We’re Here to Stop the Killings
Hassan Umaru, brigadier general, who took over in September 2010, as commander, Joint Military Task Force, JTF, on the Jos crisis, discusses the security situation in Jos and Plateau State generally in this interview with Tobs Agbaegbu, senior associate editor. Excerpts:
Newswatch: It’s about seven months now since you took over the command of the JTF in Jos. Can we share your experience so far?
Umaru: Before my assumption of office here, I knew the situation in Plateau State and on assumption of office, I saw huge challenges on ground. The challenges had to do with both the society and members of the task force. By the Grace of God, we have been able to tackle a good number of them. If I will start with members of the task force, I knew that troops have been on ground for quite some time and needed rotation, so I requested from our higher headquarters to effect the rotation of the troops, which was done in two weeks. So, what you see on ground now is a new set of troops drawn from the Nigeria Navy, Nigeria Police, the Nigeria Air Force and the Nigeria Army. They were given two weeks orientation in their various locations, preparing them for the situation on the Plateau. And, on arrival, we were able to give them additional tit bits of the situation on ground. I want to say that we have achieved quiet a lot in that aspect because the situation is better off now than before. And, about the society, there were issues of incessant isolated attacks on the fringes of the state which was very unpleasant. Farmers and cattle rearers were involved in conflicts; there were also land disputes and the issue of large number of unemployed youths roaming the street and again, the issue of rumours via text messages. We also had issues like misinformation by faith based organisations. These are some of the challenges we faced but by the Grace of God, we were able to carefully handle some of them. We had to appeal to religions and community leaders to continue to douse the tempers of their people and we also to appeal to the good people of Plateau State to always use our hot lines whenever there were problems, they should always call us, so that we can assist them as much as possible.
Newswatch: Can you further clarify the term, rotation of officers. Does that mean the use of an entirely new set of officers?
Umaru: Yes. It involved the assembly of an entirely new team from all the service units. You know the set of soldiers that came in January last year had stayed for more than a year and, therefore, needed to be changed. Even when we go for peace keeping missions outside the country, we usually stay for just six months. The rotation, in the case of Jos, was equal for all the troops from all the service. That means, for instance, if we took 400 troops from the army, we needed another 400 as replacement. It was done within a period of two weeks. It was done service by service. The Nigeria Air Force started it. It lifted its own troops from various locations to the airport here and the same number that came in, replaced same number that left. The Nigeria Navy took its turn and the Nigeria Army took its turn next.
Newswatch : What is the total strength of the troops now at your command?
Umaru: Now, we have 3,443 troops, but we also have an additional troops that are coming. That will see our strength now moving up to 5,000 combat ready men and women.
Newswatch: Killings are still going on in the state. What is responsible for the inability of the JTF to put a final stop to the situation?
Umaru: The issue here is that Plateau State is a vast area and even if we have 20,000 troops, we won’t be able to cover every part of the state effectively. The attacks we experience here come from attackers who come into areas we are very thin on the ground or virtually when nobody is there. They make their own reconnaissance very well before attacking, and in most cases, in the night. Mostly also, these attacks are in the fringes of the state where they have to go through the rocks and the mountainous areas. Honestly speaking, nobody is happy about this development in Plateau State.
Newswatch: A family of five that was recently attacked and murdered recently. This incident belongs to this category of killings you are taking about?
Umaru: Yes, the fringes I’m talking about is the far end of the state, the border towns. The federal government is concerned, and is taking various measures to ensure that we are adequately equipped to confront these challenges. We have, for instance, received quite a good number of patrol vans and more are still coming. The first set of about 21 vehicles given to us have been deployed to Barkin Ladi local government area which is bordering Bauchi State and some rural communities where our troops are on the ground. We sent seven vehicles for patrol in the area to make sure that Barkin Ladi that has always been affected by these incessant attacks is covered from the rear. I think we have taken care of that now. Again, we have a situation where the areas of responsibilities of some sectors are rather too wide, and we tried to bridge that gap by opening up new sectors. We go on constant patrols in our patrol vans, armoured cars and even helicopters which we have on ground. You can see that the federal government is really concerned with the situation on the Plateau.
Newswatch: What has been the level of success recorded so far, especially in terms of apprehending the people behind these attacks?
Umaru: Yes, of course, some achievements have been recorded. Some time back, there was an attack in Barkin Ladi on one night and we had a deployment close to the point of attack. When this happened, our boys had to chase the attackers and killed one of them on the spot. Another one sustained injuries and escaped into Bauchi State. When we got wind that he was in a hospital, I had to send my operation officer to that place and he was able to confirm that the patient admitted in that hospital that he took part in that attack. But he eventually died. With the efforts of the federal government, we can now move into the interior very well now.
Newswatch : We understand that the owner of the hospital was also arrested?
Umaru: Yes, he was arrested. Actually, it is a government hospital but in a remote area of Bauchi State. We had to arrest him because eight hours after the attack, the patient was brought to his hospital and the doctor couldn’t even report the case to the police, and it was at a time everybody in that town knew about the attack in that local government area. The doctor admitted that he was aware of the attack, and that he suspected that the patient was part of that attack. That was why we made all efforts to arrest him, which of course, we did.
Newswatch : Is he going to be prosecuted?
Umaru: We had to hand him over to the police and the SSS to carry on their investigation.
