Interview

INTERVIEW: Alkasim Abdulkadir provides rare insight into the fight against insurgency, nation building and why Nigerian youths must chase money

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In late 2016, the terror group Boko Haram razed down a community in Borno State – Bama. 

The Boko Haram elements, whom some were from Bama were vexed that some residents had snitched on them to the army so they set out to destroy all living things and inanimate things in sight. 

After news of the attack, a group of volunteer civilian care group – Victims Support Fund were ushered to tend to any possible survivors of the attack.

“We were the first coordinated team that entered Bama. We travelled from Maiduguri to Bama and there were no single souls on the way except soldiers on the way. It meant that we could be attacked at any time,” NewsWireNGR’s guest, Alkasim Abdulkadir, spokesperson to the VSF recalls while explaining how these travels were merely deathtraps. 

And like Bama, there were other endangering care and rebuilding travels to Chibok, Dikwa and other communities that had suffered attacks by Boko Haram elements. 

For more than 5 years, Alkasim, a seasoned journalist risked his life rebuilding territories destroyed by Boko Haram. 

NewsWireNGR’s Oladele Owodina chatted with him for over an hour and he detailed a lot of untold stories he witnessed on the frontline. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore journalism, nation building and youth politics. 

  • What was growing up like for you and how can you compare that period to  Nigeria today, especially with the recent insecurity challenge in the northern region?

I didn’t have my entire growing up experience in Northern Nigeria; I grew up partly in the north. I came of age in the town or city of Minna and I also partly had my growing up experience in Lagos, because Lagos was the capital city of the country at that time and most civil servants worked in Lagos before the capital was returned to Abuja. My father, being a civil servant worked in Lagos at some point. 

Growing up in Minna, Niger state you can actually see the truism in the saying that it takes a village to raise a child, in the street where I lived, every parent or every household was my household. If I was doing something wrong every member of that household had the right to say stop what you’re doing, it’s wrong and they would report me to my parents and it meant that I had to be well-behaved. So this was the atmosphere that I grew up in.  

I grew up in the 80s so I can therefore say that I’m a child of the 80s. The 80s were a lot different from the 90s, from the 20s post-millennium age and there weren’t many crimes. The crimes we had were just burglaries,  they were lots of burglaries, neighborhood youngsters breaking into homes to steal TV sets, to steal wall clocks, to steal just basic stuff. There was also a bit of armed robbery, and the most tragic and fascinating thing at the same time about the armed robberies was that there would would be a public execution of armed robbers and as children, as very little kids, we would go to the grounds where these executions used to take place to go and watch, you know that was.  

In retrospect, it was wrong for society to have allowed members of the public to see the executions but that was the idea of that time. So in Minna where I grew up, the firing squad ground was at the old airport and people would come from all over to watch armed robbers and assassins being executed, I have vivid memories of this because it used to be very fascinating, also remember that this was the age of action movies, Predator, Commando, No retreat no surrender, we kind of likened what we see in the films with these public executions. 

There was also part of this ethno-religious riot, it was the age of this Kafanchan crisis; it was the age of the riot in Bauchi, these were like the really violent ethno-religious crisis, the spectre of violence always hanged over us. 

So  growing up was fascinating, it was an age where there was a lot of family and parental values, where there was a lot of value system being instilled in the schools. I knew how much we respected our teachers, how we hung on to every of their words, The classes of the schools we went to were not very congested until when I finished primary school and I doubt if we were more than twenty-five in my class, we were well attended to by very attentive and intelligent teachers.

  • What are the things that today’s children would miss due to the heightened insecurity problem?

Those who are kids today can’t enjoy the life that we enjoyed where you felt at home in the entire neighborhood. I would give an example where I live now. My kids hardly go to neighbours’ houses, if there are precautions, there are certain houses that they go to, but not everybody’s houses. 

