Alhaji Usman Kadafur is the Deputy Governor of Borno State and also Chairman of the state’s COVID-19 committee. In this interview with KAYODE IDOWU, he speaks on how the state has been coping with the pandemic and the recent attack on members of the committee by soldiers
Whathappened during the attack on the Borno COVID-19 Committee by soldiers?
According to eyewitnesses, the soldiers wanted to force themselves on the committee, which the state Attorney General and the Commissioner for Health were part of the team. Members of the committee were at the checkpoint coming into Maiduguri, and anyone coming into Maiduguri is expected to submit himself to some checks. The soldiers wanted to come into town and they were asked to do the normal checks and the soldiers reacted violently and one of them started insulting everyone there.
The attorney-general was trying to correct him telling him it was wrong to insult people doing their legitimate duty. He explained to him that members of the committee were there working for the state and the good of all, but he retorted and said he cared less. He and the other soldiers harassed and assaulted some of the people in the team, including the attorney-general and the Commissioner for Health. My attention was drawn to the incident and I decided to be at the spot to solve the problem.
Were the soldiers not aware of the ban on interstate travels?
They were aware.
But why are they allowing people to come into the state?
Perhaps it is for their personal gains. We have given out passes to those on essential services. The most important thing is that you as a law enforcement officer, you are not expected to do what they did that day. Look at it, the attorney-general is the number one law enforcer in the state. And he introduced himself to the soldiers, but because of their excesses, which were getting too much, that was why they could behave the way they did. That was why I was furious that time. I feel the Nigerian Army needs to see the actions of its men when they are out on the streets; it needs to caution them.
I went there to call the attention of the senior officers to the action of their men when they were sent out on an assignment. They need to be cautioned and made to understand that some of these excesses cannot be tolerated.
How many people were injured and how many people died?
When we went to the hospital the first day, I think I saw either five or six persons injured; I cannot just remember the actual figure now. One person died on the same day and another person passed away later.
Since the lockdown started, what has been the response of the soldiers to the Federal Government’s directive?
They comply with the guidelines; if you look at the law enforcement officers, the police and the soldiers, they have been complying with the basic guidelines of the COVID-19. This is the first time we are having problems with the soldiers, but things like this do happen. But truly, they have been complying.
Will the state government insist that the army fish out the soldiers who attacked members of the COVID-19 Committee and violated the interstate travel ban?
We have made our request known and they have promised us that they are going to set up a panel of enquiry. The Chief of Army Staff (Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai) himself confirmed to me that he has directed that an enquiry panel should be set up and disciplinary action taken and those found guilty should be brought to justice.
In January, many travellers were stranded on the Maiduguri/Damaturu Road because soldiers were collecting N1,000 from them. The governor was bitter about it. Has the extortion stopped in Borno State?
You know at my level, it is very difficult to witness such going on because even when they see us, they will immediately stop. What interest do they have right now passing people through the checkpoints? This is the kind of question you ask yourself as a law enforcement officer as you are not escorting these people. They said there was a threat in the state, even if there is a threat of attack, there is a way you talk to the people to make them to understand that this is what is happening.
Are you suspecting that they are still collecting money because people must have reported if they are still doing that?
Even those coming in have contravened the law of the state in the first place; all those coming in are not supposed to come in; they are actually coming in illegally. To me, the entire operation is illegal. If you want to come into a state you must be one of those performing essential services and must have been given a pass. So, what are you doing at a checkpoint if you are not on this list? If you want to come into Maiduguri, there should be a process that takes you into Maiduguri. I will appeal that all states should enforce the restriction; if they do, it will benefit to all and we in Borno State may not be in the position we are in now if neighbouring states are enforcing the restriction order.
If they are enforcing, we will have lesser problem, but now the influx is high and you know we have been recording a lot of positive cases from those who are coming in. And that is why my attention was drawn to that; about three days before the incident with the soldiers, we had a truck loaded with 79 persons; out of the number, 21 persons tested positive to COVID-19. Imagine if you leave 21 people with positive cases to come into Maiduguri what will happen.