Newswatch: In the course of carrying out your assignment, have you recorded casualties?
Umaru: Yes, before I took over, there were some casualties here and there, but I think since I came in, it was just a soldier that sustained gun shots in one of these crises areas where we went.
Newswatch: What have you found out as you interact with the people here? What is their mindset? Are they ready to lay down arms and reconcile?
Umaru: Yes, the traditional and community leaders and some of the youth leaders too are doing their very best to pacify the youths and make them see our roles in the town and see how we can co-operate and work out things together. In some areas, we are succeeding, in some we are having difficulties. It has not been easy. You know, when you lose someone dear to you, within that period of anguish, you are bound to react in so many ways. I know with time they will come to understand that we are here for them.
Newswatch: Is it true that that task force is assisting in rehabilitation?
Umaru: Yes, we are doing our best through the civil- military relations to make sure we offer assistance to them where they have problems here and there. There was a place where there was an attack in Barkin Ladi area. We had to move in quickly to assist the women. They came close to my boys and they were moved out of that area because there were cases of some houses burning and sporadic attacks. We were able to move them to a safe place. In some areas where they need our assistance like in some schools, we use some skillful officers in our mist to assist in teaching. We also make sure any time we have some funds, we buy drugs and give free medical service in some localities.
Newswatch: In terms of people going back to their original homes, it appears that the rehabilitation process has been facing some difficulties.
Umaru: Yes, there is that problem but I know that soon, the situation will change for better. The federal government is developing a programme that will check these, and I think once the blueprint is released everybody will come to see it. Mr. President is quite worried that some people have been displaced and their houses and other properties destroyed and the people cannot easily return to their place of abode. Government is doing something about it.
Newswatch: Will the blueprint include a situation where people can go back to where they were leaving before or they will be rehabilitated elsewhere?
Umaru: No, No, No. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag yet. Just wait till the government makes a pronouncement on it first.
Newswatch: How do you see the idea of setting up a different security outfit by the Plateau State government called “Operation Rainbow.” Are you comfortable with the whole idea?
Umaru: The concept of Operation Rainbow has to do with the idea of bringing the neighbourhood watch into play here. It is a matter of recruiting some youths in all these localities and putting them together, administering them with strong directives that they should keep watch in their localities. In the event of anything, they now invite us to check it out and assist them. I think this will go a long way in helping because that spirit will now go a long way to reduce these attacks and make them understand our roles. I think it is a welcome idea.
Newswatch: Given your experience, do you think Nigeria will actually come out of the problem of Jos.? It appears people are adopting guerrilla method of killing and some are adopting different means, like the case of poisoning an underground well which happens to be a source of water to a particular people, as reported recently. Do you think we will ever come out of this trouble?
Umaru: By the Grace of God we will come out of it.
Newswatch: Are you aware that some people wear the task force uniform when they are not solders? People even suspect that some JTF members are conspiring to harm groups or communities.
Umaru: This issue of wearing military uniform, or police uniform. has been with us for quite a long time. This is not the first time. These uniforms are things that can be gotten from any angle, but we are doing our utmost best that our boys comply to regulations and our sector commands are always on hand, day in, day out, to make sure that nobody gets uniforms from their custody. I can assure you that JTF members know why they are in Plateau State and cannot conspire with anybody or group here.
Newswatch: What, in your opinion, is the solution to this problem, in Plateau State?
Umaru: From the experience I have gathered, I think the issue of development is paramount now. We will want more of the federal government presence. Again, we want a situation where the elder statesmen can continue to be brought in to talk to the people of Plateau State so that this problem of incessant killings will stop. Let them be part of the peace process.
Newswatch: When you came on board, some women protested, asking that the military should be withdrawn from here. How was it resolved?
Umaru: The genesis of that protest was the encounter we had with students of the University of Jos. Some few days later, they came out to the street protesting that members of the Special Task Force be withdrawn. I looked at it as something that could happen to anybody at anytime. There was no student killed in that encounter. It was rather unfortunate that shots were released. We thank God that nobody died. The idea that we should leave was a misconception. We are not here to kill or fire at anybody. We are here to maintain peace. That period, as said earlier, was a period of anguish. They were about to react when the issue started in the university. Luckily we met the V.C and some top functionaries of the institution and we told them what actually happened. Today, we are part of the university community. We have surrounded the place; the security that has been lacking all these years is now in place there. We patrol the place day and night. Even the women have come to understand that we are not after them; gradually they are coming to accept us and assisting us in being with them.
Newswatch: What will you tell Nigerians about the situation in Plateau State now? Many still see it as a no go area.
Umaru: Just to say that the situation on the Plateau, it is not as bad as it is rumoured to be. Anybody who want to pass through Jos from Abuja or anywhere is free to do that and if you are not confident, you can call on us, we will ferry you across. I don’t want that situation where people say that there is no peace on the Plateau. It is not like that. Nigerians are encouraged to have a ride into the city and see things for themselves.
Newswatch: We understand that Jos is split between Christian and Muslim and people restrict themselves to the area they belong to.
Umaru: That has been the problem that is inbuilt in the people. As you rightly observed, there are attacks on people of opposite faith when they go to such areas, but with our current deployment things will change. We are highly mobile, we have our troops and use our patrol vans in all these flash points.