When I was a child, everyone in the community, every house in the community was your home. You could eat in those houses, but now with the fear of kidnapping, with the fear of distrust between neighbors, you can’t just let your kids enter anybody’s house, so definitely kids would miss that communality, that feeling of belonging to everyone. And then we also enjoyed a lot of plays outdoors, kids now hardly play outdoors, and even when they play outdoors they play within a gated community, but we had the luxury to run around from one neighborhood to the other to play in the sand and all. So these were the privileges that we had, it was a lot, you hardly hear of cases of kidnapping, cases of rituals and all these that came in later on.

  • Borno State has always been a state with a good cultural presence, the history is culture rich but with the recent insecurity challenge now, do you think the status, artifacts and cultural presence of the state can ever be rebuilt?

First of all, Borno State has its state moniker as the Home of peace, so you find out that it’s a bit ironic what has happened whereby there is an insurgency going on for the last 11 years, you know, but if you talk to people who are from Borno State, they would tell you that it was not always like this, they would tell you that in the past, Borno was indeed the home of peace, they would tell you that there was a time when you time you could trade, when you could do your business, when you could do anything without the fear of being attacked, molested or anything. 

However, that’s not the case today because there’s been an insurgency in the last 11 years, but I have a strong opinion that this insurgency is not going to last forever. I am very hopeful that either the war ends militarily or either the war ends at a negotiating table , one day the war would come to an end, and Borno State would again be the home of peace. 

Historians would tell you that this uprising, this insurrection is not the first time that it’s happening in the history of Borno State. The Kanem Bornu empire is an institution that has lasted for more than a thousand years, and they’d tell you that in their one thousand years of existence, they have had several episodes of insurrection, Several episodes of insurgency, and after each and every one, they have come out stronger. So I can’t put a time to when peace is going to return to Borno State but what I know for sure is that this is not going to last forever. 

In the last five years, a lot of communities have found their voices, a lot of communities have tried to rebuild themselves, and it’s exciting in my line of work I have been part of the rebuilding process in Bama, I’ve been part of the rebuilding process in Dikwa, Borno. I’ve also been part of the rebuilding process in other towns in Adamawa state. So I’m hopeful that one day all these military actions would end and a proper framework of rebuilding would come up, and the state would go back to the way it was.  

  • What are the biggest but under-reported stories of insurgency you have discovered during the course of your work?

For me I will not say the biggest stories, but three issues come to my mind, three issues where I’d like our journalist to shed more light on to be able to talk about them in this conversation and then I’d go ahead to mention them. 

The first one is the orphans – children who have lost either parent or children who have lost both parents. This is one major issue that is very close to my heart. About three years ago, the then Governor of Borno State, Governor Kashim Shettima said there were about fifty thousand orphans in Borno State alone. If you look at that number, it’s not an issue that is highly reported. Fifty thousand is a lot, and now when you look at these children who are orphans, you would think about their education, you would think about how their tomorrow will be, you will begin to tell yourself how are they going to be turn out, But fifty thousand alone who have lost either one parent or both parent is a huge number, It is also an issue that is highly under-reported.

Two major efforts I know that have been done in that area is the Vice president of Nigeria, Yemi Osibanjo, alongside his friends came up with the idea of building a north-east learning centre, whereby they were able to enroll one thousand orphans in the school, with a very wonderful education curriculum, where the students are groomed and they have their nanny, they have their own hostels; they have their own farm. This is a successful story but these are just one thousand orphans out of fifty thousand.

The victim support fund which is another organisation that I have been involved also came up with an idea that they call First healthcare system whereby it takes two orphans and reintegrate them in the community where they come from and ensure that a family comprising a father and mother adopt these children and then the victim support fund gives these families an allowance of fourteen thousand naira per child making twenty-eight thousand for two children every month, there are other people that have been able to build schools, to enroll these orphans. 