The incident made me to mandate two commissioners to be on watch at the checkpoint coming into Maiduguri daily. I gave the instruction so that we can control the cases. If we do not do this, the cases will spiral out of control; if you go round Maiduguri, you will see that the level of compliance is not something to write home about; you can see the people not wearing face masks.
What does the failure of soldiers to fully obey and ensure the observance of the presidential order on COVID-19 portend for the state?
I must say here that what happened during the attack was a rare occurrence and the soldiers never acted with the permission of the Nigerian Army; they were on their own! They were only using the uniform to intimidate the people. So, that is why we are insisting that their excesses must be checked and they should be punished to serve a deterrent to others.
Apart from this issue with the COVID-19 Committee, what has the relationship with the army and by extension soldiers been?
Cordial. After the incident, when I called the Garrison Commander, it took him just about 15 minutes to be there on the spot. We have a very good relationship with them. My outburst at that place was when I saw him coming in and the seized camera of the cameraman was in his car, and my people alerted me that this was the guy who attacked them. I had to stop them and he was asking me, ‘Who is this person?’ I told him that I am the deputy governor of the state. I was really very furious because his action led to the death of one person already, and he was not even remorseful and I could not take it, because we were there for the people.
I was very angry at that time and I just had to address the situation. We wanted to make the whole world to see what happened, because if he had succeeded and left the scene, no one would have been convinced of what he did. But that was a one-off thing; our relationship with the army has been cordial.
It seems you are fighting an unseen enemy in COVID-19. Do you think you have evolved the right strategies and what assurances are you giving the people of the state?
You know generally, there are some people who still do not believe that COVID-19 exists. If you look at the whole COVID-19 saga, some people do not have confidence in the committees. Not just in Borno State, everywhere in Nigeria and elsewhere many people feel that COVID-19 is a ploy by some especially those in the committee to siphon money. They believe there is monetary gain in it. Secondly, if you look at our culture, the type of setting like in Maiduguri, if you tell a common man not to go to the mosque, he will think that you are fighting Islam and Muslims; or if you say don’t go to church, he will feel you are fighting Christianity and Christians. They do not just believe in it.
The advocacy should just not be left to the government alone and that is why we have co-opted the traditional rulers, the religious leaders and lots of organisations like the civil society bodies; in fact, a lot of people and groups are part of this to sensitise our society and people.
Some believe the state was too quick to end the lockdown and have people back in religious centres.
Were you under any pressure to do this?
No, Borno State is a different place and we have our own peculiar problems. Borno State is already a traumatised society in general, so you have to be very careful in implementing some things. Our people believe that we have insurgency and now COVID-19 has come in and we need to be praying. If you remember when the governor requested that people should fast over the issue of insecurity, many people in the state heeded and elsewhere across Nigeria. People believe that we need prayers more than any other thing in Borno; they believe that COVID-19 or not, people should be allowed to pray.
Few people may understand the need to pray at home, but the mentality of the generality of people in Borno State is that congregational prayers should be allowed. Elsewhere, religious centres have been closed; Mecca has closed mosques, Jerusalem and Rome have closed churches, but our people, despite knowing these, believe that worship centres should not be closed. If you tell our people not to have congregational prayers, they will go into the mosque and remove the speaker and go ahead with their congregational prayers.
Borno and Boko Haram have become like Siamese twins. How has this affected your administration and how are you finding a way around it?
On the effects of insurgency, this is something you know; the administration came in with a lot of programmes; the insurgency has hindered some of our intentions and that is a minus to us. We still believe if we have the desired peace, the development you would have seen would be more than this. If the state were to be safer and peaceful, the rate of development you see in this state would be different. At least we have tried and not lost sight of what we should do for our people.