A Kaduna-based newspaper publisher, Malam Tukur Mamu, has been in the news lately for his role in negotiating the release of passengers abducted from a Abuja-Kaduna train that was attacked on March 28. In this interview, he explains his role as a go-between and responds to insinuations regarding the process.
You have been involved in the effort to get victims of the Abuja-Kaduna train attack out. How has it been?
It actually started about two months after the abduction. As I was made to understand through the audio they sent to me, the mediation effort the federal government started got stalled, and according to the terrorists, there was a breach of trust between them and the government, which provoked them to conclude that they would not listen to its representative again.
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Some of the hostages advised that I should be contacted, based on what they had seen over the last few months or one year about my engagement with Sheik Dr Ahmed Gumi – going to several strategic forests in the North West, meeting, talking with bandit commanders, seeking for peace and dialogue, getting to know the root cause of the crisis, the solution, and doing so many things related to ensuring lasting peace and security.
Also, maybe because of my position as a journalist and what the paper stands for over the years, they recommended that I should be contacted, I heard it on audio.
When they contacted me, I considered it and believed it was an opportunity to see what I could offer to see the end of the unfortunate crisis.
And thank God that between the period I started, to the period of the release of the initial 11 victims, it was only eight days. And it was made possible because of the cooperation of the government. They cooperated very well at that time. The security agencies, especially the army, cooperated with us very well. It took us a little time to reach the milestone, although some of those in government have criticised the number of people that were released, expecting that it would be higher considering the initial commitment from them.
What changed the number?
Sometimes engaging in mediation and dealing with this kind of people is not as easy as one is expecting. These are people that can easily change their decision.
Initially, I succeeded in engaging them – that if we were to consider the demands they presented, they should endeavour to release all the female hostages. They initially agreed, but less than 48 hours to the execution of this agreement, on government’s side they presented another demand that we should forward to them – that they should consider the release of those that wer sick, in addition to the women.
Honestly, they said they would look into it, but unknown to me, looking into it, in their own estimation and judgement, meant that they would drastically reduce the number of women since they would include those that were sick, which would include male victims.
So, when we got there we saw 11 people: 6 women and 5 men instead of all the women. Naturally, we were disappointed, but at that point there was nothing we could do. We were in a place where anything could happen – the forest. None of these government officials can even dare to go there because of their safety. They are the ones virtually ruling in that place, there’s no presence of the government at all.
After that time, the response from government hasn’t been encouraging.
Sometimes, taking policy decisions, especially at the highest level of government, especially where you have so many interests involved, is difficult. This is part of the crisis we have.
The second crisis is that in a situation where there is no coordination, or there is inter-agency rivalry between or among security agencies, there will be setback in the fight against terrorism. The various security organisations – police, State Security Service (SSS), army, all of them want to have one credit another instead of working together to achieve a single result. So, this interagency rivalry is taking serious effect. Also, the failure we are getting in terms intelligence gathering and working together to achieve the desired result is having a serious impact.
The second aspect is that the issue of kidnapping is not new in the northern or southern part of the country. This thing has been happening. And we know that whenever there’s kidnapping, ransom is involved. This is what the country is deceiving itself about.
That aspect of the demand was when we started experiencing little challenges. That is why, in most of the interviews I granted, I said that in a situation where we are at the receiving end as a country; where we have poor intelligences, to the extent that these kinds of attacks can be done at will and with maximum success; in a situation where you allow terrorist organisations or bandits to acquire sophisticated arms without holding those that are supposed to stop them from doing it accountable; in a situation where you have proliferation of arms and drugs, and where you cannot even check the movement of terrorists from one place to another, then something is fundamentally wrong. A situation where they are holding people as human shield is dangerous.
These are people that have distorted their religious beliefs. They believe they are on a mission for jihad, such that even if they die, they are going to paradise. So, even if there is an instance of collateral damage in terms of rescue, they feel they are martyrs. When you have a situation like that, we are at the receiving end.
And as I keep mentioning, this situation has no military solution at all. So, the best way is that since an opportunity has been created by us to explore this aspect of dialogue and mediation, and since, at least, it has started yielding positive results, government should take a painful decision after we must have succeeded in rescuing these innocent lives.