The second story is that of missing people. There are thousands of people who have gone missing and these people range from citizens, doctors and nurses, soldiers, policemen to NGO workers. They have disappeared off the face of the earth, never to be seen again. If they are military, they are regarded as missing in action. If they are civilians, they are regarded as sometimes as forced disappearances. This is a really tragic and under-reported story. Some of them went missing because they were caught in between crossfires of the military and the insurgents and some of them have not been seen afterwards. 

The third component which I would say is, what I would like to refer to as transnational crimes and criminal networks. What has happened is that a war economy has developed in the north-east, and to fill the vacuum of the war economy is that people are aiding and abetting the war economy and they have become criminals. To be able to make money, they service the value chain of the insurgents. They smuggle petroleum products; they smuggle bread, they smuggle fish, they smuggle cows across borders. This is sometimes done with the collaboration of security operatives along the countries in the Lake Chad region so a war economy has been built with a very strong Influence of transnational crimes. We also have on authority, there’s a lot of drug smuggling from the populace to the insurgents because the insurgents are very hooked under and all kinds of drugs. But because it’s an active war environment, it’s almost impossible to do these stories and have the verified independent source.  

  • You have been on the frontline in different routes and helping people who are victims of the insurgency, has there been any near death experience for you?

Sure, there have been so many near-death experiences especially if you take into consideration that we travel in an enemy territory. 

So in the six years that I was actively working in the northeast, we travelled on roads that had suffered scorched-earth attacks. What I mean by scorched-earth attack is that we were traveling through communities that have been totally destroyed to the extent that you’ll not find a goat, a hen or even a lizard. nothing existed in that community. For example, we were part of the first civilian team that visited Bama and I think in late 2016 after Bama had suffered a siege of Boko Haram.  

What happened was that when Boko Haram were leaving Bama, most of the Boko Haram members that took over Bama were from Bama, so when the army was approaching they were so upset that they burnt the entire city to the ground. They destroyed every house,  destroyed every police station, destroyed every hospital, destroyed every bank, and ensured that nothing stood in Bama. And it was discovered that there were still few survivors, we were the first coordinated team that entered Bama. So it meant that we travelled from Maiduguri to Bama and there were no single souls on the way except soldiers on the way. It meant that we could be attacked at any time. Also at the point where we travelled from Damboa to Chibok, there were absolutely no one on those roads. And after every of these trips there was always a major attack.  

So on this day we were going from Maiduguri to Chibok and there was a clearance operation going on so when we were given the go ahead to pass, they were so many armoured vehicles, they were so many soldiers and a lot of M-RAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle) all lined along the way because they had come for clearance along the way. What is meant by operations clearance is that the army has come and they are making arrests of Boko Haram operatives and we had to stop. When we were passing, we realized that the Boko Haram operatives that were caught were made to sit down on the floor, because they were being profiled and they were being arrested.

An M-RAP is an extremely expensive machine that costs between five hundred dollars to one million dollars and the Nigerian Army has a couple of it in the northeast.

Very recently we flew an aircraft, a Dornier 228 from Akwa Ibom to Bayelsa and soon as the aircraft dropped us, it couldn’t fly back because it had engine failure. The aircraft dropped us in Bayelsa, when we got to the hotel, we learnt that the crew could not fly back because they had engine failure.

  • It was just a matter of some minutes, and anything could have happened

And I think they spent almost 72hours trying to fix the engine and we had to look for alternative transportation out of Bayelsa State.

  • If the worst had happened, and you had tough luck during those journeys, would you have been satisfied? Or what made you keep going despite knowing this could be the end?

Yes, I love my country very much and I will say to myself that I did my best and everyone who knows me would be like Yes I gave my word to my country.

  • Moving away from insurgency so we don’t box you in that corner. You have been privileged to practice journalism in Nigeria and outside Nigeria for both local and international platforms, do you think journalism we see today is diluted to fit the modern society?

