Onengia Erekosima is the president, Foundation for Peace and Non-Violence in Nigeria, a body that promotes peace and harmony in Nigeria. In this interview with CHUKWUEMEKE IWELUNMO, the former reintegration officer in Presidential Amnesty Office says leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) should adopt the non-violent approach in the course of his agitation for Biafra. Erekosima also speaks on how he brought peace to the Niger Delta through lasting reconciliation of all the warring groups in the Region, the Arewa Youths’ order and the evils of the National Assembly.
What is your position on restructuring of the country?
I am the president, Foundation for Peace and Non-Violence in Nigeria. When you talk about restructuring, I see it as when they talk about rebranding. But I ask a question; how can you restructure a thing that don’t even have a structure. My opinion is that there must be a foundation for that restructuring, there must be structure and a change of mind for any restructuring to take place. We cannot restructure without changing our mindset and with the same kind of people and system. That word restructuring does not go down well with me; we should not take the place of God. It is either there is a change of mind from the leadership or the people demand for change. To demand for change, the people must begin to realise that they have the strength, the power and the will to vote out people or to vote in people. We must put in place a way that our people must have power to make practical change. It is not when you impose leaders on people and you say you want to do restructuring; it is controversial. The only restructuring I think we can do is to get our people to know that they have power to vote in people and vote out too.
Recently, the Arewa youths gave Igbo people quit notice from the Northern part of the country. What are your views on such call, even though steps are being taken to discuss on the resolution?
That is the mindset of our people. When you don’t have laws on ground, these are the things that would happen. I am sure we are yet to see things; I am sounding like this because I have experienced a change that happened and the whole world is celebrating that change. I am talking about the Umaru Yar’Adua’s amnesty programme. I practically worked the amnesty and I took the amnesty proposal to Yar’Adua. I reconciled all the warring lords in the Niger Delta. I reconciled the Ateke Tom, Soboma George, Fara and Boy Loaf. I practically went and reconciled them. Is the Boko Haram worse than these people? These people were worse than Boko Haram. Let me tell you why. Somebody who knows another person; I will take my group, come to your house, your people will know that it is me who kill their person. I will kill your person and kidnap your person. They were not hiding their face in the Niger Delta. They were killing themselves and a lot of cult groups came up. I was able to reconcile such fearful people. They were all feared and I was able to reconcile them. On the other hand, Boko Haram has no issues; so it would be much easier to solve but our people keep going round the bush because nobody wants to go back to us that are experienced to know how we got peace in Niger Delta which was very impossible to get. I am saying that Nigeria will see more of those Arewa statements because our country is ungrateful and we don’t appreciate good people. Right now militants are celebrated, but if you are a peace maker you must not be recognised. That is the problem we have and until we begin to change our mindset, and do what is proper, the problems would not be solved. If Nigeria will not listen and find out the truth about what happened in the Niger Delta and how we brokered peace, there will still be problems because the war is coming back. As long as I live, militancy cannot return to Niger Delta. However, cultism, criminality will increase because the government did not appreciate how militancy ended. Militancy cannot come back because we uprooted it from the tap root. I talked about amnesty when Nigeria was talking about rebranding. The strength we have is our ability to make peace. In Niger Delta today, most especially in Rivers State, nothing less than three persons are kidnapped daily. My friends, colleagues and those who know me call me every day to make enquiry if I could help them because their people are kidnapped. I told Lagos State that putting death penalty on kidnapping, they are making the situation worse, Since they put that price on the crime, kidnapping has not reduced. To the kidnapers, they see it as an expensive crime and they feel that it is either they die or succeed. Once you put death penalty on kidnapping, you have risked the peoples’ lives. Life is supposed to be free, but when you put price on it, it becomes more interesting for the kidnappers. These are the issues that we must tackle.
If the government listens to me and follows my strategy, there would be peace in this country in less than one year and there would be space for investors to come in. Niger Delta amnesty programme was not implemented properly. People are just eating money through the programme. The amnesty is supposed to be taking care of 30, 000 people, but if you go to their office, the programme cannot give you 15,000 people. Somebody somewhere is eating the money and growing fat.
