was very focused on how to get these people out because he would not want to leave hostages as a legacy.
Would you be bold to tell Nigerians that no ransom was paid to achieve this feat?
That’s one of the reasons I have been going round media houses, both Hausa and English. The Federal government of Nigeria did not pay ransom.
But there’s a story going round that over 200 suspected Boko Haram terrorists were released from Kirikiri in exchange for the remaining 23 captives, is there no truth in it?
You asked a very important question. The answer is that no prisoner was released. This nonsense has been circulating. Whatever I write, either criticising or praising the government or anybody, I will sign so that you would know it is from me. Whoever wrote that story is a coward since he didn’t sign his name. These are mischief makers. I don’t know what they are trying to do. They don’t want to give the government and the military their due.
Are you saying that the last case is unique because the 23 people were released without an exchange for anything?
I can tell you that no ransom was paid throughout the work of the committee.
And there was no prisoner exchange?
Absolutely, no prisoner was exchanged from Kirikiri. This is ridiculous. Who would take 101 prisoners to Kirikiri and release them quietly at 6am? Whoever wrote that nonsense should be locked up; he must have been smoking something.