Well, I think there’s no time in history that journalists have gotten access to information, and also I think there’s no time in history that journalists have delivered subpar work than today. For some funny reasons, it’s my view that journalists don’t put in the required work for excellent journalist work. I have a feeling that journalists are more interested in press releases, in covering events compared to when I started my practice of journalism, there was an actual hunger to tell stories, to shape narratives, to be curious, to unveil what was not in the public sphere, but that’s not the case today. 

I wouldn’t blame the journalists totally, we’ve gotten to a time whereby we’ve seen a decrease in funding of journalists and media houses, where we have been able to build a culture whereby journalists are not paid, and journalists are required to survive on their own. So there’s no incentive, there’s no hunger to actually tell the stories that matter and almost all the stories in newspapers are paid for. What is popularly called the brown envelope syndrome is very pervasive, so you only find that it’s very few newspapers who have a “No Thank You” policy, but the rest have almost legitimised the phenomenon of the brown envelope. This is an indictment on all of us, because the readers, the government, the audience and everyone should be able to pay a premium for news. 

Some organisations are already putting their news stories behind paywalls, if you want to read premium news, if you want to read premium stories, then pay for it. Some news organisations have already started receiving grants to be able to tell some stories, that’s also a very good development, but we can’t all reap where we did not sow. So if we expect stellar work from journalists, we should be able to have stellar investment in journalism. So it’s a 360 issue. If you’re saying that journalists are not putting their best, are you giving journalists their best?.

When I was a reporter, I benefited from a lot of training both in Nigeria and abroad. I had the hunger to do the work, I put my life on the line to do the work and all that. When I worked for BBC media action, I had a life insurance, I go to places to tell stories and all that, but that couldn’t have been said for my colleagues who work for other media organisations, so these are the things we need to put in place if we want to get the quality of Journalism we deserve.  

  • Let’s go a bit personal now. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently if given the chance?

This is a very deep question that requires some retrospection. Well, if given the chance, the only thing I can think of is that I could have worked harder and done better than I had.

  • You’re 40+, it’s almost 11pm over there and you’re in an interview. This probably shows that you worked hard when you were younger.

Yes!

  • Does that mean that hard work was not enough?

Well, if you take a look at it. In spite of all the work that we put in, in spite of all the stories that we talked about, in spite of the networks that we built and all of that, Nigeria is still in this vicious circle. It means that we played our part, we did what we had to do, but perhaps we could have done a lot more, that’s what I mean, perhaps our best was not good enough.

  • You’re talking about your generation now?

Yes, and personally too, I don’t excuse myself

  • Times are changing now, and a couple of more young Nigerians are taking over the affairs of the country and they want to be involved in politics. What do you think they would need to do differently?

There’s a lot that can be done, but because this is an interview, I’ll like to just state 3 of these things that can be done.

The first is funding. We live in a country where half of the population, sharply divided, are extremely poor people. What I mean by extremely poor people is, these are people that can hardly afford three square meals a day. These are people who don’t have enough money to live a life of luxury. Where entering a cab is a thing of luxury, you have to enter buses every day. These are people who find it hard to access great indicators of healthcare or education. So what I’ll tell young people is make that money first and ensure that your skills bring you money, ensure that you’re able to get disposable income to push towards your passion. 

If you look at the EndSARS protest and the monies that were raised by either FEMCO (Feminist Coalition) or other groups, that was a lot of money. If the groups that raised those money didn’t have disposable income, they wouldn’t have been able to raise the money. Ensure that you have enough disposable income, that’s one, it means that whoever wants to weaponise poverty, whoever wants to use your needs and wants against you would fail woefully if you’re able to have your own income.  