The proposal for amnesty can heal Nigeria if it is properly implemented. What Yar’Adua did was not weakness; it was strength, Again people don’t know how amnesty came. We demanded amnesty for only three persons. Amnesty came because of three persons and they are: Ateke Tom, Soboma George and Fara Dagogo. Before these three people were declared wanted by Amaechi, no militant in the Niger Delta was looked for. They were all there and people were afraid. When Amaechi declared the three wanted I met the three and I said look, these things must be solved. Then they were hiding and killing people and they can’t even come out. I met them and I was able to reconcile their differences so that there would be peace. I went to the governor and appealed to him to pardon these people, governor said no, that I will not. I brought David Mark to Port Harcourt to meet with Ateke Tom, and he came to Rivers State because I met him and we agreed that he would not come with security. When David Mark came and saw the governor; the governor went and planted guns in Okoshiri when Ateke Tom had left. They pursued Ateke Tom there and now told David Mark that they discovered guns with Ateke Tom, and that if the then Senate President insisted in seeing Ateke Tom, his safety would not be guaranteed.
They would have killed him and say Ateke boys killed him. That is how government fought this battle until I got to Yar’Adua. After explaining to Yar Adua, the late President told me that if this is true, we will do what you have said. That was how the Presidential Amnesty programme came about. Now, why was it a blanket amnesty; it was because the struggle at that time was being hijacked by all manner of people. Whatever that happens, they would say it was Niger Delta militants. Some would set up their own kidnapping and say it was Niger Delta militants. Some policemen would kidnap and say it was Niger Delta militants. I have evidence and I will practically show you how police were kidnapping. So it became very impossible to know who was kidnapping and those who were destroying the oil pipelines and so on. That was how Yar’Adua gave a blanket amnesty. I am now saying that with the experience I had and with my group, the problem Nigeria is having is too small to solve. We will just tell the government what to do and no militant will have the option, not to accept. That is where we are. Sometimes I get scared that if I die, Nigeria may never get its salvation. There is a way forward for us in this country.
Nnamdi Kanu was released on bail recently with certain conditions. With the way it is, it seems the IPOB leader has flaunted some of the conditions given to him. What can you say about that?
When Nnamdi Kanu accepted bail, I just knew that the whole thing was over. Nobody should be bigger than his family, community, town and state. When Nnandi accepted bail, I knew that Nigeria has got him where they wanted. He has provoked Nigeria with all these things he is doing now. You will be surprised what will happen and nobody will cough and they will kill people. The non-violent approach he is using is superb but he would not have taken the bail conditions for release and now come out and start saying, I am no more taking the conditions. A non-violent approach to solving some of these problems is still the best. What he has done now is violence against Nigerian constitution. To start with, he is not supposed to have accepted the conditions at all. So he is already guilty. I love what he is doing in a non-violent way, but I cannot take a bail and say I wouldn’t do certain things and I now do it. This is the law we have. When the law is ready to deal with you; so I am afraid for him. I was Asari’s spokesman when he was in prison and I know what I stood for and I never took to violence. I discouraged others from violence and 70 per cent of Asari boys are non-violent today. I have converted them because they have seen the gains of non-violence. So we cannot continue to make mistakes, we want something and we are demanding for something; yes but there are ways to go about it. Martin Luther King and Mandela and all those people fought all these things and we saw it. Let’s go back about reading about Mandela and Martin Luther King, you will find out that instead of accepting some conditions, they refused to come out. That is how they get it, so we should not be doing something and supporting our brother that is doing something to prove a point.
You think the masses are with but the masses cannot face the Nigerian Army. Let’s not follow sentiments because people would die. But, must people die foolishly for something that you would have taken a step to say at the beginning? That I would not agree. Nnamdi would have been released whether there is condition or no condition. They cannot lock him there forever. Now they know there is nothing to hold him down and they now brought in stringent conditions and you now accept. Why didn’t you say that you will not accept the condition because you are not guilty? You accepted the conditions and signed documents and the whole world was watching you. If they attack Nnamdi now, nobody will attack you for attacking him because they will tell you that he has failed the constitution of the land.
There are laws of the land whether it is pretense or whether we are keeping it or not. I could have pleaded with that young man that if he wants to go back to prison and say I don’t want anything; go back there let them lock you. Say don’t give me condition am coming out. Or work out the conditions to be struck out. You cannot be asking for freedom and you are oppressing the people. You are oppressing the constitution right now for asking for freedom that they have not given you and at the same time, disobeying the constitution that is already existing with you.
Are you saying that Biafra will not be realistic?