To me, as Sheik Gumi used to emphasize, there are no boundaries to negotiation, especially in a situation where innocent lives are involved.
There are insinuations that the abductors failed to keep part of their bargain, and especially you as an intermediary, to ensure that the government got value for its efforts, what do you think?
These are diversionary rhetoric from the government. You cannot try to find a scapegoat out of your own failure. For example, a mediator has his limitations. He doesn’t have any power to take decisions or influence the decisions of these people. People sometimes misunderstand the extent to which somebody can go in a situation like that.
If, for example, all these things are as easy as they are thinking, why didn’t they succeed all these months? For over two months before my engagement, there was no success at all; nobody was rescued, apart from the first person that paid his way out, then the pregnant woman. It was after my engagement into this that we succeeded in rescuing the 11. So if it was that easy, the government, as an instrument of power and authority, should have higher chances or mandate to do more than we have done.
Why haven’t we gotten all these people back?
There is no political will from the government to ensure that it is done as soon as possible. As I keep repeating, from my experiences, I even challenged those in authority, that if I would be given the go-ahead and encouragement to do this thing the way it is supposed to be, honestly, I can end this thing within four to five days. I even told them that in the event that I could not do it, let them hold me responsible.
You have very limited options in a crisis situation like this. Their condition is really very bad. Their health is deteriorating. This is rainy season and there are threats of snakes and other things.
Also, convincing these terrorists to drop their idea of killing their victims is not an easy job. We know what we have done, and only God knows the extent to which one has gone to ensure that we got to the level we are today. As at today, we have not heard threats of execution.
So far, as a result of this extensive mediation and dialogue, we have not recorded any casualty as far as human lives are concerned. This is the aspect that some of those in positions of authority or those that are criticising are failing to acknowledge. It didn’t just happen like that.
Prior to that, there were audios and videos of these threats, and there is no way a responsible person or government would take them lightly. We shouldn’t wait as a government for them to start executing people or molesting them before we would act.
These people moved from requesting for other things to monetary demands, why do you think they did that?
I can tell you that based on the way these people operate, requesting for money in terms of ransom shouldn’t surprise anybody.
But at the beginning they said it was not money they wanted, why did they change their mind?
What do you expect people with that kind of psyche and understanding to do? Do you expect them to have rational thinking the way you as a human being would do? Don’t forget that they are the same set of elements that kidnapped Chibok and Dapchi girls at the early life of this administration.
So, if we take away the aspect of ransom as one of the reasons they are doing this thing, we are deceiving ourselves as a country.
As I keep saying, whenever you hear kidnapping, whether it is in the South West or South East, the primary reason is money.
A lot of people think the amount they are asking for is outrageous; didn’t you intervene to bring down this figure?
Certainly, it is outrageous, that is why I keep emphasising that it is the government that is encouraging the payment of ransom. This is because when the government does not take full charge of a situation like this, you would only allow desperate family members to negotiate their way. Naturally, Nigerians would always be desperate to offer whatever they want to secure the release of their loved ones.
In a situation like this, where it happened in a federal government-owned train, naturally, if government was fully in charge of the situation, even if there would be ransom payment, I can tell you that it would be limited because they would be in control.
But as long as the federal government did not take control, there’s no way you can stop desperate family members from negotiating to get the release of their loved ones. That’s what is happening.
But didn’t you intervene to bring down the figure?
No, honestly, I have limitations on anything that has to do with ransom because I know the position of government, and I am very much aware of the laws that prohibit the payment of ransom. But I can say they are mere law because when government officials or their loved ones are involved, in most instances, payment of ransom is there. We have had so many instances in the past where their relatives were kidnapped and at the end of the day, ransom was paid.
So, the only thing I can do as a mediator is to keep engaging them. For example, they need to understand that their demands are not realistic, in the sense that a lot of people that are still there cannot afford N500,000, not to talk of N100million, N50m or N70m.
But in this kind of situation, whether you like it or not, you don’t have the power to stop them from collecting money.
In dealing with them, there were instances where they abused me, but to achieve your aim as a negotiator, apart from diplomacy, you have to be patient because anything you do that is contrary to what they want could anger them and they will vent it on innocent people. That is what I think the government does not understand.