Number two, you need to learn about governance, you need to learn about civics, you need to learn about democracy. You can’t just assume because you have a degree or because you have studied abroad that you understand how government work, you need to understand how parliament work, you need to understand lobby, you need to understand how pressure groups work, you need to understand how to court the media, you need to understand framing your grievances, you need to understand framing your advocacy, you need to be able to understand psychology of politicians, psychology of government, the psychology of Nigerian politics and its various components. You need to be able to speak the language of the oppressor; you need to be able to speak the language of people in government; you need to level up with them if you are going to go into mainstream party politics, go in and do it from within. If you’re going to be a critic, ensure that you totally understand the issue at hand, you know the terms and terminologies; you know the right registers, ensure that you have adequate knowledge of what you want to do. People like Adetola who ran the legal arm of the EndSARS; if you look at what they did, these people are lawyers, some of them trained in Nigeria, some of them trained abroad and they understand the Nigerian legal system. That is why the people arrested got out within a very short period because they understood the law, they understood the right to assemble, the right to protest, they understood all of these things, so if you understand the language of government, if you understand the language of politics then you’ll be cultivated, you’ll go through the process of the framework that have been laid down and you’ll put in the work and follow it to a logical conclusion and these are where you earn your stripes. 

Lastly, we need to build consensus and partnership across ethnicities, across religious lines, across geopolitical zones. We need to build a consensus; we need to find like-minded individuals across the country. It’s not enough to come on Twitter and insult the people of the south and insult the people of the southwest and insult the people of the northwest and insult people of the northeast. We need to look for areas of convergence and say okay, you know what, at the end of the day what I assume you go through and what I go through is all the same, it’s just that we’re speaking it in a different language, but you and I, north or west, east or south, we’re all one, we’re all members of this entity called Nigeria. If I understand you and you understand me, we can be able to build a stronger, more understandable consensus.

This consensus is what the politicians are better at doing than us, the politicians fight in the afternoon on national television, and at night they pat their backs then further seek on how they’ll capture our common wealth. 

  • It’s been more than six months since the EndSARS protest, what can you say about the protest? What is your view regarding the arguments that the youth overstayed their welcome?

I have a quote from Zora Neale Hurston where she says “If you don’t talk about your pains, they’ll kill you and say that you enjoyed dying”. 

As regards the EndSARS protest, it’s a tragedy how the protest ended with a lot of lost lives and properties. But I think it’s a milestone in the contemporary political issue of Nigeria, I think the young people had their baptism of fire on how the Nigerian state operates. I must say that it was an idea that had come of age. 

However, the government made consension in my mind and this is what I have told some people who were at the forefront of the movement. Even though they said that they had no leaders, they were people who were at the forefront and my argument was; now that the government was making consension, why don’t you listen to them? Why don’t you try one foot in one foot out? Why don’t you try to just listen? 

The difference between EndSARS protest and other protests is in the make-up of the people who were doing the protesting. Most protests in Nigeria are usually by civil servants, usually led by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), so the longevity is always kind, these people cannot remain on the street for too long because they need to go back to work because the government will appease labour leaders and labour leaders will have no choice but to come to the table. 

Every crisis ends in two ways, either it ends in anarchy or it ends in the negotiating table. We do not want it to end in anarchy because you and I can lose our lives. If we end up at the negotiation table, there’ll be give and take, and therein lies very little successes that will come up another day. 

So in my mind the government was willing to negotiate, those at the forefront should have taken the lead to go in and negotiate with the government. However, there is a trust-deficit, we never trust each other because of what had happened in the past. But like I said, I’ll rather end at the negotiating table than end in anarchy. At the end of the day whether it was criticized anarchy, whether it was organized anarchy, it still ended in anarchy. Very tragic what happened at the Lekki Toll Gate. Some people I believe lost their lives, some people lost their limbs, it was needless;  It wasn’t supposed to end that way .

At least later we saw rampaging youths, looting, looting courts, vandalizing public utilities, all of that were needless , you know they were needless, all of these were avoidable, we also saw similar things in Abuja but in my mind all of this were very much avoidable, if both parties had come to the table at the right time. it may not be a popular opinion, but this is my opinion.

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