Biafra cannot be realised the way it is going. We should learn that foundation is important. If we get it right in the foundation, it will go the first way. We only kill ourselves because we prefer to kill people; Biafra will be realistic if they take the non-violent approach. There is time for everything and the world is now smaller than it used to be then. If you go through all the means of discussing and nobody listens to you, the whole world will say this man has tried to discuss with you and you are not responding, then anything can happen from there. There is a way you can push a man to the wall and he will react. Nigeria has not pushed Nnamdi Kanu to the wall, so why accept something with Nigeria and you are breaking it. It was a gentleman’s thing to go on bail. You can go on bail because you are sick or because you are not well but now, you are doing all these things and it means you are well now. Let me tell you something; though I hate to say it, do you know that Asari is on bail till tomorrow? So there are certain things Asari should not do because if Nigeria remembers you, you will come back. Asari’s case has not been struck off, but he has not made anything that would make you remember that he is no more sick. We use wisdom to do all these things. The wisdom is not to punish that man whatsoever but to make peace and go our ways. For now, if you think you want to take Biafra by force, it will not work. Many of us may not live to see it. So I am pleading that we should all go back to track.
Let us look at the National Assembly. Do you think they are really there to represent the people?
We are saying the same thing. When the same system and corruption have put you there, that is not the peoples’ power, how things work and that is what we have to restructure. I never voted for Goodluck Jonathan during the last election because I know Goodluck. Yes he is my friend. Not because he is a bad man but because he did not listen to me. I will stay in this my office and Goodluck will call me as Vice President to ask me what was happening. When I started this amnesty programme people purposely removed my umber from Goodluck Jonathan’s phone. I called him on this programme and somebody picked the phone and told me that it was not the Vice President. That was the last time I spoke with Goodluck. That was why I took amnesty to Yar’Adua, if not I would have taken it to my brother. But our people don’t love ourselves. The greatest battle I had in getting amnesty was with my people. They would say militants are not criminals and that amnesty is for condemned criminals. All the Niger Delta governors were ready to give Yar’Adua conditions never to accept amnesty. Some will come out today and say they know about amnesty and that it was their idea because they are governors. I took these things to them after reconciling all the militants practically. So, when this government is talking about change, I just wonder when we have an amnesty office there eating billions of Naira for very few persons. Can you imagine what will happen if 30,000 people from this part of the nation are empowered. Why wouldn’t this people go back to cultism and criminality?
You have pointed out that one of our problems is the ability of the people to understand the strength they have with the power to vote in and vote out. How do you think then that government would make the electoral process credible?
President Jonathan tried in that line and if that step had been taken, it would have been the best thing that would have happened to this country. Those are the change we needed but we are now back to zero. It is only the strong head that would survive; if they like you, they take you but if they don’t like you, you are nowhere. We don’t have the structure to empower the people. Till tomorrow, Presidency will still continue to choose the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) boss. These are some of the things that are wrong.
Some people are of the view that the Federal Government should replicate the attention they gave to Kaduna airport to that of Port Harcourt, considering that the airport is dilapidated. What do you think about that?
It is still because of the bad system, once you get there, you get it all and you don’t care for others. The decay is not only PHIA. It is all over. It is corruption that has eaten up everything. They are powers that are there. We call it cabal. That is why we cannot be able to restructure until we are able to empower the people. For example, I told Yar’Adua to give us one year for amnesty and no one would see a single gun in Niger Delta, but they gave us only 6 months. That is why we were unable to achieve some of our targets and lots of things happened. They also purposeful schemed me out of the amnesty programme so that I will not say the truth while they continue to eat the money. If we can solve the issue of Niger Delta, Boko Haram is a child’s play.
What advice do you have for the present government considering the fact that the President is away?
The weapons we have in this country should be a plus. The militants in the Niger Delta is a plus. If you had killed all those people, we will not have strong men in Nigeria. For you to carry a gun, you must be a strong man. We are very lucky nobody is fighting war with Nigeria; rather Nigeria is fighting with itself. On the issue of President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo, Nigeria has a constitution that leads these things. Let us follow the constitution. If the President can come back, we thank God. If he can’t come back and rule as a president, why is it difficult for him to step down? These are the issues. We don’t know if who is coming tomorrow might be worse than what we have. So let’s see how best we can use what we have. My advice to Prof Osinbajo is let him stand his grounds and do the right things.