Even in making policy decisions or pronouncements, I think there are irresponsible statements from the government. For example, yesterday, as I heard the speech of the president saying the federal government would deal with them in the manner they understand.
If the government has the capacity to end this thing once and for all so that Nigerians would live in peace, we will all be grateful. As it is now, I cannot ply Abuja road just like that. I would have to go through Kano and enter a plane to Abuja.
So, for the fact that we don’t have the capacity to end this thing once and for all, something has to be done, even if it is against the policy of the government. There is the need to we manage the crisis in such a way that vulnerable people in the society will feel safe.
Let’s look at the Niger Delta today, is the safety of pipelines because of military might? The militants guiding these pipelines and their top commanders are in the payroll of the federal government. There was that priority because that is the heart of the economy of the country. Why can’t you apply that same measure in the northern part of the country, at least to boost economic activities?
From your interactions with these people, are they willing to accept something like that?
They have made serious compromises from what they stood for initially. If they would listen to an individual, what if the government engages them with all sincerity?
You have repeatedly mentioned that your life is being threatened because of your engagement in this matter; where is this threat coming from?
It is part of the reasons I officially announced my disengagement from this dialogue process. And honestly, it has to be so because, as you know, insecurity in Nigeria is a very big business. Security budget in Nigeria is a very big business. A lot of people are benefitting from this insecurity. If you go deep into this crisis you would discover that there are so many cartels in it. The threat is real.
If it was just threat, I would say it is something very easy because one would not die until one’s appointed time, but a situation where one’s personal integrity is at stake is what one cannot really manage to accommodate. And in a situation where you are doing something virtually as an army of one person without the needed support, recognition or encouragement from the authorities, you stand the risk of losing a lot.
If you had a situation where this thing is backed by the authorities, with the necessary support, there is nothing one cannot do, including giving out one’s life to ensure that it is possible.
When we decided to go to the forest with Sheik Gumi, nobody told us to do it; we sponsored ourselves. And we achieved a very big milestone in addressing this insecurity in the North West. Unfortunately, even the Sheik could not get the cooperation of the government or the audience of the president. What kind of country is this? The only thing we got in return was wide and mischievous allegations and campaign against him, which made him withdraw completely.
You said security was a big business; there are people also alleging that you personally benefit from your efforts, what’s your take on this?
I think this question is very important. It is part of the reasons I decided not be involved in the negotiations again. I did not decide to involve myself in this thing at all. I have well documented evidence of the victims pleading that I should be contacted; that was how I got involved.
As a journalist, publisher and businessman, I have been operating for over 17 years, and this thing happened only four months ago. Whatever I have is not within two months. In a situation where your integrity is being threatened by people that are recognised as thieves and those that are benefitting billions out of this crisis and willing to blackmail you, the only honourable thing for somebody to do is to disengage because this is a funny country where anything can be planted and it would happen.
But I can assure you that I believe in myself. If I had anything to hide, I wouldn’t have gotten the courage to do what I am doing, including talking to the authorities. If Mamu had done anything in terms of benefitting from the proceeds of terrorism or anything, by now you wouldn’t have been here to interview me. That is the truth. Sincerely, they are not happy with my utterances.
So your hands are clean?
If my hands are not clean I wouldn’t even say what I am saying today. And I challenge anybody, including those that are making the allegations, to show any evidence against me. We have appropriate authorities in the land, so let them do what they feel they should do.
I believe that when you stand in the course of justice, protection doesn’t come from the authorities but Allah. If it was that easy to benefit, I think many Nigerians would go into the business.
What would be commensurate to human life? Those making the allegations cannot go to them, even if you give them N10billion. If I go there and get N1b, for example, and they decide to kill me, what would I benefit from it? So there is nothing you can compare with human life. My life is priceless, so I cannot risk it because I need money or anything else.
I decided to go into this for the humanitarian aspect of it. I believe that even if I succeed in rescuing or negotiating the release of one person, I can use it before my creator and ask for so many things, including paradise.
And thank God that I was 100 per cent instrumental to everybody released so far, apart from the two initial persons. That is a huge fulfillment on my part, it doesn’t matter what anybody says about it.